Humphreys, Josephine. Nowhere else on earth: a novel. New York: Viking, 2000. 341 pages. Paperback edition: Penguin USA, October 2001. Key source
This engaging novel tells the story of Scuffletown during the Henry Berry Lowry period, using Henry's wife Rhoda as narrator. The account begins by explaining the backgrounds of her parents and how they came together as a couple; it concludes long after Henry Berry has left Robeson County.
Two things stand out in this novel - and they are equal in significance. First is how well grounded it is in history and scholarship on the Henry Berry Lowry period and on the Lumbee people. It richly rewards readers who are knowledgeable in these areas, and it informs those who are new to these topics. Much has been written about the Henry Berry Lowry period; Lowry is truly the folk hero of the Lumbee people. But no other work makes this story come alive so effectively and in so many dimensions - history, politics, geographical setting, human reactions, and Indian identity.
Here are just a few of many examples of historical details that have been woven into the novel:
- Rhoda's mother Celia had her skull measured (and Rhoda, as a child, was examined also) by a governement-employed scientist to see if the Scuffletown Indians were indeed Indians and thus eligible for government benefits. Although this actually happened between 1935 and 1938, it works very effectively as one of many details used to convey the extensive research and scholarly and political debate that have foccused on Lumbee origins and identity.
- Celia had an ancestor who shot and killed a government surveyor who was examining the ancestor's land from a tree. In musing about this incident, and about outsiders in general, Celia uses the phrase "mixt crew." A 1754 report to North Carolina's royal governor, Arthur Dobbs (found in the Colonial records of North Carolina) describes a “mixed crew” of fifty families living on Drowning Creek (the Lumbee River) who “shot a surveyor or for coming to survey vacant land ” (Dial and Eliades, The only land I know, page 30).
- Dr. McCabe explains to Rhoda and her mother Celia that he has discovered proof that the Scuffletown Indians “trace back to an early tribe” (p. 283) and that because of the coincidence of names on a ship's passenger list with names of Scuffletown Indians, “Scuffletown is Raleigh's lost colony” (p. 284). This is the discovery described by Hamilton McMillan in his 1888 pamphlet, Sir Walter Raleigh's Last Colony.
The second feature that stands out in this novel is how finely crafted it is as a literary work. It is well wrought in description, characterization, plot, and pacing. Humphreys's writing style in this novel is clear and direct, yet filled with nuances and sensitivity. The descriptive details are especially effective in developing themes important to the Lumbee people (education, family, the landscape of Robeson County, the Lumbee River) and in Rhoda's very human reactions to physical desire, to extreme hunger, and to her varied and confusing longings about the future.
Here are a couple of passages illustrating Humphreys's sensitive, finely crafted description. The first is from an early part of the novel, when Rhoda has been trying to get some education, but her family is beginning to be threatened by Civil War conditions and the Home Guard:
- “That night I chose to put Clelon out of my mind, the way I had Jarman, the way I had Wesley and Little Allen in those weeks before they were found killed. I didn't want to save the day, all I wanted was my own life. To get my learning and my man, my little house and farm; teach a class of school, have ten sons of my own, and cook pies the rest of my cautious days. I wanted to sweep trouble and threats and dangers out of my head with a stiff hearth broom, let them die into the cold ash pile of the past and never think of them again. And so I made myself the know-nothing I had pretended to be.” (p.69)
The second passage is found near the end of the novel, when Rhoda tells her children that she has decided the family should not leave Robeson County, as Henry had proposed:
- “'We belong here,' I said. 'North Carolina needs Henry Lowrie.' But the truth is not something that surprises children. I might as well have said the creek will run and the cock will crow. Polly dropped into sleep in my arms, and the older two tramped along the ruts of the lane, kicking up sand. Overhead the wild grape twined. About us the luster of Robeson County, morning light stretched thin, black crow on a fence post, last year's broom grass red under this year's green. In my lifetime all my strongest urges of love or grief or wild fury had come to me in the out-of-doors, under this very sky. What flooded me now was not love and the other rages but home. There was nowhere else for me.” (p. 328)
This novel received the 2001 Southern Book Award for Fiction (presented by the Southern Book Critics Circle). Readers interested in its Lumbee themes will likely conclude that it goes far beyond doing justice to its topic. It subtly and authentically relates a historical event - and with it, many other things that are important to understand about the event and the Lumbee people.