After 128 years, the family secret is out: An impregnated teenager who was forced to work as a prostitute, an assassination, and a cloud of shame that was passed down through generations.
Now Kate Anger, a UC Riverside playwright instructor, has taken those pieces of history and turned them into her first book, a 268-page fiction novel, “The Shinnery.” The book will be released by Bison Books/University of Nebraska Press on September 1.
Anger, ’87, MFA ’04, began imagining this book more than 20 years ago after meeting a distant cousin in Texas who narrated pieces of the story. Seven years ago, Anger began researching newspaper archives and interviewing family members.
“In 1895, my great-great grandfather shot a man dead on the streets of Rayner, Texas. Apparently, the man had ‘seduced’ and impregnated my great-great grandfather's 17-year-old daughter (my great-great aunt) and then forced her to work as a prostitute. My great-great grandfather stood trial for the killing and the region's papers enthusiastically reported on it,” Anger said. “It was such a subject of shame in the family that my own grandmother, who lived to be 93, never knew of it. I became obsessed with the question of how it all went down, this 17-year-old girl from a loving farm family falling into prostitution. As I began writing, it quickly shifted from my great-great grandfather's story to his daughter's.”
That daughter became Jessa Campbell, the book’s main character, who is based on Anger’s great-great aunt, Nettie Fuston. Anger anchored the book on true accounts, building on it by using her playwright and fictional writing skills. The story unfolds in what was once the family homestead, situated on a prairie at the edge of a dense belt of oak shrub known as the shinnery, and the now-abandoned town of Rayner.
What led Anger’s great-great grandfather, R.J. Fuston, to take matters into his own hands and murder the man who dishonored his daughter in 1895? He took the answer to the grave. And this is where Anger’s fiction takes a leap: It was the Wild West and Fuston, known in this novel as J.R. Campbell, had 11 daughters to protect. He was a man who knew laws — and consequences.
The story unfolds as J.R. Campbell sends Jessa out to work to help settle a family debt. For struggling families, it was not uncommon for women to be hired out as domestic help, Anger said.
But as Anger writes, “A better judge of cattle than of men, Jessa becomes entangled with a bad one.”
In “The Shinnery” Anger captures life on the American Frontier and helps redefine the role of a woman in that era. Jessa Campbell went from being a naïve girl, to a woman who found self-worth and inner strength — enough to defend her family farm and to protect her sisters.
In real life, the assassination case was followed by thousands in Texas, many of whom signed a petition pleading mercy on Fuston. Gov. Charles Allen Culberson issued him a pardon in 1896.
Anger still wonders how knowing about this story might have changed her family over generations. Through this novel, she hopes other families will share their own family secrets because speaking truths and acknowledging pasts are ways to eradicate shame.
“To me, it’s just about the resilience of the human spirit and our capacity for change,” said Anger, who has been teaching with UCR’s Department of Theatre, Film, and Digital Production for 17 years. “Jessa took what happened to her and fueled her enough to claim her space. She basically said, ‘what happened to me, won’t happen to my sister.’ This is a story about sisterhood, empowerment, about someone with grit.’”
Barbara and Art Culver Center of the Arts, hosted by Inlandia Institute
3834 Main Street
Thursday, Sept 8 at 7 p.m. Doors open at 6:30pm.
Details: "The Shinnery" at the Culver
Praise for “The Shinnery”
“The Shinnery is a tense (at times), realistic image of family resilience, written with an understanding that while technology changes, people do not. The characters come to life in moving dialogue, and the whole book is as genuine as a Texas sunset.”—Nancy Turner, author of "Light Changes Everything"
“It’s a remarkable feat to take a true family history and craft it—with imagination, lyrical narrative voices, and deeply felt characters—into a novel that makes clear the precarious danger of life in early Texas. Kate Anger’s The Shinnery is a vivid, evocative book of a young woman whose life presages so much of what we value now: bravery, loyalty, and fierce determination for her own survival.”—Susan Straight, author of "In the Country of Women"
“With its emphasis on family and place, The Shinnery evokes a more grown-up version of the Little House on the Prairie books or a Western version of Little Women, but it’s also very much its own fresh and moving creation. Kate Anger has given us unforgettable characters in these pages, high stakes, and such lively, beautiful, deeply observant writing, it often took my breath away. The Shinnery is a shimmering triumph.”—Gayle Brandeis, author of "Many Restless Concerns"
“Jessa Campbell loves everything about the beautiful hardscrabble Texas ranch where she’s been raised, and she’s so much a creation of that landscape that when she’s forced to leave to earn money from a couple in town, she is unmoored, entirely out of her element. Jessa is an innocent abroad, and her dizzying tumble from that innocence is brutally, beautifully realistic. The Shinnery is a superbly rendered story of love and shame and the will to survive.”—Jamie Harrison, author of "The Center of Everything"