Monday, June 29, 2009

A View from Siri Mitchell's Window! Love's Pursuit Explored

I cannot begin to tell you what an honor it is to welcome Siri Mitchell to my Window! I have always been a huge fan of historical fiction, and Siri has the unique ability to transport my heart and mind completely through her writing! Love's Pursuit was a particularly powerful story to me, and I hope you will help me welcome Siri as she discusses her latest novel!

Please, give a warm welcome to Siri Mitchell!

Love’s Pursuit created a clear and realistic picture of life inside a New England Puritan colony. Their work was unending and exhausting, and while they did attend social occasions, their lives seemed devoid of much joy. In fact, their misunderstanding of God’s grace seemed to create an almost paranoia of others’ intentions. I felt suffocated just reading about it!

How did you come to research this time period and what do you think the Puritan faith left behind as a legacy?

This book is the second of three that were contracted with a fashion element written into the story. The element in this book is the Puritan dress codes which governed what people could and couldn’t wear. I didn’t want to write a book set during the Salem Witch Trials and I didn’t want to write about the founding of Plymouth Colony, but I did want to give readers a full view of the Puritan lifestyle. That gave me the freedom to pick a date between 1620 and 1692. I also wanted to take advantage of the colony’s penal code, so that made me set the book after 1641 when the Massachusetts Body of Liberties was adopted.

I think the Puritans left us a deep and lasting legacy. The idea of The American Dream is based on their work ethic, the idea that if you work hard enough, you can accomplish your dreams. I think our sub-conscious guilt at enjoying pleasure derives directly from their theology. The idea that the ‘right’ thing, the ‘right’ option to choose will, nine times out of ten, also be the most difficult or the hardest to accomplish is also thanks to them.

When I examine my own faith, I find it more like Daniel Holcomb’s faith than anyone else in the story. Why was it so hard for those in the Puritan colony to recognize his faith as real? And why did it make them so afraid?

The Puritan movement was a reaction against the corruption and pageantry of the Church of England. Remember that the C of E was only one step removed from the Catholic Church. Queen Elizabeth had reformed the church doctrine, but the worship and hierarchy of church government were still Catholic in all but name. The Puritans simply wanted to purify the church. They wanted it wholly reformed. They wanted to shift the emphasis away from ceremony and ritual and fancy vestments back to the basics of Christianity. It was so easy for the citizens of Stoneybrooke to discount Captain Holcombe’s faith because he looked like everything they had run away from. His faith probably scared them because it seemed too easy. To the Puritans, everything worthwhile was worth working hard for. The captain came with a message of grace in which no work was required. To accept his faith would have put into question their entire lifestyle (for which they had sacrificed everything).

The malevolent presence of Simeon throws quite a long shadow over the lives of the people of Stoneybrooke. To me, it seemed as if their uncertainty and fear of God’s love and the assurance of their own position in God’s kingdom made them even more fearful and thus easy prey for Simeon’s evil schemes. In your research of this time period, did you uncover any evidence that people like Simeon took advantage of the Puritans? Was it your intent to make the uncertainty of their faith the weak link that bound them to Simeon’s threatening ways?

There is some historical evidence of people like Simeon at that time in that place, although his type wasn’t by any means prevalent. I think in a society which bases worth on what you do and how you appear, it’s relatively easy to project yourself as one kind of person when you’re an entirely different kind altogether. Puritans believed that wealth was a sign of God’s favor. Therefore, Simeon’s position as the wealthiest man in town meant, ipso facto, that he had earned God’s approval. It made it very difficult for anyone in that community to believe the truth about him even when they were faced with evidence.

Even today, we often hear tales of abuse coming from closed communities where compliance is valued over grace. It wasn’t my intent to make the uncertainty of their faith the weak link…but it certainly makes sense. (It wasn’t my intent to create the captain as a Christ figure either, although that seems to be how he turned out J)

How realistic was the portrayal of the marriage situation? Was it possible for something like Susannah’s misconstrued bans to Simeon to happen within that community? Were the women totally at the mercy of their fathers in marriage? Was love that lightly esteemed between a man and woman?

The inspiration for this incident came from a biography entitled The Way of Duty by Joy Day Buel and Richard Buel, Jr. In this book, a family was taken aback by a suitor’s premature publishing of banns with their daughter. Although the couple did get married in the end (with the family’s blessings) it took some weeks to work out his intentions and for the offense his action had provoked to dissipate.

In actuality, love was highly esteemed between Puritan men and women. For the most part, in fact, they married for love. They were one of the only groups in that era to value love as a basis for marriage. And they were the only faith that believed in the equality of the sexes in the eyes of God. They cared very much about the family’s opinion of their betrothed. In Susannah’s case, her father first tried to make a match with a suitor she truly liked. The betrothal to Simeon came about out of fear. Fear, on the father’s part, that Simeon might harm his business. Fear on Susannah’s part that if she questioned the match, she would seem to be questioning her father’s judgment and Simeon’s good reputation. Susannah’s betrothal was an anomaly and it was instigated by Simeon in order to ensure that he would have no rival for her hand.

For further information about Puritan culture, I highly recommend the book Worldly Saints – The Puritans as they Really Were by Leland Ryken. For more information about the lifestyle and role of women in Puritan culture I also recommend Goodwives by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich.

Illness was something else that these folks feared in a mighty way. Why was it so easy for them to place the life or death of a sick person (in this case an infant) within the sovereignty of God, but so difficult to trust Him with their eternal soul? That seemed a bit ironic to me.

Death was so much a part of life back then. In my first version of this book, the Phillips baby was referred to as ‘babe’ or ‘child’ instead of being named. This would have been consistent with the practice of the time. Mortality rates were so high, that the sex of a child (and sometimes even its name) weren’t really officially recognized until they were 2 or 3 years old. I think the Puritans had to believe that life and death were in God’s hands, that they would see their children and loved ones in heaven. Otherwise, they would have been overwhelmed by grief.

It’s odd, as you pointed out, that the Puritans compartmentalized in terms of others’ deaths and their own souls. I think the concept of God’s grace can be difficult for some people to understand…and even more difficult for some people to believe in. It seems almost too good to be true. The tragedy of the Puritan movement is that they just couldn’t bring themselves to believe that God truly loved them. In some respects, the consequence of their unwillingness to accept God’s unconditional love was their belief that if they did this thing and that thing and made sure to always follow God’s laws to the letter then God would have to save them. He would owe it to them. The concept of Assurance of Salvation was unknown to the Puritans. I hadn’t realized, before I wrote this book, just how integral that idea is to our faith. The Puritans would have given almost everything to know that God loved them – a concept that believers today take very much for granted.

You didn’t touch on anything remotely related to the witch trials that took place in New England, but some of the paranoia alluded to one character being suspect of witchcraft because of their reclusive tendencies. Do you think the Puritan faith was the breeding ground for the Salem witch trials? Their faith seemed steeped in fear and distrust. Were the witch trials a natural outcome of that fear?

That’s a good question! When you don’t live in a community of grace, you don’t have any grace to extend to anyone else. When people focus on their differences instead of their similarities, their individualities instead of their commonalities, communities like the Puritans have no way to accept those who are different. They are very nearly compelled to condemn them.

Can you give your readers a hint as to what we can expect next?

Thanks for asking! I just finished up my edits on She Walks in Beauty, a book set in 1890s New York City. The fashion element is the tight-lacing of corsets. Here’s a quick preview: When Clara Carter is told she’s to debut a year early, her social education shifts to high gear. There’s more than dance skills and manners that she’ll have to learn. There are corsets to be fitted and bosoms to be enhanced, for a girl so tall and gangly as Clara could never hope to attract a man by simply being herself. But the more enmeshed she becomes in New York City’s social scene the more she begins to wonder if this is the life she really wants. Especially when she’s pitted against her best friend for the hand of the most eligible bachelor in town. When she does manage to find a kindred soul, a man who seems to love her simply for who she is, her heart begins to assert its case. But there’s more at stake this social season than just Clara’s marriage and the future of her family depends on how she plays the game.

What exciting things is God doing in your life? He’s teaching me to trust him.

Words of encouragement you’d like to leave with your readers? God does know; God does see; God does care.


Mocha with Linda said...

Another phenomenal interview, Kim!

Sally said...

Wonderful interview. Looking forward to the next book.

Laura Frantz said...

What a great review of a great author! Siri is one of my very favorites and I recently finished "Love's Pursuit" and was so moved and impressed. Bless you for spreading the word about such a wonderful read!