David O. Stewart on The Burning Land

The historian and novelist talks about his continuing trilogy tracing the history of the United States.
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The New Land, the first novel in The Overstreet Saga, is set during the 1750s on the Maine coast, USA. What excited you to write about this period of upheaval in history?

It was a time of great challenges and great potential. For German settlers like the Overstreets, coming to America was a chance to create a new society, to leave behind aristocratic power structures and still-feudal social and economic systems. But the American forests were dark and filled with angry Indians, rivalrous Frenchmen, and wild animals, while the British landowners still believed in the world the settlers wished to leave behind.  Having written historical works about “great figures” in that time and place (George Washington, James Madison), this allowed me to look at that world from the bottom up, a very different perspective.

The novel’s protagonists Johann and Christiane embark on a voyage to the New World. What was the allure for many to leave a familiar life and country for the unknown?

Most nations cling to historical traditions that are largely bilge.  One of ours in the United States is that immigrants come for political and religious freedom. It’s true for some, but for the Germans in this book – and for a large majority of those arriving in the 18th century – the lure was land.  (That’s the second meaning of the book title, The New Land) Common folk in Hesse, and in much of Europe, could not really hope to acquire their own land. But the British overlords in Maine were passing it out on terms that seemed amazing – at least until their frauds were revealed.

The New World greets the characters with disease, hardship and hostility that highlight the harsh realities that many settlers faced. Did your research uncover any accounts that described the positive and negative aspects of this new life?

The story pivots around a small town on the Maine coast, which is the subject of an invaluable two-volume history produced by a town resident (Jasper Stahl) in the 1950s.  That work provided insights into the early residents’ daily lives as well as how those were upended by the French and Indian War, the independence movement, and the Revolutionary War.

How did the fever of American Independence in 1775 change life for these settlers? Were they drawn into a conflict that they didn’t feel was necessarily theirs?

The initial German settlers had mixed feelings about the independence movement. They were conservative, hardworking people who had fought for a foothold in a new world.  They were proud of what they had done and were not at all sure that ejecting the British was a good idea.  The younger people – as is often true in revolutionary times – were more enthusiastic about independence.  Quite a few of them joined the fight against the British.

What resources, historians or novels helped enrich your writing process?

I read Kenneth Roberts’ novels about the era (Arundel, Northwest Passage), which have not aged terrifically well, plus everything I could lay my hands on about early Maine. Some of the colorful historical figures who stomp through the story – British General James Wolfe, the American land swindler Samuel Waldo, and American soldier Col. William Prescott – are drawn from sources like Stephen Brumwell’s biography of Wolfe and Nathaniel Philbrick’s book about Bunker Hill.

The Overstreet Saga is inspired by stories you were told by your mother about her family’s experiences.

Were there any challenges in the process of merging these personal and familiar stories with historical facts to create a narrative?

That’s why it’s a novel!  Mom was a great story-teller but she never let the facts get in the way of a good story. Her accounts provided the setting, the moment in time, and some of the characters, but a lot of her specifics did not check out. My philosophy of historical fiction is that the writer shouldn’t change facts that we know, but when it comes to the silences in history – and most of history is silence – the storytelling imagination goes to work.

 The second novel in the series, The Burning Land, is set during the Civil War in 1861 – can you recommend any resources for readers to familiarise themselves with the history in preparation?

Michael Shaara’s wonderful The Killer AngelsThe male protagonist in The Burning Land serves in the semi-legendary 20th Maine Infantry Regiment, commanded by Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, which played a key role in the Gettysburg battle and in Shaara’s novel.  The story in The Burning Land is quite different from Shaara’s. It’s more anchored in family and Maine, and follows the protagonists into the postwar tumults, but Shaara’s book will get readers into the era.

Have you faced any challenges when writing about the Civil War as a topic that still has strong divides within contemporary society?

It’s been an interesting ride for Civil War history writers, one that makes the era more interesting and vibrant.  Americans have been staging reenactments of Civil War battles for many years.  Thirty years ago, they couldn’t find enough people to portray Union soldiers; the southern myth of the Lost Cause was still that powerful.  We have had an important corrective in more recent years, facing the facts that the Confederates were defending the indefensible (slavery) and many of their leaders were literally traitors who betrayed oaths of loyalty to the Union.  I don’t know how many generations it takes for a nation to recover from a bitter, years-long civil war, but we are not there yet.

Is there a historical figure from the American Revolution or the Civil War that you admire and why?

You can’t do better than George Washington, who is the subject of my most recent nonfiction work, George Washington: The Political Rise of America’s Founding FatherLots of brickbats have been thrown at Washington in recent decades – he wasn’t a tactical genius as a soldier, and his personal life was enmeshed with slaveholding.  But I have encountered no other figure in history who had such a talent for inspiring the trust of others by establishing his own decency and integrity. He did come to understand that slavery was a crime that tarnished him and all who were part of it.  He tried to undermine it in ways he thought feasible, but seem tentative and ineffective now; he was no hero on the subject, but also was not a monster.

What can readers expect from your upcoming novel The Burning Land?

It follows a young couple, Henry Overstreet and Katie Nash, through the turmoil of America in the 1860s, so it plunges the reader into the war and then the westward settlement after the war. But it also is – if I may borrow from Ford Maddox Ford – the saddest story I know, about people whose lives are turned upside down by their times.

David O. Stewart is a historian and author of The New Land. You can listen to a conversation with David and the Editor discussing George Washington on the Aspects of History Podcast.