One of my favorite lines in fiction comes from Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time: “Truth isn’t in accounts but in account books” (88). Tey meant that the most accurate information about whether something did or did not happen lies in sources that were not written to tell a tale—past, present, or future—but to record something that had meaning primarily for everyday life: a notation of birth, baptism, marriage, death, or burial; a listing of household items; a casual mention in a letter to a friend; a treaty. If a historian tells you Father X had no wife because priests didn’t marry in medieval England, but you find authentic records that say, “Three linen shifts for the priest’s wife, 6d.,” and the like, you can be reasonably sure that the historian in question got it wrong. Scholars living centuries after the fact interpret the data they find to produce an argument that gives meaning to the past. That is, to be blunt, the historian’s job: not simply to record facts like a computer but to sift and sort them into a meaningful story that will, of necessity, change from generation to generation and individual to individual as new interests and new questions and new sources of information emerge.
History writing is not so simple as Tey makes it out to be, nor are historians so gullible. Conscientious scholars try not to distort the record with their preconceptions and can become quite expert in perceiving and discounting the biases of their sources. Even account books can be cooked. And account books don’t begin to tell a historian, still less a historical novelist, everything that the author would like to know about the past.
Yet account books have a certain fascination for the historically inclined. They seem more real, more immediate, more “true” than the endlessly evolving images of ourselves that we humans so love to create and project. Hence I especially appreciated the discovery, during my preparation for my latest New Books in Historical Fiction interview, that Janet Kastner Olshewsky begins her story of her ancestor Noble Butler, hero of The Snake Fence, with the gift of an account book. This account book symbolizes the difference between Noble’s father, who gives the book to Noble to acknowledge Noble’s entry into adulthood but also sees the bookkeeping it should contain in purely financial terms, and Noble himself, who uses the account book to define his own values, to assess his own worth. What he writes in his book turns out to be the story we are reading.
As usually happens in these posts about my NBHF interviews, the text that follows replicates the introduction I uploaded to the NBHF website, where you can listen to and download the podcast for free.
Sixteen is a difficult age, lodged somewhere between childhood and adulthood. In 1755, young Noble Butler has just finished his apprenticeship as a carpenter, and he wants nothing more than to undertake more advanced training as a cabinetmaker (qualified to produce the beautiful furniture characteristic of prerevolutionary North America). But no one in Philadelphia will take him on as a prospective craftsman unless he can provide his own woodworking tools, and for that he needs cash. Noble has no money, and his father has a clear vision of his sons’ futures: expand the family farm and save craftsmanship for the off-season, when the family will need it to help the farm survive.
But Noble has no desire to spend his life under Pa’s thumb. He sees a way out of his dilemma when Benjamin Franklin advertises for farmers to supply the troops fighting French and Lenapé warriors on the frontier. Presented with a moneymaking opportunity, Pa reluctantly agrees that Noble may volunteer and keep half his salary, so long as his older brother Enoch agrees to accompany the wagon. Pa doesn’t trust Noble, at sixteen, to bring the horses, wagon, and cargo back safely.
So Noble sets off along a war-torn trail that will test both his Quaker principles and his determination to define his own life, whatever his father’s plans for him may be.
The Snake Fence (Quaker Bridge Media, 2013) is the first Young Adult (YA) novel to be featured on New Books in Historical Fiction. For more information and a sample chapter, check out Janet Olshewsky’s website.