Haley Whitehall writes historical fiction. She talks to us about coming into adulthood in a time when there was no simple transition from childhood to adulthood. How does being a teen today differ from 150 years ago. We learn more about history and Haley’s new novel in,
Coming of Age in Chains
I write historical fiction set in the 19th century United States. One of the questions I get frequently is: how do you know what life was like in the 1800s? While I do research, especially in primary sources like diaries and newspapers, many of the issues people faced 150 years ago are still relevant today. One such issue is teens coming of age. Obviously, I have first hand experience with this. The term teenager did not exist in the 1800s, but the struggle to transition into adulthood did. It is easy for me to put myself in my protagonist’s shoes.
The transition into adulthood is usually either governed by age or circumstances. Sometimes the transition is expected such as a young king becoming of age to assume the throne without an advisor. Sometimes the transition is abrupt such as a mother becoming ill and the oldest daughter now responsible to raise her younger siblings.
Often leaving home signals coming of age. I know I felt like an adult when I left home and went to college. Zachariah, a mulatto slave, is forced to grow up and be a man at 15. He leaves home too—after he is sold.
LIVING HALF FREE is a New Adult novel so this transition actually happens in the beginning. But, I know that people continue to grow and mature. My novel follows Zachariah from fifteen to his early twenties.
Living Half Free excerpt:
“What did he want?” Ma asked, as soon as Zachariah entered the kitchen.
Zachariah didn’t say a word. Tears flooded his eyes, rolled down his cheeks, dripped off his chin.
Ma set down her spoon. She touched his shoulder lightly. “What did he say?”
“He done sell me to one of the customers.”
His announcement cracked in the air with the snap of an angry whip. Stunned, Ma gasped and blinked. Rachel started bawling, worrying the sleeve of her dress between her fingers. Ellen reached out and gripped Michael’s hand. They’d all been together as a makeshift family since Rachel was born.
“Doan you cry now,” Ma said. “You growed, Zachariah. Growed men doan cry. Self-pity ain’t goin’ to get you nowheres. De good Lawd say it’s time for us to be split up, we’s goin’ to be split up.”“Yes’m.”Ma had faith in the Lord stronger than anyone he knew.
“You do what you’s told and do it politely,” Ma continued.
“I’s be a good boy,” Zachariah promised.
Ma boxed his right ear. “You’s be a good man,” Ma corrected. “You’s a man now, Zachariah. You remember dat. You might got to put in a man’s day’s work. You can do it now. You’s got muscles in dose arms.”
“I work hard,” he said, trying to massage the ringing out of his ear.
He always hated how cold his ma could be, though he had to admire her strength. She was always hard on him and Rachel. Often, a smile or a touch on the shoulder was all the affection that either of them received. After this terrible surprise, he needed love. He longed to hear that she cared for him.
“I’s a good waiter. I—”
“Not no more you ain’t,” Ma interrupted. “You goin’ to do what yo’ new massa tells you to. You might be planting tobacco or picking cotton.”
Zachariah swallowed fighting a surge of nausea. “Oh,” he whispered.
Rachel ran over and gave him a tight hug, squeezing his ribs.
Zachariah grimaced. He endured the loving pain and caressed her head. “You’s not goin’ to forget yo’ bruddah, is you, Rach?”
“No, I ain’t goin’ to forget you,” she said, resting her head against his chest.
“Some day, I’s goin’ to come lookin’ for you,” Zachariah promised.
The door to the kitchen opened and Mr. Galloway stood there. He eyed all the slaves in the kitchen before settling on Zachariah. “It is time to go.”
“Yes, Massa.” Zachariah took a deep breath. He had to be a man, a brave man.
Zachariah gave Rachel a peck on the cheek. Then he touched Ma’s shoulder. “I love you,” he said to both of them.
He forced a tight
smile, though his heart tore into a million pieces. He continued walking, his eyes straight ahead.
Rachel’s sniffling grew louder. His throat constricted, causing hot tears to nearly choke him. He quickened his step, fearing he couldn’t hold in his emotions.
Zachariah’s fake smile vanished when he saw the coffle waiting for him outside the restaurant. The fourteen men and seven women were handcuffed two and two and fastened to a long chain running between the two ranks. They were being guarded by a young, white man on a black stallion. This man, who only appeared to be a few years older than Zachariah, watched them with menacing green eyes, fingering the handle of a whip.
An old negro man, wearing a gray suit, drove a wagon that was stopped behind the coffle. Galloway looked Zachariah over with discerning hazel eyes before leading his newly acquired chattel to his place. “You complete the line,” he said, as if that was a privilege.
Zachariah hung his head, bit his lip, felt the cold iron clamped around his left wrist.
Tell us how you or your protagonist came of age? What difficulties were involved with this transition?
When Zachariah, a naïve mulatto slave, is sold to a Kentucky slave trader, and separated from his ma and sister, he realizes the true meaning of not having rights. Seeking escape, he falls in love with a Cherokee woman, under whose direction he learns to pass as white. But, he must find his voice, and the courage to stand up for his beliefs or else lose everyone he loves forever.
Haley Whitehall has a B.A in history and has been studying the Civil War era since the 5th grade. Her writing style is Mark Twain with a little more faith. She likes to write out of the box stories that feature an underdog. LIVING HALF FREE is her debut novel. Released February 29, 2012.