Christine Blevins's Midwife of the Blue Ridge follows Maggie Duncan, a midwife and healer, from her youth and apprenticeship in the Scottish Highlands through her adventures in the American colonies. In 1763, shortly after the ship carrying Maggie and her fellow immigrants arrives in Richmond, Virginia, she becomes the indentured servant of Seth Martin, a backwoodsman living with his family at the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Seth sorely needs her assistance in caring for his pregnant wife, Naomi, whose health is fragile.
Maggie's journey brings her into contact with people from many different backgrounds: Palatine Protestant immigrants, native Virginians, Shawnee Indians, African American slaves, and a nasty English nobleman, among others. As Maggie struggles to survive in the dangerous, primitive land she now calls home, her growing romance with rugged longhunter Tom Roberts is complicated by his reluctance to settle down. One of the aspects I enjoyed most about Midwife was how it conveyed the precariousness and occasional brutality of life on the frontier. Although it's not a military novel, the shadow of war – the recent French and Indian War in the colonies, and the Battle of Culloden years earlier in Scotland – informs all of the characters' experiences.
Readers of this blog know how much I enjoy colonial American settings, so I couldn't resist asking Christine if she'd like to do an interview. Midwife of the Blue Ridge was published in paperback this August by Berkley ($14.00, 414pp, 978-0-425-22168-6). Her website is http://www.christineblevins.com/.
The novel has Maggie set out with her new master from Richmond over a seven days' journey to the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, and I'm wondering where, approximately, that would be on one of today's maps. Is Roundabout Station based on a real-life fort of the time?
I imagined the station was around or about where the present day town of Wytheville, Virginia, is located. Roundabout Station is a fictional fort, but it is based on typical frontier forts in structure and use.
On your website, you mention that Tom Roberts was inspired by two of your husband's ancestors who were longhunters on the Blue Ridge. How did you go about researching them, and him?
When my husband Brian and I were researching the Blevins line – trying to find the first Blevins who came over the water – we proceeding in the standard way of finding birth, marriage and death records. Of course the farther back you go, the trickier it gets – especially once you venture into places and times without formal government structure or established churches, and we ended up getting stuck six generations back, with Elisha Blevins, born in Virginia colony, 1752.
While researching census records at the Newberry Library here in Chicago, we stumbled upon mentions of Jack and William Blevins in a few history texts. Jack and William were a father and son team of hunters, who were among the first white men to venture through the Cumberland Gap. Though we were never able to solidly connect our Elisha Blevins with these two longhunting Blevi, genealogically, I became intrigued by and connected to this time and place in colonial American history that I did not know much about.
In further research on the longhunter lifestyle, I was captivated by a memoir originally published in 1799 titled An Account of the Remarkable Occurrences in the Life and Travels of Col. James Smith During his Captivity with the Indians, and by a lot of the biographical information on Daniel Boone (the most famous longhunter). The Tom Roberts character ended up being a composite of William Blevins, James Smith and Daniel Boone.
How did you develop Maggie's character? For example, why did you decide to make her an indentured servant from the Scottish Highlands?
As I researched the longhunters, I learned Will Blevins had a sister named Susannah, who was married to a longhunter named Elisha Walden. A longhunter might be gone for a year, sometimes two years at a time, and I began to imagine what it must have been like for a woman like Susannah Blevins, left alone with children and a farm to tend, out in the middle of nowhere. The longhunters drew me onto the frontier, but their women kept me there.
In order to be able to cultivate the love story I had in mind, my female character needed to be a single woman, living out on the frontier – which limited me to a frontiersman’s daughter, widow, or servant. For me it was an easy choice – an indentured servant is by definition a most desperate character, and the stuff of good fiction.
Making Maggie an immigrant was also a way for me to insert a bit of my own family history into the story. As a first generation American, I have an understanding of the forces that move people to migrate over great distances – war, poverty, persecution – and I know living through the horror of war, losing family, disconnecting from the familiar and traveling into uncertainty – these things build independence, strength and determination, qualities Maggie needed to survive.
As for Maggie Duncan coming from Scotland – that happened to fit the immigration pattern for the time, and also my penchant for things Scottish. My husband calls me a wannabe WASP.
Given the subjects of Midwife and the forthcoming The Tory Widow, do you have a special interest in women's lives in American history?
I have a special interest in both men’s and women’s lives in history, which is why I love to read historical fiction, set in most any time and place. My strong affinity for American history was developed through childhood – a quest to find American roots of my own. I find knowing and understanding America’s past connects me to my country.
And I guess because I am a woman, I more drawn to the lives of women – especially average women – a frontier wife like Susannah Blevins, or a printer’s widow who carries on with business during the Revolution – the kind of women whose stories tend to get lost in history.
What is it about life on the early American frontier that attracts you?
The adventure and desperation of living on the edge.
The novel takes place in a few different settings: Scotland, a backwoods settlement in Virginia, a stockade fort, and a Shawnee village. Which locales (or scenes) did you find the most enjoyable to research? The most challenging?
I find the research is always enjoyable – but I would say researching the information to write the Shawnee portion of the story was the most challenging.
I expect readers will absorb a lot about frontier medicine from Maggie's experiences as healer. Did you have interest or expertise in herbalism before beginning your novel?
No, I didn’t have any special expertise, or interest in herbalism until I decided to make Maggie a midwife. 18th century midwives were akin to physicians, especially on the frontier, where doctors were few and far between. These women were called upon to do much more than deliver babies – they were vital members of the community. Once I dove in, I was hooked – herbal birth control, painkillers, anesthesia – dealing with fevers and infection before the advent of antibiotics –surgical methods – it became a challenge to fit it all into the story.
The characters' backgrounds are readily identifiable by their speech patterns and vocabulary. (For example, I hear "warsh" for "wash" often in downstate Illinois, too.) How difficult was it to re-create their dialects on the page?
The dialects and speech patterns kind of sprout up from each individual character, based on his or her back story. I do read a lot of letters, narratives, poetry, and song lyrics, from the time, which helps me to get a certain rhythm. Maybe being bilingual and growing up around people with accents helps me in determining the speech patterns – I don’t know. I will not claim to have re-created how an 18th century Scotsman or Virginian actually spoke – but I did my best to convey the differences in backgrounds. In truth, if I wanted to be historically accurate, Maggie should have been a Gaelic speaker with little or no English, but I was afraid her having to learn English would bog the pace of the story, so I used a little literary license in that instance.
Midwife of the Blue Ridge contains many vivid descriptions of day-to-day life on the American frontier; all of the little details gave me a good mental picture of what the characters were seeing and experiencing. Do you feel that your background as a graphic designer influences your writing in this respect?
I think the ability to visualize helps me as much in graphic design as it does in my writing.
What other historical novels are your favorites? Are there any authors whose work you admire above others?
Oy, this question is so difficult… A very brief listing:
As a kid, some of my favorite books were the Little House series, and books by Louisa May Alcott. I graduated to Bronte, Dickens, Dumas and Sabatini. Fraser’s Flashman books are fun and Clavell’s Shogun is a huge all-time favorite of mine.
To include some authors who are still among the living, I can say I very much enjoy and admire the writing and storytelling in Sarum by Edward Rutherfurd, The Dress Lodger by Sheri Holman, The First Man in Rome, by Colleen McCullough, The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber, Outlander by Diana Gabaldon, Steven Saylor’s mystery series featuring Gordianus the Finder, and I love Bernard Cornwell’s work, especially the Arthur Trilogy, and the Starbuck Chronicles.
There are many, many more, but I don’t want to hog up your blog.
At the last HNS conference, several agents reported (to my regret!) that American settings don't sell, yet you've been successful with not only one but two novels fitting this description. What advice, if any, would you give other historical novelists interested in so-called unfashionable locales, either in early America or elsewhere?
I attended the conference having just signed my two-book deal with Berkley a few weeks before, and since the agent who made that pronouncement in her speech was the author of one of the rejection letters in my ginormous pile of agent rejection letters. I’ll admit to feeling a little smug at first.
But really, I so dislike these kinds of general and inaccurate statements. I know stories with British settings are doing quite well, but Water for Elephants, The 19th Wife, The Lace Reader, The Heretic’s Daughter – to name a few recently published examples – are proof that some editors are not only buying books with American settings, they are realizing great success as well.
Over the course of the HNS conference, I met quite a few writers disheartened by this agent’s pronouncement, and I was happy to be able to act as the poster child for American settings, and offer encouragement and hope. I can’t imagine writing to a trend – though I know people do – but since I feel the market will support great storytelling and strong writing, no matter the time, place or culture, the only advice I can give is this: write the story you have a passion for writing, and then find an agent who loves it and believes in it as much as you do. It’s not easy, but it is possible.
And from Sarah, again: Thanks, Christine, for taking the time to do this interview!
We also have a special giveaway contest. Christine will be providing signed copies of Midwife of the Blue Ridge, along with some related goodies, to three randomly selected blog readers. To enter, either leave a comment on this post, or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with "Midwife" as the subject. This contest is open to everyone regardless of location. Deadline is the end of the day this Thursday, Sept. 11th, with winners to be announced on Friday.