Book Bag: ‘In This Strange Soil’ by Jillian Hensley; ‘Finding Fontainebleau: An American Boy in France’ by Thad Carhart

Published: 5/20/2016 9:06:40 AM

By Jillian Hensley

Levellers Press

In the introduction to her book “In This Strange Soil,” Florence resident Jillian Hensley notes that when she first came to her then-new home in Westborough, in 1979, she discovered a memorial in town that commemorated the seizure of four people — and the killing of another — by Indians in August 1704 from a nearby field.

That memorial, Hensley writes, became the seed of her 30-year effort to uncover the story.

In “In This Strange Soil,” published by Levellers Press of Amherst, Hensley turns to historical fiction not only to tell the tale of four young boys who were seized by Mohawk Indians in 1704 from Westborough (then known as the settlement of Chauncy). She also offers a larger view of the battles that raged between English settlers in New England and the French and their Indian allies in Canada in the early 18th century.

A central character and narrator of Hensley’s story is Vincent de Surville, a French Jesuit priest who sails to the New World in 1703 to minister to the Mohawks in a settlement in Quebec. In letters sent to his brother, Étienne, a cavalry officer in the French Army, Vincent describes his contentment at learning the ways of his new charges, bringing them the word of Jesus, and making a good friend, Oserohkoton.

“One of the most perfect examples of the loyalty, integrity, and fearlessness of a Mohawk warrior, blended with the mercy of a Christian,” Vincent says of him.

But Vincent is also drawn into the frontier battles, accompanying French soldiers and Mohawk and other Indian warriors on the famous raid on Deerfield in February 1704, when more than 100 English settlers, including the Rev. John Williams, are taken captive. Months later, he’s introduced to a new captive, young Timothy Rice, a boy taken during the raid on Westborough who elects to stay with the tribe even after his father, Edmund, comes to Canada to try and “redeem” him.

The novel also follows the fortunes of Étienne de Surville, who is badly wounded during the Battle of Blenheim in Germany, part of the larger War of the Spanish Succession, which pitted the English and French against each other in Europe as they also faced off in America.

In the end, “In This Strange Soil” also looks at the legacy of white settlement in America and its impact on Indian tribes, particularly the way the two groups sometimes mingled. As one critic puts it, the novel appeals to both history buffs and more casual readers “looking to immerse themselves in a very different time and place.”

Jillian Hensley will read from “In This Strange Soil” Saturday at 3:30 p.m. at the Florence Civic Center.


By Thad Carhart



A longtime Paris resident with Valley ties — his brother Judd is a state judge who also teaches at the University of Massachusetts Amherst — Thad Carhart impressed many critics with his 2001 memoir “The Piano Shop on The Left Bank,” a story of his rediscovery of his childhood love of music and a portrait of an inner Paris beyond the familiar tourist sites.

In “Finding Fontainebleau: An American Boy in France,” Carhart returns with a different kind of memoir, one that looks back on three years in the 1950s that he spent in France in the town of Fontainebleau with his family. His father, a U.S. Air Force officer, served with NATO command, in the famous Châteaux de Fontainbleau itself, home to centuries of French kings, queens and emperors.

For Carhart and his siblings, France is a great adventure, from the unfamiliar things they witness — such as a “frotteur,” a man who polishes the living room floor of their rented home with brushes affixed to his shoes — to trips to Paris, to explorations of the narrow, cobblestone streets of their new town. The experience would leave him with a lifelong love of France, prompting his move there with his own family in the 1980s.

In addition to offering many humorous anecdotes, Carhart paints a vivid picture of  the rhythms and flavor of post-war France, where shortages of things like electricity and phones contrast with American affluence. But there’s also great food, dramatic puppet shows, and tiny, oddly shaped French cars — “like an immense vacuum cleaner on wheels” — to enjoy.

Carhart adapted well to French schools, earnestly learning the new language and getting good grades, though he was also “un élève bien exubérant” (a very lively student) whose teachers often had to discipline him by having him write lines such as “I must not run in the hallway.”

In intervening chapters, Carhart also writes of the efforts today by architects to restore the original decor of the Châteaux de Fontainbleau, and he reviews the history of the French nobility who made it home for some 800 years, right up until the end of the Franco-Prussian war in 1870.

All in all, it makes for a pleasing read, says Publisher’s Weekly: “Carhart’s meandering, warmly evocative anecdotes register both the quirkiness of France’s traditions and the civilizing, humanizing influence they exert.”

Thad Carhart reads from “Finding Fontainebleau” Tuesday at 7 p.m. at the Odyssey Bookshop in South Hadley. 


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