Revolutionary fiction, revisited

Storming of Redoubt No.10

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

Surrender of Lord Cornwallis. John Trumbull.

 

The prelude to this post: Revolutionary fiction

Revolutionary fiction

Cornwallis' Cave

Cornwallis’ Cave, Yorktown, VA

The class had been studying the American Revolution.

Their teacher wanted them to have a sense of being there. What better way than writing historical fiction?

—Would I come model for them, help them get started?

—Are you KIDDING?

Let the revolutionary zeitgeist begin!

I set the fourth-graders to researching daily life, clothing, furniture, chores during colonial times. The story cannot come to life without some period details.

Then we worked on understanding that big ideas of the historical event don’t change, although we can make up some characters who live through it.

—A hand, waving in the air: “Like the Titanic sinking was a real historical event. The captain and crew were real people. Jack and Rose in the movie were not.”

—Other child, aghast: “They weren’t real? I thought they were!”

—Me: “Um, no, they’re fictional. Made-up characters.”

Ahem. 

Back to the Revolution.

We move on to plot . . . who’s this story about, what does this character want to accomplish, and what’s getting in the way or putting the character in danger?

Then setting . . .

I did my own background research and decided to let the class choose which of two stories for me to write as a model.

“Okay, I’ve given this some thought, ” I tell them as they gather on the carpet at my feet. “A town right here in North Carolina was one of the first in the colonies to oppose the Stamp Act.  The British burned the town and it was never rebuilt. What if my main character was a child who had to leave quickly with the family? What if they saw their home destroyed?”

“Ooooo,” murmur the children, wide-eyed. A couple of them nod their heads. “That’s a good story. It’s sad. It could have happened.”

“Yes, and as a writer that’s part of your job, to make the readers feel like they are there, experiencing everything the characters do. This story probably will be sad. And frightening. Or, here’s your other choice. I actually grew up near Yorktown, Virginia, where Lord Cornwallis surrendered to George Washington, ending the war. I visited Cornwallis’ cave countless times. Legend says Cornwallis hid from Washington’s troops in the cave but that’s not likely. What is true is that the cave was used to store potatoes! So, what if I have a character, a colonial child, who, for some reason, has to go into that cave for the potatoes when Lord Cornwallis comes to have a quick, private conversation with his next-in-command? What if the child hides, hears Cornwallis’ escape plan, waits until Cornwallis leaves, and somehow gets the message to General Washington—which is how the British get captured, and which forces the surrender?”

“Yes! Yes!” All the kids are nodding, bouncing on the floor. “The cave story! Write the cave story! The boy will be a the hero of the Revolution!”

—”Why can’t it be a girl?” asks a girl.

All faces turn her way.

In silence.

Well, women helped in the war effort . . . some were even spies . . . why CAN’T it be a girl?

“What if,” I say slowly, my gray matter spinning hard, “what if a boy was sent for those potatoes . . . by someone, we can figure that out later . . . and he just can’t do it, he’s too frightened? Or sick—or injured? What if he has a friend, a girl, who has to help him by doing it in his place, who hides in the cave, overhears Cornwallis’ secret escape plan, and she gets the message to George Washington?”

Heads are tilted, fingers cupping chins, eyes shining. They all look like future history professors.

Except for the girl who made the suggestion. She glows like Victory herself.

—Revolutionary, indeed.

*******

A couple of other scenarios the class discussed for their own writing:

What if colonists were hunting in the forest and found a wounded British soldier? What would they do?

What if British soldiers were marching through a field or by the shore when they find an colonial baby, all alone? What would they do?

—”Wait a second,” interrupts a boy. “How would they KNOW this is a colonist’s baby?”

“That is a great question,” I smile. “You are the writer. That is for you to figure out.”