Saturday, October 27, 2012

Historic Storm

In the midst of all the current hysteria about Sandy the Frankenstorm I was moved to cast my mind back to the War of 1812 to see whether I could think of a big storm that left its mark on the history of that conflict. There was one that I know of. Not a hurricane, not even a nor'easter, the squall that struck Lake Ontario on the night of August 8, 1813, was evil enough to take the lives of many sailors.

Ned Myers was aboard the schooner Scourge, a merchant vessel commandeered by the American navy and fitted out – overbalanced, actually – with eight heavy guns on the deck. He told the story in his memoirs, Ned Meyers, A Life Before the Mast, dictated to James Fenimore Cooper.

The American fleet was pursuing the British over the lake that day, though the wind was almost still. The Hamilton and the Scourge, two schooners, rowing with all their might, fell behind the other vessels. Night fell. Captain Osgood expected to fight some more. After mess he told the exhausted sailors to sleep at their stations, leaving the sails up, waiting for a breath of wind.

The night grew chilly. some of the men went below where they could sleep in the warmth. On deck Ned Myers fancied a drink, and he was headed for the hatchway when he heard a strange rushing noise to windward. The sky turned black.

A sudden bolt of lightning. A crash of thunder. More lightning and a violent wind that rolled the vessel over to larboard, sending the guns, the shot boxes everything heavy and unsecured careening across the deck, the sailors along with it. Injured men cried out. Ned Myers sprang to throw loose the jib-sheet, shouting to the man at the wheel to put the helm hard down. Ned and another man succeeded in letting fly the lee topsail sheet, but as Ned got hold of the clew line he realized the vessel was going over. The water was up to his breast.

All the men below were lost, including Captain Osgood, and most of those on deck as well. Myers escaped by jumping off just as the ship went down. By chance he swam to a leaky rowboat that had been towed behind the Scourge, and rescued some of his fellows. What happened next – how he was rescued by the British, sent barefoot to prison in Halifax, and managed a daring jailbreak – can be found in his book, widely available online. The Scourge itself rests on the bottom of Lake Ontario together with the Hamilton, sunk in the same storm, preserved as an archaeological site.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Always to be Calling it, Please, Research

Tom Lehrer fans will recognize this line from his immortal hit, "Plagiarize." When I set out to write BUCKER DUDLEY it was not my intention to rip off other people's work, but to write something fresh and original about a very old idea: the sailor girl who went to sea dressed as a boy.

And I wanted to write about the War of 1812.

I didn't know a whole lot about the War of 1812 before I started reading. Americans don't. It's a big deal in Canada, because they figure they won it, which they did, sort of, and yet not. The idea of a shooting war between Canadians and Americans intrigued and horrified me. My father was American, my mother Canadian. They grew up thirty miles from each other.

What most Americans know about the war is the part where the British burned Washington, and then were repelled from Baltimore, where our flag still flew from Fort McHenry in the dawn's early light, after which they sailed off to New Orleans and got soundly whupped by Andrew Jackson's troops.

There was a lot more to it than that. First off the Americans declared war on Great Britain, the most powerful naval force on earth, without having an effective army or navy. It was not a popular war. President Madison sent raw troops to Canada under incompetent officers in the mistaken belief that their invasion would be welcomed. The troops were terrified of Indians, who wouldn't fight by the rules. The New Englanders were so distressed by the whole mess that they started making plans to secede from the Union.

Showing the craziness through the eyes of an adolescent girl who found herself in the middle of it became the task of writing the novel. Bucko does fine. Good health, a cheerful outlook, and remarkable athletic ability see her through most of her trials. The first draft of BUCKER DUDLEY showcased many fascinating characters that I came upon in my reading, but the multiple point of view necessary to feature them pulled focus from Bucko's struggles.

John Norton, the half-Scot, half-Cherokee Mohawk war chief, was too good to cut out of the book in the second draft: handsome, fascinating, bloodthirsty, irresistible to women, ultimately a tragic figure. So he is Bucko's cousin, on the Scottish side, her last remaining relative. She must go into the woods to find him after her ship is destroyed.

In the coming weeks I'll blog about the characters I had to cut. I already told you about Duncan McColl, the soldier minister who was a force for peace on the Maine-New Brunswick border, and Alexander Contee Hanson, the newspaper publisher who detonated the Baltimore riots, and my beloved Captain Thomas Masterman Hardy (Nelson's Hardy), whose aristocratic young wife never appreciated him. There are many others of interest, both noble and debased. Check back here from time to time to find out all about them.