The Murphy-Harpst Home: Writing About the Past

Rolling some ideas around in my head. I guess I should tell you where I am before I embark on something new. I have a tendency to get several projects going and bounce around between them.

It wasn’t like that when I wrote Red Clay and Roses. The idea for that story had rolled around in my head for twenty years. Having the time to put the words down brought it all together in a hurry. I didn’t really intend for it to become a published book. It isn’t set in a standard novel template and has its share of faults, but I’m proud of it just the same as if I had set out to accomplish writing a novel.

Naked Alliances was my first attempt at actually putting together a totally fictional story. There are things I like about it and things I don’t. I can’t say that I’m totally thrilled with it. I know authors are supposed to be very confident and write what they want to read and be all excited about putting it out there. I’d be lying if I said that I did not have any reservations.

At any rate, I know it has improved thanks to some wonderful beta readers and a couple of fantastic editors. I just got the novel back from its last pass through an editor’s hands and I am on chapter twenty-one of thirty finishing up those edits and I am much more excited about it now than I was at the start. I plan on continuing the Naked Eye series.

I have rough outlines completed for the next two novels. One involves missing elderly, and another involves development encroaching on wildlife habitat.

I still have Surviving Sister in the works, a 1950s-60 saga that continues with Hannah Hamilton’s family members, particularly her mother and her Aunt, who both suffer from mental illness during an era of major changes in how the mentally ill were treated. Concerning the Hamilton family members, it could be read as a sequel to Red Clay and Roses or a standalone. One of the biggest hindrances to writing this novel is the research required. There is so little documentation of treatment modalities in that era. My personal psychiatrist has given me some reference books that might help move things along. There is also a romance in that book that has slowed me down.

A nice lady from the orphanage that I lived in back in the mid-seventies has written to me. She found a blog post in which I mentioned the Harpst Home. That really has me thinking. I’ve done loads of research on Ethel Harpst and the Harpst Home and still have contacts there. Although it is primarily a treatment facility now, no longer an orphanage as most children are housed in foster care nowadays, it is still home to dozens of youth who would be at serious risk if the home did not exist.

Here is an excerpt on Ethel Harpst from “Georgia Women of Achievement”

 

Ethel Harpst

Ethel Harpst

 Perhaps Ethel Harpst’s biggest gift was the time and effort she gave to so many children in need. Harpst began her long career of caring for children at the McCarty Settlement House at Cedartown’s mill village. During her time teaching there, she took in a number of children who had been orphaned by parents who succumbed to illnesses. The Ethel Harpst Home opened in March 1924 and housed many children until the walls could expand no more.

Harpst traveled to raise funds for a new home, and in 1927 the first modern building, James Hall, was completed. And just in time for children who were displaced and orphaned during the Great Depression. An answer to prayer was the interest and attention shown by Mr. and Mrs. Henry Pfeiffer of New York. Through the Pfeiffer’s and several other friends, money was raised to allow more buildings to be constructed on the campus over the next 20 years, and hundreds of acres of land were contributed to the cause. All this is thanks to the dedication and tenacity of Harpst to continue fundraising. Today, the site houses the Murphy-Harpst residential program, where Georgia’s severely abused children can go for healing and therapy. In 2010-11, the program served nearly 300 children, which included 97 children in residential treatment.”

Sarah Murphy

Sarah Murphy

Long after her death in 1967, the Harpst Home merged with the Sarah Murphy Home. Sarah Murphy was a black woman in the area who had created a home for black youth.  Harpst Home became the Murphy-Harpst Home in 1976, during my last year there when it started integrating.

So, I’ve been wondering if I should write a book about them. It would either be non-fiction or a historical fiction based on their stories.

OR, Should I write a purely fictional story about a resident there and how she saw her world and the changes she went through?

Having been a resident there myself, I could better relate to a fictional character and write in the first person. There were so very many different coming-of-age stories to come out of that place during my short time there, I think it would make for a most interesting read.

What do you think?

What would interest you most?

Historical Fiction about the founders?

An orphan’s personal story?

I remember the first black girl that came from the Sarah Murphy Home to the Ethel Harpst home, and her roommate. I’d love to tell their story.

What would you, my audience, like to read?

Any ideas you’d like to share?

53 thoughts on “The Murphy-Harpst Home: Writing About the Past

    • That could all be worked in there, couldn’t it? Their back story to the facility and what they stood for and the personal stories of the youth…namely mine and the black girl’s.

    • What person?…I haven’t seriously attempted first person, but I’m thinking a first person me and a first person the black girl’s POV. Alternating???? That would be pretty amazing if I could pull it off well. Tell both their stories through their own eyes.

      • I don’t know, but I’d lean towards first person and the alternating voices of the two main characters would be intriguing, but then, as you know, that’s a style that I’m working with now. I will tell you that I have found it difficult to continue to maintain. I think first person would work best because it seems to work better with what could be a very emotionally charged subject and plot.

        • Great points, Mark. Your’s is a story with many characters. That’s a great challenge. I might be inclined to go with both a white girl and the first black girl. I knew her well and could tell her story as well as my own. We weren’t roommates but were on the same unit. Alternating two points of view might be doable for me.

  1. I’d vote for fictional tale based on your own thoughts and experiences. At least in my mind, it would give you the flexibility of fiction and the focus/foundation of reality. Also, what’s a standard novel template?

    • As Mark was saying, it would be possible to blend the women’s stories with that of my own and the first girl who came from the black home. Do it in first person with alternating POV

  2. This is a great post on multiple levels. The personal insight being just one of them. I wrote my last story in first person, and loved it. You get kind of tired of I and Me though. I never left my main character’s perspective once.

    You have to write the story that calls to you. I’m not going to vote at all, but merely suggest. Fiction provides a bit of freedom. It would be very difficult to write first person with that many points of view. Third person can still produce an incredible story.

    • It would be basically two POV if I alternated between myself and one other girl, but I’m wondering if I really can get into her first person character enough to make an entire novel of it. I’m also a bit afraid of the alternating POVs slowing the story down in pace. It tends to do that.

  3. I don’t know which route you should go, but I did just read a historical book that was fiction on top of nonfiction, and it was very good. The book is called ‘Burial Rites’ and it’s about the last woman in Iceland who was condemned to death in the early nineteenth century. Though the woman and the historical events and locations were real, the author weaved a fictional tale for the woman’s life and the days leading up to her execution date, since there was little in the research about her on a more intimate level. It was a fascinating fusion. Perhaps your book might invite something like that.

  4. It seems to me that you kind of answered your own question, Susan. I would love to read the story based on a fictional character, written in the first person, with an alternating point of voice. Maybe if you do a little free-writing in each possible scenario, your question will be answered. Good luck! Let us know what you decide.

  5. You could write a short non-fiction story about these two women at your leisure. I like the idea of the orphan’s personal story. You could also pay homage to the work of these visionary women by making the key characters a white orphan and a black orphan.
    In the end, go with your heart, kiddo!

        • I have researched much about these two women. Ethel Harpst was a missionary for the Methodist Church. She never married or had any kids of her own but her family is very private about her. Not sure if I could get enough information to do a book justice. Her plight to get funding for the building and traveling around the countryside mingling with philanthropists might make for a good story but it would hardly be factual. The facts are pretty slim. Found them and got them to support her cause. Sarah Murphy’s story is a little more interesting to me because she did so very much on her own. She didn’t accomplish quite what Ethel did, but she was also a poor black woman and did not have the same advantages. It was only after their death and after integration and the abolition of Jim Crow that the two women’s causes were united toward one common purpose. That bit of history could easily be interwoven into two orphan girls’s stories. I have my own story and I know the story of the first black girl to become a resident there. We were on the same unit and I tutored her in reading. I could write a compelling story, but would have to alter the endings from reality. That could be done.

  6. You have some pretty good advice already from other people’s comments. Only thing I can add is, if it were me, I’d sit down and write and see what comes out. Best of luck! It all sounds really exciting.

  7. It all sounds interesting, and I agree with above comments that you should write the story that calls to you. With historical fiction you can always weave in stories of the founders and different time periods, if you want to do that, or keep it all in one period. Having at least some of a novel set during a period/setting you experienced lends authenticity and knowledge that only you would have. Good luck!

  8. Ooh, I love this. I would like to see a novel that is set during the heyday and have it involve characters that include children and the staff/founders.

    • With the thirty years between the two women’s service, about the only way I can figure would be some mention of them or their works by characters in a story set in a later date.

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