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Intersection Column | A Story Fell from My Family Tree

by Valerie Fraser Luesse

When readers ask how I became a storyteller, I often credit the old black-and-white Magnavox TV that anchored a corner of our living room when I was growing up in the sixties and early seventies. The signal had to travel all the way from Birmingham and then hop onto a rusty antenna bolted to our roof in rural Alabama. The best the Magnavox could manage was about a three-channel entertainment lineup. Of course, there was no such thing as internet access or Netflix or iTunes.

With limited media options, we had to make our own fun. In my large extended family—Mama’s the baby of eight—we entertained each other with stories about the farm and our kinfolks, the “way back yonder” days of our church and community, the colorful characters from our collective past. The adults talked and the kids listened (provided we had the good sense to keep quiet and not get on everybody’s nerves). Some stories cracked us up. Some broke our hearts. And some ended with an intriguing “nobody knows” question mark, an old, old mystery yet to be solved. Mercy, I loved those. Still do.

One of our family mysteries involved my maternal grandmother, whose parents were, as we say in Alabama, “pretty well off.” They had land and means. When my grandmother was seventeen, something happened—something she would describe only as “trouble with my nerves”—and her parents sent her to a resort known for its healing mineral springs, where she lived for a whole year. Her father got her a dog to keep her company and periodically brought her best friend by train to visit her at the resort. He was always her hero.

My grandmother was very private. I can’t remember how we even heard about the healing springs. They’re just part of a mystery that has floated around in my mind since I was very young. And it’s one thread of my new novel, Letters from My Sister.

Here’s another. Guarded though she was, my grandmother let me freely ramble through her things, maybe because things didn’t matter much to her. What did matter was remembrance. Her Bible was filled with news clippings about family members—weddings, deaths, achievements, etc. She kept corsages long after the flowers were gone. She kept boxes and boxes of photographs sent to her by her children and grandchildren. And she saved letters and postcards. Particularly fascinating to me were some very old postcards tucked away in a wooden cabinet—all of them either to or from my grandmother’s only sister, Aunt Effie, when she was temporarily separated from the family. There was a lightness to some of those handwritten messages, a sense of fun and camaraderie between sisters who, by all accounts, were very different. And I started to imagine what they were like as girls, the only two sisters in a houseful of brothers.

I drew one more story thread from my grandmother’s life, and that was her relationship with a Black woman named Bama McCoy, who ran my great-grandparents’ home and cooked for the family. Bama was also a midwife who helped deliver my mother and most of her siblings. My grandmother could be a tough critic and a harsh judge of humanity, but she revered Bama.

Because I never knew Aunt Effie or Bama, I turned my imagination loose and let them inspire a fictional world sparked by family stories but not based on the actual lives of my relatives. It’s a world blanketed with the rivers and creeks, red dirt fields and woodlands of the Appalachian foothills—fertile ground for the story I wanted to tell, set at the beginning of the twentieth century.

In the end, Letters from My Sister became, for me, a celebration of love, sisterhood, and the kind of deep personal connections that can defy social boundaries. It’s an open invitation to reach beyond what’s likely and aim instead for what’s possible.


About the Author

Valerie Fraser Luesse is the author of five novels set in the South: Christy Award winner Missing Isaac (2018), Almost Home (2019), The Key to Everything (2020), Under the Bayou Moon (August 2021), and Letters from My Sister (coming in 2023), all published by Revell Books. An award-winning magazine writer, Luesse is perhaps best known for her feature stories and essays in Southern Living. Her editorial section on the recovering Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina, photographed by Mark Sandlin, won the 2009 Travel Writer of the Year award from the Southeast Tourism Society. Luesse earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in English from Auburn University and Baylor University, respectively. She is a native of Harpersville, Alabama, and lives in Birmingham, where she creates Southern fiction from a tiny writing studio she calls the Story Shack.


About the Book

At the turn of the twentieth century, sisters Emmy and Callie Bullock are living a privileged life as the only daughters of a wealthy Alabama cotton farmer when their well-ordered household gets turned upside down by the arrival of Lily McGee. Arrestingly beautiful, Lily quickly—and innocently—draws the wrong kind of attention. Meanwhile, Callie meets a man who offers her the freedom to abandon social constraints and discover her truest self. One night, she witnesses something she was never meant to see, but the memory is a haze. Only when the sisters are separated does the truth slowly come to light through their letters—Including a revelation that will shape the rest of Callie's life.


Did You Know?

The unknown and the unfamiliar can become the monster that speaks the language of fear. I’ve been there. When I turned 30, a retinal disease robbed my sight completely. Stepping into the unfamiliar darkness was terrifying. But when I lifted the sword of God’s Word, His truth sliced the fear monster to pieces. Here are three ways fear is defeated:

  • Discern whose voice you will hear. When God opens the door and we need to step into the uncomfortable or into foreign territory, the enemy rushes to whisper: “You don’t have what it takes, you’re not ready.” But before fear eats you for lunch, listen to God’s voice and repeat: “The Lord is my light and my salvation, whom shall I fear?” (Psalm 27:1)

  • Declare your confidence in God. He takes us one step at a time. And for each step, He provides His promise to guide us, His strength to hold us up and His protection to surround us (Psalm 119:105).

  • Decide ahead of time that with God, no challenge can stop you. Instead, each obstacle is an opportunity for God to showcase His grace at work to lift you higher, take you farther and make you stronger (Isaiah 41:10).

When God’s Word comes alive in us, fear ends, faith grows and joy wins.

-Janet Perez Eckles, Now I See


Why I LOVE My Local Christian Bookstore

“Ahh . . . I love bookstores. I delight in discovering something I wasn't looking for, maybe a book I didn't know existed. As I hold a book in my hands, I often wonder, Who was inspired by this story? Whose life was made better by the information in this book? Maybe the inspiration will be mine today.”

-Stan and Cheryl Schuermann, Raising Kids for Tomorrow's World


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