One character, for example, suffers a head injury and suddenly suffers from severe intellectual disability and moderate physical disability. Wingate poses intriguing questions here: How would a less-than able-bodied person be treated in dangerous wild west towns during the Reconstruction era? In addition to that, the choice of placing Benny, a woman of Italian heritage, in 1987 America allows Wingate to weave in intergenerational trauma of World War II, as well as women’s rights during the 1970s when Benny was a teenager. Lastly, while the Black Lives Matter movement hadn’t been established yet in 1987, it is clear that Wingate means to say that Black lives do matter and matter a great deal more than acknowledged by those in 1875, 1987, and presumably also today.
Abelism, women’s rights, effects of slavery, economic hardship and educational disparities in the south, haunting effects of World War II… Again, timely.
Above all, and perhaps also a timely topic considering the disconnectedness we all felt during the pandemic, this book highlights the interconnectedness of communities whose surface characteristics might lead more toward segregation than not. Namely, the Black and white communities Wingate describes in 1987 Louisiana turn out to be more closely related than some of the members knew…or than some of the members chose to acknowledge.
In order to show this, The Book of Lost Friends takes on physical form within the text. It’s a book in which the Black characters note the names of missing or separated family members, people sold off during slavery or sent off to fight in the Civil War, or displaced during Reconstruction. When able, the characters submitted this information to The Southwestern Christian Advocate, a Methodist newspaper, which published ads for these “Lost Friends” beginning in 1877 and continuing “through the early part of the twentieth century,” according to Wingate. (A database curated by the Historic New Orleans Collection provides access to ads from November 1879 to December 1900.) Preachers were asked to read these ads to their congregations in hopes of reuniting loved ones.
Sometimes it worked.
This past winter, my family busted out of our pandemic bubble and took a trip to DisneyWorld. One hot afternoon, while we were standing in line for frozen treats, the couple in front of us turned around and noticed our shirts.
“You haven’t been waiting in line since 2019, have you?” the man joked.
I appreciated the break in tension as I glanced down at my homemade, iron-on transfer which read “Stowell Family Vacation 2019.”
“Good one,” I told him. “Nah, I just didn’t want to spend the money on new shirts this time. But we definitely waited three hours for the Seven Dwarfs!”
By that point, I was used to people commenting on our family shirts – the neon colors I chose so I wouldn't lose anyone, or the phone numbers I had ironed onto the backs of my kids’ shirts so they could be returned to us if lost. But I wasn’t prepared at all for the comment to come.
When it was our turn to order treats, the vendor took a glance at my shirt and said, “Oh my gosh! Stovall! Maybe we’re related!”
I blinked at the thirty-year-old Black man in front of me, noted his name tag, and considered how to react.
I decided to focus on the spelling of our names.
“Oh, it’s actually “Stowell,” but that would have been cool,” I said, gesturing to his last name, which was spelled “Stovall.”
Then we hovered there for a minute.
He continued to smile at me, so I smiled back. And something warmed inside of me. His face was so earnest, it made me wonder if we could be related, even though “Stowell” was only my name by marriage, not birth. Could we have been related somewhere in the distant past? This man seems so excited by the idea that I really wanted to be related to him. I wanted to stay in that moment of connection.
It took an awkward shrug and nod to the still-growing line behind me in order to transition to placing our order, but we parted with smiles, and a few minutes later, when one of my children decided to get a soft pretzel instead, I knew just who to ask where to find a vendor selling such a snack.
I walked back to Mr. Stovall. I guess it sounds strange now to type it out like this, but it really felt like we knew each other, all because we wanted to. He eagerly offered directions, and once again, I felt reluctant to walk away.
I remembered Mr. Stovall when I got to page 211 of Wingate’s book. She writes of a character approaching the holders of the Book of Lost Friends:
“I look up and see a colored man, stout as a woodcutter, standing over us. He folds and unfolds a hat in his hands….
“I come ‘bout the Loss Friends.” He glances toward the Katie P. “I hear…heard it from a fella. You put me in the Loss F-friends, too?”
“We look toward the landing nearby and see the singing man Juneau Jane wrote the letter for on the boat, and he’s pointing somebody else our way. Word of us has spread.
“Juneau Jane gets her pencil and asks the man who he’s looking for. It’s nobody we’ve got on our pages already.
“She takes down the names of the man’s people, and he gives us a nickel before he goes back to work, loading seed bags onto a swamp boat. Then comes another man.” (211)
The characters fill their book with names of lost friends. No matter what they face in life, it’s clear that their main desire is for reunion with their people.
It’s a gruesome book, and it’s a beautiful book, and once again, I have my sister to thank for sending it. If I had to critique it in some way, it’s that I wish I knew the Benny character better. She spends most of the book telling the reader that she has a secret past that she is reluctant to acknowledge. When it all comes out in a rush at the end, I remembered my writing teachers telling me that a story should tell it all at the beginning so as to not keep secrets from the reader, and then spend the rest of the text deepening the problems and insights. I think that could have happened here. I think we could have learned about Benny’s past early on and gotten a lot more out of her by the end. Still, the read is completely worth it just for Hannie’s story. Benny’s story, if nothing else, drives home why Hannie’s story – and real stories like it – are so important today.
Here you will find a catalog of my writing and reflections.