None of it Happened and All of it is True*

Bette Hubbard in bed with her rabbit and record player

I want to tell you about a message I received recently from Betsy Teter, a reader in South Carolina, in the US. It has astounded me. But first I need to tell you a little bit about Unsettled Ground. And this is going to include spoilers, so if you haven’t read it, I urge you to stop reading this article now, if you’re planning on reading the book.

Stop!

You could always go and buy Unsettled Ground, read it, and come back here. In fact, you could buy it from Hub City Bookshop in Spartanburg, South Carolina, if you’re in the US (as well as being a physical bookshop, they also sell online).

But anyway, the thing about Unsettled Ground is that I made all made up. None of it is based on anyone I know or any stories I heard. In the book (as you know, since you’ve read it – ahem) Jeanie has rheumatic fever as a child, and then when she’s twelve her mother tells her has rheumatic heart disease (RHD) and so she must live a gentle life with her, at home. Only when Jeanie is in late middle-age does she discover from her doctor that she never had RHD and so nothing is as she imagined.

Betsy wrote to tell me about her mother, Bette Hubbard who died in 2008. Here’s what she said:

‘The doctors told [my mother] at age 13 that she had rheumatic fever and they sent her to bed for eleven months. Then they told her a couple years later that it had returned, and she was put back to bed for 9 months. Her family was so worried about her they carried her back and forth to the toilet. This was the central story of her life. She missed a huge part of her childhood. Then, when she was in her late 70s and began to develop some symptoms of Parkinson’s, the doctors dropped a bombshell: she had never had rheumatic fever. She had been misdiagnosed.

‘Bette was very bright, and her parents sent her to college in the warmer climate of the American South to protect her health. She was one of a small handful of Northerners at her college (in those days she was tagged a Yankee) and in her senior year she was elected student body president.

‘She died of some sort of Parkinsonian disease – the doctors called it “white matter disease”. We saw dozens of doctors trying to figure out what this was, and along the way, one of them told her there was absolutely no sign that she’d had rheumatic fever. Her heart was strong until her last days.’

Thank you so much to Betsy for telling me this amazing story and letting me write about it here.

* The title of this piece is a quote said by the mother of the author, Anne Patchett, and I keep it stuck on wall next to where I write to remind myself about what it is I’m trying to do when I write.

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If you live near Oxford you might be interested to know that I’ll be doing my first in-person event in a while on 21st July at Blackwell’s Bookshop with fellow author Lucy Atkins (her latest novel is the amazing Magpie Lane). We’ll be interviewed by Sarah Franklin about our ‘dark fiction’. Tickets are available here.