Agnes Canon’s War: Honoring the “Bit Players” of History
by Deborah Lincoln
I once mentioned to my eight-year-old niece that I was writing a story about her several-times great grandma, and she said, emphatically, that she wasn’t at all interested in reading about dead people. She wanted to read about live people, by which I think she meant Harry Potter.
I understand that. Not everyone enjoys historical fiction; it can be an acquired taste. But how can you pass up a story like this?
Pre-Civil War America: A young man leaves his home in Maine and walks to Pennsylvania, hoping to get into a course of medical training, but is turned down. He teaches school, meets a young woman whose father rejects his suit, heads west, crosses the Panama Isthmus to California, joins the army as a doctor during the Mexican War, returns east, marries the girl who waited ten years for him and moves to Missouri.
Meanwhile, a young woman with a horde of sisters (and one brother) joins a group of family
members emigrating to the Missouri frontier (how hard is that for a single woman in the 1850s?), where she meets and marries a widowed doctor whose secessionist views land them in all sorts of troubles during the war and result in their exile to the Montana wilderness at its end. Further adventures ensue.
These are the bit players of history, and these are the facts of their lives. This is you-can’t-make-this-stuff-up territory: why invent a plot when there it is, needing just a little flesh on its bones, full of enduring lessons about life, love, hate, war, freedom — all those great truths we turn to literature to illuminate.
Agnes Canon’s War grew out of the need to keep the memory of these extraordinary people alive. It’s part of the instinct toward immortality, I think, that most everyone feels at some time or another—what’s the point of enduring trials and triumphs if no one remembers? It’s also a way of realizing how fragile is the train of incidents that leads to one’s own existence. One death, one misstep, and everything would be very different.
And even if it isn’t great literature, it’s still a darn good story. And molding the characters and personalities of your ancestors – how much fun is that? Agnes and Jabez Robinson, the protagonists in ACW, were my great-great grandparents. Family lore is that Agnes’s relatives took advantage of the death of Jabez’s first wife to rid themselves of an unwanted spinster. No, no, no. The facts don’t bear that out: five years elapsed between the death of wife number one and the marriage of our two heroes. This was true romance, a meeting of soul-mates. And again: What happens if your ancestor owned slaves? It’s easy to think the worst, but fun to think the best: he bought them to free them, and the two couples became friends. The hints buried in historical accounts actually support that conclusion.
By that time, I had developed the McDonalds into characters of my own. I’d named Mrs. McDonald Rose, and it was too late to change her name back to Mary: she was Rose to me. Also, they had no children when they left for Montana, and they went by steamboat (with Agnes). That’s another issue for a historical novelist: How much poetic license does the author wield while honoring the actual happenings? In this case, had I known the facts about the McDonalds earlier, I might have stuck more closely to them. As it is, I liked them the way I’d created them, so there they stood.
I’m not sure where I’m going with this, other than to say the historical novelist has the best of both worlds: wonderful stories ripe for the plucking, along with the novelist’s ability to fashion the stories and the characters with her own imagination. (Diana Gabaldon: “Besides, there is this interesting thing called novelistic license. I have one. Framed.”) Collating interesting snippets from the past can lead to delicious story-telling, deeper understanding (“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” – the over-used but true quote from Santayana), self-knowledge, honoring one’s ancestors. Someone else will have to decide whether Agnes Canon’s War meets any of these goals, but simply writing the book brought them home to me.
Agnes Canon is tired of being a spectator in life, an invisible daughter among seven sisters, meat for the marriage market. The rivers of her Pennsylvania countryside flow west, and she yearns to flow with them, explore new lands, know the independence that is the usual sphere of men.
This is a story of a woman’s search for freedom, both social and intellectual, and her quest to understand what freedom means. She learns that freedom can be the scent and sound of unsettled prairies, the glimpse of a cougar, the call of a hawk. The struggle for freedom can test the chains of power, poverty, gender, or the legalized horror of slavery. And to her surprise, she discovers it can be found within a marriage, a relationship between a man and a woman who are equals in everything that matters.
It’s also the story of Jabez Robinson, a man who has traveled across the continent and seen the beauty of the country and the ghastliness of war, as he watches his nation barrel toward disaster. Faced with deep-seated social institutions and hard-headed intransigence, he finds himself helpless to intervene. Jabez’s story is an indictment of war in any century or country, and an admission that common sense and reasoned negotiation continue to fail us.
As Agnes and Jabez struggle to keep their community and their lives from crumbling about them, they must face the stark reality that whether it’s the freedom of an African from servitude, of the South from the North, or of a woman from the demands of social convention, the cost is measured in chaos and blood.
This eloquent work of historical fiction chronicles the building of a marriage against the background of a civilization growing – and dying – in the prelude to civil war.
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About the Author
Deborah Lincoln grew up in the small town of Celina, among the cornfields of western Ohio. She earned a bachelor’s degree in English from Michigan State University and a master’s degree in Library Science from the University of Michigan. She and her husband have three grown sons and live on the Oregon coast.
Of her passion for historical fiction, she says: “I’m fascinated by the way events—wars and cataclysms and upheavals, of course, but the everyday changes that wash over everyday lives—bring a poignancy to a person’s efforts to survive and prosper. I hate the idea that brave and intelligent people have been forgotten, that the hardships they underwent have dropped below the surface like a stone in a lake, with not a ripple left behind to mark the spot.”
Agnes Canon’s War is the story of her great great-grandparents, two remarkable people whose lives illustrate the joys and trials that marked America’s tumultuous nineteenth century.
For more information on Deborah Lincoln please visit her website. You can also find her on Facebook, Twitter, and Goodreads.