So, I take setting extremely seriously. Those who have read my other novels, know that I reply upon the setting to help inform the work. So, when I set out to write this new novel, I knew that it would take place in Houston, and also that, for the most part, the events of the story would occur along the shores of the Buffalo Bayou, which serves as the arterial heartbeat of the city.
But just because I grew up in Houston didn’t mean that I knew all that much about it. It’s funny, isn’t it, that we tend to overlook our own habitations when it comes to discovering their histories. At least that’s been my experience. So, the first thing I did was begin studying the bayou. Luckily, there’s a person who has spent a huge amount of time assembling the history of the bayou itself, and in that history lies the story of Houston. His name is Louis Aulbach. He wrote this amazing book.
Years ago—who knows how many—I stumbled across a small post on-line that Mr. Aulbach had written about the story of a woman named Sylvia Routh, who lived in Houston in the early years of the Republic of Texas—pre-Civil War. She was enslaved and brought to Galveston by a ship’s captain, John Routh. Together they had six children, and upon his death, her freed her, and also gave her a large tract of property in what is now downtown Houston. The history of Sylvia Routh is still murky at best. There is some evidence that she built a brick-lined basement underneath her home, which was situated along a deep gulley, and that served as a post for the southern underground railroad.
You heard me—a southern underground railroad. Surprise!
I have so much more I want to tell you about that, but for now, I want to concentrate upon Sylvia. When I first read about her, what struck me the most, in a way that filled me with horror, was this: even though Captain Routh set Sylvia “free” upon his death, he didn’t do the same for his young daughters. Instead, he put them in the guardianship of one of his colleagues, a notorious slaveholder, until they turned twenty-one. I have never been able to find out what happened to those girls, and for all these years, their lost stories have haunted me. But as a mother, it was Sylvia who haunted me the most.
How, I wondered, could a mother be free if her small children weren’t?
That’s when I began to write my character, Achsah. Keep in mind, Achsah is not Sylvia. The latter was a very complex woman, and there is so much more to her story and the story of Texas itself.
No, my character is not Sylvia. She is Achsah, a young woman, born into slavery, horribly used and abused by a much older master. When he died, like Sylvia, she was set free, but her children weren’t. Two little girls. I asked myself, what would I do? And the answer that kept arising for me was: grab their hands and run!
There is more to come, my homies. Stay tuned.