History Is Not What You Thought, Part II

Our conceptions of history depart from the facts. 

Consider Daniel, a young slave in my soon-to-be-published novel Price of Passage.

Daniel felt like a motherless child. His heart thumping, he crouched in the weeds between two of Mister Davis’s warehouses, not far from Mister Davis’s wharf. . . .
The steamboat idled a few yards away. 
Torchlight from the wharf made his task more difficult, yet not impossible. . . .
Daniel darted across the open ground. He slipped into the water. His toes sank in warm mud. He waded chest-deep in brown water to the boat. With strong shoulders, he pulled his slim body over the low rail. . . . The deck gang shouted as they drew in the gangplank. The side wheels churned, and the boat backed away from Hurricane Landing. . . . 
Light from the landing faded away when the boat turned upriver. 
Daniel had been born on Hurricane Plantation, had never left its boundaries. Now he would see the rest of the world. As the wooded shore slid by, lit by stars and a sliver of April’s waning moon, he reckoned he had never traveled so fast. Oh, Mammy, look at me now.

Daniel is a fictional character, but Hurricane Plantation was a real historical place. It was owned by Joseph Emory Davis, whose younger brother Jefferson would lead the Confederacy.

Joseph Davis’s library and a few of his slaves at Hurricane Plantation. Public Domain.

Social Experiment

Joseph Emory Davis. Public Domain.

Joseph Davis worked for years as a lawyer and invested his earnings in Mississippi Delta cotton land, and slaves to work it. He became one of the wealtiest planters in the state and owned more than three hundred African Americans. 

Under the sway of utopian reformer Robert Owen, Davis sought to establish a harmonious, and therefore profitable, community based on the master-slave relationship. He provided better-than-usual quarters, clothes, and bedding, more varied and plentiful food. Going beyond physical measures, he established limited self-government, setting up a slave court “where no slave was punished except on conviction by a jury of his peers.” Davis also encouraged his slaves to gain skills in areas that interested them. He allowed them to keep money they earned beyond the value of their labor as field hands. And they could sell their own poultry, eggs, and firewood for in the local economy.

Davis believed Owens’s dictum: “There is but one mode by which man can possess all the happiness his nature is capable of enjoying—that is by the union and co-operation of all for the benefit of each.”

It never occurred to him that the very foundation of slavery—one person owning another—might be incompatible with an ideal society.

A Remarkable Slave

Benjamin Montgomery. Public Domain.

One slave stood out among all others at Hurricane. Benjamin Thornton Montgomery tried to escape but came to terms with Davis when he was made manager of the plantation store. His ability and enterprise led Davis to place him in charge of all purchasing and shipping operations. 

Montgomery learned to read and write. He mastered land surveying, flood control, architectural design, machine repair, and steamboat navigation. He made himself a skilled mechanic and inventor and applied for a patent on a new steam-operated propeller for shallow-draft boats.

When the Civil War came and the master of Hurricane Plantation fled the advancing Union troops, it was Montgomery who kept the place going. Resourcefully, he found ways to keep his fellow slaves employed and fed. After the war, he bought the plantation from Davis on a land contract and continued to provide an economic base for the Black community. But in 1876, catastrophic floods made him default on payments, and the land reverted to the Davis family. 

Montgomery died the following year. His son, Isaiah, struggled to keep his dream alive, leading a group of former slaves to establish the town of Mound Bayou, Mississippi, in 1887 as a majority African-American community.

Another Option

Most Black slaves in the South worked and lived under far less favorable conditions. But they did not simply wait for the U.S. government to emancipate them. There was another option. 

Colonies of self-liberated Blacks laid low in swamps and upland forests, sometimes under the noses of their former masters. Dubbed “slavery’s exiles” by historian Sylviane A. Diouf, these reclusive plantation refugees are known to history as maroons.

Fugitive slaves fleeing through a swamp, from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper. Public Domain.

Unlike the better-documented maroons of the Caribbean basin, the ones who lived in ethe United States are poorly represented in historical accounts. Their colonies, hidden away in every slave state, were small compared to those ofd Brazil, Surinam, Hispaniola, or Cuba. Official records usually called them truants, runaways, or banditti.

But they were more than that. They were organized communities of sub rosa freedom.

Marronage was a hard life that involved hunger, cold, danger, and much privation. Many maroons were caught by professional slave hunters and driven back to the plantations. Many others perished in the woods. But there were those like Thompson West of Plaquemine, Louisiana, who held out until the Yankees arrived and then walked out of the woods, saying, “I’m a free man!”

National Service

What about those African Americans who were already free? At the start of the Civil War, almost half a million free Blacks lived in the United States, South and North. Their numbers were continuously augmented as enslaved people fled their masters and established lives of freedom in northern cities and rural areas. 

Frederick Douglass in 1856. Public Domain.

These people had a powerful interest in seeing their enslaved brothers and sisters liberated. They almost unanimously sided with the Union in the war. Many of them wanted to serve militarily.

Abolitionist Frederick Douglass, a self-liberated slave, declared, “Once let the black man get upon his person the brass letters U.S., let him get an eagle on his button, and a musket on his shoulder, and bullets in his pocket, and there is no power on the earth or under the earth that can deny that he has earned the right to citizenship.”

Douglass made this famous remark in April 1863, in the midst of a struggle to get Black Americans admitted to service in the U.S. Army. Everyone who has seen the film Glory knows that, despite African Americans’ willingness to serve, enlistment was denied them until about the mid-point of the war. The rationale was that “colored men won’t fight” or “they won’t make good soldiers.” It took the actual experience of several ground-breaking regiments such as the 54th Massachusetts to begin to dispel these myths.

A fact less well-known is that sailors of color were admitted to the U.S. Navy from the start. More than ten percent of the Continental Navy in the American Revolution was Black. Even more sewrved in state navies and on privateers. In the War of 1812, Blacks represented one-sixth of U.S. naval personnel. In the Civil War, Navy Secretary Gideon Welles authorized recruitment of escaped or liberated slaves in the Atlantic Blockading Squadron from September 1861. These new sailors supplemented many other African Americans already in the Navy. Blacks served on seven hundred Navy ships. Eight won the Medal of Honor for their service. These sailors of color were limited to low-level positions and served under conditions of inequality with white sailors. But serve they did, in large numbers. 

Black sailors on USS Galena, a Civil War ironclad. Public Domain.

Astounded Yet?

A utopian plantation. An enterprising inventor/engineer slave. Self-governing communities of runaway slaves in the wilderness. Naval vessels with free Blacks and newly-liberated slaves in their crews. 

None of these things are really surprising, if we remember that history is composed of millions of individuals with their own unique situations. They only seem surprising in the face of oversimplified assumptions gathered from popular sources.

I call these instances to your attention, Dear Reader, for selfish purposes. I want you to buy my book, Price of PassageA Tale of Immigration and Liberation, when it comes out August 23. It is filled with little things like this. Things that may be unexpected but are nonetheless true. 

I began writing this novel in the conviction that fiction can be a good way to tell the truth.

So remember:

HISTORY IS NOT WHAT YOU THOUGHT.

Next Week—Some Uppity Women.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

Author of Price of Passage—A Tale of Immigration and Liberation, coming August 23. No fooling.

Price of Passage

What does it take to make a story?

Timothy Eberle on Unsplash.
In 1856, on the Illinois prairie, Norwegian farmers ANDERS and MARIA encounter DANIEL, a young fugitive slave. Will they do their legal duty by turning him in? Or will they break the laws of their new country and put their lives at risk to aid Daniel in his bid for freedom?

Peasant Farmers, by Julien Joseph. Public Domain.

That’s not really a story. It’s more like a situation, a setup. But it’s a start.

In historical fiction, an author wants to pay attention to the underlying morality of the situation. But you have to build on that. The story of Anders, Maria, and Daniel, as mentioned above, is incomplete without some sense of where Anders and Maria have come from, to be newly-arrived Scandinavian immigrants in central Illinois. 

The Captive Slave, by John Philip Simpson. Public Domain.

One also ought to sketch Daniel more fully. What kind of slave life is he trying to escape from? What are his chances? What will he do with his new freedom, if he makes his escape good? 

There are more questions than answers.

John Brown.

It’s notable that Anders, Maria, and Daniel all arrived at the same place in 1856—just when the nation’s quarrel over slavery was starting to come to a head. John Brown was murdering pro-slavery men in Kansas about this time. The Dred Scott decision, which gave iron force to the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law, would come along in early 1857. Lincoln and Douglas would contest for the Illinois Senate seat in a series of debates in 1858. Brown would show up again, this time raiding the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, in 1859. The pot was coming to a boil.

How would these events affect Anders? Maria? Daniel? 

It’s all there in Price of Passage—A Tale of Immmigration and Liberation, coming August 23 from DX Varos Publishing. 

Sign up for my free newsletter, The Haphazard Times, above right, to be kept fully informed.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

Author of Price of Passage—A Tale of Immigration and Liberation, coming August 23. No fooling.

Perils of Progeny

I am pregnant. With a book. 

Price of Passage—A Tale of Immigration and Liberation is due August 23. It is expected to weigh eleven ounces and be seven and fifteen-sixteenths inches long. 

Congratulations are in order. But pity me carrying it through the hot months!

#

Photo by Scott Graham on Unsplash.

It’s a funny thing, Dear Reader: One stroke of a pen and you go from writer to bookseller.

One hundred percent. Instantly. 

On February 17, I signed a contract with DX Varos Publishing for the publication of my historical novel The Maelstrom.Things started happening. 

  • The publisher and I agreed to change the title from The Maelstrom to Price of Passage.
  • We added a subtitle: A Tale of Immigration and Liberation.
  • The publisher sent me an advance check to seal the deal.
  • We settled on a cover design, which was swiftly executed by the publisher.
  • The publisher revealed the cover and announced the publication with an exciting blurb teasing the contents of the book.
  • I upgraded my website, www.LarryFSommers.com
  • I acquired Mailerlite software, learned its rudiments, and launched an occasional newsletter for my loyal fans, The Haphazard Times (currently undergoing refinement).
  • I attended the Chicago Writers Association’s annual conference, where I received much kudos and encouragement from fellow authors.
  • I applied for a Wisconsin Seller’s Permit.
  • I sent for a Square Reader so I can process people’s credit card and Paypal purchases at author events such as signings, readings, and book clubs.
  • I started “going to school” on my friend Greg Renz, successful author of Beneath the Flames. I’m studying what he does to beat the drum for his book, and how he does it.
  • Oh, yes. I am ordering custom bookmarks to give out with copies of the book.

Take a Breath, Buster

It’s been just over a month. Price of Passage will not arrive until August 23. 

I stand presently under a Niagara of marketing, sales, and bookkeeping concerns. I don’t understand half of what I’m doing but plunge ahead anyway. Learn by doing, the saying goes.

Meanwhile, I have a second completed novel a mere whisker away from being ready to start sending queries to publishers. It only needs two or three good days of last-minute polishing, plus the drafting of a good synopsis and query letter. But all that will have to wait.

Photo by Jonny Gios on Unsplash.

I have a great idea for a short story to develop for the literary journals. Quite a bit of work. And it will have to wait.

There is the beginning of a personal memoir. It needs to keep going. But it will have to wait.

Opportunity Knocks

Blacksmiths of yore had a saying to cover this situation: “Strike while the iron is hot.” 

Shakespeare, more verbose yet pithy, said

There is a tide in the affairs of men.
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a full sea are we now afloat…

Rodeo cowboys are more terse: “Let ’er buck!” 

No matter how you say it, now is the time to sell, even though I’d rather write. We can pick up the pieces afterward.

The Book Trade

Why is it this way?

Maxwell Perkins. Al Ravenna, New York World-Telegram and Sun. Public Domain.

Maybe you think when an author finishes a book, he sends it to his publisher—one of the Big Five—who assigns the manuscript to a top-flight editor, a Maxwell Perkins type in a three-piece suit, then takes out a full-page ad in the New York Times and calls the appropriate committees (Pulitzer, Nobel, etc.). Oh, yes, a book tour of the major cities might be needed, with the author accompanied by two or three publicists and cossetted in luxury suites in four-star hotels. And then the dollars roll in, followed by movie contracts, more dollars, etc.

Well, Gentle Reader, let me assure you: 

That is NOT, unless you are Stephen King, How It Works.

Publishers do not sell books. Mostly, they can’t even spare a publicist.

But publicists do not sell books, anyway.

Editors, of course, would not be caught dead selling books.

Even bookstores do not really sell books. They merely conduct the transaction. People come into the store looking to buy books. All the store needs to do is have some on hand.

Amazon? Even more so.

So, you ask, who does sell books?

Authors.

Authors sell books.

So next time you see me, Dear Reader, I will have my foot wedged firmly in your door. And a great book in my hand. You should definitely own a copy or two. And all the members of your extended family should, too. It will make a very thoughtful Christmas or Hanukah gift.

Wish me luck.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

Author of Price of Passage—A Tale of Immigration and Liberation, coming August 23. No fooling.

Get One Early–Avoid the Rush

Once upon a noontime soggy,
While I dithered, stunned and groggy,
Over many a curious item of social market lore—
As I boggled, nearly dizzy,
Suddenly I wondered, “Is he—
Is he really knocking loudly on my chamber door?
Some old kibbitzer,” I muttered,
“Knocking on my chamber door: 
Milo Bung, and nothing more.”

Here I opened wide the chamber door.

In stepped, with many a flirt and flutter, my old classmate, a direct descendant of Æthelred the Unready and fourth cousin to Slats Grobnik.

“Milo!” I complained. “What brings you here?”

“Fine way to greet an old friend,” he harrumphed. 

“Well, look, old friend, I’m really busy.”

“You—busy?” He said it like it was an oxymoron.

“Trying to dope out which buttons to push in my email server to set up automatic delivery of my reader magnet through the double opt-in gizmo.” 

His eyes grew wide. “I arrived in the nick of time. You could hurt yourself on stuff like that, without supervision.”

“It’s the price we artists pay.” I sighed. “Was there something you wanted?”

He grinned and nodded. “An autograph. It’s not every day a guy knew a famous author from way back.” 

With a becoming blush of modesty, I pointed out, “Price of Passage won’t be published until August 23. We’re not even taking pre-orders yet.” 

“What’s that got to do with anything?”

“You know,” I said, “so I can sign your copy.”

“Oh,” Milo said, “don’t bother yourself about that.” He rummaged in his ratty old Sorbonne hoodie and pulled out a wrinkled cocktail napkin. “Just put your Hancock right here.”

I gave him the fish eye. “What about the book?”

“I’ll tape this to the inside cover,” he said. “Gotta strike while the iron is hot. If I wait till August 23 and stand in line at your launch party, I’ll get an inferior specimen.”

“How’s that?”

“Writer’s cramp,” he explained. “Just sign here.” He thrust the napkin and a black Sharpie into my hands.

In a moment of weakness, I complied. 

“Thanks,” Milo said, and skedaddled.

#

Now I can get back to banging my head on my laptop. One must suffer for art.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

Author of Price of Passage—A Tale of Immigration and Liberation, due on August 23, Lord willing.

What’s in a Title?

A lot can happen in from one week to the next. 

Two weeks ago, I announced that my novel, The Maelstrom, would be published July 26. One week ago, March 1, I announced that no, it would actually be August 23. And with a new title.

As of today, the August 23 release date is still good. 

Now here is the new title: Price of Passage—A Tale of Immigration and Liberation.

And look! Here’s the cover. 

A book’s cover is key. Sometimes, the cover even drives the choice of title. 

When I first started writing this book, I just called it “the Anders and Maria book.” Eventually, I settled on Freedom’s Purchase. I did not like Freedom’s Purchase much. It seemed hyper-inflated. But it fit, because throughout this story, characters pay high prices to secure their freedom. They must give up precious things to be free and prosperous. 

When I re-wrote the book I changed it to The Maelstrom. I was thinking of a great whirlpool, like the Moskstraumen off the Norwegian coast. It seemed to capture the vortex of looming disaster that was the pre-Civil War United States.

DX Varos Publishing bought the manuscript. Publisher Daniel Willis wanted to add a subtitle: A Tale of Immigration and Liberation. This would give readers more information about the nature of the story. So we were set to publish The Maelstrom—A Tale of Immigration and Liberation.

Several people had previously said things like, “Maelstrom? Huh?” “What’s a maelstrom?” “Is this a book about some ocean current?” In my wisdom, I had ignored such minor quibbles.

We’re Covered

A good story often has a last-minute twist, and here it is: The publisher sent me the cover art. 

It showed a railroad track in foreground, a breaking chain overhead, and a distant sky full of clouds and sunshine. The track could suggest immigration; the broken chain, liberation; the half-sunny sky, a brighter future. 

I was underwhelmed by this cover. I surfed the web frantically and found an image that embodied the dynamic tension of “maelstrom.” It was a blue-green ship in a stormy ocean, a large whirlpool churning in the foreground. I sent it to the publisher. 

He said, “Well, yes, but everybody’s going to think they’re buying a sea story.”

Curses! 

A cover is not just about symbols and metaphors. It should give the reader a clue about the actual contents.

It’s true this book includes an ocean voyage, but it’s a minor part of the story. Everything important occurs on land, in the middle of North America, far from any ocean. 

Bowing at last to common sense,  I accepted the publisher’s cover. But the title, The Maelstrom, did not match the cover image. Rereading Chapter One, I stumbled on the phrase, “price of passage.” It relates to the purchase of a transatlantic ticket to America, but it’s also a good metaphor for the costs incurred in “freedom’s purchase.” 

We ran it up the flagpole, and everybody saluted.

So now, with pride, DX Varos Publishing and Larry F. Sommers give you Price of Passage—A Tale of Immigration and Liberation–available for pre-order in late spring.

I’m glad to be partnered with somebody who knows what they’re doing in this business.

And that’s not all

I hereby announce the inaugural issue of The Haphazard Times, a very occasional newsletter, by email, intended to apprise you of only the most significant developments in this writer’s life.

Why should I  trouble your Inbox on a weekly or bi-weekly basis, just to meet an arbitrary deadline? The Haphazard Times will appear in your email only when important events or milestones occur. Events like the opening of pre-orders for the book and other key milestones for the book or for me as a writer. Other than that, I won’t bother you. 

All you need to do to get on the mailing list for The Haphazard Times is fill in this form:

I hope you will.

Note Well: This “Keep Up!” signup is for the newsletter. The other signup, at right under “Share My Journey Week to Week,” is for email notification whenever this blog is posted. If you already receive such notices, they will continue. If you do not, but would like to, just enter your email there. But that will not get you the newsletter. I recommend taking both.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer