The Mapmaker’s Children

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The Mapmaker’s Children is marked by rich, closely observed storytelling full of warmth and heart.”—Charles Frazier, New York Times bestselling author of National Book Award winner Cold Mountain

Sarah Brown, the vibrant, talented daughter of abolitionist John Brown, is dynamically changed when she stumbles onto her father’s work on the Underground Railroad shortly after being told the shocking news that she won’t ever bear children. Realizing that her artistic talents may be able to help save the lives of slaves fleeing north, she becomes one of the movement’s leading mapmakers, hiding maps within her paintings while bigotry and hatred steer the country toward a bloody civil war.

Interwoven with Sarah’s adventure is the present-day story of Eden, a modern woman desperate to conceive a child with her husband, who moves to an old house in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. and discovers a porcelain head hidden in the root cellar—the remains of an Underground Railroad doll with an extraordinary past of secret messages, danger and deliverance. Sarah and Eden’s connection bridges the past and present, forcing each of them to define courage, family, love, and legacy in a new way.

Sarah Brown, 1882
Sarah Brown, 1882

“McCoy deftly intertwines a historical tale with a modern one… lovingly constructed… passionately told… The Mapmaker’s Children not only honors the accomplishments of a little-known woman but artfully demonstrates how fate carries us in unexpected directions, no matter how we might try to map out our lives.” The Washington Post

“In vibrant yet unassuming prose, McCoy tells a story of womanhood past and present, asking big questions about family, courage and love. Readers will enjoy solving the historical puzzle of the doll’s origins, but the book’s true strength is its portrayal of Eden and Sarah: two brave women bound together by the difficult, noble work of building worthwhile lives.” —Shelf Awareness

“Engaging and emotionally charged… Eden’s realization that ‘what fable and history could agree upon was that everyone was searching for their ever-after, whatever that may be’ neatly sums up the novel’s heart—it’s about the family and the life we create, not always the ones we imagine for ourselves.” —Kirkus Reviews

“McCoy carefully juxtaposes the past and the present, highlighting the characters’ true introspection, and slowly revealing the unusual similarities in the two woman’s lives, which leads to a riveting conclusion.” —Publisher’s Weekly

“A fascinating peek into the personal life of the legendary John Brown and keep the pages turning. The Mapmaker’s Children serves as a reminder of how objects persist, such as Sarah’s doll, and how memories connected with those objects can last through generations.” —BookPage

“Sarah McCoy has illuminated a forgotten corner of American history with her signature empathy and spirit.” —Mary Doria Russell, New York Times bestselling author of Doc and Epitaph

“I love the way this novel connects the past to the present. At first, these two heroines from different centuries seem to have little in common. But defining moments of bravery and resilience echo across generations for a truly satisfying story.” —Laura Moriarty, New York Times bestselling author of The Chaperone

“Poignant and deeply absorbing. McCoy weaves this moving tale of two women finding their way with style and thoughtfulness.” —Madeline Miller, New York Times bestselling author of Orange Prize winner The Song of Achilles

The Mapmaker’s Children is marked by rich, closely observed storytelling full of warmth and heart.” —Charles Frazier, New York Times bestselling author of National Book Award winner Cold Mountain

“Linking a contemporary woman named Eden with the daughter of abolitionist John Brown is a provocative idea, and McCoy has the skills to pull off something talk-worthy…”Library Journal‘s Hot Book Club Reads for Summer 2015

Q&A with Sarah McCoy by Brown University’s The Brown Daily HeraldThe Mapmaker’s Children

Brown Daily Herald: Your two most recent novels, The Mapmaker’s Children and The Baker’s Daughter, both feature interwoven narratives that stretch across time and space. What led you to this form? What do you think are the challenges and advantages to juggling multiple settings and multiple narratives in a single novel?

Sarah McCoy: Writing a dual narrative in historical-contemporary hybrid form seems to be my organic way of processing whatever fictional worlds I’m working in. History seen through this kind of Alice in Wonderland looking-glass filter of the present. I wrote that way for The Baker’s Daughter and now again in The Mapmaker’s Children. I’m fascinated by how the people of the past can reach across generations and impact the present; how mysteries of the present have their solutions in the past; how issues we face and decisions we make today are strikingly similar to ones our forebearers made—with good and bad outcomes. I’m riveted by this interplay.

I think it’s important we don’t just read and compartmentalize the past as an “interesting story.” I want my readers to see that the history is a key, a manual, a lesson guidebook for us to learn and implement change in our present lives.

That all being said, it does not make for easy or simple novel writing.

Brown Daily Herald: How do you feel that your writing and writing process have evolved since your first novel, The Time It Snowed In Puerto Rico?

Sarah McCoy: As a novelist, I consider myself a perpetual student of the craft. I learn so much with each story. From the research and creative process to the editing and revising, writing a novel is like a master class in narrative invention. I come away knowing so much more than I did from the start—so many nuanced techniques and lessons that I didn’t yet know or have a full grasp of utilizing when I began my writing career. The Time It Snowed in Puerto Rico is a precious gem to me because it radiates the passion I have for my Puerto Rican heritage and the earnest yearning I had to become a published author during the writing of it.

Brown Daily Herald: You currently live in El Paso, but your stories are set all over the world. Do you travel to the settings of your novels, or do you imagine them from El Paso? How do you feel that travel has influenced your writing?

Sarah McCoy: I believe my military child upbringing developed my love of experiencing new cultures. I was born in Kentucky but lived in various regions of the United States and abroad in Germany with my mother’s family firmly rooted in Puerto Rico. So packing a suitcase and traveling was standard practice. It’s ironic considering I’m a notorious homebody. As much as I love exploring unknown territories, I love my old comforts even more! I suppose this lends itself to my stories. I’ll do boots-on-the-ground traveling for awhile, but I always crave my home. I’m happiest in my writing office where I can reflect on the places I’ve been. When I’m in the foreign setting, I’m too busy experiencing all the sights and wonders as Sarah McCoy. Only when I remove myself from the shiny newness and return to my routine can I discover the fictional characters hidden in the daily seams of that “other” place.

Brown Daily Herald: What’s on your bookshelf? Do you have a current favorite novel or an old standby that you can’t live without?

Sarah McCoy: I’m currently in the middle of reading Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life, and it is astounding. The Mapmaker’s Children shares a birthday with Kate’s sequel A God in Ruins, and I couldn’t be more honored or excited to read a fellow May 5 book baby.

Brown Daily Herald: Do you have any advice for young writers?

Sarah McCoy: Persevere. This writing life is hard. Ninety percent of your work is in solitary confinement where no one sees your toil, your tears, the sleepless nights, and writing sores from being enslaved to the story realm. And that’s exactly what you are as a writer—a slave to your characters, a humble minstrel to the masses, a pleading peasant to a kingdom of critics. But if you know for certain you could not be happy doing anything else, then join our gypsy tribe and persevere, young friends.

Brown Daily Herald: Where did you get the inspiration for The Mapmaker’s Children? How did you research the novel?

Sarah McCoy: The “spark” for each of my novels has come to me differently. Author friends tell me how they are consistently inspired through one particular medium: a visual image, historical character, political agenda, emotional struggle, color, food, etc. I can’t say that I have one. I guess my Muse likes to throw her bolts in various forms. I’ve never had a story come to me in the same way. The Mapmaker’s Children began with a sentence being spoken …

“A dog is not a child,” the woman, Eden Anderson, kept saying. And it was the way she said it that wouldn’t let me be. Confident, irked, and yet, deeply wounded by the very words she spoke. I couldn’t shush her no matter what I did. Months of hearing this over and over in my head—it could drive a woman nuts!

So in an effort to cure my insomnia from the haunting, I wrote the sentence and its corresponding scene in the journal. I realized then that the sentence was echoing through and out the front door of an old house—the house in New Charlestown calling me to solve its Underground Railroad secret. A mystery set between Eden in present-day West Virginia and Sarah Brown 150 years ago.

To be honest, before then, I was familiar with the abolitionist movement by virtue of being a history nerd. The Underground Railroad was a fascinating component, but it wasn’t until Eden and Sarah’s home called to me that I became completely absorbed in it. The research for this story took me from Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, to Concord, Massachusetts, to Red Bluff, California. I followed Sarah’s trail, piecing together her legacy map. I wrote about that extensive research process in the “Author’s Note” in the back of the novel.

Brown Daily Herald: Familial relations—specifically the relationships between parents and children—feature prominently in your work. Have you always been interested in parent/child relationships? Has your understanding of the dynamics in those relationships changed over time as you’ve written about them and had your own experiences?

Sarah McCoy: Family dynamics are essential the heart of all storytelling. Stories are inheritances passed through the generations that know no social prejudice or economic bias. Each family has its saga and may freely share. History books record the facts but the voices and hearts of people are echoed in story form. So, of course, the dynamic between those characters will infuse the material.

In The Mapmaker’s Children, I specifically wanted to tackle the issue of nurturing and defining a family. As a global community, I believe we’ve allowed a worrisome stereotype to become the high mark of good family modality. We’ve constructed a rigid mold for what a happy family looks like and anything different is somehow … less.

It weighed heavily on me, and I began to ask questions: Can you be a devoted parent without physically procreating? Does a loving, fulfilling family have to consist of children? Does being a parent only apply to humans or could one be a parent/nurturer of animals or a righteous cause? Who wrote the prototypical happily-ever-after and might each of us have the power to rewrite it?

I noticed that a majority of my friends (men and women, couples to singles) were uncomfortable—even disgruntled—by my questions in group settings. Yet in private, they admitted that they internally battled these very constraints. Again, it perplexed me. Why weren’t we able to have an open conversation about this? Why were people afraid to challenge the norm? And what happened to those who didn’t attain the set parent-child-family vision—was their family and legacy not as good as those who did?

Being an author, I sought answers through my characters. I learned from Sarah Brown and Eden Anderson. I changed through my journey with them, and I pray readers pick up The Mapmaker’s Children willing to ponder the questions and possibly discover keys to opening their own hearts.

Note: This Q&A is also available on the Brown Daily Herald’s featured content.

The discussion questions and list of book club activities are intended to enrich your reading group’s conversation about The Mapmaker’s Children, the exquisite new novel from New York Times and international bestselling author Sarah McCoy.  In order to provide reading groups with the most informed and thought-provoking questions possible, it is necessary to reveal important aspects of this novel―plot spoilers. If you have not finished reading The Mapmaker’s Children, we respectfully suggest that you wait before reviewing this guide.

Author Sarah McCoy at the grave of Sarah Brown. Madronia Cemetery, California.

Discussion Questions

  • Have any you ever moved into a house that had a mysterious past or an unexplained component—a trapped door, a secret closet, attic or basement that gave you the heebie-jeebies for reasons you couldn’t explain? Perhaps you found an artifact like Eden. Did you try to determine the historical significance of it? If so, what did you discover? If not, did you have a reason for leaving the past a secret?
  • Women’s roles have come a long way over the last 150 years, and yet, we still battle stereotypes of how to live and define our families. What similarities do you see in Sarah and Eden’s worlds and what major differences? How do you see yourself as compared to them and to the women of past generations in your family?
  • Were you previously familiar with the Underground Railroad, John Brown’s Secret Six Committee, the Raid on Harpers Ferry, slave quilt codes and songs, and the greater Abolitionist Movement? As a book group, discuss what elements you’d heard before and what elements you discovered after reading the novel.
  • Sarah Brown was a courageous artist of her time. Her paintings, the process of creating them, the people she aided, and the mode in which she distributed her artwork were all dangerous and unconventional for anyone, but particularly for a woman during the Civil War. In what ways do you see the arts influencing politics and challenging societal parameters today? Who are some artists that have broadened your worldview and how?
  • On page 267, Eden discusses bereavement: “Friends, neighbors, acquaintances feared it was catching like a virus, so they’d put on sterile gloves to hand out the ‘Our thoughts are with you’ when really their thoughts were sprinting away as fast as possible. It was too painful to recognize: mortality.” Do you agree or disagree with Eden? Share your personal experiences of losing a loved one, flesh and fur.
  • Do you have a pet? If so, do you consider those animals family members? What’s your pets’ name(s), your favorite memory with them, and how have they impacted your life and/or the lives of your family members?
  • Producing, corporeally and creatively, is a major theme in this novel. Does one supersede the other? Is leaving a legacy of children nobler than a legacy of art, courage, social change, or other historical fingerprints?
  • Baking and passing on recipes is another branch of the Creating Tree. How does Eden develop her maternal side through cooking? What are some of your favorite family recipes, and how have they played a role in your traditions and history?
  • Eden is furious when she finds Jack’s incoming texts from Pauline. Is omission of information lying? How would you respond to discovering texts such as these from an unknown person to your significant other?
  • Eden and Sarah discover great nurturing power in their communities. How do you see it made manifest in the 1860s New Charlestown? How do you see it in present-day New Charlestown? How do both of those compare to the broader social spheres outside their city limits?
  • Ms. Silverdash’s bookstore serves as the heartbeat of New Charlestown. The stories, fictional and real, are gathered and shared there. Do you have a favorite local bookstore or library in your community? If so, what’s your most cherished memory involving it?
  • At the conclusion of the book, how do you see Eden and Sarah creating and defining their own unique families? Do you believe there exists a social stereotype of the “perfect family”? If so, discuss the positive and negative qualities, and why you believe people have adhered to these social constructs now and 150 years ago.

Book Club Activities

  • Organize a pet-&-book party. Bring your furry friends to the book discussion and bake Cricket BisKets from the recipe in the back of the novel.
  • Get artsy in the spirit of Sarah Brown! As a group, make your own Civil War code dolls. The supplies can easily be found at your local craft story: muslin bags (the doll bodies), 2’’ wooden coins (the heads), pin attachments, paints, paint brushes, glue and paper for whatever ‘secrets’ you’d like inside. Keep or deliver to friend in need of your message. Photo instructions here.
  • Ask each book club member to bring a family recipe for a book club recipe swap or a prepared dish for a potluck of family foods. Go around the group sharing the history of each dish/recipe.
  • Pull out special stationery or a lovely card and write an old friend. Say anything that comes to mind as if he or she were sitting beside you and see what comes to the page. Mail it as a surprise to that individual.

You can connect with Sarah McCoy by following her on Twitter (@SarahMMcCoy) and liking her Facebook Fan Page.