Delving a little deeper into a work of fiction led one literature professor and his students on a path toward a historic discovery.
This fall, Gregg Hecimovich, chairman of the English Department at Winthrop University, and graduate students in his "Slave Narratives and the Novel" class explored a novel about a fugitive slave in an effort to determine the author's identity.
Identifying who wrote the novel - called "The Bondswoman's Narrative, By Hannah Crafts, A Fugitive Slave Recently Escaped from North Carolina" - is an important step in learning more about slavery and the people who suffered.
To hear "the voice of someone who's suffering" slavery is to have a more credible account of what it was really like, Hecimovich said.
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Furthermore, that slave girl could be the first African-American woman known to have ever written a novel, as has been suggested by the scholar who discovered it, Henry Louis Gates Jr., Alphonse Fletcher University professor and director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research at Harvard University.
So figuring out who wrote it is easy, right? Hannah Crafts is her name.
Not so, say Hecimovich, his students and several other scholars, historians and genealogists who've taken an interest in the novel.
Gates bought the novel at an auction, 150 years after it was written.
Published for the first time in 2001, the novel chronicles the life of a light-skinned slave girl named Hannah who at one point lived on a plantation in North Carolina before her escape.
Though the author penned the name Hannah Crafts, it's likely not real, especially if it was written by a fugitive slave - as believed by many scholars. The slave would have wanted to protect her identity.
If the author had been a white person of abolitionist persuasions, he or she would also have had reason to hide that fact by using a fake name.
So the search goes on.
Hecimovich has been trying to solve the mystery with help of students by investigating the people, places and events in the novel for evidence they might have really existed.
With archival research gathered at university libraries across North Carolina and the Library of Congress, they examined family trees, letters and ledgers detailing household inventories - including the buying and selling of slaves - and any other documents that have a story to tell about who Hannah Crafts might have been.
Some of Crafts' characters were historic figures. Descriptions of places and events that transpired in the novel also crop up in historic documents.
Through this "forensic evidence," Hecimovich said he believes he has found two likely candidates for the real Hannah Crafts: one of two mulatto females working as a house servant for prominent plantation families in two North Carolina counties with whom she might have learned how to read and write.
Hecimovich has visited the counties in North Carolina and has even presented his research to the descendants of the historic figures written about in Crafts' novel, in hopes someone has new evidence to illuminate who Hannah Crafts might have been.
Finding the facts
Every old document has a story to tell if someone is "imaginative enough to realize how to read it," said Hecimovich.
Something as rote as a plantation household inventory - a record of items bought and sold, when and for how much - could reveal volumes about how a plantation functions, Hecimovich said.
"Every community has to understand its past to understand itself," he said. "In archival research, we're getting closer to the facts, not sifting through layers of interpretation."
Exploring fictional texts such as Hannah Crafts' is crucial.
"A novel captures nuances and psychology that's not accessible by factual data," Hecimovich said.
Together, they give scholars "a snapshot of history," said graduate student Christina Williams. "It's important to get the whole picture."
Graduate student Kim Pace has found similarities between Crafts' novel and Jane Eyre, a novel written around the same time - not by an American slave but by Charlotte Brontë, an English woman.
Though they are seemingly disconnected, both tell Pace something about the other, who and what culture produced the work.
"Everything illuminates everything," she said.
And there's always more digging to be done, as Hecimovich and his students continue to debate who Hannah Crafts really was.