Speaking with Pamela Roberts – The author of The Darkness at Dawn: A story of Hope and Redemption
What inspired you to write “The Darkness at Dawn” and what was your creative process like?
At a young age my grandfather told me of my early English ancestors who came to America in the 17th Century, including John Lee who is the main character of The Darkness at Dawn.
These stories lit a fire in me and when I was older, I knew I had to write the story about this period in history that so few Americans know about. Discovering that John Lee is also an ancestor of Princess Diana and both Prince William and Prince Harry of England gave me further inspiration.
I also wanted to learn what 17th Century American life was like as most Americans believe our history began in 1776.
Much of the texture of this novel, which many have praised, comes from what I learned about the details of shipboard life during the voyages from England to America, early New England farm life, and what Native American life was like.
How did you research and approach writing about the historical events depicted in the novel?
All told, it took me just short of 9 years to complete the novel. The first four years were consumed with research and outlining the novel’s story. Five more years were needed to complete the writing and editing.
I found the book, John Lee of Farmington, Hartford County, Connecticut and His Descendants. It was project of Lee Family published by Sarah March Lee in 1873. It tells the story of the early Lees in America, those they met, and their descendants.
A revision was published in 1897 by Leonard Lee and Sarah Fiske Lee called Supplement John Lee of Farmington, Hartford Co., Conn. and his descendants 1634-1900 (published in 1897). It contained corrections, changes, births, marriages, deaths, etc., reported since the original publication and was the version of the book I actually worked from.
I also relied heavily on The Colonial History of Hartford by William De Loss Love, published in 1914.
Besides these two critical books, I bought and studied many books about the early English settlers in Boston, Massachusetts and Hartford, Connecticut, and about the sea voyages 17th Century colonists took from England to New England.
Another item I found of critical importance was the passenger list for the ship Francis that brought John Lee to New England. It showed that John Lee was 13 years old at the time of the voyage and was the ward of William Westwood, counselor to Reverend Hooker, one of the greatest Puritan ministers of the time. Both were included in The Darkness at Dawn. Neither of John’s parents were on the ship, indicating that something kept them from coming. Illness of one or both was likely the reason.
I also took a trip to New England with my husband, Matthew Grinberg, to do research at museums, libraries and the Mayflower II. We also visited historic sites that are in The Darkness at Dawn. Many photos were taken on the trip including the one of John Lee’s grave site in Hartford that was used for the cover of the book.
Mayflower II – a replica of the original Mayflower that in 1620 brought Pilgrims to what would become Plymouth, Massachusetts.
What challenges did you face while writing the novel, and how did you overcome them?
My biggest challenge was learning how to write a novel. I like Hemingway’s clean style. As I got into writing The Darkness at Dawn, I started by reading everything I could get that he wrote or that was about his writing.
I wanted to create compelling characters without spending too much time on their backstory.
My second biggest challenge was researching the history of 17th Century New England, especially my ancestor, John Lee, and his family and associates
What themes do you explore in the novel, and why were they important to you?
Religion both Native and English
Religion has always been important to me and any novel about 16th Century America must include: religion. The major religions of the English Colonists were Puritanism and Anglicanism. Puritanism was Old Testament based. Anglicanism was the Church of England and came from Catholicism during The Reformation. Though similar in many ways, the two faiths had many conflicts with each other and with the religion of the Indians.
The colonists brought with them all their knowledge and experience, plus everything they could carry on a ship, but establishing a colony in a new, untamed land was extremely difficult. Society, homes, farms, businesses and government all had to be created from scratch.
The native Indian tribes
The colonist’s relations with the native people were a very important part of their lives. Native tribes of New England were heavily impacted by the colonists. Not only did the colonists take their land, but the colonists also unleashed plagues. Though many colonists and Indians worked hard for good relations, such as John Lee and Tunxis tribe member Nesehegan, the conflicts continued to grow, eventually resulting in the Pequot War, and later King Philip’s War.
The Atlantic crossing
Travelling from England to America was a singular endeavor for all the Colonists. The Atlantic crossing on the ship Francis is the defining event of The Darkness at Dawn (Image 11 – Mayflower II). It is where the two major characters, protagonist John Lee, and antagonist, Richard Hawkes, first come in conflict. Hawkes steals William Westwood’s, gold-inlaid silver chalice during a storm. When Hawkes realizes that John witnessed the theft, he makes John swear an oath to God not to reveal it. The oath becomes one of John’s major challenges as he becomes aware of Hawkes’ other crimes.
How do you develop and portray the characters in “The Darkness at Dawn”?
The real characters, including the protagonist John Lee, my ancestor, were based on research. Broadly speaking what is in The Darkness at Dawn about them is accurate. But the details were based on the development of the story.
Everything about the fictitious characters was based on the development of the story, but they do reflect research on 17th Century people in New England including the Indians and the English Colonists.
The key was to bring each character to life with a realistic but compelling story arc. The following is a list of the main characters.
John Lee – The main protagonist. Barely 13 at the start of the novel he matures quickly. John falls in love with Mary Hart and his children. He also teaches the Indians to help them deal with the colonists
Mary Hart (Lee) – Deacon Hart’s daughter who Marries John Lee
Deacon Stephen Hart – Rough, tough, headstrong and family patriarch
Reverend Thomas Hooker – Leader of major New England Church and widely respected
Reverend Samuel Stone – Assumes charge of Hooker’s church when controversy arises over what became known as the Half-way covenant (Image 20)
Lieutenant Thomas Bull – Famous New England soldier who trains John Lee
The John Lee Memorial and grave site in Hartford, Connecticut
Reverend Thomas Hooker statue in Hartford, Connecticut
Richard Hawkes (and his sons and wife) – He is the villainous antagonist for John Lee
James Eastman – He is one of the two main henchmen of Hawkes
Edward Roach – The evil, violent henchman of Hawkes
Hawkes’s Indian followers – They also carry out much of Hawkes’ dirty work
John Lee’s Indian Followers especially Nesehegan – Nesehegan instills in John Lee the lesson he needs to finally overcome Hawkes.
How do you balance historical accuracy with creating a compelling narrative?
The centerpiece of the book is the conflict between John Lee and Richard Hawkes. Since Richard Hawkes is a fictitious character, this is all fictitious.
However the background of the story, including the events that lead to the conflicts between Lee and Hawkes are based on historical facts. Such as the voyage of John Lee across the Atlantic, the colonial history of Boston, Massachusetts and Hartford, Connecticut, and the Pequot and King Philip’s Wars.
Plus much is based on other historic figures. Not only John Lee and his wife Mary Hart (Lee), but others such as Deacon Stephen Hart, Reverend Thomas Hooker, Reverend Samuel Stone, and Lieutenant Thomas Bull.
What was the significance of setting the novel in early New England?
The simple answer is that The Darkness at Dawn is an historical novel. The time and place of the events depicted in the novel was 17th Century New England.
The Darkness at Dawn is a novel I have wanted to write for most of my life as its hero is my ancestor, John Lee, and also an ancestor of Prince William and Prince Harry of England.
Based on what I already knew about John Lee and what I learned about him and his descendants through research, I developed the idea of a trilogy taking the major characters and their descendants through the Revolutionary War when Dr. William Hooker Lee and Dr. Ebenezer Lee moved to Ontario at end of Revolutionary War.
How does your personal background and experiences inform your writing, and how did they shape “The Darkness at Dawn”?
My career, first in the military as a US Air Force Colonel Judge Advocate General, and then as a Trial Attorney at the US Justice Department, was important in understanding the legal and governmental systems of the New England Colonists.
The climax of the struggle between John Lee and Richard Hawkes, and also the climax of The Darkness at Dawn, is the trial of Richard Hawkes. The trial reflects my many years of experience in court including a case I won for the Air Force before the US Supreme Court.
My experience as a lawyer gave me considerable experience writing clearly and developing a compelling narrative to convince a judge or jury.
The battles reflect my long interest in military history, especially American military history.
What do you hope readers take away from “The Darkness at Dawn”?
The struggles of the early New England Colonists: trying to create new settlements out of nothing; trying to understand and coexist with the Indians; passing along their faith and culture to new generations in a new land.
The history of Colonial New England – i.e. even before the Revolutionary War, there was a lot we should know about US history, how they travelled to New England, how they governed themselves, how they dealt with the Indians, including the Pequot and King Philip’s Wars, and how they dealt with the nearby Dutch colonists.
How the colonists dealt with the difficulties of establishing the colonies through their faith, irrespective of specific religious doctrine, and hard work and persistence.
What other works or authors influenced you while writing “The Darkness at Dawn”?
I have been an avid reader since I was a child. There are many novelists that I like, but my favorite is Ernest Hemingway.
Here is a list of novels by Hemmingway and other novelists that influenced my writing.
The Old Man and the Sea
For Whom the Bell Tolls
A Farewell to Arms
The Sun also Rises
The Pillars of the Earth
The Picture of Dorian Gray
F. Scott Fitzgerald
The Great Gatsby
Pamela R. Lee and Matthew M. Grinberg, 9/4/2023