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Turning Seacoast Fact into Historical Fiction


King of the hill

One name shines out in any discussion of historical novels in this region. Kenneth Roberts (1885 - 1957) was a popular columnist for the Saturday Evening Post when he published Arundel in 1927. Roberts dug deeply into the colonial history of his hometown of Kennebunk, Maine, transforming dry history chronicles into stirring action prose. But his well-researched novels did not sell well at first and he grew discouraged. Then, as World War II threatened, Roberts found the public pulse with Northwest Passage (1938), the largely true story of Rogers Rangers, the renowned "Indian fighters" and their fateful march to Quebec in 1759. The story is narrated by the fictional Langdon Towne of Portsmouth, NH.

Kenneth_Roberts_CoverThe adventure begins in Stoodley’s Tavern in Portsmouth and Roberts’ research was assisted by local librarian Dorothy Vaughan. Hollywood transformed the novel into a 1940 patriotic film starring Spencer Tracy in the title role of Robert Rogers. Both film and novel ignored the fact that Rogers, who was married to a Portsmouth woman, later abandoned his wife and became a Tory sympathizer in the Revolution. Stoodley’s Tavern on Daniel Street was later moved to Strawbery Banke Museum under its first president Dorothy Vaughan.

Rogers’ career took off and he continued to write historically accurate books about this region, setting the standard for historical novelists. Lydia Bailey (1947) includes a dark portrait of Portsmouth-born Tobias Lear, secretary to George Washington. His final work, Boon Island (1956) centered on the wreck of the Nottingham Galle.. The shipwrecked 18th century sailors had been driven to cannibalism off the coast of Maine not far from Roberts home.

Roberts won a huge following and ended up on the cover of Time magazine. He was buried in Arlington Cemetery. His Kennebunk home, visible evidence of his success is currently on the market. The 6,000-square foot estate on 60 waterfront acres is being offered at $7.95 million. Roberts writing continues to inspire historical novelists, including Rodman Philbrick.

"I loved his books when I was a teenager," Philbrick says. "When I was about four years old I accompanied my father into the then-existing Paul's Market on Daniel Street, now a bank parking lot. I supposedly asked my dad why the man was wearing the funny hat. My dad's response (or so he told it for years) was – ‘Because he's Kenneth Roberts, the famous author, and he can wear any damn hat he wants, even a French beret.’ "

The following year, when he was five years old, Rodman Philbrick, recalls shopping at JJ Newberry’s department store in downtown Portsmouth. He remembers the tall lunch counter there and the excitement of going to the big city. By sixth grade he was typing his own original stories and mailing them to magazines, although with no immediate success. It’s been a long half-century from Newberry’s lunch counter to the Newbery Honor. But now, finally, Philbrick too is a famous and successful American author of historic fiction. And he can wear any damn hat he wants -- even a French beret.


Copyright © 2010 J. Dennis Robinson, all rights reserved. Robinson’s HISTORY MATTERS column apperas biweekly on the frtont page of Monday’s Portsmouth Herald and is available exclusively online at He is the author of three nonfiction history books for children from Compass Point Press. The most recent, Striking Back: The Fight to End Child Labor Exploitation, has just been released.


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