A cutlass descends and the hand of merchant banker Isaac Randall is severed at the wrist. The pirate captain holds it high, removes the ring, and flips the hand over the rail. As his wife, Betsy, watches helplessly, the prancing pirates lift her three young children—Alice, Mary, and the baby, David—and finally Isaac himself and throw each of them into the sea.
This scene—which takes place aboard the Sally Dash, the sailing ship carrying the Randalls from England to Virginia in 1713—begins a new novel, One Day’s Tale. It’s a book brought to us in the modern manner—that is, without the dubious benefits of agents and publishing houses making commercial calculations. One Day’s Tale began 12 years ago with a dream: its author, Lois Barliant, a retired Chicago public school teacher, had a nightmare about a severed wrist. “Give me your ring,” said a voice as she slept, and—as she tells the story today—she would not allow herself to wake up until she knew more: who spoke, who was there, what happened to them next.
The dream did not recede. The next day she began to write.
When Barliant was a girl she listened faithfully to Monitor, which is what NBC Radio called its weekend programming of news and features—its heyday was the late 1950s and ’60s. One story that stuck with her was a report on wartime atrocities and amputated hands. But why did it suddenly haunt her sleep decades later? Barliant tells me that in 1991, when the first gulf war began, she was teaching at Lakeview High, and a student came in “and he is really excited—he can’t wait to graduate so he can sign up. I really liked this kid and I thought, ‘Really! You can’t wait? I don’t want you to go.'”
Now it was 2003, and the president was sending America back to the gulf to clean up his father’s unfinished business. Barliant was about 75 pages into her book when “suddenly it hit me like someone threw a bucket of water at me that I was writing about the Iraq war.” It was a war of choice, and she dreaded it. “I was not going to write an Iraq war novel,” she tells me, “but I could write this novel, so I did.”
Those early pages on the Sally Dash put her art to an immediate test. It’s one thing to end a novel apocalyptically, but another to begin it that way, when the horror can’t be allowed to overwhelm everything that follows or make it implausible for the protagonist to continue to function as a character. The balance of One Day’s Tale might be called a tragedy of manners. The Randalls sailed for the New World because Betsy’s brother had died in a duel and Isaac decided to take over his Virginia plantation and live the life of a nobleman. Betsy would happily have stayed in England, but she had little say in the matter. She alone survives to reach Virginia, where she finds herself the owner of 1,500 acres of tobacco and more than 70 slaves. She is pregnant as well—either by Isaac or by the British naval captain who rescued and then raped her. She ponders what it means that her brother owned slaves—and that Isaac was fully willing to inherit them. When she discovers she is the aunt of children she’d known nothing about, born of the slave her brother took into his home and bed, she believes the land should be theirs. Legally, however, they have no claim on it or even on their own lives. She owns them. They can own nothing.
Betsy is forced to confront both the irrationality and logic of slavery. Even Deborah—herself a slave, though she’s the mistress of the plantation and the mother of Betsy’s niece and nephew—defends the whip. “Slaves must obey the master, not love him,” Deborah tells Betsy. “Keeping watch over slaves without a whip is like hunting without a gun—there’ll be no meat on the table.” Worse, the crops will fail and the plantation will go under—and Deborah’s life and pride is this plantation. Betsy is in a poor position to argue—she is the interloper. The reader knows better than to expect a happy ending. Betsy contrives a tiny separate peace with her circumstances, but it’s not likely to hold. And slavery will last another 150 years.
The back of Barliant’s book contains the usual blurbs and there’s one she’s particularly grateful for. “One Day’s Tale isn’t historical fiction,” the author Wayne Johnson wrote, “it’s a literary novel about oppression.”
Even so, it’s set 300 years ago, and a reader needs to believe the author knows what she’s talking about. Beyond all the usual research, Barliant drew from her time spent tutoring at the Tuskegee Institute, and teaching in Liberia and Great Britain as well as in Chicago. She showed the first chapter to a writers’ group she was in. She says, “The only person who came that day really liked the chapter. I said, ‘I know nothing about sailing.’ And he said, ‘That’s all right. I do.’ And he did.” Later she was at a workshop in Taos. “I had pretty innocent sailors. They were quite nice. This one man, he’d been in the navy, and he was shaking his head and he said ‘There’s no way they’re not going to see her as a sexual object. She’s not going to be comfortable in that group of men.'”
After writing and rewriting her novel at least half a dozen times, Barliant decided it was time to look for an agent and publisher. She couldn’t find either—she was both too old and too unknown for the industry to invest in. “A couple of people said ‘I’d really like to see your second book,'” she says. Writing the book mattered more to her than publishing it, and besides, she was working on three other novels; she decided to set this one aside.
Her husband had a different idea. A former federal bankruptcy judge, Ron Barliant was winding down his law practice, and with time on his hands he decided to publish it himself. That’s not hard to do, he says, if you settle for a second-class production, but he didn’t intend to. Primarily by looking online, he rounded up copy editors, proofreaders, a cover designer, an interior designer, and a printer, Ingram, that not only prints on demand—meaning no heap of unsold copies in the author’s basement—but is one of the world’s largest book distributors. Ron’s cousin, Don Barliant, and his wife, Janet Bailey, read One Day’s Tale, and because they liked it the book is now on the shelves of Barbara’s Bookstores, which they own. It’s also for order online and as an e-book, and Ron has signed up a marketer with ideas on how to promote it. He decided to call the imprint Austin Lamp Press, honoring the light-fixture shop his late father ran in Chicago for half a century.
I like to write about self-published books I admire. (Here’s a past column. Here’s another.) Authors, like journalists, are discovering these days they often have to do it all themselves—but can; and the next generation of authors needs the example of the first. One Day’s Tale is a strange, good book that commercial publishers would have had little idea how to introduce to its audience.