The Long Way Home: Writing "Ariel's Gift"

By: Thomas Pullyblank

Volume 15, Issue 8, August 2020
Then there were the dreams, which I'd been having for about a month. They all happened somewhere in the Thousand Islands, and they all displayed some variant of mass destruction. Sometimes the river flooded despite the Joint International Commission's assurances that they had the water level of the Saint Lawrence Seaway well under control. Sometimes the ice failed to melt, even in high summer, and rendered the river un-navigable. In one dream the river boiled, sending up wave after wave of noxious effluvia that sickened anyone who inhaled it. In another dream a western wind blew so hard that it moved the smaller islands downriver.
Until that afternoon, however, none of my dreams had ever had much personal meaning. This one happened on the day of our wedding, at the place the ceremony was to be held. I was a direct participant in the dream and experienced the disaster with my own senses and my own emotions. For the first time in one of my dreams, Billy Masterson was back from the dead, questioning my motives as he had often done in life. Finally, this dream was connected to the search for my brother. I had no doubt that, in the dream, the events that sent me into the cement block-walled garage were caused by my brother's return to the river.
--From Ariel's Gift (Square Circle Press, 2020)

The moment I finished Napoleon's Gold: A Legend of the Saint Lawrence River, I knew that the main theme of my next novel would be Tom Flanagan's search for his brother Patrick, who disappeared in the boat crash that killed their parents.  I also knew that Tom would search for and -- spoiler alert! -- find his brother somewhere other than the Thousand Islands.  From there, the brothers would come home, perhaps with the dire consequences that Tom foresaw in his dreams.

For some time I'd been wanting to write about other locations in Upstate New York besides the Thousand Islands, my favorite place, and Clinton Falls, the fictional Mohawk Valley city where Tom and his partner Mindy McDonnell live and work when not on the River.  I grew up in Caledonia, just south of Rochester. I went to college and lived for over a decade in the Albany/Schenectady area. For over twenty years now, I've lived in the beautiful foothills of the Northern Catskills.  The Thousand Islands has its unique and undeniable charms that stir the soul like few other places on Earth. But there are other beautiful and interesting places in New York State too, places, perhaps, that many of you live and love.  I was eager to explore these places in research and writing.

About twenty pages into Ariel's Gift, however, I realized that I was not yet done writing about the River. There were too many ideas and sentiments left over from Napoleon's Gold to completely walk away. The River beckoned; I knew I had to get these River-born themes out of my system before I could shift settings to elsewhere in New York.  I knew I had to go back home before I could take my characters back home.

So, I decided to try my hand at short stories and the result, The Ghost of Billy Masterson and Other Thousand Island Tales, contains some of my favorite writing. The stories were a joy to write, like being on vacation – in the Thousand Islands, no less! – a reprieve between the emotional release of Napoleon's Gold and the soul-searching drama of what would become Ariel's Gift.  Reading The Ghost of Billy Masterson and Other Thousand Island Tales isn't necessary to understand the two novels, but the stories do serve as a link between them, deepening the mythos that I began to explore in Napoleon's Gold and setting the stage for what follows.

As I was writing the stories, I searched and searched for somewhere to set my new novel.  Like Tom Flanagan, I eventually entered into Ariel's Gift via the mid-nineteenth century Anti-Rent Wars in Delaware County, New York, specifically though the straightforward yet unanswerable question, “Who killed Osman Steele?”  The murder that brought the Anti-Rent Wars to a dramatic conclusion remains a mystery.  Despite my fictional and somewhat fantastical offer of an answer, no one knows for sure who shot the  undersherrif on that warm August day in 1845, when he and his deputies confronted a large group of disguised and armed protesters at a cattle sale in Andes.  I quickly realized that the murder of Osman Steele was the perfect hook upon which to hang my fictional hat.

As mentioned above, Ariel's Gift veers into fantasy.  The Anti-Rent Wars themselves, however, are a well-documented, if under-appreciated, episode in American history.  

Delaware County looking to the southwest from Bramley Mountain in Delhi, NY)

If you're interested in some serious historical reading about the Anti-Rent Wars, there's no better place to turn than to Henry Christman's Tin Horns and Calico, which is the definitive work, and Dorothy Kubik's A Free Soil--A Free People, a fine example of local history and a testament to the historical consciousness of Delaware County's people.

Mary Earley, Down Rent War, Around 1845 (mural study, Delhi, NY post office), ca. 1939-1940, oil on canvas mounted on aluminum board, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Transfer from the General Services Administration, 1974.28.367

But it was only when I saw Mary Earley's astounding painting, Down Rent War, Around 1845, that I knew Delaware County was the setting I was looking for.  (4 Earley puts the Anti-Renters' costumes at the forefront of her painting and fills the scene with dread – the same type of dread that Tom was experiencing in his dreams about the River, scenes that I had already written.  Moreover, to me,  Earley's painting perfectly captures ideas that I had been trying to express in writing in both Napoleon's Gold and in my short stories, ideas about the visible manifestations of spiritual truths, ideas that know no geographical bounds.

Early on in my research I came upon a tantalizing historical connection between the Anti-Rent Wars and the Thousand Islands, a connection that beckoned me back to the River and pulled my storytelling back to the place where it had always felt at home.  The historical connection was mentioned by Tom's father: led by Dr. Smith A. Bouton, several men who would later join the protests in the hill country south and west of Albany had traveled to the River and to Lake Ontario to join the 1837 Rebellion against the British.  They returned home defeated and with empty pockets, but their experience of the Patriot Wars prepared them for their own battles against authority in their own communities. The Patriot Wars didn't make it into Ariel's Gift, but the connection did prompt me to finally confirm that my story would indeed return to the River.

At the same time as I was reading about the Anti-Rent Wars and contemplating the mystery of Osman Steele's death, I was also developing a deep personal connection with the land.  For fifteen yeas now my family has owned and worked a small farm in the foothills of the Catskill mountains.  Like Lodi – one of the most compelling characters in Ariel's Gift – we try to do things the old way, to respect the land as a living entity, as a partner in the constant art of creation rather than as an enemy to be overcome.  We fertilize our garden with horse manure.  We practice rotational grazing.  We get our drinking water from a natural spring.  

Clearfield Farm, our home in the outskirts of Cooperstown

And doing so brings my soul back home, back to the Thousand Islands, where I first began to understand the invisible, spiritual component of creation.  The water, air, rock and fire of the Thousand Islands gets into your soul and stays there, often for a long, long time after leaving.  

Wellesley Island State Park shoreline

I found words to help me express these feelings of spiritual vitality in the poetry of William Blake, W.B. Yeats and T.S. Eliot, and in the deeply personal life-stories of C. G. Jung and Kathleen Raine.  Having resigned from college teaching to pursue other opportunities at the same time I started writing Ariel's Gift, I was ready to shift my perspective on history from pursuing and interpreting just the facts to appreciating the spiritual complexities of human life that no social science can measure.

One part of that spiritual complexity is our experience and understanding of time.  The formal study of history pulls and pushes us into a linear way of thinking that also restricts our natural capacity to connect with the unseen, spiritual world.  But any of us who have spent a timeless summer day on the River knows that time can slow to a crawl in places like that...until the sun sets and the whole day seems to have passed like a dream.  And oh, those sunsets!

One late evening glance at the Saint Lawrence sky is worth a thousand hours elsewhere. We call it River Time, theologians call it kairos time.

Finally, there's family.  My own family is quite unlike Tom Flanagan's as it's presented in my novels.  Yet all families share certain patterns, a truth I discovered through studying family systems theory.  One of the most inescapable patterns in family life is the way we arrange ourselves in threes.  Triangles are everywhere in family life, and it didn't take me long to conclude that the Tom/Mindy/Patrick triangle would be the frame around which Ariel's Gift would be built.  Again, the River proved to be the center of that triangle, acting as both a magnet drawing the three characters together and as an outward force threatening their final separation.

US Span of the Thousand Islands Bridge, NY

For me, crossing the bridge from the mainland to Wellesley Island always feels like the “real” coming home.  No matter where I've lived--Western New York, the Capitol Region, the Northern Catskills--there has always been some part of my soul that remains in the Thousand Islands.  I cannot be whole anywhere but there.  I still tear up when I catch the first glimpse of that life-giving water below me.  I still tear up again when it's time to go.  And this is the final reason that I knew Tom could only find his brother somewhere else, because both of them coming home, together, to their beloved River, was the necessary and proper climax to the story I tell in Ariel's Gift.

By Thomas Pullyblank

Thomas Pullyblank has served as a college history professor and a United Methodist pastor. Ariel's Gift is his third novel, which completes the Tom Flanagan historical mysteries. He followed the first two novels of the trilogy, Cornflower’s Ghost: An Historical Mystery, and Napoleon’s Gold: A Legend of the Saint Lawrence River, with a collection of short stories related to Napoleon’s Gold, titled The Ghost of Billy Masterson & Other Thousand Island Tales. In addition to Upstate New York historical mysteries, Pullyblank is also the author of For None Can Rank Above Thee: A History of Cal-Mum Red Raiders Football, a chronicle of his legendary high school football team in Caledonia, New York. Pullyblank now works as a conflict mediator, and lives with his family in Fly Creek, New York. As he did as a child with his parents, he still spends time with his family every summer in his beloved Thousand Islands.

Publisher's Note, re: Book Sales

Title: Ariel’s Gift
Author: Thomas Pullyblank
Publication Date: July 15, 2020 [See note below]
ISBN-13: 978-0-9989670-2-8
ISBN-10: 0-9989670-2-5
LCCN: 2020940384

  • The global pandemic has caused many delays in the book publishing industry. Printing and shipping times are delayed for weeks, even more so across the US-Canadian border.
  • Book Retailers: The publisher recommends contacting Ingram/Lightning Source directly for bulk orders. The sales reps can advise you of the best options for ordering inventory.
  • Individual customers: If your local book retailer does not have inventory in stock, ask if they can order it for you as a way to support them. Otherwise, the fastest way to get a printed copy is to order through Amazon. Expect a delay beyond the normal shipping times, up to two weeks or more.

Posted in: Volume 15, Issue 8, August 2020, Book review

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