In her 1993 novel In Troubled Waters, Beverly Coyle depicts tensions arising in the fictional Central Florida town of Point Breeze when Tom Glover, 91-year-old patriarch of a cracker family, hires clever black 13-year-old Ted Johnson to help the old man look after his Alzheimer's-afflicted son-in-law. Jumping between the present and the Teens/Twenties, Coyle draws a parallel between Tom's boyhood kinship with a black orphan taken in by the Glovers when the Klan ruled local racial matters, and Tom's contemporary friendship with Ted, which breeds resentment among some of Point Breeze's newly prosperous whites.
Although she now teaches creative writing at Vassar College and lives in Manhattan, Coyle, age 56, knows about race relations in Florida, having grown up the daughter of a peripatetic white Methodist clergyman in the Jim Crow 1950s. She says of Tom Glover, "That old man is my grandfather."
Coyle's background also served her well when, in 1998, the Florida Humanities Council invited her and 57-year-old black St. Petersburg Times columnist Bill Maxwell to compose essays on the subject of race "as it played out for people like us who were sort of the very last of the completely segregated schools," explains Coyle. "Bill's memories are very vivid, and mine are of white privilege."
Both were raised by devout Protestant families with strong agricultural ties. Her earliest recollections are of Boynton Beach, his of Fort Lauderdale; although each lived elsewhere in Florida, sometimes separated by only a few miles. They even theorize Maxwell's father might have headed a migrant crew that labored for one of Coyle's uncles. And yet she contends that, given the stark racial realities of the era, no intersection between the pair was possible: "These two young people could never have met, unless his mother was a maid" for her family.
Once finished, the essays were stitched together into a performance piece called Parallel Lives: Stories of a Divided World, in which the writers examine race, religion, class, and other issues. To date they have presented Parallel Lives approximately 50 times, often to racially mixed groups. "It's two stools -- we've got some acting coaches -- and we connect with the audience," Coyle says. Those in attendance, she adds, "look at each other and say, 'Gee, what does it take to have a dialogue?'"