by E. C. Ambrose
Until I started writing The King of Next Week, my historical research focused on the medieval period: surgery during the fourteenth century in Europe, clockworks in China during the Mongol invasions, references to werewolves in eleventh century Wales. But during a visit to Phippsburg, Maine, to give a talk about writing, I became intrigued by the history of the area. A rugged peninsula with over one hundred graveyards, this Downeast destination is also where the first sailing vessel was built on the continent (Virginia of Sagadahoc, built by the Popham colony in 1608), the largest (Wyoming, 1909) and the last fully-rigged wooden ship (Aryan, 1893). I was captivated by this history—and I knew I needed to write about the place. But when, and what story would I tell?
As I dug into my setting research, I learned about Malaga Island, a small heap of stone topped with pines just off the coast. During the maritime history of the area, this island became home to a lively mixed-race colony with freedmen, escaped slaves, and free Blacks living, fishing, and working for the sawmills and other local industries. The island’s inhabitants became the victims of shameful racial prejudices, persecuted and eventually expelled during the early twentieth century push to transform coastal Maine into a vacation destination. One of the men expelled from the island was Will Johnson, a veteran of the Massachusetts 54th regiment, the Black regiment famously depicted in the film “Glory.” Will’s story is not mine to tell, not directly, but I wanted that history to inform my fictional narrative.
Another research topic that intrigued me was the idea of New England pond ice being shipped thousands of miles to India to cool the drinks of English colonists. At the time of the ice trade, many sailors feared the cargo, thinking that, as the ice melted, the ship would sink from the inside out. What if a bold captain from Maine risked his reputation on a cargo of ice?
I returned to Phippsburg and spent happy hours in their historical society and library gathering more information, and it was there I found a photo of Will Johnson outside of his cabin on Malaga. Seeing his haunted face staring back at me made him all the more real. As I delved into the narrative, I found that the military records from the Civil War are scanned and available online—including documents from the Massachusetts 54th.
In order to get their pay, the Black soldiers of the 54th had to sign a document declaring that they “owed service to no man” (i.e. they were not escaped slaves). The white officers of the regiment, most of them abolitionist volunteers, refused their own pay until their men could also be paid—but the Union Army refused pay to slaves. Many in the regiment were, and a compromise was developed whereby they would make an oath, and receive their pay. One of those abolitionist officers, a Quaker who did not believe any man could morally be owned by another, devised the careful phrasing. Of course these men owed no service—they had been kidnapped or subjugated immorally, if not (at that time) unlawfully. Seeing Will’s signature on that form gave me chills.
Little else is known about Will. He had a daughter who was taken from him during the expulsion and spent the rest of her days at a home for the mentally unstable. Malaga Islanders were often maligned as both socially and mentally inferior, and many rumors spread about the origin of the colony, including that it was a dumping ground for the foreign mistresses and mixed-race children of local captains. More likely, it was simply a marginal piece of land available to those willing to work hard and make the best of it.
Writing their story required learning about the seasonal shifts in life in this somewhat precarious region, including the idea of “climbing March Hill,” the long, cold season when a family might have run out of their winter stores and struggle to make it through until spring. The best fisherman in a town in the area is known as the king of that town—let’s just say my protagonist earned his name for other skills.
As the entry point to the racial tension and physical hardship in coastal Maine, I chose a classic folktale format: a traveler arrives in a strange country, falling in love with a woman who is not quite human, and The King of Next Week was born.
A Civil War veteran trades his cargo of ice for a Djinn wife, and coastal Maine might never be the same. Now available from Guardbridge Books!
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