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It is amazing how someone can write a great lesbian novel without telling anyone. It is even more amazing that a publisher that specializes in historical non-fiction about the Southeastern United States would publish such a novel. John F. Blair, Publisher only selects one or two fiction manuscripts a year for publication. Based on my delight with The Cherokee Rose: A Novel of Gardens and Ghosts, I can see that they only choose the best.
American history buffs would appreciate the novelist’s background. Tiya Miles is a professor at the University of Michigan who teaches courses on American Culture, Afro-American and African Studies, History, Women’s Studies, and Native American Studies. She is an African American scholar whose research includes the interrelated comparative histories of African Americans and Native Americans, and white women’s histories in the United States; and African American and Native American women’s literatures. Miles has previously co-edited a book about the African diaspora in Native American territories, and wrote two non-fiction books about relations between Cherokee and African-Americans in the South. The Cherokee Rose: A Novel of Gardens and Ghosts is her first novel.
Most people will never get a chance to take one of Miles’ classes, and may not have access to an academic library that would house her historical research. Through The Cherokee Rose, Miles tells you a story that rings true. Even without knowing her research background, a reader can feel that Miles has been to the places that she paints in this story, and that she has taken it in with all five senses down to the details of interior design and the smell and sound of the soil, plants, and river cane. Some critics have compared Miles’ style to that of Alice Walker, Octavia Butler, and Louise Erdrich. While her background is academic, Miles writes well-paced, lively fiction chock full of rich, complex characters that beg for the big screen.
According to Miles,
this novel is in many ways about marginalization, exploitation and the eventual triumph through connection, love, and hope of people deemed different and lesser-than. This is why all of the main characters are women, why characters of African American and Native American heritage are central, why poor white characters have a place, why people with disabilities play important roles, why same sex relationships (romantic and platonic) are key, and why children and babies have a part.
The Cherokee Rose is as much about a historical site as it is about people. The Chief Vann House Historic Site in Chatsworth, Georgia is the central focus of this novel–the reason why three women descended upon a small town. African-American Atlanta debutante Cheyenne Coterelle buys the Chief Vann House to reconnect with her Native American heritage, rescuing it from destruction. Biracial magazine writer Ruth Mayes visits the Chief Vann House to cover its architectural style, and rediscovers the plants and stories of her Georgia mother. Last but not least, our Twizzler chewing, Converse clad Cherokee-Creek heroine Jinx Micco travels—part-time librarian and amateur historian—drives from Oklahoma to the Chief Vann House to uncover the mysteries of her tribe’s controversial racial history. The meeting of these three women seems predestined, as each holds a piece of the story that the others desire. Together the women discover the ghosts, brutal secrets, and true owner of the Chief Vann House through the hidden diary of Moravian missionary Anna Gamble. Anna’s diary also reveals how women—even during slavery—can empower each other through compassion and commitment to a shared vision. As Jinx, Ruth, and Cheyenne unravel Gamble’s account, they reconcile past and present history, which helps the women resolve the conflicts in their own lives.
By the end of the novel, all three women share a special bond, and all three have filled emotional holes of loss and longing. In Jinx’s case, she finds Ruth and brings her back to Oklahoma as her lover. Ruth once again has a woman in her life who loves her, and the possibility of a family who will embrace her. In Cheyenne’s case, she finds the truth about her ancestry, as well as the true owner of the Chief Vann House. What all three women achieve set many things right in the course of history, and ask their communities to rethink their prejudices. The end of Cherokee Rose is just the beginning for Jinx and Ruth; it begs a sequel, as the tribal law of Jinx’s community does not recognize same-sex relationships, and her people look at mixed-race relationships with suspicion. What will Jinx and Ruth have to do to prove themselves? Will their relationship survive these challenges?
Historians reveal uncomfortable truths and novelists force us to look at them. Miles accomplishes both and gives us hope that the once marginalized will reclaim their desired place in America through love and loyalty to their communities of choice. Perhaps The Cherokee Rose is John F. Blair, Publisher’s nod in support of the New South that recognizes its multicultural past, present, and future.
Dunn, M. & Moodie-Mills, A.C. (2012, Apr 13). The state of gay and transgender communities of color Center for American Progress. Retrieved from https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/lgbt/news/2012/04/13/11493/the-state-of-gay-and-transgender-communities-of-color-in-2012/
Georgia State Parks. (2015). Chief Vann House historic site. Georgia Department of Natural Resources. Retrieved from http://gastateparks.org/ChiefVannHouse
Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian. (n.d.). IndiVisible: African-Native American lives in the Americas. Retrieved from http://nmai.si.edu/exhibitions/indivisible/
Tiya Miles: writer, professor, nature lover, old house enthusiast. [Web log]. Retrieved from http://tiyamiles.com/
University of Michigan. (n.d.) Tiya Miles. Retrieved from http://www-personal.umich.edu/~tiya/
The Cherokee Rose: A Novel of Gardens and Ghosts
by Tiya Miles
John F. Blair, Publisher
Hardcover, 978895876355, 264 pp.