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  • A bitter row with his father caused Henry Hollis to move north to ante-bellum New York. Years later he returns home to the rugged mountains of Tennessee on the North Carolina border, drawn by his father’s peace offering, an extensive but extremely remote tract in the highest reaches of the Quachasee watershed. .
  • As Henry and his crew clear the land to build a new farm, word of his father’s collapse summons him down to Tulips, the Hollis homestead. Gathered around the patriarch’s deathbed, family members maneuver with unstated agenda as they urge Henry to take a cook for his crew back up to the Quachasee. They settle on Carrie, a young enslaved woman previously assigned as maid and companion to lame and deaf Audrey Ann, Henry’s closest sibling.
  • Henry accedes reluctantly, but at the Quachasee finds Carrie’s initiatives unexpectedly valuable for crew morale. Carrie discovers in her mountain residence, not exile, but an exhilarating sense of freedom.
  • It seems a happy congruence, a love story ready to unfold. Except the past intervenes, and the future disrupts. KIN chronicles a generation’s crucial decisions before and after the Civil War, and the impact on later generations.  

... absorbing, intelligent

In a tumbling cascade of voices, some contradictory, some unreliable, and some expressed in eloquent hand language, KIN tells a tragic love story. Reaching back before the Civil War and across generations for the next hundred years, the novel is preoccupied with race as well as the central role that deafness plays in this absorbing narrative. As an extended meditation on how history is constructed and the hobbled ways in which we recover our past, KIN is a cornucopia pouring out its unpredictable riches to the surprising conclusion. An intelligent page-turner.

Kathleen Diffley, Professor of English, University of Iowa
Author of The Fateful Lightning: Civil War Stories and the Magazine Marketplace, 1861-1876 and Where My Heart Is Turning Ever: Civil War Stories and Constitutional Reform, 1861-1876.

... the best kind of historical fiction

KIN is simply brilliant. In this work, Graebner delivers a stunningly original exploration of the complex stories of white and Black people of East Tennessee through Civil War, Reconstruction, and the turn of the 20th century. He searches for the meaning of history and the meaning of life. While he puzzles mysteries of historical memory, and of “history” itself, he refuses to answer them. He embraces uncertainty: how do we know what we think we know?  KIN is the best kind of historical fiction, well situated in the scholarly literature, and Graebner packs an emotional punch.

Orville Vernon Burton,  Judge Matthew J. Perry Distinguished Chair of History  and Computer Science at Clemson University; Author of The Age of Lincoln; Coauthor of Justice Deferred: Race and the Supreme Court

Kin A Novel by Alan Graebner

About the Author

Raised in the Midwest, Alan Graebner headed east for graduate education, then taught American history for decades at the College of St. Catherine, a women’s college in Minnesota.  Along the way his love of sailing misled him into marina development, and an affinity for woodworking drew him into designing and building a half dozen houses, one on a remote island in Lake Superior, and another on an island in the Caribbean.  

It seems a long way from any of that to a lonely cabin in the mountains of 19th century eastern Tennessee.  The bridge between is news of a long-forgotten family story about a patriarch’s antebellum relationship that later generations suppressed or never suspected.

When this came to light some twenty years ago, it seemed at first glance to be rich grist for a historian concerned with the vexed matter of race—as every American historian must be.  Closer examination, though, showed an insurmountable problem:  sparse documentary record.  No revelatory diaries, no gossipy letters (indeed, no correspondence at all), no helpful newspaper columns, no sensational court case testimony.  Even the most industrious historian would find no firm ground to tread.

I had too few facts, but with the few facts I had, my imagination kept nudging me with compelling questions about causes and consequences.  They were questions that in this case a historian, bound to a documentary record, could not address.  They were, though, questions that a novelist, held no less strictly to a different standard, might illuminate.  The result, after much travail, is KIN, a Novel. If it makes readers think hard about race in America, and about history, then it was worth the effort.    

Meet the Author

Author's Interview

KIN includes so many characters from different generations. Where did all these imaginary figures come from?

To me they’re not at all imaginary. They’re old friends, very real old friends. Henry Hollis and Carrie LaCroix, the central figures, were present at creation—had to be, for this is their story.

But what about Audrey Ann, Henry’s deaf sister, and John Bright, nearly his brother?

Audrey Ann owes much to reporter Margalit Fox. I read her book Talking Hands years ago because I was curious about sign language, especially alternative sign language. (I was curious because my wife, Margaret, taught deaf children early in her working life, and also because of a controversy on campus then about whether a sign language course credit should be counted as a foreign language credit.)

Once Henry and Carrie possessed established identities, surely, I thought, there were isolated deaf children on the ante-bellum Tennessee frontier. How would they have fared? Audrey Ann and Judah Rainey’s little sister were two answers.

Judah Rainey’s little sister never gets a name, does she?  

That’s not an oversight. About John Bright, the truth is that writing KIN has gone on so long that I cannot recall exactly where, when, and how he first appeared. I think I must have been aware of him first at the edge of the action, and each time I subsequently noticed him he was closer to the center of things. Lately—belatedly—I’ve begun to realize that he should have a section of his own, to recount his growing up with Henry, his evolution on slavery, his complicated relationship with Carrie, his marriage to the strong-minded Lydia, and his reaction to Henry’s later decisions.

 So you have been at this several years?

Several decades is closer to it. In one way I’m fortunate the writing has taken so long. When I began, the Dictionary of Southern Appalachian English did not even exist. Once the University of North Carolina Press brought out the DSAE, things got much easier in some ways, though harder in others. Now there was no excuse for trying to fake it when I came to mountain speech

KIN includes a variety of speech patterns depending on geography, class and race, doesn’t it?

Oh dear, yes. Especially that last matter is so complicated and loaded with such strong emotions. We have transcripts of probably thousands of interviews done in the 1930s with elderly, once-enslaved Black people. There, word-by-word, ink on paper. Definitive, it seems. But what was the race (and age and gender and facial expression and body language) of the interviewer? And how did the interviewee perceive all that? And who did the transcribing? With what kinds of skill and sympathy?

There are so many questions and they are so fraught: strong temptations to simply write around them—to avoid structuring the narrative so that an enslaved Black person would be expected to speak aloud. But that strategy, that denying of voice, strikes me as itself disrespectful. So, with trepidation, I plunge ahead, trying to stay grounded in the historical record, problematic as the record is.

 As you do with Solomon Haller, Audrey Ann’s devoted guardian.

Haller is one of my favorite people, for a great many reasons including the striking contrasts between his sign language and his speech. He, too, by the way, emerged in the writing out of a deep shadow, moving from the periphery to a much more central role.

If you had to do KIN over, would you do it any differently?

Of course. I should have studied how to write a novel instead of just plunging in as if I knew anything about it. Fortunately my friends were clever in hiding their dismay. I should have had a drawer of 3x5 cards, at least one per character, listing each’s appearance, speech patterns, and mannerisms, plus where they fit the story. Then I’d construct a detailed outline of the story’s direction. That way, all I’d have to do is sit down at a keyboard and fill in the spaces between the note cards.

Mind you, that’s complete fantasy. I understand there are very fine writers who can work roughly that way. But I cannot because so much of my finished story is what I discovered, as something of a surprise, along the way. It is terribly inefficient, of course, because I keep having to go back and amend what I first put down when I was still ignorant of some characteristic or development. And then in that very process of correction I see other matters that I failed to notice earlier, and so on. It would be downright depressing except for finding welcome substories and characters in the shadows I had little inkling were there when I started.

Mountain Words

An exercise to see how close you can come to understanding the vocabulary of the southern Appalachian folk.
Definitions are just a click away.

small amount

work hard

to calm


small barrel

duck, swivel

small stream



From Dictionary of Southern Appalachian English, edited by Michael Montgomery and Jeffifer K.N. Heinmiller.
Copyright 2021 by the University of North Carolina Press.

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