Saturday, March 22, 2014

Sophia by Eric Lanke

A little while ago, I made my novel, Columbia, available for download from this blog.

Columbia is the story of Theodore Lomax, a nineteen-year-old Union solider in the American Civil War, and as committed as any to the ideal of human freedom. After being assigned to the army of William Tecumseh Sherman, shortly after the general’s infamous March to the Sea, he willingly participates in the destruction of civilian property in Columbia, South Carolina, believing his acts are justified by Southern resistance to the Northern cause of emancipation. But when the destruction escalates into violence against the civilians themselves, he becomes disillusioned, and feels compelled to strike out in opposition to his own countrymen.

The novel is told from Lomax's point of view, but there are ten other supporting characters, each with a story of his or her own. "Sophia" is one of these stories, centering on the character of Sophia Hawthrone, and describing her first experience among slaves in the unreconstructed South, trying to save their heathen souls and finding a truth that had long eluded her.

There was a time when I thought these stories should alternate with the chapters in Columbia, presenting a richer but perhaps more tangled tapestry of the lives that painfully converge in the novel's climactic scenes. But Columbia is clearly a more coherent narrative without them. Still, they were valuable to me as an author, and I hope you find them useful and enjoyable as a reader.

Sophia by Eric Lanke - $3

Clicking the "Add to Cart" button will take you through a short payment process and provide you with a PDF download of the story that you can read on your computer or tablet, or which you can print at your convenience. The story is about 15,100 words and the document is 50 pages long. Given its theme and historical setting, the work reflects the racism of the time, and includes episodes of violence and strong language.

Want a sample? Here's are the first thousand or so words.

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The first time Sophia Hawthorne met Erasmus Wolcott she took him for someone who cared about the immortal souls of his fellow man—both those with white and those with black skin. Wolcott was a slave owner, one of the largest in South Carolina, with more than three hundred human beings held in bondage to work his gigantic plantation. Sophia had come to the South from her parish in Connecticut precisely to see to the spiritual needs of slaves—to perform missionary work, as it were, not in some far-off land across the ocean, but in her own backyard, in the United States of America—and in her innocence she was at first surprised to find a slave owner such a willing supporter of her calling.

“These people need your help, Sister,” Wolcott told her poignantly over dinner her first night on his plantation, his rough and calloused hand closing tightly over her forearm wrapped in the black cloth of her habit. “Some of them still worship the false gods their ancestors did in Africa. If I showed you the collection of carved idols we’ve confiscated from them over the years, it would turn your hair white. Where they keep getting them from I have no idea, but they go to great lengths to hide them from us and to keep them safe.”

Sophia only nodded her head, more preoccupied with the pressure of Wolcott’s hand on her arm than with the idolatry his slaves might be practicing.

“You don’t believe me?” Wolcott said. “My hand to God, I tell you it’s the truth. Some of these people have never even seen a cross before coming here. It’s tragic, to think of their souls suffering in torment in the next life, especially when you realize how much they have suffered in this one. Father, tell her. Tell the Sister her work is certainly cut out for her here.”

The other dinner guest was Richard Tyler, a priest from Sophia’s own parish, who had been in the South ministering to slaves like the ones owned by Wolcott for two years, and who had recently sent for Sophia to join and assist him.

Tyler nodded his head after taking a long, slow sip of Wolcott’s wine. “It’s a difficult journey,” he admitted softly. “For us as well as for them. Their heads are so full of superstition, they have to be led very carefully towards the truth. It should start getting easier, though, with Parson Abraham’s arrival.”

“Parson Abraham?” Sophia asked, finally extracting her arm from Wolcott’s grasp. “Who’s that?”

“A former slave,” Wolcott said. “Parson Abraham Finch. Given his freedom years ago and answered the Lord’s calling. I’m surprised you haven’t heard of him. There was a time when he traveled throughout the North, speaking to congregations of all stripes about the brutalities he suffered as a slave. But now he’s returned to the South, and almost exclusively goes from plantation to plantation, preaching the Gospel to his African brothers. He’s not welcome everywhere, but he’s certainly welcome here. Wouldn’t you say, Father?”

“Most assuredly,” Tyler responded, after draining even the dregs out of his wine glass. “His message is the same as mine, but I’m told he’s received so much better by the slaves. I suppose they see him as one of their own and, of course, he once was. He must make it easier for them to envision the possibility of enlightenment.”

“He’s coming here?” Sophia asked.

Tyler nodded his head. “Tomorrow. He’s expected sometime tomorrow.”

Sophia was uncertain what to make of much of this, but did not ask any more questions, fearing she may have asked too many already. She had little experience around men, and still felt uncomfortable in their presence. And, of course, Tyler was a priest, and it was not appropriate for a nun to ask too many questions of a priest.

The following evening she attended her first worship service with the slaves. It was held after sunset in a long, log house built between the slave quarters and the stables, a “praise house,” as Sophia later learned it was called. She, Tyler, and Wolcott arrived before the slaves and were met shortly by Parson Abraham.

The Parson was a dark-skinned Negro, with hair gone completely white and cut close to his skull. He had reportedly arrived on the plantation earlier in the day, and had enjoyed a glass of Wolcott’s fine wine in the parlor with the slave owner and the priest that afternoon, but this was the first Sophia had seen of him. Wolcott and Tyler welcomed him warmly and then Wolcott introduced him to Sophia.

“Sister,” Abraham said solemnly, bowing before her and making no movement to touch her. He was an old man, older than either Tyler or Wolcott. “I am very pleased to make your acquaintance.”

He spoke clearly, and with obvious education. Sophia returned a similar pleasantry, and then stood quietly as Wolcott, the Parson, and Tyler discussed the service the clergymen would be conducting that evening.

“Which hymn will you be starting with?” Wolcott asked.

“Which one would you like?” Abraham replied.

Wolcott started. He had clearly been directing his question more to Tyler than to the Parson. “Well,” he said hesitantly. “Nearer My God to Thee has always been one of my favorites.”

Abraham nodded his head. “Nearer My God to Thee, it is. Sister, do you know that one?”

Sophia was startled, not expecting to be pulled into the conversation. Looking quickly to where the Parson indicated with the tilt of his head, she saw an old wooden piano she had not noticed before.

“Sister,” Abraham said again. “Nearer My God to Thee. Can you play it on the piano?”

“Yes,” Sophia said quickly. “Yes, Father, of course I can.”

The word ‘Father’ was out of her mouth before she even realized she had used it. Abraham wasn’t a priest, was he? No, he couldn’t be. He was a…Parson, whatever that was. But he spoke like a priest, and the use of that chosen form of address was so automatic, it came uncontrollably to Sophia’s lips. No one else, however, appeared to have noticed.

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This post was written by Eric Lanke, an association executive, blogger and author. For more information, visit, follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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