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.
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.
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.
As the story unfolds, KIN turns out to be not only a Civil War tale, but also a family chronicle of successive generations, as well as a mystery story about puzzling gaps in the record of family descent.
Rather than a single omniscient narrator, KIN is told by multiple observers. In this crowd, not all are equal. Some do try their utmost to report accurately. But others are ill-informed or even unreliable. A few are downright untrustworthy. Caveat Emptor is wise advice.
The rugged mountains of the east Tennessee border—that landscape has not changed a great deal since the 1840s.
But the soundscape has changed dramatically. Traffic noise then did not mean the roar of high speed vehicles, but clopping hooves and wagon wheel squeaks. Music usually meant a lone instrument, such as a solo voice or a tensioned string. Carrie’s mother carried the tradition of the sprightly tunes and sly lyrics of Louisiana Cajun songs. Henry’s mother passed on the tradition of the hammered dulcimer.
Speech was part of that soundscape, but it too was pretty different. Isolated mountain folk had their own vocabulary and grammar.
One could hear on the Tennessee border more or less standard English. One could also hear this Appalachian English. Enslaved Black people had their own English, which deserves the same differentiation.
Brought from Louisiana, Carrie's mother Lilly used Creole song lyrics for spells, while Carrie sang songs in the language her mother taught her.
KIN rewards careful listening, for it includes very different kinds of speech to communicate very different meanings, sometimes intended to say who people were, and sometimes intended to say who they were not.
There was also Henry’s sister, Audrey Ann Hollis, profoundly deaf, who spoke without sound. She communicated by sign language, not American Sign Language—she was born too early for that—but a sign language invented on the isolated frontier by an anguished mother and Audrey’s two closest siblings.
Were it possible to set this never-codified language on paper, the strange symbols would be unintelligible. So in the novel Audrey’s signs must be translated into English. That seems straight-forward when Audrey is speaking.
But what about when household slaves used her sign language? Should their communication be translated into Black English? Various narrators had definite and differing opinions.
The people of KIN wrestle with intractable problems. For instance, in a slave-holding society, if a white man has sex with an enslaved woman, someone who has no rights to her own person and therefore no freedom to refuse—and if no freedom to refuse, is there any freedom to consent?--can the act be anything other than rape? In a racially segregated society, by what means—if any—can a man and a woman of different races escape racial loyalties to create a trusting relationship?
As the never-glorious war winds down, an important character in KIN muses on the outcome: “I was convinced,” he says, “ that slavery was the fever. Get rid of the fever and the patient is free of disease. But I was so wrong.” As the realization sinks in that social malaise is far more deeply embedded than merely slavery, what action is required? What action is possible?
More than anything else, KIN is a book of family stories, actually several lifetimes of family stories. Perhaps some of those stories may make you smile. Others may stay with you to prompt more thinking about the book’s questions.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
From Dictionary of Southern Appalachian English, edited by Michael Montgomery and Jeffifer K.N. Heinmiller.
Copyright 2021 by the University of North Carolina Press.