When Lorena Leland awakened October 29, 1929, she was full of excitement about the day ahead. It was her sixteenth birthday and along with it came the dreams she had for an exciting life as a writer. Born into a successful Nashville family whose father was a banker, she imagined herself at the grand party to be held at a hall in the city that night, but her life would take a sharp unexpected turn that she could never have anticipated.
By mid-afternoon news of the stock market crash in New York City was the center of conversation, but Lorena paid little heed to the news because they lived in Nashville and certainly it would not impact them the way it was hitting so many in the northern city so many miles away. When the telephone rang and her mother answered it, it was evident to everyone in the house that their expectations were not what would happen. Her mother’s screams foretold the truth – the head of the household and bank of this prominent family was calling to share the bank notes had collapsed and they had lost everything. What that would mean and how each person would respond unfolds in the pages of Michelle Shocklee’s 2020 novel, Under the Tulip Tree.
The measure of our character and the evidence of our values is never more exposed than when we are hit with a crisis of incredible proportions. What we have relied on and trusted in is revealed, at least to others whether we see it at the outset or not. For some, the choices made will result in a path forward marred with more despair and hopeless attempts to soothe the pain. For others, unexpected changes in the course of their lives will uncover parts of their stories, their histories, they never knew, and, in those discoveries, they may discover the hand of God at work even though they have no strong faith in Him.
The dreams of being a writer and working for the leading newspaper in Nashville look like an opportunity to make some money, but Lorena discovers that her father’s reputation has been so tarnished that the connection she had with that paper is lost to her. The weight of how far-reaching the crisis is hits Lorena with a powerful blow, but then she is told about a possibility she did not want to consider. The WPA has a Federal Writer’s Project and her contact at the newspaper agrees to give her a recommendation to be considered. It’s a far cry from what Lorena dreamed of and far from prestigious, but the financial collapse the family is facing gives her courage to consider it.
When she learns she will be hired and what the assignment entails, Lorena (Rena) is uncertain about whether she can or wants to go forward. Her mother’s disgust and discouragement for Lorena to do this adds to the drama. She fears the family reputation will be tarnished further.
What is the assignment?
President Roosevelt has created the program to ask writers to interview former slaves to learn more about what their lives had been like prior to the Civil War, as well as during and after it. It would mean going into parts of Nashville (Hell’s Half Acre) Lorena had never seen nor experienced to interview a list of persons given to her and then writing up their stories. Segregation was the rule of the time and though the family had always had some servants to work for them, Lorena had no experience beyond what she had learned in school about what she was about to hear.
The first name on the list is a 101-year-old woman, Frankie Washington. What happens when Lorena and Frankie meet results in unforeseen impacts on the lives of everyone in this powerful story exposing betrayal and redemption that no one saw coming.
This is a novel which you ought not to miss or dismiss simply because it is a novel. The WPA Federal Writer’s Project existed, and Michelle Shocklee has read many of the stories and her work in this book reflects words anyone can glean from regarding the impact of an unexpected crisis, how hatred can destroy lives, and that prejudice and bias can be birthed in any one of us no matter our culture or socio-economic status.