This week’s wicked cool history stuff is Janet Kastner Olshewsky’s historical novel The Snake Fence. Set in eighteenth-century Pennsylvania, the story examines the uneasy relations between English settlers and Native Americans through the eyes of young Noble Butler. Noble’s Quaker religion abhors violence, but, living in Chester County, Pennsylvania in 1755, Noble has heard frightening rumors about the conflicts between English soldiers and the French and their Native American allies. What, he wonders, would he do, if the war hit closer to home? He decides to join a wagon train supplying General Braddock, figuring that he can help the English cause without violating his principles. But an encounter with Broken Blade, a young Delaware, makes Noble question all that he’s heard about the supposedly barbaric Native peoples, and he discovers that there are no easy answers to the conflict.
Noble Butler and his family were not only real historical figures, but were the ancestors of author Janet Kastner Olshewsky, who spent nearly a decade researching their lives for this richly detailed middle-grade novel. Janet recently allowed me to interview her about her work.
What inspired you to write The Snake Fence?
My Butler ancestors were Quakers in colonial Pennsylvania, although my branch of the family has long since found other faith communities. When I began genealogical investigation, I found that the Butlers had been involved in some way in every war of American history! Either they were persecuted for not fighting, or they decided to fight, causing conflict within the family and within the Meeting. Conflict is the starting point of fiction, so I thought it would be exciting to write about them through historical fiction, spanning all of American history. Great idea, but an unrealistically ambitious plan, since I didn’t begin until I was retired.
You moved to Pennsylvania for nine years to research The Snake Fence. That’s a big commitment! What made you so passionate about this story?
Well, we didn’t know at the outset that we would stay nine years! I needed the Friends Historical Library at Swarthmore College for my initial resource, so we came to Pennsylvania for a semester, during which my husband taught as adjunct at Villanova University. We were at a point in our lives when it was right for a move, and we fell in love with the area. So we stayed.
I really have been passionate about the story. I found historical research totally engaging, and as a high school teacher, I wanted to be sure I had everything right, no anachronisms. Some might say I got carried away with research. I discovered the Colonial Pennsylvania Plantation in Ridley Creek State Park had an education program for school children, so I volunteered for that for four years. The staff there taught me all about life on a colonial plantation, and I learned so much about the house itself that I decided to make it the Butler family home in The Snake Fence.
How did you come to choose the snake fence as a metaphor for Noble’s dilemma?
Noble was full of uncertainty and indecision, sitting on a fence, as it were. Wherever I needed a metaphor or simile, I consciously tried to find one that a colonial person would use. I learned about snake fences at the Plantation, so I chose that metaphor for my title. It has lots of value for me, not only because it’s authentic to the period.
A snake fence meanders, as Noble did. It can be disassembled and moved to a new location, as Noble was. It can’t be easily knocked down, as a straight fence can. And it makes a catchy title, I think.
You use both real people and fictional characters in your story. Which do you think was more difficult and why?
Probably the real characters, because, again, I wanted to be as accurate historically as I possibly could. So I read personal journals, family papers, and newspaper accounts, and I tried not to put words into a character’s mouth that they surely wouldn’t have said. The fictional characters practically dictated their words to me, often at 3 A.M. Molly in particular would wake me insisting on more pages!
Although he appears only a few times, Broken Blade haunts Noble—and the reader—throughout the story. What led you to create this character?
I think I was as surprised as Noble was to find Broken Blade behind that fallen branch! He just popped into the story and then became a focal point for Noble. His picture appears on the back cover of the book, sort of fogged out like a memory, and he continues to fascinate me.
Can you tell us about your writing process? Are you an outliner or more of a seat-of-the-pants writer?
With The Snake Fence I was a seat-of-the-pants writer. I didn’t know how the story would come out, and it really irritated some of the people in my critique group. One person said she would refuse to read any more until she knew where this story was going! That forced me to outline the whole thing, and then I could see where it needed to go. That’s how helpful a critique group can be.
What was the most surprising thing you discovered in your research?
I think it was The Walking Purchase. I knew Indians had been badly treated and shoved off their land, but I didn’t realize how blatant and widespread it was in Pennsylvania until I came across accounts of The Walking Purchase.
Can you tell readers a little about The Walking Purchase?
In 1737, the Proprietors (sons of William Penn) said they had found a copy of an old treaty dating back to 1686 that said the Delaware Indians had sold land to William Penn. The treaty called for a walk to determine the boundaries of the land sale:
Starting at a tree by the River Delaware here in Bucks County, from there westward up Neshaminy Creek, then along a trail northward “as far as a man can walk in a day and a half.”
None of the Indians had ever heard of it, but they honored this “found” treaty. The Proprietors then advertised for the three fastest walkers in the area and promised five British pounds and 500 acres to the man who could go the farthest. Then they took the three walkers over the area in advance and even cleared a trail for them.
The day of the “walk,” some of the Indian leaders came to observe. When the walkers began to go faster and faster, the Indians protested, to no avail. The Indians left in disgust. At the end of a day and a half, the walkers had gone three times as far as the Indians intended. But then instead of drawing a line straight back to the Delaware River, as the “treaty” specified, they went far to the northeast, encompassing much more land than the Indians had agreed to sell.The Indians protested to the governor of Pennsylvania, but he did nothing. This was only one of many instances of Indians being cheated out of their land, but it’s probably the most blatant.
What are you working on now? Will you be writing more about Noble Butler?
As Broken Blade haunted Noble, he continues to haunt me. My next book, tentatively entitled The Third Crow, will be about how the Lenapé survived in Pennsylvania, and Broken Blade is one of the central characters. Although I’ve moved to Florida, I have a culture coach in Pennsylvania who advises me. Noble will appear in this book, and this time I’m beginning with an outline. There may be another book about Noble later, set during the Revolutionary War.
Thank you, Janet! I’m looking forward to your next book.
To find out more about Janet and The Snake Fence, go to her website.