PANAMA CITY — “Stories beget stories,” said best-selling author Lisa Wingate, who will share the sources of her inspirations with local readers Tuesday and Wednesday.
Wingate’s latest novel, “The Sea Keeper’s Daughters,” begins in 1935, as First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt cajoles her husband into signing an executive order creating what will become Federal Project Number One. The results will touch every corner of a vast but struggling country — yet, 80 years later, will be virtually forgotten.
“Those involved in Federal One were far ahead of their time,” Wingate said. “They were the beginning of the Civil Rights movement before there was a Civil Rights movement. They pushed toward equality for women before anyone was talking about equal opportunity.”
|Her new novel.|
The new novel follows the struggles of a young woman hired into the Federal Writer’s Project, a subdivision of Federal One.
“Roosevelt’s Federal Writers faced incredible challenges,” Wingate said. “They were told to document the stories of real lives and real people struggling to survive the Depression. Their mandate was to be all-inclusive, to break down hard and fast societal boundaries, much like Kathryn Sockett’s character does in ‘The Help,’ when she interviews black maids in the South.”
The Federal Writers not only documented the natural wonders of the country, but the hidden lives of minorities, working women, immigrant laborers, sharecroppers and others typically ignored by the history books. While Wingate’s tale is fictional, it brings to life the experiences of a Federal Writer when a modern-day woman discovers the letters of a great aunt who was disowned by her wealthy family after signing on with the WPA.
The tale explores the experiences of a woman traveling into the unknown, all for the sake of a story. The Federal Writers often found themselves on the wrong sides of local powerbrokers, special interest groups, and eventually Congressional committees hunting for communists at the dawn of the Red Scare.
The shifting of political fortunes meant the thousands of stories documented by the Federal Writers were quietly hidden away in filing vaults. Only now, as the Library of Congress begins posting the documents online, many of those narratives are being made available for the first time since they were written.
“These stories show us where we come from as a country and as a people,” Wingate said. “They inspired novels like Steinbeck’s ‘The Grapes of Wrath,’ yet so many of us know little about the Federal Writers themselves. I wrote ‘The Sea Keeper’s Daughters’ to bring to light not only the lives of the people on the pages, but the lives of the people behind the pens.”
The Federal Writers is a forgotten part of American cultural history in much the same way as family stories are lost between the generations, simply because someone felt uncomfortable or unappreciated and kept their mouths shut.
Wingate will speak on the importance of preserving our stories — including unobtrusive techniques one can employ to get still tongues wagging and record your own family narratives — during her appearances next week. Besides addressing the Panama City Rotary early Tuesday, she will have two signing and speaking events open to the general public.
She will be at St. Andrews Coffee House & Bistro, 1006 Beck Ave., in Panama City from 5-7 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 8; and at the Blountstown Public Library from 4-5:30 p.m. Wednesday.
“The Blountstown visit is special to me because my grandmother started that library,” said Kathie Bennett, Wingate’s publicist and the daughter of former Panama City mayor Gerry Clemons.
And one would be correct to suspect there’s an untold story waiting to be shared in that anecdote as well.