Here's what saved me: Lisa's Alther's memoir, "Kinfolks: Falling Off the Family Tree, The Search for My Melungeon Ancestors."
At 2 each morning, I wake to an hour or so of peace and a thoroughly entertaining trek as Alther struggles to find her own link to these mysterious, dark-skinned, blue-eyed people, sometimes with an extra thumb, who burrowed into Southern Appalachia before the 1600s.
So I was thrilled to see that award-winning Lisa Wingate's new novel, "The Story Keeper" (Tyndale, $14.99 paper), is also about Melungeons. In short, it's the story of a New York editor, Jen Gibbs, a native of the North Carolina mountains, who finds herself engrossed in an anonymously-written manuscript about a mixed-race Melungeon girl trapped by dangerous men in a place Gibbs thought she'd left behind.
What inspired the novel? I ask Wingate by email.
She'd just finished writing "The Prayer Box," she emails back, and was researching her next novel, which she thought would also be set on the Outer Banks, when she came across an article on the Melungeons.
She clicked on it. Then she clicked on another and another and still another until something happened that had not happened in "15 years and 23 novels."
"I literally dreamed a story," she writes. "I saw the tale of a busy New York editor who finds a partial manuscript in an old slush pile. She's captivated by the story of Sarra, a young Melungeon girl being sold off in a card game in turn-of-the-century Appalachia.
"Sarra's circumstances in some ways mirror the editor's painful childhood in the Blue Ridge mountains. In my dream, the search for the manuscript's author took the editor back home after many years away, leading her to a place called Mirror Lake, deep in the mountains."
A 2012 genetic study shows that Melungeons are the offspring of Sub-Saharan males and women of Northern or Eastern European origins, though that doesn't preclude Native American DNA flowing into the mix at a later time.
Whatever the case, Wingate says it's been an amazing ride, solving in fiction a mystery that may never be fully solved in real life.
Hear Lisa Wingate Talk about the Novel:
- On Wednesday at 7 p.m. Wednesday at Park Road Books, Park Road Shopping Center, 4139 Park Road, Charlotte, 28209.
- On Thursday, 11:30 a.m.-1:30 p.m., at First Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church Fellowship Hall, 317 S. Chester St., Gastonia, 28052. Reservations required: 704-864-3468 or firstname.lastname@example.org.