Saturday, February 28, 2015

Writing "Alsoomse and Wanchese" -- Introduction

One reason that I retired from teaching at the age of 56 was to take advantage of my school district’s generous early retirement package.   If I were to provide my school a specific number of hours of curriculum development during the first five years of my retirement, I would receive during those years additional retirement compensation.  One of the projects I undertook was to write a somewhat novelized account of England’s first attempt to establish a colony on America’s Atlantic coastline.   I refer to the colonial settlement of Roanoke, Walter Raleigh’s endeavor to establish a base that would serve two purposes: raid Spanish treasure ships passing through the Caribbean islands and discover, extract, and export to England gold, silver, and other valuable natural resources.

My “novel” was about 150 pages long.  It was essentially a work of non-fiction whose people thought, spoke, and acted.  Years later, after my Revolutionary War novel Crossing the River was published (2011), I reread my Roanoke manuscript to assess its flaws and decide whether I wanted to revise it.

I was disturbed that I had committed probably the worst of a novice writer’s sins.  My narration summarized (told) too much; it did not demonstrate (show) enough.  Here is an example. 

            The watch had alerted Arthur Barlowe of the sighting of Indians.  Yes, he saw them, three, standing by a canoe that they had beached on the island near where Barlowe's ship and that of Philip Amadas had anchored two days before.  They were staring back at him.  Unabashedly.  As though inviting him to communicate. 

Barlowe decided to initiate Walter Raleigh's other instructions.

            He had not yet found in the great sound of water that Verrazzano had called the "Inland Sea" an island that they could easily defend.  He and Amadas had left Plymouth April 27, 1584, piloted by Simon Ferdinando, the same Portuguese seaman that had explored Norambega for Humphrey Gilbert five years earlier.  The two ships had picked up the trade winds at the Canary Islands, arrived at Puerto Rico in the Caribbean to take on fresh water, avoided the Caribs on Guadeloupe, entered the Gulf Stream off Cuba, and sighted the Carolina banks between Cape Fear and Cape Lookout July 4.

            For nine days Ferdinando had searched for an inlet before finding one with scarcely twelve feet of water at high tide.  Subsequently, the two ships had entered Pamlico Sound and anchored off Hatarask Island.

            Barlowe, Amadas, and Ferdinando had immediately rowed ashore, and Barlowe had declared possession of the land in the name of the Queen.  Almost immediately he had noticed the profuse growth of wild summer grape, dominating the low, sandy terrain, reaching to the very edge of the water.  He believed this to be an important economic discovery; for Englishmen drank great quantities of wine, imported mostly from Spain.  Here was a land that benefited from, he suspected, a warm Mediterranean climate.  Additionally, there were trees, lots of trees: cedar, pine, cypress, sassafras, and tupelo.  For shipbuilding.   For excellent furniture, perhaps.

            On their second day of discovery one of Barlowe's men had fired his arquebus at a flock of cranes.  Huge flocks had ascended like an undulating wave, issuing an echoing cry, like an army of men shouting all together, Barlowe had thought.  If the savages are not already aware of our presence, that sound will inform them! he had thought.  He was encouraged to see their quick willingness to bear witness.

Another flaw was that I had focused almost entirely on English characters.  The few native characters that appear in the manuscript are one dimensional.  What were their fears, aspirations, internal conflicts? I asked myself.  It was as though I had considered these natives superfluous.  The characters in the excerpt below are essentially bodies with names.  My purpose here was to provide important historical information through the use of dialogue.  Conspicuously lacking is individuality of character.  The scene is, succinctly stated, an information dump. 

           “The white men are not gods,” Wanchese repeated.

            Several of Wingina’s advisors nodded agreement.

            “I believe they are men of an old generation many years ago,” Granganimeo responded, “dead men returned to this world again. That they remain dead for a certain time only. That another generation is now in the air, invisible, waiting to follow them.”

            “If they are of the sprit world, they have very large appetites,” declared Osacan, Wanchese’s friend.  “They are men only lacking color, from a distant land. And their god is not to be feared.”

            “Their god is to be feared.  His power is in Hariot’s sword and looking-glass.”

            The others faced Ensenore, Wingina’s frail father.

            “Why then are they without food, helpless and starving with food about them?” Wingina asked quietly.

            Ensenore spoke carefully. “They came without women and they refused our women so we believed they were gods, pale spirits as Granganimeo has said. I do not know if they are gods. If they are men, their god has given them great power over us. He has given them the skill to kill any of us without a weapon and from any distance. We suddenly are ill, and then we die. Their god wishes that we give them food. If we do not, he punishes us.”

            Wingina stared at his father without speaking. He was not convinced. He wanted Lane’s men gone from his island forever. If they did not leave voluntarily, he would find a way to destroy them.

Finally, not one person in the manuscript is a fictional character.  Any novel that attempts to recreate some aspect of the past needs invented characters.  How could I portray effectively the Carolina coastal Algonquians’ way of living and thinking without them?  I needed to tell stories about individual people to create a mosaic, a context to make more meaningful those major events that did occur when Englishmen and Algonquians came together and eventually clashed. 

What had subjectively attracted me to this subject matter was clearly missing.  Rewrite it, or chuck it?  I decided to accept the challenge. 

I want to explore themes like the clash of incompatible cultures, the exploitation of the vulnerable, man’s need to conquer and control, the dangers of resistance, man’s overall purpose, his need to adhere to religious beliefs.  I want to create fully-dimensional characters, individuals with whom readers can identify, human beings deserving emotional judgment.  I want to present specifically the Algonquian point of view.  I want to write a novel that demands the best of what I am able to produce.

I may not get there.  I’ve barely begun.  I’ve written five chapters.  At this later stage in my life writing another novel gives me a special purpose.  I will be posting in future installments my difficulties and how I have attempted to surmount them.  It would be fun to hear from you.  My email address is

Monday, February 16, 2015

Thomas Nelson -- Observing, Learning

Less than a year after his return from England, Thomas Nelson married Miss Lucy Grymes, a daughter of Philip Grymes of Brandom, in the neighboring county of Middlesex.  They settled permanently in a commodious house built for them by Nelson’s father, the new house nearly opposite his own.  In between his yearly trips to Williamsburg as a burgess representing his county, York, Thomas lived in a style of great elegance and hospitality.  Upon Thomas’s marriage his father had been given him an independent fortune and taken him into the family business.  From his long resident in England, Thomas had acquired some of the manners and pursuits of its country gentlemen.  He would ride out daily to his plantation, a few miles from York, with his fowling piece and an attending servant.  He kept a pack of hounds at a small farm near the village, and in the winter his friends and neighbors would join him once or twice a week to participate in a fox hunt.  Young Nelson’s home became the center of genteel hospitality.  It was said that no gentleman ever stopped an hour in York without receiving an invitation to it.

Nelson found time during his residence in Williamsburg as a burgess to further his education.  For a short time he attended William and Mary College.  It was here that he met a young law student from Albemarle County, Thomas Jefferson.  In 1763 Thomas’s father took under his care his orphaned niece, Rebecca Burwell.  The twenty-year-old Jefferson, four years older than Rebecca, fell in love with the girl, and during their rather sporadic courtship became quite intimate with the Nelson family.  This relationship was to be maintained through the Revolutionary War.

As a burgess, Thomas Nelson served his country from 1761 to his appointment to the Continental Congress in 1775.  He did not take an active part in the debates of the Assembly during the stormy years prior to the American Revolution.  There were many gentlemen in the Assembly who were older than he and who possessed greater political experience.  Better that he receive his training and acquire political wisdom by observing others and working quietly in various committees of the Assembly.

At the end of May 1765, following the passage of the Stamp Act, Patrick Henry managed to push through the Assembly several resolutions that, in essence, denied the right of Great Britain to tax the colonies.  There is no record of how Nelson voted on the resolutions; but, considering his political feeling and actions following the Stamp Act, we can assume that he supported them.  Following the repeal of the Stamp Act in March 1766 the British Parliament passed the Townshend Acts.  The new measures were designed to raise a revenue by taxing common articles used by the colonies: glass, lead, paper, and tea.  The House of Burgesses rose again in opposition, sending to the king in 1768 a petition and to Parliament a memorial and remonstrance.  In 1769 it passed resolutions claiming the sole right to tax the colony's inhabitants.  The governor dissolved the Assembly following each action taken.  In 1769, the members met in The Apollo Tavern, where they signed a non-importation association written by George Mason and presented by George Washington.  They pledged not to import or have imported any of the Townshend goods until the duties were repealed.  A merchant, standing to lose more in material gain than most of the Burgesses, Nelson signed the agreement. 

Following the repeal of all of the Townshend duties (except that on tea) in April 1770, the colonies and the British government enjoyed a brief period of relative peace.  However, the winter of 1772-1773 was not a good time for Nelson.  His father died November 19.  Thomas’s religious upbringing is reflected in a letter he wrote soon afterward to his father's friend, Samuel Martin.  “It falls to my lot to acquaint you with the death of my father …  His death was such as became a true Christian, hoping through the mediation of our blessed Savior to meet with the reward promised to the righteous” (Meade 210).  The funeral sermon delivered by a Mr. Camm, the president of William and Mary College and minister of York, summarized the qualities of the elder Nelson.  “… his own gain by trade was not more sweet to him than the help which he hereby received toward becoming a general benefactor.  He is an instance of what abundance of good may be done by a prudent and conscientious man without impoverishing himself or his connections, nay, while his fortunes are improving” (Meade 209).

President Nelson left to each of his five sons – Thomas, Hugh, William, Nat, and Robert – landed estates and servants.  But to his eldest son, Thomas, he left 40,000 pounds, equivalent to $133,000 at that time.[1]

Work Cited:

Meade, Bishop (William).  Old Churches, Ministers and Families of Virginia.  (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott Company, 1891).  I.  Print.

[1]  Ibid., 208.  Page, Genealogy, 152

Thursday, February 12, 2015

"Turning 15 on the Road to Freedom"
by Lynda Blackmon Lowery

I was 28 when courageous black Alabama citizens and white sympathizers set forth March 21, 1965, across Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge to begin their successful march to Montgomery, the state capital, to demonstrate their determination to force the state of Alabama to allow all of its black citizens to register to vote.  I, like many Americans, had watched on television the brutal acts committed by the local police and sheriff’s deputies to end demonstrators’ attempt March 7 to cross the bridge and march to Montgomery.  Having lived in Tennessee for two years, having years later received a bachelor’s degree in history, and having thereafter become a public school teacher, I had not been na├»ve about racial prejudice prior to the Selma events.  Nonetheless, I was shocked.

A week after recently watching the movie Selma, I read a, excellent memoir (just published by Dial Books) about the Selma to Montgomery event written in retrospect (assisted by two professional writers) by a teenage participant, Lynda Blackmon Lowery.  Unlike the movie, Selma, many parts of Turning 15 on the Road to Freedom; My Story of the 1965 Selma Voting Rights March stirred my emotions.  Geared for readers in their teen years, the memoir reaches out as well to adults born after 1965 and to jaded seniors like me.

Here are my reasons for recommending this book especially to young people.

Turning 15 is a personal story.  We experience vicariously the thoughts, emotions, and actions of an actual participant.  We gain insight about the effects of racial hatred on actual African Americans.  We learn of the sense of security felt by most black children growing up in segregated black communities.  We understand better the need black Americans felt to right collectively racially-committed wrongs.  Mrs. Lynda Lowery cites her grandmother’s advice: “… if you give someone or something control over you, then you’ve given up yourself.”  We celebrate the realization experienced by thoroughly-segregated people like the young Lynda that white racists did not represent all white Americans.  After the bloody attempt by early demonstrators to cross the Pettus bridge March 7, many white people traveled to Selma to exhibit their support.  Lynda wrote: “It was a whole different feeling suddenly with white people living in your house.  They marched with us and were willing to go to jail with us.  They ate what we ate.  We cooked collard greens and cornbread, and they ate it and enjoyed it as much as we did.  They were happy to be with us, even if they had to sleep on the floor.    There was a whole new feeling in Selma.”

I especially appreciated the details Mrs. Lowery gave us about her experiences.  Here are two examples of information I did not know and found fascinating.  School children were used extensively to demonstrate and crowd the jails.  Mothers who were maids took employers’ food home surreptitiously that their children ate the next day after they were arrested and put in jail.  Twenty-one school girls, mostly high school students, were put in a steel cell (called the “sweatbox”) that had no windows, water, toilet, or lights and kept there until every girl had passed out.  It is always the detail of individuals’ lives that make history especially interesting.

This memoir is written simply, but it touches upon all the important Selma/Montgomery subject matter events.  Anybody who reads at or above the sixth grade level will have no difficulty finishing it in one sitting.  Yet the reader will be informed about every topic or event an instructor would want a student of his to read about, examples ranging from the different instances of segregation existent in Selma to the deaths of three people murdered, one by the police and the other two by racist thugs.  Mrs. Lowery also explains, quite simply, the Voting Rights Act passed in 1965 and how it has been degraded most recently by the United States Supreme Court.

Finally, I am concerned about what our young generation doesn’t but should know about our nation’s past.  Racism in America persists.  My grandchildren and friends their ages should be exposed to appealing sources of information that instruct them to recognize that no nation is a “shining city on the hill” and that those who proclaim such assertions should be looked upon with skepticism.  Take nothing, therefore, for granted.  Human history is a story of struggle for freedom and dignity against unwarranted control.  Lynda learned from her experiences that “the person I wanted to be was a person who would stand up against what was wrong.  I wanted not only to protect myself, but to protect others, not only to fight for myself, but to be out there fighting for others.”

Mrs. Lowery’s memoir is a worthwhile, appealing book.