As Kathleen Vellenga embarked on her first book of historical fiction, she ran across a quote from Julius Lester, an author who chronicled Black America. His words became her literary compass as she told the story of two girls in the early 1600s living on the eastern shore of what is now Massachusetts. One of the girls had arrived on the Mayflower; the other was of Native American heritage.

“‘History isn’t just events or dates,’ Lester said, ‘it’s a pain in the heart. Until you feel that pain, you don’t understand history and you repeat it,’” Vellenga related.

History has been a joy as well for the Merriam Park author and former state legislator whose third novel, Tides of the Kennebec, was published late last year. Tides continues the story of Elisabeth Tilley and Attitash. The girls were introduced as 13-year-olds in Vellenga’s debut novel, Strangers in Our Midst (2013). They became friends as the Pilgrim colonists from England and the native Wampanoags struggled to survive in 1620.

In Vellenga’s second novel, In the Midst of Bounty (2016), the girls and their respective Pilgrim and Wampanoag peoples join forces to protect their land as more English colonists arrive and threaten to rend their relationship.

Kathleen Vellenga
Author Kathleen Vellenga poses with her third novel and the book that inspired her to begin the series of historical fiction. Photo by Brad Stauffer

“From the beginning, my goal was to have Attitash and Elisabeth come alive and have readers feel the girls’ pain and their joy,” Vellenga said. “I figured out early on that if I was going to make their story come alive, I couldn’t do it in one book.”

 

“People are going through so much loss right now.… It’s good to remember that this isn’t the first time that many people have suffered great change and great loss and learned how to pick up their feet and go out the door the next day.”

The Kennebec is a river in Maine where Elisabeth and Attitash continue their friendship as women. The Pilgrims of Plymouth Colony have resettled in present-day Maine where they trap animals and trade their fur. “In the 1630s, beaver pelts were thicker in Maine, and the Kennebec River had a tidal flow up to where Augusta is,” Vellenga said. Ships from the Atlantic Ocean would travel with the tidal flow to trade with the people upriver and then return to the Atlantic with their bounty when the tide reversed.

 

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As she did for her previous two novels, Vellenga carefully researched the history behind her third book in the places where that history took place. She made several trips to Plymouth, Massachusetts, for the first two novels, and “my daughter and I went to Maine (for Tides),” she said.

There she learned that oxen had been used from southern New England to Maine to transport shallops, or small sailboats, for trading. This solved the problem of how to have Attitash relocate and end up with Elisabeth in Maine. Attitash would join the other Wampanoags who drove the oxen for the colonists. “I wanted to make the story as plausible as possible,” Vellenga said.

A personal connection to Plymouth Colony

Writing historical fiction was not something Vellenga ever intended to do. That was until she spotted the book The Mayflower while sorting through her father’s nearly 5,000-volume library following his death in 1998. “The book was written by a Brit, and the first third of it was all about what was going on in England at the time,” she said. “But in the middle, I found a list of passengers.” Among those passengers were several of her ancestors, including Elisabeth Tilley, Vellenga’s grandmother’s grandmother’s grandmother.

There was another 13-year-old girl in the Mayflower registry, Mary. “Fifty of the 100 people who arrived on the ship died that first winter,” Vellenga said. “Elisabeth and Mary were both orphaned. That caught my attention.”

Vellenga’s original plan was to write about Elisabeth and Mary. But when she realized there were such distorted views of the Wampanoags at that time, she eliminated Mary as a main character and created an indigenous friend for Elisabeth.

Before she began her first novel, Vellenga’s writing experience was limited to her undergraduate years at Macalester College and as a regular columnist for the then Villager newspaper during her 14 years in the Minnesota House of Representatives. Much of her time was devoted to raising her three children, but she also served as a kindergarten teacher and as executive director of the Saint Paul Children’s Initiative.

Resiliency in the face of great change

Vellenga hopes readers will find that the themes of her first two novels are not only present in Tides of the Kennebec but particularly poignant. Those themes include the value of cross-cultural relationships and the need for resiliency and hope in order to survive. With those benefits, Elisabeth and Attitash find that “even when things go badly awry, you can carry on,” she said.

“I’ve gone through a lot of change since my second book,” Vellenga said. “Shortly after it was published, my husband of 56 years died. I didn’t really promote that book. And I wasn’t able to write for a time. But finally I could, and it was so wonderful to be with my characters again. Before I sold the house that we lived in across from the University of Saint Thomas, our son who lived nearby would jog past. Once he said, ‘I see you in the window sitting all by yourself at your computer.’ I told him, ‘I’m not by myself. I’m with my characters.’

“People are going through so much loss right now,” Vellenga said, “not only from COVID but from a lack of trust and hope, just as our ancestors did. It’s good to remember that this isn’t the first time in history that many people have suffered great change and great loss and learned how to pick up their feet and go out the door the next day. And it’s a falsehood that we can get along on our own as individuals or individual communities. We need each other.”

Vellenga plans to begin work on a fourth novel soon. The sequel will feature Elisabeth and Attitash and be set during the war of 1674 between the Wampanoags and the British colonists. “That was the bloodiest war in American history in terms of per capita killed,” Vellenga said. But even in the pain of that conflict, she added, “there is joy to be found in the hearts of her characters.”

— Anne Murphy

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