About Me

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I'm author of The Snipesville Chronicles. I'm also a published academic historian, but don't hold that against me.Oh, and I'm a Brit. I just happen to live in Georgia.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Hamlet and a Side of Macon

I enjoyed an amazing evening at the theatre in London last night, which isn’t all that remarkable, I suppose. Except that I’m still in Georgia.

Britain’s National Theatre is beaming selected plays to movie theatres around the globe, live. Well, sort of live: There’s a time delay, which was five hours in our case. Plenty of theatres in the United States are participating, in places like New York and Boston, but there’s only one in the whole southeast. Is it in Atlanta? Nope. Charleston? Nada. Savannah? Wrong.

It’s in Macon, the city whose name rhymes with bacon. Clearly, Macon’s more of a cultural hotbed than I’d assumed.

Sitting in the Douglas Theatre watching Hamlet felt almost like being in the Olivier auditorium itself. Perhaps because I know the National Theatre so well, I could mentally fill in the smells and the feel of the place. Before the play started, the cameras were trained on the London audience, and the sight of all those pasty faces filled me with a deep nostalgia.

Yet, I wasn’t there. The biggest problem wasn’t that I was watching the play on a screen, surprisingly enough. In fact, we who were seated three thousand miles away had a better view of the action than anyone who was actually there. At times, we felt like we were onstage with the actors.

The experience made me feel like an outsider in subtle ways. For one thing, while the London audience filled the theatre, we in Macon were just an enthusiastic twelve, scattered throughout the auditorium. We also lacked the proper refreshments: we watched the screen enviously as the Brits sipped wine or spooned ice cream in the auditorium, then we went to the lobby to chug cans of Coke forlornly in the lobby. The National Theatre allows you to bring in your refreshments; the Douglas, alas, does not.

Researching history feels much the same way as sitting in the Douglas Theatre did last night. It’s very much like viewing the past through cameras (which is what primary sources are), trying to experience the whole by looking through a select few viewpoints. I will never know how it really feels to be there, but I am grateful to see what I can, and I thoroughly enjoy the show.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Midway to the Twenty-First Century

My first visit to Midway, Georgia, was about fourteen years ago, and it was accidental. We were driving the sleepy backroads south of Savannah when suddenly I screeched, "Whoa, what's THAT?"

What had caught my eye was a Congregationalist church. In Georgia, the label is enough to define it as unusual: Congregationalism is the direct descendant of New England Puritanism, and so it's not something one expects in heavily Baptist/Methodist rural Georgia. But what really stunned me was that the church was 18th century, complete with shutters on the windows.

The church has gotten a fair amount of press since that day, but at the time, it would have been news to most colonial historians, and it certainly was to me. I managed to get the story on the place's origins. A group of Puritans had departed Dorchester, England, in the 1620s, and founded Dorchester, Massachusetts. When they ran short of land, by the late 17th century, they were looking to colonize further afield, and a party of Dorchesterites settled in (you guessed it) Dorchester, South Carolina. In search of somewhere a bit less mosquito-ridden, they abandoned the town in 1751, and trekked to Georgia  (not known as a mosquito-free zone, alas), where they founded... Dorchester.

The Brits burned down the original meetinghouse during the Revolution, but its replacement, built in 1792, is the church you can see today, along with the wonderfully creepy graveyard with its New England-style gravestones.

What's especially striking is that these Puritans had no problem with slavery, because they were making money hand over fist from African labor in their rice fields. Only in New England, where large-scale slavery was impossible thanks to the crummy soil, did Puritans seldom own slaves. It was all about profit, not principle.

Okay, back to 2010...Dorchester (now known as Midway) is still a surprisingly sleepy place, but I had a lovely time there last week at Midway Middle School and Liberty Elementary, talking to hundreds of kids .  But since the town is now on the edge of massive Fort Stewart, many of the kids belong to Army families. How strange then, to speak to this cosmopolitan group, including descendents of both English Puritans and African slaves, of another time, another place, and another war, as I explored children's lives in World War II England with them.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Seeing Invisible History

So there I was, sitting comfortably in a comfy chair at Starbucks, amply supplied with caffeine, and working away happily on the third book. Everything was going swimmingly. I had a great set of plot twists, interesting new characters to work with, and a story set in the historical period I know best, the 18th century. Finally, I could use that PhD in early American history writing something people would want to read!  But I digress...

Out of the blue, the book went wrong. I finished a chapter, only to realize that I had already used up the plot points for several chapters ahead, leaving Hannah sitting outside in the piney woods of rural southeastern Georgia in 1752, waiting for a pot of water to boil over an outdoor fire. What was she thinking? I didn't know. Was she bored? If not, what was she thinking about? No clue. All she could see and all I could see were pine trees.

I packed up and went home, deciding it was time to put the writing on hold, and take to reading for inspiration. First, I tried more history. It didn't help. The history of Georgia in that period is a bit thin, so I cheated and started revisiting South Carolina history, hoping for ideas from the state next door. Thinking again about the frontier helped a little, but it wasn't that thrilling. And I really couldn't shake the strong feeling that  I was missing something big...

All at once, it came to me.

You know, for someone who claims to be an historian of religion, I can be pretty oblivious. In planning and writing Book 3, I had ignored invisible history. What I mean by that is the religious beliefs and the folklore  that livened up what to modern outsiders might just seem like a tedious landscape. The people of the past populated those spaces with ghosts, spirits, miracles, and mysteries; with tall tales and sad stories.

Native Americans would surely have had the best-developed  folklore of any group in the rural South in the mid-18th century, but they were being chased from their lands. Meanwhile, Africans and Europeans had begun weaving their own stories and beliefs around their new American homes, often drawing on the traditions of their Indian neighbors, friends, and family members. There was, of course, much exchanging of stories among these ethnic groups.  

Meanwhile, wealthier and educated settlers (who were the smallest group, but the best represented in history) were abandoning many of their supernatural beliefs. Instead, they developed a keen interest in buying and owning stuff: Houses, clothes, china, carriages, and so on. Boy, that sounds familiar, doesn't it?

My modern time travelers, however, mix with poor people in my story, and the trick now is to get them not only to witness folklore, but to believe in it.  First, I need some folklore for them to hear. So I'm reading again, and planning a trip to the Okefenokee Swamp, a rich source of spooky atmosphere and home of some of the best storytelling tradition in Georgia...

Wish me luck as I hunt ghosts and seek out tall tales. And if any of you have some cool stories from your own families, pass them along. I can borrow them outright if we both like, or rewrite them to suit!

Monday, September 6, 2010

From Carnival Barker to Emcee: My Rise at the Decatur Book Festival

Salesmanship is in my blood. For that, I can thank my parents. Both of them are excellent salespeople, although for sheer chutzpah my dad (aka He who can sell the hind legs off a mule) wins the prize.

Despite being his peculiar daughter who was always drawn to work that doesn't pay (journalist, history professor, children's author), I have inherited Dad's love of selling. Ooh, I hate to admit that. He's going to love reading this.

So, I rented a booth at the Decatur Book Festival this weekend, and hired Reid, a former student of mine, to help me lure in unsuspecting passersby.

More than 120 books and possibly 300 enthusiastic pitches later, Reid and I called it a day. It was such fun to have fans--and I hope you're reading this--seek me out to say "hi." But the best part of all was pitching The Snipesville Chronicles to kids who've never heard of them or me. I love watching the lights go on.
Of course, it's always a tougher sell to parents, who are (sadly) often under the mistaken impression that children learn morality from books. What, one father asked, do they take away from my books? I gave him my best Mrs.D. glare, and said "I have a PhD in history, I have run history programs for kids since 2003, and my work has been profiled in the Associated Press. Does that answer your question?" He handed over the cash.

I skipped lunch both days to work, but I did leave the booth just once, having been invited to go onstage and interview Jeanne Birdsall (The Penderwicks, enough said)and Laurel Snyder (Up and Down the Scratchy Mountains, Any Which Wall.} I had a brief and unexpected little moment of fame when Matt the festival staffer introduced me with effusive words of praise for my work that definitely were NOT the introduction I sent to the festival committee. My version said stuff like I live in a small town where my hobby is watching the traffic lights change...
But never mind me. I knew my job: Introduce Jeanne and Laurel, ask questions that helped them shine (not that they needed my help, mind) and keep an eye on the clock. They were delightful, down-to-earth, and clever. I feel honored (genuinely) to have met them both.

Afterward, I passed Jeanne's long line of kids and parents awaiting autographs, and you will be forgiven if you assume that I was jealous. It surprises even me to say this but no, I wasn't. I went back to my booth with a spring in my step, relishing the opportunity to ensnare and delight new readers, one book pitch at a time. What a lovely weekend it was. Absolute contentment.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Old Times Not Forgotten? Well, maybe.

I always feel a bit longsuffering when well-meaning old friends in California ask me earnestly what it's like to live in a small town in the South. My answer varies. Yes, living here often makes me nuts (let the hate mail from below the Mason-Dixon line begin...) Yes, there are a lot of racist people here (like there aren't in California? Please.) But how do I sum it all up without resorting to the usual well-worn cliches, positive and negative?

I can't.

I can say, however, that even in the 14 years I've been here, Southern life has taken some interesting new directions. And, to a large extent, there have always been surprises behind the Paula Deen-and-Bull-Connor facade.

I thought about that a lot on Sunday. We started the day at church, which is definitely something I didn't do before I moved here, and the sermon was given by a lovely young white Southern man who is about to be ordained. But nothing else about the church seemed "typically" Southern. It's an Episcopal church, for one thing, not Baptist or Methodist. The priest is a woman, and after the service, she gave an entertaining talk on her recent pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. We sat and listened with friends, including a lovely openly gay couple who are leading lights in the church.

And things got more interesting.

After church, we headed to the Jewish Educational Alliance, the Jewish community center in Savannah, and spent the afternoon at the pool with friends. Before we left the city, we went on our errands to World Market (better known in the West as Cost Plus) for British and Asian snackies, and then to Shivam Indian grocery for rice, breads, and spices. Finally, we set course for home in the hinterlands.

We could have done more, I suppose: Had dinner at Coconut Thai, a fabulous restaurant in our little town, or at El Rinconcito, a taqueria/tienda/Latino workingmen's hangout that serves heavenly tamales. Instead, we dined at home, on roasted local free-range chicken with local new organic potatoes, and Southern red-eye peas, a type of bean that the native-born *female* farmer who grew them taught me to cook.

Old times may not be forgotten here, as Dixie would have it, but the times, they are a'changin'.

Monday, June 21, 2010

The Church in the Woods

Many years ago, I started my dissertation research on Church of England missionaries in early America, using the vast collection of letters they sent to the home office in London. As I ruined my eyes reading their spidery handwriting (and on microfilm, groan!), I came to look forward to some writers in particular.

One old Scottish minister in Rhode Island, James Honyman, was wonderfully grumpy (even by the standards of the group.) Another favorite was Brian Hunt, who may have been just a teeny bit demented by the experience of being stuck out in the middle of the woods of South Carolina. And yet another was the compassionate Frenchman Francis Le Jau, whose anxiety over the treatment of slaves and wonderful descriptions were striking for the early 18th century.

After I moved to Georgia, I started tracking down what remains of the world these men inhabited. I practically wept when I walked in Charleston. Discovering the ruins of Brian Hunt's church on a backroad was awesome, and even more so was finding the chapel that was built while he was minister, which had survived while the village around it had simply melted away.

But Francis Le Jau's church, St.James at Goose Creek, SC had eluded me. Several years ago, I went looking for it: It wasn't on the map and the locals I asked seemed (honestly) to have never heard of it. The web yielded no info. When I got home, I contacted Dr. Betty Wood at Cambridge University, knowing that she and Dr. Sylvia Frey of Tulane had somehow found St. James. "Oh, I can't remember how we got there," Betty lamented. "It certainly wasn't easy." So I forgot all about it...

This weekend, having some business in Charleston, I arrived at my hotel. It was advertised as being in North Charleston, but it was actually in Goose Creek. It was already 5:30 p.m., but I got on the web, and this time, it yielded an address that was a five-minute drive from the hotel. I popped on my shoes, grabbed my GPS (called Emily, by the way) and jumped in the car.

Following Emily's directions, I passed over a small but beautiful river on the marshes, and turned right onto a heavily-wooded road. Emily announced that my final turn was on the right, I turned....And there was a double gate. My heart sank. Then I noticed that the chain wasn't tied. I parked the car right there, and pulled on the gates. I puhed on the gates. Nothing. I thought about squeezing myself through the gates, then imagined the embarrassment if I got stuck. Beyond the gate, there was a dirt road that disappeared into the woods...Was it wise to go there alone, even if I could get in? And then I realized that the gates weren't attached to a fence...

I squeezed around the gate, and nervously set off on the path, calling my husband on my cell phone in case I should be arrested or murdered. Seconds later, I came to a halt with a daft smile on my face. There it was, a small, dignified, and gorgeous Georgian church, in the classical style with shutters on the windows, and a bricked-in churchyard, surrounded by live oak trees dripping with Spanish moss.

No matter how much the church has been repainted, damaged by earthquake, and restored, it is still the church where LeJau preached, counseled, argued, and sweated. On a soupy South Carolina evening, I stood before it in awe, and alone, except for the cicadas. The road was yards away, but it wasn't busy on this Sunday evening. Only the squat ranch house a few yards from the church reminded me of when I was.

A house? Uh-oh. Time to scarper before I got in trouble. I snapped a shot with my cell phone, and retreated to my car. I was three miles away before I realized that I hadn't saved the photo, leaving me with the peculiar feeling that perhaps I had imagined it all.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

My Letter to the Lumpkin County School Board About Catherine Ariemma

Doubtless, you have heard the news about the high schoolers in Georgia who dressed as KKK members to film a segment of their own movie about racism. Their teacher was briefly suspended. This is my response, which I sent to the school board.

Dear Mr. Self,

I am writing as a professional historian (I am a former tenured member of the Georgia Southern University history department, and was a faculty member of the Africana Studies program)and concerned Georgia resident.

I have read the news accounts about Catherine Ariemma's class, and would like to offer some brief observations.

I do not know Ms. Ariemma personally, but she is to be commended: First, for offering an innovative course in history and film, which has the power to engage students' imagination, and second, for creating an environment in which the students feel comfortable tackling some of the knottier issues in American history. Too many teachers take the easy route, and teach history as one long litany of names and dates. The end result (as I can attest, having taught more freshmen than I care to recall) is that students are bored, turned off, and unable to think for themselves.

When a teacher like Ms. Ariemma goes the extra mile, she also takes risks. In this case, may I suggest, she attracted the attention of individual kids for whom getting offended offered a way to attract attention to themselves, and to create a situation in which they could hold power over a teacher. The long history of racism in Georgia makes teachers especially nervous about tackling race in the classroom, but it is impossible to teach American history in any meaningful way without addressing race head on.

In my own college classes, I taught about lynching by using graphic photographs. My students understood my goodwill, and I never had any complaints--far from it. Students of all colors applauded my forthright approach. If a person passing in the hallway had taken offense, I am certain that the administration would have backed me up.

Is high school different? Yes, it probably is, and I don't mean that in a good way: History teachers, more than any other, need the protections of tenure to teach their subjects well. It would be nothing short of a tragedy if the overreaction we have witnessed were to translate into teachers like Ms. Catherine Ariemma deciding never to take risks in history teaching. Good teaching is all about taking risks.

Sincerely, Annette Laing,Ph.D.


Thursday, May 13, 2010

On The Road Again

As surely as God made little apples (as my dad says), school visit season gives way to book tour season, when I spend every weekend away from my nearest and dearest, unless I can persuade them to come with me, and act the Scholar Gypsy. Or maybe Author Gypsy.

I won't try to pretend I hate this. I love being on the road, collecting Hampton Inn points, trying out local eateries (not fine dining as a rule, but rather still in search of the best BBQ pork in the South...) Best of all, I really do enjoy sitting in bookstores and assailing innocent customers as they attempt to cruise by me, and giving them the book pitch. I don't feel in the least bit sleazy: My books are good, and they get kids excited about history. I have the courage of my convictions, and every sale is another planted seed.

The only hard part is trying to get bookstores to agree to let me--or any author who isn't super-famous--to take up corner space. Fortunately, Barnes and Noble in Columbus, GA and Jacksonville, FL, and The Book Worm in Powder Springs, GA, have all graciously hosted me during the past few weeks, and I have been delighted with my sales. Two last stops: This Saturday, May 15, at Park Road Books (Charlotte, NC) ad next Saturday, May 22 at Taylor Books in Charleston, WV. And then it's time for writing season. Even better. :-)

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Real Life

This blog has been neglected of late, and how many times have you heard  that before? Much as I enjoy writing here, I am even more enamored of my new venture, Imaginative Journeys, a nonprofit I set up about six months ago to act as a formal structure for Camp Snipesville, the camp I created last summer.

I never thought I could top TimeShop, the kids "time travel" program I developed some years ago, but Camp Snipesville has done it. Instead of a scripted journey through themed rooms on one day in one place in history, we spend a week on a particular period and theme in American and/or British history. Every day has its own theme, every day is different, and our approach, while grounded in history, is multidisciplinary, with a particular emphasis on music and art. Lindsey Jenkins, a young local artist, is our art educator, and she does a fantastic job with the kids.

What I love about the program is that it requires less elaborate scheduling, less money (a good thing in this economy), and fewer--but more qualified--staff than did TimeShop, yet the children have an even better experience. Our relaxed timetable (but always with extra activities planned, just in case of downtime) allows us to lengthen or shorten activities depending on our needs. We have frequent short play breaks to ensure that the more active kids have a chance to blow off steam. And getting to know the kids over a week of shared play and experiences is a blast. For more on Camp Snipesville and Imaginative Journeys, please visit our new web site: It's a bit rough around the edges, but it gives you some idea of what we're about...

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Big Times at Big Shanty

Had a great time today speaking at Big Shanty Intermediate School (you have to love a name like "Big Shanty." How cool is that?) I was there at the invitation of media specialist Barbara Powell-Schager, who four years ago created an annual event at the school called Authors' Night.

Lest there be confusion, I was not the author for Authors' Night: I was brought in ahead of time as Exhibit "A", an official author, but the authors of Authors' Night are the kids themselves. They produce a variety of creative projects, ranging from museum exhibits to cowboy journals (which they read around the campfire, dressed as cowboys.) Very, very impressive concept, and far more inspiring than tests and worksheets.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Giveaway (hurry!) and interview

The MotherDaughter Book Club blog currently features an interview with me and giveaway of copies of my books, which you can enter by posting a comment about where and when you would love to travel in time. But hurry: The deadline is tonight, Tuesday February 2.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Review of Don't Know Where, Don't Know When

Very nice review of my first book, Don't Know Where, Don't Know When at MotherDaughter Book Club.com's blog...

Sunday, January 24, 2010

New Angles on the Saxons

My homeschooling adventure continues, as Alec and I are working on a unit on Anglo-Saxon England (AKA the Dark Ages.) Yes, I do mean both of us, because I haven't seriously considered the Anglo-Saxons since I took a less than stellar course on medieval England in the early '90s.

One of the great revelations has been Anglo-Saxon literature. We listened to part of the poem The Battle of Maldon in the original and unintelligible Old English, had fun picking out words we still use today from a transcript, and then read in translation. It helped that we sort of know where Maldon is (my brother lives in Essex.)

The Battle of Maldon, fragmentary though it is, whetted our appetite for more, and so I sprung for a translation of Beowulf for kids (see left), even though the fact that the edition about a hundred years old made me skeptical about its appeal.

Boy, was I wrong.

We read two chapters each day, and were enchanted by the imagery, the Saxon-style alliteration, and the simple but compelling narrative of our hero's triumph over Grendel, the Water Witch, and the dragon. We were both pretty sad when we ended this slim volume. I cannot recommend it too highly. As we speak, Alec is working on his own Anglo-Saxon-style story, starring, um, Alecwulf, and his foe, the half-man, half-scorpion Neegrash.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Author of the Day

I'm author du jour (with a side of croutons) at the Teens Read Too blog.