BookLife Talks with Amanda Cetas
A sponsored Q&A with the author of 'A Home in the Wilderness'
Cetas’s latest work continues the adventures of young French immigrant Etienne Gayneau in a work that BookLife Reviews said ”deftly blends real-life figures with imagined characters to bring the early colonial era alive, especially with regard to Native American beliefs, customs, and real-world politics.”
What was the inspiration for the A Country for Castoffs series?
I started researching my family history three decades ago. The deeper I dug, the more fascinating discoveries I made. I uncovered ship logs, passenger lists, and indentureship amounts owed. I found property deeds, vital records, interesting stories in newspaper clippings and local histories. There were surprising court cases too. As I expanded my search, a picture began to coalesce. I began to see beyond the dispassionate documents to the complex story of my ancestors’ lives.
Then, as I taught the larger historical events to my middle and high school students, I introduced bits of my ancestors’ stories to help them understand and connect with a particular historical period or event. I quickly discovered that my students were far more engaged with the history through these personal glimpses than through studying the lives and actions of well-known leaders.
How has Etienne grown from the first book to its sequel, A Home in the Wilderness?
In the first book, Etienne starts out as an insecure boy who is teased by his peers, struggles against following his father into the stove-making trade, and dreams of becoming a musketeer. But outside events shatter his known world as religious conflicts force his family to flee the only home he has ever known. By the end of the book, Etienne has developed the self-confidence to face the various challenges that arise. He has also learned to forgive himself and others.
In the second book, Etienne reacts decisively to save his Lenape friends when they are threatened by the larger conflict between the Esopus tribe and Dutch colonists. He and his friends continue to mature as they face conflict throughout the book, until Etienne makes the difficult choice to help his family and once again finds himself aboard a ship sailing for new adventures.
What kind of research did you do to ensure historical and cultural accuracy?
I relied heavily on primary sources: 17th-century maps, illustrations, Algonquian myths, re-creations of colonial and Wampanoag villages available from the Plimoth Plantation museum, and videos of Wampanoag canoe-building and cooking techniques. Len Tantillo’s historical depictions of 17th-century New York helped me visualize what the region looked like at the time.
Captain Martin Kregier’s Journal of the Second Esopus War, 1663, was invaluable in detailing the colonial response to the Esopus attack and other specifics. These are only a few of the sources I used; there were many other primary and scholarly secondary sources too. My intent was to stay as close to the actual history as possible while telling an engaging story.
What advice would you give to a writer who wants to write historical fiction for children?
Do your homework. Look for primary sources that provide insight into what the people of the time thought, felt, and believed. Historians’ interpretations of history change with each new generation of scholars that grapples with the past in the context of modern events and sensitivities. Look for sources from different perspectives to gather a more complete picture of the events.
We all learn best through the medium of storytelling. Children engage with history when they can see themselves as a part of it. They must care about the people involved and their motivations. History is more than a collection of important events, famous names, and dates. Providing opportunities for students to learn different perspectives and lifestyles will broaden their empathy, their understanding of other people and cultures, and their appreciation for our collective history.
Can you give readers any hints about the next book in the series?
The third book, At the Mercy of the Sea, is expected to release on Apr. 21, 2024.