The Intersection of History, Research, and Fiction

When researching the life of Benedict Arnold, award-winning author James R. Benn uncovered details about slavery in New England that set the course for his latest novel Freegift.

I met James, the successful author of 17 Billy Boyle mysteries, when I moderated a panel titled ‘Voices That Shook Up the Past’ at the 2021 Historical Novel Society conference. I’m delighted he’s here during the launch of Freegift.

~~~

I’d always wanted to write the story of Benedict Arnold’s strange and deadly homecoming. 

After he switched his allegiance to the British Crown during the American Revolution, he served in New York, under the English General Henry Clinton. Having failed to deliver West Point to the Redcoats, Arnold was of little use to the British army. But all that changed when Clinton became worried about his naval supply line threading through Long Island Sound. The coastal port of New London, Connecticut, was home base for privateers who struck at British ships as they came through the narrow channel. Clinton gave Arnold the job of raiding New London and putting an end to the threat.

Benedict Arnold grew up in Southeastern Connecticut, in Norwich, just up the Thames River from New London. He brought fire and death to the area in which he’d been raised. His father, also named Benedict, and an alcoholic, was arrested several times for public drunkenness. He then lost his fortune and had to sell off his property. Young Benedict must have felt a burden of shame. I have always wondered about the connection between his family’s fall from grace and the subsequent destruction of his community.

Researching the Arnold family history with the vague notion of writing an historical novel, I stumbled upon this yellowed clipping, courtesy of Yale University, from a New London newspaper:

clipping courtesy of Yale University

The “property” that Benedict Arnold (senior) sold off included an eleven-year-old boy, “to be sold cheap.”

Then, from the same paper, came this:

A family, to be sold “for no fault but being saucy.” This advertisement was not from Arnold, but it did set me thinking. Slavery in New England is a topic seldom explored in historical fiction, and I decided that this might be the way inside the story of the terrible events of 1781 in Southeastern Connecticut. The elder Arnold did profit from the sale of at least one enslaved youth. Marrying that fact with the story of those who were similarly trafficked, I developed the fictional notion of a child fathered by the younger Arnold, and then the mother sold before her pregnancy was known. That child, Freegift Cooper, is the protagonist of this story. His true name, known only to his mother, is Kwasi. But Freegift is an Arnold family name, given to him in hopes that someday his father might help him become a free man. Little does Freegift’s mother know that Benedict Arnold will end up the most hated man in America and return to wreak havoc in the haunts of his youth. 

For me, this is a wonderful intersection of history, research, and fiction. That simple, and terrible, newspaper ad pulled together all the threads of the story I wanted to tell. Arnold’s horrific raid on New London, a son’s tortured search for his father, and the experience of an emancipated Black youth during the American Revolution.

When the manuscript was complete, I enlisted the services of a sensitivity reader to review the narrative for issues of representation and authenticity. This process improved the story in ways I hadn’t considered. A small example is when Freegift, before being freed from bondage, hitched a horse to a cart. I referred to it casually as “his cart.” No. A slave has no belongings. It’s “the cart” or “his master’s cart.” The process was a two-way street as well. My reader was not familiar with the norms of slavery in New England, as opposed to the large plantations of the South. They were surprised at a scene in which Freegift sits at the table with servants and family members. This was not unusual, given the small scale of households in the North. But the servants and slaves sat below the salt, meaning the salt container was set close to the head of the household. Letters from Southerners traveling in the New England colonies show their shock at the casual relations between slaves and families in close quarters. 

Freegift becomes emancipated. In fact, during the Revolutionary War, some slave owners in the North felt that the concept of liberty they supported as part of the Revolution must apply to all and freed their slaves. This book tells the story of Freegift’s journey to freedom as well as his quest to find his father, all of which occur during important historical events.

The burning of New London and the Battle of Groton Heights directly across the Thames River, was a disastrous event for the people of Southeastern Connecticut. Over two hundred families were burned out of their homes, and public buildings along the waterfront were also put to the torch.

The attack on Fort Griswold, atop Groton Heights, resulted in over 150 casualties among the local militia, many of them occurring after the fort’s commander surrendered to the overwhelming British force. Colonel William Ledyard surrendered his sword to a British officer, who quickly stabbed him with it, killing him. The British troops then bayoneted the disarmed militiamen, included the wounded.

Within this confusion and carnage, Freegift finally comes face to face with his infamous father

I’ve walked the streets of New London where the British landed and attacked the town. I’ve climbed Groton Heights and stood where Colonel Ledyard and his men were put to the sword. I’ve been on the waters of Long Island Sound where rebel privateers took their rich prizes. I hope readers catch a whiff of smoke and salt air when they read the story of Freegift.

Many thanks, Jim. Wishing you every success with your latest novel Freegift.

Freegift by James R. Benn ~~ Freegift Cooper is born enslaved. On his mother’s death bed, she reveals his father is the disgraced general, Benedict Arnold. Freegift vows to find his father and make himself known. The only proof he will have to offer? A yellowed newsprint page and facts only his mother could know.

Emancipated and freed from bondage, Freegift sets out to fulfill his promise. On a rafting journey to New London on the Connecticut coastline, he makes a name for himself defending his cargo from river pirates who are part of the murderous crew of the schooner Badger, a gang known as the Mooncussers. Freegift joins the local militia, ready to defend his new home.

His life of freedom is not a simple one, and as Freegift meets Martine, a Pequot, they both seek to carve out a new life for themselves. Avoiding the evil crew of the Badger is difficult, but Freegift takes to the seas as a privateer on the Minerva to wrest valuable cargo intended for the British, hoping to secure his future with his share of the spoils.

As the Hessians and Redcoats threaten to destroy his new home and all he holds dear, Freegift is torn between his promise to his mother, his new love, and a desire to finally confront his father. As one of the last clashes of the Revolutionary War in the north engulfs his home, Freegift enters the battle that could very well destroy him.

To view the book trailer, see this YouTube video:

Freegift is a fantastic book. Deeply and engagingly intriguing, revealing, visceral, and compassionate.

–Stephen Mack Jones, author of August Snow and Lives Laid Away.

Freegift is a great story of determination and motivation, in a time period that generally overlooks people of color and diversity in literature. The diversity you’ve offered is quite thoughtful.

–Renee Harleston, Writing Diversly 

FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION FOLLOW A WRITER OF HISTORY 

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel is THE ADMIRAL’S WIFE, a dual timeline set in Hong Kong. Mary’s other novels, PARIS IN RUINS, TIME AND REGRET, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from AmazonNookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on FacebookTwitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.

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Meet M.K.Tod

Meet M.K.Tod

The historical fiction author behind A Writer of History...

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