Prince Edward County’s Newspaper of Record
May 20, 2024
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Family Matters

Two recent books are entries in a special genre. Neither quite history nor entirely fiction, they imagine the past in intriguing ways.
<p>Books by Jane Simpson and Janet Kellough at Books &#038; Company (Photo: Chris Fanning)</p>
Books by Jane Simpson and Janet Kellough at Books & Company (Photo: Chris Fanning)

Prince Edward County has a long and proud history, one with which we have stayed in touch in many ways, through heritage buildings, the names of the roads,and recognizing the names of the families who have lived here for generations.

Take Gerow and Clapp. We encounter these family names today, and in the earliest copies of this newspaper, when it was called the Hallowell Free Press. But where did they come from before they were County names?

Jane Simpson’s Shades of Allegiance: Hidden Loyalties of the Giraud / Gerow Family in the American Revolution, and Janet Kellough’s The Four Dead Wives of Captain John Clapp both attend to the ancestors of these familiar names, before they were “County.” 

And both imaginatively reconstruct these ancestors’ experience. These are not historical novels, but, rather, novelized histories which give voices to figures whose records can be patchy, scant, or nonexistent. 

While this is especially the case for women, no records can convey interior experience. That’s where a novel can fill out the historical record. Although each author has personal genealogical connections to their subject, their books are by no means limited to bloodline inquiries.

Both books contain detailed historical research. Much of their purpose is expository, to convey the specific facts and details about the individuals involved, as well as to represent the broad sweep of history, the conditions in which they lived. 

But, in addition, both are concerned to represent what it was like to be there, what internal motivations there were behind the historical records, and the judgments that informed the decisions that caused the recorded events.

Shades of Allegiance is a multi-generational, trans-Atlantic story of the Girauds,
exiled from France in the 1680s and emigrating to New York
where they become known as the Gerows.
By 1791 they are poised to be exiled again as Loyalists,
promising a County connection not delivered in this book.
Clearly, a sequel is in order.

The book documents the trials and tribulations of the immigrants, as they strive to establish themselves as successful farmers, only to be overwhelmed by the wars that establish the new world colonies and then their independence. Ms. Simpson’s approach is to naturalize undocumented thoughts and experiences, adding small details of everyday life, like tripping on a stone, or wiping one’s neck with a blue handkerchief, representing colloquial conversations, and getting into the minds of her characters. They speak modern English, occasionally mannered to suggest the archaic period in which they exist.

Ms. Simpson strives to include the experience of women in this family narrative. In an interview, she reflected on the absence of female experience from the historical record: “because I’m trying to bring in women, I had to fantasize about that. I would love to have written this as purely nonfiction.” She extrapolates a strong female presence in this story from something as simple as a mother’s recording births and deaths in the family bible.

The Four Dead Wives of Captain John Clapp is also a trans-Atlantic story. It connects the theatrical world of Restoration England in the 1660s to the American frontier in the early eighteenth century by tracing the fates of four women, four dead wives.

Ms. Kellough wears her imaginative inventions on her sleeve. The conceit of the book is that Captain Clapp’s wives, now all deceased, meet up in the afterworld. Each tells her story to the others. This allows for all kinds of license. Each character, looking back on a life completed, can articulate a broad historical sweep from a position outside it. 

Anachronisms are allowed, since the characters are explicitly outside of time. Take Ms. Kellough’s attention to feminist issues, for example. Even as it structures the story, the explicit focus of the book is not the traditional heroic narrative of the great merchant amassing his fortune through hard work and risky business deals. Instead, the novel foregrounds  the experience of the women attached to this “hero.”

The perspective of this posthumous narration allows for the direct expression of the wives’ reflections on the patriarchal conditions of their (former) existence — without fear of reprisal. Whether it is in commentary on a scene as it is being told, “I had not been asked to venture an opinion … nor was my opinion welcome in this conversation between men,” or in open discussion among the narrators about sexuality, this book persistently offers a perspective not available in its historical period, or in the historical record.

This is an engaging thought experiment that asks questions that, in the 21st century, we feel must have been present to these historical figures, even if they could not have articulated them in these terms.

In other authors’ hands different stories might have been told. For example, both of these books acknowledge that their characters—real historical figures—lived in a world assisted by slavery, but, unlike the status of women, this goes without much comment. 

The challenges of telling untold stories promise more imaginative histories. Prince Edward County’s prime position in the development of this continent makes its stories richly important.

Shades of Allegiance and The Four Dead Wives of Captain John Clapp are available at Books & Company in Picton.

This text is from the Volume 194 No. 18 edition of The Picton Gazette
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