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The Tribal Knot

Rebecca'a newest nonfiction book, The Tribal Knot: A Memoir of Family, Community, and a Century of Change is now available from Indiana University Press and Amazon.

Tribal Knot

(from Chapter 12 - 1920s Indiana KKK)

            ….The second event, concurrent with my reading of the first box of family letters, was my discovery of Kathleen M. Blee's Women of the Klan: Racism and Render in the 1920s. Although Blee’s book is a scholarly text, complete with statistics and tables, it held my attention as few novels have. From the first chapter on, I felt as if a door were creaking open just out of my view, shedding thin strips of light across the page. This was all news to me. Until this time, my assumptions about the Klan were based on my limited knowledge of the original KKK of the Reconstruction era and its reincarnation during the Civil Rights era, both movements fueled by white supremacists employing violence and terrorism to accomplish their goals. And though I knew that various women's auxiliaries had been connected to the Klan, I'd always assumed that their members were southern women working alongside Klansmen, and that their primary focus was intimidation of blacks.
            I had no idea that a radically different Klan had flourished throughout the United States during the 1920s, and that an estimated five million people all over the country joined its ranks. Nor did I know that between 1922 and 1925, Indiana was the center of the Klan's power, its state membership estimated at between one-quarter and one-third of Indiana's native-born white men; for some communities, estimates run as high as forty or fifty percent. But what surprised me most was how strongly involved Indiana women were in the Women of the Ku Klux Klan. With each page I turned, scenes appeared in my peripheral vision, scenes drawn from Aunt Barbara's recollection of masked images, from conversations I'd overheard between my grandparents, and from the bare facts disclosed in Blee's book. My mind was spinning with possibilities: Could it be? If so, what difference did it make now? Let the dead Past bury its dead, as Grandma Sylvia, quoting Longfellow, had written in her letters. Let it go.
            The third event occurred during a visit to my parents' home in the winter of 1993. I had recently begun an extended writing residency at an Ohio university a few hours' drive from my parents' home in West Lafayette, Indiana. Located between the university and their home is the National Archives of Ball State University, which houses original documents and ephemera of the WKKK: photographs of rallies and parades, catalogs of the group's paraphernalia, newspaper articles, pamphlets, and other Klan-related items. Since I had been unable to let the dead Past bury its dead, I used my residency breaks to stop at the Ball State archives on my journey over Indiana country roads on my way to West Lafayette. As a child visiting the family homesteads, I had traveled many roads like these. But it had almost always been summer, the landscape open and inviting: white farmhouses, freshly painted barns, blue skies, fields green with soybeans and shoulder-high corn.
            Now, the fields were brown with stubble. The leaden sky hung low, making the farmhouses appear small and forlorn, fairly screaming with loneliness, as my grandmother had written. Not even the smoke rising from the chimneys could warm the view. As I drove, scenes from Blee's book flickered at the edges of thought, until, by the time I crossed the Tippecanoe County line, the thousands of faceless Indiana women that Blee had described--white, Protestant, native-born, middle-class farmers and shopkeepers and teachers--were as present to me as the farm women alive in my childhood memories. Women who patted my head and smiled at my achievements, who sat up late with dying friends, who sacrificed time and money for those in need. Women who huddled around quilting frames, who shared the potluck of their gardens' bounty--squash casseroles, pickled beets, new potatoes drenched in butter. With each mile, I felt I was driving not only from east to west but from summer into winter, from present into past, from light into dark. Is it possible, I wondered, steering the car into my parents' driveway, that behind the shield of lap quilts and the fan of euchre cards, these women were remnants of the 1920s sorority of "hundred-percenter" Hoosiers? Possible that they held secrets I had never guessed?

(from Chapter 5)

            My great-grandmother Hattie was born in Switzerland County, Indiana, in 1861, less than nine months after her parents were married.
            Within a year, her mother filed for divorce.
            Who was at fault, if fault could answer the mystery, was never the issue with Hattie. Not then, not ever. The issue was her mother's deep and ongoing unhappiness, the "blue devils" that swarmed inside Lucippa's head. Things had not turned out as Lucippa Mead Ray had hoped, though her husband had not been a mean man. And he had given her Hattie, her loved child. Should Lucippa have tried harder, lasted another year with him, and another? The War of Rebellion was on, and two of Lucippa's brothers had gone to fight with the Union, so maybe, Lucippa reasoned, that was why the months of marriage had felt like years, decades. Lucippa had thought, had hoped . . . but that was another story, another life. But oh, how she had missed her little brothers. Henry was twenty, Edwin barely nineteen. Still a boy. Nothing to his name but his horse.
            And now, the horse too: gone.
            Yes, Lucippa, I think as I retrieve yet another army pension document from the file box, eager to trace the connections. Yes, Edwin's horse is gone. And the boy who once rode the horse along the river road by the old home place: gone. Your mother is gone, too, Lucippa, but you know that already. She has been gone a long, long time. But you have a little girl, Harriet Zarader, named for the lost ones: Harriet, for your dead mother. Zarader, for a dead aunt. Hattie is a lovely little girl. But you know that already, don't you, Lucippa?
            How much Lucippa's mind could hold is one of the mysteries of those years. The facts, though, are a matter of record. One year after he'd sold his horse for seventy dollars, leaving forty dollars with his father to pay the family's tax bill, Lucippa's little brother came home to the Ohio River house to die: Diarrheoea chronica. Not the most honorable way to die in the Civil War, perhaps, but definitely the most common. Edwin lasted a few days, and was buried "at my own expense," D. C. Mead would later write, as if it were notable for a father to pay for a son's burial.
            Most likely, Lucippa brought her two-year-old daughter with her to the burial, for there would have been no one else to care for Hattie. Lucippa's first divorce was final by then. Alone, she was waiting out the war, praying for the safe return of Brother Henry, trying to keep little Hattie fed and clothed, and battling the blue devils that swarmed her mind no matter how hard she tried to swat them away. Staying at her father's home would have eased Lucippa's money problems, but she couldn't bring Hattie into that mess of trouble, the battles between D. C. Mead and his new wife having escalated into violence. What Hattie will remember of these years is loneliness and fear and unrelenting hunger. Just the two of them, she and her mother. Sometimes it seemed to Hattie that the "darkies" living in the sharecroppers' cabin were the closest thing to family that she knew.

Know all men by these presents that I, Lucippa Frazier, being of sound mind but feeble in body and being desirous of making my sole property a gift to my child, Harriet Ray, do hereby, for and in consideration of maternal affection, give, grant & convey to Dewitt C. Mead, my father, in trust for the said Harriet Ray, all my property, and request that he will use the same for her good. I further request that he shall act as executor of this my last will and testament and shall act as the guardian of my child Harriet Ray.
In witness whereof I have hereunto set my hand on this the 2 day of April 1873
Lucippa Frazier

Only the signature is in Lucippa's own hand, and even that appears shaky and labored, as if accomplished with great difficulty on her actual deathbed. Lucippa died shortly thereafter. Hattie was eleven years old. Years later, Hattie would wonder why in the world she had not foreseen it. Silly girl, she should have known, she should have guessed, for it was common in those days for girls to lose their mothers--to diphtheria, cholera, influenza, tuberculosis, in childbirth, or from sheer, brittle exhaustion--before the girls reached puberty. Life was difficult, death swift and intractable, so why not prepare? Hundreds, thousands of girls losing their mothers every year, and the gravediggers barely stopping to look up from their shovels. A whole nation of girls losing their mothers. Common as dirt, these happenings.
            But one girl, alone, is not a whole nation. An eleven-year-old girl with hooded eyes and long, wavy hair and bright gold bobs ornamenting each ear. A girl leaning out a large window, the dark shutters framing her face, a girl gazing out at the river, wishing back the days she can now hardly remember.

The Tribal Knot
More Excerpts from The Tribal Knot
The Tribal Knot
The Tribal Knot