Spending a night in the 1700s

River Oaks Book Club delves into debates of that – and our – time

CorrespondentFebruary 12, 2013 

— Will Ferrell’s effort to bring post-Revolutionary War era North Carolina to life mixes 20 years of research, a little fiction, prominent state historical figures and, well, a lot of sex.

While portions of Ferrell’s book, “The Secrets of Sterling Snearin – The Noblest Cause,” surely caused some blushing among members of the River Oaks Book Club, his talk last week focused on the fierce political debate surrounding the U.S. Constitution – a backdrop for the novel’s story.

About 45 people showed up to Lennis Loving’s North Raleigh party in the River Oaks neighborhood, with a few dressed in clothing appropriate for a 1790s soiree. Loving invited members of the book club and friends to hear her brother’s presentation; many of them had already read the book and were ready with questions about their favorite characters.

Loving recalled a conversation she had with her brother 40 years ago. Ferrell asked her whether she thought he should pursue dentistry or writing as a career. At the time, she thought dentistry would be a safer bet. “I always felt guilty about that,” she said. “You should really do what you love.”

Ferrell did become a dentist. But he began pursuing his literary aspirations – ultimately deciding to craft a historical work of fiction. In January, the first few hundred copies of Ferrell’s self-published book were printed.

Loving wanted to support Ferrell’s effort to spread the word about the book, so brought him for a discussion, encouraging friends to dress the part and serving dishes common to the period, like venison and sweet potato desserts.

“It’s a period of time that doesn’t get a lot of attention,” Ferrell said before his talk. “I wanted to tell the story of the time through the eyes of a young farmer. I’m telling a lot of real history in a way that people will be pulled along by the fictional story.”

Different time, familiar debate

While a couple of hundred years separate modern America and Ferrell’s characters, the topics of concern are still being fought out today. Ferrell detailed the arguments between Federalists and anti-Federalists, who traded blows over ideas of states’ rights and the role and size of centralized government. While Federalists were successful in ratifying the Constitution, anti-Federalists achieved a huge victory with hard-fought amendments that would become the Bill of Rights.

“Some people might say that’s the good part of the Constitution,” Ferrell said with a smile.

He drew some comparisons to the arguments of the time and modern hot button issues. Some of his assertions about anti-Federalists sparked lively discussion about the role of government, with references to modern administrations’ role in foreign conflicts and national health care. “(The anti-Federalists) had a nearly religious devotion to liberty. They wanted us not to meddle in other countries’ affairs,” Ferrell said.

John Loving, Lennis’ husband, wondered how interstate travel would be possible if the anti-Federalists’ dream of a loosely connected system of states with little federal input had become the modern reality.

“The Federalists certainly had some good points,” Ferrell said, noting that some of his statements were meant to be intentionally provocative.

A farmer’s insight

Ferrell played a couple of classic hymns on his guitar to illustrate the separation of time. Audience members began singing along with the familiar tunes. “Those are pretty ancient hymns, right? They were written a hundred years after this period.”

Members of the fledgling republic lived in a much different time. But living by candlelight and without modern conveniences didn’t stop them from forging thoughtful arguments about the future of the country. “When it was dark, it was dark,” Ferrell noted. “Travel was really difficult. We were lacking so much, but we did have a lot of people who were thoughtful.”

His book tells the story of the time through the diary of a young North Carolina farmer. While there is much history covered in the book, some more carnal events spice up the pages.

Loving said she had to warn a few friends about the sexual content of the novel.

“It was something I was anxious about,” Ferrell said. “But this is the story of a young man, and sex was certainly a part of life. But I like to think I was romantic about it.”

At the end of the night, Loving said the event was a success.

Book club member Jodi Baldwin agreed.

“I thought it was wonderful,” she said. “I loved the way he wanted to portray the other side and the way he used music to illustrate. It was just lovely.”

shane@shanesnider.com

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