For the main character of her debut novel, New Orleans transplant Helen Scully didn't have to go far. In fact, she kept it in the family. In the Hope of Rising Again relates the story of Scully's great-grandmother, Regina Morrow, and of life in Mobile, Ala., from the turn of the 20th century through most of the Great Depression. A resourceful woman, Regina endures the rapidly changing South, and she faces it not with defiance but with a steadfast fortitude. Mirroring her great-grandmother's patient spirit, Scully strove for a number of years making sure her portrait of Regina was an honest rendition. With reflective prose and a style that belies her age, Scully has produced a memorable first novel.
In arranging for this interview, Scully suggested that it take place face to face since "she doesn't do phone well." Her explanation made sense from the very beginning of the conversation. Like Regina, Scully doesn't rush her answers, and there are often long pauses before she responds in a well-thought manner. For instance, there was the question of the book's inspiration.
"I'd always heard these great stories about my family when I was growing up, and I thought they could be the basis of a novel," the 27 year-old Scully explains. "Originally, I did go three generations ahead of Regina, but that all got cut. As I was working, I realized that [Regina] was the heroine. I did change a lot of things because life isn't a novel, and that caused me some anxiety because I wanted to stay true to her."
Instead of rashly pushing ahead, Scully took her time. She started the book during her senior year at Brown University. Following graduation, she traveled to various places, but the novel-in-progress always came with her. Finally, she moved into her parents' home in New Orleans, where they had moved in 1998 from her childhood home in Norfolk, Va.
Truth isn't something Scully has to worry about in this book. Her Regina lives and breathes within the pages, and her life choices seem real, not imagined. Regina was born into wealth and fame. Her father, Colonel Riant -- the title is an honorary one although he did serve in the Confederacy -- owns Mobile's only newspaper and is a well-known philanthropist. Her childhood is filled with fun and frolic and marks the halcyon days of the family, as well.
When the Colonel dies, she realizes her and the family's anchor is gone. By then, she has already made some painful decisions. She refuses a proposal to marry and travel the world in order to take care of and pray for her dying father. It is her duty, both as a daughter and a Catholic, to mourn for the dying and then the dead. When she does marry six months after the funeral, she wears a black wedding gown. As Scully lyrically suggests, the occasion isn't one of joy but more of resignation:
"Everything was beautiful and went exactly as planned, as puppets move through a dream, a bubble of soap swirling the colors of the rainbow, beautiful but without delineation. Because she wasn't nervous at all saying the words, had steeled herself against regret, and because she was admired and supported by everyone, it didn't hurt."
It is a moment that most would rather soon forget. Her married life becomes a challenge with her unreliable, alcoholic husband, so they are forced to move into the family mansion, where her cold, widowed mother and her four interchangeable brothers live. The fortune is squandered, the house slowly decays, people live and die, and Regina prays for everyone.
For all its narrative -- and there is quite a bit of history here -- this is not a plot-driven novel; rather it reflects the contemplative nature of its heroine. In a style more reminiscent of the 19th century with her skillful use of exposition and omniscient point of view, Scully fully realizes a woman representative of her time, place and culture. Regina's strength of character is not judged by her ability to adapt to changing circumstances, but by her resolve. She continues to "plan the menu, iron the linen and sew with somnambulant efficiency" in spite of the misery that surrounds her. Her tools for success are not uncommon by today's standards: daily prayer and the realization that "faith takes work."
Scully, who spent more than five years writing this novel, knows the power of hard work and perseverance. Like her ancestor, she recognizes the need for mourning and a remembrance of the past.
"In a sense, the book is a mourner," she confesses. "Growing up, I was told what the house was like when she lived in it. It's still standing, but it's almost totally fallen apart. So there is a sense of lost grandeur." With In the Hope of Rising Again, Scully has done more than restore an old house. She has patiently crafted a loving tribute to a woman whose story should stand the test of time.
- New Orleans transplant Helen Scully sifted through the family tree for inspiration for her debut novel, In the Hope of Rising Again.