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As simple as the question seems, I find it a very difficult one. One cannot anticipate when or how an idea is going to come. Suddenly a lightbulb goes off somewhere in the brain and you think, "What if ...?" At least that's how it happens with me, wondering, "Where is the garden of Eden?" or, "What would a white girl and black girl do if they found themselves orphaned together during the Civil War?" or, "How did the first humans migrate to so remote a spot as Scotland, and why?"
The germ for American Dreams goes back many years. Judy and I have been intrigued by genealogy since we first met. Those preceding us kept sufficient records through the years that we were fortunate to know a number of details about both our families' heritages-native Cherokee in Judy's case, and English Quaker in mine. A fascinating potential connection between our two lines also existed whose roots extended back to Oklahoma. Judy's Cherokee ancestors came to the territory on the Trail of Tears. Some of those Indians eventually married whites, and many of those families of mixed blood remained in Indian Territory in Oklahoma, where Judy's grandmother was raised. My father, too, grew up in Oklahoma and used to tell stories of the long Cherokee names of his childhood Indian friends.
After we were married we took a trip to Oklahoma with our three sons, visiting both the little town of Vian where my father was raised, and also places in Craig County where Judy's ancestors had once lived. During that trip we realized just how close our two families had been. They had lived less than fifty miles apart back in a day, when, as the saying goes, everybody knew everybody.
As we stood in one of the several cemeteries we visited on that trip, poring over gravestones for familiar names from one of our two families, the lightbulb moment occurred: "What if some of our ancestors knew each other? ... What if we might even be distantly related!"
That possibility never left us. Eventually it developed into an idea for a book in which two girls would investigate their roots, and somehow discover their common ancestry.
But book ideas often go in directions you don't anticipate. Before that book was written, Katie and Mayme of Shenandoah Sisters came along and I couldn't help borrowing parts of the idea for their story. Yet in the back of our minds, Judy and I remained curious about the possibility of a tie between our two family lines.
The link, however, did not come in Oklahoma, nor through Judy's Cherokee roots, where we expected it.
I had known for years of Quaker connections in my ancestry. I had not been aware, however, that they extended back to the very founding years of the Society of Friends in England, nor that my Borton forebears were among the first Quaker immigrants to the American colonies and had come to escape persecution by English Puritans. Neither was I aware just how closely fused were the two names Borton and Woolman as two of the leading early Quaker families in New Jersey.
While traveling in Scotland several years ago with our friends Josanna Simpson and Julia and Grace Yacoubian and my sister Janet Stanberry, and-as was our frequent custom!-browsing in secondhand bookstores, Josanna spied on the shelves an old volume by Janet Whitney entitled John Woolman, Quaker. Not only did the discovery turn out to be a pearl of great price in illuminating the life of John Woolman, in its opening chapter I also read about the first landing on American shores of my own Quaker great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather John Borton. I had known of the name as an abstract fact all my life. Suddenly here he was, family and all. What an exciting discovery!
It had been my intent all along in this series to use Judy's and my Cherokee and Quaker lineages-weaving into the story what facts I could from our ancestries-as a springboard from which to tell a fictionalized early history of the United States, using the Civil War and the three interwoven races of this continent as backdrop.
Judy and I soon forgot trying to connect our two genealogies. I simply intended to use them independently to tell different aspects of the American story-as I did with hers in the previous volume, Dream of Life, where the focus was the "Old Books" of Cherokee history.
But now we discovered a fact that had escaped us earlier. The Ellis Harlan who married Cata'quin Kingfisher (Judy's great-great-great-great-grandfather and -grandmother), daughter of Nanye'hi Ward, was the son of a Quaker minister from Pennsylvania-just across and down the Delaware River from the first Borton homestead in New Jersey!
Our two ancestral families had emigrated from England just nine years apart and had landed within thirty miles of each other, both arriving in the formative years of two closely linked Quaker communities.
Our joint Quaker heritage provided the link we had been looking for!
Now obviously these particular names are of interest to Judy and me because they are our ancestors. They will not hold the same interest for you other than as characters in this series. I go into this background, not to bore you with personal anecdotes, but because something larger is at stake. Out of such specifics a more encompassing historical tapestry emerges. The story takes on grander scope, not because of these details, but because these people typify a universal story that has been played out a million times in the lives of millions of other men and women. In a very real sense, our ancestral background which I have woven into this story (an intermingling of different races, from different places and of different religions, traveling and migrating from England to Pennsylvania to North Carolina, then to Oklahoma and Ohio and Illinois, then to Washington and Oregon and California, continuing to marry and spread out and have sons and daughters and grandchildren and great-grandchildren) is a story, in miniature, of this entire wonderful country and how it was explored, peopled, settled, and populated.
All you who are reading have a similar story to tell! Anyone truly can write "the great American novel." Each of us possesses a heritage that could provide the raw material for a moving tale of brave and interesting men and women and their personal histories.
The names and places and specifics would change. But at root it would be the same story ... a story of people who came to this land of many nationalities and from distinct origins, who married and intermarried and sent down roots, and had families ... and who gradually made this their homeland.
The drama of the courageous men and women who came before us is a priceless heritage we all share. It underscores a truth woven through the entire fabric of the Old Testament: Genealogy is intrinsic to the history of God's people. I take it therefore to be something God values-to know whence we came.
That is why American Dreams is a story of genealogies and roots and people-because God values the ongoing life of the generations. As Americans we share a unique bond of a fused and intermingled unity of races that combine to make up our heritage.
There is another reason why focusing on individual men and women is the best way to get at this universal story-individual people can be remarkably courageous. The bravery of the people who came before us is truly remarkable. Can you imagine setting sail on a treacherous journey of two months across a dangerous ocean in a ship the size of a modest yacht of today, accepting the fact that you would not bathe for two months or eat fresh food, knowing that a squall could send you and your family to the bottom of the sea, or that smallpox could break out onboard and you could do nothing about it? The courage of our ancestors is astonishing.
And when they arrived, they would have no homes, no electricity, no running water, no food waiting for them, no shelter, no stores, no towns, no roads, no vehicles, no animals for either food or transportation, no means of contacting the world they had left behind. Isolation does not even begin to describe the aloneness our predecessors experienced. The scope of what it meant to start an entirely new life is beyond our imagination.
Through the years, this courage upon which our nation was founded manifested itself in a thousand ways-the courage to explore, continually to meet new challenges. And what of the courage of the slaves to endure their suffering until the day of their freedom, the courage of those who stood against the times and fought for that freedom.
The history of this land is filled with dark moments and scoundrels and contemptible men who sought their own gain. The unconscionable evil of religious persecutions, of hangings and witch burnings, the horrors of the slave trade and the evil perpetuated by the plantation owners of the South, are grievous sins against humanity for which the collective conscience of America will forever, to some degree, be continuing to atone in new ways.
Yet too, we are a nation of heroes. Bravery takes many forms. Not to be overlooked along with the courage to face physical fear and suffering is courage in eternal matters of spiritual import. It takes courage to face untruth and stand against the prevailing orthodoxies of one's time-be they social or political or doctrinal. Such heroes in the spiritual realm look to God as the Light of eternal truth. With their example before us, we can draw strength from the brave men and women of the Kingdom who have come before us. With them we can be bold to say to a timid and cautious and small-believing world, "Our God is a higher God. The Light of his truth shines out on a more lofty plane than you can at present perceive. But one day you will see it, for the Light of God's being will grow stronger and brighter to all eternity."
All this explains my emphasis on the individual lineages of the characters in the three books of American Dreams. Some of you may find yourselves thinking, "Why is he telling us the names of everyone's parents and grandparents and great-grandparents? They have nothing to do with the story." Without a doubt, no series of mine contains a fraction of the names that are mentioned in this series. The reason is simply to convey the importance of a great truth-we are a nation that has emerged out of the lives and stories and bravery of our forebears, millions of ancestors, most of whose names we do not even know, but who transmitted to us their life, their dreams, their love.
We are a nation of people.
Cherity's search for her familial and ethnic roots, Seth's search to discover truths long hidden and bring them to the light, Chigua's search to reconnect with roots severed in childhood, Richmond and Carolyn's discovery of spiritual roots and their connections to men and women of God who went before ... these all contribute to Everyman's story, a story continually being written in each of our lives. Thus, the Quaker contribution to this universal drama cannot be underestimated, and serves as the climax to the series in this third book. The emphasis of the early Quakers on the Light that lightens every man, the Light of the world, points to an eternal truth. For the history of the universe is the story of the gradual illumination of God's Light into every human heart.
We are indeed a melting pot of races and creeds and religions and backgrounds. Yet somehow we have become a single nation. This is the story American Dreams tells-how three races became one people.
I truly hope that you are reading this series, fictional though much of it is, as your story too.
I would like to add one final word of acknowledgment and appreciation. This series, by its historical complexity, has required more research than any project I have ever undertaken. That process was made enormously more manageable with the help of my two wonderful research, brainstorming, and all-around assistants, my wife Judy-as always!-along with our friend Josanna Simpson. And also thank you to Rebecca Kraemer for her contribution. Thank you all!
Michael Phillips Eureka, California
Excerpted from Dream of Love by Michael Phillips Copyright © 2008 by Michael Phillips. Excerpted by permission.
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