True Crime on Delmarva Comes Alive in Fowler’s ‘Crossings’

Murder, race and a gripping collection of creative non-fiction

The facts of the matter are usually pretty easy to come by but for the literary non-fiction writer the facts are not the story, they are the potential for a story, a brute outline of what is possible. For local author Stephanie L. Fowler, they are tools just like foreshadowing and alliteration, means for making a story vivid. 

If historical accounts are photographs, literary non-fiction is a painting of the photograph. Using the double intermediary of documents and the authors perspective, a story is produced that is more vivid, but no less accurate than those accounts.

In her book “Crossings,” for which she won the Sophie Kerr Prize at Washington College, Fowler recounts four stories from Delmarva’s history and one from her own. The opening tale concerns Franklin City, Va. and the hundred-year arc that took it from boomtown to ghost town.

In historical documents, you’ll find the facts of the matter, business opening and closings, fires and storms. But what sets Fowler apart as a reader and interpreter is her ability to hear an interesting story and see the connections, the literary conceits that are by nature part of any occurrence given the space of time and perspective.

‘Crossings’ Is True Crime With a Local Flavor

From the opening of “The Curse of Franklin,” there is no doubt about what Franklin City will be in the end. But the storytelling is such that the reader holds out hope the resolution might be different. The participants are both witnesses and characters and the artistic license allowed the non-fiction literature author is never abused. The story is clean and gripping.

The second, and likely the strongest story in the collection, “And Justice for All,” is a nod to the true crime stories that gave rise to the literary non-fiction genre and keep it viable. The detailed account of the Pilchard murders of the 1940s owes more than structure to Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood.”

The home invasion, the mis-informed former employee turned thief, the violence and ensuing manhunt follow what would be a well-worn story line if the stories weren’t true. And that’s what makes literary non-fiction so compelling. It makes the question of whether life imitates art obsolete by putting interpretation and the human experience at the center of both.

At the climax Fowler suggests what it must have been like for the killer, an African-American recidivist, wading through the frozen marshes of Worcester County wondering if he’d live to see trial. The crime occurred at a house between Girdletree and Stockton but the action ranges as far south as Pocomoke. At one point during the search a mob tears apart the Snow Hill jail, taking witnesses out of protected custody with the aim of making them talk.

Because of the history of slavery both on the peninsula any story involving race brings more baggage with it than a story without. The tension between the brutality of the crime and the enthusiasm of the hundreds of un-deputized posse members carries the story. History comes with ready-made tensions and a good storyteller helps us access them. This is where Fowler succeeds with some regularity.

The Age-Old Question of Race

The question of race on the Eastern Shore is well addressed in “A Forgotten History” which chronicles the difficulties the region faced educating children of different colors and then integrating the two groups.

“Segregation took its toll and change has been slow on the peninsula,” Fowler writes in the opening. “The history is still being written.”

Maryland was a slave state that did not secede, which meant it remained legal to own slaves here until after the Civil War. Fowler traces the difficulties the region had freeing, consenting to educate and finally allowing the integration of African Americans into the area’s schools in an objective, accessible way.

The other stories in Crossings — “Sons of the Chesapeake” which chronicles armed hostilities between Maryland and Virginia in the mid-20th Century and “Ana’s Story” telling of a Bosnian refugee’s Eastern Shore experience — are well researched and conveyed as well.

“Crossings” is available in A Novel Idea bookstore The Greyhound Bookstore and Salt Water Media in Berlin as well as online. 

This story originally appeared in the 6/24/10 issue of the Bayside Gazette. Links have been updated.