Everything and Nothing: Icie's Secret

Aïda Rogers

Posted May 27, 2022

By Aïda Rogers

In her wonderful new book, Liz Newall does something many of us say we’re going to do but don’t: She researches her family history to solve a mystery that’s pestered her since childhood. It’s a secret wrapped in scandal, shushed through generations. Who is Feaster Jones’ father?

His mother sure isn’t telling. That’s Isamar “Icie” Woods Jones McGee, Newall’s great-grandmother. And in You Don’t Have to Tell Everything You Know, Icie does just that – she keeps her mouth shut. Her situation as the young, pregnant, unmarried daughter of an upstanding, church-building, coffin-making, cotton-farming family appalls the upcountry South Carolina community of Varennes. Icie, bless her heart, keeps playing the organ at Cross Roads Baptist Church, even as she gets too big to reach the pedals. Thankfully, her parents support her. Others aren’t as forgiving.

It’s an age-old story that plays out everywhere. In this one, the author places her characters so deftly in their place and time that the reader is transported to rural Anderson County, just after the Civil War. Everyone is shaped by it, even Icie, born one month after Appomattox. She grows up hearing the stories, about her father digging up and bringing his younger brother’s body home on a train from Virginia, and her maternal grandmother’s breakdown when their prosperous world in Edgefield collapses. “PTSD” wasn’t used then, but clearly that’s what many of these people had. These were hard times, and Icie’s family is making the best of them, including her tight-lipped fall from grace.

But this isn’t a book about despair. It’s a book about real life. There’s tragedy and joy, often in quick succession. Newall captures life’s humor and drama, the mystical and mundane. Dreamy Icie is captivated by nature’s marvels – Orion and resurrection fern. Her sister, practical Bessie, is set on making her farm successful. Unlike other women, she runs her own cotton operation, sees to her sharecroppers, matches wits with competitors, and generally comes out on top. Throughout are fascinating bits of life in that era. Pies are made, babies delivered, warts talked off and hymns sung – not always in tune or in unison. Between arson and a tornado are embroidering and planting, funerals and a hilarious drinking and toasting scene that will make you want a bottle of cognac ASAP.

Newall’s name will be familiar to thousands of Clemson University alumni; she was editor and main feature writer for Clemson World magazine for nearly two decades. A native of Starr, Newall is plowing the same fields as Ben Robertson and Dot Jackson, who also described their beloved foothills and families in their writings.

You Don’t Have to Tell Everything You Know is historical fiction inspired by family stories. South Carolina history is delivered in digestible portions – Wade Hampton’s storied visit to Anderson, Manse Jolly’s post-war terrorism, Preston Brooks caning Charles Sumner in Washington, D.C., the Charleston earthquake. There’s also a train and boat trip to Augusta, Savannah, and Charleston that may have readers wanting to learn more about those cities in that time – and the real people (and unforgettable horse) at the Charleston Exposition in 1901.

I was sure Newall must have spent endless hours in various research libraries to put this book together, but she said no. She found a wealth of information in newspapers of the day through Chronicling America, a Library of Congress online digital collection of old newspapers, and in several state histories. She also discovered kinfolk through ancestry sites and a portion of her great-great-grandfather’s Civil War diary.

“The fact that the most illiterate family member kept a diary was the first irony of many, many more to come – like the Civil War itself,” Newall told me.

So, who is the father of Icie’s son? Well, that would be telling you everything I know, and I best not do that.

Aïda Rogers writes from an old house in Columbia and a new porch in McClellanville. Her three-volume anthology series, State of the Heart: South Carolina Writers on the Places They Love, includes stories by 108 Palmetto State writers.

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