Sorry to say, my copy of “Queen of the Lost” by Columbia author Emily Cooper is shamefully water-damaged.
While I was reading on the beach one afternoon, I became so engrossed in the book that I did not notice the waves inching closer, the water rising higher, or the splashes on the back cover. Only when a wave swept over the top of the book did I interrupt my reading long enough to pull back the beach chair.
Yes, “Queen of the Lost” is as wickedly seductive as the woman who is its subject—and as wickedly smart as the woman who wrote it.
The subject of “Queen” is the violet-eyed, flirtatious beauty who was South Carolina’s First Lady during the early years of the War Between the States, Lucy Holcombe Pickens. According to the book cover, Lucy “charmed governors, generals, the tsar, Tolstoy, Freemasons and filibusters…”
She will no doubt charm readers, too. In Cooper’s fictionalized account of Lucy’s life, we see her passion for adventure—and for adventurers. ‘Tis no wonder that her legend lives on.
“The Queen” begins with Lucy’s birth and explores the family that shaped her ambition: the vices that led to financial disaster for her father, her controlling and prideful mother, the complicated relationship with her siblings. Later we meet Lucy’s indulgent husband and her indulged daughter “Douschka” (nicknamed by the tsarina), one who played a starring role in the War, the other in Reconstruction.
No star shone brighter than Lucy, however, and surely her lifelong paramour would agree. How she scandalously meets with him—while First Lady and one of the most recognizable women in the South— is one of the finer (and racier) moments in the book.
Truly, there are many fine moments in this book, many finely-drawn characters.
One of the fiercest is the wise and protective Lucinda, Lucy’s slave. The way Lucy cares for her slaves—and how she fails the one she loves best—reveal much about her character and even more about the times in which she lived.
Perhaps, about the times in which we live, too.
Between the chapters in “Queen” about Lucy, Cooper offers a non-fiction narrative about how she was introduced to the legendary Lucy Pickens and became infatuated with her story.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Cooper edited a small newspaper in Edgefield, and the people there could not resist regaling her with Lucy stories (some, no doubt, intended to shock). Soon, Cooper was researching any documents and oral histories that might shed light on what was myth and what was real.
Along the way, she saw more clearly how the War still influenced life in the small town where she was working. Sometimes gently, sometimes fiercely—but always insightfully—Cooper offers thoughtful, intelligent commentary on the sometimes hidden impact of the War on the 20th century and modern times.
In comments about the violence associated with Reconstruction, for example, Cooper tells a particularly chilling story about a ghost in the backyard that can been seen only by a child—a ghost whose violent end is more powerfully told when recounted in a child’s innocence.
Another factor that recommends “Queen” is this: Never has there been a more entertaining history lesson.
“Queen” masterfully allows the reader to enter the pre-War and Reconstruction years in South Carolina. The dialogue strikes a balance between the more formal language of the period and present-day readability, and along the way there are word choices and images that conjure a different time with perfect pitch. The places are described so vividly, the customs detailed so completely, the language so on-target—the reader may feel as if he or she has climbed into a time machine.
In addition to the quality writing, Newberry folks may want to read “Queen” for the “Newberry reflections.”
Some folks may be familiar with the name Emily Cooper. Her husband Wiley is a Methodist pastor, and for many years she edited a publication that was printed at The Newberry Observer.
Some folks may be familiar with names mentioned in the book from “across the river” in Edgefield (including Greenwood and Saluda at the time): Butler, Kirkland, Starnes, Youmans, Gary, Gardner, Yarborough, Cain, Corley and more. Let us remember, Judge John Belton O’Neall wrote history books about both Newberry and Edgefield—and mentioned many family connections between the two.
While the Newberry names and Upcountry flavor are good reasons to start the book, it is the well-written and well-researched story that will snatch you up and not turn a’loose until you have finished the book.
Both stories in the book are compelling, the fictionalized story of Lucy Pickens and the non-fiction story of a newspaper editor who comes to understand our times better by learning about a legend from another time.
Yes, “Queen of the Lost” works on many levels: as a painless history lesson about pre- and post-war South Carolina; as an enchanting, fictionalized romance; and as a nonfiction commentary on why “The War” is not forgotten, even yet.
Oh, yes. This read was worth a few days of sunburn.
Just be careful of the waves.
“Queen of the Lost” is published by Kalmia Press, Columbia. Visit the website queenofthelost.com or Books on Main.