Desert Isle Keeper
The Book that Inspired Me to be a Writer*
You don’t so much read The Williamsburg series aka “The Women of Williamsburg” as become a member of the family – the extended Day-Sprague-Campion family. The books follow family members through almost every significant event between the Revolutionary War and World War II. They are a kinder, gentler, and infinitely more romantic series of books that preceded the wildly popular John Jakes’s Kent Family Chronicles by about thirty years.
My sophomore English teacher recommended Elswyth Thane’s books to me. One day after having read my stories for most of a semester, she took me aside and said, “Dear, I think this is an author you would really enjoy.” I took her suggestion and chose as my first Thane the book Yankee Stranger because I had just seen Gone With the Wind and was positively obsessed with the Civil War. . . .
On the eve of the Civil War, Eden Day encounters Cabot Murray on Duke of Gloucester Street in Williamsburg. As they shelter together from a passing thunderstorm, they fall in love. The obstacles to their future are instantly obvious. Hers is one of the first families of Virginia, and he is a Yankee newspaperman. Their country is about to split apart, and they will be on opposite sides. Yet at the insistence of Tibby Day, the matriarch of the Day family who gets wind of the encounter, Cabot Murray is invited to Tibby’s birthday party.
Cabot is charmed and deeply touched as he meets the rest of this loving extended family, so different from his own. Tibby and Eden are both drawn to the raw loneliness in him, well-disguised by charm and fine manners. Tibby resolves that Eden will have Cabot if she wants him. Before he leaves to cover the story of the coming war for his father’s newspaper, Cabot declares his love, and Eden agrees to wait for him.
After that, Cabot is irrevocably tied to the fates of the Days and the Spragues of Williamsburg. From the firing on Fort Sumter to the surrender at Appomatox, we follow Eden, Cabot, and members of the family through both the bitter-sweet moments and the horrors of war. At the core of the book is the deeply engaging story of a Southern belle and a Northern journalist, but Thane has intertwined their lives with a forbidden love between cousins, the enduring bonds between husband and wife, and a wondrous sense of history.
All the books in the series are like this, centered on one main couple, but with wonderful, romantic side stories. Because Thane (who was the wife of oceanographic explorer Dr. William Beebe) wrote most of the books in the forties, there is unquestionable passion, but no sex. The books also have been out of print for quite some time, but I see that they are being reissued by Buccaneer books. (A name that leads me to believe the series has gone out of copyright.) This is a list of The Williamsburg series in order:
- Dawn’s Early Light
- Yankee Stranger
- Ever After
- The Light Heart
- Kissing Cousin
- This was Tomorrow
I was afraid that in going back to reread this book after so many years, it would not hold up, that as a writer I would see the holes in it. But the magic was still there – maybe even stronger than ever – because now I understand the nuances of love in ways I did not understand when I was fifteen. I would recommend this book, this series, to anyone of any age.
Re-reading Yankee Stranger was for me like seeing an old boyfriend after many years, and realizing I would always be a little bit in love with him.
These books and Thane’s others inspired me to write because they convinced me that the stories I wanted to tell – stories of love and family and women’s adventures – the kind of stories I am writing now – were legitimate, valid. They showed me that the dreams I was harboring were possible. It was many years before I sold a manuscript, but it was Elswyth Thane and The Williamsburg series that convinced me to try and helped me to persevere. As a writer it is my hope that somehow, I am doing for other girls what Thane did for me, inspiring them to write the stories in their hearts.
Oh, and about that teacher. . .
Years later, I dedicated my first book to her: “To Clara V. Hill, who knew there was more to teaching literature than Silas Marner.”
*We’d love to know who wrote this review!