I WASN’T LOOKING FOR a subject for a new novel. I was in the midst of re-writing a novel that I’d been working on for a few years, and the finish line was in sight. But one day—this was about a year before I began writing The Underground River—I had one of those moments, more oh:this! than ah-ha.
I was talking to a friend of mine, when she said in a very off-hand manner:
“Well, you know,” she told me, “my son can’t lie.”
It was a startling moment, for me. I stopped listening (sorry, friend!) and thought about what she had said. It was true, I decided. I knew her son. He always went to great pains to tell the truth as accurately as possible.
Now that would be an interesting trait for a character, I thought. And thus my character May Bedloe was born.
How much trouble could a character who couldn’t lie, not even a white lie, get into? A lot, perhaps. That’s always good for drama. And what if that character not only had to lie, but break the law as well? Could they do it?
We all lie all the time. Little lies to spare feelings; big lies to try to get out of speeding tickets. My mother used to call her father the morning after we’d return from a trip to let him know we were home. “If he knew we were driving at night he’d worry, so I just let him think we drove back in the morning.”
When May Bedloe, the character who cannot lie, finds herself blackmailed into helping ferry slaves along the Underground Railroad, she is scared of punishment, yes (she could be fined at best and hung at worst, depending on who finds her and where), but she is also very, very uncomfortable. At one point, May thinks:
On the one hand I did not want to know too much, because
if anyone asked me anything, I was in danger of blurting out
whatever I knew. On the other hand, I did not like to
undertake any activity without specific directions. Step A,
step B. step C.
Many readers have asked me if May is “on the Spectrum,” in the parlance of our times. And the answer is yes. Having a sister with autism gave me some knowledge of what May might be like, although May also (since she’s the main character) has to change by the end of the story. She does not grow out of her fundamental traits, however; rather, she accommodates for them. An actor teaches her a trick for lying, and after one scene she realized she lied without even thinking about it: “That was fear, I suppose.”
In 1838, a person like May might just be called socially awkward. But she is more than that. She has a sense of humor, like my sister, and she is able to rise to the many challenges I threw at her as I was constructing the plot. When my friend talked about her son, I saw a boy who was trying to navigate the world as best he could with his own inner sense of right and wrong. Just like May.
And really, the same can be said of all of us.
Previous Posts in Writing The River series:
Next up: Travels with my Father