Saturday, January 25, 2014

Guest Author Christopher Datta – Part Two

Synopsis of “Touched with Fire”
Ellen Craft is property; in this case, of her half-sister Debra, to whom she was given as a wedding gift. The illegitimate daughter of a Georgia plantation owner and a house slave, she learned to hate her own image, which so closely resembled that of her “father:” the same wiry build, the same blue eyes, and the same pale—indeed, lily-white—skin.
Ellen lives a solitary life until she falls, unexpectedly, in love with a dark-skinned slave named William Craft, and together they devise a plan to run North. Ellie will pose as a gentleman planter bound for Philadelphia accompanied by his “boy” Will. They make it as far as Baltimore when Will is turned back, and Ellie has no choice but continue. With no way of knowing if he is dead or alive, she resolves to make a second journey—South again. And so Elijah Craft enlists with the 125th Ohio Volunteers of the Union Army: she will literally fight her way back to her husband.
Eli/Ellie’s journey is the story of an extraordinary individual and an abiding love, but also of the corrosive effects of slavery, and of a nation at a watershed moment.

Questions and Answers
What writers do you admire and why?
I tend to go with the classics.  Melville, Twain, Tolstoy, Goethe, D.H. Lawrence, and Joyce Cary.  Why?  Well, they are the best and I stand in awe of their genius.  On the other hand, I don’t much care for most of the work of James Joyce, whose style I describe as trying to squeeze conciseness through a pin hole. 
I read a quite lot of history and biographies and liked Doris Goodwin’s “Team of Rivals.”  I think she gives us a terrific description of Lincoln.  My favorite historian of the Civil War is James McPherson.  I think he gets the history of the war right.
I read quite a few of books on science, as well.  I’m particularly interested in what the latest thinking in theoretical physics tells us about the nature and the mysteries of the Universe.
What caused you to want to write this particular book?
The Civil War is the most significant event in the history of our nation, and it made us what we are today.  Although it is also the period of our history that is most written about, it is generally still poorly understood by many and a great deal of misinformation and myth exist about the war, why it was fought and why it ended the way that it did. 
I did not want to write a history of the war, however.  Good history books are valuable, but they do not take you into the war the way a novel can put you in the skin of the people of that period. 
I wanted to tell a good story, but I also wanted the reader to come away from the book with a better, clearer idea of the war and its significance.  Why did the South fight the war?  Why did the North?  What was the role of slavery?  The outcome was far from certain, so why did the North win?  And what did winning mean? 
These are all questions I wanted to address in a way that takes you inside the lives and the minds of the people who lived the events.
What particular skills do you appreciate seeing utilized by other historical writers?
Research, research, research.  The people and events need to be true to the times and the story needs to “feel” right in order to draw me in, and that is all about getting the details right.  This means the language has to be right, in my case the battles have to be accurately described and the events and motivations of the fictional and historical characters must be convincing and drawn from their time, not from our time.  In movies it annoys me when I hear historical characters talking about “freedom” and “democracy” in modern terms instead of in the way people actually thought of those concepts in the times portrayed.
It all comes down to exhausting research.  My Civil War library is over 400 volumes, including the Army Official Record, which is the complete correspondence of the Union from Lincoln down to the after action reports of the regimental commanders, and also includes most of that same material for the Confederate side, as well. 
What are some of the difficulties you encountered writing the book?
There were several. 
First, the story is told in five parts.  Parts one and two closely follow the real events in the lives of Ellen and William Craft, and the action largely follows the book William Craft wrote about their escape that is still in print today, “Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom.”
But I wanted to tell a larger story than just the escape of Ellen and William.  Their true story inspired my book, but my novel is not a biography.  After part two, I diverge from the true story of Ellen to tell a story about a woman disguised as a man fighting in the Union army.  There were probably a few hundred women who actually did this, and this story has seldom been told.  Putting Ellie in the Union army gave me an opportunity to describe the war in a way that allowed me to get into issues that have, I think, seldom been addressed.  Ellie is an African-American woman and escaped slave fighting disguised as a white man.  She is angry, and has every reason to be angry and hateful.  Most of the soldiers in the Union army were not fighting to free slaves, and many were as racist as their Southern counterparts, yet without them Ellie could not advance South to free her husband, and so she needs them and despises them at the same time. 
But Ellie is on a journey, and what she comes to at the end of the story takes her to a place very different from where she starts.
It was a difficult decision to diverge from Ellie’s true story, but this is historical fiction and, as I say, not a biography.  Although I had a bigger story to tell, I kept Ellen Craft as my main character because I also wanted to pay tribute to Ellie, a remarkable woman whose courage and perseverance did inspire my story and I wanted people to know about her.  I also think that even the fictional parts of my story are true to her character.  Ellie was not a victim.  She refused to be oppressed and took matters into her own hands to rise above the formidable forces arrayed against her, and that is the real Ellie and the Ellie of my book from beginning to end. 
The other difficulty I faced was getting the language right.  The true master of portraying Southern, Northern, white and black dialect of that time is Mark Twain.  The accuracy with which the characters in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn speak is a real achievement.  I did the best I could, but I am in awe of the master work of Twain in this regard.
What would you like the reader to take away from his reading?
I want the reader to have a front row seat on the Civil War, and come away from the experience with a better understanding and appreciation for what the war meant and the heroism of the men, and women, who sacrificed so much to free us from the abomination of slavery.

Part One Chapter 4 Excerpt
Macon Georgia
May of 1855
     Will walked to the rear of the Smith mansion to knock on the back door.  He was surprised a white woman answered, until he realized it was Ellie Smith, the same woman he saw in church last Sunday.
     “I’m here to speak to Major Smith about furniture we wants made,” he said.
     Ellie, short and pretty, her round face beautifully framed by long thick locks of black hair, nodded at him, her thin lips pursed into a frown.
     “Follow me,” was all she said, standing aside to allow him entrance and closing the door behind him.
     Following her, Will could not help but admire her slim figure, a large bow on her pretty yellow dress tied behind her waist.
     “I saw you in church last Sunday,” he said.
     No answer.
     “That’s a right pretty dress you have on, Miss Ellie,” he tried again, clearing his throat.  “The color suits you.”
     Ellie turned back to him.  “Is there something you wish to say to me, Mr. Craft?”
     “Just making conversation, Miss Ellie,” he answered, surprised.
     Ellie sighed, looking him up and down.  “Yes, I was in church last Sunday.  Thank you for the compliment on my attire.  But frankly, Mr. Craft, I would just as soon we kept our conversation to the bare necessities.  You don’t know me and I don’t know you, nor do I wish to.”
     “Very well, Miss Ellie.”
     She resumed leading him down the hallway.  William shook his head, thinking this woman as stirred up as a hornets’ nest hit by a rock.  Why she was he did not know nor did he wish to find out.
     Ellie led him to a drawing room where Major Smith stood waiting.  A neatly dressed tall, thin man, he sported a white van dyke beard and sharp, hawkish eyes that fastened on William with a steely gaze that made him ill at ease.  Everything about this household struck William as aloof and on edge.
     “Major, this is William Craft, the slave furniture maker you asked to see,” said Ellie.
     Smith nodded.  “You come highly recommended,” he said.
     “Thank you, sir,” said William, glancing down.  It would not do for him to look the Major in the eyes.
     “My daughter Debra will be married the end of next month.  I’d like some items made for her as a wedding present.  Can you complete a job that quickly?”
     “I believe so, sir.  What do you have in mind?”
     Ellie turned to leave, but the Major called her back.  “Ellie, stay.  I value your opinion on what might best suit Debra.  You know her as well as any of us.”
     Ellie nodded and remained.
     “I was thinking of a vanity.  I doubt Colonel Collins has one suitable for a wife.”
     William laid his sketch book on a table and turned to a page displaying several of his designs for vanities.  “I’ve made all of these,” he replied.  “Do any suit you?”
     The Major glanced casually at the drawings.  “I do not have a clue as to what will please a lady in such matters.  Ellie, your opinion?”
     Ellie stood next to William perusing the sketches.  William was pleased she seemed impressed.
     “The drawings are all … well, very nice,” she said.  “You have a fine hand, Mr. Craft.  Are you really able to produce such excellent scrollwork as represented here?”
     “Yes, I can.  Perhaps you noticed my work on the altar and pulpit in the church last Sunday.  All of that was my labor.”
     “Very well,” said the Major, “I’ll leave this decision to you, Ellie.  Be sure to settle on a fair price.  I don’t wish to be overcharged, and delivery must be before the wedding next month.  Understood?”
     “Yes, sir,” said Ellie.
     Major Smith left the room.
     An awkward silence fell between William and Ellie, both studying the sketch book without glancing at the other.
     Ellie finally said, “Well, Miss Deb will of course want the vanity with the most elaborate and ornate carvings.  So this one will suit her best,” she said, pointing to the gaudiest of his designs.  “She loves extravagance.  She believes it to be … aristocratic.”
     “And yourself, Miss Ellie, which do you favor?”
     Ellie shrugged.
     “This one, I suppose,” she said, pointing to a simpler but, in William’s opinion, more elegant and attractive piece.
     William nodded.  “It’s much nicer.  You have a good eye, although the one you selected for Miss Deb is the more popular with ladies of means.  It’s copied after a French reproduction I saw once.  You notice the cherubs and elaborate scrollwork.  It fetches a good price for my master, but I find it tedious in the execution.  The one you like is much more, well, what I think of as truly American.  A clean appearance and practical, coupled with a straight line and a pleasingly direct elegance.”
     Ellie looked at him and William saw a ghost of a smile cross her lips as she ran her finger gently across the drawing.  Glancing down again, she said, “Yes, it is nice.”
     “Perhaps the major will let me make it for you.  I’d give him a good price.”
     Ellie frowned, visibly stiffing again.  “No, he wouldn’t and I would not, in any event, ask it.”
     The smile was gone.  Why, William wondered, was it so hard for this woman to let her guard down?
     Miss Betsey and others resented her for her fine clothes, white skin and special status, making her an outcast in her own community, while in white society she was nothing but a nigger slave and a social embarrassment.  That, he realized, had to be a lonely way to live.
     “I would make it for you,” he said.  “If it is what you really want.”
     Ellie’s face clouded over and she stepped back.  “Why would you do that?” she said, suspicion in her voice.
     William shrugged, startled.
     “Well, to please you,” he said.  “You seemed to like it so much, I thought you might be happy to have it.”
     “Oh, it would please me and you would do it to please me?  You don’t know me, we’ve never met before, but you are going to make me a fancy vanity to please me and for no other reason.  In a pig’s eye, Mr. Craft!  I don’t know what you’re playing at, or what you think a piece of furniture entitles you to, but I want no part of it.  So you can just take your fancy drawings and skedaddle before I have you thrown out for propositioning me.  And don’t look as though you don’t know what I’m talking about.”
     “I meant no such thing, Miss Ellie.  I felt sorry for you and I thought …”
     He realized the moment he said it he had just made the biggest mistake possible with her.
     “Sorry?!  Did you say you feel sorry for me?”  Her eyes blazed, fierce and poisonous.
     “I didn’t mean that,” William stammered.  “I only meant that …”
     Ellie slammed the sketch book shut.  “We will order the vanity I selected for Miss Deb.  You will finish it before the 15th of June or Major Smith will know the reason.  We will not pay more than $150.  Are we understood?”
     “Yes, Miss Ellie,” said William, crestfallen.
     “Then I will thank you to be on your way.”
     She opened the door and refused to meet his eyes as he walked past.
     “I was just trying to be kind,” he mumbled, walking down the hallway.

Additional “Touched with Fire” Excerpts and Information

New Feature

I introduce today and each month thereafter a worthy self-published writer of American historical fiction.

Self-publishing is a recent phenomenon.  Thousands of new authors self-publish.  That is because major publishing firms and the agents that work with them reject out of hand virtually any manuscript an unknown writer submits.  Their thinking is that if the writer does not have name recognition the reading public will not purchase his book.  Publish only what the public is certain to buy.  There is a presumption held by many readers that self-published books are poorly written.  It is true that some books are not worth the paper they are printed on.  Many, however, are of high quality and well worth a literate person’s time and expense to read.  Yet they rarely see the light of day.  How does one connect discerning readers with well-written self-published fiction?  In my own small way I hope to do that.

I will not have read in its entirety each book I feature.  Maintaining this blog site and writing my second historical novel leaves me little time for recreational reading.  What I do read before deciding whom and what I will feature are historical fiction chapter excerpts displayed by  I look for at least one aspect in the writing that is unique.  It might be strong characterization, plot potentiality, an unusual setting in an interesting time period, valuable historical information, a vivid style of writing, or the suggestion of a thought-provoking theme.  It must capture my interest.  I hope that what I post each month will capture yours.

Harold Titus

Guest Author Christopher Datta – Part One

Synopsis of “Touched with Fire.”

Ellen Craft is property; in this case, of her half-sister Debra, to whom she was given as a wedding gift. The illegitimate daughter of a Georgia plantation owner and a house slave, she learned to hate her own image, which so closely resembled that of her “father:” the same wiry build, the same blue eyes, and the same pale—indeed, lily-white—skin.

Ellen lives a solitary life until she falls, unexpectedly, in love with a dark-skinned slave named William Craft, and together they devise a plan to run North. Ellie will pose as a gentleman planter bound for Philadelphia accompanied by his “boy” Will. They make it as far as Baltimore when Will is turned back, and Ellie has no choice but continue. With no way of knowing if he is dead or alive, she resolves to make a second journey—South again. And so Elijah Craft enlists with the 125th Ohio Volunteers of the Union Army: she will literally fight her way back to her husband.

Eli/Ellie’s journey is the story of an extraordinary individual and an abiding love, but also of the corrosive effects of slavery, and of a nation at a watershed moment.

Author Background and Observations

I was born in November of 1950 in Washington, DC, and I live there today, about fourteen blocks away from the Capitol building, the Supreme Court and the Library of Congress.

When folks in the heartland say, “It’s those people living in Washington who screw things up,” it would seem they mean me.  I am a Foreign Service officer in the United States Department of State.

I’ll give you a list of the places where I served my country as a Foreign Service officer. India, Jordan, the Sudan, South Sudan, Lebanon, Eritrea, Rwanda, Senegal, Sierra Leone, and Liberia. At least five of those places had active wars going on while I was there. I have been on battlefields and seen the bodies of the dead. I have given orders to US servicemen to shoot to kill. I have been to mass graves and seen the skeletons of the slaughtered. I have brought two war criminals to justice and as acting ambassador rescued 150 Americans from Liberia when the capital was in the middle of fierce fighting. I have had desperate people beg me for help I could not give. I have had desperate people beg me for aid I saved. I have helped to stop two wars, one in Liberia and one in South Sudan. I have stared down the wrong end of a rocket propelled grenade and I have looked into the very face of evil. I have met some of the most awful and most decent people the world has known. I even spent a year working in the US Congress. I have had dengue fever, also known as bone-break fever because along with the 105 degree fever you feel like your joints are being crushed, and I’ve had malaria as well as intestinal parasites more times than I can count.

My fascination with civil conflict started when I was a child. Perhaps I was born with it, but my parents also encouraged it. When I was very young, my parents took me to the Gettysburg National Battlefield Park.  I remember the old photographs of the dead on the battlefield. One in particular of a dead Confederate sharpshooter in the Devil’s Den, a small fortress of boulders that commanded an excellent view of where the Union lines were dug in, has always haunted me. The photo shows a young soldier slumped into a corner of the stones, his rifle leaning against the boulder next to him. I am sure it was the first dead person I had ever seen.  The picture was almost one hundred years old, but the rocks looked exactly the same. He had been there, right where I was. The place was the same, except he was gone and now I was there. I was there precisely because he, along with all of his comrades and his enemies, had fought there.  Who was he? What had brought him there? Why had he died? Why was he still present, in the Devil’s Den, at least in the photograph? Somehow, in some way, I knew his ghost would always be there. The defining moment of his life was that one image of his death.

Today, my personal Civil War library includes about 400 books, and I have written two novels set during the war. So you could say Gettysburg stuck with me.

Civil conflicts tear open and lay bare the soul of any nation. When brother fights brother, values are put in stark perspective by how the ferocity of our differences shatters our common bonds. In many ways, the United States was lucky. We created a mythology about the Civil War and what it meant that healed us as a nation, though a price was paid, mostly by the former slaves and their descendants. About a decade after the war, the North and the South finally reached an accommodation. Both sides would be allowed to maintain the nobility of the struggle, and the dignity of the surrender at Appomattox would form the core of the mythology of what happened between the two sides. In exchange, the South would accept reunification under the unspoken agreement that the North would end its half-hearted attempts to impose racial equality, permitting the South to maintain white superiority by violently repressing its African-American population in a form of semi-slavery. It was really the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s that wrote the final chapter of the Civil War, a hard fought battle by some of the most courageous men and women, black and white, that this nation has ever known. They faced enormous odds, and many died, but it is a credit to our nation that they finally prevailed. I do not mean to say perfection was achieved. It was not. The vestiges of racism live on, and vigilance is still required. But that is always true in any democracy anywhere I have ever been.

Part One Chapter Two Excerpt

Macon Georgia
April of 1855
      A large, elderly black woman sat down heavily next to him.

     “Good morning to you, Miss Betsey,” said Will, bowing slightly.  “And how are you this fine Sunday morning?”  A house slave belonging to Colonel Thomas Collins, a prominent member of the white community, Will had known Miss Betsey all his life.
     “Terrible,” fussed the old woman, wheezing.  “My arthritis is so powerful bad today it’s a wonder I can walk.”
     “Well I’m sorry to hear it.”
     “Sorry and a cat’s whiskers don’t never fix a thing, but thank you anyways.  But listen, young man, I’s sitt’en here for a reason.  How old is you?”
     “I’m twenty-five,” he answered.  “But you know that.”
     “Yes I do, but I wanna be sure you does, because it’s high time you take yourself a wife.  A young, honest ‘n fine-looking buck like you got no business being single.  I knows lots a young girls be only too pleased to be the aim a your partiality, and it’s high time you got about it.”
 Every matron in town seemed to want to play matchmaker for him.  It was a subject he dearly preferred to avoid, but he was trapped in church with no escape.
     “Well, it’s not so easy as that, Miss Betsey,” he started, but was cut off.
     “What in thunder ain’t easy?  You a man ain’t you?  Just look round this here church,” she said, waving her cane in the air and nearly knocking the hat off the woman sitting to her front.  “It ain’t like you ain’t got a plentitude a pretty gals like chickens in a barnyard ready for plucking.  What ain’t easy ‘bout it’s what I’d like to know?  Ain’t there even one good nuff for you, Mr. all fire High and Mighty?”
     “Now, Miss Betsey …”
     “Don’t you Miss Betsey me.  It ain’t right a fine young boy like you ain’t do’en his duty.  Now I can pick a woman make you happy as a tick in a dog’s ear, just see if I can’t.”
     “I’m sure you can, Miss Betsey …”
     “Then what’s your problem?”
     “The problem is a slave marriage has no standing, and you know it.  We don’t belong to ourselves, but to our masters to decide if and when we come or if and when we go, as their pocketbook or mood decides.  Now what kind of a marriage is that?” he said heatedly.
     “Shush,” Miss Betsey hushed him, “keep your voice low.”
     She looked at the Reverend Zachary Hess at the front of the church, the white preacher sent every Sunday to watch over the slave congregation.  Sitting quietly observing the assembling crowd, he was fiftyish, fat, squinty-eyed, and sporting a handlebar moustache of truly epic proportions.  The whites forbade the assembly of slaves for fear they would hatch plots to rebel, but church was the exception.  Religion, properly supervised, was believed to have a calming influence on the mind of the slave, and Hess was there to see that this church and its messages were properly supervised.  He did not preach himself; a black minister, Reverend Evander, did that.  He just sat by the altar staring balefully at the congregation and watching, watching, watching.  Watching him watch them gave William a case of the shivers, but there was nothing to do about it.
     Miss Betsey leaned in close to William and in a low voice said, “Now you listen and you listen good.  Ain’t noth’en in life for nobody that’s their own.  The good Lord says when you lives and when you dies, where you goes and what you does, and that’s as true for any white man as for any nigger.  The day a jubilation’s coming, William, when all slaves will taste the sweet, sweet fruit a freedom.  I knows it in my heart.  Maybe I ain’t gonna see it, but it’s a coming none the same.”
     A solitary figure walked past, taking a seat five pews to their front.  That it was a white woman surprised William until he recognized her as Ellie Smith, a short, thin and handsome young woman with jet black hair and a sad yet defiant set to her face and eyes.  William knew she was the slave daughter of Major Smith; everyone in town knew the scandal of her parentage.  Her mother was also the offspring of a master-slave coupling, making Miss Ellie a quadroon.
     Two of the women next to her got up and moved, leaving her prominently alone as she stared straight ahead.
     “Why do they do that?” whispered William.
     “Do what?” said Betsey.
     “Why do those women move away from her like that?” he said, nodding to Ellie.
     “Oh, you mean that piece a calico?  Just see how fine she dresses, putt’en on airs like she’s the better of us all just cause her daddy’s a white man and she white as the harvest moon in a midnight sky her own self.  And for all her airs them clothes ain’t nothing but hand me downs from her daddy’s real gals.
     “And she talks even better’n you, all high and mighty when she ain’t no more’n just another nigger.  I knows for a fact she can’t neither read nor write, just like the rest a us, even with her fine airs.  And she won’t have nothing to do with no black man, she’s so proud a that white skin.  Proud a what I don’t even know except being conceived in shame and she act like she got a badge a honor.  It ain’t fitt’en.”
     William noted many young men watching Ellie, a strange blend of lust and hostility in their eyes.  There was not a man here who did not want her, knew he could not have her, and felt a fierce resentment because of it.  A resentment apparently shared, thought William, by most of the women.
     William caught the look in the Reverend Hess’s eyes, who was also staring at her, and the lust William saw there curdled his blood.
     William shook his head.  He knew she refused the advances of every young man in the congregation, and even if her dresses were hand me downs from her half-sisters, she was still the best dressed woman in church.  And growing up in the house with her half sisters, she did speak like an educated woman, even if she was not.  Of course, William was the same.  Dealing almost exclusively with educated whites in his trade, he learned to speak like one.
     “I hopes you ain’t got your eye set on that trash,” sneered Miss Betsey.  “That ain’t nothing but trouble, and that’s the Lord’s sweet truth.”
     “No,” said William.  “I don’t need that problem in my life.  I’m no fool, Miss Betsey.”

For additional “Touched with Fire” Excerpts and Information go to

An interview of Christopher Datta and a second excerpt tomorrow.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Book Review

"A Kingdom Strange: The Brief and Tragic History of the Lost Colony of Roanoke" by James Horn

"A Kingdom Strange: the Brief and Tragic History of the Lost Colony of Roanoke" is a well-researched account of Sir Walter Raleigh’s failed attempts to establish an English settlement in North America. Raleigh wished to found a thriving colony to accomplish four purposes: to attack more effectively Spanish treasure ships returning to Spain from Central and South America; to keep Spanish settlement out of North America; to obtain great wealth by harvesting the land’s natural resources, in particular gold and silver; and to discover an easy passage to the Pacific Ocean and the trade-rich orient.

Historian James Horn takes us methodically through the separate voyages to North Carolina’s Outer Banks and Pamlico and Albemarle Sounds beginning with the exploratory voyage of Arthur Barlowe and Philip Amadas in 1584 and ending with John White’s tragic attempt in 1590 to re-connect with the settlement he as governor had been forced to leave three years earlier to address in London the settlement’s need for relocation and its shortage of food and supplies.

Horn introduces us to the local Native American culture. He narrates effectively the arrogance and brutality of Captain Richard Grenville and Governor Ralph Lane and the eventual recognition by tribal leaders that these foreigners and their men are not gods nor allies but avaricious enemies. We see the measures taken by the Secotan Indians to rid themselves of these Englishmen, and we witness Governor Lane’s vicious retaliation. We feel artist-turned-idealistic governor John White’s frustration and anguish as he attempts to plant a new colony after Lane and his soldiers return to England. We recognize White’s need to return to London to arrange for additional settlers and supplies to be transported to Roanoke to enable the settlement to move to a safer geographic location. We learn why three years elapse before he is able to return. We see the little evidence he finds that leads him to believe where the people of his abandoned village have relocated. We feel his despair as he is prevented the opportunity to verify his supposition. We then judge the validity of the author’s theory of the fate of White’s “lost” colony.

Immediately after I retired from teaching, I researched this subject matter and wrote a brief YA manuscript that if copied future Orinda, CA eighth grade students could have read. Horn’s narration, published years afterward (2010), has provided me tidbits of information I didn’t known. (Example: Walter Raleigh’s promotional efforts, planning, and preparatory actions that preceded each voyage) Horn’s footnotes offered me additional information. His timeline of events that affected discovery and colonization in America from 1492 to 1701 is also useful.

If I choose to write a full-length novel about the clash of English explorers and settlers and Native Americans at Roanoke, James Horn’s book will serve as an important secondary source. Concise yet detailed, quite readable, it would benefit any reader seeking to learn about the origins of our country’s past. 


Tuesday, January 7, 2014


"I Ask You to Be Amenable,"

Pages 267-272


     Early that morning her husband had supervised the burial of cannon wheels underneath a bed of sage. In the garret she and her children had placed feathers in open barrels containing balls, flints, and cartridges. With the redcoat soldiers almost within sight, a furrow had been plowed, cannon barrels and muskets placed in the furrow, and a second furrow plowed to cover them. When the soldiers entered the farm yard, Meliscent Barrett was sufficiently composed to watch them search. Seated in her grandmother’s wooden rocker, placed in the sparse shade of a red maple, she scowled at the soldiers’ use of her well.
     “D’y’ave spirits, ma’am?” a ruddy-faced sergeant asked, having separated himself from scores of regulars crowding about the well bucket and windlass.
     “I do. It is kept for the pleasure of the gentlemen. It is not kept for the likes of you.”
     From her servants, children, and most all people of common birth Meliscent Barrett, the Colonel’s second wife, demanded absolute obedience.
     The sergeant’s cheeks reddened. “’Ere now. Y’ don’t belong t’be talkin’ t’me like that! I be takin’ it whether or no I be ‘avin’ yer say so!”
     “My husband’s liquor is privileged property. I will speak plainly so that you may understand. Not one poxy-faced, dirt-groveling, biscuit weevil knave of the King’s hounds shall taste it!”
     “God rot yer eyes, y’ bloody old whore!” Poised to strike her, pulling his hand back, he shouted a one-word expletive. Two seconds later he was striding toward her back door.
     “Mrs. Barrett, I believe?” a stocky, square-headed officer asked, having halted the sergeant with a proceed-if-you-dare scowl.
     She glowered.
     “I am Captain Lawrence Parsons, commanding officer of this detachment.” He gestured broadly. “Be advised that our purpose here is not to plunder. This soldier’s behavior notwithstanding, be certain that your private property is entirely safe.”
     “How then, Captain, do you characterize that?!” She jabbed her right forefinger at the soldiers entering and exiting her barn.
     “Munitions stored in defiance of the Crown, madam, are treasonous contraband, quite the exception. As for what has just transpired, as for that, you, sergeant,” -- He pointed his riding crop at the stiff-backed soldier -- “neither you nor any man under my direction shall avail himself of spirits!”
     “No sir. Thank you, sir.”
     “Be mindful, sergeant, of your duty, which you abrogated at Lexington.”
     “Your men must obey orders, sergeant. Orders you must obey absolutely! Is that not so?!”
     “Aye, sir. I d’catch yer meanin’.”
     “Very well. Process beforehand what you are about to say. Process similarly your employment. I shall be keeping my eye on you. Carry on!”
     A half minute passed. Hearing the sound of Parsons’ riding crop flicked against his right calf, Meliscent watched what she could of the activity inside her barn. A thin, dark haired young officer, his eyes taking note of her for the briefest of moments, approached. Authoritatively, Parsons departed. Meeting a short distance away, they conversed.
     The Captain nodded once, glanced at her, averted his face. She heard him say, “Have them make a pile. Upon my command, burn it.”
     They had found the gun carriages, which her laborers had hastily buried under the hay.
     Captain Parsons returned. Hands clasped behind his back, he gazed at her. “My soldiers are hungry,” he said, blandly. “They will pay, with coin, what you will provide. They will be kept here in the yard, well regulated. The provisions will be conveyed to them by your servants.”
     Meliscent snorted. Parsons’ eyebrows arched.
     Jabbing her elbows against the backrest of her rocker, she scowled. “We are commanded to feed our enemies.” Her hands worked combatively. “You cannot buy good will. I will not accept your coin!”
     Parsons stiffened. Anger colored his face. “A curious decision,” he responded. “Imprudent. Obstinacy thrown in the face of courtesy. Madam, you invite resentment!”
     Her eyes castigated him. From his coat pocket Parsons withdrew a shilling. Scowling, he tossed it onto the lap of her frock. A second officer, freckle-faced, exhibiting a swagger, added his own. Two nearby soldiers, observers, now approached. Parsons’ angry eyes taunted her.
     “This,” she exclaimed, “is the price of blood!”
     Pivoting, Captain Parsons strode toward the three carriages now parked outside the barn. “Burn them!” he shouted. “Burn the whole bloody batch!”
     “No!” She rose. “God be my witness, no!”
     Refusing to turn about, he said, “I shall no longer accommodate you!”
     Burn the carriages if you must.” Raising the hemline of her dress, she hurried to him. “Do not burn the barn!”
     Parsons turned.
     They glared.
     Advancing his chin, Parsons said, “The flames won’t ignite your barn.”
     “If you’re mistaken?!”
     “I’m not mistaken!”
     “Realize, if my barn burns, you’re not destroying contraband! You are destroying what you declared to me you would protect! Move the carriages farther away, Captain Parsons! Use a scintilla of common sense!”
     Mounds of hay were being heaped underneath the carriages. Parsons signaled the sergeant in charge to strike a spark.
     The soldiers in the yard had watched the confrontation. At least half of them witnessed the pell-mell dash of a farm laborer through the barn’s opened doorway. Hurling his upper body against the ribs of the sergeant, the laborer sent the man sprawling. The laborer bounded to his feet. Four soldiers immediately wrestled him down. The ruddy-faced sergeant who had demanded spirits, suddenly amongst them, raised his musket stock.
     Bring him to me!” Parsons shouted.
     Grunting, cursing, the soldiers yanked the laborer, a husky lad, across the yard.
     Having closed half the separating distance, Parsons pressed the end of his crop against the boy’s chest. “You, pile of midden! You have assaulted a soldier of the King!”
     “T’hell with that.”
     Parsons rose upon the balls of his feet. “You! Scab! You shall not say that! I wilI have you transported to London in chains! Your name!”
     His arms pinned by two burly soldiers, the boy spat at Parsons’ boots.
     Face raging, Parsons whipped his right calf. “You! Whore son! Bleeding sodomite! You will pay for your insolence! Your name!”
     Meliscent thrusted her body between them. Her left shoulder struck Parsons’ chest. Flailing her arms, she widened the narrow space. “Enough!” she demanded.
     “No, Madam!” he stammered. “It is, … not enough!” His suffused face contorted. “Step aside! This man has committed treason!”
     “He is not a man!” she answered. “Look, for God’s sake! Look! He is a boy!” She inhaled deeply. Tightening herself, she exclaimed, “He is my boy! My son! What would you expect?!”
     Gray particles obstructed her vision. Her shoulders quivered. Lord, strengthen me! she mouthed. She met Parsons’ fierce scowl.
     “Whether he is your son or not,” Parsons said, enunciating each word, “he has attacked soldiers of the Crown, in the performance of their duty. He shall be punished!”
     “For defending his parents’ barn, Captain Parsons! Private property!”
     “A matter of contention, Mrs. Barrett. A mother’s desperate defense!”
     His entire being threatened her.
     She saw what her intransigence had wrought.
     “For everybody’s sake, Captain,” she said, exhibiting sudden dignity, “you should remove the carriages to a safer place, then ignite them. We will not resist you.”
     Prepared to speak, he blinked. “Be assured of that!”
     She persisted. “Had your soldiers already done so, this would not have happened. Nor would my son have acted as such had my words to you been dispassionate.”
     Parsons’ mouth closed. Eyes cloaked, he lowered his left hand. The tip of his riding crop touched his right boot. Sensing that her refined, gentler voice had tempered him, she looked at her hands. Her anger had incited his wrath more, she judged, than had her son’s foolish battery.
     “We disagree about my son’s intention,” she said, risking what she had gained to attain all. “We will not argue about that. But, Captain Parsons, he is but a lad, thirteen. Alas, influenced by his mother’s rash temper. He is not the master of the house. Please do not punish him as if he were. I ask you to be amenable, sir, charitable.”
     Her son, James Jr., wisely submissive, stared at his shoes.

Sunday, January 5, 2014


"A Tree Grows in Brooklyn"

by Betty Smith


I need to be reminded periodically of what a masterful writer’s attention to detail, character portrayal, and replication of human kindnesses and cruelties accomplishes. Betty Smith’s “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” is an excellent example.

This book is about poor people in Brooklyn living against the odds before and during World War I. It is especially about strong women – the Rommely women – Mary, the grandmother; Mary’s three daughters Sissy, Katie, and Evy; and most particularly granddaughter Francie: all “made out of thin invisible steel.” It is also about their husbands and neighbors, shopkeepers and school children, teachers and co-workers. It is a compelling, detailed slice of life as the author must have experienced it.

Francie Nolan, the book’s main character, born in 1902, is eleven in the novel’s first chapter. Living in poverty in Brooklyn with her brother Neeley (a year younger than she), her truthful, resolute, practical mother Katie, and her empathetic, unrealistic, drunkard father Johnny, she exhibits already what Katie’s uneducated but wise mother Mary Rommely had advised Katie about raising her two children. “’The child must have a valuable thing which is called imagination. … It is necessary that she believe. … Then when the world becomes too ugly for living in, the child can reach back and live in her imagination.’” Francie has imagination. When Katie pointed out to her mother that the child, growing up, would find out things for herself, her mother responded, “’It is a good thing to learn the truth one’s self. To first believe with all your heart, and then not to believe … fattens the emotions and makes them to stretch. When as a woman life and people disappoint her, she will have had practice in disappointment and it will not come so hard. … Do not forget that suffering is good, too. It makes a person rich in character.’” Early on, Francie, shunned by girls her own age, fantasizes about the lives of people she observes from the fire escape landing outside her window, lives in the stories of the library books she reads, and plays games with imaginary friends. She loves her imperfect father deeply. Over the course of five years she experiences nastiness, cruelty, grieves, yet perseveres. At the book’s end she is rich in character.

These scenes in particular moved me.

When Francie had been seven and Neeley six, Katie had sent them to the nearby public health center to be vaccinated. Katie had needed to work that day and Johnny had been at the waiters union hall hoping to be emplouyed that night. Told by older boys that his arm would be cut off at the health center, Neeley had been terrified. To distract him before leaving for the center, Francie had taken him out into the yard to make mud pies. They had left for the center just before they were scheduled to report, their arms covered with mud. “‘Filth, filth, filth, from morning to night. I know they’re poor but they could wash. Water is free and soap is cheap,’” the doctor had said to the nurse assisting him. The doctor had then speculated “how that kind of people could survive; that it would be a better world if they were all sterilized and couldn’t breed any more.” After she had received her vaccination, Francie, terribly hurt, had fired back. “’My brother is next. His arm is just as dirty as mine so don’t be surprised. And you don’t have to tell him. You told me. … Besides, it won’t do no good. He’s a boy and he don’t care if he is dirty.’”

Francie’s teacher at the neighborhood school was also scornful of the poor. The spinster principal was nasty and brutal. Francie, turned nine, had her father fake their address to permit her to transfer to a better school. That November her new class participated in a Thanksgiving Day ceremony. Four chosen girls held symbols of the Thanksgiving feast. One symbol was a saucer-sized pumpkin pie. The teacher threw away the other symbols after the ceremony but not the pie, offering it to anyone who wanted to take it home. “Thirty mouths watered; thirty hands itched to go up into the air, but no one moved. … All were too proud to accept charitable food.” When the teacher was about to throw away the pie, Francie raised her hand. She explained she wanted to give the pie to “a very poor family.” The following Monday the teacher asked Francie about how the family had enjoyed the pie. Francie expanded on her lie by saying that there were twin girls in the family, they had not eaten for three days, and a doctor had said that they would have died but for the pie. Caught in her lie, Francie confessed. She pleaded not to be punished. The teacher answered, “’I’ll not punish you for having an imagination.’” She explained the difference between a lie and a story. The incident inspired Francie to channel her tendency to exaggerate events into writing stories.

A year later Francie told a whopping lie. She and Neeley attended a Christmas celebration conducted for the poor of all faiths by a Protestant organization. At the end of the celebration an exquisitely dressed, lovely girl named Mary came on stage carrying a foot-high beautiful doll. The woman that had accompanied the little girl announced, “’Mary wants to give the doll to some poor little girl in the audience who is named Mary. … Is there any poor little girl in the audience named Mary?’” Struck dumb by the adjective “poor,” no Mary spoke up. But at the last moment Francie did. As she walked back up the aisle carrying the doll, “the girls leaned towards her and whispered hissingly, ‘Beggar, beggar, beggar.’ … They were as poor as she but they had something she lacked – pride.”

Francie was extremely proud of her seventh grade composition printed in the school magazine at the close of the school year. Eager to meet her father in the street to show him the published composition, she saw a girl named Joanna come out of her flat pushing a baby carriage. Joanna, who was seventeen, wasn’t married. Several housewives on the sidewalk gasped as Joanna strolled past them. Katie and Johnny had talked about Joanna. At the end of their conversation Katie had said to Francie, “’Let Joanna be a lesson to you.’” Seeing her, Francie wondered how Joanna was a lesson. She was friendly. She wanted everybody else to be friendly. She smiled at the ladies on the street. They frowned. She smiled at nearby children. Some of them smiled back. Francie, believing she probably wasn’t supposed to, did not smile back. Joanna continued to walk up and down the sidewalk. The ladies became more outraged. One woman eventually spoke. “’Aren’t you ashamed of yourself?’” Joanna answered back. “’Get off the street, you whore,’” the woman demanded. A verbal fight ensured. The women began to throw stones. One struck the baby on the forehead. Joanna carried the baby into her flat, leaving the carriage on the sidewalk. The women disappeared. Little boys began to play with the carriage. Francie wheeled the carriage back to the front door of Joanna’s flat. She placed her story on the carriage cushion as recompense for not having smiled. She decided later that the lesson she had learned was that she hated women. “She feared them for their devious ways, she mistrusted their instincts. She began to hate them for this disloyalty and their cruelty to each other.”

Francie’s father died when she was fourteen. Thereafter, instead of writing about the beauty of birds and trees she wrote four little stories about Johnny to show that despite his shortcomings he had been “a good father and kindly man.” Her new English teacher marked her compositions “C,” not what Francie was accustomed to, “A.” Afterward, she and Francie had a private conversation. The teacher wanted Francie to write about beauty and truth as she had before. “’Poverty, starvation and drunkenness are ugly subjects. … Drunkards belong in jail, not in stories. And poverty. There is no excuse for that. There’s enough work for all who want it. People are poor because they’re too lazy to work. There’s nothing beautiful about laziness. … Now that we’ve talked things out, I’m sure you’ll stop writing these sordid little stories.’” She advised Francie to burn her four compositions in her stove when she got home. Instead, Francie burned all her “A” compositions. She told herself, “I never saw a poplar and I read somewhere about the sky arching and I never saw those flowers except in a seed catalogue. I got A’s because I was a good liar. … I am burning ugliness. I am burning ugliness.”

Two years later Francie met a twenty-one year old soldier about to be shipped off to the war in Europe. They spent an evening together and kissed. They met the next evening and the soldier asked Francie to have sex with him and to marry him if he came back from the war. They did not engage in sex but she accepted his proposal. He went back home to Pennsylvania the next day to see his mother before being shipped out. Several days later Francie received a letter from the soldier’s mother informing her that the woman’s son had married his fiancĂ©e. Francie needed her mother to tell her hard truths.

Told what had happened, having read the letter, Katie recognized she could no longer stand between her children and heartache.

“’Say something,’ demanded Francie.

“’What can I say?’

“’Say that I’m young – that I’ll get over it. Go ahead and say it. Go ahead and lie,’” Francie said bitterly.

“’I know that’s what people say – you’ll get over it. I’d say it, too. But I know it’s not true. … Every time you fall in love it will be because something in the man reminds you of him.’

“’Mother, he asked me to be with him for the night. Should I have gone? … Don’t make up a lie, Mother. Tell me the truth.’

“’There are two truths,’ said Katie finally. ‘As a mother, I say it would have been a terrible thing for a girl to sleep with a stranger. … Your whole life might have been ruined. … But as a woman …’ she hesitated. ‘I will tell you … It would have been a very beautiful thing. Because there is only once that you love that way.’”

“A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” is such a bittersweet, beautiful book. Betty Smith assures us that amid the misery and ugliness of poverty honest, empathetic people rich in character do exist. We need to know that. We need to retain hope for the human race.

Friday, January 3, 2014

Destined for Greatness

How much can the actions of one person alter the outcome of a major historical event? A lot, history indicates. What follows is how one Massachusetts militia leader could have, but didn’t, change significantly the early months of the American Revolution. I am speaking of Timothy Pickering, commander of the Essex County militia, in Salem.

The British army that marched to Concord, Massachusetts Colony, April 19, 1775, to destroy stockpiled rebel munitions began its return trek in the early afternoon. Almost immediately it came under heavy fire. Hiding behind stone walls, trees, and sheds and out of windows of houses, militia companies from nearby towns inflicted substantial punishment. To save the army, Lieutenant-Colonel Hugh Percy feigned at Cambridge a crossing of the Charles River, believing that the planks of the town’s Great Bridge would be removed and most if not all of the town militias yet ahead of him would be positioned there to destroy him. Sending his flanking units toward the bridge, Percy turned his 1,700 soldiers in the opposite direction, toward Charlestown and Bunker and Breeds Hill, where he could establish a strong defensive position, receive reinforcements from Boston, and eventually be ferried across the river.

Percy’s army, breaking through armed resistance at the top of one major hill, advanced unopposed toward Charlestown, chased by a large portion of the militia companies caught flat-footed at the Great Bridge. Had Timothy Pickering and his Essex County militia appeared on the Charlestown/Cambridge road at this crucial stage to block the army’s retreat to Charlestown, Percy would have had to surrender. One-third of the British garrison in Boston would then have been lost, its commander, General Thomas Gage, would likely have not challenged subsequent rebel fortification of Breeds Hill, the Battle of Bunker Hill would not have been fought, and British evacuation of Boston would probably have occurred much sooner.

Pickering had been present with about 50 militiamen when General Gage had sent a detachment of soldiers northward by sea two months earlier to seize refurbished cannon located at a Salem forge. Thwarted by a raised drawbridge, the British commanding officer, Colonel Leslie, decided not to fire upon Pickering’s militiamen and a hostile crowd berating him, choosing instead to march his forces back to their transport at Marblehead. In the mid-morning of April 19, Pickering, informed that 8 Lexington citizens had been killed by British soldiers sent into the country to destroy Concord’s munitions, decided to keep his men in Salem.

Timothy Pickering had a large ego. Not yet 30, Harvard educated, a lawyer, the commanding officer of the militia of Essex County, the author of a well-read pamphlet defining how militiamen should be disciplined, he believed himself soon to be, if not already, extraordinary. Here is how I characterize him in my novel.

"What others had to say about his decisions after he had implemented them mattered not. He assailed difficulties … with supreme confidence, those men disagreeing with his conclusions later acknowledging, albeit privately, their errata. He concurred entirely with what he believed his peers had privately ascertained. He was destined for greatness."

A great leader differentiates himself from the majority. He rejects conventional wisdom. Possessing extraordinary courage and superior intellect, he does the unexpected, takes a different tack. So Pickering must have thought. Had he acted as other militia leaders far distant from Lexington had done that morning, he would have taken his men to Cambridge and the Great Bridge. Ironically, his obstinacy, his refusal to budge provided him, temporarily, the opportunity to appear to be the great leader he believed he was destined to be. Here is what happened.

"The news of the fighting at Lexington had reached him just before 9 a.m., interrupting that quiet period of time he took each morning to digest his breakfast. He had immediately concluded that the British army, having fired upon the Lexington militia at about dawn, having made blatant their plan in the country, would terminate their mission and return to Boston. Because Salem was farther away from Boston than Lexington from Boston, he had decided not to commit his troops, citing that their mustering and the subsequent hard march to Cambridge would serve no beneficial purpose.

More persuasive was his suspicion that any British expedition undertaken east of Boston would be a deception. He would not be duped into separating his forces from General Gage’s intended objective, that which two months ago General Gage’s surrogate, Colonel Leslie, had so ignominiously failed to confiscate.

Through the late morning the townspeople had given him little peace. Militia companies from other northern county towns were marching; why wasn't he? Simple-minded citizens they were, their minds closed to his logic.

Eventually, begrudgingly, uncharacteristically, he had yielded. To satisfy them, in the early afternoon he and his soldiers had taken to the road, but not so far that he would not be able to return should he be apprised of a second appearance of ships transporting regulars to a landfall at Marblehead. It had been a vain business. He had chastised himself for his acquiescence. Having stopped the march several miles west of the town, he had used up an hour inspecting his men, anticipating at any moment a messenger with information that would justify his return.

In the late afternoon, because a messenger had brought news of an entirely different sort, he had resumed the march; but not before he had sent forth a message pledging support. He had not intimated how far removed he was. He had believed that a forced march could, nay, would ameliorate his miscalculation, for which the British expedition’s commanding officer, having proceeded irrationally to Concord, was entirely at fault."

The road that Pickering took from Salem intersected the road between Cambridge and Charlestown. Had he left Salem an hour sooner, he would have reached the intersection before Percy did. He reached it minutes too late. Sensing that Pickering might not reach the intersection in time, Massachusetts’s General William Heath had told his companion, Doctor Joseph Warren: “Damn his perfidious soul! Percy seeps through our fingers here!” And after the lengthy British column had passed the vital intersection, Heath declared, “Mark this well, Doctor Warren! That bastard Pickering has no stomach for fighting!”

Pickering’s drive to achieve high station and great acclaim persisted. Next month I will tell you about his rise to national prominence and how he exhibited at least twice very poor judgment. 

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Not Insensitive to Human Emotions

Elizabeth I was crowned Queen of England in 1558.  She was Henry VIII’s third child to rule.   
During her half-brother Edward’s six year reign (1547-1553) the Anglican Church underwent substantial Protestant reform.  Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon’s only child, Mary, succeeded Edward in 1553.  She was a resolute Catholic.  Dubbed “Bloody Mary,” she married Prince Philip of Spain in 1554 and persecuted Protestants severely.  Philip remained in England during Mary’s phantom pregnancy.  When it became clear that she was not with child, he left England to wage war against his arch enemy France.  He became King of Spain in 1556.  Two years later Mary died.  For 47 years Philip would be Elizabeth’s most dangerous enemy.
Philip II was Catholicism’s staunchest champion.  Whether it be accomplished by marriage, assassination, or military conquest, he was determined that England would again be a Catholic nation.  Elizabeth parried him adroitly.  Their conflict reached its climax in 1588 when Philip sent his great armada of war ships into the English Channel.
For more than a decade Elizabeth tried not to provoke him.  Her treatment of English Catholics, although restrictive, was not oppressive.  Early on, her primary advisors, believing that no woman should rule a nation independently, pressured her to marry a Catholic prince. They feared dissention, chaos, and foreign aggression.  They were adamant that she end all dispute about who should be her successor.  The birth of a child fathered by a foreign prince would settle it.  Elizabeth used their persuasions to her own advantage.  Philip offered to marry her in 1559.  He would return England to Papal authority and he would protect Spain’s commercial interests in the Netherlands by allying Spain with England.  Elizabeth rejected his proposal.  He sought then to persuade her to marry his cousin, Archduke Charles of Austria.  Interpreting Elizabeth’s conduct, Philip’s ambassador ventured that although she had “never set her heart upon, nor wished to marry anyone in the world” there was yet hope.  “She was but human and not insensible to human emotions and impulses.”  She appeared to be amenable, but she harbored reservations.  She would rather be a nun than marry “on the faith of portrait painters.” She “had heard rumours that Charles had an abnormally large head: she dared not risk accepting a deformed husband” (Weir 65).  Charles would have to come to England to be inspected.  The Holy Roman Emperor (Charles’s father) vetoed her stipulation, as Elizabeth knew he would.  Seemingly indecisive, she prolonged marriage negotiations until it became obvious to the Austrians and Philip that she would not comply.
Elizabeth understood that Philip needed her now as his ally in his dealings with France.  He would be willing to overlook temporarily the fact that she was Protestant if she provided him assistance.  England had long ago earned France’s enmity.  Henry VIII had invaded France.  Henry II, the current French king, believed that the English annulment of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon’s marriage had been illegal.  Elizabeth was, therefore, a bastard, not entitled to rule.  The legitimate English queen was Mary, Queen of Scots.  This was because Margaret, Henry VIII’s older sister, had been Mary’s grandmother.  Margaret and her husband, King James IV of Scotland, had produced Mary’s father, James V.  Mary’s mother was the French noblewoman Mary of the powerful House of Guise.  James V had died days after Mary’s birth.  Mary had been raised in France by the Guise family while Catholic regents had ruled Scotland.  Not yet 16, Mary had married Henry II’s son Francis, the French Dauphin in 1558, the same year Elizabeth had become Queen. 
An unexpected torrent of events changed Europe’s political landscape in 1559.  Philip married Elisabeth of Valois, Henry II’s daughter.  Henry II died from a jousting accident.  Mary’s husband Francis became king.  France and Spain signed a peace treaty.  England and France signed a peace settlement.  Francis II, the new King of France, influenced by Mary’s mother, his Guise uncles, and his own mother, Catherine de Medici, remained bellicose.  Francis boasted that he would have himself declared King of England.  Elizabeth fired back: “I will take a husband who will give the King of France some trouble, and do him more harm than he expects” (Weir 75).
Behind her bravado was alarm.  Mary of Guise was now regent of Scotland; French troops were stationed there; Elizabeth feared a two-prong attack.  She did not foresee that Francis II and Mary of Guise would both die the following year (1560), that Protestant lords would gain the upper hand in Scotland, that the Treaty of Edinburgh would remove French soldiers from Scotland, and that religious wars between Catholics and Huguenots in France were about to tear France apart.
With the French threat diminished, Mary, Queen of Scots, now became the focal point of Elizabeth’s concern.  Mary’s mother-in-law, Catherine de Medici, the Queen Regent of France, sent Mary back to Scotland in August 1561.  Eighteen years old, Mary needed a new husband.  Elizabeth was concerned that Mary might marry a prince from one of the royal houses of Spain, Austria, or France.  That would place the Catholic threat right back at her back doorstep.  Scotland could be used as a springboard for an invasion of England.  Elizabeth wanted Mary’s husband to be Robert Dudley, Elizabeth’s long-time Protestant friend and advisor (and presumed lover).  Philip II approved.  Dudley and Mary did not.  Dudley wanted to be Elizabeth’s husband and King Regent.  Mary believed that Dudley was beneath her.  In 1565 she married the British subject Henry Stewart, Lord Darnley, a descendent of Henry VIII’s sister Margaret from her second marriage.
No longer needing Elizabeth as an ally, Philip now looked upon Mary as the means to return England to Catholicism.  Mary’s minimal demand had been that Elizabeth declare her to be next in line to the English throne.  Her lineage and her husband’s lineage traced back separately to Henry VIII’s older sister.  But, quickly, Mary all but destroyed her chances of a peaceful ascendency.  Unable to control her passions, much to Philip’s horror, she indulged in love affairs that led to two murders – that of her secretary/lover in 1566 and of Darnley in 1567 – murders in which many of her subjects believed she was complicit.  Fearful that she might be tried for conspiracy to commit murder, she abdicated her throne July 24, 1567.  Her year old son -- Elizabeth’s eventual successor -- was crowned James VI of Scotland.  Protestant lords placed Mary in custody in Lochleven.  She escaped May 2, 1568.  The 6,000 man army raised to defend her was defeated eleven days later.  She fled into England May 26. 
These events placed Elizabeth in a most precarious position.  Unless Mary was cleared of the charges of conspiring to murder Darnley, Elizabeth could not receive her.  Sending her back to Scotland would mean her death.  Sending Mary to France or Spain would encourage those countries all the more to attempt to depose her.  Philip’s large army lay close by in the Netherlands, where it had been quashing Huguenot rebellion.  Allowing Mary to be at liberty in England as a private citizen would inspire Catholic malcontents to rally to her cause.  Elizabeth decided to keep Mary in custody as an “honorable guest.”  Meanwhile, Elizabeth’s ministers would create a tribunal.  The tribunal would investigate the conspiracy charges declared against Mary.  It would then determine her innocence or guilt. 
The inquiry began October 4.  Letters were produced by the prosecution that clearly implicated Mary.  Her defenders claimed that the letters were forgeries.  The tribunal commissioners declared them authentic but were divided about how they should proceed.  Elizabeth would not allow them to declare Mary innocent, aware of the strength of adverse public opinion against Mary.  She was cognizant also that Catholic subjects could begin to view Mary as their champion.  Worst of all, Mary wanted Elizabeth’s crown now.  She had written the Queen of Spain that with Philip’s help she would “make ours the reigning religion” in England (Weir 199).  In January 1569 the commissioners declared that nothing had been proved -- that, in effect, Mary was neither guilty nor innocent.  Elizabeth placed Mary in the custody of George Talbot, Sixth Earl of Shrewsbury, at whose residence she would remain for most of the next 15 years.
There still remained the issue of Elizabeth’s eventual successor.  Would Elizabeth in fact marry and give birth?  If not, would she actually name her successor?  And how could she continue to thwart Philip II?  At the end of June 1565 she had rejected the marriage proposal of the fourteen-year-old King Charles IX of France.  Several of her advisors had then revived their efforts to convince her to marry Charles, the Austrian Archduke.  Elizabeth made conditions that the Holy Roman Emperor would not accept.  Foremost, Charles would not renounce his faith.  But the Emperor was willing to compromise.  If Elizabeth would allow Charles to attend mass in private, he would publicly accompany her to Anglican services.  If this concession was agreeable, he would marry Elizabeth at once.  Elizabeth instructed her emissary, Lord Sussex, to inform the Emperor that her conscience and her policy of religious uniformity would not allow her to permit Charles to practice his religion in private.  She knew that attitudes in her country about religion had hardened and that her acceptance of this compromise would invite controversy, quite possibly rebellion, perhaps even civil war.  “She wished to make clear to her subjects that she would do nothing to forfeit their love and loyalty, and that she would never allow the laws of her country to be broken, even by her husband” (Weir 192-193).
Then there was the difficulty of Protestant rebellion in the northern provinces of the Netherlands and the presence there of Philip’s soldiers.  Catholic churches had been desecrated.  Imperial officials had been attacked.  Philip had sent to the provinces the Duke of Alva and 50,000 soldiers.  The rebellion had been crushed, but the army had remained, too close to England for Elizabeth’s ease of mind.  She sympathized with the rebels, but she could not send them assistance for fear of Spanish retaliation.  It was at this time that Mary abdicated her throne, escaped her imprisonment in Scotland, and fled to England.
In 1569 Elizabeth witnessed just how serious was the threat that she could be deposed.  Catholic lords in northern England – led by the Earls Northumberland and Westmorland -- had conceived a plan to foment rebellion, murder royal officials, liberate Mary, whom they had been in contact, replace uncooperative royal advisors, remove Elizabeth, and crown Mary.  Spain and France had promised aid.  A royal army of 26,000 men was sent north.  By December 20, the uprising collapsed.  Northumberland and Westmorland fled into Scotland.  Between 600 and 750 commoners were subsequently hanged.  Spared their lives, 200 of the gentry were deprived of their estates. 
Next Month: Elizabeth pretends to entertain marriage to impede Philip’s objectives, English sea captains raid Spanish treasure ships, and daring adventurers look to colonize in North America.
Sources Cited:
Weir, Alison.  Elizabeth the Queen.  London: Vintage Books, 1998.  Print.