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Child Out of Place
Fall Rose Books
Kittery, ME 2004

Child Out of Place: A Story for New England is Pat Wall’s first book. As a former tour guide at Strawbery Banke and at the Warner House where the story takes place, Pat came to know Portsmouth history. But there were stories still untold, she says. Then a voice began to whisper to her from the past, sending the author on a journey to places she had never imagined. Combining fact with fiction, Pat Wall created Matty, an enslaved girl living in a New Hampshire seaport at the turn of the 19th century. The resulting novel for children is illustrated by Debby Ronnquist who created some of the first imagined images of colonial African-American life in Portsmouth, NH. We asked Pat Wall about her experiences as an historian and first time author.

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INTERVIEW WITH PAT WALL

SeacoastNH
What do you think will attract 21st century kids to read a book about an 18th century slave girl from New Hampshire? What can they learn from Matty?

Author Pat Wall

PAT WALL
Curiosity, I hope. The title is likely to strike a familiar cord. Most kids at one time or another have had that uncomfortable feeling of being "out of place"...not belonging. And, the book's cover, painted by my friend and illustrator, Debby Ronnquist, does stir the imagination. Were I a teacher, I'd challenge my students to make up their own story just on that cover.

I think once readers move on into the story, carried along by more of Debby's heart warming drawings, they'll discover it's got all sorts of stuff to hold their interest. While it does reveal much about the different nature of slavery in New England -- as compared with most of the South - it's really about a child's determined optimism in the face of harsh reality. Despite what young Matty's relatives tell her, she's certain there's a special, happier place for her, a "belonging place", she calls it and that one day soon she'll get there.

I realize that slavery is an uncomfortable topic for some parents and teachers of young children. This story provides a gentle way to get discussions going, help kids empathize with young Matty, be with her as she's forced to confront the reality for African Americans in 1806. It's the human connection that makes history fun. Lots of textbooks fail at that.

SeacoastNH
Your research for this story four years. Tell us about that.

PAT WALL
Actually, it was the whole project right up to the printed book that took over four years. Research was fun. Writing certainly wasn't. So often I'd get started at the computer, thinking I was on my way and then get stopped by the enormity of what I'd undertaken. I had so much to learn about early African American history. I'm so grateful to Valerie Cunningham for her valiant work on the Portsmouth Black Heritage Trail and the resource guide co-authored with Mark Sammons. I'm indebted to lots of other authors who opened my eyes. Joanne Pope Melish's Disowning Slavery in New England 1780-1860, for example, was a great help. I was amazed to discover how broad and rich is African American literature and how lacking my formal education was.

Of course, research was only one big stumbling block on the way to creating Child Out of Place. Though I'd been writing non-fiction journalism for years, I had to learn a whole new writing craft, learn to create characters and historically accurate settings, get characters to interact, respond to their situations and settings -- hundreds of new challenges for me. Even word for word, the language had to be accurate for the times. Thank goodness for the Oxford English Disctionary.

So many times, over that first year or so, I walked away from the whole thing, threw away chapters, even a draft of what I thought was a finished book. I never had that much trouble when writing for newspapers. All I had to do then was create a snappy first sentence hook and let the fishing line play out until the editor cut it. A novel is a whole different critter.

But something -- likely my character Matty -- kept pushing me. I knew she had an important, unusual story to tell. I just wasn't sure I was the one she needed to tell it. It's a funny feeling to invent a character and then she begins to talk to you. No, I wasn't hearing voices. The more I learned about enslaved Africans in the North, the more I felt compelled to write a story about that for youngsters. It's a chapter that's missing from their textbooks. In retrospect, I'm ever so grateful Matty came along. she changed me, opened new horizons for me, intellectually and personally. She set me on a mission.

Matty

SeacoastNH
What did you discover life was like for blacks in Portsmouth in the late 1700s?

PAT WALL
By then, there were a few, small, hopeful changes beginning to occur, but life for most African Americans was pretty much the dreadful way it had always been in this country. Small numbers of Africans -- ones, twos, threes -- were held by farmers, businessmen and homeowners, their futures and that of their enslaved children always uncertain. I was appalled at how casually black families were sometimes broken up by their "owners", even young children sold away. I was shocked to read those casual, inhuman notations on shopping lists, telling local ship captains headed south to purchase a "likely negro boy" along with orders for china dishes, fine silks and such. Such shopping lists were common in lots of seacoast New England towns, too.

Prior to about 1760, I think the word "isolation" best describes the difference between enslaved Africans in New England compared with those in the South. As Matty's great uncle Ned tells her, "Bad as that Barbados plantation was for our parents, at least there they had the comfort of friends near by." That wasn't true in early Portsmouth.

SeacoastNH
Before Valerie’s Cunningham’s research on local African American history, most of us were unaware the role of blacks in the history of Portsmouth. How did her work affect your book?

PAT WALL
It paved the way. I might have attempted to do basic research in what scant records exist, but I wouldn't have achieved the depth of her knowledge and understanding. From time, to time, she graciously and patiently steered me in right directions. What Matty learns about her ancestor's history, though couched in fiction, has an authenticity I alone could not have given it. I must add that I was guided by many minds, past and present on this project.

SeacoastNH
Why did you choose to publish the book yourself rather than submit it to a publisher? Was it costly and was it more difficult without an editor?

PAT WALL
I did try a few publishers very early on, but they were cold to the idea. At this stage of my life, I decided I wouldn't wait, maybe years, while copies of my manuscript moldered at the bottom of a pile of manuscripts on the desk of over-worked editors. I came across a wonderful book by Tom and Marilyn Ross, The Complete Guide to Self Publishing, and dutifully followed their step-by-step instructions. That sounds simple, but of course, it wasn't. I quickly learned that self-publishing is hard, demanding work, fraught with critical choices and tons of pesky details. But, my mantra became "I believe, I believe, I believe." Somehow I had to get Matty's story out there.

here are pluses to self-publishing. You've got more control over the outcome than with most commercial publishers, especially in regard to illustrations. Every time I look at the book, I thank God that Debby Ronnquist came along. It was such joy working with her.

The price tag to produce 2000 books was about equal to a couple of those adventure trips seniors like to take. I certainly got far more enjoyment and satisfaction on my "book trip." I wish I could have afforded a hardcover edition. There's not much for posterity in paperbacks. But, who knows, maybe Fate will smile one day and a commercial publisher will buy it and do it up proper.

As for not having an editor -- in a way -- I actually had multiple editors, especially my daughter, as well as many caring friends who read and commented on various drafts of the manuscript. They're all listed in the book.

Matty

SeacoastNH
This was your first book. What did you learn from the mistakes you made in the writing process?

PAT WALL
I wish I had immersed myself years ago in a broader range of English literature, old and modern. In writing this book there often was such painful struggle to find the right phrase, the right word. I wasted too much time, ruminating over the same dumb sentence, sometimes for days. Also, I think that early on, I wasn't "listening" enough to Mattie and the other characters, understanding what they needed to convey. It was amazing how much of the writing came clear while doing dishes or driving. Coming up with the book's title took forever, but it finally popped out while I was waiting for a stoplight.

SeacoastNH
As a white woman in a modern age, how did you get "inside the head" of an enslaved black child in a distant time?

PAT WALL
You could say she got into my head, unexpectedly. As a guide for many years in the Warner House Museum, I got to know its history and the generations of privileged white families who owned it. There were hints in the records that slaves had been there, but there wasn't much to tell visitors about that, not until quite recently. I thought it would be fun to write a story for children. For inspiration I'd sometimes climb up into the rooftop cupola of the House. White family records tell of children playing up there and some of them likely left those initials to be seen carved on the cupola walls and circular bench.

To my surprise, on one of my visits, I imagined a servant child and, she was black. Questions about her flooded in, and soon Matty came into being. The more I got immersed in early African American history, the more Matty and her story took shape. At first, I did worry that my being white would be a barrier. But I soon realized that ignorance is the barrier, not skin color.

As for dealing that "distant time" you asked about, I grew up surrounded by the past, by antique furniture and parents who loved American history. They often dragged me off to visit historic sites and old houses. I loved it but, as kids will do, I often made fun of all that "old stuff." Somewhere, up there, my folks are now having the last laugh.

Copyright © 2004 SeacoastNH.com. All rights reserved.
Illustrations copyright © 2004 by Debby Ronnquist. Used by permission.

For more on Seacoast NH Black History

Portsmouth Black Heritage Trail Online

See the official Warner House web site
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