So, have I discovered anything particularly amazing in the course of researching nonfiction? The first thing that comes to mind is the story of Mrs. Hopkins. I found out about her in 1986, when I was painting the cover for a new paperback edition of Patricia Clapp’s well-researched work of historic fiction: Constance: A Story of Early Plymouth (originally published by Lothrop, Lee, & Shepard, 1968). Reading it led to my first historical picture book: Three Young Pilgrims (Macmillan: 1992) and my Adventurous Life of MYLES STANDISH and the Amazing-But-True Survival Story of PLYMOUTH COLONY. (Nat’l Geographic, 2006). The genuine, flesh & blood Constance was about 14 when her stepmother, Elizabeth Hopkins, gave birth to a child in the early autumn of 1620, in the course of an already pretty dashed uncomfortable voyage. It was not a story I’d heard in school.
Nor had I heard of Tisquantum’s saga, a.k.a. Squanto’s Amazing Adventures. The Patuxet tribesman had been taken to England long before he astonished the Mayflower “Pilgrims” with his knowledge of English, and even before he’d translated for Captain John Smith in 1614. It was after that stint that Squanto was kidnapped. The greedy and dastardly Thomas Hunt, one of Smith's comrades, sailed off with him and 26 other Natives. Hunt took his captives to the Spanish port city of Malaga and sold them at the slave market there!
Those terrified, despairing captives had to look up at the moon and know for sure they'd never see its light shining on their homes ever again. Some were dragged off to North Africa. Squanto ended up with Spanish monks, thence to London and back across the Atlantic to Newfoundland. The governor there hooked him up with Thomas Dermer, another English sea captain in need of a translator. Back to England Squanto went with Captain Dermer, who was preparing to explore Cape Cod Bay. So it was that, in 1619, Squanto finally got back to what the captain termed "my savage's native country."
No one was home. While he was away from his home village of Accomack, smallpox killed everyone he’d ever known. When a boatload of bedraggled English folks arrived, including Mrs. Hopkins and the new baby, they established their new colony where Squanto's people once lived. As far as William Bradford was concerned, Squanto had survived to become "a special instrument of God:" He’d saved Bradford and many a Plymouth Pilgrim from starving to death. It’s a tragic tale and, yes, maybe I'm amazed (thanks Paul McCartney).
George Little amazed me. After his cold, exhausted horse gave out, this teenaged Pony Express rider cut open his saddlebags, stuffed the mail into his shirt, then wallowed, slid, and tramped through a mountain snowstorm the rest of the way into Salt Lake City. (They’re Off! The Story of the Pony Express. 1996)
I was knocked out by the idea of an army of workers laboring away by the light of a harvest moon, busting to finish work on New York’s glorious ditch. If not exactly amazed I was certainly enchanted by the notion of all sorts of quaintly-dressed people firing cannon, lighting bonfires, waving flags, and playing fanfares on their drums and cornets when the "Amazing, Impossible Erie Canal" (1994) finally opened for business, October 26, 1825.
Studying for The Remarkable Benjamin Franklin (Nat’l Geographic, 2005), I first read about this endlessly curious, philosophizing scientist & author from the colonies, stopping on his bumptious journey across the Salisbury Plain and getting out of his stagecoach to see Stonehenge. Wow. It’s July 1757. B.F. is 51 years old. Here I am, 252 summers later, still mildly thrilled at the notion of that canny old bird wiping his brow, pondering those stones and whomever cut, hauled, and set them – all for what? The holy calculation of the circling heavens? There they stood, upon many a solstice, singing? Dancing? Pondering the rising of the moon, the same moon that silvered the sails of the Mayflower, captives upturned faces, and mountain peaks poking through the clouds. The constant, inconstant moon that Neil Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin walked upon forty years ago today. Amazing.