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Authors: Katherine Ayres

North by Night

BOOK: North by Night
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For more than forty years,
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Copyright © 1998 by Katherine Ayres

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eISBN: 978-0-307-83397-6

Reprinted by arrangement with Delacorte Press


For the piano man

And to honor the brave souls who rode the Railroad and those who helped them ride


Have you ever wondered what it would be like to live in another time? If you could travel months and years into the past or the future, would you do it? I’ve often thought about particular moments in history. And while I haven’t yet discovered a time machine to carry me back, I can enter into the lives and times of others by writing novels that take place in the past. Sometimes I get so involved in the characters’ predicaments, I’m startled to see members of my own family returning home, wearing modern clothing and carrying pizza boxes.

For this novel I asked myself a question: If I had lived in the time of slavery, would I have accepted it or fought against it? I spent weeks and weeks reading about the 1850s—about politics, Ohio, how much things cost, and how people traveled and lived and ate and worked. To help me write Lucinda’s letters and those of the young men who admire her, I read real letters of young courting couples.

Then I studied slavery—Northern and Southern viewpoints, original slave narratives, abolitionists’ writings. I found a book with yellowing pages, written in 1856, about fugitive slaves who escaped to Canada. I read newspaper reward notices for runaway slaves. I saw the tombstone of a slave child brought to Oberlin, Ohio, who died there at age four. As I studied slavery and the Underground Railroad I began to understand when, exactly, this story should take place.

In the fall of 1850 Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act. This law required that runaway slaves be returned to their owners, even if they were captured on free Northern soil. Slave owners came north seeking runaways, or they hired catchers to track the fugitives down for them. After 1850 slaves had to make their way to Canada to find true freedom. In addition, the law required severe penalties for those who helped slaves to run—a fine of $1,000 and jail if convicted. In those days, an entire family farm—all the land, animals, and buildings—was worth about $1,000. One rescue put a whole family in danger.

If you want to write interesting books, you must put your characters in risky situations. To write about a girl working the Underground Railroad, I had to pick a time when the hazards were great. I set the book in the winter of 1851, just after the Fugitive Slave Act was passed, and then, to increase the risks even more, I included several runaways in the rescue.

I chose to set the book in Ohio partly because I was born there and it’s familiar. But more important, Ohio in the 1850s seethed with conflict about slavery. Settlements of free blacks, Quakers, and fervent Presbyterians led the abolition movement and worked on the Underground Railroad. Again and again, they clashed with Southern sympathizers—neighbors who believed slaveholding was up to the individual, not the government.

I chose Ohio for geographical reasons, too. In 1850 Ohio provided the shortest passage from slave states to Canada, about 250 miles from the Ohio River to the Great Lakes. Slaves from Kentucky or Virginia (including what is now West Virginia) could travel over moderate terrain in Ohio, instead of across the rugged Allegheny Mountains in Pennsylvania. And travel they did—estimates range as high as thirty thousand passengers on Ohio’s Underground Railroad routes.

Finally, as I did my research, I wanted to get not just the facts but the mood and social history right. I didn’t want my contemporary thoughts to color the story and make it less believable.

Here’s what I discovered: 1850 was a time of tremendous change. Industrial production and technological invention increased as subsistence farming diminished. People traveled more and on better roads, canals, and railroads. Families who had lived and worked on the same farm for generations suddenly found their sons and daughters moving to cities to take jobs in factories. Even those who didn’t leave home caught the spirit of independence that blew across the land.

Therefore, it makes historical sense that Lucinda and her brother Will have an itch to travel, to go adventuring. The notion of a different life was suddenly possible, particularly on the frontier, where people valued feisty independence and where rigid traditions of proper behavior were relaxed.

As I read about the early women’s rights movement, Miss Aurelia’s character took shape. Women who believed in the abolition of slavery soon began to question sexual inequality. A husband owned and controlled all of his wife’s property, and women could not vote or participate in political life. Women who expressed strong opinions and argued for the rights of others soon learned to use those skills in their own behalf.

These are the times and the places in which my fictional heroine Lucinda Spencer grew up. Her era was lively, changing, charged with political and social discontent. Imagine living then. Now step into my time machine.…

Pittsburgh, 1997




, J
1, 1851

ere begins the seventh journal in the life of myself, Lucinda Spencer, age sixteen, of the village of Atwater in the free state of Ohio.

Bless Papa and Mama for giving me a new writing book at Christmas. Last year’s was nearly filled, and I had to squeeze in the news of our holiday celebrations and all the gifts. But I find it lovely to start a new journal on the first day of the new year.

The good Lord knows we ended last year badly and
need fresh hope for the future. Friend Eli Whitman of Salem was caught just three days past with a runaway slave wanted in Virginia. Caught! The word still sends shivers up my spine.

There is a harsh magistrate who lives in Canton, and a kinder one in Warren, so we are all praying that Friend Whitman will be judged in Warren, which lies much closer to Salem.

But do the magistrates give a peach pit for geography? Or for people’s lives? Probably not. I’d like to fill the ears of these politicians—from members of the lowliest town council to the governor in Columbus and on to President Fillmore in his big house in Washington—with the stories I’ve heard.

Drat the president, anyway. Papa voted for him. President Fillmore is a Northern man, a New Yorker. So how could he let us down? How could he have signed that terrible law and brought such hardship on God’s people?

Wild Canada geese, we call the runaways. Birds heading north, always north. We talk of flight paths, of migrations. Even now, as I sit here safe and warm, I know that somewhere there are birds with torn and tattered feathers, birds who travel cold, with empty stomachs and tired wings. Birds in hidden nests, and birds, even now, in flight.

Miranda is pulling on my arm and begging to write her name in my journal. She is at least as stubborn as I am, if not more. So I’d better let her write now and get it over with before she learns to spell out any more words—before she can read the thoughts I want to keep secret. I
shall dip the pen carefully and guide her hand as she draws her letters so she doesn’t make a blot on my first page. That would be a poor omen indeed to begin the year 1851.

BOOK: North by Night
11.01Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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