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Feature of the Month, October 2012: October 2012: Colonial and Revolutionary America

A monthly discussion on varying themes guided by our members. (Book of the Month discussions through December 2011 can be found in this section too.)
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boswellbaxter
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Feature of the Month, October 2012: October 2012: Colonial and Revolutionary America

Post by boswellbaxter » Mon October 1st, 2012, 12:22 pm

Matt has offered to get us started with this one.
Susan Higginbotham
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Matt Phillips
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Post by Matt Phillips » Tue October 2nd, 2012, 3:36 am

I haven't forgotten! I will get the thread going this week, hopefully tomorrow. I'm planning to highlight some classic, recent, and lesser-known HF titles from this period and setting and maybe share some research tidbits from my own WIP.

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Post by Misfit » Tue October 2nd, 2012, 2:50 pm

I love this period and have some interesting books to mention. Some read, many more not read.
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Post by Matt Phillips » Tue October 2nd, 2012, 11:27 pm

I wanted to highlight this period, not just because it’s the setting of my WIP :) , but because its coverage in the genre seems dwarfed by its potential. The 17th and 18th century Atlantic seaboard exemplifies a “hinge of history,” in which so much of our world could have changed drastically had events gone in a different direction. What if the Plymouth colony had failed? Or Jamestown? What if the Spanish had overrun the Carolinas? What if the French had defeated the British in the Seven Years’ War? What if the British had taken a more conciliatory approach to their American colonies in the 1760s and ‘70s?

As tempting as it might be for many Americans to look back and view our colonial and revolutionary periods as an inevitable culmination of larger forces of history, nothing about the outcome felt inevitable to those who lived through these periods. And that’s a big part of what makes this a rich period for storytelling. How did it really feel to gamble everything on a hazardous transatlantic crossing to find the freedom to practice your faith? Or to move your family west to a forbidding frontier contested by at least two world powers and several tribal nations? Or to believe so strongly in your right to have a say in your government that you are willing to take on the dominant military power of the age and risk the hangman’s noose if you fail?

These were dramatic times, not uniquely so, but abundantly so. Yet compared to other periods and settings, colonial and revolutionary America seem underrepresented in our genre. (I suppose that’s true of American settings in general, though!) I’m hoping this thread can help promote awareness of the novels that are out there that have made great use of this setting’s narrative potential, and by doing so, perhaps open a larger discussion of marketability and whether it really is underrepresented and why.

So I’ll go ahead and kick things off with several novels from this period that worked for me or (in cases of those I haven’t gotten to yet) for others:

Colonial New England

It seems that most novels with colonial American settings focus on Puritan New England, particularly the Salem witch trials. That’s understandable – who can resist the thematic and plot potential inherent in stories about real, flawed human beings trying to live their lives in a harsh environment and a colony that strove to set a holy example for the world? The prototype, of course, is Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. I think I was the only one in my high school English class who enjoyed that novel. More recently, Kathleen Kent has won plaudits for The Heretic’s Daughter, her novel about a mother and daughter trying to survive the hysteria leading up to the Salem witch trials, and its prequel, The Wolves of Andover, which tells the mother’s story in her youth as she endures the hardships of farm work and family tensions but also falls in love with a man with a mysterious role in the English Civil War.

Of course, Salem’s experience with presumed witchcraft also provides a springboard for historical fantasy: The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane by Katherine Howe offers an interesting twist on what might have led to accusations of witchcraft and what the accused women might really have been doing.

Another set of themes in colonial American settings revolves around tensions between cultures and classes – within the settler communities, between the English and their imperial rivals from France and Spain, and between the English and the Indian nations they encountered and displaced. Geraldine Brooks’s Caleb’s Crossing is a highly acclaimed and best-selling work touching on the interactions between English settlers and Indians in early Massachusetts. The “Caleb” referred to in the title is an Indian who befriends the daughter of a Calvinist minister and goes on to become the first Native American graduate of Harvard.

I’ll stop here – there are certainly more novels I’d like to highlight, but I also look forward to hearing from others!

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Post by Misfit » Tue October 2nd, 2012, 11:56 pm

I'll start with a few so I don't spam much ;)

Follow the Riverby James Alexander Thom. Very early Colonial period and I believe based on a true story. There are some details that might be a bit gruesome for the *lighter* reader.

Inglis Fletcher's Carolina Chronicles. I've read the first one, and will get to the rest eventually. Tiny font warning. The first book covers the first expeditions to Roanoke Island. AFAIK the series finishes up with the end of the Revolution.

Bruce Nicolayson wrote a serieson early New York. The first one was definitely worthwhile, but a friend finished off the series and she says it wears pretty thin after book #2.

To Have and To Hold by Mary Johnston. I believe this was the best seller for 1900, and readily available on Kindle. I do need to get this one read.

Deepwater by Pamela Jekel. This one does go on through the end of the Civil War, but there's plenty of coverage of the early days in South Carolina (I think it's SC and not NC).

Embrace the Day by Susan Wiggs. Virginia and I think Kentucky. Not as romancey as you might assume from the covers.

A couple of interesting ones I picked up at the thrift stores. No idea if they're any good, both by a Bruce Lancaster (anyone heard of him?). The Secret Road and Trumpet to Arms.
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Post by Mythica » Wed October 3rd, 2012, 9:21 am

I haven't read much fiction on this period. I did read Family Life in 17th and 18th Century America for my family history research. But the only fiction I've read is The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane (which I LOVED even though I don't normally read much fantasy and I think it was mostly set in modern times?) and another historical fantasy on pirates by Helen Hollick (Sea Witch). Oh and one on Roanoke (White Seed) but it was pretty bad.

I have a few in my to-read list though - I just picked up The Heretic's Daughter on sale for Kindle and I've had Bernard Cornwell's The Fort for a while but haven't read it yet (it was a Kindle freebie) because I'm not really into war novels.

I've been eyeing up some others (I put them on my price-drop watch list and figure if they're ever on sale, I'll get them) but I'm always hesitant to jump into a new topic before I feel like I've exhausted the other topics I'm more interested in first.
Last edited by Mythica on Wed October 3rd, 2012, 9:23 am, edited 1 time in total.

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Post by Ludmilla » Wed October 3rd, 2012, 1:30 pm

"Matt Phillips" wrote:Another set of themes in colonial American settings revolves around tensions between cultures and classes – within the settler communities, between the English and their imperial rivals from France and Spain, and between the English and the Indian nations ...


Along those lines, I really enjoyed Charles McCarry's The Bride of the Wilderness which spans the years 1666 through 1704, taking the characters from London to France and into Indian-occupied territory along the Connecticut River and up into Canada. Don't be fooled by the title. This was originally published in the late 80s and has the adventure, breadth and scope you don't always find in stand-alone historicals written today.

In YA, I've enjoyed several of Laurie Halse Anderson's historicals. I also have MT Anderson's Octavian Nothing books in my TBR and hope to read them someday.

Has anyone tried Jeff Shaara's novels about the American Revolutionary War? I've thought about trying them, but wondered whether they read like NF masquerading as fiction.

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Post by Matt Phillips » Wed October 3rd, 2012, 8:00 pm

"Ludmilla" wrote:Has anyone tried Jeff Shaara's novels about the American Revolutionary War? I've thought about trying them, but wondered whether they read like NF masquerading as fiction.


I've read both Rise to Rebellion and The Glorious Cause. The two books provide a good overview of the war and the roles of the POV characters in it (Washington, Franklin, John Adams, Greene, Gage, Howe, and Cornwallis, off the top of my head). But the story lacked the vividness and verisimilitude I want in a historical novel: His dialogue and inner monologue are often bland, and his evocation of setting is often superficial. He doesn't carry you deep inside the hearts and minds of these men, nor make you feel you are there amid the blood and gunpowder smoke, as effectively as his father did in The Killer Angels.

Looking for something from the POV of an average person in the Revolutionary era, I readArundel and Rabble in Arms by Kenneth Roberts. These works take on the daunting task of painting Benedict Arnold in a sympathetic light; despite that, they are favorites of many in the Rev War re-enacting community. In any event, Arnold is not the protagonist of either story. Arundel follows a Maine innkeeper in his late 20s on Arnold's 1775 expedition to Quebec. The character goes in part out of admiration for Arnold (long before Arnold's treason, of course) and in part to seek a long-lost love. In Rabble, we follow a young man from the same town in his quest to find and exonerate his brother, accused of aiding the British (ironically, given the protagonist's good relationship with Arnold in this story as well). Rabble culminates with the battles of Saratoga, which resulted in the surrender of a large British force and prompted French entry into the war to support the United States. Neither story continues Arnold's story to tell the tale of his betrayal, but they try to explain the origins of Arnold's own feelings of betrayal and frustration.

Roberts paints a rich picture of the period, develops a credible perspective on the motivations of some common people to join the fight against the British, and unveils two intense stories of agonizing wilderness journeys. The interactions between white and Indian characters are also fascinating and credible.

Another novel from the Revolutionary period, but one I haven't gotten to yet, is Lucia St. Clair Robson's Shadow Patriots, which peels back the curtain on the dealings of Washington's Culper spy ring, particularly its female leader, whose identity remains unknown today.

Others from the Revolutionary period I've heard good things about include Sally Gunning's three books - The Widow's War, Bound, and The Rebellion of Jane Clarke, all of which take readers into the lives of women dealing with a diverse range of challenges and tensions in Revolutionary-era Massachusetts. Also Christine Blevins's Midwife of the Blue Ridge, The Tory Widow, and The Turning of Anne Merrick. The latter two are the first two volumes of a trilogy centered on the widow of a prominent Tory who falls in love with a "Liberty Boy" in New York.

Of course, Diana Gabaldon's Outlander series eventually takes Jamie and Claire to colonial North Carolina and sweeps them into the fervor of the Revolution ... Haven't gotten that far in that series yet, though!

Going further back, John Jakes's classic Kent Family Chronicles begin with The Bastard and The Rebels. The illegitimate French son of a British nobleman winds up in Revolutionary Boston to begin the Kent dynasty that Jakes follows in the later volumes up through the end of the 19th century.

A title that's more obscure than it should be is Mary Lee Settle's O Beulah Land. This was the only work of fiction that appeared on a reading list for any history class that I took as a history major at the University of Virginia. My professor assigned it because he felt it illustrated the mindset and hardships of life in colonial Virginia better than almost any non-fiction work. It's actually the second in a multi-volume family saga also, and it follows the fortunes of a Tidewater planter who moves his family to the Appalachian frontier. It pulls no punch in terms of showing the brutality of slavery and frontier war, and Settle uses period dialect almost exclusively in her dialogue. In other words, she takes you straight back to 1770 Virginia with nothing to cushion the blow. It's not an easy read, but worthwhile for a vivid window into what life was like for colonial Virginians and the impossible choices they often had to make.

Next post, a few titles from the French and Indian War period, a time when the great game of empire played out on American shores with huge stakes for everyone from kings to merchants to frontier settlers to Indian families, but is even more untapped in historical fiction than the Revolution ...

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Post by Ludmilla » Thu April 3rd, 2014, 5:48 pm

"Matt Phillips" wrote:Looking for something from the POV of an average person in the Revolutionary era, I readArundel and Rabble in Arms by Kenneth Roberts. These works take on the daunting task of painting Benedict Arnold in a sympathetic light; despite that, they are favorites of many in the Rev War re-enacting community. In any event, Arnold is not the protagonist of either story. Arundel follows a Maine innkeeper in his late 20s on Arnold's 1775 expedition to Quebec. The character goes in part out of admiration for Arnold (long before Arnold's treason, of course) and in part to seek a long-lost love. In Rabble, we follow a young man from the same town in his quest to find and exonerate his brother, accused of aiding the British (ironically, given the protagonist's good relationship with Arnold in this story as well). Rabble culminates with the battles of Saratoga, which resulted in the surrender of a large British force and prompted French entry into the war to support the United States. Neither story continues Arnold's story to tell the tale of his betrayal, but they try to explain the origins of Arnold's own feelings of betrayal and frustration.

Roberts paints a rich picture of the period, develops a credible perspective on the motivations of some common people to join the fight against the British, and unveils two intense stories of agonizing wilderness journeys. The interactions between white and Indian characters are also fascinating and credible.



Years later and I'm finally getting around to reading Roberts' Arundel Chronicles. I just finished Arundel and thought it was fantastic (and as you say, very credible). They don't write them like this anymore! I plan on starting Rabble soon.

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