John Smolens has reached deep into the history of the American Revolutionary War in his book “The Schoolmaster’s Daughter.”
The title can be deceptive and makes the daughter Abigail Lovell out to be straight-laced. In the deft hands of John Smolens, Abigail is multidimensional, a feminist, an anchor in the family and intelligent, despite not having a high school degree (women weren’t allowed to go to school.) She’s also a spy for the colonists as the unavoidable war of independence breaks out against Britain.
The Lovell family is divided. Her father is a Tory, along with her older brother James and younger brother Benjamin, while Abigail is undermining the British occupation of Boston. The Lovell children are just one cell of a larger operation under Dr. Joseph Warren, the spymaster.
Smolens said Warren was a real spymaster during the Revolutionary War.
“Few have ever heard of him, but in the 1770s, he was the most outspoken proponent of breaking away from Britain,” he said.
Warren is just one of several characters who were drawn from the pages of history and then fictionalized by Smolens.
John Lovell was actually the schoolmaster at the original public school in Boston. Also making appearances are Paul Revere and Gen. Thomas Gage, leader of the British army.
Smolens said many of the events recounted in the book “actually happened.”
The retired Northern Michigan University professor divides his time between Marquette in the summer and the Boston area in the winter.
“I grew up outside of Boston and went to Boston College, so the layout of the city is accurate. I also lived on Bunker Hill in the ’70s,” he said.
Smolens said he used a map of the city drawn by a British soldier in 1722 and added to it as Boston changed its geography by filling in the bay.
“I put the map above my desk so as I was writing I could visually walk around Boston,” Smolens said.
The book begins on the eve of revolution as the British soldiers prepare to go into the countryside seeking munitions and food. Abigail is carrying secret messages and her brother Benjamin is a runner for Warren carrying troop movements to the rebels.
Because of the spy network in Lexington and Concord, the provincials send the redcoats running back to Boston, but not before Abigail’s boyfriend is injured.
In working on the novel, Smolens said he used history books from the 1800s along with diaries from the Revolutionary War era. The author said it had been “decades” since some of the books had been checked out.
“The diaries were wonderful sources for firsthand descriptions and how they used language. When Col. Cleveland writes Abigail, he is very formal,” Smolens said.
Abigail will later drop some of the formality, letting Cleveland, a British soldier, get close (wink-wink) to her. The reader begins to wonder, "Is this a budding romance or Abigail using her wiles to spy on the British?"
Much of the research Smolens did was centered on printed newspapers and surviving broadsides. Some were printed in newspapers while others nailed to houses or fences.
“People would send in long letters using unusual pen names” Smolens said. “The educated class had an affectation for Greek culture and would sign with Greek-sounding names.”
In doing his research, he found Warren would give speeches dressed in a toga and a laurel wreath.
Abigail’s father is caught up in that affectation and wears a toga to tea, albeit urine-stained.
Since most readers haven’t read about the Revolutionary War since high school, Smolens also educates the reader to what was going on during the time the British army occupied Boston.
“The British were turning the screws on the people of Boston. They knew if they could break them, the rest of the colonies would follow,” he said.
“The Schoolmaster’s Daughter” was first published in 2011, but went out of print until Michigan State University Press began republishing Smolens’ older work.
Smolens said his next book, “Days of Days,” a fictionalized version of the Bath School disaster will be published next year. It also features a strong female protagonist.