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McLennan: Piecing Together Letters to Tell Revolutionary Tale

By |2019-11-22T09:40:58-05:00November 22nd, 2019|Emerging Author Spotlight|

In a cozy Virginian parlor in 1810, a widow, her daughter and two servants stare at a box containing letters from the Revolutionary War written by Col. Leven Powell, who had fought with George Washington at Valley Forge. Now, in the throes of grief after his passing, Powell’s family struggles with how best to capture his legacy, piece together his story from the letters, and in the process define their own futures.

Reading Washington’s Shadow (our review) by Barbara McLennan is like being transported back in time and seeing a country where adventure and danger lurk at every turn. Part love story, political intrigue and coming of age novel, McLennan has created vibrant characters that will stay with readers long after the book ends.

The author provided some insights into her work in this recent Q&A:

What drew you to the period?

I spent much of my working life in government. When I retired and served as a docent at Jamestown, I realized many people are hungry to know how our country works, from the beginning.  I wrote three historical novels (The Wealth of Jamestown, The Wealth of Virginia, Blackbeard’s Legacy) illuminating social life and the development of institutions in the early period: the late 1600s and early 1700s.  I think of Blackbeard as a Founding Father. All of my books are about nation building: how we built our communities and the rules we’ve used to get here.

Washington’s Shadow is set in the period right after the revolution and is populated by characters who knew Washington personally.  This is when the constitution was first utilized, sometimes by people who didn’t really like the idea of a constitution.  The book is about the rule of law, the movement west and how the younger generations incorporated the ideas of the founders. Fundamentally, it’s about nation building, U.S. style.

Why did you use letters to tell the story?

I’ve always thought that history consists of more than names and dates, but of the character and actions of specific people.  I was fortunate to be working with the historian at the new American Revolutionary War Museum at Yorktown and sifted through quite a large variety of correspondence. When I read the correspondence of Leven Powell, his character and worries became clear and immediate to me.  He was not a hero or extraordinary person.  He was a family man, loyal to his community, and knew Washington personally.  I thought his worries probably represented the worries of most people at the time.

I think letters, written with difficulty, with quill pens on hard-to-find paper and parchment, project the writer in a most human and immediate way.  I felt I knew Leven after reading his letters. I understood the revolution, Valley Forge, the role of Washington, Jefferson v. Burr, and the desire to move west much more clearly when seen through Leven’s eyes.

Tell us about your writing process.

I’m careful and meticulous when I choose the time frame and physical setting for my books. I also develop a general idea of the characters: who they are, how they behave toward one another, their goals and motivations.  My story develops from that, and the end usually surprises me quite a bit.  The main thrust is from the characters, who become real to me, take over the plot and decide for themselves what to do next.

Who is your favorite character?

This is an unfair question.  I’m mother to all of them, and each is there for a reason, so they are really all favorites but for different reasons.  In Washington’s Shadow I particularly enjoyed describing the grandchildren and their trek through the woods.  The trick was to show their sense of responsibility to their families, but also their youth and innocence. Most fun of all was the mysterious dancing bear Louise.  In my mind, I could see and hear her, and enjoy her graceful little dance step.

What did you find most rewarding and difficult?

The most difficult and most rewarding aspect of the book is the final resolution of the plot in a meaningful way.  The interaction of the characters, the general lack of law and order, the role of politicians and large financial interests, and the influence of Washington who saw himself as a continental leader while communicating his visions of settling the west to those around him—all of these inhabit the book’s plot, and it was hard to show the complexities in the confines of a relatively short historical novel.  The most rewarding parts were writing Jane’s letters home from Ohio. The country is defined in these letters, and all the small plots and minor characters have found their place pointing to the future.

Washington’s Shadow is now available for purchase.

Barbara McLennan has published eight books and numerous  articles on various political, economic, and historical subjects. For two years she contributed columns and articles on local customs and local history to NorthernNeck.com, a local online newspaper serving the Rappahannock region of Virginia.

Holding both Ph.D. (University of Wisconsin, Madison) and J.D. (Georgetown) degrees, Barbara McLennan is a former professor, association executive and high level official in the United States Departments of Commerce and Treasury. Over the last several years, she has served as docent at Jamestown Settlement, and at Historic Jamestown. She also has assisted the historian in preparation for exhibits at the new museum of the American Revolution at Yorktown.

Dr. McLennan has taught in the Thomas Jefferson School of Public Policy, The College of William and Mary. She also has been a Visiting Scholar at William & Mary’s Raymond A. Mason School of Business, in the MBA program. She has held a commission as member of the Governor of Virginia’s Asian Advisory Board on trade and investment and is a Board Member of the Chesapeake Bay Writers Organization.

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