When I was writing A Cup of Dust a two characters just appeared on the pages. Weird, right? Well, not for novelists. This happens to us all the time.
One of them came with the name Beanie Jean.
See, I knew I wanted Pearl to have a sister. An older sister. Her name was Violet Jean, but folks called her Beanie. Then this line came to me:
“Violet Jean. The baby born blue as her name. Just thinking on it gave me the heebie-jeebies.”
That was when I knew that Beanie had some sort of impairment. Something that made her different, special.
Then another character appeared. Mabel Anderson, the pastor’s wife. She was born of research into some of the superstitious things folks did to try and coax the rain. Some of them shot off fireworks, hoping to break open the clouds, others plowed more and more, believing it would invite the rain. Still others would kill rattlesnakes and hang them, belly up, on a fence.
And then I read about how some women went insane during the Dust Bowl. They hallucinated, went through long bouts with depression and anxiety, many ending up in institutions. Sadly, many others took their lives.
“Dust madness” it was called by some. It was much like “prairie madness” from the settler’s days.
While writing Beanie and Mabel I wanted to be sensitive. I didn’t want to exploit them or those I love who struggle with mental impairments or illnesses. What I hoped was to be able to give them humanity, dignity, a purpose in the story.
To tell the truth.
That we live in a world where special needs are real, mental illness is real. Too often we think of people who live with these struggles (either themselves or with a loved one) as “other”, “them”.
Let’s face it, there is a stigma. There was in the 1930s and there still is now.
But once we can see the person beyond the illness, impairment, disability, need – when we really see them for who they are, WHAT they are – we will see them for the made-in-the-Image beauties that they are.
So, I allowed myself to love Beanie and Mabel, the way one loves a sister or an aunt. The way one loves a soul who is precious to them.
And I hoped and I prayed that my readers would catch a glimpse of who they really were.
Mama had told me Beanie was slow. Daddy called her simple. Folks around town said she was an idiot. I’d gotten in more than one fight over a kid calling my sister a name like that. Meemaw had said those folks didn’t understand and that people sometimes got mean over what they didn’t understand.
“It ain’t no use fighting them,” she had told me. “One of these days they’ll figure out that we’ve got a miracle walking around among us.”
-A Cup of Dust, page 15