Please Welcome Donna Gawell, history buff who’s not only the author of her novel set in 1600’s New England, but also a direct descendant of its heroine, Mehitabel Braybrooke. Yes, the name is a mouthful, but many names of that era were.
In the Shadow of Salem: For Mehitabel Braybrooke, life in Puritan New England moves from bad to worse when her orphan cousin arrives to live with her family. Jealousy and lies result in Mehitabel’s being “sent out” as a servant in a neighbor’s home. Foolishness and bad judgment further unravel her life until the unspeakable happens: Mehitabel is accused of crimes that warrant a death sentence, not once, but twice−the first time for arson, the second for witchcraft.
What sparked your idea for In the Shadow of Salem?
Mehitabel’s story has been told piecemeal by historians, and her historical records are anything but complimentary. It was clear from the neighbors’ testimony during a court trial that her stepmother despised her. I thought it intriguing to consider how Mehitabel must have felt being raised by a woman who hated her, one who could never have any children of her own. Mehitabel was the only child of a wealthy Puritan man who was instructed by the town court to raise her.
As I examined the facts from her historical records, I tried to consider what lead up to each event. For example: what background and story lead up to her being found in the mud with the pigs tearing at her clothing, and the rescuers declaring she was drunk? I ended up with an intriguing story about a very emotionally complex woman who lived through some horrible times.
Did anything interesting happen to you during your research?
I developed a great appreciation for the Puritans and their beliefs. They have a pretty bad reputation in today’s culture, but I admire their passion, focus, and dedication. They certainly weren’t Sunday-only Christians. On the other hand, they lost focus of God’s guiding principles during the Salem witchcraft trials, which are also part of my story.
What did you find the most challenging about writing In the Shadow of Salem?
The research essential in historical fiction is a perfect fit for my personality. I love that part of writing and blending in this interesting information, but I had no idea of how much time I would spend uncovering details. For example, it took hours to find the name of a real lawyer in 1670 in that area of Massachusetts. And I want to make my New England historian friends proud!
What details or choices of material in this story required special research.
I spent three years actively searching through New England archives, old town records, and information about the Salem witchcraft trials and life in Puritan New England. One of my favorite experiences was a trip to Ipswich, MA where I met with archivist and renowned historian, Richard Trask at the Danvers Institute. He sent me some newly uncovered details about the accusation of witchcraft Mehitabel endured..
What do you hope readers will gain from reading In the Shadow of Salem?
I wrote it as a story of redemption. Mehitabel started out in life as the “bastard” child of an indentured servant and had a nightmare childhood. She continued to struggle through much of her adult life but didn’t understand what God wanted of her.
How did you first come to realize you wanted to write this novel?
Although I have written various professional and travel articles and taught my students to write, I never thought much about fiction writing. Until I discovered my 9th great grandmother, Mehitabel Braybrooke. Before I began genealogy in 2012, I had almost no knowledge of my ancestors who came before my grandparents.
As my search wandered back to the 1700’s, a direct ancestor named “Mehitabel Braybrooke came into view.” My first thought was “Wow, Mehitabel is an ugly name!” Then I noticed clues with the words “witchcraft” and “witch” in them. I discovered many records from the town and court records about Mehitabel and began to put together the facts of her life. I told her story to everyone I knew and then decided someone needed to write her story. That someone ended up being me! I felt God had given me the gift of discovering so many ancestors all the way back to the 1600’s and that Mehitabel was a special assignment.
Any future novel readers can look forward to?
I am currently researching and writing a novel set in a small village in Poland during WWII. My grandparents’ village has an amazing story.
The Nazis occupied it during the first days of the war. The Germans destroyed the villagers’ homes and forced the people into what we would consider slave labor. This village became the site of the largest SS training camp outside of Germany. Hitler also moved his top-secret V1 and V2 research facility to the area. My family who still live in this village are thrilled that someone is finally interested in the story. Many Polish Americans and people in Poland have provided me with incredible details and stories.
What is a typical day like for you?
I wake up at about 6 AM, do my morning devotions (Charles Spurgeon) and email, and then begin writing about 8:00. I write or research until about 8:00 PM, but sometimes unchain myself from the computer to volunteer, cook, eat, clean, and visit with friends.
What advice would you offer to writers just getting started?
Write about something that is a personal passion, and ask God to provide you with people who will support and encourage you.
More About the Author:
Genealogist, historian, and author of several nonfiction books and journal articles, Donna Gawell is also a presenter on genealogy and family history writing for school, community organizations, and church groups. Donna holds volunteer leadership roles with Samaritan’s Purse as a Relay Center Coordinator for Operation Christmas Child. She is also Church Coordinator for International Friendships, Inc., a Christian outreach to international students at Ohio State University.
Donna earned her master’s degree in Speech Pathology and worked in the field of education for over thirty years. She lives in Westerville, Ohio with her husband Mark when not traveling to research her ancestral homelands in Europe and New England. Her website www.DonnaGawell.com allows her to reach out to readers with similar passions and interests.
From In the Shadow of Salem, Chapter One:
September 21, 1692
The lock on the door of the Ipswich prison clanged, and the bar raised to open it. No good news ever came when we heard those creaking hinges. Unwelcomed breezes stirred the poisonous stench of dung from the corners of our cell, as one solitary prisoner was delivered to our group of women. The dark shadows at sunset did not allow me to recognize the woman immediately, but old Goody Vinson could see her. “Mehitabel,” she whispered, “you will not believe who has come to join us!”
Joan Penney’s voice raged throughout the dungeon as she was hurtled down the stairs by the two night guards. They showed little respect for the elderly woman, and she stumbled on the last step. In disgust, the guards allowed her to fall onto the filthy straw floor. Her eyes were downcast as she hobbled over to sit with the older women.
A heavy silence fell over us, until Rachel Clinton spoke, “Joan, we have been waiting for you. Soon all of the townswomen will be here to replace those already hung in the gallows. Look, even your own daughter is here. Are your eyes so weak you don’t see her face?”
Rachel’s loathsome manner was unwelcomed by all. “Mehitabel, go to your mother,” she commanded me. “Share your warm blanket with her.”