A Love Story Lost in Legend

Writing her new novel, Nowhere Else on Earth, involved bearing witness to a life lived on the margins of mainstream white America more than a century ago.

In 1962, a year before she entered Duke as a freshman, Josephine Humphreys ’67 boarded a train in her hometown of Charleston, South Carolina, bound to visit a boyfriend in Providence, Rhode Island. At seventeen, she had recently made her social debut and was completing her studies at Ashley Hall, an exclusive and then all-white prep school for girls, where, says the school’s current website, “stretching your mind includes learning to shine.”
The train headed up the coastal plain of South Carolina, crossing the blackwater swamps of the Pee Dee River basin into North Carolina, stopping briefly in Lumberton, the seat of Robeson County, which by some accounts was then, and is now, the most racially diverse rural county in the nation. There a young bride in a sundress and the groom in his sailor’s uniform boarded the car Jo Humphreys was riding.
To Humphreys’ surprise, the bride sat in the open seat next to her, leaving her new husband to find a place elsewhere on the train. The bride, says Humphreys, “was breathtakingly beautiful. She looked like Liz Taylor—the Elizabeth Taylor of National Velvet, not Cleopatra.” The young woman explained that she and her husband were on their way to visit his parents for the first time, and they had been quarreling. She was certain the in-laws would not approve of her.
“Why not?” Humphreys asked.
“Because I’m not white. I’m Lumbee.”

Humphreys had no idea what the young woman meant, but would soon find out. She spent the rest of the trip hearing about the Lumbees—the largest Indian tribe east of the Mississippi—and their legendary folk hero, Henry Berry Lowrie and his wife, Rhoda. “I thought it was the most fascinating story I’d ever heard,” says Humphreys.
Fast-forward thirty-eight years to October 2000. Humphreys is in the Rare Book Room of Perkins Library to read from her new novel, Nowhere Else on Earth, released last August by Viking.
She’s returned to campus many times to participate in panels and readings since the publication of her first novel, Dreams of Sleep, the story of a well-heeled Charleston couple’s troubled marriage; it won the 1985 PEN/Hemingway Award for a first work of fiction. Her second novel, Rich In Love, an unconventional coming-of-age story also set in Charleston, followed two years later and was made into a movie starring Albert Finney and Jill Clayburgh. In 1991, Humphreys’ third novel, Fireman’s Fair, covered the midlife crisis of a Charleston divorce lawyer who is upended by Hurricane Hugo.
In the ensuing decade, Humphreys has been silent, except for her role as midwife to the remarkable memoir of a young African-American woman from Hungry Neck, South Carolina, near Charleston, who sought Humphreys’ assistance in telling the story of her childhood abuse, drug use, and eventual recovery. Humphreys taped and then transcribed the story as it was told to her. As she writes in the introduction to Gal: A True Life by Ruthie Bolton, “I was only a witness and secretary, while Ruthie was in it, seeing it, making it happen again.”
Without mentioning that experience and how it might have shaped her new book, Humphreys explains to her Duke audience that Nowhere Else on Earth involved bearing witness and serving, at times, as a kind of recording secretary to another life quite removed from her elite Charleston upbringing, a life lived on the margins of mainstream, white America well over a century ago. And, she tells us, this fourth novel is, in fact, the book that she became a writer in order to write. It is the 1860s love story of the Lumbee Indian couple, Rhoda Strong and Henry Berry Lowrie.
While the tale she first heard on that train has tugged at her all these years, it took tremendous courage, skill, and decades of research to complete the novel. Humphreys says it is a book that she could not have written any sooner. And already some reviewers have questioned her success with the material.
Writing for The New York Times, Michael Upchurch, an occasional novelist whose own works have lapsed into obscurity, fired the first volley: “Humphreys has ventured in such an unexpected direction and struck such an unlikely note of homespun earnestness that Fireman’s Fair fanatics may find themselves reeling in confusion, wondering what’s going on.”
What’s going on is that Humphreys has not only taken on a legendary love story that has been much embroidered by Native-American oral tradition, but she has also ventured into an area of North Carolina history fraught with controversy. She knew her work would be scrutinized from all quarters —literary, historical, and cultural. “I know I got some things wrong, and I will be corrected,” she says with characteristic humility.
Since the early 1800s, U.S. government officials have questioned the authenticity of the Lumbees’ claim to tribal status because of the absence of a distinctive Native-American language or definitive tribal customs among them. Some anthropologists and the Lumbees themselves have speculated that they are actually the racially-mixed descendants of the Lost Colony—the 122 English settlers sponsored by Sir Walter Raleigh who disappeared from North Carolina’s Roanoke Island in 1590.
Although the Lumbee established the nation’s first state-supported institution of higher education for Native Americans in Pembroke, North Carolina, in 1887, it was as late as 1934 when the Bureau of Indian Affairs sent a pair of anthropologists to Robeson County to determine the authenticity of the tribe. According to Lumbee scholar and filmmaker Melinda Maynor, they performed blood tests and a humiliating exercise known as the pencil test.
“A pencil was slipped into a subject’s hair,” Maynor writes. “If the pencil stayed after mild to vigorous shaking of the head, the subject’s hair was deemed too tight or ‘non-Indian.’ If the pencil fell, it was understood to have fallen out of real Indian hair.” From the 200-some Lumbee individuals tested in 1934, only twenty-two were categorized as Indians. Finally, in 1956, the U.S. Congress passed a bill recognizing the Lumbees as Native Americans, but they continue to be denied federally recognized tribal status.
Add to this long and bitter dispute the fact that Humphreys has chosen to write from the point of view of a Lumbee woman. A number of white writers have recently been discouraged from attempting to market fiction written from the primary perspective of a character of a race or ethnicity different from the author. Some New York agents and editors have shied away from representing or publishing such works.
“It’s an important question whether it’s proper or allowable for a white writer to take on the story of a nonwhite person,” Humphreys tells her Duke audience. “My first answer was, ‘No, I can’t write this. It’s not right.’ ” She shakes her head. To work up the nerve necessary to the task, Humphreys told herself she would go ahead and write the book but wouldn’t publish it.
During her research in the mid-Eighties, Humphreys went to visit the distinguished Lumbee educator and historian Adolph L. Dial, then chair of Native-American studies at Pembroke State University (now the University of North Carolina at Pembroke.) “I was nervous when I told him what I wanted to do,” she says. “After a long moment, he finally said, ‘I think you should write this book,’ and then he paused again. I thought he was going to say, ‘because it needs to be written,’ but instead he smiled and said, ‘because you will learn a lot by doing it.’”
Humphreys learned more than she anticipated. “I knew I didn’t know enough about the Reconstruction,” she says, “but then to understand that, I had to go back to the Civil War, and that led me to the Antebellum period, then the Revolution, and then the Colonial period. My husband and children thought I was never going to finish.” The family was so engaged in her project that one of her sons, now grown, actually wrote a school paper about Henry Berry Lowrie before his mother finished her own manuscript.

  Nowhere Else on Earth provides a vivid account of the waning years of the Civil War and after, when roving bands of Confederate Home Guard are as much a threat to the Indians in Robeson County as Sherman’s troops who passed through and torched the local turpentine distilleries, the region’s most profitable enterprise. To avoid becoming forced labor in Confederate fortifications on the coast, a group of young men from the village of Scuffletown (near Lumberton) hide out together in the swampy backwaters of the Lumber River by day and pilfer supplies from wealthy families at night. They redistribute their spoils to poorer locals—black, white, and Indian alike—who are on the verge of starvation. 
Rhoda Strong, the fifteen-year-old daughter of an outspoken Lumbee woman and a rowdy Scotsman, is holed up with her parents and two brothers in the family cabin, hiding from the Home Guard and eager for the surprise visits of this guerilla gang and its infamous leader, Henry Berry Lowrie. Fulfilling her mother’s worst fear, Rhoda falls in love with Henry and, despite the warrants for his arrest and the poverty of the times, the couple is married at a huge public feast. The party, however, is cut short when Henry is carried off to jail. Rhoda plots and executes his escape, and Henry Berry Lowrie resumes his Robin Hood campaign. When the war finally ends, however, the violence escalates. Lowrie’s father and brother are murdered, execution-style, over the matter of a few missing pigs. Then the local sheriff is robbed and murdered, and Henry Berry Lowrie is declared an outlaw with a $20,000 reward for his capture, dead or alive. 
Local myth and speculation have long surrounded Lowrie’s disappearance in 1872. Some newspapers reported his suicide, others said he was killed by his brother. Later, some locals testified to having seen and touched him—Messiah-like—when he returned to make clandestine visits to Rhoda and his children. 
Humphreys’ narrator, while leaving some details ambiguous, suggests, once and for all, that Henry lived. “He did survive,” Humphreys tells the Duke audience. “He survives today. I consider him a genuine hero. Even people whose ancestors were killed by Henry Lowrie have a fascination with him.” 
Praise from Lumbee readers has been effusive, says Donna Chavis, a longtime Lumbee activist and executive director of Native Americans in Philanthropy, a nonprofit foundation in Robeson County. At a reading in Raleigh, Rhoda Strong Lowrie’s great granddaughter showed up to thank Humphreys for the book. Kelly Stultz, the assistant manager at the only general-interest bookstore in Lumberton, reports that they haven’t been able to keep the book in the store. “We’ve heard nothing but very high remarks,” she says. “Native people have told me they are impressed with her accuracy.” Humphreys has also had phone calls from white residents in Lumberton and nearby Red Springs who have been intrigued and pleased with the book. 
Perhaps no one has been more supportive than Humphreys’ longtime friend Louise Maynor, associate professor of English at North Carolina Central University in Durham, to whom the book is dedicated. Several of Maynor’s Lumbee ancestors play a role in the novel, most notably Henderson Oxendine, a member of the Lowrie gang who was hanged for a murder he did not commit. “Jo has brought them all back to life,” Maynor says. “This is not just fiction to me, but reality.” 
Reviewers at least agree that Humphreys’ skill as a narrative stylist has never been stronger and are unanimous in their praise of her descriptions of the swampland:

…the shallow egg-shaped basins landlocked and still, scattered northwesterly as if a clutch of stars had been flung aslant in one careless toss from heaven, leaving bays that sometimes filled with rain and sometimes dried in the sun, growing gums and poplars and one tiny bright green plant found nowhere else on earth, the toothed and alluring Venus flytrap.

  Such lyrical descriptions from a first-person narrator could strain the book’s credibility, but Humphreys grew more confident when she came upon a batch of letters written in the 1900s by Lumbee women working in turpentine camps—letters rife with poor spelling but rich in prose. She knew she had finally found the right voice for Rhoda, one that propelled her through the manuscript. (Only one interview exists with the real Rhoda Lowrie, in a nineteenth-century edition of The New York Tribune.) “I tried to be led by Rhoda’s spirit as well as I could know it,” Humphreys says. And at times she felt as if she were “channeling” Rhoda’s voice, letting her tell her own story:

I was a sprawly girl, I liked stretching myself against anything low and solid, the floor or the oldfield meadow or the sandbank that curves in the river’s elbow. I could sometimes be found laid out like a corpse in my own back yard, except I’d be face down, hugging the world. I got my best thoughts that way, pulling them up from somewhere deep.

It is the abiding mystery and delight of fiction writing that allows the author to pull up a character from somewhere deep, “casting us into the life that is not ours,” as Humphreys puts it. In the best literature, this vicarious experience extends, in turn, to readers, enhancing our capacity for compassion and understanding across lines of gender, age, race, and culture. This experience of moving dramatically away from her own privileged background has meant the most to Humphreys. She told BookPage Online writer Michael Sims, “My thinking about race has changed. My ideas about community identity and racial identity have changed, about the fate of Native Americans, these all have changed.” 
Ironically, while she might have been skewered for “appropriating” a story that some would argue is not hers to tell, The New York Times suggests that Humphreys has gone overboard in favoring the Indian perspective. “There is something undilutedly partisan at work here,” the reviewer writes, going on to suggest that Humphreys “lets the reader see only what Rhoda sees.”
But a singularity of vision is the very definition of the first-person point-of-view, and most readers understand that every first-person narrator is unreliable to some degree or another. “Every act of or work of fiction is the act of imagining yourself into someone else’s shoes,” says Humphreys. “That’s what fiction does. That’s what fiction gives.” 
Stepping into Rhoda Lowrie’s shoes has changed Humphreys’ direction as a writer. Now more than ever, she is interested in writing about the South and has already begun another historical novel. “I hope it won’t take another ten years!” she says with a laugh. 
Yet, Humphreys’ nearly forty-year “obsession”—as she names it—with Henry Berry and Rhoda Strong Lowrie goes on. In the middle of her Rare Book Room reading, she startles the audience by suddenly stopping mid-sentence, ambushed by emotion. Her throat seems to close and her eyes fill during the passage about the 1871 hanging of Henderson Oxendine, the relative of N.C.C.U. professor Louise Maynor. 
“In my heart,” Humphreys explains later, “I never did finish this book. I always wanted to write more about these characters. The story continues in the lives of their descendants.” 

Eubanks ’76, director of the Duke Writers’ Workshop, is teaching this spring in the creative writing program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Humphreys has not only taken on a legendary love story that has been much embroidered by Native-American oral tradition, but she has also ventured into an area of North Carolina history fraught with controversy.

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