It was a sunny day in October when I first met Benjamin Franklin. I stood on Front Street in Philadelphia, looking out over the Delaware River, and suddenly, there he was, right beside me. (Remember…novelists have vivid imaginations.) The year was 1737, Ben was a middle aged man—handsome in a shaggy sort of way, a printer making a name for himself in Port Philadelphia. The city was young, vibrant, and in a state of flux. Passenger ships arrived daily, filled with German immigrants who were welcomed for their legendary work ethic.
A few months earlier, I had searched high and low to find the right tour guide for Philadelphia—the pre-revolutionary city. Nick Cvetovic from the Travel Channel emerged, and what a find he was. He scouted the city for buildings that were standing in 1737 (so many! Big solid brick ones—meant to last) and took me on a walking tour along the water, through alleys, old houses, under secret passageways. No wonder my mind felt soaked like a teabag into the mid 1700s. I was immersed in it.
Benjamin Franklin pops in The Return as an elderly statesman in a tiny bit of hot water with the Pennsylvania Germans (all true). He had a habit of sharing his opinions before he thought them through (can’t imagine that). In the novel, he pays a call on heroine Bairn Bauer to see the first Conestoga wagon—built by ship’s carpenter Bairn to have a boat-like keel so barrels wouldn’t roll. Ben Franklin couldn’t resist a new invention. He’d heard of this Conestoga wagon and had to see it for himself. In my novel, and in reality, he was duly impressed.
The more I studied the life of Benjamin Franklin, the more impressed I was. He had such a curiosity about life! So many interests that led him to discoveries: mapping the Gulf Stream, bifocals, the Franklin stove, swimming fins (invented when he was but a boy), the glass harmonica and, of course, we all know about electricity. But the real fun I had was discovering how he overlapped with Pennsylvania Germans. Many of his famous sayings were adopted and adapted from settlers of Germantown. (Just a side note—my mother was born in Germantown. Lots of family history in that old colonial village.) Here’s an example: “One rotten apple doesn’t spoil the whole barrel.” Originally in Penn Dutch, it stated, “Ee fauler Appel schteckt dr anner aa.” Or “One rotten apple corrupts all those that lie near it.”
Speaking of rotten apples, there’s a doozy of one in The Return. I’ll give you a hint: Benjamin Franklin is not the rotten apple, but you won’t find out who until you reach the last chapter.
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Suzanne Woods Fisher is an award-winning, bestselling author of more than two dozen novels, including Anna’s Crossing and The Newcomer in the Amish Beginnings series, The Bishop’s Family series, and The Inn at Eagle Hill series, as well as nonfiction books about the Amish, including Amish Peace and The Heart of the Amish. She lives in California.