SWIMMING BETWEEN WORLDS
From the critically acclaimed writer of A Different Sun, a Southern coming-of-age novel that sets three very different young people against the tumultuous years of the American civil rights movement…
Tacker Hart left his home in North Carolina as a local high school football hero, but returns in disgrace after being fired from a prestigious architectural assignment in West Africa. Yet the culture and people he grew to admire have left their mark on him. Adrift, he manages his father’s grocery store and becomes reacquainted with a girl he barely knew growing up.Kate Monroe’s parents have died,
From the critically acclaimed writer of A Different Sun, a Southern coming-of-age novel that sets three very different young people against the tumultuous years of the American civil rights movement…
Tacker Hart left his home in North Carolina as a local high school football hero, but returns in disgrace after being fired from a prestigious architectural assignment in West Africa. Yet the culture and people he grew to admire have left their mark on him. Adrift, he manages his father’s grocery store and becomes reacquainted with a girl he barely knew growing up.Kate Monroe’s parents have died, leaving her the family home and the right connections in her Southern town. But a trove of disturbing letters sends her searching for the truth behind the comfortable life she’s been bequeathed.
On the same morning but at different moments, Tacker and Kate encounter a young African-American, Gaines Townson, and their stories converge with his. As Winston-Salem is pulled into the tumultuous 1960s, these three Americans find themselves at the center of the civil rights struggle, coming to terms with the legacies of their pasts as they search for an ennobling future.
- April 2018
- 416 Pages
One of BuzzFeed’s “7 coming-of-age tales to pick up this April”
Deep South Magazine, Summer Reading List Pick
“A novel of great humanity, “Swimming Between Worlds” contains neither a superficial nor a superfluous thought. Conceived with compassion and rendered with grace, it scores a triumph for its author and a blessing for her readers.” —Richmond Times Dispatch
“Powerful, moving . . . Orr offers a beautifully wrought lesson about America’s troubled race relations and what it means to follow one’s conscience.” —Greensboro News & Record
“Orr has crafted an intelligent book that both challenges and entertains.” —The News & Observer
“The struggle of [the novel’s] deftly-drawn young characters to navigate the monumental changes—cultural and personal— that the civil rights movement brought to the South is rich and compelling.”
—Charles Frazier, New York Times bestselling author
1. Chapter One begins with the line “Tacker Hart came home from Nigeria to discover a town he almost knew.” Do you think Tacker ultimately understands the town more or less by the end of the novel? What are the factors that shape his changing consciousness?
2. Tacker and Kate meet Gaines on the same day but respond to him in very different ways. How does each character see Gaines initially, and why? How does this view of Gaines change over the course of the novel? Whose friendship surprised you the most?
3. The novel’s title, Swimming Between Worlds, emphasizes the important role that water plays in the story. How does water shape the lives of the main characters? What significance does the act of swimming hold in relation to the novel’s themes?
4. Why is a grocery store such a surprising yet likely setting for the unfolding of this particular story? How do houses and architecture play a role in all of the characters’ destinies?
5. In many ways, this is a coming-of-age story—we see Tacker, Kate, and Gaines searching for their places in the world. What one thing does each character seek most dearly, and why? Has each character achieved his or her goal at the end of the novel? Did their wants and desires resonate with your own memories of being a young adult?
6. Tacker experiences the minutiae of day-to-day life in both Nigeria and North Carolina. In what ways does each place fulfill the idea of “home” for Tacker? Do you think he would be happier living in one place over the other?
7. Tacker and Kate’s romantic relationship undergoes numerous ups and downs. What did you think of their courtship and its challenges? Did their romance develop the way you expected? How did each character have to grow and change to achieve a loving relationship?
8. Throughout the novel, the reader is invited back to experience the full backstory of Tacker’s time in Nigeria. How does Tacker’s experience in West Africa frame his perception of the emerging civil rights movement? Have you read any other work that connects West Africa and American civil rights in this way?
9. Examine the scene in which Kate nearly faints and is helped to the lunch counter by Gaines. Why do you think this is the moment when her beliefs and perceptions truly change? What is its significance?
10. Discuss the ways in which Kate changes over the course of the novel. How does photography enable her to come to terms with the past and her choices for the future? Consider the line “This seemed, finally, the clear truth of the camera: that the eye sees what it expects to see.” How is this true not only for Kate, but for other characters in the novel?
11. Tacker’s choice of whether to design the bathhouse places him at the center of a difficult moral dilemma. Do you think he ultimately makes the right decision? What would you have done in his place?
12. What did you think of the novel’s ending? Were you surprised by Kate’s decision at the conclusion of the book? What do you think her future holds? Do you anticipate that her friendship with Gaines and Valentine will endure?
13. How would this story be different if it were set in the Winston-Salem of today? What similarities exist between then and now?
Tacker Hart came home from Nigeria to discover a town he almost knew. The Winston-Salem of his youth was branded by Ardmore Methodist, Reynolds High, and shopping at Davis Department Store on Fourth Street, his youth green with creeks and football fields, turning white in winter with sledding and the Sears Christmas display. And then there was the depot of his father’s store, Hart’s Grocery, near the intersection of First Street and Hawthorne, right where Peters Creek ran. The grocery existed out of time, smelling of onions and floor wax, blooming with color in fruit displays and on cereal boxes, and sanctified by the community of regulars who stopped by for a special on ham hocks or conversation with Tacker’s father or the full week’s shopping and a drink from the Coca-Cola machine. Everyone was welcome, or so Tacker had thought.
Almost two years later and the air still carried the high, sweet smell of tobacco, but there was an expressway through town that nipped at the heels of West End, the neighborhood where he’d grown up, and that occasionally-where an elevated section curved near Hawthorne-threw a car over the guardrails and passengers to their deaths. Thruway Shopping Center had grown up in his absence like a film set temporarily installed, only it wasn’t temporary. Tacker’s mother drove out there almost every day. Wake Forest College was the new boast of the city, which was fair enough, though Tacker had no investment in it, having studied architecture at State College in Raleigh, flourishing in the competitive atmosphere of design studios housed on a huge courtyard on the north side of campus.
More changed than Winston-Salem was Tacker. He had left home a minor American hero and returned disgraced. The thought of his violent dismissal from an international assignment with the Clintok Corporation hollowed his chest even now, four months after his return.
When Tacker first got home in March, he stayed up late and slept until midmorning. On and off in the night, he woke to a perception of malignant doom, a feeling in his chest like a container filling with terror. There was no escape as the vessel filled, the sensation taking over his entire chest-filling and filling-until he thought it would explode, and then just as the container of his heart was about to burst, it did not. The terror held, containing him rather than he it. He wondered if he was having a heart attack. He would sleep and awaken and the episode would recur, as if he were coming out of nightmare into nightmare. During the day his face felt heavy. He marveled at a blooming red crepe myrtle across the street that appeared at midday to burn like fire, and yet it seemed to him that the inner light of things had dimmed. Perhaps it was merely the contrast with the tropics that he sensed, but Tacker suspected the dimness had more to do with what he had learned. The world was not just and neither God nor any teacher or coach or sponsor was going to save him. Occasionally he felt angry instead of depressed, overcome by righteous indignation. He’d done nothing wrong. But the fire flickered out pretty quickly.
There wasn’t anything he wanted to do.
After dinner one evening in July, his father spoke up. “Get your architectural license. I can make a connection for you.” They were in the family den. Tacker stood by the mantel, gazing at a picture he had sent from Nigeria, the country of his assignment. He had gone to help design the prototype for a high school to be replicated throughout the country and to establish American goodwill in an African nation on its way to independence.
“I don’t want to do architecture right now,” he said. In the photograph, he was posed with his Nigerian teammates, ten in all, graduates of Nigeria’s first university, in front of a banana tree grove. His hair was below his ears because he hadn’t found a barber. Tacker was the tallest, his arms saddled around his best friend, Samuel Lapido’s, shoulders, a smile on his face. A local photographer had taken the picture and sold it to Tacker for a shilling. Tacker marveled that his clothes, and not just his skin, were so much lighter than the others’, his figure ghosted. He turned to his parents, neither of whom was looking at him. His father wore a look of pained disapproval.
They were in a quagmire and Tacker had put them there, but he was too sunk to pull anyone out. Even with his father kindly opening a door, he could not walk through it. He left the house for a walk around the block but walked much farther than that, all the way to the tobacco warehouses at the end of Trade Street, where he lay back on an overflowing bag of tobacco leaves, half intoxicated by the scent, and looked up at the stars. Why couldn’t he feel proud? He’d stood up for what he’d believed, hadn’t he? But Tacker was accustomed to triumph. An inglorious sacking left a man wholly alone. When he got home after midnight, the lights in the den were out but his mother had waited up for him. She picked up just where he thought he had escaped.
“What are you going to do?” she said, peering through her new wing-tipped glasses. When Tacker was a boy his mother had worn nylon dresses with pearl buttons all the way down the front and he’d thought she was the most beautiful person in the world.
“I don’t know.”
“You have been home all spring and half the summer. People are beginning to wonder what’s wrong.” She rose from her seat. “You have to move out and get a job. This is too hard on us.”
“Maybe I could work at Hart’s.” Tacker rubbed the back of his neck. “Maybe I could manage the store.”
“I don’t know about that.” His mother’s lips wrenched to one side of her face. “You haven’t demonstrated very responsible behavior lately. What happened to you over there?”
Tacker looked at her. “I learned that there’s a world outside this town,” he said. “That we’re not the be-all, end-all of the universe.”
“This country, the way we live.”
“How do we live?”
“Well, Mr. Universe, I’ll leave the question of your employment to your father. I don’t much like being called superficial. I gave birth to you, in case you’ve forgotten that particular tidbit.” She smacked the door open on her way out of the room.
The next morning, Tacker got up early. He had nowhere but his parentsÕ house to go, no car, no job, but he had a few hundred dollars saved. He walked to a diner at the corner, picked up the Winston-Salem Journal, went in and ordered breakfast and coffee, opened the paper, and scanned the classifieds for houses to rent. His finger stopped at a house on West End Boulevard. His parents had moved to the newer Buena Vista neighborhood while he was in college and his dad had opened a second grocery, sleeker and more hermetic than the old HartÕs. Tacker had eaten half of his breakfast and drunk three cups of coffee when he folded the paper and started walking to the old neighborhood, with the intention of reclaiming his territory. He passed Hanes Park, where he had joyfully suffered four hot summers practicing with the varsity football team, learning how to escape gravity. He had played wide receiver, but this morning he cocked his arm like a quarterback and sent the phantom ball soaring to his younger self on the field, airborne to haul the leather in and press it to his heart. If working at HartÕs as a teenager had instilled in Tacker a sense of democracy (ÒMeet every customer with respect,Ó his father had said, though now Tacker could see that not everyone was actually included), football had taught him fair play, a concept also apparently defunct.
West End was notoriously hilly, and Tacker angled up a side street. The rental house occupied the corner of West End Boulevard and Jarvis Street, an old foursquare, a style popular at the turn of the century, two storied, perfectly square, a mere five blocks from the original Hart’s. This one was upright, stately, and composed, and the porch seemed to invite him in. He could see into the spacious sitting room and an adjoining dining room. Another room opened to the right, a music room or library with built-ins. In the backyard, he found a separate wired garage, a perfect place for the motorcycle he dreamed of buying. He’d lusted for one since the days of riding a Schwinn New World as a kid.
Tacker headed to the nearest service station, dropped a dime in the phone, and called the number in the paper.
“Hello. Calloway here.”
“I’m calling about the foursquare,” Tacker said, giving his name.
“You and your wife?”
“I had in mind renting to a family. It’s big for one person.”
Did his voice betray his bungled last year? No one knew but his parents, yet Tacker suspected everyone could see through him. But on the phone?
“Might be better if we met,” Calloway said.
The man’s office sat right where Summit Street wheeled down to converge with West End and Reynolda near the old Daniel Boone marker. Tacker took a seat across from Calloway, who had a washed-out look and round shoulders.
“It’s actually my mother’s house,” he said. “Tied up in a trust. So you understand why I’m particular about it.”
“Of course. It’s a great house.” Tacker felt more confident.
“What did you say your name was?”
“The football player?”
“Once upon a time.”
“So you can catch a ball. How about minor repairs? Can you keep up a yard?”
“I’m pretty handy,” Tacker said.
“Thirty-five a month?”
Midmorning, Tacker was in the basement of his parents’ house, digging through boxes of college leftovers. He found towels and a few old dishes and kitchen essentials, all of which he stuffed into a laundry basket and hauled up to his room. His mind sped. The cloth he’d brought home from Nigeria-he could see the girl he’d bought it from, under an umbrella, her entire inventory consisting of two bars of soap, one pack of cigarettes, and four yards of indigo-dyed cloth. It could be a curtain.
A week later, on a hot August morning when his mother was out shopping and his father was at work, Tacker wrote a thank-you note and scribbled his new address at the bottom, walked to the bus stop with his suitcase and duffel bag, and waited. It seemed riotously funny that at age twenty-five he was running away from home, but the back side of funny was a welcome feeling of honor. He figured himself a pilgrim out to slay the dragon of his failure.
He spent his first night on the floor.
The next morning he scouted out a secondhand store full up with dressers recently cycled out of Baptist Hospital. They were metal and light. Of the two mattresses he could choose from, he took the one that came from someone’s guest room, or so he was told. He picked up the metal dresser, carried it onto a bus, and put it in the house. The mattress was a bigger challenge, especially considering the hills he was going to encounter. For a fee of two dollars, a kid at the store offered to help him walk it to the foursquare twelve blocks away. Tacker didn’t relish another night on the floor. At noon and ninety degrees they started out, trying to hold the mattress under their arms. But they kept losing hold of it. Tacker thought of the men he’d seen in Nigeria, pedaling bicycles, balancing mattresses on their heads, uphill and down. How had they done that?
“Let’s try it on our heads,” he said.
They jousted to get the mattress up and the weight distributed, and off they went. When they met folks on the sidewalk, they were forced to stop or tuck into an alley. Halfway to the foursquare, the kid backed up, not looking where he was stepping, and fell into a ditch. The mattress toppled, landing in the grass with a muffled thud.
“I think I twisted my ankle.” The kid stood and tried to put weight on it. “God Almighty,” he yelled, slackening back to the ground.
“I’ll run back to the store and get someone to come pick you up,” Tacker said.
The kid looked like he was going to cry.
“I’ll pay you anyway.”
The kid wiped at his eyes.
Fifteen minutes later Tacker was alone with his mattress, feeling fortunate to be on a side street. But it was a pitiful fortune, almost sublimely tragic. He used to be good at everything-in that other life when he won high school football games and picked up scholastic and civic awards, then excelled in college, finding himself in his senior year recommended by the department head, Professor Cabera, a dapper Argentinian with a vision that transcended North Carolina, for a choice international assignment with the Clintok Corporation. It had come to him like a perfectly thrown pass, a brilliant opportunity to further his career, though once he got to Nigeria he had found himself much more interested in the place itself, its cacophonous yet serene atmosphere.
He pulled a tall blade of grass from its green sheath and put it in his mouth. A rumble of thunder and a dark cloud encroached in the western sky. Tacker hauled the mattress up and stood it next to a tree. His arm span was just wide enough to match the width of the mattress and grab hold of the sides. He put his head in the middle of the bed and tried to hoist it, but he was too close to the tree. He tried again, and this time he managed to get it up, but the thing slipped from his grasp and slid down his back. Across the street, two women his mother’s age stopped to watch. He tried again. The thing wobbled and Tacker had to shift it a little and brace his legs to keep it on his head. When he thought he had it, he took a step. Another. Five steps. He was back on the sidewalk. But the mattress hung in the front and he couldn’t see very far ahead. Not only that, it kept snagging on nearby branches. He went slowly. A breeze came and it felt good, but then there was another rumble of thunder. He couldn’t turn his head. There was no way but forward.
Turning onto First Street with a mattress on his head, Tacker’s vision of himself as heroic pilgrim was pretty well fried. First was precipitously steep and the sidewalk way too narrow. A car horn blared and a DeSoto Firedome glided past, its finlike fenders bright in the sun. Finally he got to West End; only one more block. He swung out right into the center of the street. At the foursquare, he stepped up onto the porch, slid the mattress off his shoulder, and stood it against the front windows, slipping down beside it.
Excerpted from Swimming Between Worlds by Elaine Neil Orr. Copyright © 2018 by Elaine Neil Orr. All rights reserved.
An interview with Elaine Neil Orr
By Linda C. Brinson
The title of Elaine Neil Orr’s second novel, “Swimming Between Worlds,” is in manyways a description of what she’s been doing throughout her life – a life that she has now reflected upon in different ways in a memoir and two historical novels.
Orr is a professor of English at N.C. State University in Raleigh. She’s a fair-haired white woman with a gentle North Carolina accent, a wife and mother, living a comfortable, refined and thoroughly American life.
She’s also an African, in her heart and in her experience.
It’s her life in those two worlds that she tries to understand when she writes, and what she’s learned through that writing is what drives her novels.
Orr was born in the mid 1950s in a Nigerian village, the daughter of Southern Baptist medical missionaries. Except for a year when she was 6 and her parents were on sabbatical in Winston-Salem, N.C., she spent her childhood in Nigeria, amid the national movement that would lead to independence from Great Britain.
Growing up in a Nigerian village, she first became aware of the civil-rights movement that was erupting in violence in the United States – her “home” of record – as an outsider, through the eyes of the Nigerians her family dealt with daily.
“It was in Eku, Nigeria, when I was 8,” she recalled recently. “Nursing schoolstudents at the hospital where my parents were stationed saw the cover of Time magazine with the image of police officers in Alabama violating black young people with fire hoses and dogs. They staged their own strike, demanding that themissionaries explain why their ‘brothers and sisters’ in America were violentlyattacking children.
“My parents tried to explain that they didn’t agree with what the officers were doing (or anyone who was holding ‘Negroes’ from full participation in American life). But the students didn’t accept their explanations since, in their view, white Americansare linked by family ties and are therefore responsible for their kin.”
That incident doesn’t appear as such in Orr’s new novel. “Swimming Between Worlds” isn’t autobiographical in the usual sense of the word; it’s not about a youngAmerican missionary daughter growing up in Nigeria. Rather, it’s a coming-of-age and love story about a young Southern American white man, Tacker Hart, who comes to Nigeria as a recent college graduate in 1959. Even though he’s grown up inNorth Carolina, Tacker first becomes aware of the American Civil Rights movement while in Africa. And then when he’s sent back to Winston-Salem in disgrace, his new awareness makes him unable to slide back into the accepted patterns of his life.
Orr did live in Winston-Salem during the time portrayed in the novel – in the same house she has Tacker rent in her story – but as a sheltered young child, she was unaware of the civil-rights demonstrations.
Having her fictional character share the essence but not the facts of her personalexperience is what Orr calls “bending history” to the writer’s will, a freedom she exercises when writing her novels that are grounded in history. “My will was to have Tacker’s first inklings of the Civil Rights Movement in Nigeria, and in this way, thenovel is autobiographical,” she said. “Of course, it takes the rest of the novel forTacker to make all the connections – as it took me a large portion of my adulthood todo the same.”
When Orr was sent to the American South as a teenager for high school and college, she was plunged into a world of racial strife, segregation and activism, a world in which she did not seem to belong.
Before she tried fiction, Orr wrote a memoir. Most of her writing to that point had been academic, but when she was in her 40s, a life-threatening illness interrupted her career.
Facing end-stage renal disease, waiting for kidney and pancreas transplants, she didwhat she’d never taken the time to do before: write about her African life.
The result was “Gods of Noonday: A White Girl’s African Life,” published in 2003 bythe University of Virginia Press. In it, Orr writes about becoming aware of her dual roots. She grew up half American, half Nigerian, drawing on both Christian and Yoruba spirituality, American and Nigerian ways of looking at the world.
The process, she said, was so enlightening that she came to believe that everyoneshould write a memoir. “If you write a book-long memoir, you begin to see patterns, and the patterns reveal sort of the essential dilemmas and struggles of a life. You see the major themes of your life. I think every life has a pattern, and through thewriting, you see it, and say, ‘Aha!’
Writing a memoir also helps to see connections, she said. “You don’t understand the context of what’s happening in your life when you’re living it. But when you’re doingthe writing and the research, you discover these moments of uncanny convergence. For example, the very day my parents and I put my sister on an airplane in Lagos to send her to the U.S. – the day my family was partitioned, you might say – the first shots were fired in the Nigerian civil war (the Biafran war).“
Writing the memoir helped her, but Orr still had more to do to understand the two worlds that had shaped her.
That’s when she moved from memoir to fiction. Orr’s mother gave her amimeographed copy of the unpublished diary of Lurana Davis Bowen, the first woman Southern Baptist missionary to Africa. As a girl, Lurana lived in Georgia before the American Civil War, in a slave-owning family. Idealistic, she married an older man who was a missionary and accompanied him to Nigeria. She founded the mission in the town where Orr was born 100 years later.
Lurana’s husband eventually died “rather ingloriously” in a mental institution inGeorgia, and Lurana’s story was not one Southern Baptists cared to publicize.
Orr was intrigued more by what Lurana’s diary didn’t say than by its brief, matter- of-fact entries. Wanting to know more about Lurana’s life, she decided that the best way was to imagine it, drawing on what she did know. She transformed Lurana Davis Bowen into Emma Bowman, a fictional character, and set to work
The result is “A Different Sun,” a historical novel published in 2013. On the surface,the novel can’t be autobiographical. It’s about a white woman who grew up in the antebellum South and went to Nigeria as an adult missionary. Orr grew up in Nigeria in a missionary family, then went to the American South during the civil-rights movement for high school and college.
Yet, Orr said, the novel is in many ways her own story, and that of her mother. Sherecalled the Emily Dickinson line: “Tell the truth but tell it slant – ”
“There is something autobiographical in ‘A Different Sun’ that is slant,” she said.
“In many ways, I was a daughter trying to understand her mother, who had alwaysbeen an enigma to me,” she said.
Having experienced the deep spirituality of the Yoruba people, Orr had struggled with the idea that they needed to be become Christians. Growing up, Orr understood the message of the Gospel, about helping the poor and healing the sick and being agood person. But she did not understand “piety,” or a need to convert people toChristianity.
In “A Different Sun,” Emma Bowman eventually comes to realize that she is learningfrom the Africans she came to enlighten, and that their religion is valuable, whether or not they blend it with the Christianity being offered to them.
Orr said that as she tried to get into Emma’s mind, she understood her motherbetter than she ever had, better than she had when writing about her in the memoir.“The novel is much more compassionate toward my mother than my memoir, inwhich I speak much more frankly about my sense of abandonment because shewasn’t always present,” she said.
Now in her new novel, “Swimming Between Worlds,” she revisits many of the same themes, only this time set a century later, in the 1960s.
She finds writing fiction more liberating than writing a memoir, in that “you canwrite anything that you can make plausible, anything that a reader will go alongwith.” She could, for example, have Tacker Hart win an architectural prize that senthim to work in Nigeria after he graduated from N.C. State University. The real prize that architectural students could compete for was the Paris Prize, but Orr made upan award and a sponsoring corporation “because I didn’t want Tacker to go to Paris.”
But she takes seriously the need to make whatever she works into her fiction“plausible.” She paid meticulous attention to the details of architectural education and licensing, for example.
There is more than one kind of historical novel, Orr said. She mentioned “Varina,”the new novel by Charles Frazier, a fellow North Carolinian, whose main character isJefferson Davis’ wife, a historical character about whom much is known. “There is agreat deal of imaginative material in there because there were gaps, but in manyways he had to stick to the story,” she said.
“Swimming Between Worlds” is the kind of historical novel that uses real events butinvented main characters, an approach that gives the writer more freedom to “take the roof off” and “bend your story toward your will.”
The plausibility is key to making that kind of novel work. “It’s about giving musculature to your story, if we’re talking about the skeleton of a story,
she said. “You do research about processes and cultures, and that gives force andbuoyancy to the novel, so that when people read it, it all seems real to them.”
The central historical event in the novel is a sit-in at a Woolworth’s store in Winston-Salem in which white Wake Forest College students joined black students from Winston-Salem State and Atkins High School. There were other sit-ins, including the more famous one two weeks earlier in nearby Greensboro, but Orr chose not to create a composite. “I recreated that sit-in as accurately as I could. Ididn’t want to alter it because it’s been important to Winston-Salem. On the 50thanniversary of that event, they erected a marker downtown and had all sorts of celebratory events. It did not seem like an event that I should play with or alter.”
So she had her characters arrive early and slip out of the store when the policearrived. “The historical account allowed me to do that – the protesters went to the wrong place first, and by the time they got one at Fourth and Liberty, the policewere there,” she said. “I was lucky there really is a secondary entrance to the store,on a side street.”
She felt freer to take liberties with some other things. The biggest leap of her imagination was having a public swimming pool opening in Hanes Park near Reynolds High School in Winston-Salem’s West End neighborhood. There never hasbeen a pool there, she said, but the building of one was key to her plot. She was gratified when someone came up to her at a recent event promoting her novel and said, “We always wanted a swimming pool in Hanes Park.”
For the most part, though, she took great pains to get the names and locations of streets and buildings right.
Though Tacker and his closest associates are fictional, actual historical figures do appear in the book. Orr called some by their real names and gave made-up names to others. Martin Luther King Jr.; Carl Matthews, one of the primary African-American leaders of the Winston-Salem sit-ins; and Alan Vaughan-Richards, an architect in Nigeria, appear briefly as themselves. The Rev. Billy Graham and Susanne Wenger, an Austrian artist who lived in Nigeria, appear under fictional names.
“When I tended to keep names, it was because I wanted to tip my hat to people whowere important makers of the movement,” she said. “They are in the book because Iwanted them there. When I changed names it was because I slightly departed fromthe historical record or because having the name there would be a distraction.”
Orr said she has thought from time to time about writing a book – maybe a memoir– about her high school or early college years, that period when she was in “culture shock and didn’t know it,” after arriving from Africa to find herself in the midst of the civil-rights movement, Vietnam, Nixon, Watergate…. “That was a terrible time inAmerican politics. We had lost all the great lights of the 1960s. It was a very shadowed period for me, having lost my country of origin, being without my parents most of the time and trying to live here as a white American girl.”
“I decided not to write it because it seemed too dark. I couldn’t imagine how to giveit balance or even humor.”
Who knows, though, what she might do in the future? “It occurred to me recentlythat while my last two books aren’t memoirs, they are, each one, about going home. “ Orr said. “I go with Emma Bowman back to Nigeria, though a century before I wasborn. I go home to Winston-Salem with Tacker.”
About the interviewer: Linda C. Brinson, former editorial page editor of the Winston-Salem Journal, is a freelance writer and editor and an adjunct faculty member in the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication.