NUVO: What brought you to the Fletcher family and the decision to present them as one reviewer describes as a "novel-like" narrative history?
Smith: I've long been familiar with the wonderful "fish-out-of-water' story of Elijah Fletcher who left his antislavery Vermont ancestral home in the early 1800s to teach school in Virginia only to become a slaveholding planter —much to the shock and dismay of his New England family and friends. But when I discovered the remarkably rich and voluminous diaries of his younger brother, Calvin Fletcher, who made his way west to Indianapolis — 5000 plus pages of amazingly honest and reflective comments, jotted down daily for over 40 years, well, that sealed the deal. I had to turn this story into a larger Fletcher family epic! And I'm glad I did. I wanted it to have a "novel-like" narrative feel so that readers, as much as possible, could sense firsthand from the Fletchers' themselves what life felt like to them, what their worries and hopes were all about. I made the bet with myself that most readers would feel just as I did when I first started reading through all these diaries and letters: that the Fletchers' story would feel very personal and relatable. Their story, I firmly believe, opens up a remarkable window on what it meant to be an American in the early years of the nation.
Smith: One of the reasons I wrote Our Family Dreams, was because the Fletcher family, and Calvin Fletcher in particular, showcased this quintessential Hoosier (and American) entrepreneurial spirit. As I noted in the book, Calvin represented the Protestant work ethic in just about everything he did — from how he organized his day, the effort and worry he put into his investments, the land he purchased, the banks he ran, and the extremely purposeful way he raised his children. All of it was done for high moral purpose and to be the most efficient and productive person he could be. It's not surprising that even though he came to Indianapolis as a young man in a near penniless condition, he would later become one of the city's wealthiest and most prominent citizens. The biggest "take-away", though, that I hope readers feel after reading the book is the recognition that whatever differences in clothes, travel, communication, etc., Calvin, like so many of his Fletcher kinsmen, bear a striking resemblance to us today: their unswerving devotion to education and pursuit of the American dream all but leaps out of the pages of their letters and diaries. Calvin was the quintessential American: seen in his deeply felt need to cultivate personal ambition and use it to advance himself. The Fletchers' story, I believe, is our own. The best history, I think, is history we can relate to, we can see ourselves in, as well as learn about what was so utterly different about another era and people. At one level, the Fletcher family was an ordinary family, but their experiences, especially those of Calvin and Elijah, provide an astonishingly candid look into the American dream as it was unfolding across the 19th century. So, to me, the Fletcher story offers nothing less than an emotional x-ray into the heart and soul of a middle-class American family trying to survive and advance in the American nation. And because it's told as much through their own eyes as possible, I'd like to think readers will be intrigued and compelled by their story.