Archive for the ‘Betrayal at Cross Creek’ Category

Betrayal At Cross Creek

June 12, 2013

THE STORY BEHIND THE STORY

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When I was a kid, I read lots of novels set during the American Revolution.  Every one I recall portrayed Patriots as “good” and everyone else as “bad.”  As an American, I’m enormously proud of what our foremothers and forefathers did to establish our country.  But the truth is, many good people fought on both sides, trying to defend what they believed in.  And some wanted to stay out of the fighting all together, and simply keep their families and homes safe from the violence.

I was already thinking about writing a Revolutionary War novel when I was invited to write a third mystery for Pleasant Company’s “History Mystery” series.  I chose to write about the Scottish community in North Carolina for a couple of reasons.

I’d read a lot about these immigrants—many of whom had suffered terribly under English rule in Scotland.  To the best of my knowledge, there was not a book for young readers out there that explored the experience of Scottish immigrants struggling to create new homes and lives in the colony.  I have a wee bit of Scottish heritage myself.  And the Scottish community in North Carolina was politically divided during the Revolution, providing lots of conflict to explore.

Some Scots became Patriots. They had bad memories of British rule, and wanted to fight for American independence. Others decided to fight against the Patriots because they knew how harshly the British dealt with dissenters. How difficult it must have been, trying guess which side would prevail!

I began with a simple premise. My main character, Elspeth, would be a newly-arrived Scottish immigrant in North Carolina. Her family, which had struggled to survive conflicts in Scotland, would face new challenges. All they wanted was a peaceful new home where they could start again—but with the American Revolution underway, everyone was forced to pick sides. Before I could begin writing, I had lots more research to do.  So, off to North Carolina!

I started in Raleigh, the state capital.  First stop, the North Carolina Museum of History.  I had already spent a lot of time on their website, searching through their online exhibits and collections.  (Try it!  It’s lots of fun.)

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The North Carolina Museum of History was a great place to begin exploring.

I also visited the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences.  It’s no substitute for exploring outdoors!  But I knew that the landscape Elspeth would have known, the Longleaf Pine Forest, was almost gone.

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The museum gave me at least a sense of the plants and animals that greeted the Scottish immigrants.

Fortunately, there was still a place where I could see a remnant of the original Longleaf Pine Forest. Fort Bragg, a huge military base, is still home to some swatches of this rare ecosystem. Some kind people got me hooked up with the base’s Cultural Resources department, who arranged for me to visit.

The area was home to many early Scottish settlers, and I learned a lot from the people involved with archaeological work. I also got to visit Longstreet Presbyterian church, surrounded by longleaf pines. Walking here beneath the enormous pines, squinting at a couple of gravestones that had been inscribed in Gaelic…it was very, very special.

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The church building itself doesn’t date back to the colonial period, but the cemetery does.

There was lots more to see in North Carolina.  I visited the Moores Creek National Battlefield  on a quiet, sunny day when I seemed to be the only visitor.  That was a special visit, also.

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Here, the Highland Scots who’d chosen to fight with the British made a courageous charge.  “Shouting ‘King George and Broadswords!’ they advanced across a bridge, not knowing that nearly a thousand North Caroline patriots were hidden and waiting.  I wandered the field, reading the interpretive plaques, and trying to imagine how the Loyalist Scottish men fighting there must have felt.

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I also visited the Scottish Tartans Museum. At the time of the American Revolution, particular tartans were not yet associated with individual clans, as they are today.  Still, it was helpful to learn more about the types of clothes worn by early Scots—and how they were made.

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(By the way, I chose to make Elspeth a weaver in part because I learned to weave an on old loom while working at Old World Wisconsin.)

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That’s me, back in 1982.  I loved to weave!

So much time has passed since Elspeth’s time that little material culture remains. I’m grateful to a number of historians who were willing to help me imagine life during those turbulent times. And I’m grateful to my husband, Scott, who suggested that we travel to Scotland so I could learn more about Elsepth’s life before she came to the American colonies. I hope to one day write a prequel to Betrayal at Cross Creek, set on the Isle of Skye.

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That’s Scott at one of the open-air museums we visited in Scotland.

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Elspeth’s original home might have looked something like this.

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Blocks of peat waiting to be used as fuel.

Betrayal at Cross Creek is, I must admit, one of my favorites among the books I’ve written. I hope you enjoy it too!  The book is out of print, but a wonderful  audio version is available.

PS:   After publication the book garnered a lot of attention, for which I’m deeply grateful. One of the greatest honors I’ve ever had came when St. Andrews Presbyterian College presented me the Flora MacDonald Award. I had done some research at the Scottish History Center at the College, and it was an amazing experience to return for the awards banquet.

That's me at the banquet.

I’m in black, wearing the tartan sash of Clan Johnston, which was my maternal grandfather’s name.  To my right is the talented Flora MacDonald Gammon, who was honored for all she’s done to preserve and share traditional Scottish music.

American Girl and Me

May 17, 2012

I know lots of American Girl fans are eager to learn more about the new Historical Character coming this fall. Since I created the character, I am too! Her name was announced this week:

I had a marvelous time writing six books about Caroline. While I can’t tell you anything more about her yet, I can answer one of the most common questions I hear from readers:  “How did you get started writing for American Girl?”

Actually, I first connected with American Girl long before anyone at the company knew that I was a writer! When the first books and dolls were introduced in 1986, I was working as a curator at Old World Wisconsin, a large outdoor museum. During the day I got all kinds of hands-on experience with historical activities, from gardening to cooking to crafts. I also had the fun of conducting research to support new events and programs at the museum.

That’s me working at one of the Norwegian farms at Old World Wisconsin.

In the evenings, I wrote historical novels. During those early years I was practicing, learning the skills I needed to be a successful writer. And I had big dreams about that!

While American Girl was developing its first Historical Characters, I got a few telephone calls from researchers at the company. They called me because I was a curator, not knowing that I was very interested in writing historical stories. Sometimes the researcher was looking for a particular antique to use as a model for an object in one of the stories. In each case, I would check the antiques in Old World Wisconsin’s collection to see if we had something that might be helpful. If so, I’d take a photograph and send it to American Girl.

Some of old objects are on display at Old World Wisconsin.  Many more are kept in storage.

Once or twice someone from American Girl read me a short paragraph from one of the stories being developed. They wanted to see if the specific details about some process or activity were accurate. I could tell that everyone involved with American Girl cared a lot about getting the details right.

Whenever I got one of those calls, I was happy to help. And each time I hung up the phone I’d think, I’d love to write American Girl stories one day!

After working at Old World Wisconsin for twelve years, I moved on and took a job developing programs for public television. I was still writing in my spare time, and in 1996, my first historical novel was published.

Soon after that, editors at American Girl decided to develop a new line of books called History Mysteries. Someone who worked at the company knew of my interest in historical fiction, and she recommended me. The editor in charge of the History Mysteries called and asked if I’d like to try writing one. That call was a huge surprise.

Of course I said yes!

That was the first time I tried writing a mystery.  It took me a couple of attempts to get the story put together well, but in time American Girl accepted my manuscript.

This was my first book written for American Girl. The main character, Suzette, lives in northern Wisconsin

Later I wrote two more History Mysteries, Whistler in the Dark and Betrayal at Cross Creek.  After Betrayal at Cross Creek was published, the company ended the History Mystery series.

The editors knew how much readers were enjoying the historical mysteries, though. They decided to publish mysteries about the main Historical Characters. My editor invited me to write a mystery about Kit.

It was a real privilege to write a story about such a beloved character! I worked hard to develop a story that fit well with the first six Kit books. I traveled to Cincinnati to learn as much as I could about Kit’s time and setting.

Danger at the Zoo was the first book I wrote about one of American Girl’s Historical Characters.

In time I also wrote a second Kit mystery, as well as mysteries about Josefina, Kirsten, and Molly. (You can find stories and pictures about all these books on my website:  http://kathleenernst.com)

This is my most recent American Girl book. It was fun to write a story about Molly!

I was having a fine time writing these books.  Then, one day, I got another telephone call from American Girl.  Editors were ready to plan a new Historical Character.  Would I be interested in writing the books?

Of course I said yes!

Next month, I’ll share a bit about how that project developed.  Stay tuned….

Missing Home

February 8, 2012

Last week I posted about a farewell to Norway found written on a barn beam. The man loved his homeplace, and clearly mourned leaving it.

That reminded me of something penned by another immigrant. While researching Scottish settlers who arrived in North Carolina colony prior to and during the American Revolution, I found almost no written records. Certainly some early Scots prospered. My fictional family in Betrayal at Cross Creek, though, represented many poor farmfolk who spoke Gaelic, and for whom a diary or even pen and paper for letters would represent a luxury.

One of my favorite books (of those I've written).

The new environment those Scots found was a trial. People used to open heaths found land available in the deep pine forests near present-day Fayetteville. The dense canopy, the wolves and wildcats, and the isolation of the scattered farms were overwhelming.

One man, John McRae, expressed his emotional response to this new place in a poem written in Gaelic, Duanag Altrium:

We’ve turned into Indians right enough;
in the gloom of the forest none of us will be left alive,
with wolves and beast howling in every cranny.
We’re ruined since we left King George.

This depiction of the longleaf pine forest is actually a museum recreation.

I had a hard time finding this landscape. The deep forests of longleaf pine are all but gone, and urban development has long-since paved over those tiny farms. I finally got a glimpse of McRae’s world by visiting Fort Bragg. That sprawling military base has preserved not only remnants of the ecosystem, but a few early churches as well. Archaeological work is underway, helping historians understand more about the vanished communities.

One of the churches on Fort Bragg. The building doesn't date to the colonial era, but the congregation and some of the gravestones do. And these trees are longleaf pines.

 I’m enormously grateful that a tiny scrap of that natural and cultural landscape has been preserved. Nothing, though, speaks as poignantly of an early immigrant’s grief over their own lost sense of place as McRae’s words.

Leaving Home

February 1, 2012

I’m in Decorah, Iowa this week, doing research at Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum. Vesterheim features a spectacular collection of artifacts. I’ve blogged before about their alebowls, and about my experiences taking rosemaling classes.

With so many tangible objects to grab attention, it would be easy to overlook a black-and-white exhibit panel. Yet this one captures my attention each time I visit.

Poignant words.

I began learning about and thinking about the immigrant experience while working at Old World Wisconsin. Later I considered the topic more broadly while scripting Cultural Horizons for public television. Questions of cultural identity have played a role in many of my books (including Trouble at Fort La Pointe, Betrayal at Cross Creek, The Runaway FriendHighland Fling, and Old World Murder).  The theme obviously resonates with me.

Immigrant letters sent back to loved ones in Europe provide some insight into the experience of 18th- and 19th-century arrivals in their new homes. More rare—at least for me—are written records of how people felt as they prepared to say good-by. Paintings of tearful farewells convey well  just how wrenching those departures from loved ones were.

Halvor Langslet’s farewell, though, was about saying good-bye to a place. He evidently felt a need to actually write something down—and not on paper, but on a building. I imagine that felt a bit more permanent.

I watched some kids experience the museum recently—kids who are well wired, able to Skype with distant cousins and use their phones to do almost anything. And that’s OK…but I’m glad that museums like Vesterheim continue to collect and share such rare reminders of what our ancestors experienced.

Fairfield House, Ontario

February 14, 2010

Growing up in Maryland, I never gave much thought to people who were Loyalists during the American Revolution.  When I was in elementary school, I learned that Patriots were good/right, and Loyalists were bad/wrong.  Visits to Colonial Williamsburg provided lots of insights into the former.  So did the historical novels I remember reading—all the protagonists were Patriots.

Set near present-day Fayetteville, NC, in 1775-76.

Decades later, I wrote Betrayal at Cross Creek.  The young protagonist and her family, recently arrived Scottish immigrants, faced painful choices in colonial North Carolina.  Many of the Scottish immigrants had already fought against the British king, and lost; they suffered terribly because of that.  They reached North Carolina in the middle of the Revolutionary War, and were pressured by both sides.  There were no easy choices.  Some ultimately moved again, and ended up in Canada.

I just finished reading The Hungry Year, by Connie Brummel Crook.  Aimed at a middle-grade audience, it gives young readers a good glimpse of the hardships many Loyalists experienced after leaving the new United States.  The winter of 1787-1788 was particularly brutal for the new arrivals.  The book was one of many suggested by a librarian in Amherstview, near a delightful historic home in Ontario.

Fairfield House, c. 1793, Ontario

Fairfield House, a Loyalist Homestead, 1793

I almost stumbled over this gem during a trip to Ontario last summer.  Fairfield House is one of the few 18th-century Loyalist homes remaining in the province.  Abigail and William Fairfield arrived in 1784, among the first Loyalists to settle in the area after the American Revolution.    The home remained in the family for six generations, until it was donated to the Province in 1959.   Except for the porch and verandah, which were added later, the house looks as it did in 1793.  The house sits on the shore of Lake Ontario.

Abigail and William Fairfield had created a farm in Vermont in the 1760s.   After Patriots threatened his safety, William escaped to Canada in 1778, and served as a volunteer throughout the war.  Abigail stayed on the Vermont farm, alone with her seven children, for another year before fleeing to Canada.  For about four years, Abigail and the children lived in the refugee camp at Machiche, likely sharing a small cabin with another family.

When considering options for presenting any historic home to the public, curators often decide to pick a date of significance, and to look for furnishing to support that restoration period.

Front parlor, Fairfield House

Front parlor

The Fairfield Homestead Heritage Association, which oversees programming, museum services, and preservation, made a different decision.  The only things left inside are items that belonged to the original family.  The limited artifacts leave a lot of empty space, but that decision gives visitors a chance to see the bones of the house.  Instead of becoming a backdrop, the house tells its own story.  I had the chance to learn about period construction methods, and to touch the marks made by–as the guide said–Loyalist axes.

It’s not often I get to explore cellars and attics while touring historic homes.   The photo below shows the chimney as it passes through the attic.  Why is is slanting?  Evidently the family wanted the fireplace located in the back of the house, but still wanted to maintain the graceful external symmetry common in contemporary architecture.

Chimney, inside the attic

This photo shows a protected bit of the original design painted on the entryway floor in the 1800s.  The design was reproduced in the area where visitors walk.

Floor, entrance hall

The minimalist interpretation gave me lots of room to think and reflect.  After taking the tour, I wandered to the shore to sit and imagine the area in 1793.   I wondered if Abigail’s  relationship with William changed during those years when she was largely left on her own.  I wondered if she dreamed of such a large, fine home during those years when she shared a refugee cabin with her brood and another family.  I wondered if she was ultimately satisfied with the move, or if she always missed Vermont.

Lake Ontario

Lake Ontario

Perhaps she sometimes sat at this very spot, and thought about the same things.


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