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Art Beat
A weekly look at creativity, arts, and culture in southwest Michigan, hosted by Zinta Aistars.Fridays in Morning Edition at 7:50am and at 4:20pm during All Things Considered.

Art Beat: Hearts Of Mercy

Andy Robins

She’s an off-the-grid farmer in Fennville and harpist who somehow also finds time to write. Joan Donaldson has several historical fiction novels and nonfiction books to her name, along with children’s picture books. Her newest historical novel, Hearts of Mercy (Black Rose, 2018), is about Viney Walker, a spirited young woman in Tennessee during the 1880's.

“I lived in Tennessee in the summer of 1974,” Donaldson says. “I made a very close friend and in about 1985 she took me up to see the Walker Sisters' cabin, which is part of the Great Smoky National Park. That’s when I became fascinated with the Walker sisters.”

A conversation with Joan Donaldson

Donaldson introduced her character, Viney Walker, in On Viney’s Mountain in 2009. The Walker sisters defied the government in the 19th century. At a time when women were not allowed to own property, they took ownership of their farm. In the new novel, Donaldson takes on the White Caps, a group of hood-wearing, vigilante men who whip and torment women they consider “lewd.”

Credit Black Rose Publications
Black Rose Writing

“I got into the whole question of why did this white vigilante group discipline women almost like Sharia law,” Donaldson says. “Where did they come from? Because Viney comes from Rugby, a more progressive settlement, she has her own ideas of what women should be allowed to do. She wants to do something to give all women the freedom to act or, in this case, to choose to court someone without the White Caps beating you. Actually, they were much more brutal than I portrayed in my book.”

Donaldson says most members of the White Caps were former Union soldiers who claimed to be preserving “the integrity of the United States” after the Civil War. If at first fathers agreed to their disciplining young women, they soon changed their minds after many women were brutally beaten, sometimes to death. Family members were also attacked. This continued until another group, called the Blue Bills, formed to protect women. Donaldson says they were able to stop some of the violence, but not all of it.

Hearts of Mercy won the 2018 PenCraft Award. Donaldson’s previous novel, On Viney’s Mountain, received the 2010 Friends of American Writers Award, represented the State of Tennessee at the 2010 National Book Festival, and appeared on the Bank Street List of the Best Books of 2010.

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