“Scuffletown as a place was anchored but driftable and as an idea it had the floating nature of a dream. In either form it was hard for strangers to reach.”
—Josephine Humphreys, Nowhere Else on Earth
A swamp-bound settlement on the banks of the Lumbee River is the setting for Josephine Humphreys’ Nowhere Else on Earth, a novel drawn from the true history of North Carolina’s Lumbee Indians. Virtually hidden from neighboring Scots planters and black slaves, Scuffletown suffers severe hardships during the Civil War, facing increasing aggression from a loose collective of whites known as the Home Guard who conspire to send Scuffletown men and boys for forced labor on the vast earthworks at Fort Fisher.
Scuffletown’s “first family” is the Lowrie clan, whose fortunes intertwine with those of the novel’s narrator, Rhoda Strong. As Indians, Scuffletowners are unprotected by the law and instead rely heavily on inter-family ties and the force of a gang led by the nineteen-year-old Henry Berry Lowrie. The Lumbee Indians’ lineage and allegiances are central to the novel. In a eulogy for his murdered sons, George Lowrie recounts the Lumbee commitment to the American cause, reminding those assembled that Scuffletowners fought against the British Tories in the American Revolution and were at one time allowed to vote in national elections—a privilege they no longer enjoy. No group-even other Carolina Indians, like the Cherokee—will claim them, and yet it is the Lumbees who may be America’s most legitimate colonial heirs. History suggests they may be direct descendants of the first “lost” American colony, Sir Walter Raleigh’s Roanoke, a possibility that radically underscores the disenfranchisement they suffer in the nineteenth century.
Rhoda Strong is fifteen in the summer of 1864 when the tensions between the Home Guard and the Lowrie Gang begin to escalate. While the Strongs conceal themselves in their house to wait out the Home Guard’s latest conscription campaign, Rhoda dreams of love—only to find it realized in the one man her mother has warned her would be a dangerous choice. With local antagonism still running high, Rhoda suspends her hopes while Cee worries that Henry’s gang will further sabotage the legitimacy of the Lumbees. An explosive series of events then erupts in the settlement. Brant Harris has taken Rhoda’s childhood friend Margaret hostage for a debt she cannot pay and the Lowrie Gang attempts an aborted rescue. The town postmaster, James Barnes, is robbed and he blames the Lowries. Harris is killed, but the Home Guard, led now by his former deputy, Roderick McTeer, continues to harass the Lumbees. In the New Year, the Union Army wins a major victory at Fort Fisher, and the entire settlement feels a now-acute shortage of food and supplies. Barnes is killed in a mysterious fashion after publicly blaming the Lowries for robbing his farm. When Henry Lowrie finds Rhoda alone and caring for a wounded Union soldier, their love affair begins in earnest.
But the “lifetime knot” tied by Henry and Rhoda is brutally tested by the events that follow. In a shocking development, Henry’s father and brother are killed, execution-style, by McTeer and his men. Sherman’s victories consolidate the Union position and Scuffletown looks optimistically for a new peace in the redefined nation. Henry, however, is irrevocably changed. Even though a final robbery by the gang ensures that they will be able to escape Scuffletown and start anew, the victory is bittersweet. Rhoda faces a stark choice: to follow the man she loves, or to let her life be guided by the intrinsic loyalty she feels for a place and a people that count her among their own. Threaded with meditations on love, justice, and sacrifice, and shot through with a sense of the prevailing optimism of the human spirit, Nowhere Else on Earth humanizes the condition of a country at war with itself.
Josephine Humphreys is the recipient of the American Academy of Arts and Letters Award in Literature. She is the author of Dreams of Sleep (winner of the 1985 Ernest Hemingway Award for first fiction), Rich in Love(made into a major motion picture), and The Fireman’s Fair. She lives in Charleston, South Carolina.
How much of the Lumbees’ story is based on history and fact? What drew you to the story?
I first learned about the Lumbees when I was seventeen, riding a train through North Carolina. A dark-haired girl, just married that morning, boarded the train near Lumberton and took the seat next to me. Still in the white sundress and jacket she’d worn for her wedding, she was the most beautiful human being I’d ever seen. Her new husband was sitting at the other end of the car, she explained, because they were having their first argument: she feared his parents would not approve of their marriage because he was white and she was not. “What are you?” I blurted, and her answer only further bewildered me, because I had never heard of the Lumbees.
She enlightened me. For the next hour she told me about her people, and about the central figures in their history, Rhoda Strong and Henry Berry Lowrie. And I was hooked. I promised myself that one day I would write about Henry and Rhoda, but I had no idea that the story would resonate deep in my heart for years, changing my life. I didn’t start writing until I was thirty-three, and even then I wrote other novels first, unsure how best to tell Rhoda’s story. When at last I worked up my courage, I decided to ground each scene and character in historical fact whenever possible, and then build the fiction with additional imagined details and dialogue. All but a handful of the characters retain their real names.
You vividly convey the daily life of the nineteenth century—the details about the food, dress, and tools. What kind of research did you do?
I read two excellent histories—The Only Land I Know by Adolph Dial and David Eliades, and To Die Game by William McKee Evans—but I also read more widely and wildly in order to become as familiar as I could with the fabric of Rhoda’s life. I needed to know about North Carolina during and after the Civil War, about turpentine and scuppernongs and bees. I found old letters particularly helpful in shaping the language of Rhoda’s narrative; I used maps, paintings, prints, government records, and oral history projects. Newspapers of the time followed the Lowrie War closely. One reporter from the New York Herald actually interviewed Rhoda and described the interior of her cabin, including the Currier print hanging on her wall. I tracked that print down and bought my own copy of it to hang on my office wall while I wrote. As for food—I got my knowledge of Lumbee cooking by indulging myself time and again at Fuller’s Restaurant and at Sally Locklear’s house. Sally is a great cook, and she’s also Henderson Oxendine’s great-granddaughter. In fact, I was fortunate enough to meet the descendants of several of the book’s characters, all magically powerful connections that gave me a sense of history’s living presence in our lives.
Rhoda is a very powerful figure as is Cee. Were you making a comment about Lumbee women in particular, or about American women in general?
The Lumbee women I know possess a striking dignity and an inner strength combined with grace, wit, and generosity. While I was writing about Cee and Rhoda, I was thinking not only of the bride I had met on the train but also of Louise, Malinda, Sally, Cherry, Cindy, Johanna, and Aunt Jessie—Lumbee women, American women.
Why did you choose to have Rhoda tell her tale in retrospect rather than as circumstances unfolded?
I am not sure I ever made that choice consciously. It simply seemed fitting at the time. For one thing, Rhoda actually lived on for many years, more than three decades after Henry was gone. Naturally she would have spent a great deal of time remembering the dramatic events of her youth and pondering their significance. Wisdom comes with the passage of time. I wanted to discover how she might have understood and interpreted her love and her life. The long look back over time is important to us, too, as we re-examine the American past. Henry is a legendary figure now, to be seen in the light of a century’s accumulated knowledge.
Do you see the novel as primarily the story of Scuffletown or of Rhoda? When you began the novel, what elements of the plot did you already have resolved?
I meant to suggest, by means of the title, that Scuffletown is a place unlike any other, with flora, fauna, climate, history, and culture unmatched elsewhere—a unique spot of earth. But I could not have entered this place without Rhoda, the individual and singular woman who inhabited it. Curiously, once I had connected with her, and through her to others, I began to understand the book’s title with some degree of irony. Maybe Scuffletown is a place like no other, but at the same time the opposite is true. It is like all others. One part of the ending was unresolved until the very moment of its writing. I had collected various theories as to Henry’s fate. Many Lumbees believe that Henry escaped to another state, and some even report that he was sighted several times, coming back to see Rhoda. Others think he accidentally shot himself and was secretly buried by his family in a spot that will never be revealed.
I wasn’t sure all along what I would write, but when the time came, I looked at all the evidence and reached a conclusion that I felt absolutely sure was the right one. I am still sure of it.
The novel serves as a cautionary tale about segregation and prejudice in the time of the Civil War. Do you think there are parallels between the Lumbees’ situation and contemporary issues?
If there were no parallels between the past and the present, history would hardly interest us. Scuffletown thrives today, as the town of Pembroke, North Carolina, west of I-95 near Lumberton. Indians have significant power in county government, courts, school boards, and law enforcement. The current Miss North Carolina is a Lumbee. Among all Native American groups the Lumbees have the highest percentage of lawyers, doctors, and teachers. But prejudice dies hard, and enmities smolder. The effects of past injustice and segregation often linger longer than we might suspect.
Your other novels, Dreams of Sleep, The Fireman’s Fair, and Rich in Love, are all set in contemporary times. What was different about writing a historical novel? Which did you enjoy writing most?
I knew that Nowhere Else on Earth would be unlike my earlier works. For those contemporary novels, I used my own world as backdrop. Research was unnecessary, because of course I was familiar with every aspect of that world and could call it up automatically. But for the historical novel, I needed to learn another world, and I needed to learn it intimately. Often I decided not to take notes on my research, hoping that the material would simply soak in and then later bubble up as quickly and as easily as if it were my own. Perhaps the most intriguing part of writing this book was, I discovered, the emergence in my mind of a new and different ethics of fiction. At every stage of work there arose crucial choices to be made, questions I’d never had to consider in the contemporary novel. How could I create fiction that remained loyal to truth? How much imaginative reconstruction could I do without misrepresenting the dead?
What’s a typical day of writing like for you? What are you working on now?
I love to get up early in the morning—the earlier the better—and go directly to my office in the Confederate Home, once the refuge of Civil War widows, now a residence for women as well as studio space for writers and artists. When I’m being good, I write hard all day every day, and the intensity of the work creates an energy that keeps the fiction rolling. In a different mode, I might write a sentence, look out the window and daydream for several hours, then go home and work in the vegetable garden. I have started two new books, one set in the past and one in the present. Both are waiting, and I will soon have to choose.