A Mistake of Consequence
What would I do if…? That’s how many of my book ideas get started. I’ll read about some minor event or custom from the past and wonder how I would cope. My historical fiction novel, A Mistake of Consequence (2015) started this way. In a history class, I read a heartfelt plea from a young girl in Colonial Maryland, begging her father in England to send her some clothes, or better yet, let her come home. In case you don’t know, indenture is a legal contract binding yourself (or being bound by another) for a certain number of years (usually seven). You owe your labor in return for some compensation such as passage to America, learning a trade, or room and board. The indentured person is not free to leave the contract, and has limited rights as a servant. I was fascinated by this girl’s plea and by the fact that her father had sold her. Once I have an idea for a book, I do a lot of research. For this book, I learned that indenture was widely practiced in the colonization of North America. Over half of seventeenth century colonists started out as indentured servants. Men, women and even children indentured themselves or were indentured to pay debts or as punishment for crimes. The need for cheap labor in the colonies was so great that ‘spiriters’ in England, Ireland and Scotland kidnapped unwary men, women and children and sold them for profit. I wanted to explore the concepts of freedom, agency, and power in colonial women’s lives, and the practice of indenture gave me a wonderful avenue to do so. In A Mistake of Consequence, there are actually three women who face indenture under very different circumstances, all grounded in historical practices. Callie Beaton, the main character, is abducted. Her indenture is involuntary and the ‘master’ who buys her is unscrupulous. She has no way to prove she has been wronged unless she can get a letter to her grandfather so that he can buy her back. On board the ship, Callie meets Mary, the mother of two young children. Mary and her husband signed a contract for indenturing themselves and their children to pay for their passage overseas. As poor tenant farmers in Scotland, they hope to start fresh and own land in the colonies once their term of service is over. But when Mary’s husband dies, the whole term of service for herself and her husband falls on Mary, more than doubling the length of time she will be indentured. Even worse, she has an abusive master. With two such miserable experiences, you might ask, why did so many people indenture themselves? One answer to that can be seen in my third character, Peg. She has no family and no prospects in Scotland. Believing she can find a good husband in the Colonies, she indentures herself voluntarily. She leaves Edinburgh with no regrets and arrives in America in confident expectation of a better life. Three women...three different paths. Isn’t historical fiction fun?