Once long ago, in late 1976, I set out to write the great American Quaker novel.
Or at least, a page-turning historical potboiler.
It was to be be about Quakers on the island of Nantucket, during the American Revolution. Two of them in particular: the gruff but pious William Rotch, — who was the wealthiest Quaker on the island. He carried the double burden of a large fortune balanced against a tender pacifist conscience in . And a woman Friend, Kezia Coffin, with no fortune but boundless ambition and strong passions.
Both were real people, who lived through tumultuous and revolutionary times. In fact, a novel based on Kezia, titled Miriam Coffin, had been published in 1834 (and can be read online for free here)
Yes, melodrama, money and maritime mayhem: throw in a bit of sex, and it seemed a very promising recipe for a novelistic casserole.
I had visited the island in the mid ‘70s, and prowled the shelves at the small bookstore on the cobbled main street: it had a generous Nantucket section, but only a few fictional titles. “There’s a market here,” I thought. “Somebody should fill it up. Maybe I can start it.”
I was right about the market; since then, a beach-reading cottage industry has sprung up. Amazon’s book pages are crammed with enough Nantucket-centered novels to carpet half of its Madaket Beach there, and nearby Ladies Beach too.
The mention of ladies is important, though: for decades Nantucket was a thriving, but gritty seaport, where the stench of dead whales and their boiling flesh was a near-constant alongside the busy docks, all overseen by thrifty, plain, hard-driving Quaker merchants who kept the ships sailing, whale oil candles burning, and the money floating in.
At their sides were competent, often superbly capable wives and maiden kin, who not only ran demanding households, but also their large Friends Meetings, and much of the island’s worldly business when the menfolk were at sea, which many were most of the time.
Today on Nantucket the Meetings and the whaling business are history (though locals still dredge the harbor for their exquisite bay scallops each fall and winter). Thousands of Quakers are still around, though almost all are at rest under the green of a large pasture-like burial ground, of the old style, with no headstones or other worldly markers except for a few dozen renegades in one corner.
Meantime, their island has become a top-level but low-profile vacation refuge for some of the very wealthy and powerful. (Ask Joe Biden, who takes over the place for an all-but invisible extended family clambake most Thanksgiving weekends.)
In the warmer months, the place swells with their wives, kids and nannies. Into the yacht-crowded harbor, ferries disgorge scores of matrons who want and can afford a sizable chunk of that vintage, fast-vanishing American luxury — peace and quiet.
What do they do with it? To judge by the titles stacked up on Amazon, for many the island is a chance to forget the world, and bury themselves in a fantasy island, via a book (or increasingly an unlimited Kindle), for hours in the warm shade, day after day, til Nanny brings the little ones home to shower off the sand, sort the newest shells, bandaid and spray the owies and get the supper started.
Once the season ends, back at home and overbusy again, these pages offer rare moments of nostalgic escape.
This diet of addictive printed eye-candy comes in a range of romantic flavors: vanilla; vanilla with nonfat yogurt; vanilla with yogurt and low-cal white chocolate chunks; and vanilla with the yogurt, white chocolate and frosted with reduced-fat shredded coconut. Cozy mysteries occur, but spies, terrorists, flagrant rakes or superheroes need not apply.
For my story, I wanted something that could encompass the war, and include a dash — not much, mind thee, yet still maybe more than a mere hint— of spice.
But like any decent plot, mine turned out to have twists, unexpected ones.
So many that the story I finished scribbling after my on-island research sojourn turned out quite different from the one I’d sketched in a notebook, and reviewed on the ferry from Woods Hole.
What went awry?
Like any working novelist, I mean this query as a ploy to keep you reading. But it’s also something that really happened. . . . More on that tomorrow.