Family prodding and island pride resulted in a remarkable addition to the Outer Banks literary canon.
Jeannette Gray Finnegan Jr., a Hatteras native whose family dates to the 1600s, wrote a series of five Young Adult novels that trace the history of the island and its people.
“I told everything I wanted people to know,” Finnegan says. “Because I really wanted people to know what a great place it was. And they feel it from the sand up, they feel it. They don’t know why they think it’s so great, but it’s built into this place. We’ve always been great.”
Finnegan’s series — “Spirits of Cape Hatteras Island” — draws on her own experiences growing up and more than a decade of research and interviews.
The books centers around the lives of three children, The Lighthouse Kids, who live on the grounds of the Hatteras Lighthouse with their families. Ellie Gray and her cousins, brothers Luke and Blake Finnegan, possess special gifts passed down through generations that permit them to communicate with each other and with animals telepathically, travel through time, and explore the land and people that nurtured them. Think of it as a salt air family memoir, with traces of H.G. Wells, Dr. Dolittle, Robert Louis Stevenson, Jules Verne and James Fenimore Cooper.
“I think a little differently than most people,” says Finnegan, often called “Jaye” by family and friends.
Finnegan, 78, is a retired high school history teacher. She reconnected with her roots when she and her husband, former pro football player and longtime restaurateur Ted Torok, moved from Virginia Beach back to Hatteras in 1999. An English and history major at East Carolina, she taught for 35 years at First Colonial High in Virginia Beach, but returned to her home often.
Finnegan’s ancestors, part of the Jennette family tree, donated the land where the Hatteras Lighthouse was originally built. Her family legacy is literally carved in stone at the lighthouse’s present location in Cape Hatteras National Seashore Park in Buxton, where the names of relatives who served as lighthouse keepers are part of the landscape at the visitors’ center.
Finnegan’s mother, Jeanette, suggested that she was uniquely qualified to chronicle Hatteras’ rich history. Her son, Lang, told her years ago that she should write about the surfmen, who heroically rescued those in distress along the coast. The elder Jeanette Finnegan, a teacher as well, was a fount of information and helped kick-start research. She passed away in March 2015 at age 102. Though she didn’t live to see the books published, her daughter had completed four of the manuscripts, and a family friend read her the stories as her health declined.
The series, set in the late 1930s, toggles between snapshots of daily life on Hatteras Island and fantasy that includes time travel, magic treasure chests, protective wolves and underwater exploration. All of it permits Finnegan to detail the island’s past and its unique relationship to nature, from Native-American tribes to pirates to the surfmen who patrolled the coastal waters to various war efforts. The books are infused with love of family and faith, and the communal spirit necessary to live in an isolated location as unforgiving as it was beautiful. They’re exhaustively researched and informative for both natives and novices.
“I wanted to do the history of the island,” Finnegan says, “but I didn’t want it to be ‘this happened, then that happened, then this other thing happened.’ I did that kind of history for 35 years (as a teacher). I wanted to include fantasy and time travel as a way to get there, but I couldn’t do that with adults. Nobody would buy that. It had to be kids.”
Finnegan’s relatives and ancestors are a major part of the books. Ellie is named for her Aunt Eleanor, who had an accident as a young woman that limited her mobility and affected her mental capacity.
“I wanted to give her a second life,” Finnegan says.
Luke and Blake are named for her grandchildren, who live with Lang in Daytona Beach, Fla.
“I wanted them to know what a wonderful place they originated from,” Finnegan says. “So I wanted them to know the history of this island. Because this is my island. I could have been born (anywhere), but I was lucky enough to be born here.”
Finnegan wrote the books without a marketing or distribution plan. Amid a crowded literary field and tepid interest from publishers, she and Torok decided to self-publish and take their chances that they might gain traction from word-of-mouth and placement in bookstores locally and regionally. She is scheduled to do appearances and book signings from Corolla to Ocracoke through the summer, hoping that will spark further interest among locals and visitors. They have a website (thelighthousekids.com) and an active Facebook page with stories and photos related to the history of the island.
“I’m happy with the books myself, but I didn’t know if anyone else was going to be happy with them,” Finnegan says. “I do everything I can to let people know this place is not obscure, that it’s important to the history of the country.”