Thursday, September 4, 2014

Among Friends: An Evening with Local Author Stephen Woodruff

On Saturday, August 30, the Alice helped kick off the first weekend of Battle of Plattsburgh commemoration activities with a visit from Stephen Woodruff, author of the young adult novel Among Friends: A Quaker Boy at the Battle of Plattsburgh. The book is about 13-year-old Elijah Hoag, a Quaker living in the settlement near Peru, who faces some tough situations as war approaches his home in September 1814. Stephen gave a wonderful talk in which he took the audience through the various influences that came together to give him the idea for this book.

Stephen grew up in Peru, and as a kid he heard reports of a deserted town outside the village. This was the Quaker Union--once a thriving settlement which had largely been abandoned by the 1850s. Later, as a teacher in the Peru elementary school, Stephen helped develop a local history program for fourth-graders in which students compared the present village to 19th-century photographs. Many of the buildings the students studied for this project later became settings in Among Friends.

Around this same time, Stephen encountered the journal of Henry K. Averill, which had been edited by local historian Keith Herkalo and published by the Battle of Plattsburgh Association. Stephen became interested in Averill's account of his experiences as one of Aiken's Volunteers during the battle. A group of teenage boys playing a pivotal role in the American victory certainly seemed like a intriguing premise for a novel...

All of these ideas were beginning to come together, but more research was needed. Stephen began to gather more information about the Quaker Union and about Quaker theology and practice. The Quakers (or Society of Friends, as they called themselves) originated in England in the mid-17th century when they broke off from the Church of England. Quakers emphasized the individual's personal relationship with God, unmediated by clergy or formal services. They believed that all people had an "Inner Light" that could be cultivated through communal, but largely silent, worship. Unlike many other Christian denominations, Quakers allowed women to speak publicly during meetings. They also supported abolitionism and pacifism, and were known for their plain style of dress and use of thee and thou as ordinary pronouns.

A Quaker meeting in London, 1809. Men and women sat separately in the meetinghouse,
and there were no ordained ministers. Anyone who felt moved by the Inner Light could speak.
The Keese homestead. More early photos
can be found at the Town of Peru website.

Quakers were persecuted both by the Church of England and by Puritans in North America, but they were able to establish settlements in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Long Island, and Dutchess County. It was these Dutchess County Quakers who became the first settlers of the Quaker Union in the early 1790s. Many of the earliest residents, including William and John Keese, had worked as surveyors for Zephaniah Platt, and were paid for their services with land. By 1814, the Quaker Union was a prosperous settlement of 40 to 50 houses, a school, a tavern, and other businesses. But it was already beginning to feel the effects of what would ultimately become a schism in the community due to the radical preaching of Long Island Quaker Elias Hicks.

The main character of Among Friends, 13-year-old Elijah Hoag, thus finds himself facing a number of problems. In addition to the tensions within the Quaker community, he is frightened by the possibility of a British invasion. But he's also a little bit interested in the idea of boys his own age who are willing to fight--something that would be totally contrary to his Quaker beliefs. Plus there are troubles at home on the farm, where Elijah just can't seem to do anything right, and he's been having strange and ominous dreams. I won't give away the ending, but I will say that this is a very enjoyable book for teens or adults. Stephen Woodruff does an excellent job of blending fictional characters with real events and people in a believable way. 

Engraved plate from rifle presented by Congress to Martin Aiken,
in the collection of the Clinton County Historical Association.
This year's Battle of Plattsburgh commemoration (Saturday, September 13) will include a reenactment of the skirmish on Bridge Street, in which Aikin's Volunteers played an important role.

The Yellow Store in Goshen, where Elijah meets Henry Averill, was a real place and is now located at the Babbie Rural and Farm Learning Museum in Peru, which is raising funds for its restoration.

Among Friends is available for purchase at the Clinton County Historical Association and the Corner-Stone Bookshop in Plattsburgh, and at

No comments:

Post a Comment