Bookshelf: Leo Frank case inspires novel that blends history and magical realism

Atlanta Constitution archives inform author Maggie Nye’s narrative.
"The Curators" by  Maggie Nye
Courtesy of Northwestern University Press

Credit: Northwestern University Press

Credit: Northwestern University Press

"The Curators" by Maggie Nye Courtesy of Northwestern University Press

Maggie Nye was an MFA student at the University of Alabama reading Philip Roth’s 2004 novel “The Plot Against America” when she first encountered the name, Leo Frank.

Roth’s novel imagines Franklin Delano Roosevelt lost the 1940 presidential election to Charles Lindbergh, setting into motion a rise in antisemitism and the persecution of Jewish American families. As a sort of footnote, Leo Frank is mentioned as a cautionary tale.

“I was horrified there was this monumental historical event that I knew nothing about,” said Nye, now a Ph.D. student at Florida State University. Calling herself the slowest reader in history because she frequently stops to research things that interest her, she did a deep dive on Leo Frank and didn’t come up for air until she’d written her debut novel, “The Curators” (Northwestern University Press, $24), that published this month.

The novel is set during the trial of Leo Frank, the Jewish superintendent of a pencil factory in Atlanta who was convicted — many people believe wrongly so — of the 1913 murder of 13-year-old employee, Mary Phagan. Antisemitic sentiment roiled the city, and a mob of men busted Frank out of jail and lynched him in Marietta.

At the heart of Nye’s story, which blends historical accuracy and fantasy, is the Felicitous Five, a group of teenage girls whose friendship is bound by their infatuation with Frank, while they also secretly identify with Mary Phagan, their contemporary. Devastated when Frank is killed, they create a golem in his image that starts to run amok.

What inspired Nye to write “The Curators” was a minor detail in the case that’s come to be called “the murder notes.”

“The murder notes were a set of two handwritten notes that were found beside Mary Phagan’s body in the pencil factory,” Nye said, speaking from her mother’s home in Maryland. “They were written in a kind of decipherable pidgin … as though her dead body had described the assault ... like in her dying moments she wrote down an account of everything. And in them there’s this line, ‘Play like the night witch did it.’

“The detective and the press and history has interpreted that as the ‘night watchman’ because it was, in fact, the night watchman Newt Lee who found her body,” she continued. “But it’s written ‘night witch,’ two words. And I was like, that is such a surreal detail to be embedded in such a tragic and morbid set of circumstances. And I began thinking about child narrators and how children might interpret such a detail and might spin that out into a fantasy, and that’s how I got to the collective narrators that are in charge of my novel.”

For historical accuracy and local color Nye relied heavily upon archives of the Atlanta Constitution after she saw the newspaper cited in Steve Oney’s definitive account of the case, “And the Dead Shall Rise,” published in 2004.

The newspaper proved indispensable to her in learning “how people lived and how the media shaped what they were thinking and how people talked and what people were interested in and what was popular.”

As far as historical newspapers go, Nye said the Atlanta Constitution was fairly balanced in its coverage of the case. “But, of course, there was interest in the sort of salacious and morbid details of the case. That’s what sells extras, right? … I think it reflects the historical attitude of the men in power, largely.”

She admits she doesn’t paint a flattering picture of journalists in her novel. “I was really interested in how newspapers and journalism shape public perception and can kind of rally and incite anger, bitterness and violence.”

Ouch. That was then, perhaps. This is now. I’ll go to my grave believing newspapers are a force for good.

Nye has two author events coming up this summer. She’ll participate in the Lost in the Letters Festival July 27 (www.lostintheletters.org) and she’ll give a reading on Aug. 14 at Bookish Atlanta (bookishatl.com).

Suzanne Van Atten is a book critic and contributing editor to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. She can be reached at Suzanne.VanAtten@ajc.com.