When my lovely niece Shawna first got hold of this collection of old, musty, crumbling documents, she wasn’t aware of all the work ahead of her. How do you turn hard-to-read, hand-written, poorly spelled documents with even worse grammar into readable stores for the modern taste? A tall task for anyone, indeed.
She first enlisted several of her writer friends to take a stab at it. They ended up reading like a romance novel or a devotional or some other version of modern, contemporary, popular literature. None were to her liking. Good for her!
But then it came to a decision; should she just forget about trying to bring Mattie Mae’s life to the modern world or try one more time with another author. But who would take on such a task. In a last ditched effort, she scrapped the bottom of the barrel and called me, her uncle Larry.
Now, I would do just about anything my little sweetie would ask me, but this one was a big bite of a hard chew. I am an Educator who has some training in the study of History; what did I know about ghost writing an historical female autobiography? But then I got to thinking. Maybe it wasn’t that much of a stretch after all. In History you simply clean up what is already there, place the content within its own context and try very hard not to make any changes to the original intent of the author. Okay. That sounds a lot like what Shawna was asking me to do.
So, I told her I would take a stab at it and began reading the hardly legible, hand-written documents. That’s when I quickly learned what Shawna had discovered. These were really exciting accounts of an equally exciting time in American history. After wading through dozens of these documents, I started to see the story-line in Mattie Mae’s writing, or rather story lines. After a while I found what appeared to be some of the documents that recorded some her earliest adventures. I say “recorded” because her style would fit right in with an objective account of any event in History. If a student brought one of these stories to me I would have told them to put more of themselves in the story and not leave it so sterile. But, alas, I couldn’t do that with poor Mattie Mae. She had a real intelligence that saw things as if watching it from afar, or from a window or through a peep-hole. Today she might have been diagnosed with some kind of psychological disorder, just like most of us could. But I think her particular genius is in seeing everything as close to what it actually was in that particular time and place. In a word; she was doing History.
But the extraordinary events that surrounded her makes these accounts even more remarkable. When she needed others, just the right people would be there. That is no mere coincidence. Mattie Mae’ life took on an equally extraordinary trajectory and shows what can be possible with any life that is blessed with the right people and the right opportunities.
And then there are the later “letters” that I just stumbled upon. These are much better written but still have that native sound of a person who knows themselves but is still discovering life. These have a more mature flavor yet still rely on that simple, forthrightness that is so rare today.
Another thing, you will notice I have forgone the convention of trying to be colloquial as I have used complete words instead of all those shortened words that supposedly add “color” but instead makes everyone sound ignorant of proper English. Maybe they are, or were, but I don’t intend to judge them on their lack of formal education. Instead, I believe it’s up to me to put them in the best light and for you to fill in any “color.”
P.S. I warned Shawna that some of these adventures are a bit rough, even when I did my best to make them less graphic. After reading some back-history, I found that the events that Miss Mattie Mae told would not have been uncommon for a young girl in those times. The original account was far too explicit for me to relate to anyone other than a fellow historian or sociologist; definitely not to a young person. I hope I have been sensitive enough to all my objectives so as to not traumatize anyone. I also told her that these may be the last accounts of Mattie Mae that she would ever publish. I just didn’t see this type of literature as being very popular with today’s readers. There are so few readers anyway and they want more modern fair, definitely not the kind that makes even me cringe with its grittiness.
But we will see.