Writer Ilyon Woo, Ph.D., delves deeply into the topic of marriage. Over a decade ago, in 2010, Woo published her first book, The Great Divorce: A Nineteenth-Century Mother’s Extraordinary Fight against Her Husband, the Shakers, and Her Times, and now, Woo is back to celebrate the paperback release of her second book, Master Slave Husband Wife: An Epic Journey from Slavery to Freedom. She speaks about this latest book on February 12 at Elliott Bay Book Company.
In Master Slave Husband Wife, Woo tells the story of an enslaved couple, Ellen and William Craft, who made the decision in 1848 to escape from slavery. Ellen posed as a slave-owning mistress, with William as her bondsman, and they covered 1,000 miles, traveling from Georgia to the Northern free states.
Once their story became known, they toured New England and spoke alongside other abolitionists. But the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 put them in danger again, and they fled the United States entirely in order to secure their freedom.
Woo found that the Crafts’ story was one that absolutely had to be told to Americans of today. “I feel like I’m constantly coming across fascinating stories, but really, in terms of archival discoveries, Master Slave Husband Wife has been a windfall,” she said. “With The Great Divorce, I had several powerful epiphanies, one, notably in a bucolic Shaker village on a crisp fall day, when I discovered a proverbial ‘smoking gun’ in the beautifully penned pages of an ancient Shaker journal. I just about fell out of my chair.”
But her latest book research went well beyond a few great surprises. “With Master Slave Husband Wife, those epiphanic lights went off all the time, in all kinds of spaces, courthouses, libraries, and other repositories, but also on street corners and even my own kitchen table, as I read 19th century newspapers online,” Woo elaborated. “In fact, I’m still making discoveries, and you’ll see some of them in the paperback.”
All of these archival discoveries posed for Woo the challenge of how to best tell the Crafts’ tale. “There were tears,” Woo admitted. “I addressed the formal issue of how to shape the narrative by looking outside established conventions of history writing, to other genres and art forms, above all, screenwriting, because it demands such economy, as well as music.”
Woo considered the interests of both historians and casual readers, packing in footnotes of research leads to share with future scholars. She is also working on a project to take this material into a digital space.
In college and graduate school, Woo earned degrees in Humanities and English, but was also drawn to history courses. “United States history has always been a source of fascination for me,” she said. “My first research grant at age sixteen, from National Endowment for the Humanities, was on the U.S. Cold War and the Korean War.”
Her more recent focus on U.S. history was inspired by her late mentor, Robert Ferguson. “In my first year of grad school, I was advised by other students that even if Ferguson were teaching the literature of toothpicks, I had to take his course,” she said. “They were absolutely right.”
Woo credits Ferguson with keeping her inspired. “Although I spent many years trying to quit graduate school, Ferguson kept me coming back, and it’s this path that pointed the way to both The Great Divorce and Master Slave Husband Wife,” she shared. “I only wish I could have shared this latest book with my teacher, who I miss.”
On this book tour, Woo has presented at dozens of events, many of which were in conversation with another individual.
Woo isn’t sure if she’ll have a conversation partner at Elliott Bay Books, but she is a huge fan of the store. “While I’ve never met an independent bookstore I haven’t liked, I had a particular ‘love at first sight’ feeling with this one, especially because of book buyer Rick Simonson,” she said. “When I was at the bookstore this summer, Rick asked me about my reading tastes like he was taking my pulse, then started pulling all sorts of books off the shelf that looked so good, I wanted to take them all!”
Due to the carry-on baggage restrictions of her flight, Woo could only take one book at that time. “I went home with The Whale by Cheon Myeong-Kwan, translated by Chi-Young Kim,” she said.
Woo has also appreciated other personal connections she’s made during her book tour. “One of the most unforgettable experiences I’ve had in the past year of book travel, but really throughout this journey, has been getting to meet descendants of Ellen and William Craft,” she said. “While I’d been in communication with family members before, it was on the road that I met them in-person: great-great, great-great-great, and even great-great-great-great grandchildren of the Crafts, who are now starting a family foundation.”
On February 12, Woo may have even more special details to share about these new connections. “I’ll be meeting an even younger generation in the coming months, and sharing a stage with Ms. Peggy Trotter Dammond Preacely, an activist, poet, Freedom Rider, and oral historian, in Long Beach, California, just before my event at Elliott Bay,” Woo said. “Ms. Peggy remembers holding the hand of her grandfather, who remembered holding the hand of his grandfather, William Craft.”
This highlights how history isn’t as dry or removed as we might think. “It’s amazing how close history can be,” she said. “The Crafts have changed my approach to storytelling, and they have changed me.”
Ilyon Woo speaks on February 12 at Elliott Bay Book Company, 1521 Tenth Avenue, Seattle.