Author takes setting cues from Belle Grove
Belle Grove’s manor house and grounds proved to furnish an image and inspiration for Pittsburg native Douglas Malcolm in regards to his newly released book “The Virginia Valley.”
The book follows Irish indentured servant Aiden Smith, who serves as a blacksmith on the fictional High Meadows plantation beside a host of slaves in the 1840s. Before deciding to write the book, Malcolm’s original focus lay in composing songs about slavery as an unofficial Nashville Songwriters Association International assignment.
“I just felt this incredible desire to learn everything I could about slavery,” he said. “I just wanted to somehow experience this topic firsthand and I was really looking for details and a little bit of inspiration.”
With that in mind, he decided to take the drive down to Belle Grove in the summer of 2009, also stopping by Stonewall Jackson’s Headquarters Museum and the Old Civil War Courthouse Museum in Winchester. At Belle Grove, he set out on a self-guided tour and ventured to the slave burial grounds, where he said he was surprised to see only a few small markers of crumbled limestone and began to sow the seeds of his story.
Belle Grove’s icehouse also left a lasting image in his mind, which later translated to a central setting in “The Virginia Valley” by the main character’s forge. Like Belle Grove’s Hite family, the owners of High Meadows were well connected. But instead of serving as the inspiration for the High Meadows plantation itself, Malcolm said Belle Grove was more a model for the “big place down below” mentioned in the book.
Other helpful resources along the way came as reading recommendations from a college professor, composition suggestions from his editor and interviews with a missionary from Sierra Leone, which lent some background credibility to his witch doctor character and description of African religious practices as a whole.
The title of the book refers to accounts Malcolm had read from slaves coming to the Shenandoah Valley from other parts of the South – and the state – who were looking forward to a better life in the Virginia valley.
Malcolm described a scene where the master of High Meadows, William Cauley, explains to Smith that many plantation owners in the area grow wheat, which doesn’t require the cultivation work involved in growing tobacco and cotton.
“He (Cauley) said there still is abuse of servants in these environs,” he said. “What it’s trying to do is create a balanced look at slavery.”
Malcolm said he wanted to create that “balanced look” by showing the mild treatment of High Meadows slaves in contrast to more brutal and inhuman treatment found in other parts of the South. Malcolm said his desire to create that balance and write in depth about slavery came in part from his experiences during a year spent in Umhlanga in the late 1960s.
“When I was 16 years old, I was sent to South Africa as an exchange student and it was during the heart of apartheid,” he said. “I was familiar with some of the cultural aspects of what slavery was like in the Deep South…but when you see it first hand…it really had an impact on me.”
LightSeeker Media published “The Virginia Valley” on Sept. 30 via Amazon and Malcolm said he said he’s pleased with the positive response thus far. Although he eventually aims to make the story into a trilogy, he’s currently working with a rough outline of the second book. His “writing season” will begin in the winter and he said another visit to Belle Grove and the surrounding area will definitely be in the works for more research and inspiration further down the road.
“I hope to have a second book that takes this group of characters up to the eve of the Civil War and the final book will take them through the Civil War,” he said. “My attraction to and fascination with the Virginia valley is really just in its beginning.”
Contact staff writer Rachel Mahoney at 540-465-5137 ext. 164, or firstname.lastname@example.org