Author Jean Rae Baxter talks to Debbie Bateman about The Knotted Rope in The Artisanal Writer
1. In your recently released novel, The Knotted Rope, the protagonist holds a place in both the Indigenous and settler worlds. He was born white but adopted by the Oneida tribe. How does this unique perspective contribute to the main themes of the novel?
JRB: The Knotted Rope is the third novel in which Broken Trail is the protagonist. In the first of these novels, the eponymous Broken Trail, he was thirteen years old and desperately wanted recognition as a warrior, but he had enemies who refused to accept him as an Oneida. By the time that he reaches his early twenties in The Knotted Rope, he is fully accepted. Any conflict resulting from his divided heritage is long past. His reunion with his sister Hope brings about an exchange of memories untinged with conflict. He was given the name of Moses Cobman at birth by his settler parents. But when he says, “My name is Broken Trail, or Moses Cobman, depending on where I am or who I’m talking to,” he means it.
2. There are separate communication channels for each culture. Slaves have a network, Indigenous peoples have their networks, and so do the settlers. Sometimes important information remains hidden, such as the true reason for the dead bodies found downstream of Niagara Falls. Can you reflect on the impact of secrets and separate communication channels in this story?
JRB: The story begins with an incident witnessed by Broken Trail while on his way to deliver a report to Lieutenant Governor Simcoe. The use of such a messenger was routine with Indigenous leaders as well as white. Communication channels for the enslaved Blacks were necessarily secret, whether they consisted of subtle whispers at the marketplace or recognized secret symbols. The placement of a particular article of clothing on a clothesline might signal, “This is a safe place to hide.” The settlers who have been retrieving bodies from the river discuss their assumption that slavery is somehow responsible for the deaths, but they need no words to communicate their shared sense that these bodies deserve a decent burial. The slaves imprisoned in the cave make no attempt to communicate. Do channels of communication dry up when all hope is lost?
3. This is a complex story of tensions between nations, cultures, and systems of belief, and yet it is accessible to young readers. What were the challenges and benefits of writing this story as a young readers’ novel?
JRB: The benefit of writing this story as a young reader’s novel was to teach the next generation something important about Canada’s history. American cultural influences—movies, television, books—are almost overwhelming. But Canada is a different country; we do things differently. We didn’t end slavery by having a civil war. We did it by legislation and by building the Underground Railroad to help Black people escape from bondage in the United States. I wanted to show this. At the same time, I wanted to show Canada’s relationship to the struggle of the Indigenous peoples to retain what they could of their lands. That was my main theme in other books in this series. In The Knotted Rope, the biggest challenge was to explain the loophole in the law through which an escaped slave might become legally free, and to do this in an adventure story without bogging down the action.
4. How do you think the work responds to the questions it raises in the context of the time and place the characters are situated in? How do you think the questions and responses in the book relate to the time and place of the intended readership?
JRB: In the context of its time, The Knotted Rope deals with two questions. First is the question of slavery. The story is set in Upper Canada (Ontario) in 1793, the year that the province’s first Lieutenant Governor pushed through the legislature a new law to gradually end slavery in Upper Canada. The Preamble begins, “WHEREAS it is Unjust that a People who enjoy freedom by law should encourage the Introduction of Slaves…” The second question relates to white settlement taking over the traditional lands of the Indigenous peoples. These two questions raise important issues that are not yet fully resolved even today. We have ended slavery, but not prejudice. That is why we still have protests declaring, “Black Lives Matter!” As for the injustice done to the Indigenous peoples, that is the reason why in 2022 we are still fumbling with treaty rights, land claims and reconciliation.
5. How did you arrive at the title? What did you want the title to do?
JRB: I arrived at the title, The Knotted Rope, before I had even finished writing the first draft. I liked it immediately because it works on two levels: literal and symbolic. The knotted rope is, literally, the means of escape. A group of fugitive slaves imprisoned in a cave behind Niagara Falls crawl through a tunnel under the Niagara River and then, using a knotted rope, climb up through a crevice in the limestone to reach freedom. Symbolically, the knotted rope is double-purposed. The slaves had been roped together, so “rope” suggests their plight as captives. But the knots, which provide handholds and footholds so they can climb up the rope, suggest something complicated; that is, the intricacy and complexity of the new law and the subtlety of the loophole through which the slaves in the story become legally free.
6. What kind of research did you have to engage in order to create the story world?
JRB: Research for The Knotted Rope comprised many areas of scientific, historical, social, and legal information. Scientific research included looking into the geology of the Niagara Escarpment, which is hard limestone overlying soft shale. There were also other details, such as the depth of the Niagara Whirlpool (125 feet). Historical accuracy required research into the life and work of John Graves Simcoe, as well as a search for contemporary descriptions of roads, taverns, villages and ferry service. Social research confirmed that conditions of slavery in Canada had not been completely the same as in some of the United States. For example, in Canada, it was not illegal for a person to teach a slave to read and write. The legal research was the most painstaking, because I had to understand the 1793 legislation, introduced as “An Act to prevent the further introduction of SLAVES, and to limit the Terms of Contracts for SERVITUDE within this Province.”
7. What was your main concern about your choices regarding the point of view? Did you try alternative points of view for the protagonist / main characters before settling into the final points of view that you ended up using?
JRB: By the time I had written the final sentence of The Knotted Rope, I had been showing the world from Broken Trail’s perspective from the time he was a rebellious little boy protesting, “It’s not fair!”, until he became an adult intent upon ending slavery. Broken Trail had a special sense for detecting injustice, and the insight and energy to do something about it. I knew from the start that his was the best point of view for this story. Dedicated to the work he was doing as an aide to Mohawk War Chief Thayendanegea (Joseph Brant), he shared Thayendanegea’s goal of uniting the native people in a federation to stop white encroachment on their lands. But Thayendanegea was a slave owner. This posed a dilemma for Broken Trail. There had to be a major shift in his perspective as he adjusted to a new reality. Making this shift both convincing and consistent was my main concern about choices in this book.
8. If you had the chance to visit the periods or the places in the work, what would be the first place you’d visit and why?
JRB: I have frequently visited Niagara-on-the-Lake (then Newark) and the Falls. As a child, I rode my bicycle to the Niagara Escarpment caves at Rattlesnake Point, where my brother and I explored the tunnels navigated by the escaped slaves in my book. Those caves likely haven’t changed since 1793. However, the town of Newark, where Upper Canada’s first Parliament met, is greatly changed today. I would like to see it as it then was. I would like to see the tent which was the Lieutenant Governor of Ontario’s official residence. He brought the tent from England, where he had purchased it from the estate of the famous explorer, Captain Cook. I would like to see the Niagara River before the construction of the first of the Welland Canals. Maybe I could travel by horseback or ox cart from Newark to Fort Erie along the mud road called the Niagara Portage.
9. Would you say the pace of the story is uniform through the work? How did you consciously deal with pacing?
JRB: The pacing is not uniform throughout the book, nor do I think it should be. There are violent scenes like Chloe Cooley’s frantic struggle not to be thrown into a boat for transport across the river. There is tension during the dinner when Mr. Steele speaks of his slaves as livestock while Broken Trail tries to remain polite. There is the poignant reunion between Broken Trail and his sister, and the terror-filled passage of the escaped slaves through the tunnel. Each is as different in pacing as it is in tone. For each scene, I made a selection of concrete details appealing to the senses: the smell of the upset chamber pot, the roar of the Falls, the homely details of Hope’s cabin, the damp and dark tunnel. During action, short sentences give punch. During conversation, natural speech establishes personality and conveys information. The final trip to freedom is celebrated with a song of joy.
10. What was the most satisfying aspect about writing this book (other than perhaps the satisfaction of finishing it)?
JRB: By the time I completed all six novels in the Forging a Nation series, I had become attached to the characters. I had followed two families, the Cobmans and the Coopers, since 1777, when the violence of the American Revolution drove them from their homes in the Mohawk Valley. All had suffered. Some had died. At the end, some were reunited with loved ones. Broken Trail, the protagonist of three of the books, had undergone many adventures. He had been abducted by Oneida hunters, adopted, raised to be a warrior, attended a residential school, and served as an aide to Mohawk Chief Thayendanegea (Joseph Brant). It was satisfying to me as his creator to have him survive so many dangers, solve the moral conflict that resulted from his working for a slave owner, and finally join the fight against slavery, a cause to which he could unreservedly devote his life.
Jean Rae Baxter’s writing pursues two distinct paths. She writes literary fiction for adults and historical fiction for young readers. The Knotted Rope is the final book in a series that follow the fortunes of young members of two connected Loyalist families from 1777 to 1793. The other titles in the series are The Way Lies North (2008), Broken Trail (2011), Freedom Bound (2012), The White Oneida (2014) and Hope’s Journey (2015). Her writing has won awards in Canada and the United States. She lives in Kingston, Ontario, where she leads writing workshops. Visit her website at http://www.jeanraebaxter.ca.
The Way Lies North and Jean Rae Baxter now a part of the IB curriculum
Jean recently gave permission for an excerpt from her novel The Way Lies North (Ronsdale Press, 2007) to be included in a workbook to be used by International Baccalaureate (IB) students, ages 11 - 12. The excerpt is two pages long. It will be used to develop the students’ critical and research skills. As well as being delighted to have Jean's writing selected for this purpose, we are thrilled to know that the excerpt will be read by students worldwide. Hopefully, some of them will wish to read the whole book. The workbook will be published in May 2014. Thirty thousand copies will be printed.
Launch of Hazut Mehugenet
Hamilton Wentworth Heritage Association Awards
On Saturday, February 23, Baxter will receive a Hamilton Wentworth Heritage Association Award. The Hamilton Wentworth Heritage Association is an umbrella group for heritage groups in the Hamilton area, including Ancaster, Dundas, Flamborough, Glanbrook and Stoney Creek as well as Hamilton. The presentation will take place at Hamilton City Hall Council Chambers at 12:30 p.m. February 21 is Heritage Day. The presentation will take place at 12:30 p.m. The public is welcome.
Broken Trail - Novel Receives Moonbeam Awards’ Gold Medal
“Loyalist Trails” UELAC Newsletter
November 20, 2011
Congratulations to Jean Rae Baxter. On Saturday evening, November 12 in Traverse City, Michigan, the novel Broken Trail received the Moonbeam Awards' Gold Medal for young adult historical fiction.
This was a great honour for Jean, since entries for the Moonbeam Awards came from 33 U. S. States, six Provinces, and three countries overseas. Jean notes: "It was especially thrilling to me to have a book telling about the Revolutionary War from a Canadian point of view receive such acclaim."
In her acceptance speech, Jean noted: "More than 200 years of history both connect and separate my country and yours. Canadian children and American children both study the Revolutionary War in their classrooms, but they study it from very different books. It is only within the past 20 years or so that either side has shown a genuine desire to understand that war from the other's point of view."
John Kenneth Galbraith Literary Awards
August 30, 2010
“Devotion” and “After Annabelle,” two stories by Jean Rae Baxter, have been shortlisted for the 2010 John Kenneth Galbraith Literary Awards. These stories will appear in Jean’s new collection, Scattered Light.
The Awards ceremony will take place at the West Elgin Dramatic Arts Centre in Dutton, Ontario, which is John Kenneth Galbraith’s home town. His son, James Galbraith, author of the best-selling Predatory State will be the guest speaker.
Lost Play Kicks Off Mystery Tour
September 18, 2009
Of all William Shakespeare’s great works, the one that got away is what intrigues Jean Rae Baxter the most.
Cardenio, a romantic tale of a Spanish nobleman and his love interest Lucinda, was performed at the wedding of King James’ daughter Elizabeth and was probably in manuscript form, with contributions from Globe theatre successor John Fletcher, said the author and retired high school English teacher.
The play, with the same themes as Shakespeare’s more recent works like The Tempest, burned along with the Globe theatre in 1613, Baxter believes. But when the Sanders portrait surfaced about 10 years ago, an authentic 1600s-era painting that very could well be of the world’s greatest playwright, Baxter’s creative juices began to flow.
“I began to think if this portrait shows up, why not have a manuscript show up,” Baxter said.
Baxter will be at the Pelham library on next Tuesday to read from her latest book, Looking for Cardenio, a mystery novel that follows Dr. Deidre Gunn, an English lecturer at Melrose University in eastern Ontario.
Gunn is driven by her failed career. Almost at the point of reaching tenure, she has an affair with a male student, and is dismissed becoming simply another unemployed academic.
“For all her brilliance, when it comes to men, she parks her brains, and her career is marked by this,” Baxter said.
In need of money, Gunn is approached by a man she first met when he was an undergraduate, who has since been expelled for plagiarism. He claims to have a copy of the Cardenio manuscript, an item which would kick-start Gunn’s career.
But the man is soon found dead, and Gunn becomes the prime suspect, giving the novel both the mystery of the lost play, and the murder-mystery aspect, said Baxter.
“It’s a double mystery,” she said.
Baxter first learned of Cardenio when taking a postgraduate course on Shakespeare’s last plays at the University of Toronto. She was always drawn to Cardenio, simply for its lack of existence.
“There was Cardenio, a blank,” she said. “It didn’t exist anymore. I was intrigued by it.”
The Hamilton-based author is visiting Pelham as part of a program between the library and Scene of the Crime books called “Crime Time,” showcasing Canadian and international mystery authors.
Baxter is the first in the series, coming to the library located at 43 Pelham Town Square at 7 p.m.
Following the reading, she will be signing books.
Looking for Cardenio is Baxter’s third book since she began writing for publication about 10 years ago. Other works include The Way Lies North, an award-nominated historic fiction tale on the American Revolution, and A Twist of Malice, a collection of short stories.
Her fourth book is finished and is awaiting a contract. It is titled Broken Trail and is a sequel to The Way Lies North. For more information on Baxter, visit her website, www.jeanraebaxter.com.
Author: Michael Speck
The Jekyll and Hyde Author
May 10, 2008
A quiet living-room in a home a few blocks from Gage Park houses chestnut mouldings, comfortable Victorian furnishings, a friendly dog and an elegant, whitehaired grandmother who has earned the nickname of "The Jekyll and Hyde author."
We're talking about the Hamilton writer's work and I ask Jean Rae Baxter if she enjoys writing respected, entertaining stories for young adults alongside gruesome, noir tales full of bleak revenge and bitter darkness.
Baxter smiled and answered over a cup of tea: "Whatever I'm writing is what I love most."
It's a twisted and elegant answer.
The writing began after Baxter retired from a career as an English teacher, with a quest to right a historical wrong she found in Mel Gibson's film The Patriot. In it, British soldiers surround and burn a church full of worshippers.
"I researched ... and it simply didn't happen," she said.
A short story, “Farewell the Mohawk Valley,” marked the beginning of Baxter's Dr. Jekyll literary persona. The story was published in the anthology, Beginnings: Stories of Canada's Past. The volume was shortlisted for a Golden Oak Award.
The Mr. Hyde side of her literary personality, the knack for the noir, began with a short story titled “The Quilt”, which won first prize in the Canadian Writer's Journal's 2000 competition.
Baxter's story, “Loss”, was published in 2003 in Hard Boiled Love, an anthology of noir affection. “Loss” graphically tells the story of a divorced, terminally ill woman planning and seeking revenge upon the man she still considers her husband and his young new wife. The revenge involves sending hair and body parts in the mail, acts that left the bile churning in my stomach as I reread the story before meeting Baxter.
The gentle image of the author is at odds with the images stirred by that story. “Loss” was not an isolated venture into the dark side. “A Wanton Disregard,” which appeared in Revenge, a noir anthology about getting even, has a particularly cunning and nasty bent to it.
Baxter's writing began to attract recognition. She received Arts Hamilton awards in 2003 and 2004 and was twice shortlisted for the Canadian Authors' Association Conference Contest.
In 2005 came her critically acclaimed collection of short stories, A Twist of Malice, which I reviewed in the Canadian Mysteries column on this page.
The path to Baxter's writing career began with the fulfilment of childhood ambition, a struggle with what to write about, the author's lot of rejection slips, and finally the growth of a short story into a young adult novel, The Way Lies North--a telling piece of historical fiction that captures the terror and hardships suffered by the Loyalists as they fled Rebel troops during the American Revolution.
Published in 2007, The Way Lies North met with critical acclaim. The book brings what is often described as dull Canadian history alive. It is vibrant with the courage and toil of the young as they make a new life for themselves despite all they have suffered and lost.
"I imagine myself into these stories. You can't understand the story fully without it."
The Hamilton launch of her new novel, Looking for Cardenio, (reviewed in The Spectator on April 26) takes place on May 15, at 7 p.m. at Bryan Prince Bookseller in Westdale. Cardenio is a story of a disgraced academic who risks her career and life as she chases the truth behind the legitimacy of Cardenio, thought to be Shakespeare's last play.
In 2009, Baxter's Jekyll bent will surface in Broken Trail, a sequel to The Way Lies North. Her Hyde side? Another collection of noir short stories, titled Scattered Light.
Jean Rae Baxter's writing has taken her to Hamilton's Festival of Friends and Grit Lit Festival, across the province, and to Canadian expatriate gatherings in China and Romania.
Deep inside Looking for Cardenio is a glimmer of another story -- an idea Baxter will imagine herself into.
Interviewer: Don Graves