The Debut—Barbara Wright, Crow

School Library Journal

By Dodie Ownes

During a recent lunch with some Denver area authors and assorted book people, Barbara Wright updated the group on the status of her recently published novel, Crow, which is set in 1898, during a time of growing racial tension in Wilmington, NC. As she talked about the novel, Wright modestly mentioned that it had received a starred review from Kirkus. “But they don’t like anything!” was the immediate response from those of us assembled. Then the starred reviews came in from Booklist, Publishers Weekly, and School Library Journal. SLJ’s reviewer summed up Crow with these final words, “The expert blending of vivid historical details with the voice of a courageous, relatable hero makes this book truly shine.” I asked Wright to tell us how Crow and its unique setting and characters evolved.

When you first submitted the manuscript of Crow to an agent, you thought it was an adult novel. But the response was, “This is a young adult novel.” But you’d never written for a young adult audience before. What was that experience like?

I think about character, not audience, when I write. What does the world look like through the eyes of a smart, curious, 12-year-old boy? I assumed I was writing for adults, but people who read early drafts said, “This would make a good young adult novel.” My agent thought so as well. To my delight, I discovered that young readers are much more savvy than I ever knew. I actually did very little rewriting to accommodate my new audience. I certainly did not “write down.” I think the result is a book that works for readers of all ages, middle grade and up.

How’d you get interested in the 1898 Wilmington, NC, race riots?

I read an op-ed piece in the New York Times about the Wilmington riot of 1898, and my reaction was: How could I not know about this? I grew up in North Carolina and spent summers at a beach not far from Wilmington. I started researching and became fascinated by the post-Reconstruction period in this port city where African-Americans actually had political power and a thriving middle class. Everyone advised against writing this book, because I chose the first-person voice of a young black boy (I am white). But once I started, I never stopped until the end.

Moses, Crow’s main character, decides that he is going to teach his grandmother, Boo Nanny, how to read, even though she’s practically blind. His ingenious solution is to use cut-out letters from headlines from The Daily Record, his father’s newspaper. How did you come up with that idea?

I knew at the beginning of the novel that Moses wasn’t interested in politics and didn’t like to read his father’s newspaper. I also knew that Boo Nanny had never learned to read and was practically blind. So I came up with the idea of having Moses cut out letters of the alphabet from old newspapers. In doing so, he stumbles on the editorial by the Record’s editor that stirred up white fears of Negro domination. I also wanted to play with the idea that Boo Nanny, who is illiterate but street smart, immediately grasps the impact the editorial has, while Moses, who can read every word, does not.

There are many catch-in-the-throat moments in Crow. My favorite involves pumpkin-colored shoelaces, which demonstrate that hope lives among the young. Moses and his sometime nemesis and white friend, Tommy, have a complicated relationship, which they refuse to give up on, despite their racial and socioeconomic differences.

Most of the moments of Tommy and Moses’ friendship happen when they are isolated from society. This is really the only way that a black and a white boy could develop a friendship at the end of the 19th century in the South. Left to their own devices, they react to one another as human beings, and color doesn’t matter.

I was a little nervous when the Negro Siamese twins, Millie-Christine, were first introduced to readers, but I found nothing but respect for them in your story and their audiences, historically. Why did you decide to include them in the narrative?

Prejudice is something that occurs within races as well as across racial lines. It happens when we view a person not as someone like us, with wishes, hopes, and dreams, but as “other.” Moses initially thinks of the conjoined twins Millie-Christine as freaks, but when he hears them perform and sees how touched his mother is by their singing, he comes to respect their talent.

I shared Moses’ interest in the schooners in the harbor from countries all over the world. Did you examine ships’ logs and records of commerce to get an authentic picture of what he’d be seeing on the docks? And how about Boo Nanny’s herbal remedies, which she uses to treat everything from cramps to bayonet wounds?

Wilmington is a town that values its history and has worked hard to preserve it. The place where the newspaper was located is a vacant lot, but many of the buildings mentioned in the novel exist today. The port, of course, is very different. I relied on historical photos and etchings of big-masted schooners being loaded with cotton. The ships had the names of their home ports on their sterns: Havre, France; Reval, Russia; Bremen, Germany; and Liverpool, England. A late 19th-century photo of the Wilmington wharf can be found on my website under CROW, and Photos.

I didn’t research the exact nature of Boo Nanny’s potions. I only knew that, as a slave, she didn’t have access to doctors and had to depend on the plants she found in the forest. These were the remedies she trusted.

Moses goes from being a boy to the man of the house in just 200 pages or so. His willingness to reflect on his own actions, as he grows, helps readers experience his rapidly changing life. I read the entire story in one hungry big gulp. Any further plans to write about Moses and his family ?

During the course of writing the novel, I became very attached to Moses, and I needed to know that he would be all right, going into his later teenage and adult years at the height of the Jim Crow South. Despite all of the unimaginably horrible things that happen in the novel, I tried to end on a note of hope. I don’t know for sure exactly what will happen to Moses, and I have no plans to write anything more about him, but I feel certain that he will be OK, because of strong family ties and the strength of his character.