Story behind the Story: Ghosts of Ordinary Objects Series
by Angie Smibert
Though we’ve never met, E and I share a circuitous Hollins University connection. Bear with me. In the summer, E. often teaches classes at Hollins Children’s Lit MFA program. A Hollins alumna (different program) myself, I actually live in Roanoke, Virginia. And I often teach at the Hollinsummer creative writing camp for teens. Last summer, a mutual friend recommended BONE'S GIFT to E. That friend, Tina Hanlon, teaches Appalachian Lit at nearby Ferrum College—and she did a great lesson plan for the Appalachian folktales I use in the series. (Tina also curates AppLit.org, a great resource for regional folktales and literature that I used in researching BONE'S GIFT.) Plus, ironically, we met when I was speaking to the Hollins Children’s Lit MFA program several years ago—where I mentioned I was working on this book.
The GHOSTS OF ORDINARY OBJECTS series is a bit hard to categorize. Reviewers have called it a mystical mystery, a mix of realism and magic, part fantasy, part mystery, part history, and a historical, paranormal mystery set in southern Appalachia during WWII. In the series, 12-year-old Bone Phillips is coming to grips with her Gift of being able to see the stories—or ghosts—inside ordinary objects—while solving certain mysteries amidst the change and turmoil of the war. In BONE'S GIFT, she’s trying to figure out what really happened to her mother. In the second book, LINGERING ECHOES, she’s solving the mystery of this jelly jar that seems to have a Gift of its own. LINGERING ECHOES comes out March 12, 2019!
Both the book and the story behind it start with a girl floating in the water. The first scene came to me when I was living near the beach in Cape Canaveral, Florida. One day, I was swimming in the ocean—actually more like lazily floating on my back, watching the surfers and cruise ships go by—and I had this flashback, a sense memory, really. I remembered swimming and floating in the New River as a kid. (I grew up in Blacksburg, Virginia, a little college town in Southwest Virginia.) We used to go to this spot down below the falls to picnic and swim. I could remember floating in the cool, muddy brown water under a blue sky, while trains rattled along either side of the river. My best friend used to come with us until she decided the river was too brown and our games were too silly. She’d outgrown it (and me) and wanted to wear dresses and talk about boys. I was a stubborn tomboy, though—and still am. Many years later, floating in the ocean, I remembered that feeling of not wanting summer to end, not wanting to grow up, yet not wanting others to leave me behind. Bone was born out of that feeling!
And the setting of the story grew out of my newfound fascination with this old place. My mother and her family—for generations before her—grew up along the New River in McCoy. It’s a teensy little village, now nothing more than a post office and many, many houses, about 15-20 miles from Blacksburg. Before she died in 1989, my mother had started doing research into family history and genealogy. A decade or two later, I got bit by the history bug as I was doing research for this book.
Named for one of our ancestors, McCoy was first settled in the 1790s by Scots-Irish and German immigrants. From roughly 1900 to the late 1950s, McCoy and the surrounding areas had one major industry: coal. Coal had always been there, tucked away in the mountains, but mining didn’t begin in earnest until the railroads connected the New River Valley to the cities and ports. By the 1930s and 40s, the mines were at peak production. During World War II, the war effort needed more and more coal—of which there’s a finite amount. So by the late 1950s, the mines were being closed down and filled in. Today, you wouldn’t even know there’d ever been mining there—except for the occasional chunks of coal along the road.
So I set Bone’s Gift and the rest of the trilogy in McCoy—which I renamed Big Vein after one of the mines—in 1942. At that time, coal mining was in its hay day, but the year brought great changes, both there and everywhere. The US was well into World War II. Rationing had begun. Young men were leaving the community to go off to war. Some had already died. And women were going to work in war factories. A perfect time (and place) for a 12-year-old girl—just coming into a strange Gift--who doesn’t want things to change, right?
Though I loosely adapted the real place for the series, I didn’t base any of the characters on real people—with one exception: the store owner, Mr. Scott.
Customers (and my grandfather) sitting on the porch of the Scott’s store in the 1940s.
A typical coal tipple of the time period. The machines in the structure sort the coal into different sizes and then drops into the train cars below.
Miners in their bank clothes standing in front of the Big Vein tipple. My great-uncle Junior is the one in the middle.