Book Review: A Life for Nancy: Daughter of Frankie Silver
Reviewed by Mary Ickes
With nary a nod to the truth, nineteenth-century song, poetry, fiction, and drama sensationalized a lurid story about Frances “Frankie” Stuart Silver murdering her husband Charlie. Posterity has proven only two details to be fact: Charlie Silver died by axe on December 22, 1831, and Frankie Silver was hanged on July 12, 1833. Until this book was published last year, history largely ignored another crucial fact: Nancy, their only child, was born on November 3, 1830. Riley Henry’s 25 years of research culminated in this novel based on Stuart family stories and Civil War letters and documents recorded in the Yancey County Courthouse.
After her mother’s arrest, the Silver family claimed the child, but, knowing that Frankie wanted Nancy with the Stuarts, cousins kidnaped her from the Silver’s home in the Village of Toe River, North Carolina (Yancey County), and fled to Ellijay (Macon County). Furious, the Silvers repeatedly searched Stuart properties but, since Charlie had refused to visit Frankie’s relatives, they knew nothing of the Ellijay Stuarts. Five years later, Barbara Stuart, Frankie’s mother, gained legal custody and returned Nancy to Toe River. Outwitted again, the Silvers appealed the adoption in vain.
In January 1850, at age 19, Nancy married David Parker.
In accordance with the adoption agreement, Barbara gave them a cow, furniture, and, to Nancy’s astonishment, the deed for 100 acres of land in Yancey County. Charlie Silver’s uncle had divided his land between his wife’s Silver nephews.
For the next eleven years, Nancy and David, happily married, worked hard and prospered until: … they had a huge barn, large fields of corn, a few fruit trees, and even several head of cattle. Jacob William “Bill” Parker, born in 1852, was joined by Charles, Retta, Margaret, and Mary over the next nine years.
Rumors of Civil War solidifying into reality, David joined the Confederate Army on March 21, 1862. Though proud of his Nancy’s determination and skills, David worried about leaving her solely responsible for producing enough food for winter. His letters, reproduced as written, and Nancy’s relentless struggle depict their family’s descent into war’s hell.
David’s letters of 1862, beginning in May, assure his family that he and his comrades eat well, that morale is high, and that the war will soon end. But in December: I am verry [sic] weak at this time, hardly able to go about at all.
By May 1, 1862, Nancy and the children have planted an enormous garden and fields of corn. Until August, they hoe, weed, and pray for rain. Then, Nancy and the girls … put up everything they could get their hands on. They worked from sun up [sic] to sun down [sic] making syrup, stringing beans, burying cabbages and turnips, drying fruit, and filling the cellar … in the bank behind the house with dried beans, extra meal, and coffee. David sent money for coffee, flour, leather and fabric. Despite Nancy’s strict rationing, the boys’ trapping, and her hunting, her food supply was nearly depleted by January.
David’s letter of November 1863 assures Nancy that he is safely settled for the winter – until he goes for water without his gun and is captured by the Union. Nancy and the children worked even harder that second year for a better winter food supply, but, with David sending less money, the staples, shoes and clothing are in short supply.
Toward the end of 1864, David reports, the army lives in deplorable conditions and the ranks, due to battle casualties, men taken prisoner, and desertion, diminish every day. With Bill and Charlie sent out to work for food that spring, Nancy and the girls plant the garden and corn. With David sending no money, she plants wheat for flour, drinks chicory coffee, and mends threadbare shoes and clothes.
In March 1865, David writes that the Union and Confederate breastworks (trenches dug to hold off the enemy) … are not more than 300 yards apart. Assigned to sharp shooter detail, David nightly patrols the land in between to kill Union soldiers.
As Nancy works her garden in April 1865, an elderly neighbor hobbles up with the joyous news that the war has ended. David will soon be home! Before she realized what she was doing, she had her arms around old Silas and they was [sic] hugging and laughing and dancing right there in the middle of Nancy’s muddy garden. A few days later, Nancy learned that David, shot in the thigh, died from an infection on April 14, 1865. … She had to find the strength to carry on because of the children. If it weren’t for them, she would have just laid down and died herself.
Nancy Silver continued to farm her land and protect her family as she knew David expected, until, in 1869, life dealt her a blow slightly less devastating than his death. Her mountain woman spirit again prevailed, but, to the end of her days, she questioned life’s cruelty. Even so, Nancy Silver holds her own when compared to other mountain women, fictitious or real.
Unfortunately, Reading Friends, Nancy and David Parker’s noble story, as shown by these examples, fell prey to non-editing.
1. Continuity: A few weeks after he was taken prisoner by the Union, David surprises his family with a visit. How did he escape?
2. As the book’s predominant verb, would makes for heavy reading: They would grind up these parts … rather than They ground up these parts …
3. The characters’ dialect spills over into the narrative: … Mary came home and seen how her life … and She wasn’t used to seeing no black women at the inn.
4. Direct addresses are set off with one comma: Why Mary, what in the world … or not at all: Put your stuff on my wagon Nancy and …
5. Spell check negligence: … she would find a descent [decent] man
David and Nancy Parker’s life deserves better.
Riley Henry’s wife, Wanda, is a great-great-granddaughter of Nancy Silver Parker. Their dream for the last several years has been to put Nancy to peace at last with this book.
Danita Stroudemire, a weekly columnist for The Franklin Press for more than 15 years and author of My Way ‘o Thinkin’, she wrote about Riley Henry’s researching Nancy Silver Parker’s biography story ten years ago. Now, it is with great pleasure and honor that she has helped turn Riley’s story into this historical fiction novel.
Buddy, T.C.P.E. (Tuxedo Car Par Excellence)
Now that Tooley expertly assists Mary with printing, I’m teaching him to help Roy read the morning paper. I’ve obviously attained graduate level, but, as you will see next month my little friend studies hard.