SPOILER ALERT! Below, we talk about some of the plot twists in our Reading Into History Family Book Club pick, The Parker Inheritance, by Varian Johnson. So, if you haven’t finished the novel yet, stop reading now and come back when you’re done!
In the middle-reader novel The Parker Inheritance, author Varian Johnson spins a mystery about the hunt for a hidden treasure that may or may not exist when a young girl named Candice visits her grandmother’s hometown of Lambert, SC. We recently caught up with Johnson to talk about his writing process, his interest in history, and his love of puzzles. We can’t wait to meet him in person to continue the conversation on Sept. 29 at our first book wrap of the school year. We hope to see you there!
Book wraps are held on Sundays from 2-4 pm every month except July and August. See our family programs calendar for exact dates. The events are free with Museum admission and recommended for families with children ages 9–12. Registration is not required.
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What was the inspiration for The Parker Inheritance? Is it based on a true story?
When I first came up with the idea for The Parker Inheritance, all I knew was that I wanted to write a puzzle book. I’m a big fan of Ellen Raskin’s The Westing Game, and I knew I wanted to write this book as an homage. And for a long time, all that existed of the book was the puzzle—there was no Candice or Brandon, no Reggie or Siobhan. No Lambert. No fortune.
A few years later, I was reminded of a multigenerational story idea—a story that tracks a family’s experience with racism from the early 1900s to today—and I realized that this was the story that I needed to pair with the puzzle.
Even then, it still took a while for me to figure out how to link them together. Eventually, I worked through the idea of perception—seeing what we want to see, hearing what we want to hear—as being paramount for both the story and the puzzle. And then, I spent the next three years writing the book!
While the book is fictional, there are certainly things in it that are inspired by real life. The town of Lambert, SC—and the all-black high school—are based on my hometown of Florence, SC, and my alma mater, Wilson High School. In addition, other pieces of Candice and Brandon’s lives—like their love for reading—are influenced by my own life.
The book references many historic events, such as the 1954 Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education. Did you learn anything new about school segregation while writing this book?
I spent a lot of time researching segregation—both the Brown v. Board of Education case, as well as Briggs v. Elliott, a smaller case from South Carolina that was included in the Brown v. Board case when it went to the Supreme Court. Although the lawsuit was successful, many of the key members of the Briggs v. Elliott case were harassed, attacked, threatened, and eventually forced to flee South Carolina due to their involvement.
In addition, I had always assumed that once segregation was ruled illegal, schools and other facilities had quickly begun to desegregate. However, that wasn’t the case! It wasn’t until I was interviewing a few older graduates from my high school that I learned that Wilson High School wasn’t desegregated until the 1960s. I actually had to go back and fix the manuscript, as I had white students attending school in 1957.
Would you consider this book historical fiction?
I like to think of The Parker Inheritance as a mash-up: part contemporary fiction, part historical fiction, part mystery— even part middle-grade novel and part young-adult novel. That being said, I’m proud of the historical parts of the novel. I think it’s important that we write historical fiction—we don’t want to forget the sacrifices that others made in the past to make the world a better place for us today.
Could you tell us about your inspiration to have tennis play such a prominent role in the story? Do you yourself play tennis?
I grew up playing tennis, but I’m not very good at it! But, I’ve always thought of tennis as a “sophisticated” game, and I wanted Enoch Washington to think of the game in the same way. It’s a game that—until the Williams sisters came along—was very much dominated by white players (outside of players such as Althea Gibson and Arthur Ashe.) I wanted Enoch to be driven to be the best—and not just at sports and jobs “acceptable” for Negros—but at games that were typically played by white men. That drive to be the best is what fueled Enoch Washington. Of course, it also blinded him. His need to win at all costs came with great personal sacrifices.
The Parker Inheritance takes many twists and turns, but some of the most emotionally gripping moments have to do with family dynamics, divorce, and sexual orientation. As an author for middle readers, why do you think it’s important to write about these challenging and emotional topics?
I think it’s important to show realistic, nuanced kids in books. We need books that reflect how diverse we are. The same kid who loves to read could also be a kid who’s dealing with trying to figure out who they are and who they want to be when it comes to sexual and gender orientation. The same kid who loves to solve puzzles could also be dealing with complicated family issues at home. We aren’t just “one type of person”—there are a number of things which shape who we are in a given moment in our lives. Our characters need to reflect that same nuance.
There are many scenes in the book, where characters have challenging interpersonal interactions around race and identity. Does one of these moments stand out to you as particularly pivotal or poignant?
Oh, so many of these scenes are pivotal—and they were all hard to write. I’m probably drawn the most to the scene at the school with Candice, Brandon, and the assistant principal. Those kids weren’t doing anything wrong—they were actually studying during the summer!—but they were immediately pegged as being troublemakers just because of the color of their skin. I love that Candice talked to her mother about this afterward, and that her mother reaffirmed that Candice didn’t do anything wrong, and that she has nothing to be ashamed about. It is not Candice’s fault—or any black kid’s fault—that the world is a racist place. That fault should be placed squarely on the shoulders of the bigots and racists who continue to perpetuate hate.
Many of our readers are aspiring historians, writers, and maybe even writers of historical fiction! What advice do you have for aspiring authors?
My biggest advice is to read, read, read as much as you can. And to not only read books that you enjoy, but to also read books that might challenge you. You never know where you’ll find inspiration.
And then, when it comes to writing, I always encourage young people to write without worrying about editing; to write without worrying what others will say once they read it. There is always time to fix what you have written. But you don’t want to self-sabotage or second guess yourself on that first draft. Just write as freely as you can.
Written by Maggie B. Solarz, senior manager of family programs