Kansas is the setting for Truman Capote’s famous "non-fiction novel," In Cold Blood: a True Account of a Multiple Murder and its Consequences.
In the early 1960’s, Capote came to the small western Kansas town of Holcomb to meticulously research the tragic murders of the Herbert Clutter family. The resulting novel, published in 1965, read more like crime fiction than a true-life account.
Both victims and murderers where given deep descriptions which rendered them as fully developed characters. The treatment of factual material had approached a narrative level usually reserved for the novel.
In 2018, Thomas Fox Averill delivers a novel that also features a Kansas setting, but reverses Capote’s approach by writing what appears to be the result of historical research – but is actually a clever fabrication.
Found Documents from the Life of Nell Johnson Doerr: A Novel (University of New Mexico Press, 2018) brings the heartbreaking drama and intensity of the past through words that are perceived to be genuine.
Averill did not base his novel on the yellowed pages of correspondence stored in the historical section of a library.
Instead, he creates facsimiles of the thoughts, hopes, fears, and ambitions of a fictional female character who represents the spirit of early Kansas.
These letters and diary entries are attributed to a woman named Nell Johnson Doerr; a new arrival in Kansas Territory. Nell later survives Quantrill’s Raid during the Civil War and goes on to become a prominent paleontologist.
Although she is a creation of Averill’s imagination, Nell speaks with the voice of historical accuracy and truth. But this also allows Nell to use descriptive language that provides a vivid picture of the 19th century Midwest.
As Averill in the afterword to the book, "I have always enjoyed using what I call ‘false documents’ within my fiction."
Averill’s "false documents" consist of a creative writing style that convey the emotions and experiences of the female protagonist, as well as the historical events she encounters in a way that no bone fide letters could.
It’s a technique that could have easily been mishandled but, Averill skillfully navigates between beautiful prose while also maintaining the illusion of believable correspondence.
Along the way, Averill manages to cover some of the most important events in what New York Tribune writer Horace Greeley termed, "Bleeding Kansas."
Nell and her husband arrive in Lawrence from Arkansas as abolitionists helping to smuggle runaway slaves in 1854. The treeless landscape of eastern Kansas territory is a shock for the couple who have grown used to the lush pine forests back home. Nell’s husband, Solomon, decides to settle in Kansas and builds a house out of limestone that includes a basement designed as safe haven for runaway slaves.
Mud, patched clothing, scarcity of wood—these are the defining characteristics of the new town. Kansas Territory also suffers from violence that boils over from the battle over slavery expansion, and the town of Lawrence quickly becomes ground zero as abolitionists from Massachusetts square off with pro-slavery factions from Missouri.
She speaks with admiration of the newspaper accounts of Captain John Brown and his sons as they advocate their own brand of insurrection and terror.
One of the delights of reading the novel is the "fly on the wall" perspective of Nell as she witnesses historical events and people.
Averill is able to bring these history lessons to life by empowering Nell to give first-hand details. She describes a visit to Leavenworth in 1859 by presidential candidate, Abraham Lincoln. Nell describes him as, "a rail of a man, all knuckles and knobs, chin and ears, dressed in shambled clothes." It’s a picture of a living man, not the frozen form of a statue or daguerreotype.
One of the early dramatic moments of the novel occurs in a diary entry dated August 21, 1863.
Quantrill’s raiders come thundering into Lawrence, torching homes, and shooting down men and boys. A red-eyed member of the raiding party kills Nell's husband leaving her a wealthy widow. While hiding in the basement to escape the murderous band, Nell takes notice of the tiny fossilized sea creatures captured in the stone walls of her basement.
It proves to be a life-changing moment as she dedicates her life to the procurement and preservation of these ancient creatures that once thrived in a prehistoric Kansas sea.
Financially secure, childless, and free from a husband’s influence, she incubates in a progressive Free State that would grant female suffrage long before the rest of the country. With an inherent talent for "finding things," Nell becomes an avid fossil hunter, carefully collecting and cataloging the numerous marine creatures from eons ago that lie scattered around the Kansas countryside.
Nell finds much in the way of opposition and prejudice, even in the comparatively liberal political atmosphere of early Kansas.
Yet, determined to make her mark in a world in which men decide what the proper role for a woman should be, Nell does not conform to the expectations of her fellow Kansans—she does more.
In Found Documents, Averill brings up issues that are relevant to the current struggle of women to level the playing field in today’s America. What is the "proper" sphere for females in American society? Life-giver, caregiver, lover, nurturer—yes—but also imbued with unique talents and intelligence that can intersect with traditionally male domains such as science.
The book does much to reveal the feminine half of the settlement of Kansas, without which nothing of lasting permanence would have been established.
Found Documents from the Life of Nell Johnson Doerr: A Novel is an easy read that can be completed quickly, but it is better enjoyed at a slow pace, leaving some time between entries, as if waiting for them to arrive by posted mail. Genealogy is the study of past ancestors, and Averill creates an articulate ancestor who places high value on the people and places of the American heartland. It is fiction—but with the genuine sagacity of truth.
The Dodge City Community College will bring Thomas Fox Averill to Dodge City on Thursday, April 12; at 7 p.m. Averill will give a lecture that is free to the public starting at 7 p.m. in the college theater, and will have copies of his novel available for purchase and signing afterward.
Don’t miss this rare opportunity to hear from a unique voice in Kansas letters.