Daisy Turner’s Kin: An African American Family Saga. By Jane Beck. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2015.
According the U.S. census, 96% of all Vermonters are Caucasian and just .05% are African American. Officially it’s the second whitest state in the Union (after Maine). Jane Beck’s superb new book, Daisy Turner’s Kin, suggests a way of thinking about race that’s not tied to numbers.* For at least one African American family, the Turners, Vermont was “Journey’s End.” That’s the name that escaped slave Alexander (“Alec”) Turner (1845-1923) gave to his hilltop home in Grafton, Vermont, when he settled there in 1873–after a stint in Maine. In Grafton, Alec and his wife Sally conceived sixteen children and did their best to integrate into Grafton society by being good neighbors and by learning how to become crusty Vermonters.
Alec’s story is one of respect earned and given, as related by his daughter Daisy (1883-1986), who assumed the role of griot, a storyteller and oral custodian of family lore. In the mid-1980s, Daisy shared Turner family lore with Jane Beck, the founder of the Vermont Folklife Center. She also shared stories with filmmaker Ken Burns, who included her in his PBS Civil War series. It was Beck’s film, however, that won a Peabody Award in 1990. Daisy Turner’s Kin expands upon that broadcast.
Griots–– an ancient and honored status in West Africa from Alec’s kin originated––tell tales differently from professional historians. They rely more upon metaphorical truth than fretting over whether a particular event occurred in 1901 or 1902. Precision, Beck reckoned, was her job, and among the many virtues of this book is how Beck blends Turner’s memories with archival sleuthing. Call it where the tale meets the paper trail. And what a tale it is.
Like most slave narratives, it begins in Africa, where Alec’s father, Robert, was a middle man in the slave trade before he too was abducted––probably from Nigeria––and was carried into bondage. Do Daisy’s tales of the Middle Passage apply to Robert in a literal sense? Does it matter if they are true in a deeper sense? What is known for certain is that Alec was born the property of Virginian Jack Gouldin, and was his slave until he freed himself by fleeing to Union lines in 1862. Alec had affection for his master, though he detested his overseer. Mostly, though, Alec craved freedom more than a good master. He voluntarily served with a New Jersey cavalry unit during the Civil War until he took leave of his patron for a job in Maine’s slate quarries. He returned to the South just once: to kill his cruel former overseer.
Or so family tales hold. Other tales tell of Alec’s prodigious strength, including one of winning a dare and free barrel of flour by hoisting the 150-pound burden on his shoulders and carrying it uphill from the gristmill to his home. His Bunyanesque strength aside, violence was not his forte. Locals knew him as a devout and gentle fellow villager who happened to be black. If anything, Alec saw color lines more distinctly than many of his neighbors; he expressed initial disapproval for one of his daughter’s interracial marriage.
Daisy’s story is also told, one that altered dramatically in 1899 when Alec was dragged by a horse and spent the rest of his life as a semi-invalid. Daisy, who claimed to have the power of second sight, was in Boston when the accident occurred, but rushed home to rescue her incapacitated father from freezing to death in the snow. From that point on, she put her social gadabout life behind her, tended to Alec, and spent her remaining 87 years in Grafton. She became the sort of New Englander that transcends color: an eccentric and feisty crank. Daisy unsuccessfully hounded government officials for her father’s war pension, but there were no records of his impromptu service and his patron had long since died. In her later years she was prone to paranoia and was a pack rat living amidst self-selected chaos and neglectful squalor. But she held fast to her father’s pride; before she agreed to speak with Beck she queried, “Are you a prejudiced woman?” (12) Luckily, Beck passed muster. Daisy passed away before Beck’s film or book appeared, but one suspects that Alec, Sally, and Daisy would have approved of how Beck sorted their stories.
* It was not an accident that the Turners ended up in Vermont. Though a white state, Vermont was also the first to ban slavery. In 1791, the former Republic of Vermont became the 14th state and the first since the American Revolution. A precondition for joining the Union was Vermont’s demand that it be allowed to carry into statehood its ban on slavery within its borders.
Robert E. Weir
University of Massachusetts Amherst