McLean Author Inspired by Indian 'Boarding Schools'

McLean Author Inspired by Indian 'Boarding Schools'

Readers might envision an author who has successfully published 18 books as having an effective formula.

But that’s not what inspired “The Place at the Edge of the Earth,” the latest novel for children between 10 and 14, by Bebe Faas Rice, a resident of Westmoreland Square in McLean.

“Every author has a book that is written from the heart,” Rice writes in the author’s note. “This is mine.”

“I had a rather powerful experience when we lived at Carlisle Barracks,” she said.

Rice said she stumbled on a hauntingly sad story about Native American children who died at the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania, where they were sent to learn and absorb the culture that had supplanted their tribal customs.

Several years ago, Rice and her husband, W.H. “Duff” Rice, visited Carlisle Barracks in Pennsylvania, the second oldest Army post in the United States. “We were spending the night in the hostess house.”

Both of the Rices are former Marines, and she was born in Philadelphia, so the post had a comforting, homey feel.

One night, when the couple went for a walk after dinner, they discovered a cemetery surrounded by a curiously low fence and many rows of narrow, small, white headstones.

“We went inside a cemetery, and there were all these little white headstones with all these children’s names and all these different Indian names.

RICE ADMITS SHE has a fascination for cemeteries and likes to walk through them, reading the inscriptions on the headstones. But this small cemetery was distinctive because most of the dates of death revealed children who had died before reaching their teens.

The small stones bore names like “Louise Thunder” and “Herbert J. Little Hawk,” Rice said.

When she noticed the date, 1885, “I got thinking,” Rice said. “These kids were a long way from home. They probably didn’t know anything about this part of the country or white culture.”

When she and her husband returned to their room in the Carlisle Barracks, she said, “I saw the brass plaque that said this was the infirmary.”

“I had wondered why the ceilings were so high,” Rice said.

Her research showed that Carlisle Barracks had been part of a boarding school where Indian children were moved to learn a culture imported from England that supplanted theirs.

“It was a terrible, terrible, thing,” she said. “They were so far from their parents, and in such a strange world.

“So many [of the children] died of measles and tuberculosis. They called it ‘the white plague.’

“I think a lot of them just got ill because they were homesick. And their resistance to the ‘white man’s diseases’ wasn’t built up.

“I thought that if any place is haunted, it must be here, where these children died.

“I thought about it for a couple of years. I couldn’t get it out of my mind. It was just a story I felt I really wanted to tell. It was such a sad little story.”

Rice placed her “ghost story” in a fictional setting, a Fort Sayers, which Rice describes as “a melange of many such schools in the country.”

She tells the story of a 13-year-old girl named Jenny, who uncovered the sad and haunting stories of Indian children like Swift Running River and Johnny Little Fox.

They were the fictional recreations of some of the children who lived — and died — in the infirmary of the boarding school at Carlisle Barracks between 1879 and 1917.

“I had an emotional tie with this story,” said Rice, whose son, John, once attended Kent Gardens Elementary School. Now he serves in the U.S. Foreign Service in Brussels and has three young children.

“I have a child,” Rice said, “and to tell a child he is unworthy is the worst thing you can do.”

RICE MET HER HUSBAND, “Duff,” in the Marine Corps, where she was an “officer selection officer” in the days before women were encouraged to have careers. It was her job to visit colleges in five states, trying to get women to sign up for officer training in the Marine Corps.

“In the South, particularly, it was hard finding women college graduates,” she said. “It was a time when it was sort of a shocking thing to do.”

After her husband retired as inspector general of the Marine Corps, they settled in McLean.

He serves on the board of directors at Vinson Hall. She has written 18 books, one of them a mystery that was nominated for an Edgar award.

“I had always wanted to write,” said Rice, who graduated from college with an English degree after serving as editor of the college newspapers. Since her husband retired, she said, “I just hole up and write.

“I’ve reached the point where I write the books that I want to write,” she said.

She is working on a new novel, set in England during the War of the Roses in 1462.

“I love history,” said Rice.

“I’ve written a lot of mysteries, and thrillers, and ghost stories that were kind of popular. I love ghost stories of any kind. Most of my stories have ghosts, or some kind of odd thing,” she said.

One of Rice’s books, “Class Trip,” was nominated for an Edgar award.