Author sets bioethics novels in Tyler County

Author, engineer and retired Navy pilot Austin Boyd wants West Virginians and, in particular, Tyler Countians to know he appreciates the formative influence they had on him as a boy and young man.

One way he has shown his gratitude is by using Tyler County as the setting for a series of novels published by Zondervan – the first of which, titled “Nobody’s Child,” is now available. But Boyd is taking it a step farther: He and his wife, Cindy, are driving from their home in Huntsville, Ala., to the Wells Inn in Sistersville tomorrow, and on Sunday will commence a 15-stop book tour that includes engagements at schools, libraries, churches and stores.

“For me, it’s a real opportunity to come back and say thanks to the people who were instrumental in making me who I am,” Boyd said during a phone interview Wednesday.

Boyd’s roots extend to Tyler County through his parents who moved there a few years after he graduated from Hurricane High School. His father, Walker Boyd, managed the Union Carbide plant, but also raised cattle and hay on a Middle Island Creek farm in the “wide spot in the road” known as Next.

As a young man, Austin Boyd worked on the farm, where, among other jobs, he pitched, baled and stacked hay “in barns as hot as ovens” – a description he uses in the opening chapter of “Nobody’s Child.” He weaves his vivid memories of life on the farm into the reminiscences and present-day realities of the book’s main character, Laura Ann McGehee, who grew up working a Middle Island Creek farm with her father.

“Those were summers filled with flies, barn snakes, mice, aching shoulders, blistered hands – and Daddy, encouraging her with the daily reminder that ‘hard work is the essence of the good life,'” he writes.

The entire action of the book takes place in Tyler County, with the exception of a few trips to Morgantown and Wheeling. Familiar names include The Jug, Sistersville, Middlebourne, New Martinsville, Gorrell’s Run, Route 18 and even a mention of the Wheeling News-Register – the comics section of which Angus McGehee employed to thriftily wrap his daughter’s Christmas presents.

The book focuses on the struggles of 19-year-old Laura Ann to keep her family’s farm going after her father dies of cancer. Her mother died when Laura Ann was very young. To pay her father’s medical bills and keep the farm afloat, Laura Ann travels to Morgantown where she sells her eggs to a fertility clinic.

Boyd said “Nobody’s Child” and the other novels in “The Pandora Files” series explore the unintended consequences of some of the most ethically sensitive 21st-century medical advances.

These “bioethical dilemmas,” he said, seem like great ideas but those who both propagate and partake in them may lack forethought – or their cautionary instincts may be dulled by dollar signs.

People like the sheltered and struggling Laura Ann, he said, though they mean well, “are short on cash and short on insight.”

Boyd’s foray into bioethics came after a series of careers as varied as they were exciting. After graduating high school in 1973, he earned a physiology degree from Rice University and then joined the U.S. Navy. In the spring of 1978, he recalls working five to six hours a day in the Navy recruiting office in Parkersburg after which he would labor until dusk on his parents’ farm.

Having been a prolific writer since his elementary school days, Boyd published a collection of poems in 1978 and received some national awards. In the Navy, “poetry did not pass the ‘cool’ test,” so he turned to authoring more than two dozen technical articles and papers.

Married and with four children, in 1994 Boyd pursued his lifelong dream of becoming an astronaut. He was among the final six to be chosen, but because of budget constraints, NASA could only pick one. It wasn’t Boyd. He went on to complete 21 years of service to the Navy in 1998.

If he couldn’t be an astronaut, he decided he’d write about one. He wrote and published three space suspense novels, “The Evidence,” “The Proof” and “The Return,” about an astronaut who travels to Mars (“because that’s what I always wanted to do”). In them, he addresses the ethical dilemma of cloning. To research the subject, he consulted with the Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity in Chicago. Through it, he discovered the need for a conduit to serve up bioethical issues to the general public in palatable, bite-sized chunks. The Pandora Files were born.

What he’d like people who read the books to do is “wrestle with these issues now and ask God where He is leading us, because if you wait” until it’s a crisis situation, emotions may cloud the decision process.

While “Nobody’s Child” is set in Middlebourne, the remaining books in the series will take place in Sistersville, Friendly and Paden City.

Boyd said he hopes his descriptions of the unique beauty of the land and rugged individualism of the people will bring positive attention to this neck of the woods.

“This is a chance for us to let the world know we’re here and this is a beautiful place and we’ve got a history,” Boyd said. “I am aware that people still look at West Virginia and snicker, but we’re not a backward state, we’re a forward-thinking state.”

When he speaks to the schoolchildren, Boyd will encourage them to pursue their dreams. He said when he was a boy and told adults he wanted to be an astronaut, they told him he couldn’t do it.

“I want them to know they can do it,” Boyd said. Someone once asked him if he felt like a failure for not becoming an astronaut. He said no and told them why: “The mark of a person is not in where you end up, but what kind of person you become along the way.”