Jennie Helderman’s journalism career went hand in hand with her advocacy work long before she first published As the Sycamore Grows. After setting up a crisis center at an old house, Helderman received a call that inspired her to use the upstairs bedrooms to create her community’s very first shelter for victims of domestic abuse. She went on to serve as the chair of the board of Alabama’s Department of Human Resources, where she worked for abuse victims, helping over half a million people a month.

As a writer, Helderman wrote nonfiction as well as fiction, even earning a nomination for a Pushcart Prize. She wrote numerous features and profiles for magazines, so when Rick Bragg assigned her to a story about poverty in Alabama, Helderman’s home state, she didn’t expect it to be any different from the articles she wrote all the time, as she relates in As the Sycamore Grows:

Alabama, September 2005. My assignment: A magazine story about poverty in Alabama. Real names, real people. Due in two weeks. Fifteen hundred words.

High stepping, but I knew where to look. I’d worked at walk-in social service agencies, taught school in rural Alabama, and clerked at debtors’ court. I cast a big net. Soon, the director of a women’s shelter suggested I meet someone on her staff.

That’s how I came to know Ginger McNeil.

We met at a sandwich shop. A woman dressed in lime green and brown linen dashed through the door. I spotted her briefcase and guessed she was Ginger, hurrying from court in the next county.

The woman stopped short. The tentative expression that crossed her face as she scanned the room turned into a broad smile when she saw me waving from a back corner. Her brown page boy bounced against her collar as she made her way toward me, hand out, half-way through an introduction even before she reached my table.

Helderman was shocked to learn that this friendly woman with the briefcase was a domestic abuse survivor herself. She’d escaped a violent husband and a home so impoverished they didn’t even have electricity. As the Sycamore Grows is McNeil’s story—of the correlation between poverty and domestic abuse and of how the women’s shelter where McNeil eventually became a staff member saved her life.

Helderman’s propulsive writing takes readers through McNeil’s harrowing journey away from the abusive husband who kept their family living off the grid in a remote cabin. The journalist even risked her own safety to interview McNeil’s ex-husband. According to Kirkus Reviews, As the Sycamore Grows “is rooted in McNeil’s bravery and her determination to tell her story as repayment to the women’s shelter workers who aided her….At times a difficult read, but the humanity and McNeil’s indomitable spirit shine through.”

Helderman says that much of what intrigued her about McNeil was how her experiences with extreme poverty didn’t match up with Helderman’s own ideas of what poverty looked like. “When I first saw [McNeil], her appearance and her manner did not fit with what I was expecting of someone who was poor,” says Helderman. The more she learned about McNeil’s life, the more questions she had. Just like any good journalist would, she dove deeper to get answers. Within just a few weeks of first interviewing her, Helderman knew she wanted to make McNeil’s story into a book.

For McNeil’s part, she was already doing a lot of public speaking in her community, sharing her story as an example that a better life after abuse is possible. So she was used to people knowing what had happened to her. But when it came to a book, McNeil was a little hesitant at first. Her family was not supportive, but she decided to work with Helderman anyway, saying that she “wanted to do this, whatever the cost was to her.”

Helderman had the utmost respect for McNeil and what it meant for her to agree to the book against the wishes of many people in her life. What surprised her the most during the writing process was just how much McNeil trusted her. “She never held anything back,” says Helderman. “She never asked to read anything that I was writing. She didn’t see the manuscript until it was off at the printers. I’ve never had anybody trust me like that! It was an enormous responsibility for me to get it right.”

Helderman’s dedication to McNeil and to domestic abuse victims everywhere paid off with As the Sycamore Grows. It takes an entire page of the front matter to list the many awards and honors it received when it was first published in 2010, including three Reader Views Literary Awards and a nomination for the International Book Awards Best Nonfiction Book in the categories of Narrative Nonfiction and Women’s Issues. The reprint has earned a starred Kirkus review and was named one of Kirkus’ Best Indie Books of 2023.

When asked why she felt it was time for a reprint, Helderman notes with delight that the publisher actually approached her with the idea. She adds that statistics show that there was a spike in domestic violence before the Covid-19 pandemic, and people’s isolation during 2020-2021 created a crisis. “The [book’s] history is that it has been used as teaching material in shelters and for social workers and first responders,” she says. “Ginger and I have done a lot of that work ourselves. And we felt like there was a need for the book again. It had a wide readership when it first came out, but there are a lot of people now who could benefit from it as well.”

McNeil continues to promote As the Sycamore Grows through her own public speaking and advocacy work. For Helderman, her work with McNeil to use the book as a resource is a natural extension of a lifelong passion for service. Most of her family were “civic-minded people known as good storytellers.” As a teenager, Helderman became the very first girl to serve as a page in the Alabama State Legislature. This early achievement was the beginning of a deep drive to focus on women’s issues and legislation protecting victims of abuse.

But Helderman also feels that As the Sycamore Grows is, at its core, simply a powerful story that anyone could connect with, regardless of their experience with domestic violence. As she experienced herself when getting to know McNeil, so many of us are largely ignorant of the conditions that contribute to domestic abuse. “If you read through the book, you’ll find a lot of illustrations of red flags for domestic abuse and lots of different forms of domestic violence as well.”

For example, Helderman notes that she originally met McNeil because she was doing a story on poverty, not domestic violence. “Poverty can be a way of controlling somebody,” she says. “But some folks feel that the story has a lot of other applications, that it can apply to anything you feel is holding you back.”

Helderman now lives in Atlanta near her three grandchildren. Readers interested in more of her writing and advocacy work can find additional information on her website, where she says that “she’s afraid if she doesn’t learn to write faster, she’ll never have time to tell all the stories swimming in her head.”


Chelsea Ennen is a writer living in Brooklyn.