An interview with Tamera Alexander,
Author of To Win Her Favor
Against the backdrop of one of the most turbulent times in American history, the post-Civil War era, one woman struggles against prejudice, injustice and suffocating conventions of the 19th century to pursue her dream. Tamera Alexander’s To Win Her Favor (Zondervan/May 12, 2015/ISBN: 9780310291077/ $15.99), the second stand-alone novel in the Belle Meade Plantation series, is already receiving high praise. According to Library Journal, “Strong characters, a sense of the times and the themes of love, friendship and the importance of loyalty and determination make To Win Her Favor a triumph.”
Maggie Linden lost nearly everything in the Civil War — including most of her family. She’s about to lose her stables and land at Linden Downs, and her racing hopes as well. A gifted rider in a world where ladies never race, Maggie is determined that her mare, Bourbon Belle, will become a champion. Indeed, her only hope of saving Linden Downs is if the horse takes the top purse in the inaugural Peyton Stakes, the richest race ever run in America. To give his daughter a chance, Maggie’s wily father makes a barter. But his agreement includes one tiny, troublesome detail: Maggie must marry a man she’s never met — a man she never would have chosen for herself.
Q: What made you choose to set your new novel, To Win Her Favor, during the tumultuous years following the Civil War?
Born and raised in the South (Atlanta, GA), I’ve long held a strong connection with Southern history. And what historical event defines the South as much as the War Between the States? Family homes became headquarters for troops, churches and schoolrooms became hospitals for the wounded, and the hills thick with pine and the meadows lush with grass became hallowed ground with the blood of the dead and dying. The years of Reconstruction forged a steel in the hearts of surviving men and women for a new life, a new country. I find myself fascinated by what they accomplished in the face of overwhelming odds. And remember, ultimately, so much good came from this time of suffering in our history too. So many advances in medicine, botany, mental health and social justice, to name a few.
Q: What is the central message of To Win Her Favor?
That through hope and determination even the greatest obstacles can be overcome. The story explores questions of race, faith and loyalty and offers perspective on how Reconstruction affected racial relations, social status and economic fortunes in the post-war South — and a passionate love story is at its very heart.
Q. Many Kentucky Derby winners today trace their lineage back to thoroughbreds at Belle Meade Plantation in the 1860s and 70s. Describe the horse racing culture of the 19th century and what part it plays in your story.
Through three generations of the Harding/Jackson family at Belle Meade, Belle Meade Plantation became the preeminent stud farm and nursery for the horse racing industry. Belle Meade’s thoroughbred legacy is at the center of the history of American horse racing and owes its heritage to a line of successful studs, starting with Epsilon in 1844, then following in the 1860s with Jack Malone, Vandal, Bonnie Scotland, Great Tom, Enquirer and Luke Blackburn. You’re familiar with the 1973 Triple Crown Winner Secretariat and perhaps the 2012 Kentucky Derby winner I’ll Have Another. These modern-day winners and so many more trace their lineage back to Belle Meade. Horse racing in the 19th century was the king of sports, but it was an industry dominated by males. White men owned the blood horses, and young slave boys were the ones who jockeyed the magnificent thoroughbreds. Women and girls weren’t allowed — at least, not until Margaret Linden in To Win Her Favor.
Q: What was it like for African Americans in the south during this era? Were they the only ones who faced racial discrimination in this country?
The Emancipation Proclamation (1863) granted freedom to slaves in the 10 states that were still in rebellion, but it didn’t outlaw slavery, nor did it grant citizenship to freedmen (ex-slaves). And that freedom, as we know, was ultimately hard won. But former slaves weren’t the only ones who suffered enormous abuse and ridicule. Irish immigrants ranked only slightly above that of freedmen in social status and were frequently scorned in both newspapers and society. NINA signs (“No Irish Need Apply”) really hung outside of many retail shops and businesses, as depicted in the story.
Q: In the book, Cullen McGrath is an Irishman trying to start a new life in Tennessee while overcoming not only discrimination but also a haunted past. Why is he so angry with God?
Cullen is angry with God because he believes God let him down, that God didn’t follow through on His end of the bargain. How often have we felt that way? We think, “If I do this for God, then of course God will do this for me.” That’s very dangerous theology and certainly not Biblical. Part of Cullen’s journey — just as it is each of ours — is to learn what it means to trust God . . . no matter our circumstances.
Q: Some of the scenarios in the book paint a gritty picture of this unsettled time. Why do you think it’s important we not gloss over this chapter in American history?
The old adage comes to mind, “Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” Human history is filled with atrocities: race against race, religion against religion, and greed-lust that annihilates anyone in its path. No matter the era, be it the 19th century or the 21st, human nature hasn’t changed. We still struggle with the same sins and temptations, and we have a responsibility to remember our past. So many of the racial issues people dealt with following the Civil War are still prevalent in parts of our country (and world) today, and glossing over — or rewriting history — not only denies the truth, but it cheapens the price so many paid for the freedoms we do have.
Q: As a southerner yourself, how do you embrace the culture of the south while still acknowledging its difficult place in the American story?
Very simply, the only way to embrace the Southern culture (or any culture) is by knowing how that culture was formed and by acknowledging all parts of its history, even the ugly and shameful parts. Dig deep enough into any culture’s history (you won’t have to dig far), and you’ll find deceit, greed, lust, murder, envy, and strife. Because at the core of who we are, we are all the same: sinners in need of a Savior, no matter the color of one’s skin. So to downplay the racial injustices perpetrated by the people of that time — toward people of every race, color and creed — is to risk making those same reprehensible choices again.
Q: What can this era and the story in To Win Her Favor teach us about forgiveness?
I’m always amazed at how those who have suffered the most are often the most forgiving. At the heart of forgiveness is a humility of spirit and an awareness of personal sin. Once you’ve seen how much you’ve been forgiven, I believe it’s easier (not easy, but easier) to forgive others for wrongs done to you. The characters in To Win Her Favor each learn about forgiveness — both in the giving and receiving — in their own ways.
Q: Your heroine, Maggie Linden, has lost all four of her brothers in the war and her mother shortly thereafter. Why do you think God allows such hardship and grief to affect those who love him?
Ah . . . the age-old question. Volumes have been written attempting to answer this question, so I’ll briefly share what helps me reconcile a hurting world with a loving God. This earthly life is transient. This world is not a believer’s home and was never intended to be. It’s vital in a believer’s faith walk to continually draw our focus back to an eternal perspective, which isn’t our natural bent. Not by far. I try to see each day (and everything that happens) as a way to grow closer to Christ. I try to focus not so much on “why” something is happening in my life but rather focus on what I can learn from it. And, more importantly, how I can bring glory to Jesus Christ through the experience. Eternal perspective changes everything.
Q: Have you ever felt like something bad that happened to you was a punishment for past choices?
Sure. Because sin has consequences. However, not everything bad that happens in a person’s life is due to him or her having done something bad. We live in a fallen world where bad things happen to good people all the time. It’s the nature of free will and a consequence of living in a fallen world.
Q: Like many women throughout history, Maggie finds herself in a position where it seems her only way to save her dreams and family fortune is through a marriage of convenience. What do you think you might have done if you were in her shoes?
I think I would’ve done precisely what Maggie did, which made it especially interesting to take that journey with her. Someone recently said to me, “All marriages are marriages of convenience on some level.” It’s a thought-provoking statement.
Q: You’ve said Kizzy is your favorite character in this book; tell us about her and why she captured your heart.
I fell in love with Kizzy and would love to write her continuing story some day. Kizzy represents so much of the bold hope, tenacity, and raw courage that was present in the generation of freedmen children coming of age after the Civil War. In many ways, it was a brave new world for them. Yet, in others, the world hadn’t changed nearly enough, and the war was still being fought. I adore Kizzy’s approach to life and how she sees herself. And how she sees others.
Q: Do you have a favorite way to celebrate the completion of a new novel?
I’m embarrassed to tell you, and no one has ever asked me this before. But I treat myself to one of my favorite guilty pleasures. Remember the Hostess cupcakes with the cream filling? The ones that come in the two-pack and are absolutely horrible for you and have so many preservatives they could withstand a nuclear holocaust? Well, I treat myself to a pack of those, and then I read for days on end. Just dive headlong into a stack of novels and relish the experience.
Q: What kind of impact do you hope To Win Her Favor will have on readers?
The same kind of impact it had on me . . . that it will cause readers to search their own motives and hearts in relation to prejudice and that they’ll have the courage to follow God’s lead in taking whatever steps are necessary toward healing the divide.