Promise author Minrose Gwin examines the plight of girls and women in the 1950s in her latest novel.
Pre-pill and pre-Roe v. Wade, women often felt trapped and lacking in choices, especially in 1950s and ’60s Mississippi. In her new novel The Accidentals, Minrose Gwin crafts a story that captures the sense of entrapment and constriction so many girls and women experienced then, in stark contrast to the expansiveness of space travel that culminated in 1969.
“I thought of growing up in a small (and for the unmarried, pill-less) Mississippi town a decade later: the girls I knew in high school who ‘went away’ to have their babies, who were quickly put up for adoption, or those who barely escaped with their lives after going to backwoods “chiropractors” to have abortions performed with kitchen utensils; the resiliency of those girls and women who made the choice to keep their accidental children and in the process lost or postponed their own dreams and plans,” Gwin writes on her website.
In The Accidentals, the McAlister daughters have to cope with the ripple effect of the death of their mother from a botched backwoods abortion as they come of age in 1950s Mississippi. Without a mother, Grace and Olivia grow up to face their own impossible choices. Caught up in an unconventional love affair, Grace has a baby in secret, while June, guilt-ridden for her part in exposing Grace’s pregnancy, eventually makes an unhappy marriage. Meanwhile, Ed Mae Johnson, an African-American care worker in a New Orleans orphanage, is drastically impacted by Grace’s choices.
As the years go by, Gwin’s characters’ lives intersect in ways that reflect the unpredictable nature of bird flight that lands in accidental locations—and the consolations of imperfect return.
We interviewed Gwin by email about The Accidentals, the inspiration for her title and what she thinks we can learn from Olivia’s tragic story today. See Gwin on Saturday, Nov. 2, at the Louisiana Book Festival in Baton Rouge, where she will be on a panel titled “Southern Literary Standouts” at 1:15 p.m.
Erin Z. Bass: The plot of this novel revolves around a botched abortion? Why was that a topic you wanted to explore? It couldn’t be more timely or necessary for discussion in today’s climate, but were you at all concerned about alienating readers?
Minrose Gwin: The plot of The Accidentals doesn’t so much revolve around the botched abortion as it flows from it. Olivia McAlister’s two young daughters, Grace and June, as well as their father, Holly, are cast adrift by their mother’s sudden and gruesome death in 1957, when she bleeds to death in her own bed after being desperate enough to go to a backwoods abortionist in rural Mississippi. Not only them, but all the other characters in the novel, including a carer at a New Orleans orphanage, who doesn’t even know Olivia, have their lives drastically altered by the abortion, whether directly or indirectly.
And yes, I just wrote an op-ed piece on the recent bans on abortion enacted by state legislatures, seven of the nine being in the South, and about my own girlhood in pre-Roe v. Wade Mississippi. This was a time and place when girls and women were severely constricted as to their choices about unwanted pregnancy. As to alienating readers, I can’t write with fear perched on my shoulder. And actually, there are three pregnancies in the novel, and each results in a different outcome.
Erin Z. Bass: Can you explain what your title The Accidentals means?
MG: Birds and other migratory animals sometimes are blown off course in their migrations and become what’s called “accidentals,” turning up in places and situations outside their normal migratory pathways. The idea of becoming “an accidental” struck me as generative. We all get blown off course in the stormy winds of life; what we make of such “accidents” becomes the fabric of our lives. Also, birds represent flight and freedom, something that Olivia and her daughters yearn for. This yearning is one gift that Olivia gives her daughters.
EZB: Birds are beautifully woven into the theme of this book. Are you a bird watcher and was the idea of migration one that developed naturally?
MG: I’ve always loved birds, but I became a bird watcher (as distinguished from a birder, who knows much more than I do about birds) when I lived in Piedmont, North Carolina, for 13 years. My writing space was in our sunroom, and I stationed several nest boxes and feeders where I could observe the many songbirds that are native to that area, or sometimes are just passing through. I came to an appreciation of how the birds came and went with the seasons, how the finches changed color from spring to fall, how the bluebirds came back to the same nest box year after year. The urge to live, to continue on. Here in New Mexico, where I also wrote part of The Accidentals, I live on the migratory path of the Rio Grande, and the coming of the sandhill cranes—extraordinary birds—is a huge event this time of year. Birds teach us about the great circle of life, the necessity and the motion of change. The beauty and the struggle all rolled into one.
I’ll say here too that birds aren’t the only animals in the novel. The little Sputnik dog Laika, in her tiny capsule, shot into the endless dark; the dancing giraffes at Audubon Park Zoo; June’s unlovely dog menagerie; a mysterious cat who uncovers an act of infidelity: these all kept popping up in the novel. I’m not sure why they came to live on the page, but their presence felt magical to me.
EZB: You alternate chapters from the different perspectives of your characters so that we get a bigger picture of the story. Why did you decide to structure the book this way?
MG: This was one of my biggest challenges with The Accidentals. In my view, voice is the most important craft element in a book. If the voice doesn’t draw you in, you will turn away from the story itself. In The Queen of Palmyra, my first novel, this is the voice of a woman looking back on her girlhood as the daughter of a Klansman. In Promise, it’s a close omniscient voice telling the story of two women, getting into their heads as they struggle in the aftermath of a devastating tornado. But in The Accidentals, there are seven characters doing the talking! Each character has to have depth and resonance, each has her or his own way of telling this story. There are individual stories, for sure, but then they have to cohere, each has to be a commentary on the stories of others and each has to advance the plot and characterization. These characters can’t just be talking heads, but real flesh and blood people who struggle in specific times and places. When a writer friend read an early draft of the novel, she suggested that I put the whole book into an omniscient point of view, but I wanted the reader to be inside my characters’ struggles, not peering over their shoulders.
EZB: Debra Monroe said, “If Eudora Welty channeled Charles Dickens she’d have written this novel about orphans and strays and the accidental ways they lose and find each other.” That’s high praise. How do you feel about being compared to fellow Mississippian Eudora Welty and Dickens?
MG: Well, that, of course, was a lovely cover endorsement. I’m a great admirer of both writers. I read all of Dickens when I was a young girl. My high school senior English teacher introduced me to Welty, so both of these writers are part of my early reading experience. I’m particularly in love with Welty’s short fiction and, wearing my other hat as a literary scholar, I’ve written about and taught her work over the years. I love the Southern idea of location in which Welty situates her work: what Welty calls “the heart’s field.” On the other hand, as a reader and writer, I want a good plot, a forward momentum that keeps us turning the pages.
EZB: Were there any authors or anything you read that influenced this novel?
MG: While growing up in pre-Roe v. Wade Mississippi was my biggest influence, the relationship between the two orphan sisters—their sometimes futile attempts to mother each other—is something that moved me powerfully in Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping, one of my favorite novels of all time.
EZB: The Accidentals spans 60 years of history. What do you think we can learn from Olivia’s story today and in what ways are we repeating history rather than moving forward?
MG: It is hard to imagine going back to the days of backwoods abortions, such as the one Olivia died from. I lived during those times: the fake “chiropractors” operating out in the woods like bootleggers, the kitchen utensils and automobile tools, the infection and hemorrhage one of my dearest friends almost died from. It is almost impossible for me to imagine a South or a country in which women don’t have the right to make choices about their own bodies without risking their lives. But we better imagine it; we better think about it more specifically and urgently, because these bans that are going through the courts, with Louisiana’s heading for the Supreme Court, won’t stop women and girls from seeking and getting abortions, safe or unsafe.
The Accidentals is one of our Fall/Winter Reads. View the entire reading list here.