Author brings warrior Cathy Williams to life
Sarah Bird is no stranger to controversy.
Most people know her for her sharp wit, which she uses to reflect on everything from motherhood to football to the identity of women in Texas. In fact, a few years ago she got uninvited to the Texas Legislature when, upon being honored for her work “Love Letter to Texas Women,” she wanted to speak her mind on issues surrounding women’s rights. The invitation was quickly rescinded.
Although hints of her irreverent humor run through her recent historical novel, “Daughter of a Daughter of a Queen,” it’s her admiration for women’s strength that lies at the heart of this story.
Earlier this month, Westbank Libraries hosted Bird at a meeting of its Daytime Book Group. The book club had read “Daughter” and was thrilled that Bird would join their ranks. The author’s visit prompted one of the most packed book groups the library has ever seen.
“Daughter of a Daughter of a Queen” is a work of historical fiction chronicling the life of Cathy Williams, a former slave who is the only woman known to have ever served with the Buffalo Soldiers. Despite the seemingly insurmountable obstacles Williams overcame to accomplish this feat — not the least of which included impersonating a man for years with next to no privacy — her story has not exactly been immortalized in most history books.
How could someone who accomplished such a feat be relatively unknown? Bird noted that while many military heroes from the Civil War era could mythologize themselves by telling their own story, former slaves were mostly illiterate and therefore unable to write their stories down. The lack of written records added to the challenge of evoking the real experiences of Williams and her historical contemporaries.
Bird first learned of Williams 40 years ago from rodeo riders she met as a University of Texas photojournalism student. She was immediately captivated by her story, yet for a long time, Bird didn’t let herself write about Williams. As much as Bird admired her, she worried about the complexities of telling Williams’s story, the story of a 19th century black woman. It wasn’t just because there were very few recorded facts about Williams’s life. Bird was also worried about who had the right to tell this story. Surely not herself, she thought. It wasn’t her story to tell.
Yet the story of Williams resurfaced in unexpected ways in Bird’s life, haunting her. Each time it came back to her, she felt a sense of regret, a feeling of having an obligation she hadn’t fulfilled. She wanted the world to know about Cathy Williams, but fear was holding her back. She was scared of criticism, scared of the disapproval some would inevitably express if she, a white woman, tried to write Cathy Williams.
She realized something else as well, though. She didn’t want Williams’ story to be lost to history because of her own fear. No one else had told the story yet. She didn’t have an endless amount of time. If she didn’t tell it, the story might not gain the attention it deserved.
With a renewed sense of urgency — and with the blessings of a new publisher and the guidance of a new editor – she did what she’d thought about doing for four decades: She wrote the story of Cathy Williams. Weaving truths she’d found through research with imagined scenes and characters, she wrote the story from Williams’ perspective, understanding that if she didn’t get the historical details and the character’s voice just right, she’d be slaughtered by critics. In certain passages of the book, Bird’s portrayal of Williams is so vivid, it almost seems like she’s channeling her. Before she began writing, she wasn’t sure she could adopt the voice of a 19th century black woman. But early in the writing process it seemed as if Williams took over, almost as if she were telling her own story through Bird.
Ultimately, some of Bird’s fears did come true. She has gotten some hate mail. At a reading in Palacios, a man told her in front of a crowd of people that he hated her book and thought she was racist. Criticisms like this have knocked the wind out of her for days at a time. But in times like this, she finds inspiration and strength in Cathy Williams and peace in the fact that her story is finally known.
“I hope she’s up there grinning down,” Bird said during her library visit. She looked at the book in her hands. “I hope that she’s very happy about this.”
Maureen Turner Carey is a Public Services and PR Librarian at the Westbank Community Library District.