Molly Walling had been married and raised a family. Now she was divorced, had an empty nest, and was wondering what the next phase of her life might bring. Then came the phone call in 2006 that would change her priorities—and her life.
Her brother, Jay Fields, had been to an uncle’s funeral in Florida. He found out there that their father had killed a man while living in the Mississippi Delta. Molly was shocked. She didn’t know what to do with this new information.
Having moved to Asheville about five years earlier from Bristol, where she had lived much of her life, Molly was teaching writing at the University of North Carolina—Asheville, and pursuing a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Nonfiction from Goucher College in Maryland, a low-residency program. Her mentor professor at Goucher said he didn’t think she could ignore this story. “It had me in its grasp,” Molly says.
What followed was a relentless pursuit of what happened on December 12, 1946, in Mississippi. The end result is Molly’s book, Death in the Delta: Uncovering a Mississippi Family Secret, which was published recently by The University Press of Mississippi.
The book project was challenging for many reasons. Because it had been 50 years since the shooting in Anguilla, Mississippi, few people were alive that had the slightest recollection of the incident, and those who did seemed to have varied versions of what happened. With her father being a white man of privilege, a crime against black men was covered up at worst or downplayed at best. Written accounts in area newspapers and court records were few and lacking in detail. Molly read historical accounts of the 1940s and ’50s seeking context and perspective on the events of 1946 and the years that followed. Pursuing the truths raised the ire of several family members who suggested that Molly “let sleeping dogs lie.” Extensive research, including several trips to Mississippi, and editing culminated in about three rewrites of the book.
Molly looked, too, at how the incident may have weighed heavily on family dynamics. She looked at her own past in a new light. The family moved from Mississippi to Knoxville and then Bristol. Family relations became more strained. Alcohol became a bigger part of daily life. What could have been an idyllic life in Bristol slowly slipped into a constant and palpable tension.
As a writer of nonfiction, Molly knew her role was to peel back the layers to uncover the truth and tell a powerful story. She had to speak with the black families who lost loved ones. “I had to tell them that I’m really, really sorry for what happened,” Molly says. “And at the same time, I had to get as much information from them as I could about what may have actually happened.” She had to speak with her own family, many of whom resisted her meddling in the past. She needed to come to the other side of this story with more understanding.
Her book, therefore, carries two story arcs: the pursuit for the truth about what happened in Anguilla, Mississippi, in 1946 and the story of her own youth and the process of growing up in a family that held such a secret. The story reads as part memoir, part murder mystery.
Now that the book is on the shelves, Molly has attended an array of book signings and is happy to do more or to be contacted by book clubs interested in choosing her book. “The shelf life for a book is so short,” Molly says. “You put so much work into it and then it’s done and you’re left wondering, ‘What’s next?'”
The question is a good one. Molly still ponders what lies ahead. Budget cuts eliminated her position as a writing instructor at UNC-Asheville. She’s working three days a week at The Folk Art Center on the Blue Ridge Parkway. She loves quilting, meditation, yoga, and spending time with her grandkids while she tries to get her creative groove back. “I’ve just been tapped out creatively,” she says. But just as she never could have imagined the journey that would result from a single phone call in 2006, Molly knows another story is out there lurking somewhere, waiting to be told.
For more information about Molly Walling and her book Death in the Delta: Uncovering a Mississippi Family Secret, visit her website mollywalling.com.