Leavell (left with his book's cover), who also took home $20,000 in prize money, is a Boise State University history graduate. Historical fiction is his passion and his story about Tad, a courageous child of slavery, was chosen the winner because of its “emotionally-charged approach to a sensitive, historic period,” says Jeana Ledbetter, Worthy vice president of planning and author relations. “Peter’s story presents a piece of history readers will be eager to learn more about.”
In Songs of Captivity, Leavell writes about how Tad’s actions expose the sins of an entire nation as the Civil War threatens to tear apart the United States. But where did Leavell’s interest in history come from?
Two educators nurtured his interest
“In the fourth grade I had a teacher who taught about Laura Ingalls Wilder, pioneers, and Native Americans,” Leavell says. “She painted pictures with her lessons, giving us a feel for what it was like living back then.
“Imagine waking up in a teepee, the night still young, Sioux asleep on their buffalo robes, and you looking up through the open flap of the teepee at the stars revolving slowly overhead. I lived the history in my mind. Since then, I’ve been trying to recreate what it was like to live in other times.”
The idea for Songs of Captivity came from another educator during a three hour night class at Boise State on the Civil War. “It was three hours of joy and happiness,” Leavell says. “Dr. Lisa Brady told us at the beginning the course would not be about fighting—that there was more to the war than the battles.”
What would it be like if…?
Part of that “more” was the launching pad for his winning novel. At the beginning of the war, the North needed to refuel ships patrolling Southern waters. They took the Sea Islands of South Carolina, including Hilton Head and Beaufort. All the Caucasian people left, leaving 10,000 slaves to fend for themselves.
“My fiction feelers, those receptacles that sense a good story, were charged and sending massive signals,” Leavell says. “What would it be like to grow to adulthood under those circumstances? How would I get educated? Would my relationship with the woman I love survive the war? I had to write Tad’s story.”
Historical fiction, Leavell says, breathes life into the past. “Good historical fiction helps us understand why people did what they did—and what it meant,” he says. “I want to paint those pictures.”
Leavell’s class of Operation First Novel finalists included Terrie Todd, Kimberley Gardner Graham, Jim Hamlett, and Clarice James (Right: Leavell, after his win, being embraced by Terrie Todd, with Jim Hamlett). The five developed a strong bond, thanks to Todd reaching out with an email describing the symptoms she was having as a finalist.
“Those symptoms mirrored what the rest of us were feeling,” Leavell says. “So we kept emailing back and forth, getting to know one another. Then we started to pray for the conference and each other.
“One prayer surfaced, ‘Please, Lord, let the book the world needs win. Not our wills, but Yours.’ We all rallied around that thought. Of course we each wanted to win, but God was more important.”
Look for Songs of Captivity in late 2012.