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Mysterious bank swindle becomes a first novel
Former Times editor Bowen adds local flavor to fictional take on news story
0726Book
Alma Bowen’s new book, “The Cement Duck,” is about a local company scamming a bank out of $1 million in 1971.

Book signings

Alma Bowen’s scheduled book signings for ‘The Cement Duck’

11 a.m. Aug. 14, Collegiate Grill, 220 Main St. SW, Gainesville

11 a.m. Aug. 15, Books with A’Peal, 401 Cornelia Plaza Drive, Cornelia

Sometimes a story is too good not to write.

Alma Bowen, who was born in Hall County and grew up in Habersham County, was working at The Times in 1971 when a $1.1 million bank swindle hit Habersham County.

"The reporter who wrote the story was outside my office, so I heard about it, but he was never able to get much information about it," she said. "No one was able to get much information."

More than 20 years later, Bowen was introduced to the story again when a man approached her as she worked at North Georgia Technical College in Clarkesville. He had seen articles in The Times and asked if she wanted to write a story.

"I told him that everybody who writes wants to write a book, and he told me to meet him halfway from Atlanta in Oakwood and he’d tell me a story," she said.

The man, who asked that Bowen never identify him, helped to clean up the swindle in Cornelia and installed new operations at the bank.

"He talked for about three hours and my chin was on the table," she said. "This was about 15 years ago, and I promised him I would write the book."

But with full-time work and other demanding responsibilities, Bowen couldn’t tackle the tale until she retired a few years ago.

"I had no time to write, but I thought about it every day as I rode to work in Marietta," she said. "It was fantastic to be handed a plot based on fact."

Bowen changed the name of the town to Cameron and fictionalized all of the characters. It focuses on Serena Sheppard, the head teller of a local bank. A commercial bank becomes involved in the large scam, agents from the Federal Bureau of Investigation swarm the town and townspeople are tangled in accusations and rumors.

Bowen tried to talk to former directors of the bank and retired FBI agents, but those involved were unavailable or dead. The only resource she could find, other than the man who originally met with her, were two articles she found in Wall Street Journal archives that recounted a federal court case in Atlanta.

"The bonding company for the bank and the commercial company (that swindled the money) fought about who was liable for the loss," she said. "The series of articles verified what the man told me, but in the series the reporter still didn’t find out who received the money and how it all ended."

She named the book "The Cement Duck" to represent life the way it was in 1971, when cement ducks and rabbits were popular as lawn ornaments. Bowen would drive to work in Clarkesville and see a duck that would be decorated differently every few days. She most remembers a time when it had on "weird" sunglasses and wrote that scene directly into the beginning of the book.

Because details of the actual event are unknown, Bowen drew from personal experience to give flavor to the scenes of everyday life.

"I always remember the reporter who wrote it telling me that people were outside the bank beating on the windows, and they had the curtains drawn," she said. "So I worked that into the story."

She held a book signing July 4 in Demorest and has scheduled others in Cornelia and Gainesville in August.

"I hope the book will show the importance of setting priorities in life and doing everything you can to follow these priorities," Bowen said. The main character, Serena, is faced with a terrible truth but decides in the end to keep her family together.

"I hope someone is encouraged to keep a family together because I think it’s so important," she said.

Harriette Taylor, a Gainesville resident and Bowen’s friend, was the first to read a draft of the novel. Bowen sent her a copy through e-mail, and she downloaded it onto a floppy disk. When Bowen produced a second draft and lost the initial copy, Taylor gave her a copy of the first and encouraged her to finish the story.

"It was so intriguing, and I wanted to know what would happen next," Taylor said. "The book made you feel sympathy for Serena because her life was not as fulfilling as it could have been and she followed her heart. Sometimes life does that, and we have to make sacrifices."

Taylor is looking for another book by Bowen and said the first should be turned into a movie.

"I think she needs to write the screenplay," Taylor said with a laugh. "And Meryl Streep should be Serena!"

Johnny Vardeman, a former Times editor who worked with Bowen, was one of the first to seriously edit her first novel.

"Knowing Alma and how she knows Northeast Georgia, she has written about this area so many years, and I saw that all coming through in the work," he said. "The story is enjoyable for its setting, but the plot also moves along really well."

Bowen has started working on a second book that focuses on Helen when it still was a sawmill town.

"It’s fun to do research about the fantastic area we live in and write about it," she said. "I’m still amazed this swindle happened. In 1971, for somebody to want to swindle someone out of money, they’d be glad to get $100, and this was $1.1 million. It was just something they were able to get away with then, and the bank never got a penny of it back."

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