My mom and I switched off driving through the mountains on our trip from Atlanta to Asheville, North Carolina. It was my first excursion into full-time homeschooling, and my kids were entering fourth grade and first grade. This was the road trip to kick off a new season.
As we clambered up Highway 23 amid early changing fall leaves, making our way past the Nantahala National Forest, 197 miles to our final destination, I read. I turned page after page to see where the story about the Biltmore mystery was going.
Reading aloud to my young daughter, who had already started disliking school while my son — a natural-born learner from birth — was the balm we needed on that first foray into schooling at home. It soothed my worries over whether or not I’d be good enough.
Sure, I had taught high school literature 15 years prior, but that was completely different from teaching my own children. Could I engage them? Would they be motivated to learn alongside me at the kitchen table without all the programs and built-in structure that their small school had provided?
My mom had been our traveling companion for so many museum excursions. She had watched both of my kids when they were infants while I worked full-time as a journalist. Her commitment to pick them up from school, run them to doctor’s appointments, and make sure they had sunscreen for VBS every summer was saintly.
So to share this first road trip with her made sense. It was the trophy on her awards night, the one where she didn’t stand on a stage, recite a speech, or even receive an official passage from one grade to the next. But I think, in her heart, she knew. It was time to pass the baton.
I had left my full-time writing job to stay home with my children and teach them. One had special needs that were not being met at school, and the other one was simply along for the ride. So our first read-aloud,- a book by an unknown author – seemed auspicious at best and wholly unliterary at worst. After all, I was accustomed to teaching Shakespeare. I remembered the many units I devised around Pip’s character arc as I taught Great Expectations to ninth graders. Why was I reading a short middle-grade mystery by an author I knew nothing about?
It was for the love of adventure.
In that short, four-hour drive, I realized that if I never succeeded at teaching my children how to fully diagram a sentence or memorize metric conversions, but they came away with a love for learning, that was all I dreamed of doing. It wasn’t Chaucer or Shakespeare or Dickens who taught me that.
Her name was Carole Marsh. The book was The Mystery of Biltmore House.
How A Little Book and A Little Drive Converged
I would learn later that this 160 page self-published book was one of a handful that would propel Marsh to being elected esteemed Georgia Author of the Year in 2006 and receiving the Excellence in Education Award, among many other accolades. She too had grown up under the eaves of an Atlanta brick facade that no longer existed, running through sprinklers in the backyard and disappearing into books to escape a traumatic childhood.
I would also learn many years later—after reading the Biltmore mystery to my own children and later getting to meet Carole Marsh in person—how our lives mirrored one another’s in so many ways.
But on this trip, her little book and our short drive merged into a memory that will forever stick with me. My kids were enthralled with the mystery she had painted with the deep jewel-tone hues of a North Carolina mountainside, full of ebbing and flowing, rising and falling, guessing and page-turning until the road trip ended at our final destination: a friend’s house in Asheville.
The next day, we would tour the famous home of the Vanderbilt family, the book’s namesake. But with a 6-year-old and a 9-year-old, it was way past bedtime when we arrived, and there was still dinner to eat and sheets to put on the bed.
After a chili mac so comforting we could feel our eyelids drooping, I went to our room to get ready for sleep. The kids were staying in the room connected to mine, and they hopped up to my tall bed for goodnight prayers, edging closer to me, begging me to finish the story.
We still had a few chapters left to find out how the mystery ended. It was full of real history, true-life artifacts housed within the actual Biltmore estate, yet they never would have known it because the mystery was just too rich. My young first-grader and fourth-grader had no idea they were studying part of America’s history. To them, it was just a really good story.
I convinced them to go to bed after I read just one more chapter. The final two would wait until morning.
A Quiet Knock
Just as I unfolded the dog-eared page where I had left off before a cozy bed and warm bowl of chili erased all the fears and anxieties I had been keeping inside, we heard a quiet knock.
The door cracked slightly, and the kids and I turned to hear, “Are you still up?”
It was my mom, all ready for bed, face washed and teeth brushed, asking if we could continue the story. She too had to know how the mystery ended.
Of course, my promise to read “just one more” chapter spilled into reading all three of the final chapters. Closing in on midnight, we all scattered to our beds when I finished, amazed at how Marsh had revealed the resolution. We all went to bed wondering, “Were the kids in the story real? How much of the Biltmore artifacts and findings were still in existence?”
The next day, we scrounged up all of the pamphlets we could during our descent into the Biltmore Estate’s self-guided tour. In the first sitting room, we tagged along with a group tour to hear about a painting that we’d read about in Marsh’s novel the night before.
After the second room, we realized we didn’t need the pamphlets or the tour guide. Our novel had been more than sufficient to “show us” the estate without the stuffiness of a nonfiction pamphlet or the stifling proximity of 20 strangers all huddled together to listen to a small voice squeaking out facts.
One of our final rooms on the tour was the bottom floor where we passed by the infamous chess set. None of us could believe that it was just sitting out, not locked away under a plexiglass cube or anything.
Were the staff members aware that this set was so crucial to the home’s history? Did they realize how much the mystery of the novel was tied to this one game?
Of course not.
They may not have even remembered the day that Marsh came to visit years prior. She was a young mom, a new author, and someone who asked for permission to go beyond the visitors’ tour to something deeper, something the staff didn’t give out readily. Years before, when she did her research at the estate, how could the staff have known how much her meticulous notes and reverberating questions would lead to two young children’s fascination with history and literature?
They couldn’t have known, for sure. But what they missed was another woman’s treasure.
Marsh had written a gem that would not just provide the foundation for a thriving publishing business and a lifelong career as an author. She had written away another young mother’s worries, decades later, about whether or not her children would be connected to one another, to her, and to learning.
In this middle-grade reader, Marsh wrote a magical mystery that achieved what an historical pamphlet couldn’t do—it united three generations on the cusp of fascination and a willingness to turn the page toward the unknown roads ahead.
Her mystery didn’t just change our experience at a historical landmark. It altered our experience of what it meant to wonder again, to rediscover, and to wander into adventure that we’d previously thought was only for the qualified few. Our homeschooling journey has continued, now six years in, and that little mystery started it all.
Since then, we’ve tackled the classics of E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web and The Westing Game by Ellen Rankin. But we have also tackled Geometry, Engineering, Native American History, Botany, and yes, they aced diagramming sentences.
That young mom who feared not being enough? Never measuring up? A little book taught her to dream a new dream, one where her legacy wouldn’t just be something she wrote but instead, a person she raised. Times two.