I love library book sales. Especially when I stumble across a prize like an 1883 edition of “Longfellow’s Poems” in good condition. And that’s exactly what I found at the East Asheville Library a decade or so ago.
The embossed cover featured lovely butterflies and curlicues and the contents weren’t bad, either. In addition to the poems, there was an inscription: “Carlotta Ratts, Christmas 1885.”
For years the book sat on my shelf, from where I would occasionally take it down to reference a poem. Then, in October 2011, it occurred to me to wonder if I could find Carlotta Ratts. It’s certainly a unique name. So I did what’s so very easy to do these days — I Googled her.
And I did find a record of a woman by that name. She was born in 1860, was married in 1888 and died in 1933, all in Indiana. And she had a grandson — William Nathan Ford Jr. — who was born in 1935 and would be 80 if he were still around. Satisfied, I felt like I knew Carlotta a wee bit better and tucked the book back on my shelf.
But first I wrote a short piece about my search — and how it’s the sort of thing that spawns ideas for novels — and posted it on my blog atwww.SarahLoudinThomas.com. And that was that.
Until February 2015, when someone commented on that blog post from 2011. He claimed to be Carlotta’s grandson. I was a bit cautious at first, knowing you can never be too careful about strangers who get in touch with you online. But at the same time I was excited to think this really could be a connection to my book.
So I followed up with Bill Ford via email and asked if he remembered anything special about “Longfellow’s Poems.” It turns out Bill once needed to memorize a poem for an assignment in school and his father suggested the one pasted inside his Grandmother Carlotta’s book. It was Longfellow’s first work, “Mr. Finney’s Turnip.” Bill, who can still recite that poem, described how it was glued inside the front cover.
As soon as he mentioned that bit of paper stuck to the front board, I knew this was Carlotta’s grandson. Bill had been doing some genealogical research and stumbled across my blog. Then he took the initiative to reach out and see if this was, indeed, the book he remembered.
I shipped the book to where Bill and his wife were spending the winter in Florida. He still owns the family farm in Indiana where his grandparents lived and was delighted to share a little of their history.
Turns out, Carlotta was a schoolteacher at Volga School in Volga, Indiana, where she boarded with the Ford family. As so often happen in romance novels, Carlotta fell in love with and married the Ford’s only son, James. They lived on the Ford farm for the rest of their lives. The book may very well have been a Christmas present from James to Carlotta in the days when they were courting.
Carlotta died before Bill was born, but he has warm memories of his grandfather and father — both gone now — talking about how beloved she was. Bill is thrilled to have been reunited with his grandmother’s book and stopped off in Asheville on his way to Indiana this past spring to meet me. We speculated about how the book might have traveled from Indiana to North Carolina and shared stories about our families.
One dollar at a book sale led to a bit of history finding its way home. Not to mention some great ideas for future novels. Now that’s money well spent!
Sarah Loudin Thomas is the author of “Miracle in a Dry Season” and “Until the Harvest.” A native of West Virginia, she now lives in Asheville, where she is a fundraiser for Black Mountain Home for Children. To learn more about her writing, visitwww.SarahLoudinThomas.com.