Winter Fire by Kathy Fischer-Brown

winter fire

Among the literature of seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth century America, “captive narratives” were an extremely popular and sensational genre depicting stories of white settlers — predominantly women— taken in raids by Native Americans. To this day these tales, of Mary Rowlandson, Hannah Dustan, Hannah  Swarton, and Mary French, to name just a few, provide entertaining and informative reads. But none gripped my imagination more than the tale of Mary Jemison, a teenage girl who was captured by a French and Indian war party and adopted into the Seneca tribe in the area around what is now Syracuse, New York. Even as she mourned her family, Mary lived the rest of her life among the Haudenosaunee. By the time she was an old woman, Dehgewanus (as she was then called) had all but forgotten her native language and was venerated by her tribe. An equally engrossing tale is told in a more recent book. John Demos’s The Unredeemed Captive (Vintage, 1995) chronicles the efforts of the Williams family of Massachusetts in the early 1700’s to regain their daughter following a raid on Deerfield. After years of searching and countless disappointments, Reverend Williams was horrified to learn that Eunice had married a Mohawk warrior and chose to remain with her captors.

It was only natural that when the idea for Winter Fire caught my imagination, I returned to these accounts. As the story took shape, further research led to a campaign of 1779 during the American Revolution, which had as its target Six Nations warriors under Mohawk war chief Joseph Brandt and his Loyalist allies. (An exceptional account of this bloody chapter in American history is told in Allan Eckert’s Wilderness War.) Following a number of murderous attacks on frontier settlements and equally brutal reprisals, George Washington dispatched Generals John Sullivan and James Clinton into Iroquois lands to minimize the effectiveness of Brandt’s forces by burning their villages and crops. The resulting devastation led only to more retaliation.

An unexpected by-product of this offensive was the recovery of a number of white captives and their return to “civilization.” Some went happily with the army, while others had to be forced from the burning remains of their adoptive homes.

This inspired me to ask myself, “What if…?” What if a white woman in like circumstances had been taken against her will and returned to what was left of her family?

The narratives are filled with incidents in which this had been the case. Unfortunately, these reunions, more often than not, were unpleasant for both the former captives and their relations. Back among their own people, many of the redeemed were scorned, shunned, and regarded with suspicion for their strange ways. After years of living among the “savages,” attempts to reintegrate into a society that was now foreign and strange ended in failure for these people trapped between two worlds. At first opportunity they would run off and attempt to rejoin their Indian families. Not all of these tales had a happy ending.

And so, with these accounts as its foundation, Zara Grey’s story took root in my imagination. Caught up in a war pitting neighbor against neighbor, son against father, white man against “red man,” a young heiress of Dutch descent becomes both a pawn and a pariah, with murder in the bargain.

Ethan Caine, the hero of this historical romance, has as his backstory a polarizing incident based on true events. In eastern Pennsylvania during the conflict known as Pontiac’s Rebellion, a group of self-appointed vigilantes, the “Paxton Boys,” fed up by the lack of support by colonial forces against Indian incursions, attacked and killed residents of a nearby village of peaceful Susquehannock. While the actual episode was unprovoked, the fictionalized account in my book involves a patchwork of incidents gleaned from history. Young Ethan is deeply traumatized by these events and the ensuing senseless slaughter. Fifteen years later, he is forced to confront his own prejudice and regrets when he rescues a young white woman dressed in clothes of Iroquoian design attempting to cross a half-frozen stream en route to Iroquois lands.

The resulting novel, a 1998 Golden Heart finalist, has as its core the inter-cultural conflicts of its time colored by the perceptions, misconceptions, and fears of people in the midst of war.

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