PACIFIC GROVE — Looking back on her growing-up years, all the indications that Caroline Coen would start writing a novel at age 16 and complete and publish it at 17 were there, brewing like a perfect storm that ultimately could not be contained.
Coen wrote small chapter books instead of simple paragraphs in kindergarten, developed a short story she read to her second-grade class, began devouring books as an avid reader in middle school and ran a creative writing camp for fourth graders. She has always kept a diary. The opportunity to start writing a novel was granted by COVID when the busy Pacific Grove High School junior had to stop running track, directing the marching band as drum major and editing the school newspaper. Suddenly, she had time.
Yet the inspiration to develop the storyline for her book, “The Angel Oak,” was her grandfather, Morris K. Ford III, known as Jackie to most, but as “Poppy” to his granddaughter.
“Poppy was a quiet man, the epitome of a gentleman,” Coen said. “He promoted academic success and had high expectations for his children and grandchildren. Some might have felt pressure; I felt encouraged. He urged us to read historical profiles, and took us to see historical sites, which I enjoyed unless the visit ran long.”
Coen loved the big red pickup truck in which her grandfather would collect her and her two brothers when they visited him in the South Carolina home he shared with his wife Patricia, and their dog, Truman. “My grandfather always admired President Truman,” she said.
Fitting neatly into the genre of historical fiction, Coen’s novel is a coming-of-age story, set in the 1960s which, in the telling, enabled the young author to develop some understanding of the conflict in Vietnam. Through her research and writing, she explored the impact of the war on both countries, and the effects of combat on her grandfather, who flew 37 bombing missions as a U.S. Air Force captain and then silently suffered his post-traumatic stress through more than 40 years before letting go of life.
“As we drove away, at the end of our 2018 Christmas celebration, where the whole family had been together,” said Coen, “I was waving to Poppy. We always waved until we were out of sight. It was my last moment with him. When I got my PSAT scores, my mom texted my grandpa to let him know, and he responded in all caps that he was so proud of me. That was my mom’s last communication from him.”
After her grandfather’s death, the story of his life started to come out, through questions and conversations, particularly with his pastor, in whom Poppy confided the things he didn’t share with others.
“Not immediately,” said Coen, “but over the course of time, the idea developed to write a book based on my grandpa’s life. I started writing from what I knew and imagined, but I realized there was more to it. I needed to know more.”
Coen’s mom, Michelle Ford, began planning a trip, to get in a family vacation before her daughter left for college. Seeking places they hadn’t yet experienced, she chose Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam, as an opportunity to learn and to find closure after her father’s death.
“When we went to Vietnam as a family,” said Ford, “it seemed to provide the final piece of the puzzle about my father’s life and death. Caroline’s book ultimately is a boy-meets-girl coming-of-age story, but embedded throughout the storyline is the PTSD that results from surviving the nightmare of war.”
From concept to competition
Caroline Coen wasn’t interested in writing a biography. She was motivated to tell a story, inspired by her grandfather’s experiences, but woven into fiction to enable readers to have a broader experience and find different elements to which they might relate.
“The Angel Oak” actually is an allegory, referring to a famous tree on Johns Island near Charleston, South Carolina.
“The tree has wide branches that touch the ground — the feature that makes it famous,” Coen said. “My protagonists find an oak tree in the forest near their houses, which also has branches that reach the ground. Because it resembles the Angel Oak, they call it the mini angel oak, and many scenes throughout the book take place in the clearing where it stands.”
The novel opens in 1960, with the cultivation of an unlikely friendship between two kids whose lives began under decidedly different circumstances, yet they find themselves planted in neighboring peanut farms in “Lennington,” South Carolina. Grady O’Neal’s life is simple, staid, and small, whereas the fiery Georgia Mae Clements thinks big and lives large. Their friendship grows along with them, ultimately offering the reader the promise of romance. Yet the turbulent era and the prospect of the draft breed more battles in their lives than the war, itself.
“I didn’t know if I’d publish my writing, but I knew it would be a novel,” said Coen. “The opening scene could have stopped at a short story, but I knew there was more to it, so I needed to expand it. The characters are made up, the storyline is made up, but the historical events in the story did take place. The story is an alchemy of my family’s background and my grandfather’s character and experiences, and a lot of me is infused in the book.”
Part of Coen’s homage to her grandfather lay in naming her protagonist Grady, derived from the Irish word “gráda,” which means noble.
Upon completion of her manuscript, Coen worked with family friend Tessa Avila to bring it to print. A local publishing professional, Avila edited the text, designed the book and its cover, and ultimately uploaded it for publication in paperback and as an eBook, through Amazon.
“It’s really cool that, while sheltering in place Caroline decided to dive into writing a novel,” said Avila. “I was so pleased to help her bring her work to fruition. I’m really proud of her for producing something so special and am excited to see her talent emerge through this first book. I know it won’t be her last.”
In fact, Caroline Coen is already well into writing her second novel. Also historical fiction, her storyline portrays the lives of four protagonists across 150 years, as she depicts different cultures and how they helped establish the character of the Monterey Peninsula. An excerpt from her work in progress has already earned her a Merit Award from the National YoungArts Foundation “YoungArts Competition” in novel writing.
The Angel Oak is available at Amazon.com.
Contributed by local news sources