Immerse yourself in the milieu of 1700s South Carolina, where 16-year-old Eliza Lucas is left in charge of her family’s three plantations. With her new novel, The Indigo Girl, bestselling author Natasha Boyd draws from the true story of Eliza Lucas Pinckney for a story of ambition, betrayal and sacrifice—and at its core, the secret process of making indigo dye.
Boyd, the author of contemporary romantic Southern fiction and other novels of historical fiction, shares the inspiration behind The Indigo Girl.
People will tell you the Lowcountry begins a slow but irrevocable seduction on all those who venture within its boundaries. For me, it would take several visits, falling in love with a Lowcountry man and ultimately moving there, for the seduction to be complete.
Little did I know it would lead me to writing a book, The Indigo Girl, about Charleston’s beloved Eliza Lucas Pinckney. When you marry a man from Charleston, South Carolina, hearing the name Pinckney sort of settles into the general noise of life. It was a name I heard, but didn’t give too much thought to. I grew up in Europe, so I was used to being surrounded by history and, to my shame, probably took it for granted. Besides, we made our home in Atlanta, not Charleston, so unless we were visiting family I never thought much about it, beyond seeing the occasional sign for the Charles Pinckney historical site.
A move to Hilton Head Island in 2010 would change that forever. Lacking the beautiful architecture of Charleston, Hilton Head has a different sort of charm, predominantly nature-based. Every time you drive onto the island, you cross over Pinckney Island National Wildlife Refuge, an island formerly owned by, of course, the Pinckneys. But it was at a local gallery exhibit showcasing artists who work with indigo where I first truly heard Eliza’s story. A 16-year-old girl in the 1700s had been left in charge of her father’s plantations? I sidled closer. She was tricked and set up to fail in her attempt at growing lucrative indigo by a man her father sent to help her? I no longer pretended to eavesdrop. I was rapt. She taught her slaves to read in return for them helping her make the dye?
Well, it was a done deal. Almost.
Trying to get Eliza’s story right kept me up at night. There was a story between the pages of the texts and the letters she wrote. There were differences between what she wrote when she was young and how she looked back on her life. That shouldn’t be a surprise, obviously, as like most humans she had grown and matured over the course of her life. But I felt a little bit like an amateur sculptor chiseling away at a valuable block of marble, knowing that a statue of Venus could materialize if I could just work at the right angle. I saturated myself in her letters and all available mentions of her I could find, and then . . . I put them aside.
This will be where the hardcore historians wince. But here’s the thing: The story, her story, was in there, but the constraints of the available texts were like prison bars preventing the “story” from unfurling. There’s an underlying structure to most storytelling that any experienced genre fiction novelist or screenwriter will tell you. As humans we respond to this story structure. If it is done right, there’ll be a feeling of satisfaction upon completion of the story. We’ll sigh when we close the book, whether we’re happy about the ending or even if we’re sad.
We know the hero or heroine will be put upon to start a journey of some kind. There’ll be forces working against them. At some point, they’ll reach a reckoning to rise to their fullest potential, only to have the rug pulled out from under them, for the unthinkable to happen. Then there’ll be a final battle, a test, from which our hero or heroine will finally emerge victorious and be permanently changed into their new, stronger self.
The story of Eliza’s battle with indigo is such a story. And it was a battle. She was thwarted at every turn, either by her own or others’ ignorance, by nature or simply straight malice. She drew upon her inner strength to overcome these challenges. The end result being that her success with indigo overcame a challenge for South Carolina, and ultimately the United States of America. She is, quite simply, a woman history should never have forgotten.
I hope now they’ll remember her.