Sunday, November 22, 2015

Thomas Nelson -- Trapping Cornwallis
In order to appreciate the great contribution that French soldiers and war ships made in forcing British General Charles Cornwallis’s surrender at Yorktown, we must go back several years.   
“Ever since the rebel victory at Saratoga, in 1777, had convinced France to sign a treaty of alliance with the United States, George Washington had been waiting and praying for French intervention to come soon, but as the weeks and months passed with no sign that help was on the way, his hopes waned.    Fortunately for the patriots, the young French aristocrat Marquis de Lafayette, a volunteer who had been serving in Washington’s army, returned to Versailles in 1779 and came back to America a year later with the welcome news that seven French ships of the line, ten to twelve thousand veteran troops led by Comte de Rochambeau, and a war chest of 6 million livres were on the way and should arrive in Rhode Island in June [1780]” (Ketchum 9, 10).
Washington’s army had spent a desperate winter camped at Morristown, New Jersey, “twenty-five miles west of New York City, on high ground protected by the Watchung Mountains, overlooking the roads between New York and Philadelphia.”  When Lafayette rejoined Washington at Morristown, he was appalled at what he witnessed: “‘An Army that is reduced to nothing, that wants provisions, that has not one of the necessary means to make war.’ However prepared for such squalor he may have been by his knowledge of past distress, ‘I confess I had no idea of such an extremity,’ he wrote” Ketchum 10).   Demonstratively, Washington could accomplish nothing without French troops and a large fleet.
Ships carrying Rochambeau’s soldiers were sighted off Newport, Rhode Island, July 11, 1780, the fleet having sailed from Brest May 2.  Washington’s immediate hope was that with considerable French assistance he could attack and defeat British commander-in-chief Henry Clinton’s army, situated in New York City.  The timely arrival of British Admiral Thomas Graves with six ships of the line to augment British Admiral Arbuthnot’s fleet, giving “the British a thirteen-to-eight superiority over the French fleet” (Ketchum 27), thwarted Washington’s plan.
Subsequently, Washington learned that the French ships unloaded at Newport had “carried no arms, no gun-powder, no uniforms for his destitute, half-naked veterans.    Washington’s troops did not have enough horses and wagons to join the French in an operation anytime soon.  … So lackadaisical were the states about providing food for the army that the commander-in-chief was obliged to authorize a program he detested.  Here it was the harvest season, a time of abundance, yet appeals to the states had produced no results worth noting, forcing the General to resort once more to scavenging his own country” every few days moving “his camp, letting the men forage for anything within reach, and when the area was striped clean, move on to another and repeat the process” (Ketchum 28, 29).
Rochambeau wrote to his government that the real strength of Washington’s army was three thousand men and the country’s currency was worthless.  He urged that he be sent troops, ships, and money.  “Washington’s plan for an attack on New York was foolhardy, he observed – preposterous, in fact, and very likely the last gasp of a desperate commander” (Ketchum 31).
Months of inactivity ensued.  A second French fleet at Brest was kept from departing by a British blockade.  On September 24, 1780, Benedict Arnold fled his command at West Point after his communications with the British about turning West Point over to them had been intercepted.  Rewarded by General Clinton with a brigadier general’s commission, Arnold was placed in command of 1,600 troops sent to Virginia in December.
Desperate appeals were made to the French government for immediate, essential assistance.  Lafayette wrote: “With a naval inferiority it is impossible to make war in America.  It is that which prevents us from attacking any point that might be carried with two or three thousand men.  It is that which reduces us to defensive operations, as dangerous as they are humiliating.”  Washington wrote: “If France delays a timely and powerful aid in the critical posture of our affairs it will avail us nothing should she attempt it hereafter.  We are at this hour suspended in the Balance; not from choice but from hard and absolute necessity.”  Rochambeau sent his son to France to plead for assistance.  It was Benjamin Franklin, ambassador to France, however, who succeeded most in persuading the King to renew French assistance.  “Shrewdly, the old man reminded Vergennes that if the English were to recover their former colonies, an opportunity like the present one might not recur, while possession of the vast territory and resources of America would afford the English a broad basis for future greatness, ever expanding commerce, and a supple of seamen and soldiers that would make them ‘the terror of Europe’” (Ketchum 137).
On May 8, 1781, a French frigate docked at Boston carrying the news that Admiral Francois Joseph Paul de Grasse had left Brest March 22 with 26 ships of the line, 8 frigates, and 150 transports, their immediate destination believed to be the West Indies.  Aboard the ships were 6 million livres designated to satisfy the needs of Washington’s army.  Washington and Rochambeau set about immediately determining how best to utilize this transfusion of military and naval assets.  Rochambeau wanted to focus on the Chesapeake Bay.  Washington looked upon that operation only as an alternative to attacking New York City.   Rochambeau forthwith sent a dispatch to de Grasse urging that the admiral sail not to New York City but to the Chesapeake Bay where he should expect to be joined by Rochambeau’s and Washington’s combined forces.  Believing that a combined French and American attack on New York was imminent, Clinton ordered General Cornwallis, now in Virginia, to send him all the troops he could spare and to establish a defensive position.  Washington, eventually taking Rochambeau’s viewpoint, sent a trusted officer to the West Indies to find de Grasse and impress upon him the necessity that he sail immediately to the Chesapeake.
Washington and Rochambeau were taking a great risk.  Acting on the assumption that de Grasse would reach the Chesapeake without being intercepted by a large British fleet and that he would be able to place his ships in a position that would prevent Cornwallis’s army’s escape by sea, the two generals would march their armies from Newport and the Hudson Valley all the way into Maryland, transport them by boats to Richmond, march them to the York peninsula, and have them encircle Cornwallis’s forces.   “On June 10 the first brigade of French troops stepped off on what proved to be a 756-mile march to the South” (Ketchum 143).  On August 14, Washington and Rochambeau learned from de Grasse that he was sailing for the Chesapeake.  Once there, “he planned to stay until October 15—no longer—when he would have to return to the West Indies with his troops.  It was clear at once to Rochambeau and Washington that they had a window of opportunity of four or five weeks at most in which to make use of the French fleet—if the British navy did not interfere” (Ketchum 150).  The next day Washington wrote an order for Lafayette, in Virginia, “to position his force in such a way as to prevent Cornwallis from returning to North Carolina” (Ketchum 151).  Rochambeau’s forces joined Washington’s troops at White Plains, New York, August 22, and the combined armies commenced their lengthy journey.  
More than two months earlier, June 12, the Virginia legislature had elected as its new governor Thomas Nelson.  There had been a good deal of informal talk among the legislators at Staunton about establishing a dictator.  Possible candidates had been Patrick Henry, George Washington, Nathaniel Greene, and George Nichols, a young Hanover County representative with considerable military experience.  The talk came to nothing, but the feeling remained that the new governor should be given broader powers to exercise.
The legislature vested Nelson with powers that his predecessor Thomas Jefferson had labored without. “His feelings on receiving the news are not known, but later he remarked that to ‘have declin’d the appointment might have indicated timidity.  I, therefore accepted it with a determination to exert every power that I possess’d to give energy to Government and security to the inhabitants of the State” (Evans 103).
Nelson was given the power, with the consent of the Council, to impress provisions of any kind necessary for supplying the militia and Continental armies.  It gave Nelson the freedom to act immediately at critical moments.  He was empowered to “call out the state militia in such numbers as he saw fit and to send them where their services were required; … to seize loyalists and banish them without jury trial; to redistribute the property of persons who opposed laws for calling up militia …  Additional legislation provided the death penalty for desertion and empowered the governor and Council to lay an embargo on exports from the state, to declare martial law within a twenty-mile radius of the enemy or American camps, and to strengthen militia regulations so that six months might be added to the service of those who failed to appear when originally summoned” (Evans 103, 104).
Nelson could not legally exercise this new power without the consent of the Council, consisting of 8 men elected periodically by the legislature.  During the time Nelson was governor, only four members (the bare minimum required for carrying on business) were able to meet.  They had difficulty meeting regularly.  Frequently, Nelson chose to carry out his legislated powers without the Council’s consent.
“… state officials had little choice but to resort to impressment in order to get the necessary food and equipment.  This frequently involved the threat of force, for Virginia farmers were loath to exchange their produce for vouchers which stated the appraised price and were redeemable at a future date.  The situation was worsened by a long dry spell culminating in a poor harvest.  Even when provisions were acquired a scarcity of wagons made if difficult to get them to the army.  Owners often hid their wagons and refused to transport supplies unless they got protection from impressment and assurance that they would be paid for their services” (Evans 107).
“Assuring that all men eligible for militia duty reported for service when called was much more difficult in areas distant from Richmond, particularly in the western part of the state.  In counties to the west of the mountains, where the Indians were a greater threat than the British and where there were large pockets of Loyalists, the evasion of militia duty in some instances reached the point of virtual insurrection” (Evans 109).
Virginia had reached its lowest point in the Revolution.  Washington regretted that he had not been able to come to his state’s aid.  Nelson’s election had pleased him.  From Dobbs Ferry, New York, on July 25, Washington had written a letter to his step-son, John Parke Custis, praising him for “your choice of a Governor.  He is an honest man, active, spirited, and decided, and will … suit the times as well as any person in the State” (Fitzpatrick XXII, 178).”  Washington’s words would be proven prophetic.
Nelson had placed himself and his militia under General Lafayette’s command.  As governor, he planned to take the field, but would yield to Lafayette’s decisions.  It is interesting to compare the thoughts of these two men concerning their military situation during the summer months.  In a letter to Brigadier-General Morgan, Nelson expressed his reluctance to call out the county militia at “the approach of harvest; but I have my hopes that some capital Blow may be struck time enough to enable the Commander of the Troops to dispense with their services at that time” (Nelson Letters 61).   In a letter to Nelson, Lafayette expressed the opinion that the more reinforcements Virginia sent to General Nathaniel Greene in North Carolina, the better the situation would be for Virginia.  “Whether he [Cornwallis] continues in his present situation, commences fresh ravages in the State, we shall find that to succor General Greene we shall want them [the militia] here [with Greene].  Indeed, it is one way of compelling the enemy to leave us, or at least force him to detach …” (Lafayette V, 380).
The answer to the question of what Lafayette and Nelson should do with Virginia troops – gather them to strike Cornwallis or send them to Greene into the Carolinas –- was answered by General Henry Clinton’s order to Cornwallis to establish a defensive position.  On August 5 Nelson reported to the Virginia House of Delegates in Richmond Cornwallis’s movement from Portsmouth to the York River, where he could command both the York and Gloucester shores.  Lafayette thereupon placed his forces not far below Richmond where he could march either northward or southward, “as their movements should make necessary …” (Nelson Letters 64).
Cornwallis was now camped on the neck of land upon which Washington had warned Nelson five years ago never to place a large detachment of soldiers.  The roles of attacker and defender were now reversed.  If the British had not the sense to see the danger in their position, Washington would not provide them much time to discover it.  He gave Clinton every indication that the movement of his and Rochambeau’s armies was a prelude to an attack on Staten Island.  Clinton was cognizant of the existence of de Grasse’s fleet, rumored to be somewhere in the West Indies.  Would it arrive off New York to participate in a massive attack?  On August 21, the Comte de Barras, commander of the French fleet at Newport, Rhode Island, set sail for Virginia to augment de Grasse’s fleet, “making it superior to anything the British could muster, but even so, questions remained.  The allied generals now knew when and where they would march, but the fiction of an attack on New York had to be maintained lest Clinton assail them while they were on the move, and at a certain moment the British general would know with certainty that they were bound for the South” (Ketchum 158).
On August 27, Washington informed Nelson that he was coming south with American and French troops and to expect the arrival of a French fleet of war ships.  He was concerned about being furnished with sufficient supplies to sustain him through his campaign.  He would need most salted provisions, beef, forage, and the means of transportation.  “Let me entreat your Excellency that every exertion may be made to feed and supply our army …” (Fitzpatrick XXIII 55-56).  Nelson would need to concentrate his activities on procuring the essential food and supplies.   With his own troops present, Washington would have little need of the militia.
On August 30, de Grasse’s fleet, consisting of 28 ships of the line and six frigates with 3,000 land forces, dropped anchor in the mouth of the York River.  Nelson wrote confidently to Governor Lee of Maryland: “In all human Probability, Lord Cornwallis has nearly finished his career, and will shortly receive his reward.”  Nelson then got down to the real purpose of his letter.  He asked for flour, something “with which your State, I imagine, can easily and plentifully furnish me” (Nelson Letters 10, 11).
Nelson had begun a very tedious, frustrating, essential task.  Virginia troops had always been short of supplies.  Now Nelson had to raise supplies and food for Washington’s army.  He sent out various requests to agents in the Virginia counties for specific commodities.  From Smithfield he requested “large supplies of Vegetables and Vinegar;” from Caroline and the adjacent country “all the flour you can procure;” from Isle of Wight and the neighborhood flour, meal, spirits, and vinegar; and from Richmond entrenching tools.  However, by September 12, there was not “a grain of meal in Camp” (Nelson Letters 12, 22-25).  Nelson wrote that he did not know how Virginia could remedy such shortages in time.
On September 2, while Washington’s troops were marching through Philadelphia, Clinton “sent a message to Lord Cornwallis: ‘By intelligence which I have this day received, it would seem that Mr. Washington is moving with an army to the southward, with an appearance of haste, and gives out that he expects the cooperation of a considerable French armament.  Your Lordship, however, may be assured that if this should be the case, I shall endeavour to reinforce your command by all means within the compass of my power …’” (Ketchum 163-164).
On September 5 Nelson placed an embargo on the shipping of all beer, pork, bacon, wheat, Indian corn, peas, and other grains and flours.  Eight days later he would order the roads in the counties of Fairfax, Prince William, Stafford, Spotsylvania, Caroline, Hanover and New Kent to be put in order for the advance of Washington’s army.  On the same day he asked Governor Burke of North Carolina for salt and beef, and Gloucester County for added salt.  To one state official, Nelson wrote: “‘I think the trust my country has repos’d in me demands that I should stretch my powers to their utmost extent, regardless of the censures of the inconsiderate or any other evil that may result to myself from such a step [and] attain by the strongest methods of compulsion those necessaries which cannot otherwise be procur’d and from the want of which alone we can have any reason to fear that our enterprise will fail’” (Evans 115).
On September 5 a large British fleet appeared off the Virginia capes.
Here is a useful map.
Works cited:
Evens, Emory G.  Thomas Nelson of Yorktown: Revolutionary Virginian.  (Charlottesville, Virginia: The University Press of Virginia, 1975).  Print.
Fitzpatrick, John C., ed.  The Writings of George Washington.  (Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1933).  XXII.  Print.
Ketchum, Richard M.  Victory at Yorktown: The Campaign That Won the Revolution.  (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2004).  Print.
Lafayette to Nelson, July 29, 1781.  The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography (April 1898), V.  Print.
Publications of the Virginia Historical Society, New Series, No. 1.  “Letters of Thomas Nelson, Jr.”  (Richmond: Virginia Historical Society, 1874).  Print.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Writing "Alsoomse and Wanchese" -- Characters Real and Imagined
As I stated in my last post, most of the Algonquian characters in the novel that I am writing are fictitious.  This is because historians know very few of the names of the natives with whom Englishmen interacted at or near Roanoke Island in the 1580s.  Most of the names actually reported by explorers or colonizers come from one source: Ralph Lane, governor the English colony on Roanoke Island from August 1585 to June 1586, when he and his colony left for England.  Lane almost single-handedly destroyed the tentative friendship that Captains Arthur Barlowe and Philip Amadas had developed with the local natives during their brief stay on the Outer Banks in 1584.  Delusional, paranoid, Lane came to believe that a great alliance of coastal Algonquian tribes was being organized to exterminate his colony.  He named at least 14 natives in his report to Walter Raleigh following his return to England.  I make use of all of these names.
First and foremost was Wingina, the chief weroance of the villages of Roanoke, Dasemunkepeuc, Croatoan, and, probably, Pomeiooc, Aquascogooc, and Secotan.  (See the map provided by this link:  It was Wingina with whom Lane contested to obtain food during the winter and spring of his tenure as governor.  It was Wingina who, he believed, was organizing an alliance to destroy him.
Lane mentioned two leaders of other confederations of villages: Okisko of the Weapemeoc and Menatonon of the Choanoac.  When Lane took an exploratory party to Menatonon’s primary village, Choanoac, in April 1586, he confronted Menatonon to obtain information about the location of valuable mineral deposits.  He took Menatonon’s young son, Skiko, back to Roanoke as a hostage.  Skiko had been captured by the fierce, Iroquois-speaking Mangoaks west and southwest of Choanoac but had escaped.   
Arthur Barlowe, a co-leader of the first expedition to Roanoke (1584), mentioned information told to him about Piemacum, weroance (chief) presumably of the village of Pomeiooc.  Some historians believe that Piemacun was the leader of the non-Algonquian speaking Pomouik, which through trickery had murdered many braves of Secotan, a village that may have been under Wingina’s authority.  (See my October 16, 2015, post: “Two Major Events”)  Historians do agree that Wingina and Piemacum had a hostile relationship. 
Lane also indentified individual Algonquians who were related to or were important subordinates of Wingina.  There was Granganimeo, Wingina’s brother and weroance of Roanoke.  There was the two brothers’ father, Ensenore, Dasemunkepeuc half-priest and influencial advisor.  Lane also listed principal subordinates.  Tetapano, Eracano, and Cossine guided Lane’s party (and probably acted as Wingina’s spies) to Choanoac in April 1586.  We are told that Eracano was married to Wingina’s sister.  She was not identified.  Osacan was a brave who attempted to rescue Kisko (Menatonon’s son) from Lane’s fort prior to Lane’s leave-taking to England.  Lane wrote that Tanaquincy and Andacon were going to lead a party of twenty braves across Pamlico Sound from Dasemunkepeuc to “attack Lane’s house at night, set its reed thatch on fire, and kill Lane as he ran from the burning building.  Other parties would do the same for Thomas Harriot’s house, and for the remaining individual houses in the ‘town’ (the only case where we hear the word used).  At the same time larger parties, presumably, would attack and overwhelm the guards at the defensive works of the settlement” (Quinn 126).  Historian Michael Leroy Oberg identifies Taraquine and Andacon as the two leaders that Lane believed would lead the assault on his house.  He places Tanaquincy with Osacan and Wanchese as principal men advising Wingina to take hostile action. 
All of these identified Indians appear in my novel.
When Arthur Barlowe returned to England in the summer of 1584, he brought back with him two natives: Manteo and Wanchese.  Manteo was the son of Croatoan’s weroansqua (female chief).  Her name was never reported.  All that historians know about Wanchese prior to Barlowe’s and Philip Amadas’s appearance in 1584 was that he was from Roanoke.  These two individuals were to be taught English so that they could be interpreters when Lane’s men built a fort and settlement at Roanoke in 1585.  Wingina’s choice of them had to have been self-serving.  Manteo was probably very intelligent.  Indeed, he took to English culture readily and upon his return to America behaved more like an Englishman than an Algonquian.  He was Ralph Lane’s interpreter, participated in Lane’s destructive acts, and became Governor John White’s closest native ally in 1587 when White’s colonists were especially fearful of an Algonquian attack led by Wanchese.  Wingina probably chose Wanchese to go to London because Wanchese must have been a highly regarded warrior.  A weroance’s principal men were almost always experienced, esteemed hunters and warriors.  Wingina would have wanted such a man to learn everything he could about England’s far superior weaponry.  Wingina was in particular need of such information given the apparent fact that his authority was being challenged within his own sphere of influence.  (In my novel I have a rebellion beginning to occur in 1583 led by Piemacum of Pomeiooc)  Historians tell us that while Manteo flourished during his instruction in London Wanchese was resistant and sullen.  When the two natives were returned to the Carolina coast in 1585, Manteo stayed with the English and worked for Lane; but Wanchese immediately reported to Wingina and disassociated himself from the English.  During his year’s tenure as governor Lane suspected repeatedly Wanchese’s desire to see the colony and Lane destroyed.
I am certain that Manteo and Wanchese never liked each other.  I indicate this in an early scene of my novel.  Both men are attending a council meeting called by Wingina during a corn festival at Dasemunkepeuc.
Inside his long house Wingina was conducting an informal council.  Attending were his brother, Granganimeo; his brother-in-law, Eracano; his father, Ensenore; three of his best warriors, Tetepano, Andacon, and Mingan [a fictitious character]; Manteo, the son of Croatoan’s weroansqua; Granganimeo’s closest friend, Tanaquincy; and Wanchese. Wingina and Granganimeo were smoking long-stemmed clay pipes. Flashes of the great fire outside danced on the matted reed walls that provided its occupants ventilation. Soon to be twenty summers, Wanchese recognized he was the youngest of the men present. Most had to have seen twenty-five or twenty-six summers, Wingina, Granganimeo, and Eracano at least thirty, and Ensenore more than fifty. He was gratified that he had been included, but he was uncertain of its meaning. He was convinced there was a specific purpose. What that would be he would probably be told after the council. His conduct would be that of respectful listener and, if asked to speak, of a deferential fact-giver. He thought it highly unlikely that these mature men would solicit his opinion.
“With the growing season ended, we need to address our problem with Piemacum.” Withdrawing his pipe stem from his mouth, Wingina glanced at his brother, then at Andacon, his fiercest warrior.
Eracano nodded. He repositioned himself on the long bench he shared with his two sons and son-in-law.
Granganimeo spoke. “Piemacum is your age, Andacon. Too ambitious for his loin skin. He wants power more than he wants wives.”
“He plans to take away our trade,” Andacon said.
Wingina nodded.
“I think he wants an alliance with the Pomouik,” Tanaquincy volunteered.
“We don’t know if that is true.” Wingina raised his pipe. He examined it at chin level. “But we should assume so.”
Manteo half-raised his right hand. The top portion of the large turkey feather embedded in the groove above his forehead bobbed. “I know that Piemacum wants a friendship with the Neusiok. It follows that he needs an alliance with the Pomouik.”
Wanchese watched Manteo out of the right corners of his eyes.  Manteo was seated three braves to his right on the bench opposite that of the senior tribesmen. He had had little acquaintance with this rather tall, self-important behaving Croatoan. What he had seen of Manteo he hadn’t liked. Interjecting himself into this discussion with information that Wingina probably knew was an attempt to gain stature. It contributed nothing to solving Wingina’s problem.
Wanchese’s weroance nodded. His pearl earrings swung. “How do you know that?”
“He has spoken to my mother.”
“Then I will need to speak to her.” He frowned, folded his arms slowly across his bare chest. “She should have told me.”
“He visited her four sleeps ago. I came here especially to tell you.”
“Deliver to her, then, my gratitude.”
Manteo’s upper torso straightened; he appeared to grow. Resentment stirred in Wanchese’s throat.
I have provided specific character traits to all of these real people.  I have given Wingina and Granganimeo wives and children that I have been obliged to name and assign age.  I have given Ensenore a deceased brother that I have named Wematin.  Wingina has succeeded Wematin as the chief weroance (mamanatowick) of the six coastal villages I have mentioned above.
I have provided Wanchese a deceased father and mother, a deceased brother, a deceased sister, and a living sister, Alsoomse.  I have provided a family history.  I have given Wanchese and Alsoomse two cousins – Nootau and Sokanon – brother and sister.  Both are rather important secondary characters.  I have also provided Wanchese and Alsoomse friends and neighbors and several personal enemies.
I chose the names of my fictitious characters from a list of names for Algonquian children.  (  An Algonquian’s name reflected something about the person’s appearance or trait of character.  Algonquians could change their names.  For instance, Wingina changed his name to Pemisapan when he withdrew his Roanoke villagers to Dasemunkepeuc after his relationship with Governor Lane had become especially hostile.   
            Alsoomse means “independent,”
            Kitchi (Alsoomse and Wanchese’s deceased brother) means “brave,”
            Kimi (Alsoomse and Wanchese’s deceased sister) means ‘secret.”
            Matunaagd (Alsoomse and Wanchese’s dead father) means “He who fights.”
            Nadie (Alsoomse and Wanchese’s deceased mother) means “wise.”
It became necessary for me to create a chart of the names of these characters with ages indicated and relationships defined to enable me to narrate my story. 
Here is much of what I decided about my two protagonists before I began writing.
Alsoomse is an independent-minded, creative young woman of seventeen years who feels constrained by the limitations placed on her by her restrictive culture and by the fact that she is female.  She speaks her mind.  She defends those who are abused and vulnerable.  She craves a male relationship.  She feels especially the loss of her mother, who died when Alsoomse was fifteen.
Wanchese is a quick-tempered, impulsive-acting young warrior of twenty.  He suffers both the loss of his father, when he was fifteen, and the death of his brother Kitchi, a year after the father’s death.  Wanchese feels partially responsible for Kitchi’s accidental death.  Wanchese is a skilled hunter and warrior, he is ambitious, and he is loyal (yet privately critical) to his chief weroance (Wingina).   He respects courtesy and generosity and disdains pretension and bullying.  Because of his sister’s independent behavior, he is often at odds with her; but they share important character traits.
Next month I will be more specific about Alsoomse’s and Wanchese’s activities and conflicts and the plot direction that the novel so far has taken.
Work cited:
Quinn, David Beers.  Set Fair for Roanoke: Voyages and Colonies, 1584-1606.  Chapel Hill, The University of North Carolina Press, 1985.  Print.

Friday, November 6, 2015

"My Antonia"
by Willa Cather
Published in 1918, “My Antonia,” written by Willa Cather, focuses primarily on the lives of two characters: the narrator, Jimmy Burden, and his childhood friend and neighbor, Antonia Shimerdas.  The strength of the novel, I believe, is its message that circumstance and absence or presence of strong character affect substantially the direction of a person’s life.
Spanning approximately 30 years, the novel opens with Jimmy, aged ten, being transported from Virginia to the farm village of Black Hawk, Nebraska, at an unspecified year in the late 1800s.  His parents have died.  He is to live with his father’s mother and her husband on a farm 20 miles from town in the only wooden house on the rugged, undeveloped plain.  Other farm residences are sod houses and dugouts.  Aboard the train transporting Jimmy is an immigrant family, the Shimerdas, from Bohemia.  Their destination is land next to Jimmy’s grandparents’ property.  The Shimerdas’s residence is little more than a cave.  Close to arriving at his grandparents’ house, Jimmy reflects: “The wagon jolted on, carrying me I knew not whither.  I don’t think I was homesick.  If we never arrived anywhere, it did not matter.  Between that earth and that sky I felt erased, blotted out.  I did not say my prayers that night: here, I felt, what would be would be.”
Jimmy is fortunate.  His grandparents are of strong character.  Both are wise about people.  Both are empathetic.  Jimmy has a secure foundation that permits him to develop with little handicap.  The Shimerdas family is not fortunate.  They do not speak English; they have been swindled in their purchase of their property; two of their family members are flawed individuals.  Mrs. Shimerdas has forced her cultured husband to bring the family to America because “America big country; much money, much land for my boys, much husband for my girls.”  She is a complaining woman who feels entitled to receive, even demand the assistance of others.  She is fortunate that Jimmy’s grandparents are compassionate people.  The grandmother comments, following one of Mrs. Shimerdas’s discontented visits, “No, I wouldn’t mourn if she never came again.  But, you see, a body never knows what traits poverty might bring out in ‘em.  It makes a woman grasping to see her children want for things.”  The other flawed family member is Antonia’s older brother Ambrosch, to whom Mrs. Shimerdas and Antonia defer, “though he was often surly with them and contemptuous toward his father.”  Twice during Antonia’s reversals of fortune after she is no longer a child – her father is deceased – Ambrosch utilizes her as the farm’s sole laborer rather than hire help.  Later, he hires her out to work for other farmers.  When she works as a housekeeper in town (arranged by Jimmy’s grandmother), he takes her wages.
Nearly four years older than Jimmy, Antonia has great potential.  She is intelligent, perceptive, hard-working, and kind-hearted.  She possesses a natural spark that attraacts good and bad people to her.  Jimmy is captivated by her, as a young boy and as a maturing young man.  Late in the book he tells her, “The idea of you is a part of my mind; you influence my likes and dislikes, all my tastes, hundreds of times when I don’t realize it.  You really are a part of me.”  “You’re here,” she responds, in her memory and heart, “like my father.  So I won’t be lonesome.” Their enduring friendship is extremely beneficial to both.
Unlike Jimmy’s favorable circumstances, Antonia must suffer being raised by a dysfunctional mother and selfish brother.  Family poverty does not permit her to attend school.  She is judged unfairly by prejudicial townspeople concerned about the morals of immigrant daughters hired to work in town.  Male admirers attempt to take advantage of her.  Her strength of character enables her to persevere and ultimately prevail.
I appreciated this novel additionally for its historical content.  The author knows her material. 
First, there is the description, providing a genuine sense of place.  Upon seeing it for the first time Jimmy “felt that the grass was the country, as the water is the sea.  The red of the grass made all the great prairie the color of wine-stains, or of certain seaweeds when they are first washed up.  The there was so much motion in it; the whole country seemed, somehow, to be running.”  And, later, “The road ran about like a wild thing, avoiding the deep draws, crossing them where they were wide and shallow.  And all along it, wherever it looped or ran, the sunflowers grew; some of them were as big as little trees, with great rough leaves and many branches which bore dozens of blossoms.  They made a gold ribbon across the prairie.  Occasionally one of the horses would tear off with his teeth a plant full of blossoms, and walk along munching it, the flowers nodding in time to his bites as he ate down toward them.”
The author knows also small-town prejudices.  Most of the early farmers during Jimmy’s early years living on his grandparents’ farm and later in their house in town were immigrants.  “If I told my classmates that Lena Lingard’s grandfather was a clergyman, and much respected in Norway, they looked at me blankly.  What did it matter?  All foreign people were ignorant people who couldn’t speak English.  There was not a man in Black Hawk who had the intelligence or cultivation, much less the personal distinction, of Antonia’s father.  Yet people saw no difference between her and the three Marys; they were all Bohemians, all ‘hired girls.’”
Willa Cather tells us that, because of the extensive manual labor they had performed on their parents’ farms, the “hired girls” were far healthier than the town girls and, therefore, more attractive.  They were also more natural in expressing their appreciation of simple pleasures, such as their enjoyment of dances and picnics.  This behavior led mothers in the town to consider them not only ignorant but immoral.  While Antonia was working in town for the family next door to Jimmy’s grandparents’ house, she reveled in the enjoyment of dancing at the local fire hall.  This led to considerable town criticism, which, in turn, led to her eventual dismissal.  Again, the importance of a person’s circumstance.  Because Jimmy had lived near these immigrant daughters, he knew them well enough not to fall into the trap of conventional prejudice.  If fact, he deliberately sought their company, shunning the attention of town girls his age.  This behavior led to townspeople being critical of him.  His liberal-minded grandmother tells him, eventually: “People say you are growing up to be a bad boy, and that ain’t just to us.”
Another nugget of information that the author provides is that the “hired girls” sent their town earnings back to their parents to help them keep and develop their farms.  Consequently, the foreign farmers “were the first to become prosperous.  After the fathers were out of debt, the daughters married the sons of neighbors – usually of like nationality, -- and the girls who once worked in Black Hawk kitchens are to-day managing big farms and fine families of their own; their children are better off than the children of the town women they used to serve.”
A third reason for my appreciation of this book is that the author presents well-defined secondary characters.  For instance, two very likable hired hands employed by Jimmy’s grandparents leave for the West when the family moves into town.  They are never heard from again.  The money-lender of the town, a despicable person, is married to a shrew of a wife whose face makes babies cry.  They stay together because they enjoy too much their nasty arguments.  Lena Lingard, one of Antonia’s “hired girls” friends, becomes a skilled dress-maker.  She starts a business in Lincoln, where Jimmy attends the University; they become warm-hearted friend.  Sometime after he graduates, she moves to San Francisco to become an even more successful business woman.
My Antonia is not the type of novel that modern readers are accustomed to reading.  Conflict does not leap out at you from nearly every page.  It has more the pace of actual life.  Minor problems come and go.  We get to glimpse the lives of a variety of people in addition to those of Jimmy and Antonia.  Our understanding of what advances or retards a person’s progress and self-satisfaction in life is reinforced.  My enjoyment of this book crept up on me.  I see why it is considered a well-regarded early American historical novel.