Yorktown, Virginia: Storming of Redoubt No. 10. Eugène Lami.
I can taste the brine of the river, mingled with gunpowder and wood smoke from the Redcoat campfires . . . I know this shoreline, could walk it in my sleep, but it’s so changed, now, with the batteries, the cannons, the trenches. I can’t carry a lantern for fear of Redcoats seeing me. All I have in my hands is the sack for filling with potatoes. I slide along the ground in the dark, nearing the bank where the cave is set in the earth just below . . .
The students are gathered on the carpet near my feet, looking at my writing on the screen of an interactive whiteboard, their own papers lying in front of them. They’re considering revisions to the opening scene I wrote while they watched.
To be honest, I am having to review a lot about the last days of the Revolutionary War in order to write this little bit of fiction. I’m tasked with helping the kids write their own story set during the Revolution, as a means of making the history “come alive” for them. As I re-read my writing aloud to the class, I’m already not happy with the reason my main character, Hannah, is going for the evacuated townspeople’s potatoes stored in the cave. Her family is in hiding during the British occupation of Yorktown, they’re nursing three wounded Patriot soldiers, they’re running out of food.
Maybe I should add that Hannah’s mother needs the potatoes to make a poultice for one of those wounded solders. Yeah, that would be even better . . . .
I explain that the next scene I want to write is Hannah getting in the cave, hearing someone come, hiding in the potatoes, overhearing Cornwallis telling his next-in-command that they will escape George Washington’s troops via the river. She will have to figure out how to get word to the Continental Army. Or to the French Army . . .
A boy raises his hand: “I have an idea for your story.”
“Great!” I say. “Let’s hear it!”
“You could have Hannah get back to her family and her friends in hiding and the older boys could disguise themselves as British soldiers to get through their lines.”
“That’s an awesome suggestion, ” I say. “I just might use it! Here’s the thing, everyone: for everything your characters decide to do, there must be a clear, believable reason. It has to make sense in context of the story.”
It is now time to hear their ideas, as they begin to write their own stories.
A few are willing to share with the whole group:
A girl’s brother is supposed to join the Continental Army but he’s afraid and runs away; she decides to dress as a boy and takes his place in battle.
As a Patriot family leaves town, outrunning the British Army, they find a British baby separated from its mother. The mother comes looking for it —”So,” I say, as yet a little unclear on how such a baby (maybe from a Loyalist family?) should be there, lost—”you know they’re on opposite sides, right? Would either take time to politely give a baby back to the enemy?”
—Emphatic nodding of heads; it’s the baby’s mother . . . .
I am picking up on a couple of developing patterns here. One: These fourth-graders are writing from the perspective of main characters who are children. Heroic, rather resourceful children. Well, that’s what I am modeling for them. And, perhaps more importantly: The adults in these stories seem to make remarkably empathetic, kind choices.
Despite a revolution, a war.
—Maybe those were more civilized times? When warfare was conducted with etiquette?
Then a girl says that her main characters are a brother and sister whose dad is off fighting under Washington and whose mom is thrown in prison on suspicion of witchcraft. Then the British Army burns their town; the children have to figure out how to stay on the run and survive . . . .
—Never mind about ‘more civilized times.’
As she speaks, I can’t help mulling the true atrocities of war. How Cornwallis’ desperate plan to escape with his troops by river included leaving their injured behind. How deserters told the allied French and American armies that, to preserve food, the British army slaughtered their horses and threw the bodies on the beach.
I shudder at the inhumanity of man, then my mind suddenly reels from the image of dead horses lying on that colonial shoreline to one of greater horror, schoolchildren in America today, lying slain . . . less than 250 years later, THIS is what we’ve become?
“Stop!” I say.
The class freezes. The little writers look at me, quizzically.
“Sorry.” I wonder if they notice the tremor in my voice. “We’re writing fiction, of course, but I just need to know one thing: Are the children are going to be all right?”
—Or what’s a country for?
Surrender of Lord Cornwallis. John Trumbull.
The prelude to this post: Revolutionary fiction