Last Saturday night, I was sitting in one of the galleries at the Yellowstone Art Museum. The giant hall was filled with people clustered around banquet tables, stacks of new books tumbling over bright white tablecloths, wine-glasses half-filled, happy voices rising and mixing like bird song on a sunny morning. Three hundred old friends and new friends had gathered for the literary event of the year up here on the prairie: The High Plains Book Awards.
I was already walking on air.
When I heard that An African in Imperial London: The Indomitable Life of A.B.C. Merriman-Labor had been chosen as a finalist for the High Plains Book Award for Nonfiction, I felt I had already won the lottery.
Then I invited Merriman-Labor’s great nephew Melbourne Garber to join me at the Bookfest.
And he did!
On Saturday afternoon, Mel spoke to a standing-room-only crowd at This House of Books in downtown Billings. The audience was mesmerized by his talk about the history of the Krio people of Sierra Leone, about the rich cultural landscapes of Freetown, and about his own work to preserve the area’s architectural gems.
By the end of his talk, he had a room full of new friends.
That’s Mel: warm, engaging, and full of fascinating information.
A.B.C. Merriman-Labor died long before I was born, but I felt that I saw him in his great nephew. I saw Augustus in Mel’s easy laugh, his love of people, and his keen intelligence.
Merriman-Labor’s indomitable spirit lives on in his family. To be in its presence is simply magical.
So, as I sat at the banquet table with Mel, my husband Tim Lehman, and my friends from the Billings Public Library Foundation, I could not be happier. It felt like such a joyous, bountiful occasion.
Then they announced the winner of the High Plains Book Award for Nonfiction. An African in Imperial London: The Indomitable Life of A.B.C. Merriman-Labor.
How did I feel?
Utterly surprised, elated, and grateful.
Researching and writing Merriman-Labor’s story has taken me on a monumental journey for nearly a decade now. Hours in dusty archives unearthing long-forgotten letters, deep conversations with scholars, librarians, and archivists all over the US and UK, ten giant file boxes of documents stacked in my tiny office, shelves of books, and days turning into weeks, then months, then years, at a computer screen researching, writing, and rewriting.
Although the award has my name on it, books like An African in Imperial London are not the creation of a single person. They only exist because of friends who shared ideas and suggested improvements. They only exist because of strangers who generously answered questions from a woman half-way around the globe. They only exist because a literary agent and a publisher took a risk on a story long forgotten by the rest of the world.
As I float along buoyed by the joy of this honor, I think with gratitude of every person who helped me.
And I think of A.B.C. Merriman-Labor.
When I began this project oh-so-many years ago, I had no idea what I was getting into.
Little did I know then, I was embarking on the most inspiring, challenging, and magical journeys of my life.
I couldn’t be more grateful.