Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Winter Fire -- The Story of the Story

Leslie Nielsen as "The Swamp Fox"
I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t fascinated by early American history. In fact, when I was ten, I wrote my first novel; it was very loosely based on the “Swamp Fox” TV series (a Disney production 1959-1960), starring Leslie Nielsen as the Revolutionary War hero, Francis Marion. I’d like to think I’ve come a long way since then.

At around this time until I was fourteen or fifteen, our family vacations involved visits to old forts, battlefields and living history sites from Montreal to St. Augustine in Florida. My father was a Civil War buff who owned an extensive collection of books on the subject, but he was eclectic enough to include sites from earlier periods in our itineraries. Strolling  through formal gardens and marveling at sumptuous bed chambers and ballrooms of Tryon Palace in North Carolina or expressing wonder over the three tiny rooms of an 18th century farmer’s house in Connecticut, I was deeply moved by the vibrations set off by the clothes, furniture and personal effects on display. Subsequent trips to Williamsburg, Virginia, and Old Sturbridge in Massachusetts, among others, provided far more insight than any high school history text could on how people in the past lived, worked and died, and with detail that struck all of my sensory nerves.

It was only natural that, when I took up writing seriously, I chose to set my fiction in the period I had come to love—the time encompassing the colonial and Revolutionary War eras in the U.S.

While searching for inspiration back in the days before the Internet, I became intrigued by “captive narratives.” In their time, and for a populace starved for the type of fabulous accounts that scream from today’s tabloids, this was an extremely popular genre depicting stories of white settlers taken in raids by Native Americans. Although all of these tales provided entertaining and informative reads (many supposedly in the teller’s own words), none was more gripping than the tale of Mary Jemison, a teenage girl who was captured by a French and Indian war party and adopted into the Seneca tribe in the area around what is now Syracuse, New York. Even as she mourned her family, Mary lived the rest of her life among the Haudenosaunee, marrying twice and giving birth to a number of children. By the time she was an old woman, Dehgewanus (as she was then called) had all but forgotten her native language and was venerated by her tribe. An equally engrossing tale is told in a more recent book. The Unredeemed Captive, by John Demos (Vintage, 1995), chronicles the efforts of a Massachusetts family in the early 1700’s to regain their daughter following a raid on Deerfield. After years of searching and countless disappointments, the father was horrified to learn that Eunice had married a Mohawk warrior and chose to remain with her captors.

By now, my story had begun to take shape, but I was still in need of a time and setting. Further research led to a campaign of 1779 during the American Revolution, which had as its target Six Nations warriors under Mohawk war chief Joseph Brandt and his Loyalist allies. (An exceptional account of this bloody chapter in American history is told in Allan Eckert’s Wilderness War.) Following a number of murderous attacks on frontier settlements and equally brutal reprisals,

George Washington dispatched Generals John Sullivan and James Clinton and their armies into Iroquois lands essentially to minimize the effectiveness of Brandt’s forces by burning their villages and crops. The resulting devastation on both sides led only to more retaliation. An unexpected by-product of this campaign was the recovery of a number of white captives and their return to “civilization.” Some went happily with the army, while others had to be forcibly removed from the burning remains of their adoptive homes.

This inspired me to ask myself, "What if...?" What if a white woman in like circumstances had been forced against her will to return to what was left of her family? 

I had read of incidents in which this had been the case, and in which these reunions, more often than not, were unpleasant (to put it mildly) for both the former captives and their relations. Many of the redeemed were scorned, shunned, and regarded with suspicion for their strange ways. After years of living among the “savages,” attempts to reintegrate into a society that was now foreign and strange ended in failure for these unfortunate people, who often ran away at first opportunity to rejoin their Indian families. Not all of these tales had a happy ending.

And so, with these accounts as its foundation, Zara Grey’s story took root in my imagination. Caught in a war pitting neighbor against neighbor, son against father, white man against “red man,” a young heiress of Dutch descent becomes both a pawn and a pariah, with murder in the bargain.

Ethan Caine, the male protagonist in this historical romance, has as his backstory a 1763 incident in eastern Pennsylvania during Pontiac’s Rebellion that polarized the region. A group of self-appointed vigilantes, the “Paxton Boys,” fed up by a lack of support by colonial forces, attacked and killed residents of a nearby village of peaceful Susquehannock. While the actual incident was unprovoked, the fictionalized account in my book involves a patchwork of accounts gleaned in my research. Young Ethan is deeply traumatized by these events and the ensuing senseless slaughter. Fifteen years later he is forced to confront his own prejudice and regrets when he rescues a young white woman dressed in clothes of Iroquoian design attempting to cross a half-frozen stream enroute to Iroquois lands.

The resulting novel,Winter Fire, a 1998 Golden Heart finalist, has as its core the inter-cultural conflicts of its time, colored by the perceptions and fears of people in the midst of war.
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