Interview with Lorina Stephens, author of Shadow Song
Last week our four-week virtual book tour opened at Paul Lima’s site. Paul is a successful freelancer and author of many books about the business of writing. Many thanks to Paul for launching the tour.
This week we’re at the virtual home of David Robertson, who not only has a presence here at e-webincome, but at his artisan blacksmithing site, which is very much worth a visit.
Q: Last week we touched on some of the historical background of your novel, Shadow Song. I wonder if you might elaborate?
A: Shadow Song is set in the early 1830s. It was still very much a time of change, partly a social realignment from the Napoleonic War and partly a political realignment. France had gone through a devastating revolution in the late 18th century that in turn set the stage for Napoleon and his visions of empire at the turn of the 19th century. Five years after Napoleon’s defeat in 1815, Charles X took power and naively, or perhaps arrogantly, thought it would be perfectly fine to maintain the old order and status quo of the 18th century. The French, however, thought differently and in July of 1830 Charles was overthrown.
For many loyalist aristocratic French émigrés the result of that revolution meant loss of all their lands and estates, businesses, holdings. The pensions they’d been guaranteed under Charles evaporated overnight. The result of that meant ruination for many, a bitter irony in that these privileged exiles now found themselves facing the same destitution as the people upon whom they’d fed.
The mother of my protagonist is one such émigré, married to an Englishman who also is titled and without means in that he is the second son of landed gentry, and therefore will not inherit and must rely upon wit and determination for his livelihood rather than inheritance.
Q: Early in the novel you have Danielle, the protagonist of the story, put out to work in an orphanage, yet at the time she’s only nine or 10 years old. How common was child-labour?
A: Child-labour was extremely common. Children, whether privileged or penniless, were not immersed, as a rule, in a life of play and protection as they are today. They were treated as small adults and expected to act accordingly, and if that meant hauling a hundred pounds of coal out of a lightless mine dressed only in breeches, or living and sleeping in a guild-shop along with your parents, that’s what you did.
It’s in a guild-shop Danielle begins her working life, employed as a monkey for the embroiderers. An embroidery monkey was a child whose job it was to sit under the large embroidery frames, fixing any snags, rethreading needles, sometimes poking a needle back up through the embroidery when the design involved some of the denser gold or raised work. Employment such as this, despite being on the floor all day from sunrise to sunset, might very well lead to apprenticeship later on and a well-paying, respectable profession, particularly for a girl.
Later Danielle is employed in a laundry, which wasn’t a plum of a job, in that often children were required to immerse themselves in scalding water, in harsh lye soap solutions, so that their skin would blister and peel, made raw by soap and constant moisture.
As to the age Danielle is when she’s put out to work, she’s in fact an average age. Many children of only five or six, because of their size, were employed to labour in narrow spaces an adult couldn’t fit. Chimney-sweep is one of the better-known jobs, but there were many others, far more hazardous. And you have to consider that an apprenticeship started very early in most cases.
For instance, if you were a boy one of the better trades you might take up is a cooper. Coopers were very much in demand, so much so that during the Napoleonic War the apprenticeship for a cooper in England was reduced from seven to five years. Boys as young as seven were sent out to apprentice, starting by cleaning shop, fetching tools, and gradually learning each aspect of the trade, as well as building physical strength and endurance so they could, by mid-adolescence, wrestle a tight barrel together and receive their journeyman papers. It was demanding labour, in that a full-fledged cooper was required to turn out one full barrel a day, or two half, or four quarters.
My husband Gary, who is a part-time historical cooper, and a man of considerable strength and endurance, can only produce a quarter barrel in about five to seven days. Imagine being sixteen and producing a full barrel, from rough stave to tight, finished product in just one day.
Q: There are a lot of small, historical details you cite in Shadow Song that add to the ambiance and flavour: names of ships, ferries, and coaches, costs of transportation and the like. Are these taken from actual historical accounts, or are they reasonable assumptions?
A: The Baltic, which Danielle takes from England to Quebec, is real, as is her commander, Earbage. Conditions aboard ship, the outbreak of cholera at Quebec and the opening of Grosse Isle as an immigration point are all lifted from historical documents, although I have played with the actual timing to suit my purposes. Fares, ferries and stages are based upon real costs, ships and companies, as are the details of Midewewin and Ojibwa society based upon historical records and books of the era.
Captain Anderson, Superintendent of Indian Affairs, Reverend Adam Elliot and the teacher Mr. Orr were all present on Manitoulin Island around the time of the novel.
Trading posts mentioned throughout the novel are all based upon historical accounts of Hudson Bay posts.
Q: What about the tragedy that becomes the catalyst for Danielle escaping into the wilds with the Ojibwa shaman, Shadow Song – fact or fiction?
A: A little of both. In 1832 relatives of Horning, the founder of Hornings Mills, had come to assist with the raising of buildings, and, perhaps preoccupied with this, and a cow that was to calf, Lewis Horning turned away two natives who had come to the mill to trade venison for flour.
Shortly after it became apparent the cow had wandered, he suspected into Melancthon Swamp. A conversation between Horning and his hired man was overheard by Jane, Susan and Oliver Vanmear, ages sixteen, fourteen and nine, as well as Lewis Horning Jr., also aged nine. It seemed the entrepreneur offered his man a dollar if he would search for the missing cow.
The children, seized with the idea of earning the dollar, set off to the west. They disappeared. The other Horning brothers – Peter and Robert – searched while the adults were still involved in building. They found a native trail that led directly into the heart of Melancthon Swamp, apparently where the four children had gone.
The alarm went out. For days the village people scoured the countryside. Nothing of the children or the cow was ever found. The Ojibwa, of course, were blamed.
Six years later, disheartened, Lewis Horning packed up what remained of his family and returned to Ancaster. The other families soon followed, and the village of Hornings Mills quietly slipped back into the Queen's Bush. There were to be other adventurers, men bent on stripping the land and shaping it for their own good, so that the village was not to disappear altogether. But, always, that day hung in the background.
Only Oliver Vanmear was to ever surface, found in the Marigold Tavern in Oakville many years later, still simple-minded and erratic. His story was that all four children had been taken captive by the Ojibwa, the girls married off, Lewis Horning Jr. rumoured to be a strong hunter. Was his story true? To this day no one knows. Perhaps he told people what they wanted to hear. Perhaps he told the truth.
For me this tragedy became the hook on which I hung my story.
Next week Lorina Stephens’ virtual tour makes a stop at Ferret Fabricates, where the theme of the interview will be the Peaks and Pitfalls of Self-Publishing.
Shadow Song can be obtained from Chapters at the top link or you can Click on Shadow Song to buy from Amazon. It is visually rich historic fiction.