The Secrets That Inspired Me to Write THE ABOLITIONIST’S DAUGHTER by Diane C. McPhail

What is one great secret of many popular books? Well, secrets, of course. The ones you read the book to discover, the ones your favorite characters are hiding, the ones even you can’t untangle until you turn that last page.

So what inspired me to write this story? Well, the answer is many things: a love of writing, a genuine curiosity about the depths of human psychology, a love of the South mixed with immense struggles over societal acceptance of racial injustice. I could continue with reasons until I bored you into not reading this, nor my book.

But I’d rather tell you a story, a story about a secret and how it came to astound me.

My mother died when I was only nine weeks old. I grew up in an era when people believed that babies weren’t affected by things they didn’t remember. It was also an era in which people refrained from talking about sad or troublesome things in general. No one ever talked about my mother. Consequently I knew only that she had been a teacher and had loved to draw and sew. Beyond that she was a forever smiling face in a photo beside my father.

My father’s sister was my “Mama” until he remarried a number of years later. I remember my excitement when she told me she was taking me to a “ghost town.” Expecting something like those depicted in Western movies, I was immensely disappointed to find only an abandoned graveyard. But the story connected to that lost town and its graveyard was far from disappointing. The story of the Greensboro “feud” echoed through my life. Somehow it haunted me.

Well into my adulthood, an intense need to know who my mother had been surprised me. Those closest to her, my grandparents and most of her siblings, were all gone. My uncle Ralph still lived in the old family farmhouse. He welcomed me with stories and albums of old photos. He was describing how his little sisters would set up house under the shrubbery while he came riding his tricycle to deliver the mail. As I was basking in these stories, I turned a page in an album to find a yellowed newspaper account of the “feud,” which had actually been a single incident of extreme family and community violence.

“Ralph,” I said, “this story has always haunted me. I don’t understand the motivations that lead to this and I can’t imagine how these women who survived managed to go on with life.” By then I was a therapist and deeply involved in understanding trauma.

My uncle looked at me quietly for a moment and said, “Diane, don’t you know who that young woman was? The one who buried the five men closest to her the next day?” I shook my head, waiting. “That was our grandmother,” he said, “mine and your mother’s.”

I was stunned. Here was a secret I hadn’t anticipated, hadn’t known existed.

I began to write stories, or scenes, trying to work out the psychological complexities of my forbears. Of course, without their own words, that was impossible. Drawing from my own therapeutic experience, my conjectures began to link and weave together. I realized I was writing a work of fiction, fact-based historical fiction with themes and truths far greater than my own family.

Historical novels take intricate research. I discovered a family historian. I found a trove of my great-great grandfather’s papers in the archives of Mississippi State University Library. I discovered more secrets no one talked about, one of huge import—as an appointed judge in a time after manumission had been made illegal, he defied the law by attempting to free his slaves. He also conspired with his own children’s tutor to illegally educate them. Because he was a judge, he was able to secretly defy the law by marrying them. In short, he was a slave owning Southern Abolitionist. My mother’s grandmother was THE ABOLITIONIST’S DAUGHTER.


In her sweeping debut, Diane C. McPhail offers a powerful, profoundly emotional novel that explores a little-known aspect of Civil War history—Southern Abolitionists—and the timeless struggle to do right even amidst bitter conflict.

On a Mississippi morning in 1859, Emily Matthews begs her father to save a slave, Nathan, about to be auctioned away from his family. Judge Matthews is an abolitionist who runs an illegal school for his slaves, hoping to eventually set them free. One, a woman named Ginny, has become Emily’s companion and often her conscience—and understands all too well the hazards an educated slave must face. Yet even Ginny could not predict the tangled, tragic string of events set in motion as Nathan’s family arrives at the Matthews farm.

A young doctor, Charles Slate, tends to injured Nathan and begins to court Emily, finally persuading her to become his wife. But their union is disrupted by a fatal clash and a lie that will tear two families apart. As Civil War erupts, Emily, Ginny, and Emily’s stoic mother-in-law, Adeline, each face devastating losses. Emily—sheltered all her life—is especially unprepared for the hardships to come. Struggling to survive in this raw, shifting new world, Emily will discover untapped inner strength, an unlikely love, and the courage to confront deep, painful truths.

In the tradition of Cold Mountain, The Abolitionist’s Daughter eschews stereotypes of the Civil War South, instead weaving an intricate and unforgettable story of survival, loyalty, hope, and redemption.

Praise For The Abolitionist’s Daughter

“Diane McPhail excavates a nearly forgotten corner of American history and brings it to full, beating life. This is a fascinating and heartfelt look at the kinds of stories that don’t always make it into the history books.” —Louis Bayard, author of Courting Mr. Lincoln

“A contender, a deeply felt, thoroughly researched story . . . as good as it deserves to be.” –Jacquelyn Mitchard, New York Times bestselling author

“Complex, vivid, and emotionally engaging. This is a story of harsh realities written with a tenderness that shines through and honors the account of one woman’s struggle to overcome her society’s rules and her circumstances in the face of inconceivable devastation. I couldn’t put it down.” –Carol E. Anderson, author of You Can’t Buy Love Like That

“What an impressive book this is! Diane McPhail works a spell on the reader, transporting us to Mississippi in the 19th century, introducing us to a family torn apart by the time and place in which they live. She tells a dark tale, yet it’s laced with lyricism and compassion. This is a powerful, imaginative, captivating book—I’d say, even urgent, considering the time we find ourselves in now.” –Judy Goldman, author of Together

“A tender, sparkling debut that bears gentle witness to the abominations of slavery and oppression while heralding the grace, power and necessity of righting wrongs and choosing love. McPhail is full of talent and heart.” –Ethel Rohan, author of The Weight of Him