February 5, 2014

Hatteras native turns her childhood memories
into a series of books for young and old


More than 65 years ago, before Highway 12 stretched between the seven villages and Bonner Bridge spanned Oregon Inlet, small, resilient communities thrived on Hatteras Island.  Lacking a reliable road, direct access to the mainland, and many of the modern conveniences, life on the island was challenging, yet idyllic in its simplicity.

The children, especially, reveled in this time before the road.  The entire island was a safe haven, while its expansive beaches, untamed wilderness, and unique history provided an endless supply of excitement and adventure.

Jeanette Gray Finnegan Jr. who grew up in Buxton before the highway was built, recently began writing a series of children’s books based upon the island’s history, her childhood experiences, and family heritage.

“I am writing the books for my grandsons, Luke and Blake, who live in Florida,” explained Finnegan.  “I wanted them to know where their roots are and what an important part in history their ancestors played.”

Their family’s lineage and legacy is deeply rooted in Hatteras Island. 

Following family tradition, Finnegan attended high school off the island and, after studying English and history at East Carolina University, taught advanced placement government at First Colonial High School in Virginia Beach for 35 years. 

She returned to Hatteras Island during a brief reprieve from teaching and opened Jiminy Cricket Sub Shop in Buxton. She permanently relocated to the island in 2000.

Finnegan is now 74, and “Jaye,” as she is known to friends and family, has many stories to tell about her childhood.  Her mother, Jeanette Gray Finnegan, by the way, will be 101 in June and still lives in Buxton.

Dating her family’s origins in the area to the early 1700s, Finnegan is a 10th generation islander who also hails from a long line of lighthouse keepers.  Eight men in her family have held lighthouse keeper positions along the Eastern Seaboard with some keeping watch over Cape Hatteras.

Over the years, Finnegan’s family has always maintained an active role within the community: donating land for the lighthouse, the school, and the Methodist Church, rescuing shipwreck survivors, helping repair storm damage.

A supportive and loyal community was an invaluable commodity in the years before the road because the islanders seldom received outside assistance.  They were self-sufficient, relying solely on hard work, determination, and ingenuity to survive.

“I’m so very proud of the people that grew up on the island,” said Finnegan.  “I want folks to know that the people of the island, at the beginning, were strong, willful, talented, and respectful.”

The villagers maintained the sand and pine straw-laden two-track road that ran through the center of the island and built wooden bridges across the countless creeks cutting across the road.  They provided roadside assistance, as well, rescuing each stranded jalopy and truck encountered along their journeys. 

A man in Hatteras, Finnegan recalled, even constructed a ferry that carried cars to and from Ocracoke by combining two wooden boats.  

Finnegan provided countless stories demonstrating the vigor and values that permeated the community, fortifying against failure and inspiring her as both a child and a writer. 

“They had a great, great strength of character during that time,” emphasizes Finnegan.

Finnegan cherishes this period of the island’s history -- an era defined by the great perseverance and empowerment of the people of the island – and, fearing it might be lost forever within dwindling memories, wanted to preserve it for generations to come.

And, sparked by this desire, “The Adventures of the Lighthouse Kids,” a historically-based, fantasy-infused series of novels, was born.

The series follows the lives of the lighthouse keeper’s grandchildren, Ellie and her two cousins, Luke and Blake, as they explore Hatteras Island during the 1940’s, journey through time, and cultivate their newfound powers.

Finnegan based Ellie’s character on her own childhood, incorporating her family history and childhood adventures into the series, which provides added authenticity to the stories.

“I just have to write about the things I know,” explains Finnegan.  “It’s about a time when it was just us.”

Finnegan provides insight into life on the island when the Buxton woods still flourished, extensively shading the two-track road towards Frisco, and the journey to Hatteras required two hours, rather than 15 minutes.     

And vivid descriptions abound.  One of note, which instantly summons the perfect mental image and an appreciative smile, is the depiction of watching the sandy road racing by in the salt-corroded holes in the floorboard of the old jalopy.

The first installment of the series, “The Adventures of the Lighthouse Kids: The Indians,” provides insight into the children’s family history, which includes an encounter with Virginia Dare and their Croatoan Indian ancestors, Manteo and Weroansqua. 

Though the entire series is brimming with detailed historical accounts and facts -- information acquired through a year of research – the fun and light-hearted tone persists because of Finnegan’s whimsy and imagination.

“I want the book to be fun and to laugh while reading the stories,” said Finnegan.  “I didn’t want to record a list of facts, so I used time travel to keep the creativity and imagination flowing through the story.”

Finnegan clearly has a knack for combining history and fantasy. 

The first book, which was published in November 2013 as an eBook on Amazon, was well received by online reviewers, friends, and family.  It also received endorsements from several islanders, including Danny Couch, a local history guru, Gee Gee Rosell, owner of Buxton Village Books, and Carl Bornfriend, owner of Frisco Native American Museum & Natural History Center.

The excitement, though, is merely beginning in the first book. 
The second book, “Legacy, Legend, and Lore,” which will be available on Amazon early this month, promises to thrill as the Lighthouse Kids cross paths with dolphins, pirates, and even Poseidon. 

The entire series will include six books: five written by Finnegan and a sixth and final novel that focuses on the future endeavors of Sucki, a Croatoan conjurer introduced in the first book, will be written by Ted Torok, Finnegan’s husband.

Torok and Finnegan, who own and manage Dolphin Den Restaurant in Avon, have partnered together in their new enterprise of self-publishing eBooks.  Torok has published two self-help books through Amazon and handles the majority of publishing and promotion for Finnegan’s series. 

Torok has been a constant source of encouragement for Finnegan and feels confident in the Lighthouse Kids’ potential for future success.

However, the book’s sales have no bearing on Finnegan’s notion of success. She loves writing the books and hopes only that her target audience -- her grandchildren -- enjoys them.

“The book isn’t for me, it’s for this island,” asserts Finnegan.  “I’m proud of this island and so very proud of the people who grew up on the island.”

Regardless of its financial success, “The Indians” lights the way into the island’s treasured history and into the hearts of its readers.

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