A Compelling Image: Shelley Costa

For such verbal creatures, writers often identify the genesis of a particular story in a compelling image, whether sought out deliberately or serendipitously served up by the universe. In this “How’d That Happen” post, Shelley Costa  discusses a disturbing photograph that helped give rise to her story “Strangle Vine.”

A few years ago, I came across an account somewhere about Leo Frank, a Jew who was lynched in Georgia in 1915.  At that point, I wasn’t looking to create a new story from those old materials, but it’s what led me to the next piece of story-history: lynching photography.  The photo of Leo Frank, lynched, led to other photos – appalling pictures of hapless victims dangling from tree limbs.  Strange fruit, indeed.  No due process, no rule of law, but plenty of murderous mobs and smiling spectators in straw boaters.

You don’t see too many of these photos without realizing certain things.  Lynching was widespread (it occurred in every state in the Union) and ran deep in American society.  And lynching photography was a weird cottage industry that led to postcards a fella could send to his pal elsewhere with – in the case of a black man burned alive — the touching message: “Here’s the bar-b-q we had last night.”  Before long, these pictures ushered me to a beautiful source book, Without Sanctuary, a collection of lynching photographs, with original text by James Allen.

One of the pictures in Allen’s book is of Laura Nelson, a black woman lynched in Okemah, Oklahoma, in 1911.  She dangles from a bridge over the Canadian River, her hands unbound at her sides, her expression inscrutable, in a trim calico dress.  If you could imagine her feet on her floor back home, instead of mid-air, she looks as though she’s trying to remember where she left her sewing.  I kept coming back to the picture of Laura.  And I knew that hers was the story I wanted to write.  I checked what other source material I could find on Laura Nelson, but the facts were skittish and disagreed from one account to the next.

Of course, lynching is not about facts.

What I wanted to find was an emotional truth, a plausible fiction, that could incorporate the little that was known.  It percolated for several years.  I needed a way into the tale and nothing was bubbling up.  Then we had an opportunity to go to a family event in Tulsa, Oklahoma, six years ago, and I discovered that Okemah was just an hour south, so my husband and I drove there.  It felt like a pilgrimage to me: I wanted to honor Laura Nelson’s life at the site of her death.  We got to Okemah, where there’s still some splash about Woody Guthrie, because it’s his hometown.  (His father, Charlie Guthrie, was in the lynch mob, but there’s no splash about that.)  By me, the place felt strange and moribund, but maybe because I knew something extremely dark in its history.

Just outside of town, we found it.  A bridge over the Canadian River.  I recognized the setting from the lynching photograph.  On that late summer day, we heard cows mooing nearby, and birds singing as they went about their business.  There was no memorial to the lynching, no communal coming clean, owning up, taking your licks.  I walked the shoreline of this brown river where dark deeds occurred and pocketed a stone to take home – was this stone a witness? – seeing everything I could, seeing and casting myself as far back as I could, imagining the unimaginable.

I don’t know what happened to the stone.  Five years later, though, I wrote the story, once I knew I needed to tell it from the point of view of a twelve-year old white girl who loved Laura Nelson.  Once I had “Strangle Vine,” I guess I no longer needed the stone.

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