Written by Robert E. Hawkins, a graduate from West Union High School in 1988, “A Book of Matches” retells the story of a shocking murder in Peebles. The victim, Oliver Elliott (or “Zeke”) Stayner, Hawkins’ grandfather, was murdered Monday, November 28, 1949, leaving his wife and their two children “... without their guiding light.” The novel champions Hawkins’ grandmother, Edith, and her two daughters, Susan and Dottie Stayner, who found strength to move forward.
Hawkins explained that he had always had the feeling that this was a great story to write, and wanted to honor his grandfather’s memory. After five years of research on the case, which was reported widely in Ohio newspapers, and time spent compiling information from diaries, letters, and personal memoirs, with two years spent writing, the novel is now complete. It will release Thursday, November 7, available at the Jesse Stuart Foundation and Hawkins’ personal website.
Oliver Elliot “Zeke” Stayner grew up during the Great Depression. He graduated from Peebles High School in 1937, the same year that a flood ravaged Adams County and southern Ohio. In 1941, the U.S. entered WWII, and Stayner joined the Army Air Corps, a precursor to the United States Air Force. His job became to train all recruits on how to clean, operate, and maintain their weapons, which led to a loss in hearing. He progressed in rank quickly, eventually becoming a Sergeant. He married Hawkins’ grandmother, Edith, when it became clear that WWII was near its end. The two returned to Peebles, where Stayner became an entrepreneur, first owning a pool hall, then an automotive business, before he was unfortunately murdered at the age of 31.
The title of this novel, Hawkins explained, came from the fact that his grandmother had come out of the house to look for his grandfather with a book of matches, striking them to light her way in the cold, dreary night. Mr. Stayner had left the house that night to help a couple with their car.
According to the author, residents of Peebles were shocked by the murder, and some who were young in 1949 remember passing the crime scene; the house still stands today. Mr. Stayner was a well-liked man in Peebles, said Hawkins, as evidenced by the fact that a $200 reward was posted immediately afterward for his murderer, which eventually reached $500 - quite a sum in 1949.
Robert E. Hawkins is a successful musician living in Nashville, Tennessee. He said that he was inspired to write by English teachers at West Union High School, and wrote his first songs there. He has since toured with The Van-Dells, and has recorded music with musicians and celebrities.
“The book is about overcoming,” said Hawkins. “No matter what life throws at you, you can stand up. There’s an old saying: you’re the sum of your life’s experiences, and whatever you go through grows you. Stories like this, when people overcome things and persevere - it’s a pretty cool thing. I’m pretty proud of all the people I mentioned in this book.””
- Austin Rust