Historical fiction, Christian Fiction, Romance
Set in 1929, seven years into the Great Depression, Under the Tulip Tree finds 16-year-old Lorena Leland (Rena) struggling to help her family survive the fallout from the market crash. Dealing with her father’s job loss and indiscretions, the family’s struggle to maintain their home, and her sister’s difficult marriage, Rena, against the family’s wishes, takes a job through the Federal Writers’ Project, interviewing former slaves. Her first interviewee is Frankie Washington, a 101-year-old woman shares candidly about her tragic life as a slave. These interviews cause Rena to question what she learned in school about slavery and the role slavery played in her own family history.
I haven’t read many books which mention the Federal Writers’ Project. It was during my recent trip to Memphis, Tennessee, while visiting the Slave Haven Museum, that I picked up a little book titled, I was Born in Slavery, Personal Accounts of Slavery in Texas*. Therein, I read of the WPA, Federal Writers’ Project (please allow me to geek-out for a moment). The stark differences between interviews by white writers, verses those by Black writers was notable. Studies indicate former slaves were more open and honest with those who were Black, perhaps fearing retribution from the whites, from whom many received support.*
Under the Tulip Tree notes the unusual candor with which Frankie shares her story with Rena, unlike Rena’s other, less vivid interviewees. Rena finds she must fight to have the interview accepted and printed in its entirety. Mrs. Shocklee has carefully researched these interesting details and presented them with careful accuracy.
I was also surprised at the mention of the hardships of endured by the newly freed slaves throughout the war. This was another subject I had recently uncovered in my studies. One rarely hears of the horrid deaths of huge numbers of freed families, while under the “protection” of soldiers who themselves were without proper clothing or food, many huddled in tents through the cold winter. We only want to talk about the joys of freedom, but freed slaves were listed as “contraband,” as if they were guns or horses taken during battle. Medical care was scarce and these people died, unattended, in droves.**
Michelle Shocklee, artfully weaves uncomfortable forgotten subjects into a believable storyline which brings them into light for the reader. The true value of history is to learn from our mistakes, so we don’t repeat them; to use understanding as a rung on the ladder which leads to becoming better, more loving people. In this book, Rena learns some valuable lessons, which transcend color, race or decades past.
As a Christian author, she also weaves a story of discovering God, of physical and emotional healing and a bit of very clean romance. I highly recommend Under the Tulip Tree by Michelle Shocklee as your next great Historical Fiction read. Michelle says you will find the best purchase options HERE.
*Waters, Andrew. Intro. I Was Born in Slavery, Personal Accounts of Slavery in Texas, edited by Waters; John F. Blair: Winston-Salem, North Carolina. 2003. xiii.
**Downs, Jim. Sick from Freedom. Oxford Scholarship Online: March 2015.