God’s Red Clay

God’s Red Clay is a historical novel based on the lives of my ancestors in Alabama and Mississippi in the 19th century.

When I retired from teaching in 2005, I determined to devote myself to doing genealogical investigations of the various branches of my family. On my father’s side were two distinct strains. My grandfather grew up in Mississippi. A mechanical genius who was largely self-taught, Eugene Ford made his way north to try to patent and sell his business machine inventions. In Massachusetts he met and married my grandmother, Sadie Sayles, twenty years younger and a direct descendant of Roger Williams. So far as I know, my grandfather never returned to Mississippi, and all his descendants identified as Northerners, including me.

However, as a child I’d heard the family story about my Mississippi great-grandfather, John Nicholas Ford, who was wounded during the Civil War and rescued from the battlefield by a “devoted slave.” I was both shocked and fascinated to learn that my ancestors were slaveholders and fought on the Confederate side. Therefore, when I got around to exploring my roots, my Mississippi ancestors were at the top of the list.

Fortunately for me, a great deal of genealogical information was by then available online, through such sites as, the National Archives, and chat rooms. Through the Internet I met distant cousins who shared invaluable information and a few precious photographs. Perhaps my biggest online triumph was breaking through the genealogical “brick wall” having to do with the origins of my great-great-grandfather, Thomas Lawson Ford. For years all I knew about him was that he’d been born somewhere in North Carolina. To my surprise, I discovered that he came from stock that had been on this continent just as long as my New England forbears.

I also traveled to Mississippi. In an old deed book stored in Chancery Court, Kosciusko, I came upon the names and ages of the three slaves my great-great-grandparents held at the outbreak of the war: Parthena and her children Major and Jane. I came to the conclusion that the “devoted slave” who rescued John Nicholas at the Battle of Ball’s Bluff was Major and that he was probably John’s half brother.

After several trips to Mississippi, and having written a long non-fiction narrative about Ford family history, I’d collected such an array of good stories that my fiction-writing impulse—which had lain dormant—re-emerged. I felt driven to write a novel about these people. At the outset I decided several things: I would stick religiously to the facts, even if they became inconvenient to traditional plotting. I would focus the novel on my great-great-grandparents, Tom and Anner Ford, and their children. And I would, to the best of my ability, avoid the romantic or sordid clichés of fiction about the 19th century South. The result is God’s Red Clay, presently some 165,000 words in manuscript.

The arc of the novel is intertwined with the history of the American South in the nineteenth century. There are three parts:

I. 1830-1848. Farming in Alabama. Panic of 1837. Hard times.
II. 1849-1865. The move to Mississippi. Switch from farming to commerce. Life in Kosciusko. Conflict and compromise. Civil War.
III. 1866-1881. The move across the Big Black River. Reconstruction. A new order.

The novel is written from the points of view of Tom, Anner, and their six children. Each of the major characters is animated by love and by a determination to do the honorable thing as he or she perceives it, often at great cost.

During the writing of this novel I became enamored of all of my major characters. I hope I’ve done them justice. I’ve learned a great deal about them, but also about myself.