Calico Girl Brings to Light Little-Known Civil War History

Award-winning author and Mt. Hebron Special Education teacher Ms. Jerdine Nolen celebrated Valentine’s Day by adding her new novel, Calico Girl, to her noteworthy list of works. The young adult novel follows the fictional story of 12-year-old Callie Wilcomb and her courageous journey to freedom at the start of the civil war.

Ms. Nolen came up with the idea of  the book after reading an article about three slaves who swam across the James River to turn themselves into the Union Army. General Benjamin Butler realized that since Virginia had recently seceded from the Union, it was now considered foreign country. This meant that Butler was not required by the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 to return the slaves to their owners since the law only applied to the United States. Instead, Butler claimed that the slaves were now contraband of war and therefore free men. Word of this news spread, and slaves from the South flocked to Union-controlled Fort Monroe.  

Ms. Nolen was inspired by this story.  “[I wondered] what would happen if I followed the journey of one of these families that went to the fort, and it kind of gave me a chance to look at slavery, what it means to be free, and what it means to move from one place to another  for a better life,” she said.

“I found it so interesting that there was a moment in history that occurred that I never knew existed,” Ms. Nolen added.  “This little window opened up and all these people started to move.”

Callie’s family travels in hope of freedom, new knowledge and a life where they can be defined as more than just property.  In order to gain a better life, the Wilcombs have to leave everything they know behind, which is similar to what many slaves did during this time period.  

“I was struck by the fact that [these slaves] had a story to tell — that they had come and gone and no one had even known their name — and what they sacrificed just because of the time that they were born in life,” said Ms. Nolen.  

Many of the escaped slaves set up communities and contraband camps where some were educated and paid to work for the Union Army. Later, the Confiscation Act of 1861 and the Act of Prohibiting the Returning of Slaves were passed to protect escaped slaves from being sent back to their masters in the Confederacy.

Ms. Nolen said, “I remember reading one slave saying, ‘I don’t know what contraband means, but at least I’m not a slave.’”  

In the novel, Callie is a strong African-American female lead who repeatedly shows tenacity and resilience when faced with the struggles of this time period. Callie relies on her close family to help her reach for the life that she wants to live. Ms. Nolen hoped that Callie could be the type of character whose wisdom and generosity would motivate and inspire people.

Ms. Nolen said, “I want them to appreciate the possibility of a character — of a human being — having gone on that journey, to have gone from something that she knew to move to something better for her.”

Recently, issues regarding race and immigration have become prominent in the U.S.’s political and social climate. Novels like Calico Girl help to remind readers of where the nation as a whole has come from.

“I think, more than ever, we have to talk about our country as a nation with a past, the kind of past that it has and not pretend it did not happen,’” said Ms. Nolen. “I think the intersection of race and culture is the place where things can go north or south for us as a nation.”

Calico Girl, which has already received rave reviews from Kirkus and Booklist, is sure to be an important and meaningful novel for young readers across the country. In the meantime, Ms. Nolen will be working on her next young adult novel.

“I think what’s most important is our stories reflect who we are as an individual, as a people, as a group, as a collective,” said Ms. Nolen. “I think the entire world revolves around a story. I think it’s important to know because so much of life was denied to slaves. I think people need to have their stories told.”

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