October 2007 Issue
Connected to the River
Ripley author Ann Hagedorn finds solace and inspiration in her adopted hometown.
On an evening in early June, author Ann Hagedorn was driving home to Ripley — a small town on the Ohio River in Brown County, about 50 miles southeast of Cincinnati — from a speaking engagement in Chicago. Seemingly out of nowhere, a speeding semi truck came flying at her from behind and struck her, launching her Honda Accord into the air. Hagedorn’s car landed with a crash, in a ditch in the median of I-74, near Batesville, Indiana. The semi driver, who had likely fallen asleep at the wheel before crashing into her, sped off without stopping while Hagedorn waited for help to arrive.
Hagedorn’s car was totaled. She suffered several broken ribs, full-body bruises, whiplash and shock. But, she says, “I am lucky to be alive.” Moments before the crash, she had been thinking about her next career move. In recent years, Hagedorn has made a name for herself as a writer of narrative nonfiction, and has taught classes on the subject at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism and Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. Her most recent book, Savage Peace: Hope and Fear in America, 1919 (Simon and Schuster) was published in April.
A close call with death has a way of changing one’s plans, though. “The car accident has made me rethink a lot,” she says, reclining on an antique sofa in the living room of her Ripley home. A large bay window in the room overlooks the Ohio River, which is across a narrow street from Hagedorn’s front door.
About a month after the accident, the physical bruises have faded and the broken ribs are mending, but the emotional impact remains. “If you’re on the wrong track it will shock you into realizing that. That’s the opportunity in being snapped out of your routine, into chaos,” she explains.
“I love doing these big books [Savage Peace is 543 pages, including notes and an index], but they do take about four years. So I’m rethinking the future and I’m thinking I want to write more [shorter] books — as many as possible while I’m still alive,” she says with a laugh. She’s also considering writing a novel or two. In other words, Hagedorn is on a renewed quest to live life to the fullest. Although this quest was accelerated by her accident, it began long before.
Hagedorn was born in Dayton and grew up in Dayton, Kansas City and Shaker Heights. She earned a B.A. in history and psychology from Denison University in 1971, followed by M.S. degrees from the University of Michigan (information science) and Columbia University (journalism).
Her journalism career began at the San Jose Mercury News, where she worked for a year as a reporter before landing a job with the Wall Street Journal, in New York City. At the Journal, Hagedorn developed a passion and flair for investigative reporting. In 1993, she left the Journal to work as special projects editor at the New York Daily News.
Then, in 1995, Hagedorn made the decision to leave the newspaper business and concentrate full time on writing books. Her first, Wild Ride: The Rise and Tragic Fall of Calumet Farm, Inc., America’s Premier Racing Dynasty — about corruption and greed in the horse-racing industry — was published in 1994. She followed it with Ransom: The Untold Story of International Kidnapping in 1998.
Hagedorn had lived happily in New York for more than 20 years by the time Ripley, Ohio, appeared, serendipitously, on her radar.
While researching a novel — set in the civil rights era — that she had just begun work on, she became intrigued by references she found to Ripley and its involvement with the Underground Railroad. Hagedorn placed the novel on the back burner and in the summer of 2000 moved from New York City to a rental house in Ripley, where she immersed herself in the rich history of the abolitionist movement in southwest Ohio.
The end result of her research was Beyond the River: The Untold Story of the Heroes of the Underground Railroad, published by Simon and Schuster in 2003. Employing a mixture of literary and academic writing techniques, Beyond the River shines a spotlight on the lesser-known heroes who helped put an end to American slavery, including John Rankin (1793–1886), a Presbyterian minister and abolitionist who published an antislavery book, Letters on American Slavery in 1823.
One hundred steps lead uphill from the Ohio riverbank to Rankin’s house, built in 1828. The proximity of the home to the river made it an ideal stopping point for slaves fleeing the neighboring slave state Kentucky. “Slaves were escaping all along the river in Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois,” wrote Hagedorn in Beyond the River. “Ripley, with its network of creeks, its narrow crossing, and its alleys running straight from the river to the hills behind the town — one of which ran right next to Rankin’s new house…was fast becoming a favored passage.” In fact, most of the 2,000 escaped slaves who traveled through Ripley stayed with the Rankin family.
The American Library Association selected Beyond the River as a 2004 Most Notable Book. “Hagedorn’s decision to relocate to Ripley during the book’s completion no doubt inspired her immediate and vivid prose, bringing these historical figures to a wider audience,” wrote Publisher’s Weekly in its review of the book.
When she first moved to Ripley, Hagedorn thought it would only be for a few years, or until she finished the book. What she didn’t expect was to fall in love with the little river town (population 1,782). In 2003, Hagedorn decided to make Ripley her permanent home. She purchased a spacious house on Front Street that was once home to abolitionist Thomas McCague, who makes an appearance in Beyond the River.
The house, like the town, is full of history. In the master bedroom, for instance, there is a tiny door — about five feet tall — between the window and the fireplace, leading to a long, narrow space and a ladder. The ladder goes up to the third floor attic, which is now filled with insulation. Hagedorn says she suspects, but cannot confirm, that slaves once hid in this attic.
“All my friends in New York think Ripley is my mid-life crisis,” she says with a laugh.
“I passionately love New York, but in a way, this is a better place for me to write,” she explains. “My ancestors came to Ohio in the late 18th century. So I have very, very strong roots here… I hadn’t spent much time with my mother since I was in high school. My father died, and my mother lives in Middletown, Ohio, and I thought, ‘This is an opportunity to get to know her.’”
At the time of the move, Hagedorn had just finished reading Care of the Soul: A Guide for Cultivating Depth and Sacredness in Everyday Life, by Thomas Moore — a philosophical book about learning to care for one’s own soul and achieve balance. “There was something about living in Ripley that seemed to bring alive the words of Thomas Moore,” she adds.
Perhaps it was the sense of small-town camaraderie that Ripley offered, or the visual allure of a place surrounded by hills, water and greenery. Back when Hagedorn was living in an apartment in New York, she had asked her landlady if she could install a screen door — a remnant from her Ohio childhood. No, the landlady responded — it would be a safety hazard. “I thought, ‘I just want to hear the sound of a screen door slamming. I want to hear birds at night. I want to have a garden… I want to have a more balanced life,’” Hagedorn says.
The Ohio River itself was also a big draw. It plays a key role in Beyond the River, and fittingly has become an important part of Hagedorn’s life and routine. All the windows in the front of her house offer a breathtaking view of the river, situated mere feet from her front porch.
“Writing is an isolating process, and the loneliness you can get from that isolation, it really diminishes if I sit with a view of the river,” she says.
“The neat thing about living on the river is that every season is beautiful,” she adds. “Sometimes I used to think I was living in a black-and-white film in New York until spring, and then all of a sudden, it was Technicolor. Here, it’s always a Technicolor film, because every season has stories of its own. You also connect really deeply with the process when you sit at the window and look out at the banks of the river, because you see spring slowly coming, just like a painter’s brush right across the landscape.”
In Ripley, Hagedorn says, everyone knows everyone else, and neighbors look out for one another. “When I had my car accident, people I don’t even know came up to me and said, ‘I heard about your accident and I’m sorry.’ Every once in a while someone leaves a bag of fresh vegetables on my doorknob. I don’t even know who does that. People are so kind,” she says.
Hagedorn began writing her latest book, Savage Peace, in 2004, after two years of intensive research. It is, in essence, a biography of the year 1919, a year, Hagedorn argues, that gave birth to the 20th century as we know it. Four major themes are explored in Savage Peace: civil liberties, race relations, the self-determination of nations and scientific advancement. Various “characters,” or historical figures, including W.E.B. Du Bois, J. Edgar Hoover, attorney general A. Mitchell Palmer, and muckraking journalist Ray Stannard Baker, exemplify these themes.
“I have this quest of saving certain great characters in our history from falling into the abyss of forgotten history,” Hagedorn says.
Most of her work is done in the home’s second-floor office, which resembles the inner workings of a writer’s brain in all its organized clutter. Before sitting down to write a book, Hagedorn creates lengthy, hand-written plot outlines on brightly colored Post-It notes, which she tapes together and hangs on the wall behind her desk. Also taped to her office wall is a printout of a calendar from 1919, which she used to help her get in the right frame of mind to write about the year. A window near the desk provides a clear view of Rankin’s house.
“If I feel that things aren’t going particularly well on some writing day, or workday, I always look and I can see Rankin’s house sitting there, by itself on the hill,” she says. “That’s what always gives me inspiration to move forward.”
Behind Hagedorn’s house is a small, separate, building where she has a second office, specifically for writing (all business, research, organization and filing is done in her office in the main house). It’s filled with thought-provoking decorations (such as animal skulls collected on various hiking trips) and books on the craft of writing.
These days, Hagedorn spends a lot of time on the road, traveling to speaking engagements and promoting Savage Peace across the country. No matter where she is, she says, Ripley is never far from her mind. “I take it for granted and then I leave, on a business trip or whatever, and I just feel this tug, because I’m always pulled back here. I can’t imagine ever leaving it. It’s a very special place,” she explains.
“I was on the fast track for a long time, and I didn’t really have much time for myself, or to connect deeply with people,” she adds. “Here, I’ve connected very deeply.”