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When I took on the undertaking of an historical novel about the first Amish who sailed to the New World on the Charming Nancy ship in 1737, a friend asked me whether I was intimidated or scared by the prospect.
Intimidated? No, though I knew that pulling it off would be a challenge. Scared? Oh yeah. This piece of history is revered among the Amish. Writing this story was a responsibility I didn’t take lightly.
But that doesn’t mean it was easy. It took me a long time to settle on the plot, and to conclude that I needed to avoid using actual names from the passenger list of the Charming Nancy. The last thing I wanted to do was to cast aspersions on anyone’s beloved ancestor. The first thing I wanted to do was to create an engaging story that revealed why this little church left everything familiar to go to the New World, and how they endured the journey.
No sooner did I begin to write, and I was stumped. Sometimes I think the start of a novel must be similar to how the Wright Brothers felt at Kitty Hawk. The plane has lots of starts and stops, broken wings, readjustments, before finally getting a lift-off.
Here’s why I was grounded: The Amish church in 1737 was only a few decades old. Jacob Amman, the founder, hadn’t been heard of since 1712 (scholars suspected he might have gone into hiding). His followers were scattered; they lacked central leadership and had no clear identity. One historian I interviewed said, at this point in history, Amman’s followers probably didn’t call themselves Amish.
This knowledge presented a bit of turbulence. The goal of Amish fiction is to provide a reading experience where the modern world slips away. There’s a reason the stories are laced with references of buggies and bonnets, horses and hearth. How could I remind readers that Anna and the other passengers were Amish when they were stuck on a ship, without any obvious markers of farm life?
And then I had a second problem. There is very little known about the 1737 crossing—a fragment of a passenger’s diary, a ship’s passenger list—but what is known is horrifying. Out of 312 passengers, twenty-four died on the journey. Mostly children (four from one family!). That year, the Charming Nancy ship ended up losing one out of every nine passengers by the time it reached Port Philadelphia. The following year’s voyage was even more disturbing: The Charming Nancy lost half of all passengers.
The condition of passenger life in the lower decks of an 18th century ship was truly pitiful. It was a miracle they survived at all. A child of seven years stood only a 50 percent chance of surviving the ocean journey, while those under a year of age rarely survived. How could I possibly write a novel that included the death of twenty-four children? To be candid, I wouldn’t want to read such a tragic story.
Frustrated with how to proceed, I reminded myself of the reason I wanted to write this novel in the first place: To create a story that didn’t hide the dangers my characters faced, but to celebrate the determination of these courageous pioneers. There was a bigger story to write about than the perils of an 18th century ocean crossing: Why the Amish left Europe, what they were hoping to find in the New World, and what gave these brave believers the inner steel to endure the journey.
Suddenly, the writer’s brick wall started to crumble and I found some solutions to my problems. To show what made Anna, my main character, truly Amish, I needed to let her respond to morally muddy situations with a deep belief in of God’s sovereignty, in His ability to right wrongs. Horses and buggies weren’t necessary when her heart provided plenty of evidence.
And instead of wiping out a large amount of passengers, I concentrated on two significant deaths—one of a sailor, one of a young Amish woman—that were carefully paced so the reader wouldn’t get hit by a 2×4 with tragedy.
And now the novel was taking flight and gaining altitude. One lovely detail arrived just in time—it came from a true story that I had been working on for a non-fiction book (Heart of the Amish). Bairn, the Scottish ship’s carpenter, a dashing and honorable fellow who had developed quite an attraction to Anna, happened to have a red Mutza (an Amish man’s coat) in his sea chest. I won’t spoil the story for you, but let’s just say—that red Mutza has quite a story of its own to tell.
More about Suzanne Woods Fisher:
Suzanne Woods Fisher has a specialty: she writes about real people living in faith-based communities. With over 750,000 copies of books sold worldwide, she is the bestselling, award-winning author of more than twenty-five books, ranging from children’s books (‘The Adventures of Lily Lapp’ series) to novels (The Choice) to non-fiction books (Amish Peace: Simple Living for a Complicated World).
When Suzanne isn’t writing, she’s probably playing with puppies. She’s been involved with Guide Dogs for the Blind for over fifteen years. Raising puppies, she says, is like eating a potato chip. You just can’t stop at one.