Sunday, August 12, 2007

A Book Journey

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?


Jeanne (AKA The Duchesse) said...

Oh, Nancy, your memory of your librarian conjured up a host of faces in my own memory. :> We had the most marvelous children's librarians. Being the daughter of the Director, I also had delicious after hours access to the scrumptious cushy chairs and the quiet space under the eaves of the old library building where the children's section resided. Wonderful! Adventure shaped my reading, from the Silver Chief stories, Anne of Green Gables, Swiss Family Robinson, The Black Arrow, and Ivanhoe. I think I re-read Black Beauty, Lad of Sunnybank, the Tarzan books, the John Carter of Mars Books and Big Red at least a hundred times. Notice a theme here? Animals, adventure...there was a lot of sorcery and sword play too. Anytime anything new in that sort of genre came in the childrens librarian would tell my Dad, and he'd bring it home. It was idyllic, for a reader. Then there was Phyllis A. Whitney. Oh, boy. That was wonderful! I still remember most of the plot of Secret of Emerald Star. But I've also re-read Anne of Green Gables as an adult and still love it just as much. Like you, Nancy, I found a lovingly preserved copy of Anne of the Island in an old bookstore and snapped it up. I've also got a wonderful copy of Yankee Stranger on my bookself. Time for a re-read, I think! Grins. Thanks for the memories!

Aunty Cindy said...

Hi Nancy!
Thanx for some great recommendations. I LOVE Tony Hillerman and will definitely look for his autobiography. My favortie biography of an author (besides On Writing) is Humphrey Carpenter's book Tolkien: A Biography. Really gave me an insight into why Tolkien included some of the things he did in his stories.

Cassondra said...

Oh, Nancy, what a cool vacation. I LOVE history. One of the things I've never been able to spend a lot of time on is the study of history and/or my family geneology. Seems to always fall by the wayside. But these historic places and the events that happened there--talk about fodder for your own writing!

And how cool that you found the missing book. I don't know if I could have passed up that one. Especially because of the memories attached to the series.

Suzanne Welsh said...

Nancy, doing an American history vacation is one of my dream things to do. Luckily, my dh tends to let me wander through historical places when I find them. The man spent nearly half a day at the Alamo, which most people can see in one hour!

My favorite biography was Helen Keller and also Teacher the story of Anne Sullivan. I read those over and over. Then of course Anne of Green Gables. I also read Wyatt Earp's biography in elementary school, and fell in love. Tombstone is one of my favorite movies!

Nikki Leigh - Author said...

I really enjoyed your post. You might enjoy taking a look at my latest book. Its set at the Cape Hatteras lighthouse in 1954 and is a cozy mystery. The title is Lilah and the Locket and there is plenty of information about the book at I've gotten great feedback about the story and the atmosphere :) Hope you can return to the beach soon.

Nikki Leigh

Gerri Russell said...

Hi Nancy,

Thank you so much for sharing your vacation highlights!! You and I like the same kind of vacations...the ones where you get to explore the area and learn something about the people who lived there.

Enjoy your new book. :-)


Keira Soleore said...

Nancy, I have never done a literary vacation like yours, and you make me want to do one now with your glorious exploration of history and books.

My only claim to literary fame is that I sat on the Will's favorite bench in Anne Hathaway's cottage in Stratford. I'd love to do a Pride & Prejudice one or a complete Jane Austen one.

Caren Crane said...

Nancy, so glad you survived the heat! When you spoke of the A/C in the governor's mansion at Williamsburg I remembered our last (very balmy) trip there - and it was only June!

My husband adores history and the kids and I enjoy it very much (though not with quite his level of freakish compulsiveness), so we end up taking many "historical" vacations. We have little interest in destinations without landmarks. *g*

Your mention of family sagas reminded me of one recommended by the librarian at my junior high school. The school library had most of the set, and I know they only had it because of her! It was the "Jalna" series by Mazo de la Roche, chronicling the Whiteoak family.

Interestingly, these books were set in Canada. As a 12-13 year-old, I'm not sure I ever realized that. Again, it was heavy on the romance! There were 16 books, which made it very satisfying for me as a reader. I don't think I ever got to read "Variable Winds at Jalna" or "Centenary at Jalna". Between the school and public libraries I read all the others.

I'm not sure how they would bear up now. They were written from 1927 - 1957 (not in order, historically) and writing styles have changed a LOT. It was also hard to figure out how to read them, since they cover the family history from 1854 - 1964, but weren't written or published in order. The internet helps! *g*

Thank you for helping me remember this series, Nancy. It makes me want to hunt up a copy of "Jalna".

Caren Crane said...

Keira, one of my sisters and I are longing to go on a Bronte sisters trip. I think a Jane Austen trip would be exciting, as well. Of course, any trip to Britain would be marvelous!

Nancy said...


What a coincidence! My grandmother also had the several of the Jalna series. I never fell in love with them, so I gave those books to a friend who is absolutely rabid for them. Somewhere, there is a biography (or maybe an autobiography, I forget which) of Mazo de la Roche. I found it at a library sale and mailed it to the same friend.

I probably approach your husband's freakish level of interest in history, but it works out because my husband is that way about children's book authors. He teaches children's lit, so that makes a certain degree of sense. Our son just has to cope *g*,

Trish Milburn said...

Been very busy, so I'm just now getting to read this post. I LOVE Colonial Williamsburg, history vacations, the Outer Banks and Manteo -- wow, so many things in common. My great love as a kid was the Little House on the Prairie books, and when I got a bit older, I enjoyed Dana Fuller Ross's Wagons West series.