Stories of Serendipity: Writing Historical Fiction Series Featuring author Erika Mailman
Stephanie Renee dos Santos
Welcome to the third week of our series where writers share stories of serendipity and synchronicity while writing, researching and publishing historical fiction, and the exploration of possible reasons for such occurrences.
This Sunday we are delving into the world of the female shaman: amulets, witches, magic.
Come read on…
My final tale to impart for the series has to do with an Amazon talisman: a green frog amulet. The last third of my novel, Cut From the Earth (working title), takes place in the Brazilian Amazon in 1756, at a time when Catholic missions of multiple sects proselytized along the immense river and her tributaries. Writing my book’s first draft, I had given a fictional female shaman character a lichen-colored stone necklace in the shape of a frog and located the scene of her appearance in the Tapajos River region of the Amazon, at the historically documented Jesuit Mission of Tapajos– all things, but the mission, I thought I’d made up. But after completing my novel’s first draft, I flew to the great river mouth of the Amazon, to the town of Belém, to travel the river section of my book, to take in the surroundings and further investigate the places of my story. And while in Belém I came across a museum I hadn’t read about in any literature prior to my trip. While visiting the museum’s displays, I came across a story that explained that the indigenous women of the Tapajos River were known to possess jade-colored, frog-shaped stone pendants called a muiraquitã and that the gemstone it was made out of, nephrite, was found only in the Tapajos region of the Amazon. Bewildered, dumbfounded, I stared at the physical example of the amulet of my character in the showcase and read about her, gaining more insight into the powers associated with the real life revered stone and its holders.
It is my pleasure to hand you over to Erika Mailman, author of The Witch’s Trinity, and her uncanny and bewitching story of serendipity and coincidence…
“My novel The Witch’s Trinity was well underway when I got an odd email from my mother. “We’re related to a witch!” she reported. I was stunned. All my life I’d been fascinated by witchcraft, and had even pretended that a particular name on the family tree that hung in the stairwell was the dark mistress in question. My mother had learned about Mary Bliss Parsons, our ancestor, via a friend who sent a link to an extraordinary website UMass website which contains testimony—both typed and scanned-in originals—from Mary’s neighbors, condemning and protecting her. Mary was accused of myriad crimes, such as going into the river and coming out dry, and causing a farmer’s sow to die when formerly she was a “lusty swine and well fleshed.” She dispatched a rattlesnake to bite an ox, made a young boy trip in the woods and hurt his knee, and made spun yarn diminish in volume after it had been sold. That’s just a minor catalogue of her doings.
Two things were extraordinary to me. The first was that I had never heard of Mary Bliss Parsons before, and we were a family that was very proud of our heritage…including Mary’s husband Cornet Joseph Parsons, a founding father of Northampton, Massachusetts, where Smith College is today. We knew all about his life, but not one word about his wife’s witchcraft accusations—yes, plural, because 18 years after she was acquitted from her first trial, she was accused again. There’s even some evidence she may have faced a third accusation, but she died under the label “innocent” as an old woman, aged 85. Why was her story suppressed in the oral pass-down of our family history? And why would I learn about it while I was in the middle of writing a novel about witchcraft?
The other extraordinary thing to me was that I learned about my own ancestor through an educational website. I shiver to think of how our technology would appear to the people of 1656, the year of Mary’s first witchcraft trial. The testimony, handwritten by the court’s recorder, has now been scanned in and we can examine his every quillstroke. How is it possible that the deeds of a town consisting of only 47 households—Springfield, Massachusetts—are now freely available to a world of 7 billion people? As she died, she must’ve thought the rumors and tensions would die with her. Instead, they have been resuscitated and revived for a new audience. That is its own kind of witchery.
I’m at a loss how to explain such a coincidence. I kept using the word “uncanny” at the time (which Merriam-Webster asserts means “seeming to have a supernatural character or origin”). I wrote The Witch’s Trinity in nine months; how unusual that after decades of not knowing about my ancestor, I learned about her in this very narrow window of time when I was focused on the unfair and cruel situation she faced?
My editor asked me to write a brief essay about Mary Bliss Parsons, and it is included in my novel’s Afterword. I appreciated the official request to learn more about my ancestor. It was sobering to learn that she was outspoken and freely dispensed advice, and that probably spelled her downfall. For instance, she scolded a neighbor for whipping borrowed oxen so hard—surely not a woman’s purview—and he accused her of causing his own ox to die. She was said to be “a proud and nervous woman, haughty in demeanor and inclined to carry things with a high hand”: in short, a woman who was confident and didn’t meekly bow her head as the culture then expected. I’d like to think my book is a form of apologia for Mary. She would doubtless fit into today’s world far better, and it’s sad that her era did not support her strength.”
For more about Erika’s works:
Join us here next Sunday, September 22, for author Glen Craney’s mystic story of serendipity — beautiful it is, expressive of the mysterious Priestess of Light. Not to be missed!