Author Roxane Orgill’s new book is Siege: How General Washington Kicked the British Out of Boston and Launched a Revolution (Candlewick Press, 2018), which takes the unusual approach of using verse to give voice to its characters. We asked the author about this book and the research behind it.
Tell us a bit about your work in general.
I used to work as a newspaper music critic. I thought it might be “easy” to write a book for children about a musician (at a time when there were very few such books), and I chose Louis Armstrong as my subject. Well, I spent three years in a weekly children’s-writers’ workshop before I had a manuscript ready for submission. My seven-page story, If I Only Had a Horn: Young Louis Armstrong, was sold to the first publisher it went to, Houghton Mifflin. But it wasn’t easy!
From the reporting skills I acquired in newspapering, I knew how to interview people and how to gather information and organize it, and I loved being able to go deeper and take more time. I’ve published one book for adults, Dream Lucky: When FDR Was in the White House, Count Basie Was on the Radio, and Everyone Wore a Hat, about jazz, race, and politics in the 1930s (Smithsonian/Collins). The rest are for children.
What led you to write about the Revolutionary War, and this particular aspect of it?
This is my first book that’s not related to the arts. I was going to battlefields with my husband and son, more their idea than mine at first. We went to sites near our home: Monmouth, Princeton, Washington Crossing Historic Park. I was surprised to be fascinated, not in battle strategy and chronology, but in the human aspect. Charles Lee humiliating himself at Monmouth. The seemingly impossible task of crossing the Delaware in icy December. What was Washington thinking? That led me to wonder what was on his mind when he was appointed commander in Philadelphia in June, 1775. How do you start a war; how do you build an army? Those two questions were uppermost in my mind as I began planning the book. They led invariably to more problems: Where to get ammunition and big guns? And more: How to keep enlistees when pay is negligible or nonexistent? And finally, how does a fledgling army get the mighty British armyandnavy to flee Boston? In just ten months, these questions were answered, at least in part; by April the British were gone. While most histories devote a paragraph, or sometimes just a sentence, to what happened after Bunker Hill,I found I was delving in and finding a whole book.
You’ve used an unconventional approach; tell us how you decided on verse as way to tell the story of the siege of Boston.
In a review of Joseph Ellis’s Revolutionary Summer, the reviewer, Andrew Cayton, used a phrase that stuck in my mind: “cacophony of voices.” That was what I wanted my book to be. I wanted to make heard the voice of George Washington, his generals, aides, wife, and slave William Lee; Henry Knox; the enemy (Sir William Howe); a deserter; privates, and a servant boy. I’d written in verse once before, in Jazz Day: The Making of a Famous Photograph(Candlewick Press). Verse just seemed the most immediate and concise way to let the “cacophony of voices” speak.
Do you think this will resonate with readers in the target age group?
Educators say that poetry is often the way to reach “reluctant readers” who may be intimidated by prose – all those pages full to the margins with words. All I can say is that this is the kind of history book I would have liked to read as an older kid. Not a succession of battles but the experience of starting a war — and not made up, as in historical fiction, but a true story.
What influenced your choices of characters that you’ve used to tell the story?
Choice was based mostly on availability of primary sources. I was restricted to people who kept diaries or wrote letters in a specific place — Boston and its environs — in the narrow time frame of just ten months in 1775-76. I couldn’t use, say, the well-known boy soldier Joseph Plumb Martin, because his service occurred later. I was happy to learn that Abigail Adams experienced the siege, albeit from Braintree, and wrote vividly about it to John.
As an aside, and of course I’m not alone here, I wish Martha Washington had not burned upon her husband’s death the letters they exchanged. Imagine how our perceptions of these two might be altered by even a handful of letters. All we have are three that were found hidden in her desk.
Do you have a favorite character?
Joseph Reed, or rather, the relationship between him and Washington. Reading the letters between the commander and his aide, I was struck by how Washington showed aspects of himself – deep frustration, for example – that he did not reveal to others.
What things surprised you as you researched the siege of Boston and the people involved?
Many things. I couldn’t imagine how one transports cannon until, at Fort Ticonderoga, I saw reenactors use a complicated system of poles, pulleys, and ropes just to move an eight-pounder a few yards. Washington’s frustrated attempts to get soldiers into uniforms. How the men were pretty well fed – no hardtack, not yet. As soon as Washington, ever the surveyor, got to Cambridge, he drew a map, which I came upon by chance on a visit to the Library of Congress.
Was there one source of information that stood out as most useful?
National Archives Founders Online. I could not have written Siegewithout founders.archives.gov and its wonderful search engine and extensive notes and links. The General Orders were the first sources I consulted, and they provided the detail I craved, also a wealth of new-to-me words such as fascines, gabions, pickets, and redoubts. Poetic words!
Do you have plans for any additional works about the American Revolution or the nation’s founding era?
I‘ve been thinking about the women. In Siege, I was able to work in Martha Washington and Abigail Adams (also, indirectly, Sarah Hodgkins, the wife of Lt. Joseph Hodgkins, through their rich correspondence), but it’s basically a men’s story. What did women do during the Revolution? We’ve all heard about Mary Hays bringing water at Monmouth and Margaret Corbin taking over the guns at Fort Washington, but others? With a few days’ effort I came up with a list of sixty ladies who advanced the Revolutionary cause in myriad ways. There’s a book there.