It was Mother’s Day and nearing the end of our trip to Germany and I was finally going to get the gift I had come for– a journey on the Rhine to see what my ancestor Michael Eisan had experienced 250 years ago. Michael is the protagonist of my novel and he left the Pfalz, or Palatinate region, to come to the New World in 1763.
Before we even embarked, new questions began to assail me. Here was our lovely paddle-wheel boat called the Goethe, named after the German writer whose dates ( 1749- 1832) coincided with Michael’s (1730- 1833).
But what did a river ship look like in the eighteenth century, and how was it powered? Perhaps it didn’t need extra power at all since his ship was traveling downriver towards the sea.
That was one of the problems of the voyage. I would have to turn everything upside-down to see what Michael had seen. I was traveling towards his home and he would have been traveling away. As they say, you can’t go back home again.
Where I and my fellow-travelers saw picturesque castles towering above the river,
he would have seen a suffocating oppression. At every castle, there was some kind of barrier across the river and a customs house to make sure every ship paid a toll.
His life’s savings, all he had as a poor peasant, seeping away as the ship floated down the Rhine. Would this have soured his enjoyment of the lovely vineyards and craggy cliffs? He had no camera to take pictures of the sights. Were they forever etched in his memory or were they something he would rather forget?
At the Lorelei Rock the story was told of the woman who became a siren to lure boatmen to their death.
Originally, I had included this story in my novel until I learned it was relatively recent legend that began in a song in the nineteenth century only. Michael would not have heard the legend in his day.
Most of them are still inhabited and must have been in Michael’s day as well. One of the dangers of historical writing is making assumptions like that of the Lorelei legend. It is important when researching to test all assumptions, something that can easily be overlooked.
There are many challenges when writing historical fiction. While it is not so difficult to erase the modern trains, ships
and caravans from the landscape,
it takes a great leap of the imagination for a privileged 21st century woman to enter into the mindset of a young 18th century peasant. This is the task I have set for myself. Wish me luck!
You can plainly see the allegory of the hard-working boatmen whose cargo is leaking away under the oppressive weight of the castles.
Margo and I in front of the fountain, oblivious to allegory