Tuesday, July 19, 2011

controversial topics #1: Iroquois slaughter ordered by George Washington, 1779

George Washington was one of my childhood heroes. As kids, we loved hearing how he chopped down his father's prized cherry tree when he was six-years-old. Whether fact or myth, the story set a good example about telling the truth. Personally, I was relieved he didn't get spanked because maybe my parents would follow his parents' example.
Dear America: Cannons at DawnSo as a grown up I was thrilled to write about the Father of Our County for Scholastic's Dear America series, first with The Winter of Red Snow then its sequel, Cannons At Dawn.

Research is one of my most favorite things in the world, but sometimes I hate what I discover. Details about war, for instance, and ugly truths about heroes.

Confession: When I learned how cruelly General Washington treated the Iroquois, there was a flicker in my brain that said, 'ooh, my characters don't need to mention this.' It was 1779. The Indians were aiding our enemies, the British, but Washington said that before there would be any peace talks with the tribes, he was going to teach them a lesson: He ordered his Generals Sullivan and Clinton, to destroy the Iroquois settlements in western New York. The campaign was a victory for the American army, but devastating for our Native Americans.

In Cannons At Dawn Abigail writes in her diary:  "Thousands of our soldiers burned the grain and vegetable crops, the cornfields, and fruit orchards. They set torches to the longhouses. Forty villages went up in flames. Now there will be no fall harvest and nothing for the Indians to plant in the spring. Many warriors died defending their homes, many were captured, then marched to a prison camp."
          Abby and her mother are further distressed knowing winter is coming and these Indian families will have nowhere to live. In fact, many who fled north to Fort Niagara starved and froze to death. Abby says, "When I imagine their suffering, my heart hurts."

My flicker of denial passed and I got mad. Why hadn't I learned this as a kid? Was this blight of history ignored in the California schools because the Revolution was "back East"?  Whatever the answer, I decided my characters should report all sides. It's a chance for today's children to glimpse a tragic but important truth:

War is hell. Heroes can disappoint. 

Sunday, July 3, 2011

July 4th 1866, firecrackers & My Darlin' Clementine

My Darlin' ClementineNuLine AVL/CS-20 44 Lbs. Cast Steel Nuline AnvilSeveral years ago in a small Colorado town, we were awakened at dawn by the thunderous boom of a cannon. Turns out it was July 4th and one of the traditions in this burg was to blast everyone out of bed before sunup to begin celebrating, like it or not.

I was reminded of this when researching My Darlin' Clementinefor Holiday House. The story is set in an Idaho mining camp, in 1866, where there was constant clamor from the stamp mills, from brawling, gambling, gunshots and rough language. And on July 4th there was extra special noise: Black powder explosions started at dawn along with Chinese firecrackers, which continued throughout the day. The afternoon entertainment really grabbed my attention: anvil firing. What the heck was that? Might as well weave it into the novel!
So Clementine described how two blacksmiths each carried a heavy iron anvil in their arms, from their livery stable down Main Street [PHOTO, above].   "When they reached the meadow, one of the smithies set his out in the open. Dog Face Sam was waiting there with a sack of black powder, which he poured onto the anvil's flat surface. Next he laid out a long white fuse that dropped to the grass. The second smithy brought over his anvil and set it upside down on the first one, so the two flat sides were together.
       A sandwich is what came to mind, a dynamite sandwich.
       Before you could count to ten, Dog Face Sam had struck a match against a stone, lit the fuse, and was yelling, 'Run for your lives!'"
       I was on the schoolhouse step watching the spectacle of folks running into the woods as fast as they could, men holding onto their hats and ladies shrieking, children scattering every which way. 
      A boom shook the ground like cannon fire. Black smoke rose up with the explosive clank of iron upon iron. No one got killed that I could tell, but a small boy knocked himself out from running into a tree."

Now that's a party! Happy Independence Day everyone ... I hope you're safe and not awakened by cannons!