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February 8, 2011


Posted by Stephen

Today's guest post comes from novelist Heather Newton, author of the Southern drama Under the Mercy Trees. Heather discusses her fascination with ghost stories and her background as an attorney, both of which figure prominently into the book's plot. You can also win a copy of Under the Mercy Trees (in stores now) by entering our special contest here!

In my novel, Under the Mercy Trees, one of the four narrators is Ivy, a sister in the troubled Owenby family who has been labeled schizophrenic because she sees ghosts. Among the “regulars” who haunt her are her stern grandmother Alma, her mischievous great-grandmother Missouri, and Ivy’s own son Shane who committed suicide and whose ghost always lurks just out of Ivy’s reach. So many women readers have contacted me to say how much they love Ivy that I’ll talk a bit about her here. 

under the mercy trees.JPGIvy holds the key to the mystery of her brother Leon’s disappearance. Because of this I wanted her to be a character no one would listen to or believe. I considered making her mentally challenged but decided instead to have her see ghosts --- I like a good ghost story and authors should write the kind of books they love to read. Because Ivy threatened to steal the show, I gave her only half as many chapters as I gave my other three point-of-view characters.

In the novel, the Department of Social Services takes Ivy’s children away and places them in foster care because she appears crazy and is in an abusive relationship. As a young lawyer, I served as a court-appointed attorney for parents accused of abusing or neglecting their children. Their kids had been placed in foster care due to domestic violence, mental illness or substance abuse. In order to get their children back the parents had to banish abusive partners, complete parenting classes, get clean of drugs and alcohol and prove they could hold a steady job. The cases were heartbreaking, with very few success stories. In one case I was involved in a little boy slept with quarters in his shoes so that if his father started beating his mother during the night he could run down to the convenience store on the corner and call for help from a pay phone. The image of that child lying in the dark with his shoes on and his eyes wide open, listening, never left me, and I put that in the novel. 

Of all the characters in Under the Mercy Trees, Ivy is the one least like me and the one I admire most. Despite all the tragedy she has experienced she isn’t bitter. She doesn’t bear grudges. As she says, “I can’t hold on to resentments any more than I can hold on to a long thought. Both slip off my mind like a silky ribbon loosing itself from a girl’s hair and falling to the dirt on her way home from school.” With the exception of her grief over her dead son she knows how to live in the present and accept what comes. We could all stand to be more like Ivy.