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  • Writer's pictureCarolyn E. Cook

The Story Behind the Story, Part Three

The reports of the new potato crop are very unfavorable. All letters and sources of information declare disease to be more prevalent this year than last in the early crop.

Randolph Routh, July, 1846

During the years of The Great Famine and its aftermath, 1846-1854, over a million people emigrated from Ireland. My great-great grandparents and their seven children were among those hardy souls who braved an arduous ocean voyage to start fresh in America. As was typical, they came in two shifts, the father Charles and oldest daughter Mary in 1852, and the mother Marjory plus the six younger children in 1853.

These were the first facts I learned about this Williams family when I started to research their genealogy. My grandmother’s box of antique photos held pictures of most of the family members and I wanted to know about them, put some reality into those faces. At first, I found the researching wasn’t an easy job. The name Williams is about as common as Smith. But I got better at knowing what to hunt for and, thanks to the early government in Philadelphia, there are plenty of records to create that elusive paper trail.

Little by little, I assembled a sketchy framework of their lives. I thought about using this as a jumping-off point and building a novel around those people, but it seemed to be such a big, even daunting challenge that I shoved the idea to a back shelf. Then, in 2015, I had major surgery that called for a long recovery and the time felt right to attempt the story, since I was in no shape to take a European tour and or cruise to the Bahamas. At the least, it was worth a good try.

I couldn’t sit comfortably at my computer, so I stayed on the couch and handwrote in a spiral, imagining the personalities of my characters, what they’d worn, what they’d done daily, what news of the times concerned them. Pretty much everything. I changed last names, keeping most of the first ones. Only here and there did I substitute a different first name. Parents in those days often called children after their fathers and even mothers. Too many characters with repeat names would’ve created confusion!

When I was able to get up and about, I researched aspects of the times, from the Potato Famine to the Civil War, from the turn of the century to modernization in the 20th. Eventually, all the effort grew into my third novel, New Mercies I See. The picture I used on the title page (and shown above) is of the real Sarah Ellen as a young woman, taken around 1880 in Philadelphia. My assumption is the dress was her creation.

A few things in the story that are true: Sarah Ellen was indeed the eighth and last child, born while the family scraped together an existence in Bucks County, the initial place they lived upon immigrating. They did go back to the bustling city of Philadelphia in the mid-1850’s and rented a tiny row house, moving occasionally when a better place came available. The father Charles worked as a general laborer, a porter, a stone cutter, and a cooper. The mother Marjory kept the house and picked up sewing jobs. The older girls worked as seamstresses, while the younger children benefited from the public schools in the city, an advantage the older children never got.

The string of family deaths, starting with Charles in 1870, is factual. He died of “chronic enteritis" and then came the onslaught of diseases, the 12-year-old nephew Robert of scarlet fever, and tuberculosis which took Anna, Marjory, Charley, and Jane. Sarah Ellen wondered how she’d ever been spared. According to my nurse friends, she probably wasn’t. In her later years, if she’d had an x-ray, it’s likely that her lungs would have shown a sealed-off tubercular section, attacked and made harmless by her strong immune system.

Sarah’s husband Daniel was a fine cabinet maker and I own one of his pieces, the “secretary,” he probably built in the 1880’s. Their marriage wasn’t a happy one, although I don’t think the real Daniel was as terrible as the character I invented.

In her later years, Sarah did live with one of her daughters, tended the house and grandchildren, after her son-in-law died of the flu and her daughter went out to be the family breadwinner. And Sarah did have a bad fall, breaking a wrist and losing use of that hand. Both my mother and her brother spoke highly of her care for them as they grew up. She taught my mother her excellent sewing skills and my uncle said, “Grandma was the sweetest old lady. I never heard her say a cross word about anything.” She was a solid, Christian believer, memorized Bible passages throughout her life, and when she could no longer see well enough to read, she was able to recite all those passages.

Below are the antique photos from my grandmother’s box, the “real” people:

Marjory, full-skirted dress, half-mitts on her hands, son John as a portly, older fellow with his Union cap and war medals, younger son Charley who worked as a “business clerk” before consumption took him, Anna who was a teacher at E.M. Stanton Girls’ Grammar School, a young Daniel, age 18, taken at a studio in Centre County, PA.

And yes, the old woman on the cover of New Mercies I See is the real 88-year-old Sarah Ellen, the picture taken in the backyard of her Maryland home in 1942.

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