Barbara J. Taylor: Doc Rodham and the Hillary Rodham Clinton Connection
To celebrate the release of her debut novel Sing in the Morning, Cry at Night — the latest release in Akashic’s Kaylie Jones Books imprint, and one of Publishers Weekly’s Best Summer Books of 2014 — we’re pleased to feature a guest post from author Barbara J. Taylor on the unique history behind one of her characters.
I became a writer because of a red cloth-covered book from 1928 entitled Diamonds of the Mines. Written by Scranton, Pennsylvania native George W. Bowen, it includes an essay and poem about the death of eight-year-old Pearl Morgan, my maternal grandmother’s oldest sibling. In the florid style of the time, Bowen writes about July 4, 1918, the day a sparkler ignited Pearl’s dress. She survived for three days and sang hymns while she lay dying.
Bowen’s tribute meant something to my family. Pearl would be remembered. She was in a book, and that mattered. Books mattered.
Not surprisingly, the tragedy found its way into my novel, Sing in the Morning, Cry at Night. Though heavily fictionalized, I incorporated specifics from the actual accident to lend authenticity to my work. Pearl’s story always varied a bit depending on who told it, but certain points remained consistent.
Grandma Morgan (Pearl’s mother) ran out of the house in her slip.
Grandma Morgan rolled Pearl in a rag rug to smother the flames.
Doc Rodham treated Pearl’s burns.
Doc Rodham was never the point of the story, only a detail. Doc Rodham treated Pearl’s burns. That’s all anyone had ever said about him, yet somehow that was enough to stir my curiosity. Why “Doc Rodham” and not “the doctor”? Was he a physician of some note whose name should be remembered? And “Doc” over “Doctor”—did this suggest a sense of familiarity, or was he simply a humble man who found formalities off-putting?
So when I needed a doctor to treat my fictional Daisy, I was delighted to see Doc Rodham show up on the page. Somehow I knew he’d be gentle with the girl. Later in my novel, when an accident occurred that I hadn’t expected, Doc Rodham—or more precisely, my rendition of him—appeared again. He showed himself to be a decent man, sensitive to the plight of the miners and their families.
Since my novel opens in 1913, five years before my Aunt Pearl’s tragedy, I headed to the public library to make sure the real-life physician was practicing medicine at that time. Thankfully he was, but along the way, I also discovered that Dr. Thomas Rodham, 1420 North Main Avenue, Scranton, was Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s paternal great-uncle. Even though I was aware of Rodham Clinton’s local roots, I was too busy writing to think about a possible connection. I came to find out that, while Rodham Clinton’s grandfather Hugh worked his way up through the ranks at the Scranton Lace Curtain Company, her great-uncle studied medicine in Philadelphia and returned home to practice.
Still, it wasn’t until I came across this story in Rodham Clinton’s 2003 autobiography Living History that I got a sense of who Dr. Thomas Rodham was:
Around 1920, he [Rodham Clinton’s father] and a friend had hitched a ride on the back of a horse-drawn ice wagon. As the horses were struggling up a hill, a motorized truck plowed into the back of the wagon, crushing my dad’s legs. He was carried to the nearest hospital, where the doctors deemed his lower legs and feet irreparably damaged and prepared him for surgery to amputate both. When Hannah [Rodham Clinton’s paternal grandmother], who had rushed to the hospital, was told what the doctors intended, she barricaded herself in the operating room with her son, saying no one could touch his legs unless they planned to save them. She demanded that her brother-in-law, Dr. Thomas Rodham, be called in immediately from another hospital where he worked. Dr. Rodham examined my dad and announced that “nobody is going to cut that boy’s legs off!” My father had passed out from pain; he awoke to find his mother standing guard, assuring him that his legs were saved and that he’d be whipped hard when he finally got home.
I love Hannah’s tenacity at the hospital and her no-nonsense approach with her son. I was also thrilled to see how steadfast and courageous the real Dr. Thomas Rodham was as he saved his nephew’s legs. These qualities meshed well with the sense of decency and kindhearted nature exhibited by my fictional Doc Rodham.
Doc and Doctor were coming together, but I still wondered if the honorable part of my character also existed in the actual man. Then one day, I picked up my copy of Diamonds of the Mines to double-check a reference for my proofs, and I found something I had never noticed before printed on the back of Bowen’s biography page:
To Thomas B. Rodham, M.D., Scranton, Pa.
Thou—whom the Christian Virtues grandly crowned
With all that’s graceful, generous, and kind,
In Genius, Culture, Eloquence profound—
To mold the brilliant powers of the mind—
Deem it not flattery, by pride designed,
For me to sing thy praises and impart
To other ears the truth, by Love refined—
Flowers of Friendship, beautiful in part,
Plucked in their brightest bloom, from the garden of my heart.
All along, the red cloth-covered book, which found its way to me through four generations, held the answer. As it should.
BARBARA J. TAYLOR was born and raised in Scranton, PA, and teaches English in the Pocono Mountain School District. She has a master’s degree in creative writing from Wilkes University. She still resides in the “Electric City,” two blocks away from where she grew up. Sing in the Morning, Cry at Night is her first novel.
Posted: Jul 9, 2014
Category: Akashic Insider | Tags: Akashic Insider, Pennsylvania, Kaylie Jones Books, Barbara J. Taylor, Sing in the Morning Cry at Night, Scranton, Doc Rodham, Hillary Clinton, Hillary Rodham Clinton, Dr. Thomas Rodham
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