History in the age of cholera: The story behind David Dick’s New Historic Novel

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The Story Behind David Dick’s New Historic Novel, Scourges of Heaven

By Dan Elkinson
By arriving a day late in South America to cover the breaking story of Jonestown, CBS News correspondent David Dick survived, unlike five other journalists who met their end in an attempt to report on the authoritarian megalomaniac Jim Jones. Jones was a charismatic leader like David Koresh, who led a group of followers into the South American jungle promising the formation of a utopian society. What the followers received was a cyanide-laced cup of Kool Aid intended to transport them to God’s Kingdom. Before their journey, Jones ordered the assassination of all the reporters present. Dick’s chance survival of this 1978 tragedy left him thinking about the fragility of life, and the importance of maintaining a strong individualism in resistance to any form of authoritarianism.
The Scourges of Heaven is a novel operating on many levels that demands the attention of historians, theologians, and any reader interested in examining a through-provoking story about courage, religion, plague, and faith in the 19-century American South. Such a deep text most obviously was inspired by a number of sources and hearing Dick discuss these may open minds to the importance of studying history and genealogy.
David Dick now lives on a farm in Central Kentucky that was purchased by his great, great, great grandfather in 1799. A genealogist in the family brought to his attention a great-grandmother of his named Cynthia Anne, who lived in the Lexington area from 1830-1865. Shrouded in mystery, Cynthia Anne became a passionate interest of Dick’s, and sparked the creation of this novel. During the last ten years, Dick searched for information about her, and learned that in her thirty-five year life, she was married twice and had eight children. Dick was especially interested in her first teenage husband and their son. During his research he came across a note in the back of an 1850s edition of Western Citizen, a Bourbon County newspaper, which indicated that Cynthia Anne and her son died victims of the cholera epidemic which returned to Lexington in the 1850s after having wiped out 10 percent of the town’s population in 1833. He extrapolated that the note was mistaken, and that it was Cynthia Anne’s husband who had died along with their young son, otherwise how could she have remarried and borne another seven children?

Cynthia Anne’s body, and the bodies of her deceased first husband and son are buried in unmarked graves here in Lexington, and Dick is still searching for their locations with no definitive conclusions to date. The burying of victims led Dick to another intriguing historical figure in Lexington’s history.

In the course of his research Dick rediscovered William “King” Solomon, a “giant” who buried the bodies of cholera victims in Lexington, until he himself succumbed to the disease. All that we know about Solomon is from James Lane Allen’s fictional work Flute and Violin, which has in a sense become truth, making Solomon, who now rests in Lexington Cemetery, a local legend. Dick’s fascination with his great grandmother and King Solomon the grave digger had become inextricably linked to the cholera epidemic in Kentucky, and he reveled in the possibility of creating an historical novel.

The Scourges of Heaven began to take shape in the author’s mind. He wanted to tell a story based on real events and real people who struggled through an epidemic, and the ensuing battle between science and religion. He was rewarded a research grant from the University of Kentucky which allowed him and his wife to travel to England and Scotland, sites where cholera epidemics appeared after first being cited in India. His visit to the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich revealed an abundance of information about the disease, and it occurred to Dick that the immigrant ships were responsible for cholera’s spread to America. After three weeks of research abroad, he returned to Kentucky and presented the University Press with a proposal for the novel he would write tracing Cynthia Anne and the epidemic across the Atlantic, into New Orleans, and up into the Bluegrass. His fictionalized Cynthia Anne would arrive in America as an orphan, but have a chance for survival due to the kindness of a doctor, a prostitute, and a sea captain. The twelve year old would make it to Kentucky, where the rest of her story would be told.

Thinking back to his experience in South America, Dick wanted to create a character built around individualism, one strong enough to fight against all the norms and structures of the South that sought to keep an immigrant woman in her lowly place. Much of the story’s action takes place in the Bluegrass, and Dick’s affinity for the area stands out. “Sense of place is so important, and it is pervasively felt here. Knowing who your ancestors were…and the desire to tell stories, to share…there is a desire of Kentucky writers to capture the essence of the people who lived here, and a resistance to further stereotyping of Kentuckians.”

What Dick has accomplished in The Scourges of Heaven may reach beyond what he set out to do. “I am more proud of this work than any other I’ve written. Genealogy is more than just names and dates,” he states, “It’s about remembering important stories.” Unfolding around Dick’s fictionalized Cynthia Anne, is indeed a remarkably important story about strength, individuality, and faith in the goodness of God, despite the presence of evil. But most of all the story is one of survival.

The Scourges of Heaven

by David Dick

The University Press of Kentucky

One of the reasons The Scourges of Heaven was written was to open a discussion about the relationship between disease and theology. This multi-layered novel throws the reader into the 19th century debate where science and religion face off. In the midst of a dreadful cholera epidemic several characters take up the word of God, insisting that the sinning and corruption must end before any relief of the plague may be expected.

The more scientific characters believe all the prayer in the world won’t end the epidemic unless the prayer is aimed at improving the unsanitary and cramped living conditions the masses are exposed to. Where and how the disease appeared, and how society responded to it, intersect with science, religion and economics throughout the text. Rich folks who may be sinners could run away and survive, but an honest hard working poor man would suffer and die in the path of the relentless disease’s progression. The timeless questions related to the presence of evil and God’s involvement in the suffering of man are asked and answered by a variety of the well developed characters Dick creates.

His rather exceptional character of Cynthia Anne seems to be followed by the scourge, but eludes its deadly grasp each step of the way. Departing London in the steerage of a vessel carrying immigrants with dreams of a new life and the contradicting reality of death, she arrives in New Orleans orphaned, after watching her parents tossed overboard along with the other victims of cholera. The ship’s mean-spirited captain is persuaded by an interesting moral circumstance to look after the twelve year old girl, promising her a chance for survival in the land of opportunity. They are pursued by the pestilence throughout their journey up the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers, and into Lexington, the Athens of the West.

No one believed that such a paradise with rolling hills and serene farmlands would be touched by the plague. However, they arrive in a ghost town, where more and more folks are being buried every day by the fearless giant William “King” Solomon.

Cynthia is befriended by the giant and the two free blacks he lives with, one an older woman, and the other a boy her age. The intriguing theological questions Dick forces the reader to ponder are emphasized by his gifted ability of characterization. Exemplified by not only Cynthia Anne, but by secondary characters as well, the reader is drawn into the story by a sense of familiarity. A profound blending of fact and fiction results in a novel achieving what the author had hoped it would do. Only through dialogue may the human race strive to understand our suffering at the hands of new diseases and the frequent occurrences of natural disasters, and attempt to explain our place in this seemingly indifferent universe.

-DE

 


BIO of David Dick

After retiring from CBS in the mid 80s, Dick was appointed associate professor of journalism at the University of Kentucky, despite never having taken a journalism class while receiving a B.A. and M.A. in English Literature from the same institution. He then took a job as the publisher of a weekly paper called The Bourbon Times in 1988, where he remained for two years. On Kentucky’s Bicentennial (June 1, 1992) he and his wife self published his first book The View From Plum Lick, which was the first of five non- fiction books that they would publish on a yearly basis until 1996. At this point, the 66-year old Kentuckian began work on his first novel, a three year project merging fiction and historical facts. The novel was published by the University Press of Kentucky this October, and was the first original novel of historic fiction published by this press. -DE

 

 



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