Friday 15 June 2012

Friends, Faith and Far Horizons

by Marie-Louise Jensen

I'm delighted to be writing today about three of my favourite books for young people: Ann Turnbull's Quaker Trilogy. The third book, Seeking Eden, was published last Thursday. I read it at once and adored it as I had the previous two. For those who haven't read the books, here is a very brief review of each:
No Shame No Fear
is the story of a girl from a family of Friends who leaves home to find work in a nearby town. There she meets Will who is drawn away from his father’s Anglican faith to the Friends both spiritually, and by Susanna’s beauty. But a new law is about to come into force, outlawing religious gatherings outside the Anglican church, and Susanna and Will are both to find their faith tested in the time to come. No Shame No Fear was shortlisted for the Whitbread Book Award and the Guardian Fiction Prize.
Forged in The Fire
follows the fortunes of the young couple some years later. Will is working in London, trying to establish himself so that they can marry. Susanna follows him there. Their struggles to overcome the long time they have spent apart are further threatened by plague and then by the Fire of London.
Seeking Eden
Will and Susanna have decided to leave London, where they have been cruelly persecuted for their faith. Inspired by William Penn and the colony he has founded in the new world, they hope to start again and build a new life on distant shores. The story is told from the point of view of their son Josiah, who is every bit as rebellious and determined as his father was, with all his mother's impulsiveness too. His relationship with his parents is troubled as he goes through his teen years. Jos wants to be a man, to be independant and to make his own way in the world. But in America, Jos is to be faced with difficult choices himself. Can he reconcile the slave trade with the principles he has been taught? And what consequences will his choices have for his relationship with his family and with the girl he loves?

Earlier this week, I put three questions to the author, which she has responded to below. I'd like to welcome Ann Turnbull to the History Girls. It's a pleasure to have you with us.
Ann, can you tell us what drew you to writing about the Friends (Quakers) in the first place?

Thank you, Marie-Louise. It's lovely to be here.
In the early 1980s I began attending Quaker meetings and was involved with Friends for several years. I read the testimonies of the early Friends and felt inspired and fascinated by their unswerving commitment to their faith. When I read about whole communities being in prison and their children keeping the meetings going, I knew there was a story there – but it was nearly twenty years before I began to tell it.

Reading Seeking Eden, I’m very aware that you must have done a great deal of research in order to portray Pennsylvania, Barbados, the work of merchants and apprentices and the experience of Tokpa the slave in such an apparently effortless way. Could you tell us how you went about this?

I used mostly books – heaps of them - and museum visits. I also got hold of videos of Delaware and Pennsylvania, and a film, The New World. I use bibliographies to find titles and the internet to track down books. In particular I look for first-hand accounts. My ‘bible’ was Narratives of Early Pennsylvania, which was incredibly useful for finding out about the country, the wildlife and plants, and how the settlement of Philadelphia was managed. Of course there are always questions you can’t find an answer to, so there is quite a lot of guesswork in the details. I would have loved to have found the journal of an ordinary settler from the 1680s, but no such luck! However, William Penn was a great communicator; his writings give a vivid picture of this new land and its inhabitants – he was, after all, often writing to attract wealthy backers and new settlers. For the merchants and apprentices, I found a copy of a 1948 book about Quaker merchants in early Philadelphia which told me almost everything I needed to know.
Barbados was easier. I used a tourist guide and the Sufferings of Early Quakers covering America and the West Indies. This gave me detailed first-hand records of what was happening to Friends in Barbados at the time. I usually buy rather than borrow books as I don’t have easy access to major libraries, but I did spend a few days in Birmingham’s reference library and the wonderful university library.
For Tokpa’s memories and experience I visited museums: the Africa galleries at the British Museum (I went there three times!) and the Museum of Slavery in Liverpool, which was full of inspiring exhibits. I worked hard to verify everything - though I’m sure I got things wrong. But in the end you can’t get everything right. You can only try to make the story ‘true’ in the sense that you have imaginatively entered the minds of your characters and the world they inhabit.

What did you most enjoy about writing Seeking Eden and what did you find most difficult?

I like a challenge – and these were big, difficult themes and an environment that was new to me. I found that exhilarating. And I enjoyed, as always, the actual writing and construction of the story and seeing the characters evolve. 

The most difficult things?  Writing about places I had not visited – not being able to go to the libraries and museums in Philadelphia and walk around in the places where the first settlers lived.   Trying to imagine the inner lives of Tokpa and Miata and to create a convincing voice for Tokpa.   Fearing that it would never work, and trying to get it done on time (I was months late delivering!)

Ann, thank you so much for joining us today, and I hope that some of our followers will be inspired to read your wonderful books.


Mary Hoffman said...

And Ann Turnbull is our guest on June 29th, talking about travelling with a baby in the 17th century!

Penny Dolan said...

Ann, thank you for a really practical post about the various faces of research, Thanks too, Marie-Louise, for asking the right questions.

adele said...

Hurray! Wonderful to see one of my favourite writers properly feted!

michelle lovric said...

I keep hearing wonderful things about these books from people whose opinions I respect. Now I shall definitely read them. Thank you both for the interview!

Caroline Lawrence said...

Ooh! These sound good! In the meantime I'm loving The Girl in the Mask, by one M-L Jensen. So many good histnovels... so little time!

Astrid Holm said...

These sound like really good books, will definately search them out, thank you.