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
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.
“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?”
“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