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Many thanks to Erin for allowing me the opportunity to ramble on at length on her excellent blog! While I am not the best at abbreviating, I promise to keep the rambling to a minimum – or at least try to J
Approximately a year ago, we bought a house – well, an old farm – out in the Swedish countryside. My best friend, who is also my Beta, Alpha and Omega reader, took one look at the place, turned towards me and grinned.
“It’s just like Graham’s Garden,” she said, referring to the imaginary homestead in Maryland in which Matthew and Alex make their home after having emigrated from Scotland.
“No it isn’t,” I protested, even if I silently agreed. But where Alex has a river, I have a lake, and anyway, how pathetic is it to buy a place because it evokes the general outline of a place I’ve made up?
Whatever the case, there we were with a big spread on our hands – and a lot of trees. Now my husband and I don’t need to clear land to survive, but we sure wanted a better view of the lake, and so we decided to cut down 150 trees. That’s A LOT of trees, people, and yet the cleared land was approximately the size of two basketball courts – sufficient to keep a family of six in potatoes over a winter, no more. It isn’t as if hubby and I chopped down the trees on our own; we asked the neighbouring farmer to bring in his huge forestry thing and take them down. In return, he got the timber, and we were left with piles of discarded branches. It took us twenty bonfires and close to twenty working days to get rid of all that, which had me reflecting over how daunting and exhausting it must have been for Matthew Graham to establish himself in the wilds of Maryland – even more so as his family depended on his success to survive.
I have always had a soft spot for those intrepid emigrants who left their home countries to set off for unknown lands. Many of them, like Matthew, had no choice; to stay was to be persecuted, to live in constant fear of imprisonment and deportation, and all for holding to religious beliefs that did not conform with the Anglican Church. If you dig a bit deeper into the history of the United States, one finds that most of the early colonists came due to reasons of faith. Massachusetts and Rhode Island were colonised by people of Puritan inclination (more or less hard-core), Maryland welcomed all settlers as long as they were Christian, and so had large Catholic and Presbyterian communities. The exception to the rule would be Virginia, originally colonised by people in search of gold rather than of spiritual freedom….
Whatever their reasons, the settlers did not arrive to a land of plenty. It wasn’t as if they could sit around with their mouths wide open and have sparrows fly in, so to say. Even today, driving along the eastern coast of the US is to drive through a lot of forest, and back then there’d be a fringe of populated land beyond which stretched the vast unknown, miles after miles of undulating wooded slopes. No wonder most early settlers stayed close to the coast – but some of the more intrepid set off towards the west, with promises of larger grants, massive tracts of land that lay there for their claiming.
Except that it wasn’t that easy. Men like Matthew Graham and his neighbours, the Leslie brothers, had deeds proving their ownership of their homesteads. Deeds prepared by colonial authorities, signed by colonial authorities, taking for granted the white man’s right to give away that which was not really the white man’s to begin with. After all, the land already belonged to someone else – it belonged to the Native Americans. Not that Matthew’s white contemporaries would agree. The Indians were nomadic people who moved about a lot, and as far as the colonists were concerned, the Indians were borderline savages, incapable of domesticating land. Yes, they’d been around for ages, but their societies were loosely knit groupings, there were no major cities, no kings, none of the attributes Europeans associated with highly developed civilizations.
Obviously, the colonists’ constant hunger for more land would at some point result in open hostilities with the Native Americans. But initially, at least, many of the Indians were friendly and supportive. Trade was brisk between the Dutch and the natives of Manhattan, John Smith found a relatively warm welcome among some of the tribes he visited along the Chesapeake Bay, and soon the Indians were bartering furs for muskets, food for powder.
In A Newfound Land, Matthew’s relationship with the Indians is the least of his problems. His challenge is the need to clear more land, to build houses and stables, barns and storage sheds, to feed his family and keep them safe. Further to this, he struggles with a constant heartache for his lost home in the faraway north.
Homesickness is a debilitating condition. I have seen first-hand how eyes glaze, how mouths droop as the person before me sighs and utters the word “home”. People who have lived for decades in their new homeland still perceive of it as being “away”, a temporary substitute for the land they long for, the landscape that sings in their blood. I imagine that very many of the new immigrants to the colonies suffered from this affliction. After all, when you’re forced to leave, the lost homeland acquires dreamlike qualities, the remembered land of your birth forever bathed in rosy sunsets. Like the proverbial donkey, these men and women would look upon their new home and rather than see the opportunities, they’d see what they had lost, yearning always for the far greener meadows of “home”. Conveniently, the people suffering from homesickness would forget why they left; the persecution, the years of failed harvests, the dismal fogs of winter, the stench of the far too much humanity crammed into the slums of cities like London and Edinburgh.
Sometimes, the reluctant emigrant – then or now – is given the opportunity to return home. So they travel back, and with each mile they cover, their anticipation grows. Home. Soon they’ll be home, with their people, in their land. The last stretch is unbearable, an extended countdown where every second feels like a lifetime. And there, at last, is the familiar bend in the road. The returning emigrant gets to his feet and throws an encouraging look at his accompanying son. “Home,” he says, and his mouth quivers as he struggles not to cry – or laugh out loud. The last bend, the last lane, and there, at last, is home. Except that it no longer is, and the home-comer throws a bewildered look at his surroundings, still so familiar and yet so changed. Home? Where is home? The carefully conserved memories are rent asunder, the rosy hue fades into grey, as reality collides with dreams. Oh yes: homesickness is a dangerous disease. It causes you to distort reality into make-believe, forgetting that time never stands still – not even in the land you left behind.
The below is an extract of the prologue to A Newfound Land (available on my website, http://www.annabelfrage.com ), illustrating just how homesick Matthew is.
It was an eerie, otherworldly experience to wake in their little cabin and it was only them, only him and Alex. The silence made him restless, and he didn’t like it that the pallets where his bairns would normally sleep were empty of warm sleeping bodies. Alex was fast asleep and the single source of light was the banked fire, emitting a weak reddish glow that only served to deepen the shadows in the stuffy room. Alex coughed and rolled onto her back. She coughed again, struggling up to sit.
“Are you alright?”
“Better,” she assured him and coughed again, before subsiding back against the pillows. “Still very tired,” she added through a yawn. He curled himself around her, fitting her into the hollow of his body, and sighed contentedly. She was still too thin, he concluded after running his hands up and down her flank, her thighs, her breasts. He lifted her heavy braid out of the way and sniffed at her nape. Sweat, salt, smoke, fresh green apples and a comforting scent of warm milk – he inhaled, held the taste and scent of her in his lungs and slowly exhaled.
“I want my children back,” she said.
“Aye, so do I. But not yet, a few more days of peace and quiet.”
"Mmm...” Alex yawned, shifted closer to him. He held her, staring out at the cramped space that was their home. Home? This was a pathetic excuse of a home, a far cry from their house in Ayrshire, his beautiful Hillview. He sighed deeply and Alex shifted in his arms.
“What?” she asked.
“Nowt,” he replied.
Alex raised herself off his chest. “And you tell me I’m a bad liar.” She moved up, enough that she could rest her forehead against his. “It was the right decision. We’ll be fine.”
“Fine,” he echoed, more because he felt it was expected of him than out of conviction. Part of him was permanently severed, remaining forever back in Scotland.
“Matthew...” Alex half sat up, shook her head and laid down, turning her back on him. They didn’t say anything for a long time. Finally, she got out of bed and busied herself at the hearth.
“I can’t help it,” he said gruffly over breakfast. “I live the loss of it, constantly.”
She didn’t reply, setting down his porridge bowl with something of a bang. They ate in silence, Matthew’s eyes every now and then sliding over in Alex’s direction, but she evaded them.
Once they’d eaten, she shoved the bowl away from her and looked at him from under her lashes. “You wallow. I miss it too, you know.”
“Not like I do. Hillview was my home, it was never yours as it was mine,” he said brutally, half closing her eyes at the hurt that flashed across her face.
“No,” she agreed in a small voice, “after all I don’t have a home, do I? Not so that I can go back to it anyway.”
Matthew looked away; nay, that would be difficult, given that she shouldn’t be here to begin with, a freak thunderstorm transporting her through time to land at his feet.
Alex clumsily got to her feet, grabbed at her cloak and then she was out, the wee fool, barefoot in the November cold, and when Matthew rushed after her she was already ducking in among the trees. He caught up with her easily enough, yanked her to a stop and picked her up in his arms, berating her for rushing thus undressed through the cold, ailing as she was. He carried her all the way back home, kissed her cheek and tucked her into bed.
“We’ll build a new home, here,” he said, “a fine home.” She just nodded, keeping her eyes on the fringe of her shawl. “Our home, Alex.” When she refused to meet his eyes, he gently grabbed her by the chin, forcing her to face him. He sank his eyes into hers, his big thumb drawing small circles over her skin. “Our home, lass,” he repeated. She nodded once, giving him a brief smile.
He bent and kissed her nose. “And Hillview was as much your home as mine,” he said softly. “No home of mine would be complete without you.” He patted her leg, mumbled something about having work to do, and stepped outside into the pale autumn day. Cool clear air filled his lungs, there was a promise of rain in the wind. Under the denuded trees, the leaves lay in thick russet carpets, and when Matthew inhaled, it smelled almost like it did in Scotland. Almost. For a brief second, Matthew Graham closed his eyes and raised his face to the sky, pretending he was home.
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About the Author: I was raised abroad, on a pungent mix of Latin American culture, English history and Swedish traditions. As a result I’m multilingual and most of my reading is historical – both non-fiction and fiction. I was always going to be a writer – or a historian, preferably both. Instead I ended up with a degree in Business and Finance, with very little time to spare for my most favourite pursuit. Still, one does as one must, and in between juggling a challenging career I raised my four children on a potent combination of invented stories, historical debates and masses of good food and homemade cakes. They seem to thrive … Nowadays I spend most of my spare time at my writing desk. The children are half grown, the house is at times eerily silent and I slip away into my imaginary world, with my imaginary characters. Every now and then the one and only man in my life pops his head in to ensure I’m still there. I like that – just as I like how he makes me laugh so often I’ll probably live to well over a hundred. I was always going to be a writer. Now I am – I have achieved my dream. For more information, please visit Anna Belfrage’s website. You can also find her on Facebook or follow her on Twitter.
About the Book: It’s 1672, and Matthew Graham and his family have left Scotland. Having taken the drastic decision to leave their homeland due to religious conflicts, Alexandra and Matthew hope for a simpler, if harsher, life in the wilds of the Colony of Maryland. Unfortunately, things don’t always turn out as you want them to, and the past has a nasty tendency to resurface at the most inappropriate moments. Both Matthew and Alex are forced to cope with the unexpected reappearance of people they had never thought to meet again, and the screw is turned that much tighter when the four rogue Burley brothers enter their lives. Matters are further complicated by the strained relations between colonists and the Susquehannock Indians. When Matthew intercedes to stop the Burleys from abducting Indian women into slavery he makes lifelong – and deadly – enemies of them all. Once again Alex is plunged into an existence where death seems to threaten her man wherever he goes. Will Matthew see himself – and his family – safe in these new circumstances? And will the past finally be laid to rest? A Newfound Land is the fourth book in Anna Belfrage’s time slip series featuring time traveller Alexandra Lind and her seventeenth century husband, Matthew Graham.
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