If you ask Durham author Dawn Shamp why she set her debut novel, On Account of Conspicuous Women, in her hometown of Roxboro, she'll say it's complicated.
It goes back to her mother's death in a car accident, when Shamp was 20.
"My coping mechanism to put as much distance between me and Roxboro as I could," Shamp says. She left Roxboro after high school to live in Durham and later moved to northern Virginia for four years to work in customer service for United Airlines, before moving to Raleigh, then Durham.
Her new novel is set in the Person County town where members of her family still live. "It took me awhile to come to terms with [writing about Roxboro]," says Shamp, who originally planned to fictionalize her novel's town name. But Roxboro is so "rich with history that it seemed only fair" for the story to be in Roxboro.
Shamp gleaned part of her book's title from a collection of satirical poems by the American writer, poet and suffragist campaigner Alice Duer Miller, entitled Are Women People? The poem states a recipe for a "Woman of Charm" that calls for "all the conspicuous ladies of history." The title mixes this snippet from Miller's suffragist efforts with one of Shamp's favorite Southern locutions, "On account of," which she remembers for its musicality and the frequency with which it was used in her childhood.
Released at the end of April, On Account of Conspicuous Women is a picturesque, historically thoughtful look at four young women who become friends in 1920—a time when women, recently armed with the right to vote, faced the new challenge of proving their equality with men. "These women are ordinary women," says Shamp. "I can't say for sure, but I really think [suffrage] was harder [on women in small towns] than for women in big cities."
At the start of Shamp's novel, Ina, a delicate Richmond lady recovering from the sudden death of her new husband, comes to Roxboro to teach at the East Roxboro School. The town is agog over her arrival and keen to prove its merits against Ina's cultured ways. People scramble to produce their best baked goods, and the town beauty sets precedent by bobbing her hair. Ina is stunned by this overflowing hospitality, but her qualms are soon ameliorated by three young Roxboro women. Through their ensuing friendship, the four ladies splash feminism on the town and navigate the turbulent waters toward gender equality.
The key influence on the story came from Shamp's own family: When she was young, her dad told stories about his mother, Grandma Lizzie—an audacious local lion—that inspired Shamp to write Conspicuous Women. Known for her prize-winning rose garden as well as her propensity for breaking wind and cursing in public, Grandma Lizzie would yell conversations out windows and always speak her mind. Shamp shares one story: "State Rep. Winkie Wilkins recently recounted a Sunday morning in which he, as a child, was sitting behind [Lizzie] in church waiting for the service to begin. Suddenly, [Lizzie snapped] 'G—m, my shoes don't match.' She marched out of church then came back a short time later wearing matching shoes."
Shamp keeps a framed photo—one of the only surviving—of the grandma she never knew in her bedroom. The photo, circa 1920, shows Lizzie and three unidentified friends in their 20s, leaning on a fence and smiling. Other characters from the book are also inspired by real people, including one of the women's father, Brud, an avid turkey hunter who wore a full ceremonial imitation turkey garb while tracking his prey, who is modeled on a similarly dedicated Roxboro man.
Shamp says she's "fascinated with the journey that women have had through history." For what began as a creative thesis while earning her M.F.A. from Spalding University in Louisville, Ky., Shamp extensively researched Roxboro at the Person County library, taking full advantage of the library's North Carolina room. She found that what is today a bedroom community—as the town searches to find a niche in a post-mills and post-tobacco world—used to be "much more self-reliant and independent." Shamp says, "To me, Roxboro is still very much like a quaint village ... [and] has always been a community of characters who provide humor and grist for storytelling on back porches, as well as in books."
Earlier this month, Shamp had a launch party for her novel at Hurdle Mills' Rock of Ages Winery, operated by two old high school friends of hers whom she hadn't seen for 20 years and, indeed, many long-lost friends attended as well. Later, Shamp reported by e-mail that upward of 250 people showed up, which kept her signing books for three and a half hours straight. And on May 15, the Orange-Durham-Chatham chapter of the League of Women Voters honored Shamp with their Making Democracy Work award for her achievements with On Account of Conspicuous Women.
The latter event was a bit ironic, for Shamp doesn't consider herself a political person. She says she's always been sheepish about not registering to vote until she was about 30 years old, but she found a kindred partnership in the League. At her local book signings over the next couple of weeks, League members will offer on-site voter registration for November's election and hand out pertinent material.
Shamp's endeavors reveal an appreciation for the people, specifically the women, of Roxboro. For her, the process of researching and writing Conspicuous Women has only added to her enthusiasm for her hometown. "I used to think a person could never go home again," she says, "but now I think you can get pretty darn close."
Dawn Shamp's next area reading is Saturday, June 28, at McIntyre's Fine Books in Fearrington Village. Visit her Web site: www.dawnshamp.com.