I don’t recall exactly how I learned that a school friend from years ago had written a novel, but I was immediately intrigued enough to look into it. A novel! That’s real writing, integrating creative imagination with the real world. I admire that ability.
The book had a title that gave me pause — The First Year It Sleeps — what in the world could that be about? My interest was piqued even more when I saw that the setting was a place very familiar to me, in the real world, and the time period was — Hey! Omigosh that’s when I was a kid! I had to read this book.
Well, I read it, and I was enticed page after page to keep going for one familiar clue after another as to exactly where this or that happened, and was this or that piece of the puzzle real or was it part of the fictional story. That kept my nose in the book. I remembered how our parents worried about polio in the 1950s, and maybe we even knew a kid with it. I remembered the freedom of speeding recklessly on a bike, of conspiring with friends to go sneak into some forbidden place or get lost in the woods, to get creepy-scared in an eerie cemetery, to have secrets, to have a friend move away, forever! To learn about bullying one way or another, or to be put in fear of your life by a grownup. There was the teacher with the odd mannerisms, the nuns with their stern ways. To take a dare to go up to some old spooky place — say, an abandoned manor house — where a mysterious old recluse lives, and, what now, ring the bell and run? Sneak inside? Hide there overnight knowing there must be ghosts? Boo! Dare ya! Turns out it wasn’t just my neighborhood and my time; it was the story of everybody whose childhood included being able to play, run, laugh, and cry.
I wrote a review about the book on Amazon.
The First Year It Sleeps by Brenda Gibrall
I was drawn into the story initially because it was about the time and place where I grew up. So many of the place descriptions took on special meaning because I had lived in them. I marveled, despite that would-be advantage, at the detail and vividness that came through. If I had been a stranger to the place I would have seen it just as fully through the author’s skillful descriptions.
The story brought me back in time as well, not just place, seeing the world through the eyes of a group of play-friends as they learn about life. The differences between the several families, the sometimes-furtive outings and dares, the secrets, the kid stuff. Learning grownup stuff too, overcoming segregation and revealing insights on Southern race relations of the time, in touching perspective. A mysterious death, some classic kid detective work, what more could a story need?
There’s more to the story.
Not long after reading the book, I had occasion to visit my old home town. Before leaving Colorado for Richmond, I contacted the author to check out some of the clues I had found, to see if my guesses were correct on the places and some of the characters in the story. I asked if the spooky old manor house was real, or if she had built it from research and imagination. It was real. Not really abandoned and spooky — that was literary license — but it was a real house. Not only that, but it was built around 1780. 1780! And it’s still there! And it’s a ten-minute walk from the house where I lived as a child! Lots of things in Virginia are old, but I had no idea of anything like that.
My curiosity was engaged to the extent that on that visit to Richmond I went to see the place. Mr. Vernon Creekmore owns it now. He lives there and runs a high-end, by-appointment antique business from the house. He is not a descendant of earlier owners, but he is a fine historian of the place. He was at home when I stopped by, and he graciously invited me in to learn about the history of the house and its former very large estate. It had been a horse farm, and had a racetrack located where the McGuire VA Hospital is now. That hospital was across an open field from my old home.
The first of my McDonald forebears to settle in Virginia were my great grandparents Archibald MacDonald and his bride-to-be Margaret McDonnell, arriving well after the Civil War. Archer and Margaret were married in Richmond in 1881. He was a farmer, raising strawberries and asparagus. Archer’s land was divided among his children when he died, and then some of those divided to theirs. As I learned from what Mr. Creekmore described, my great-grandpa’s farm was within the area formerly included in this estate. The farm and its racetrack were called Broad Rock.
The land was adjacent to the land of Col. Robert Byrd II (big name in Virginia). The house was built by Col. Archibald Cary though he had an estate in Buckingham County and may not have lived at Broad Rock, or not for long. It was built around 1780-1790 as shown by the kind of nails used, according to Creekmore. Maj. Ball, a supplier for the Revolutionary War, bought it and it was during his tenure that the horse racing was at its apex in the late 1700s.
Broad Rock Racetrack was one of three racetracks in the Richmond area. Virginia was big in early horse racing, and Ball was big in horse racing. Around 1780-99 a famous race horse was brought over from England, Diomed. He sired Ball’s Florizel, famous for his bad temper; William Ball owned the horse and he was so fast and so mean that no one wanted to race him. He went to stud at an early age. Also famous in the line: Turpin’s Florizel, Sir Archy. Horse-racing fortunes were made and lost, and this line went on from Virginia, leading into the world-class Kentucky racing culture.
Now, I don’t know anything about race horses or horse racing, except I bet $2 on a horse once and decided it’s not my path to riches. Nor do I know about those Revolutionary War era Colonels and Majors, but still, it was fascinating to connect with that history of the place where I played tag with cousins and learned to ride a bike. Colonel Cary, the one who had the house built, was a member of the Virginia House of Burgesses for Goochland, 1748; Justice for Chesterfield, 1750; Burgess 1758-74; of Committee of Safety, 1774-76; of Colonial Committee of Correspondence of all the Revolutionary Conventions & Speaker of the State Senate from 1776 until his death.1 He married Mary Randolph, daughter of Col. Richard & Jane (Bolling) Randolph, of “Curles.” She is an ancestor cousin of mine, daughter of Jane Bolling whose sister was my 6th great-grandmother Martha Bolling. Then later, among the owners of that house, Ball married Bettsy Cheatham. She was another distant cousin, and the Cheatham family was the family that owned the land when part of it was taken by the Government after WWII for that VA hospital.
I am reminded of a moment I wrote about in A Breeze in Bulgaria.
I passed by a monument in the center of town, “The Column.” I stopped for a moment to try to read it. It was written in an archaic version of the alphabet…. It was something about the Turks…. Seeing me peering at it, an older man stopped alongside me and looked at it too, probably for the first time as it often happens with things we take for granted.
I was surprised when he turned to me and said, “Istoria.”
I said, “Da, istoria, interesno.”
He replied, “Sega e po-dobre.”
Now is better. 2
Now is better.
Think about it. The Good Old Days, our glorious history. Do we long for a return to those old times? We have it tough now? Life was better, simpler, easier? The American presence on this continent started with freezing and starvation. The Revolutionary War, with Patriot and Loyalist neighbors attacking and killing each other even before it turned into a war between armies. Slavery. The Trail of Tears. The Civil War. Reconstruction. Starvation. Trench warfare in The War to End All Wars. Prohibition. Gangster murders. The Dust Bowl. World War II. OK, how about the 50s, all OK, right? Sure, if you were white and middle class or a factory owner. Civil Rights violence in the 60s. I’ll let it go at that; work your own way through the 70s and up to now.
Now is better.
- Archibald Cary biography at familysearch.org (account registration required; go ahead and register. It’s free, and you can start researching your family.)
- A Breeze in Bulgaria, p. 162