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Using The Snake Fence with Common Core Standards

Using The Snake Fence with Common Core Standards

Francis Holleran,  past president of Florida Council for the Social Studies and the National Social Studies Supervisors Association, suggested that The Snake Fence works well with the new Common Core Standards for Social Studies, Grades 6-8. With his encouragement, I have devised discussion topics and projects related to The Snake Fence to help teachers achieve those standards.

If English Language Arts teachers collaborate with social studies teachers in using The Snake Fence simultaneously in both disciplines, it will be a much richer experience for their classes than if either used the book alone.

I will be working on using the standards for grades 9-12 and will post additional lesson suggestions from time to time.



English Language Arts Standards »Using The History/Social Studies » Grade 6-8   Snake Fence

Key Ideas and Details

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.6-8.1 Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources.

Braddock’s defeat, p.120 ff. There are many descriptions of this battle, in journals written at the time, other newspaper articles, letters home to England, even George Washington’s memoirs written much later. Google “General Braddock’s defeat” for secondary sources of information and compare them withThe Pennsylvania Gazette article.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.6-8.2 Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source; provide an accurate summary of the source distinct from prior knowledge or opinions.

Minutes of the dinners at Pembertons’: p.175-6, 182-186

The description of these dinner conversations was taken from the minutes written at the dinners, although not all of the minutes were used in the story. These minutes are part of the Special Collections Library of Haverford College. Have students read the account here and tell or write what they have learned from this primary source. The two quotations from The Pennsylvania Gazette, found on pages 4 and 121-122, could also be used here. See also the discussion questions on this chapter, p. 227.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.6-8.3 Identify key steps in a text’s description of a process related to history/social studies (e.g., how a bill becomes law, how interest rates are raised or lowered).

How negotiations work: p. 201-204, 210

Primary source materials for this section come from Minutes of the Provincial Council.  Choose another negotiating topic, such as found in President Jimmy Carter’s book, The Blood of Abraham, about peace negotiations between Palestine, Israel, and several other countries in the 1970’s and analyze them. Have students assume roles of diplomats from each country and have a mock peace conference of their own, to see if they can achieve peace in the Middle East, using the background information in Carter’s book.

Alternatively, let students pick a topic relevant to their own lives and set up a series of negotiations based on Noble’s description of how these things work.

Craft and Structure

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.6-8.4 Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, including vocabulary specific to domains related to history/social studies.

Was Israel Pemberton a traitor? P. 185, 195-96

Look up the definition of “traitor.” Does this apply to Israel Pemberton, Jr.? Was he charged with treason? Look up information on his biography. Would you consider him a successful man? Why or why not? What traitors have been convicted in the United States? If time allows, you might have the class conduct a trial of Israel Pemberton.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.6-8.5 Describe how a text presents information (e.g., sequentially, comparatively, causally).

The Walking Purchase, p. 42-44

The author presents a great deal of information about the Walking Purchase in a narrative, causal way. Have students write or tell the information in a comparative way by finding other sources of this information, either on-line or in print sources, and comparing them to this account. Are students convinced that the circumstances of The Walking Purchase were the cause of Indian violence on the frontier? Could there have been other causes? What might they be? Then analyze the effectiveness of conveying history in each form.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.6-8.6 Identify aspects of a text that reveal an author’s point of view or purpose (e.g., loaded language, inclusion or avoidance of particular facts)

“savage,” “heathen,” “redskin.” p. 211-213

The author has Noble thinking these terms during a moment of extreme stress, although he is saddened later that he thought that way. What does this tell you about the author’s purpose?

John McCowen’s response to Braddock’s defeat, p.120 ff.

Describe the differences between the Butler family’s response and John’s response. Why did they react so differently? What do you think is the author’s point of view here?

Integration of Knowledge and Ideas

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.6-8.7 Integrate visual information (e.g., in charts, graphs, photographs, videos, or maps) with other information in print and digital texts.

Map, p. vi

Compare the 1756 map on p. vi of The Snake Fence with a map of Indian paths found in Indian Paths of Pennsylvania, by Paul Wallace or another source on line. Explain why the same area is portrayed so differently. Research descriptions of travel in colonial times, such as are found in Into the American Woods, by James H. Merrell. Then look again at the map on p. vi of The Snake Fence and compare it with maps of 1856, 1956, and 2006. If you don’t live in Pennsylvania, do the same kind of research for your own state as well.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.6-8.8 Distinguish among fact, opinion, and reasoned judgment in a text.

“Stories in the Rain,” p. 39-46

In this passage we learn that Daniel’s and Christopher’s attitudes toward Indians differ. Can you distinguish among fact, opinion, and reasoned judgment in this scene? What are they based on? Can Noble tell the difference? At this point are his thoughts and feelings based on fact, opinion, or reasoned judgment? Do they change by the end of the book? Choose another topic about which people feel strongly. Can you identify and distinguish between fact, opinion, and reasoned judgment


CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.6-8.9 Analyze the relationship between a primary and secondary source on the same topic.

Account of Braddock’s Defeat, p. 120-122

See Standard 6-8.1 above.

Range of Reading and Level of Text Complexity

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.6-8.10 By the end of grade 8, read and comprehend history/social studies texts in the grades 6–8 text complexity band independently and proficiently.




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Author Interview

What inspired you to write The Snake Fence?  My family background is Quaker, and I realized my pacifist people have been involved in one way or another in every war in American history. Since conflict is the starting point of stories, I thought of writing historical fiction about how my family dealt with being pacifist during war-time.

What topics in The Snake Fence do you think readers will find interesting? I have tried to create a balanced account of each side’s needs in the fight over territory. I have dealt with prejudice, with the causes of war, and with young Noble’s need to determine his own future apart from his family’s plans for him. And many readers will find it interesting to learn about ways of life in another time period.

Tell us about your career outside of writing and how it has influenced your writing. I have spent most of my life with teenagers, having taught English and social studies at the high school level in my first career. So when I tell a story, I naturally want to frame it in terms of teenagers’ interests and needs.

Describe your style of writing. I use a first-person narrative style to get inside my protagonist’s head.

Which authorshave inspired you? Louisa Mae Alcott, James Michener, Ken Follett, Madeleine L’Engle.


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Chapter One: Wagoners Wanted

I’ve given you the Prologue of The Snake Fence in my blog about Quaker lingo. Here’s the first chapter as a teaser. You can now order an advance copy of The Snake Fence at at a discounted price. The book will be mailed to you by the end of the month.


Chapter 1

Wagoners Wanted

Clutching both reins, I yelled, “Giddyup, Hope! Home, Seth! Faster! Faster!” Benjamin Franklin’s Pennsylvania Gazette was tucked inside my shirt. Bags of newly milled flour thudded against the bed of Pa’s old farm wagon. My teeth rattled as the horses pounded the dirt road. Here’s my chance, I thought, if only Pa will let me go!

My straw hat slipped off the back of my head and my hair whipped across my eyes. I brushed it back with my forearm, not letting go of the reins. Bad things were happening on Pennsylvania’s frontier. Indians were killing people, burning houses and crops. Not here in Chester County, but in the Back Counties. And the English were sending a grand army to defend us.

Because we are Quakers and don’t believe in war, I couldn’t join the army. But I sure wanted to help make things right. If Indians attacked our farm, would we defend ourselves? If we didn’t, what would happen? Bloody scenes flashed through my mind.

I loved my family too much to let something that awful happen without trying to . . . to what? To kill to avoid being killed? Could I even do that? If I did, the Meeting might disown me. That in itself would be a kind of death.

I had never met an Indian. At Quaker Meeting, I heard that they, like everyone else, had “that of God” within them. But the Pennsylvania Gazette painted a different picture. Why were Indians suddenly violent? Mayhap others had it right: they were just savages who couldn’t be trusted. I was sitting on the snake fence on this issue.

People I knew seemed more interested in following Quaker teachings than in questioning them. Not everyone in the world believes as Quakers do. What makes Quakers so sure they have the Truth and everyone else is wrong? But when I asked Pa, he just looked at Ma as if to say, “Where did this young’un come from?” So I didn’t ask again, but I kept wondering.

I didn’t expect to find answers at home on the farm. Mayhap Franklin’s advertisement would make all the difference. But I would have to put it to Pa in just the right way. Pa was a good man, but not easy. He had an edge in his voice, a challenging look in his eyes. He was fair but tough, and he lacked patience with anything he considered a hare-brained idea.

According to Pa, I had come up with more than my share of those ideas. One was to mount chair legs on curved runners so the chair could tilt back and forth. Istill thought it was worth pursuing, but Pa had really scorned that one. “Why would I want to tilt my chair back and forth? When I sit down, I want rest, not exercise!”

I hoped this latest idea was not hare brained. It was Benjamin Franklin’s idea, after all. I just wanted to be part of it. I wanted to be part of something big.

The late afternoon sun winked through little spring leaves as I careened up the hill to our barn. My finger fumbled unhitching and watering the horses. Then I raced down to the house, jerked a dripping bucket of water from the well, splashed my sweaty face, and burst through the kitchen door. The Pennsylvania Gazette was hidden in my shirt.

The family had just finished supper. Everyone was there, even my oldest brother Enoch and his wife, Deborah. Pa and Ma sat in their chairs at either end of the long plank table. Bersheba and Will, older than I, and our younger brother Benjamin were perched on stools on either side. My place was still set.

“Time for the Bible reading, Noble,” Pa said. “Eat thy supper while I read.”

I squatted on my stool. My knees bumped up under the table now that I’d grown taller. Ma passed me a plate of bread and sausage gravy. Pa read from the big Bible, as he did every day. Then he prayed and the family all said “Amen,” same as every day. Then he put the Bible back in its heavy wooden box. Time to make my move.

“Pa,” I said, “I brought home the new Pennsylvania Gazette. Want to read it?”

Pa put his glasses back on his nose, and Will and Ben breathed a sigh of relief. Listening to news beat going out for evening chores. Pa opened the paper and began to read aloud. Never ones to sit idle, the women took out their needlework. My older brothers either leaned their elbows on the table or tipped their stools back against the blue hutch.

I had a plan, if I could just be patient enough. I hoped my voice wouldn’t crack. It hadn’t for a while now, but it still did when I least expected it.

Pa droned on about the latest squabble between the Pennsylvania Assembly and the governor. This whole year of 1755 had been full of war talk. I knew Pa would read all the news before he got to the advertisement that had captured my imagination.

Pa always read the ads. There were descriptions of runaway apprentices, indentured servants, and horses. Who knew when we might see one of them and be able to claim the reward? “Keep eyes sharp, lads,” Pa would say. He read all notices of sales of farms, houses, and estates. Not that he wanted to buy, but he wanted to know what the market was. Pa had a reputation for making money where others might not think to try or want to take the risk.

A sudden change in Pa’s voice caught everyone’s attention. He had found the advertisement signed by Benjamin Franklin himself. “Forty-one Wagons are immediately wanted, to carry a load of Oats and Indian Corn from Philadelphia to Wills’s Creek, for which they are to be paid twelve pounds each wagon. Protections and passes will be given the Wagoners by authority of the General, to prevent their being impressed, or detained after delivery of their Loads. They are to set out together on Thursday the 29th instant. Apply to Benjamin Franklin, in Philadelphia. Note: several neighbors may conveniently join in fitting out a wagon, as was lately done in the Back Counties. If the Wagons cannot thus be obtained, there must be an Impress.”

Pa’s voice was heavy with significance as he read that last word. Leaning back in his armchair, he looked over his spectacles. The family silently considered what he had just read. I forced myself to keep quiet. I mustn’t be in a hurry.

“What’s an impress, Pa?” Ben asked.

“It means the army could force farmers to deliver grain, willing or not.”

“And General Braddock might keep the horses and wagon, maybe even the farmer, for as long as needed,” added Enoch. Even though he and Deborah were expecting a child of their own, he still enjoyed frightening Ben.

“If Indians are attacking as close as the Susquehanna, how much longer will we be safe here in Chester County?” Ma worried.

“An army must be splendid, all those uniforms, horses, and guns,” Ben sighed.

“An army isn’t splendid, Ben,” William scoffed. “When thee sees an army, thee is seeing men who kill each other. We don’t believe in war, remember.”

I glared at him. “But soldiers and their horses need to eat, surely,” I said. “We can’t fight, but we can feed them, can’t we?”

“Making money on the war,” Will grumbled. “That’s as bad as fighting.”

“The army is already here, to defend us. Why shouldn’t we feed them?” Enoch said. “Don’t we owe them that?”

“But, Pa, isn’t supplying an army the same as fighting?” Will asked.

I couldn’t wait for Pa to answer. “Nay, Will, think of it this way: it would be unchristian to let soldiers starve in the wilderness, wouldn’t it, Pa?”

Pa looked from one of us to the other, a hint of a smile on his face. He enjoyed watching us argue. It sharpened our minds, he said, though Ma pleaded with him not to encourage us. Finally he said, “The Lord wants us to be good stewards. If an opportunity comes along and does no one harm, I find naught wrong with it. ‘Twelve pounds and safe passage for any who would drive a wagon loaded with oats and corn,’ ” he read again.

I had waited long enough. About to burst with excitement, I chose my words carefully, watching Pa’s face for any reaction. “Pa, since thee bought the new wagon,don’t we have a spare one?”

“Aye, we do.”

I couldn’t help wriggling on my seat. “And now that Ben is getting so stout, might thee spare me to make this trip?”

“What? That would leave me with just Will and Ben to help out here.”

“Aye, but we’ve nearly finished planting, so there is only haying to do in Sixth Month. Sheba can help with that, and I’d be back before time to pull flax and cut rye.”

“And what will draw the wagon?” Pa replied. “I can’t spare two horses.”

Enoch broke in. “Deborah’s brother Jonathan has a horse he might let us use, if thee could spare one.”

Us? Does thee think to go with me?” Suddenly I saw my twelve pounds halved.

“Nay, little brother, I may let thee go with me,” Enoch taunted. “Not likely Jonathan would let thee borrow his horse.” Deborah nodded her agreement.

“Why would I trust either of thee with my horse and wagon?” Pa asked.

“Thee let me drive a load to Philadelphia alone, and on this trip there would be a whole train of wagons,” I said. “Pa, how can I prove myself without such a chance?”

“And what would thee do with the twelve pounds?”

I thought fast. “We’d split it evenly.” Half my profit gone, but I needed that horse. Pa waited for me to continue.

“I’d buy woodworking tools.”

“Well, if Jonathan Swayne is willing to lend his horse, I suppose we could spare thee for a while. We managed well enough during thy apprenticeship, didn’t we?” Then he added, “But don’t come home with an empty wagon.”

Until I heard those words, I hadn’t realized I’d been holding my breath. Then it burst out in amazed relief. Pa was actually going to let me go. Now I could be part of showing those Indians they couldn’t get by with attacking civilized people. I didn’t know how that could be done without violence, but I was too excited about the coming adventure to worry about details.

Ma shook her head in resignation. I knew she was relieved that two of us were going, because we would look out for each other.

Pa folded his spectacles and put them away with the newspaper.

I tried hard not to show how smug I felt. What a great adventure I was about to have! It almost made up for not getting a journeyman job right away. This way I could do something about stopping those awful attacks on settlers, see the world, or a different part of it leastways, and earn money for tools.

That night Ben hopscotched silver squares of moonlight on the floor of our bedroom as we shimmied out of our breeches and hung them on wall pegs. He said, “I wish I could go with thee, brother.”

“I’d rather have thee than Enoch for a traveling partner any day. He always acts as if he’s just eaten a sour apple. Pa can spare but one of us, though, and thee is rather young.”

“Thee will see soldiers, maybe Indians and Frenchmen, maybe even a battle.”

“I hope so. Someone has to keep them from killing people. I wish the Meeting would allow us to fight. But maybe there’s a way to stop violence without adding to it.”

Ben curled up like a puppy on our rope-strung bed, his chin resting on his hand. We were buddies as well as brothers. Joking with Ben had made dull days nearly bearable. I would do anything to defend him, I told myself, Quaker or not.


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John McCowen

Here is another section that I couldn’t keep when I made Noble the first person narrator. John is the lover you read about in “Little Brother Spying.” After General Braddock’s defeat, he decides to leave the Butler farm to seek his family. He had heard but wasn’t convinced that they had left their farm in Shearman’s Valley and gone to Easton because of Indian attacks.


John rode away from the Butler farm with no clear plan in mind. He came to the Lancaster road, pulled a coin from his pouch, and tossed it in the air. He said aloud, “Heads I go to Shearman’s Valley, tails I go to Easton.”  He clapped the coin onto the back of his left hand and looked at it. “Heads,” he said, with a sinking feeling in his stomach. “All right, Shearman’s Valley it is!”  And with that, he jerked the reins and headed west.

He met streams of settlers heading east, their carts piled high with household goods. Children leading cattle followed their parents in the wagons. John peered at the worried faces, looking for anyone he might recognize so he could inquire after his own parents or even their farm. Several settlers gave him advice he didn’t want to hear.

“Go back,” they said. “Savages are attacking everywhere. They strike when you least expect them, and you don’t stand a chance. They killed three of our neighbors as they harvested their fields. Then they  burned the house with women and children still inside. They have no consciences at all.”

“What news of Shearman’s Valley?” John asked.

“It’s empty these many weeks now. Everyone who survived the attacks has left for safer places.”

“Do ye know Duncan McCowen?”

“Nay, never heard of him, but if he has any sense, or if there’s breath left in him, he’s headed east. Yer on a fool’s errand, young man. Better give it up and join us.”

But despite his growing sense of dread, John stubbornly pressed westward until he arrived at Wright’s Ferry. There he met grizzled James Wright, one of the ferry owners.

“Good day, young man,” Mr. Wright said. “The boats are on the other side of the river, waiting for people heading east. Thee will have to wait unless thee intends to ride thy horse across.” His bright eyes were full of questions.  “We don’t often see anyone headed west these days. In fact, the last people crossing west were in a wagon train taking supplies to Wills’s Creek early in Sixth Month. Where is thee going?”

“To Shearman’s Valley to look for me family. Me name is John McCowen. Have ye heard ought of the McCowen family?”

“Nay, I’ve not heard of them. But I think there’s no one left in Shearman’s Valley. Where might  they  have gone for shelter?”

“They may have headed for Easton. I believe we have kinfolk there.”

“Then take the Paxtang Path north from here to Harris’s Ferry, near where the Juniata River empties into the Susquehanna. John Harris is more likely to know the news from Shearman’s Valley than anyone crossing here.  If thy family has left for Easton, thee will get there more directly from there than from here. But do stay on this side of the river as thee goes north. The tribes on this side have caused no trouble.”

John nodded grimly. “Thankee, sir. I’ll do as ye say. “

“It’s late to set out today. Will thee stay the night at our little inn?”

“Nay, there’s a few hours of daylight left, so I’ll use it while it lasts.”

Tipping his hat to James Wright, John wheeled his horse around and clattered off along the Paxtang Path.

The few hours of daylight dwindled quickly in the thick forest. Just as darkness closed in, John found a low lean-to along the road and decided to stop for the night. Indians had built this shelter and left their pictographs in the bark of a tall oak nearby. Though John could not read them, he knew any Indian could, no matter what tribe. They probably told who had stayed here and how many were in their party. John hoped he would be the only traveler staying there that night. He tied his horse and ate the rest of his pennyloaf of bread for the day. Then he settled into his bedroll for an uneasy night’s sleep.

By noon the next day he had reached Harris’s Ferry. John Harris scratched his head dubiously when John asked about crossing the river.

“Of course ye can cross.  Just ride yer horse from one side to the other, since the river’s down. But why d’ye want to?”

“I’m looking for me family. Do ye know Duncan McCowen?”

“Aye, I know him. He and his family left, oh, maybe three months ago. Then when the supply wagon train came east, one team carried his son.” John Harris looked at him more closely.   “Would that be you?”

“Aye, I’m John McCowen. Do ye know where they were headin’?”

“Easton, I believe he said.”

“Had they been attacked?  And what of our farm?  I thought I’d go see for meself.”

“Nay, they hadn’t, but their nearest neighbors were murdered, so the whole community decided to clear out. As for yer farm, I’ve heard only that all the settlements have been burned to the ground, and the crops in the fields as well. Ferget the farm and go find yer folks. The farm kin wait, but yer people deserve to know ye’re alive and well. They may need ye wherever they are near Easton.”

John’s face fell. He looked across the broad river and felt the pull of the land in his heart. He wanted so much to go home. If he found it in ruins, it would fuel his thirst for revenge. If he found it intact, he would go get his family and return in time for spring planting.

John Harris cleared his throat loudly. “Son, it’s not worth the risk. Go find yer folks and let ’em know yer alive. Then all of ye together kin decide what’s best to do.”

Still he hesitated. His face reddened and his eyes narrowed as hatred raged within him.

John Harris seemed to read his thoughts.

“Just be glad yer folks are safe. Go find ’em and let ’em be glad to see ye. No doubt ye’ll get yer farm back when the troubles settle down.”

Reluctantly John McCowen nodded. “I suppose ye’re right. Which way to Easton from here?”

“Follow the road to Reading, and there at the fork ye’ll go northeast to Easton. Good luck to ye.”



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Little Brother Spying

Here is another excerpt that I couldn’t use because I chose Noble as my first-person narrator. Noble’s ten-year-old brother, Benjamin, was fascinated watching the wounded stranger Noble had brought home fall in love with Sheba, their older sister.


Ben watched John and Sheba with new awareness. He saw Sheba help John walk over the uneven ground to the bench by the well, John’s arm over her shoulder, and her arm wrapped around his waist.  Surely he needs no help walking. The wound is in his shoulder, not his leg!  Ben thought.

Though pretending not to hear, Ben listened to their conversations as he tormented Pearl, the cat, with a clover blossom. And he watched Ma and Pa to see if they knew what was obviously going on under their noses. He couldn’t quite tell.

He could tell that John was in love with Sheba. But why?   Up till now, Ben had simply taken her for granted, never considering whether she was attractive or not. Was she pretty?  Ben didn’t think so. She was too ordinary. It was hard for him to think about, as hard as if someone asked him to consider the relative beauty of a piece of furniture. If it served its purpose, it was fine. Beauty was immaterial.

But because John thought she was pretty, Ben began trying to see his sister through John’s eyes.  He noticed that her skin was fair, her eyes blue, her hair neatly covered with her cap. But that was true of nearly every girl in Meeting. Because John watched Sheba’s movements as she worked in the kitchen, Ben tried to notice, too. He could see no difference in the way she and Ma moved, except Ma was getting a little stiff with age. Sheba was more graceful, but wouldn’t anyone expect that of someone younger?

Ben listened to her voice. It was no softer than most girls’, but, in fact, she seemed to speak more softly to John.  She wasn’t bossy with him the way she was with her brothers. And a good thing, too. Ben couldn’t imagine anyone being bossy toward John McCowen.

One night Sheba went to her room before Ben prepared for bed. As he neared his door, he noticed hers was open a crack. Silently he looked in. Sheba was sitting in her shift at the low table in front of her window. She had loosened the ties at her elbows, so her sleeves fell toward her shoulders as she brushed her hair. Ben sucked in his breath. Women never exposed their upper arms!

Sheba’s hair glinted in the candlelight. As she brushed the entire length, individual strands drifted, seeming to have a life of their own. Her hair looked like flax prepared for spinning.

Ben felt strangely moved. Dimly, he began to understand how a man might. . . .

Suddenly a rough hand clamped the back of his neck and another covered his mouth. Pa whirled him around, marched him downstairs and out the front door, and dumped him on the bench next to the well.

“Spying on thy sister, Benjamin?  What is this all about?”

Ben felt the blush rise from his knotted stomach to the roots of the hair on his head. Shame silenced him.

“Why was thee spying on Sheba?” Pa insisted.

In a very small voice, Ben stammered, “I was trying to figure out why John seems to love her.”

Pa was silent, his mouth twisted as if he were trying not to laugh. Then he said in measured, deliberate words, “That is something thee will understand later, son. Meanwhile, thee must realize women are entitled to privacy, the same as men. Would thee want Sheba spying on thee?”

“Nay,” Ben admitted.

“Would thee want anyone spying on thee?”

“Nay, I wouldn’t.”

“The next time this happens. . . .”

“There won’t be a next time, Pa. I promise.”

“Then get thee to bed, and no more of this foolishness.”

The bench felt rough against Ben’s bony rump. He was glad to stand, but he wasn’t ready to end the conversation, now that Pa seemed to be finished with him.

“Pa, did thee know John loves Sheba?”

“I’ve had my suspicions.”

“Does Ma know?”

“We haven’t discussed it, but I’d be surprised if she doesn’t know more about it than thee and I do.”

“Would thee let Sheba marry someone who isn’t Quaker, Pa?”

“Thee is too far ahead of me, son. Neither John nor Sheba has said anything about marriage. John has to find his family and see what has happened to their farm. He’s very young and has yet to make his way in the world. ‘Tis true he’s taken with her, but who knows how seriously. When he leaves, we may never hear from him again. If he returns for her, then we’ll discuss marriage. By then, John may be ready to become a Friend himself.”

“Will thee tell Ma about our talk tonight?  I wish thee would not.”

Pa smiled and tousled Ben’s rumpled hair. “My lips are sealed,” he promised. “Some things are better kept amongst us men.”


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Susannah Wright, Wilderness Wonder Woman

At the Highlights Foundation’s “Historical Fiction for Young Adults” workshop, I was cautioned, “Don’t let your research show.” Apparently I’m not the only writer who gets so excited about interesting nuggets of historical facts that I want to astound my readers with them in my story. Bad idea! Unless the fact advances the plot or develops character, leave it out.

So I left nearly all of this out of my story, but it’s too good to keep to myself. Let me tell you about Susannah Wright, an amazing woman in any time period.

Susannah Wright was born in Lancashire, England, in 1697 to Quaker parents. When she was 17 years old, the family immigrated to Pennsylvania. Her mother died in 1722, and from then on, Susannah managed her father’s extended household and later cared for her brother James’s family as well. She never married. By 1728 the family had moved from Philadelphia to the banks of the Susquehanna River where they established a ferry.

Somewhere along the line, Susannah acquired a very good education and some powerful friends, like Benjamin Franklin; physician Benjamin Rush, who corresponded with her about herbal remedies, and James Logan, who had the finest library in colonial Pennsylvania and loaned books to Susannah.

When I plotted the course of Noble Butler’s wagon train adventure to supply General Braddock at Wills’s Creek, I was pretty sure they must have crossed the Susquehanna at Wright’s Ferry. Thom and I decided it was worth a visit to Columbia, PA, to see Susannah’s house, now open to the public.

We came to the front of the two-story brick house with a slate roof. Large trees shaded the house, and fragrant shrubs surrounded it. The entry was a Dutch door, the top half opening separately from the bottom. I lifted the heavy knocker and let it bounce. We heard the rasp of the latch, and the upper half of the door swung open.

The curator welcomed us, and we stepped into a wide hall with a brick floor and whitewashed walls. She led us into a handsome parlor where a colorful thick carpet covered the broad oak planks of the floor. Crowded bookcases lined one wall, and even more books spilled over onto the desk between the windows overlooking the river. A small tea table was set as if Susannah herself were ready to serve us.

On the desk was a small globe. When its delicate clasp was released, the globe fell open to reveal a miniature sundial on one half and a watch on the other. It was a gift from Benjamin Franklin. Had he wanted her to be able to tell the time, whether the sun shone or not? No, Franklin intended her to check the accuracy of the watch against the sundial.  She sent him a barrel of pickled salmon in exchange.

We learned that Franklin had visited here and even demonstrated some of his electrical experiments for the Wright family. Franklin had sent the telescope on the windowsill, other scientific equipment and books, and Susannah sent him smoked or pickled meats, furs, specimens of animals, plants, and rocks, whatever he might find interesting.

Susannah was an experimental farmer. She grew hops on frames for better results. She grew mulberry trees for silkworms supplied by John Bartram and spun silk into fine fabric for her own dresses. And she grew hemp for making a coarse fabric and rope.

Hemp came from the local Native Americans, both Delaware and Shawnee. The Indians traded with the Wright family and their clients at the ferry and attended Quaker Meetings. Susannah thought of them as extended family. When Noble’s wagon train came through there, Indians were attacking settlers on the frontier, but Susannah’s only fear was for the safety of her Indian friends.

Housekeeper, scientist, experimental farmer, weaver, friend of Native Americans, and poet! In my book, The Snake Fence, I gave her only half a page, so my research wouldn’t show, but Susannah deserves more than that.




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My Life in Brief

Born in New Albany, Indiana, I graduated from Hanover College as an English major. Six years later I earned a Masters of Arts in Teaching social studies at Indiana University. I have taught English and social studies in Indiana, Illinois, Ohio, and Florida at the high school level. I am married to Thomas Olshewsky, University of Kentucky emeritus professor of philosophy and currently Research Scholar at New College in Sarasota, FL. Between us we have seven children and four grandchildren.

My first published book was More Than An Average Guy, published by Daring Group in 1989. It is the biography of Larry Patton, born with cerebral palsy, and it covers his early years until he graduates from Wayne State University and begins working for IBM.  The book was reviewed by ALA and recommended for young adults.

To research and write The Snake Fence, we moved to Swarthmore, PA, for seven years. My research has taken me to the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, the Friends Historical Library of Swarthmore College, the Chester County (PA) Historical Society, the Northampton County (PA) historical and Genealogical Society, and the British Library in London. I volunteered for four years in the education program of the Colonial Pennsylvania Plantation, learning open hearth cooking, spinning, candle making, and other skills of colonial life.  I have traveled the route of Noble’s journeys to Fort Cumberland, MD, and to Easton, PA.

I am available for school visits, wearing an authentic colonial costume and prepared to discuss issues raised in The Snake Fence, the colonial period, and historical research.


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