On Writing

"Every fine story must leave in the mind of the sensitive reader an intangible residuum of pleasure, a cadence, a quality of voice that is exclusively the writer's own, individual, unique."
Willa Cather

Thursday, August 11, 2011

AMERICAN GIRL Writer, Frances Fitzpatrick Wright, RIP

    We met when she was leading a study group on C. S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity at the church I then attended.  I was attracted to her wit and intelligence, her clarity of expression, and her kind face.  Forty years separated us; furthermore, I was a Midwesterner, she a Southerner, but in a mysterious, magical way, we knew almost immediately we were kindred spirits.  That study group was succeeded by others on the Christian apologist, of whom the widowed Mrs. Wright said half-jokingly that she was “in love with.”  Before long, I was invited to lunch, the first of many such occasions, at her 1790s farm house near Nashville, Tennessee.  It was in that more intimate setting where I learned about a life that had been both hard and rewarding, but always grounded in her faith.
    She had been orphaned young, along with an older brother and sister, her mother going first from TB, whom Mrs. Wright quoted as saying before she died, “though He slay me, yet I will trust Him,” which deeply impressed the young girl.  This death was followed soon after by her father succumbing to a painful kidney ailment.  At that time, she and her siblings were living on a farm outside of Gallatin owned by their paternal grandparents, the grandmother lovingly depicted in Mrs. Wright’s last novel, Bless Your Bones, Sammy.
    An excellent student with potential, Fanny Belle, as she was called, had few prospects without money or position or parents.  College was out of the question; then her elocution teacher brought her home to meet her forty-year-old brother and their mother.  The eighteen-year-old was impressed with the fine old house, the neat little farm, and the welcome given her by the family with an old and respected name.  In short order, a marriage was arranged, mainly for the convenient getaway of her unmarried sister-in-law, Mrs. Wright told me.  The union produced three children, but not much income.
     Ever resourceful, the young wife and mother began sending out stories to various sources, including American Girl Magazine.  She became one of its main contributors for over twenty-five years, getting more fan mail than any other author.  Readers loved her tales, particularly of the Old Sampey Place, her fictional farm.  She sold so many stories that she published a book of them, and then another, until she had to her credit thirteen novels besides biographies of Sam Houston and Andrew Jackson written for the younger set.
    As she recounted to me her difficult early years, she was never bitter, and when she spoke of the hardships and other problems during her marriage she never castigated her husband, whom she termed as “intelligent but unlucky.”  She employed ingenuity through the years to give her rooms a look of timeless good taste by finding bargains at auctions and painting her own designs throughout the house.  Finally, in her eighties, she sold the much reduced farm, retaining a life occupancy of the  guest house on the property.
    At the beginning of our relationship she was my mentor when I was pleased to sit at her feet.  Soon I found we could talk about any subject in near perfect accord.  As she grew older and less able to get out and around on her own, she came to depend on me for companionship or to take her shopping.  Each year until she became infirm I brought her to a Nashville grade school where she would discuss one of her books the children had been reading.  This was a treat, not just for the children to meet a real live author, but also for Mrs. Wright to feel the love and appreciation of those she’d wanted to please through her writing.
    Mrs. Wright had the writer’s ability to penetrate the character of those around her, but she was never cruel in her estimation.  She once said with blue eyes twinkling, “I love my friends, but I belong to a book club where nobody reads, and a garden club where nobody digs.”  This phrase I found so deliciously apt, I used it in my novel, Rosehall.  In fact, some of the characters and incidents of that novel, though not the plot, were suggested by Mrs. Wright’s memories.  Among the townsfolk, she was loved for herself as well as her remarkable achievements.  For me, she was an inspiration.  In fact, she was an enlightened Southern lady without prejudice or pretensions.
    And then as the years went by, that keen mind began to dim from a faulty memory until in her late nineties, living in a nursing home, she failed to recognize me.  My husband and I moved to Texas for the next five years, and it was during that time a friend called and told me Mrs. Wright had died at the age of 103.  I was sorry I couldn’t be there to attend the funeral, but I had my own requiem for her in my mind and heart, which I hold from time to time in honor of the loving friendship she bestowed on me.


  1. Hi, Jeannie! I found your post while searching for information on this author. I discovered her when I was in seventh grade in 1991, when I brought home an old book of Christmas stories from American Girl Magazine. I think at least three of the stories were hers. I've read others since in other American Girl collections, and now I will try to find some of her novels. Your portrait of her is so delightful--I never would have guessed, from her stories, that she was a farm wife without a college education. Her characters are so bright and lively. Thank you for sharing this!

  2. Thanks, Wendy, for your interesting comments on Mrs. Wright. She really was a remarkable woman whose books impressed many youngsters. My own son was so caught up in her last novel, for a minute, he thought it was his birthday as well as Sammy's! I hope you can locate some copies of those great books.