Most Americans don’t like to contemplate their own history, not even in fiction. Tudor or Plantagenet tales are usually the best-sellers. American historical fiction tends to be about the Revolutionary or Civil War, or more recent times readers can easily relate to.
What about 17th century New England, when the first colonies were carved from raw wilderness? The region’s history is ripe with conflict and compromise between Puritan and non-Puritan colonies, a pair of Indian genocides, and the tragic heroism of Quakers using civil disobedience to combat Puritan intolerance. Fertile plotlines begging to be developed, right?
The classic novels, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter and Anya Seton’s The Winthrop Woman stem from those years, but apart from witchcraft stories, there aren’t many like them (until recently). What’s a reader hungry for fiction about early America to do?
I decided to write my own. In 2011, I published Rebel Puritan, outlining the struggle between conservative Puritans and Anne Hutchinson’s liberal outcasts who settled in Rhode Island, as witnessed by my most notorious ancestor, Herodias Long. Poor Herodias had her own struggle, discovering that it is far easier to marry an abusive man in a patriarchal society than it is to be separated from him.
I continued with The Reputed Wife in 2013, delving into Puritan colonies’ horrific anti-Quaker laws, and the determined Quakers who challenged them. Herodias was one of dozens whipped and jailed for speaking out against the brutal sentences, but her friend Mary Dyer was one of four Quakers hanged for defying orders of banishment. The executions and brutal whippings, especially of women, caught the eye of King Charles II, who ordered the hangings to cease. More importantly, Charles upheld Rhode Island’s freedom of religion, which is now enshrined in the United States Constitution.
In 2017 I completed Herodias’ saga in The Golden Shore, in which Rhode Island unites its own restless factions, while Herodias must decide how much independence she is willing to sacrifice for love. I am now working on Rebel Seed, exploring Joshua Tefft’s execution for treason during King Philip’s War, the last-ditch effort of New England’s Indian tribes to regain land they had lost to English settlers’ encroachment.
Best of all, since Rebel Puritan came out, other authors have used fiction to explore the Quaker-Puritan conflict! Christy K. Robinson’s sensitive and penetrating treatment of Mary Dyer’s life and martyrdom in Mary Dyer Illuminated and For Such a Time as This are must-reads in colonial fiction.
|The Whip and Cart Act|
In 2017, Olga Morrill’s riveting Vagabond Quakers took up shortly after my Reputed Wife and Christy Robinson’s Mary Dyer series ended at the gallows. Hanging Quakers was forbidden, so New England’s Puritans revive an old English barbarity in its place – the Whip and Cart Act.
The law calls for Quakers who refuse to stay out of Massachusetts to be tied to the tail of a cart, stripped to the waist, and whipped out of the colony – given 10 lashes in three towns as they walk, or are dragged, to the wilderness beyond Massachusetts’ border.
In 1662 Mary Tomkins and Alice Ambrose, English Quaker missionaries, arrive in Dover (Massachusetts’ northernmost town). They are banished, and yet they return. In court, they meet an ambitious, steel-willed magistrate, Richard Walderne, who is determined to make an example of them. Along with the fragile Anne Coleman, the three missionaries are sentenced to be lashed not just in three towns, but in every town between Dover and Dedham – 11 towns spread over 80 miles. If the women can survive 110 stripes from a three-lashed whip, being dragged through December snows when they can no longer walk will surely prove fatal.
A sympathetic official discharges them after ‘only’ two whippings, but Mary and Alice return to Dover as soon as they can travel. Now, Walderne and his cronies are bent on ensuring that this defiance will be their last act.
I just love this story! Ms. Morrill has long experience as a storyteller and columnist, her smooth prose paints a vivid picture with the best of ‘em, and her research is impeccable.
Readers need to pay heed to the chapter headings, for Vagabond Quakers traces both Richard Walderne’s, and Mary and Alice’s lives. Her scenes switch in time as much as 25 years, but lead inexorably to the fateful meeting of these strong-willed foes.
Vagabond Quakers ends with its characters in in flux, but this is the first volume in The Vagabond Trilogy. Ms. Morrill is taking a long view, and her next work will shift the scene to Rhode Island, where my own works take place. I look very much forward to what comes next.