I’ve been really lucky this week in that I had the opportunity to go home to North Carolina for a little while and visit my family, who I miss a lot! It’s been a great few days so far.
My mom, the biggest fan of the novel even from the time my grandfather was writing it, helped me to fill in a lot of gaps in my knowledge of my grandfather’s life (complete with a free 30-day trial at ancestry.com). She explained a lot of the circumstances surrounding his brother Claxton’s death that I never knew. Claxton died when he was just 20 from a blood infection, a complication of an injury he sustained from jumping a train into the next town. What I didn’t fully understand is that jumping trains would have been the only affordable way for young people to make it out of the town to find work, which is what Claxton was doing. I also didn’t realize the degree to which his death divided the family. My grandfather’s mother felt that it was her husband’s fault for not earning the family enough money and therefore leading Claxton to do something desperate and reckless in search of an income.
I’ve been thinking that maybe the most notable part of this family history is the degree to which the book differs from it. The older brother, who is named Daniel in the book, dies a hero in WWII, a death that, although painful, both his parents take pride in. It’s an idealistic version of the real scenario, in which his brother’s death means something, and neither of his parents resents the other. Moving forward, I’ve wondered whether it’s more important to honor my grandfather’s wishes, and keep the novel plot as is, or whether I should alter the plot to be based more clearly on what really happened. In all honesty, I find the real story–the story of the train, the infection, and the money–to be more interesting, and I think it would make a fantastic novel plot. But I’m afraid that by changing the story, I would lose what it meant to him.