The Historical Fiction of Sally Cabot Gunning
by Rebecca M. Alvin
There aren’t many people who can track their family histories on Cape Cod as far back as Sally Cabot Gunning. The Brewster writer, who will be a featured guest at the inaugural Provincetown Book Festival, had relatives aboard the Mayflower, which first docked in Provincetown back in 1620. And by 1660 her descendants were leaders of the town that we now call Brewster. And yet, even with the kind of documentation Gunning has to prove her pedigree, it’s the questions about the past as much as the connections to that history that brought her to write historical fiction.
“It seems ludicrous to me that we fight over who we are, because we don’t even know who we are. We can be anything,” Gunning says rocking in a chair on her screened-in porch in Brewster. “People that were descended from Sally Hemings [Thomas Jefferson’s slave/mistress] had no idea they were descended from African-Americans. You don’t know who you are no matter how much documentation you may think you have on it, and this is coming from someone who can tap her tree back to the crowned heads of Europe. I still don’t know. All you need is one person to tell a little fib somewhere and who knows! So I always start there because it’s so ironic.”
Gunning didn’t start out studying history; she majored in English and sociology before veering toward the latter as the social unrest of the 1960s inspired her to get involved. She eventually found her way back to writing—first as a mystery writer, signing her first contract, a 10-book deal with Simon & Schuster in 1990, and then moving into the world of historical fiction, writing five books in the genre, including The Widow’s War (2006), Bound (2008), The Rebellion of Jane Clarke (2010), Benjamin Franklin’s Bastard (2013 under the name Sally Cabot), and now her latest book Monticello (2016), about Martha Jefferson and her relationship with her father Thomas.
Much of that latest book is based on well-documented facts, and yet it reveals a different side to the people and era in which it is set. “This book was very different. In all of my previous historical novels, the main character, at least one of the main characters, was a fictional character. This one, they all were there. They all wrote letters. They all lived. They all documented so much of their lives, so I was much more constrained by the record in this book than I was in the others,” Gunning explains. “To me it was a fascinating record, and again, it was a record the parts of which were unknown to me and I had never heard anybody else mention.”
What’s not different is Gunning’s focus on a female protagonist, something she says came about for two reasons. As a mystery writer, although her books took on multiple points of view, she was pushed to weigh them heavily in favor of a male perspective. So when she moved into historical fiction, she wanted to be able to write from a female point of view. But also, the nature of the story that led her into the world of historical fiction was a surprising one that illuminated the conditions of women’s lives in particular. What she learned in the process of writing The Widow’s War, which takes place in 1761, has stayed with her, and it connects all of her books that came after it.
“I found an old family will that talked about widow’s thirds, and I didn’t know what that meant,” Gunning recalls. She looked up the term and found that “according to English common law, which was in place in Massachusetts in the 1700s, women as a rule did not inherit their husband’s property when he died; they got life use of one-third of the real estate.”
As she researched, she found more wills and found the terms to be unbelievable. “They would say she gets to live in this room, she gets to hang her clothes on this bush to dry, on Mondays she can use the oven, she can use this corner of the hearth. It was all spelled out in the will. They went from a full life to a third of a life,” she says.
Even more incredible was the way such information had previously been interpreted. “I actually talked to some male historians who said wasn’t it so great that Massachusetts took such good care of their widows,” she says with a laugh. “And I thought, you know there’s another opinion on that. I’m not so sure that’s so terrific!”
But it was in locating the story of one particular woman who had decided not to leave her husband’s property, even though in his will he’d left her the cash equivalent rather than the property itself, that stuck in Gunning’s mind.
“I found this example of a woman who decided to squat!… Her son was going to sell the house, and she squatted in this house and wouldn’t move, and I loved that. So that’s what sparked me to write my first female perspective historical novel about a woman. And the more I read about the women on the Cape, I realized that they were running the show because their husbands were at sea,” she says. “Then, when their husbands did come back, I call it the Rosie the Riveter syndrome like after World War II: you’re working this job very successfully and the men come back from overseas and they want their job back, and you’re shoved to the side. So they had a difficulty sometimes in adjusting to their husbands’ return… We think of women as so dependent in that era, and on Cape Cod we had a whole different climate that I felt like I wanted to explore.”
This sense that there were things about people’s lives that have not traditionally been included in history education is a driving force behind Gunning’s investigations of the past. The focus has so often been on military battles, explorers and conquerors, and key dates, that the nitty gritty of people’s day-to-day lives, the way they thought about things, their beliefs—these things are left out, and so we often make assumptions that are not born out when you start looking at primary sources like diaries.
“I really tracked down as many women’s diaries as I could, and it really colored my view of the era. I remember… I had this thing in my head where, first of all I thought the Puritans were pure— that was the first mistake I made, but I also thought that it was a very religious time and that the people practiced their religion faithfully and they believed their religion without any question,” she says. “And I found that that was not true. They had to obey religious rules, but they struggled against them. And that was another thing that surprised me because I had not ever gotten that sense. You read the rules and you think people are doing them, but sometimes they’re not.”
She cites as an example a diary written by a 42-year-old woman who was pregnant with her tenth child and wrote in her diary, “I question God’s governance.” Gunning says that stuck in her mind because, like many of us, she never thought of the New England Puritans and the Pilgrims as people who would question God’s plan.
“And oh my Lord was it racey, really,” she says with a smile. “And you realize the reason they were making these laws so strict is because all this stuff was going on, and all of these things were so surprising to me. And I felt like we’ve been given a false impression, and I wanted to get another side to the story there.”
Sally Gunning will be on a panel, Daughters and Divas: Writing Historical Fiction, with Alexander Chee, author of The Queen of the Night, in the Provincetown Book Festival on Saturday, September 16, 1 – 2:30 p.m. The event is free. For more information call 508.487.7094 or visit provincetownlibrary.org.
The First Provincetown Book Festival
Provincetown is home to many different arts festivals. In June we have a film festival and an encaustics conference. In September we have the Afterglow Festival, followed by the Provincetown Tennessee Williams Theater Festival. And every Friday night in-season, the art gallery stroll serves as a kind of fine arts festival celebrating Provincetown’s history as an art colony. But Provincetown also has a rich literary history, and it is home to many contemporary writers. So it makes perfect sense that the Provincetown Public Library would initiate an annual book festival, that kicks off its first year this Friday for a two-day celebration of books, reading, and writers.
Friday • September 16
11 a.m. – 12:30 p.m.
A Common Language: 3 Poets
Elizabeth Bradfeld, Kelle Groom, and Jill McDonough
4 – 5:30 p.m.
Remembrance: Fiction and Non-Fiction
Paul Lisicky and Tim Murphy
Rose Dorothea Award Reception
Honoring the Late Josephine Del Deo
Saturday • September 17
10 – 11:30 a.m.
Jamaica and Portugal: Writing from Heritage
Nicole Dennis-Benn and Katherine Vaz
1 – 2:30 p.m.
Daughters and Divas: Writing Historical Fiction Alexander Chee and Sally Cabot Gunning
3 – 4:30 p.m.
Brilliant Beacons: American Lighthouses
by Eric Jay Dolin: a slide presentation
Throughout the Day
Under the Tents on the Library Lawn:
10 a.m. – 3 p.m.
Authors signings and book sales
11a.m. – 2 p.m.
Short readings by local authors, including Jeannette de Beauvoir, Robin Alpern, A.C. Burch, and more.