Set during the French and Indian wars, this historical fiction novel draws the reader into the events and hardships of the pioneer settlers in the valley region of Pennyslvania. The novel follows the story of several families and their various circumstances that propel them into war or captivity. Some escape and are able to rejoin their families, others are drawn into the militia and defending the settlers at the forts on the frontier.
“With the surrender of George Washington at Fort Necessity in 1754 and Braddock’s defeat in 1755, the settlers on the Pennsylvania frontier were without professional military protection, and scrambled to organize a defense… The local Indians, mostly Delaware and Shawnee who had migrated to the area after white colonists had settled their lands to the east, had waited to see who would win the contest—they could not risk siding with the loser. With Fort Duquesne now secured, the victorious French encouraged the Delaware and Shawnee to “take up the hatchet” against those who had taken their land.” (from Wikipedia)
Susanna Graves is one character in the book who is captured along with her young daughter, Rachel. She ingratiates herself with a sympathetic trader who helps her escape (disguised as a young boy), and make her way back home, forced to leave her young daughter in captivity. Silas Enyard is another white captive compelled to become a blood brother to a warrior in the Delaware tribe, but who finds himself torn between the kindness of his new captors and the memory of their bloodthirsty treatment of some of the members of his family (a dilemma that the author creatively examines within this character’s personal struggles).
“Silas asked himself how he could live in friendship with those who had murdered his father and his sister…. And yet he could not view them the way most settlers did – as savages – for he had found the Delawares intelligent, practical, and honest. They had great courage and stoicism, qualities he admired. They shared the gifts of the earth freely with each other: all land that they claimed was tribally owned and respected as such…to those who earned their respect they were kind; to those who had cheated and deceived them, extremely cruel.
He thought of his people, the settlers whose hunger for land and independence had brought them to the wilderness. He saw with clear vision that they would never be driven out. As more and more journeyed west, they would outnumber the Indians...”
The author opened my eyes to the plight of those who depended for their survival upon voting members of the governing Assembly, of whom many were pacifist Quakers. Because of their pacifism, the settlers were often were left to their own resources for funding and maintaining their military outposts. Eventually Fort Shirley has to be abandoned, and the settlers regroup at Fort Carlisle (this book did whet my appetite for more early-American history!)
Although the characters in the novel are believable and their choices and resulting consequences are plausible, this novel is so ambitious in its scope (covering the events of three years during the French and Indian wars from the viewpoint of more than one person), that it is difficult to fully engage with any particular character.
Although not graphic in detail, there are factual events that befall the captives depicted (running the gauntlet for example), and there is at least one promiscuous character, but her choices and resulting tragic consequences only serve to garner the reader’s empathy. (It is actually refreshing to see a character experience the results of their foolish decisions – and mature through those experiences). George Washington is a very minor character emerging near the final chapters of the book, and other true historical characters are also alluded to. There are scenes of war described and, for some living in such perilous times, there are no happy endings.
The novel depicts the Kittaning expedition and battle, as well as the attack on Fort Duquesne, and Lt. John Armstrong, a true historical character, also appears in the book (Armstrong later becomes known as the “Hero of Kittaning”).
“At a quarter to eleven in the morning a corporal posted as lookout stared at the woodland trail in disbelief. A long line of Frenchmen was trotting briskly through the woods, shafts of sunlight striking a rifle or a blunderbuss.
“Sound the alarm! The French is comin’!”
Bouquet’s drills were rewarded; there was no panic. Cannon were rolled into place opposite the gates. Men were sent to bring in the horses and cattle. Sharpshooters on the platform aimed the barrels of their muskets through the loopholes. A bucket brigade carried water from the creek and filled the wooden barrels placed at strategic spots within the compound. Kegs of gunpowder were being rolled into place when the first shots rang out.”