Thursday, January 8, 2009

Travels with Priscilla

500 miles is a long way for anyone to walk. Let alone a child. Let alone, in the dead of winter. Priscilla of Priscilla and the Hollyhocks made that long journey in 1838 as part of the Cherokee Trail of Tears. 170 years later, Priscilla and the Hollyhocks was published, making Priscilla’s story accessible to thousands more people than had ever heard of the slave girl. Priscilla may have ended her long walk in Mulkeytown, Illinois, in 1838 when Basil Silkwood bought her freedom and adopted her, but in some ways, she’s still traveling. In the months since publication, I’ve shared her story at eleven bookstores, three blogs, one writer’s club, three author festivals, a literary podcast, four schools, an intergenerational book group, the Belmont Picture Book Festival, several newspaper articles, Merrimack Valley Magazine, three inner city after-school programs, and the Charlesbridge Spring Open House. North Andover, Massachusetts, chose Priscilla and the Hollyhocks as the book all elementary students in town read as part of the town-wide “One Community Reads” program. Illustrator Anna Alter has also taken Priscilla “on the road” in numerous events. In addition:
  • Priscilla has traveled to meet readers who discovered her story in bookstores, libraries and schools. One man wrote of his own connection to the book:
My parents own a farm near Mulkeytown (R.R.#1, Mulkeytown), and they and I grew up there. My school bus went by the Silkwood Inn every day when I was young, though I'll admit I wasn't well aware of its history then. I do remember my maternal grandfather talking about the turkeys that would roost in the trees when the handlers would stay in the Inn on their way to St. Louis.

When I mentioned your book to my father, he was well aware of the story of Priscilla and the legendary connection to red hollyhocks in the area. I had heard the Priscilla story before as a child, but did not remember this until a friend mentioned your book, which I purchased for myself and my parents.

My great grandfather and his siblings were orphaned and taken in by families in the area. Some
were treated as farm laborers, but my great-grandfather’s brother was taken in by the Silkwoods and treated kindly, according to my father. I'm not clear on the dates. I believe he would have been decades younger than Priscilla. But if it's true that she lived in and then near the house until her death and helped care for the younger children adopted by the Silkwoods, then it must follow that they knew each other.
  • Priscilla has traveled to people who heard me speak about the book or visited my web site or blog. I’ve received cards and letters from numerous readers who have been inspired by Priscilla’s courage and resilience. One child recognized me at an unrelated community event and said, “I’m so glad I learned about Priscilla!”

    A United Methodist Church in La Jolla, California planted a hollyhock garden in Priscilla’s honor. A member there wrote, “When our flowers are in bloom next spring, we will once again think about you and of course about Priscilla.”

  • Priscilla has traveled to viewers who heard of her story on cable television. I’ve been interviewed for TV stations in the Merrimack Valley, Belmont, Wellesley, and Cape Cod. Who knows how often those shows are broadcast, or who connects to Priscilla because they hear me tell her story in that format? Here’s an excerpt from an email I received recently:
I am probably one of the maybe 10 (?!) people who watch Belmont Cable TV regularly. There I was depressed on the sofa staring at the screen when your happy face appeared reading from and talking about Priscilla and the Hollyhocks. The next day, I got the book out from my daughter’s school where I volunteer in the library. What a beautiful book. Allegra is only six and just starting to understand slavery, but she was engrossed in the story. We talked about Priscilla and how brave she was and how she saw the beauty around her even when she had so many terrible things happen to her. And of course Allegra (an only child) loved that she ended up in a HUGE family with lots of brothers and sisters.

Keep writing and sharing and dreaming and hoping. And know that people in the most unlikely places are listening and thankful for your voice.
  • Priscilla has traveled to people who were guests on a popular Hollywood talk show on which a good friend of mine was a producer. She gave copies of the book to Jimmy Carter, Henry Louis Gates, Anne Lamott, Angela Bassett, Lawrence Fishburne, among others. I also sent copies of the book to the Obama family (nine months before the presidential election) and to Massachusetts Governor Patrick’s family. (He sent a lovely hand-written thank you.)
  • Priscilla has traveled to Basil and Mariah Silkwood’s descendents, as evidenced in this email I received:
Hi. I'm descended from the Silkwood family, and I have been looking for seeds for Priscilla hollyhocks for years. Do you have any idea where I might get some? I was delighted to find the book you wrote about her story. It is a good story. I'm glad it's being told. Basil was my great-great uncle, but even with that loose connection I'm still proud of him. Thanks for spreading the tale. Good luck. I hope it is very successful for you.

As an author, it was a privilege to learn and write about strong, brave Priscilla who, like Miss Rumphius or Johnny Appleseed, carried seeds of beauty wherever she went. The more I have presented about this book, the more deeply I have come to appreciate the courage of both the African-American slave child who never gave up hope and the white businessman who flouted societal conventions to make her part of his family. What a great opportunity to remember the strength of the human spirit. Who knows where Priscilla and I will travel together in the future?

Posted by Anne Broyles, author of Priscilla and the Hollyhocks.
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1 comment:

Deborah Sloan said...

I have a feeling, Anne, that Priscilla's going to continue to travel far and wide. Thanks for a REALLY INTERESTING look at your year -