We’re just back from our family vacation, which we spent exploring parts of American history. Our trip also tied into three series of books I’ve loved for years. We started out in the Williamsburg area, where my cousin generously took a day to show us the Jamestown historic site and colonial Williamsburg.
At the entrance to historic Jamestown (as distinguished from the nearby Jamestown Settlement, which the state of Virginia built for the 400th anniversary of the landing) stands a bronze statute of Pocahontas. A greenish, weathered patina covers it--except for her hands, which are a bright golden from constant touching by visitors. Historians may argue about the level of exaggeration in her traditional story, but I think she can fairly claim to have been the first strong woman in the recorded history of North America. Whether or not she laid her head on the block to save John Smith, she did marry John Rolfe and go to England with him as an ambassador for her people.
From Jamestown, we headed to Williamsburg. The sun had come out, and the temperature had begun its climb to the high 90s, with a heat index of over 100 degrees. The air conditioning in the governor’s palace was a lifesaver! Despite the heat, we wandered the length of the restored area, explored the maze behind the palace, and poked our noses into various re-enactment shops.
In 1943 writer Elswyth Thane (a/k/a Mrs. William Beebe in the library card catalogue because heaven forfend a married woman should use her own first name at the time) launched a wonderful series of romantic historical novels about a Williamsburg family. The first was Dawn’s Early Light, set during the American Revolution. The series followed the family up to World War II. Family sagas (with a few exceptions like the O’Malleys) seem to have fallen out of favor, but I have a soft spot for the genre. I found Elswyth Thane because of Mrs. Wally, the wonderful librarian in my hometown. As a book geek, I spent a lot of time in the library, and every time I came in, she had something new to suggest. I dutifully checked out her suggestions, plopped them into my bicycle basket and pedaled home with them, and I was never sorry. She was a wonderful influence on my reading.
The battle of Yorktown figures in Dawn’s Early Light and in The South Fork Rangers, the concluding volume of Manly Wade Wellman’s YA historical series about the American Revolution, which I also discovered because Mrs. Wally handed it to me. We started our next day at Yorktown, where George Washington’s campaign tent stands in a dim, protected display at the National Park Service museum. His tents ended up in the Custis family, at Arlington (now known as the Custis-Lee Mansion). They were preserved during the Civil War by a Lee family slave, Selina Gray, who told the Union general occupying the property about them. He took them for safekeeping, and they were later returned to the family.
After the museum, we headed to the battlefield. The heat index was climbing toward 110, so we quickly decided that looking at grass and cannons on the tour could wait for another, cooler, opportunity.
We ended our day by driving south to the North Carolina Outer Banks, passing through the Monitor-Merrimac tunnel at Hampton Roads, where the legendary ironclads fought during the Civil War. (The second book in Elswyth Thane’s series, Yankee Stranger, is set during that conflict.)
The continuing heat wave dissuaded us from doing some of the things we enjoy, like playing putt-putt or visiting the Wright Brothers memorial at Kitty Hawk or the Fort Raleigh Historic Site and museum in Manteo. In search of indoor things to do, we visited the Manteo Booksellers, a small (and wonderfully air-conditioned) bookstore near the waterfront in downtown Manteo. On their local interest shelf, I spotted the third of the series I mentioned, historical novels (again, heavily romantic) set during various periods of North Carolina history by author Inglis Fletcher.
Fletcher lived not far from the Outer Banks, in the town of Edenton, which we’d explored on a previous trip. The ladies there hosted their own “tea party,” vowing not to drink tea, in the leadup to the Revolution, and quite a few houses from the period still stand. The first book in the series, Raleigh’s Eden, includes the Lost Colony, and the last, Queen’s Gift, is set against the ratification of the Constitution. My grandmother originally owned them, my mother inherited them, and I read them as a teenager. They eventually became mine. I have all but one, Cormorant’s Brood, and there it stood, complete with battered but mostly intact dust jacket, on the shelf in Manteo. As I reached for it, I noticed another volume bearing Fletcher’s name, one with an unfamiliar title. I picked it up and found, to my great surprise and delight, that it was her autobiography. Neither book was exactly cheap, and I had to choose, so I picked the autobiography. I plan to dive into it this week. I read a lot of author autobiographies. I like to know what shaped them and how they think. Stephen King’s On Writing is, of course, justly famous, but I especially liked Tony Hillerman’s Seldom Disappointed.
I enjoyed the beach and the visit with my cousin’s family and the historic sites we visited, but finding Fletcher’s autobiography was the highlight of my week. Fletcher and Thane and Wellman all created sympathetic, engaging characters and gave them big stories set against dynamic periods in our history. Some of Thane’s stories occur in Europe, but Williamsburg is always the touchstone. These series are out of print now but sometimes turn up in libraries or with used book dealers on the internet, though they can be a bit pricey. I haven’t read these books in a long time, except for the Wellman series, which my husband tracked down and bought for me and we shared with our son, who also loved them. I won’t give them away, though, because I know I’ll want to read them again. I now also feel a certain yen to acquire Cormorant’s Brood and complete my Fletcher set.
So what books or series or periods do you love, and why? Who was a major influence on your reading life?