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Novelist Margaret Verble on history, family and identity

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Just south of Nashville, there is a sign in a suburban neighborhood. It's a historical marker describing an amusement park and zoo that existed a century ago on that site. That park, in 1926, is the setting for the new novel "When Two Feathers Fell From The Sky." It's by Margaret Verble, whose earlier work made her a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.

Welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

MARGARET VERBLE: Thank you. It's so nice to be here. Thanks for having me on.

SHAPIRO: I was most of the way through reading this book when my producer alerted me to the fact the Glendale Zoo was a real place. Tell us about your connection to this piece of almost forgotten history.

VERBLE: Well, I was raised in a neighborhood that was built on the grounds of that old park zoo. And there were remnants of it throughout that neighborhood.

SHAPIRO: Like what? Paint a picture for us.

VERBLE: Well, like, for instance, the trees that line the trolley track are still there. In fact, I walked through them on my way to the Glendale Elementary School. And there were also - there were steps that had led up to the zoo, and the remnants of the bear cage were still there.

SHAPIRO: So you decided to set this book there. What made you choose this place in 1926? What was it about that place and that time?

VERBLE: I knew I was going to write a book set there, but I didn't know exactly when it was going to be. And so I searched the archives of the Nashville, Tenn., and to get background on that park zoo. And it just so happened that in 1926, there were a couple of things that occurred that made the paper there. And I thought this would be a good time to set it. And I'd set...

SHAPIRO: What were those things?

VERBLE: Well, one of those things was the fact that I found evidence that there had actually been a hippopotamus there in 1926. And I had always thought that there was a hippopotamus or a rhinoceros there - didn't know which because we had found bones as children, and...

SHAPIRO: Big bones.

VERBLE: Big bones - so that's the kind of thing that I was looking for, and that's the kind of thing that led me to that particular era.

SHAPIRO: It's a time of such change, with electricity arriving, cars arriving. The Scopes monkey trial figures into the book, which was taking place in Tennessee. It's - really, it feels like the cusp.

VERBLE: Yes. And it's - of all the decades in the past, I think the 1920s are more similar to the times we're living in now.

SHAPIRO: What makes you say that?

VERBLE: Well, because it was a time of a lot of division and a lot of just really awful racism and people just not being able to get along with each other. For instance, the Scopes trial - that caused huge divisions. That...

SHAPIRO: This was over evolution.

VERBLE: Over evolution - that's right. That broke up marriages. It broke up friendships. People stopped speaking to each other over that, particularly in Tennessee, but I think also in the entire country. So we're sort of living through those kinds of times now. So the '20s reverberate with me.

SHAPIRO: The title of this book, "When Two Feathers Fell From The Sky," refers to your main character, a woman named Two Feathers. Tell us about her.

VERBLE: Well, she, in the book, is a Cherokee Indian who is on loan from the Millers Brothers' Wild West show to the Glendale Park Zoo. And that Wild West show really went on for decades. And they were having trouble in the 1920s making money. And so they loaned some of their performers out. So that really did happen. And there was a Two Feathers performer at Glendale. Now, I don't know that that one was on loan from the Millers Brothers' ranch in Oklahoma. But I did find that name repeated again and again in advertisements about how brave and daring she was because she was a horse diver, which, you know, a lot of people don't even know what a horse diver is today.

SHAPIRO: I had never heard of it. Tell us what it is.

VERBLE: Well, for decades, people thought that it was really fun to go watch horses dive into water from platforms.

SHAPIRO: With a person on the horse's back?

VERBLE: With a person on the horse's back - and so this particular character is a horse diver. And she dives off a platform into water. That's her business. That's what she does two or three times a day. And there was a horse diver at Glendale.

SHAPIRO: In the author's note, you write about learning in the fourth grade that settlers proclaimed this land theirs for the taking and that the taking entailed killing a lot of Indians. And then you write, my mother, a fourth-grade teacher with a Cherokee family still very much alive in Oklahoma, had to teach that racist faux-history year after year. And so I wonder whether this book is, among other things, an effort to correct the historical record.

VERBLE: Absolutely it is. At its deepest level, that's what this book is about. Now, on top of that, there's all sorts of fun things. But it is - at the very foundation of it is an attempt to correct that.

SHAPIRO: Did you ever talk to your mother about that, what that felt like for her?

VERBLE: I did not talk to my mother about that. You just didn't talk about that stuff then. The - there was a lot of just very tight-lipped endurance of her generation of Cherokees - was to absolutely blend in and get along and do not ruffle anybody's feathers because her generation was really the first generation that the Cherokees had suffered annihilation by paper, which is, unless you were born before 1907, even if you were a full-blood Cherokee, you were considered a white person because the whole idea was that, after the older Indians died, there would be no more Cherokees. So my mother was raised in a world where the only option she had was to get along with white people. So she kept her mouth shut. And, you know, I think that cost her a lot. It costs everybody a lot when you just have to keep your mouth shut.

SHAPIRO: Despite the oppression and inequality and segregation that you vividly portray in the novel, this is such a rich, colorful world that is about to disappear with the arrival of cars and movies and other modern technology. And so do you allow yourself to feel nostalgia for that time, even as you see its many shortcomings?

VERBLE: Well, I think we live in better times. I'm glad we don't live in a segregated world anymore, although, certainly, in many respects, we do. But I don't have nostalgia for the segregated South. I was raised in it. And, you know, I don't think it's right. So I guess the answer to that is no.

But for the whole idea of the Glendale Park Zoo, I'll have to say that I was raised and still feel like that it was just a magical place. And anybody that has ever written about it seems to feel the same way. So that park zoo was a little gem in a world that, you know, was extremely imperfect.

SHAPIRO: Margaret Verble's new novel is a work of historical fiction called "When Two Feathers Fell From The Sky." Thank you for talking with us about it.

VERBLE: Thank you for having me. I appreciate it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.