“Traces” Puts Women in the Spotlight of American History

Journalist Patricia L. Hudson’s new historical novel, Traces, tells the story of Daniel Boone’s exploration of the American frontier from the perspective of his wife, Rebecca, and two of his daughters, Susannah and Jemima.

“Each of these women had very different experiences. Including all three of them told the broadest story about being women on the frontier,” Hudson said. Rebecca’s voice was influenced by being a young wife separated from her family by Daniel’s travels. Susannah accompanied her father as he cut the trace into Kentucky, and Hudson believes Susannah recognized that as her own contribution to history. Rumors circulated throughout Jemima’s life that she was not Daniel Boone’s biological daughter. These women are at the heart of Traces.

Patricia L. Hudson has been a freelance writer for more than 30 years. She’s written for magazines ranging from Country Living to Women’s Sports and Fitness, but her favorite assignments focus on historical topics. She was a contributing editor at Americana magazine for more than a decade, writing about historic preservation, folk art and travel destinations for history lovers. As a frequent contributor to Southern Living magazine, she traveled extensively in the Southeast and Mid-Atlantic, profiling people whose passion for those regions matched her own. She’s a long-time member of the American Society of Journalists and Authors. Her book credits include: Inns of the Southern Mountains and Listen Here: Women Writing in Appalachia, as well as The Carolinas and the Appalachian States, a volume in the Smithsonian Guide to Historic America series. She lives in Knoxville, Tennessee, with her husband, photographer, Sam Stapleton.

Of all the hidden women in history, why did you choose to write about the Boone women?

The majority of women throughout history have not been written about, and I have always enjoyed the behind-the-scenes stories, illuminating things that have been forgotten. The Boone women came about because I pulled a biography of Daniel Boone off a bookstore shelf back in 1996. What stood out to me were the women, because they were there, but they weren’t there. At that point, I wasn’t thinking about a novel; I was just curious about their lives. So, I began doing some research. I was frustrated when I discovered that John Filson, who made Daniel Boone famous by going into Kentucky and collecting his stories, could have interviewed Rebecca, because she would have been right there, and he hadn’t even bothered to record Rebecca’s name. She was mentioned in his book as ‘wife’ twice, and ‘beloved wife’ once. That missed opportunity set me down the path of wanting to write about these women.

In what ways was Traces different from other work you’ve done?

You don’t realize the stages you go through until you have to think back on them. If there had been enough information about Rebecca and her daughters in the historical record, I might’ve written a biography. But there wasn’t. For this novel, I had to rely on a few glimpses that recorded how she would have felt about things. You can figure out where she was living and who was around her, but the historical record doesn’t tell us how she was feeling. The way it contrasts with what I normally would do is that I would do an interview. I’d pick somebody’s brain – all the journalistic steps you do. I couldn’t do that with this material, so that’s when I started thinking about it as a novel. It was very hard for me, in the beginning, to realize how different those two skills really are. That’s another reason it took me a long time to write this.

Who is the primary audience for Traces?

I hope it will be people who are interested in the 18th century and the Revolutionary War period west of the [Appalachian] Mountains, which is really not covered as in-depth as a lot of other aspects of the American Revolution. I think people forget that the war was fought in Kentucky, Tennessee and Ohio. It will be of interest to anybody who is interested in women’s history, because so much of women’s history isn’t covered in the traditional way. Women’s stories have been neglected throughout our history. The male story has been the story. Those records have been preserved. The women are only around the edges of those stories.

At the end of Traces, when Filson writes Daniel’s life story, Rebecca and Susannah notice he leaves out the women’s roles in history. They ask themselves why, just as you do as an author. What is the benefit of waiting until the end of the story for the two women to pose that question?

For the longest time, the novel opened with Filson appearing in the Boone cabin to extract Daniel’s story. I clung to that for a very long time because that was my way into the story. Several readers, though, questioned that. Rebecca and Susannah lived their way into the story. After hearing that comment from a number of different people, I tried moving it to the proper place in the story. I just assumed people knew more about Daniel Boone than they did. I thought, “Everybody knows Daniel survives all this turmoil and he died as an elder.” But people didn’t know. This is truer to the lived experience of the women. We start with Rebecca as a young woman, having been married about four years at the time the story opens.

How is the story most relevant to gender dynamics today?

I’ve watched a progression in my lifetime. I was a student of history in college. That was five or six years into the rise of second-wave feminism. There was only one women’s history professor at the university. She was sort of marginalized by the department. I don’t think they intended it, but it was kind of like this offshoot of history that wasn’t quite “real history” yet. You realize you’re accumulating things that are going to add up to something that you don’t recognize at the time. I know that stuck with me, that recognition. To bring that up to the present, you look around the world now, and think about what’s happening in Afghanistan, for example. Women who thought they had certain rights have had them taken away. And here in the States, some of the rights that we thought we had have recently been overturned. I have two daughters, and I said to them as they were growing up, “These rights haven’t been here that long.” They’re astonishingly recent. Recognizing the rights that can be easily lost is important.

What does the story have to say about the mother-daughter bonds exhibited first through the relationship between Rebecca and her mother, Aylee, and later, through Rebecca’s relationship with her daughters?

On the frontier, the workload for these women was astonishing. The women had to support each other to make it. You couldn’t have done it on your own. It took teamwork. I wanted to highlight that. I think it makes it all the more understandable how difficult it was for Rebecca when she was uprooted out of that. There’s a scene with Aylee where they had woven this cloth together. It was a weaving of the physical cloth, but it was also a weaving of community. Rebecca thinks about trying to hold on to her mother by pulling a thread from this cloak. If she could only hold on to the thread, she could pull her mother back to her. I wanted that symbolism to show this unraveling of community.

What do you think is the answer to the question Rebecca asks Daniel at one point in the story: “How come wherever you are is never where you want to be? How come the children and I are never enough?”

I’m sure she wondered that constantly. She does have an epiphany toward the end of the book. But women ask that sort of question of their husbands all the time, and husbands of their wives. “Why are you living your life the way you are?” That’s something couples wrestle with. I honestly did not want to like Daniel, but in the historical record, he comes across as a likable person. Toward the end of the book, when Rebecca was finally free from household duties and rearing the children, the things that kept her in one place, she realized being out in the woods was as necessary to him as breathing. It was something in his nature – that call was so strong. But if you look at someone who is drawn to a very intense career today, where the families have to make sacrifices, that’s still happening. Maybe not to the point that you think your husband is putting your children’s lives in danger every day. But in those days, you took some of those dangers for granted in ways that we can’t conceive.

In what way is nature an active, not passive, character in the story?

In the way that someone living in a city now would have to interact with taxis and noise and people on the sidewalk, the wilderness really was their world. Rebecca realized early on she had to shut down her empathy for the creatures of the woods, because those were commodities that were going to keep the family alive. Rebecca took the birds and the flowers as things that brightened her life, because those were things the men didn’t value. She expressed her enjoyment of nature that way. It astounds me that Daniel loved the wilderness but could devastate it.

How did you negotiate the characterization of all the different races and nationalities portrayed in Traces?

25 years ago, we weren’t as aware of trying to balance these things. We need to have a recognition that there wasn’t just one civilization taking over an empty space. And yet, I always had to remember that I was writing from the perspective of these women who were living in the 18th century, and I couldn’t make them what they weren’t.

Rebecca holds great resentment towards Native Americans, given the issues of the safety of her children, through most of the book. But she must have had an epiphany at some point in her life. I chose to have it be the time when the real Shawnee Peace Chief Nonhelema was held prisoner at the Boone tavern. I don’t know that’s where her epiphany happened, but she must have had one, because when the Boones moved to Missouri, a lot of the displaced Shawnee were very present in their lives.

I also tried to portray 18th century-attitudes without necessarily using some of the language. The language is brutal in the records. I tried to convey what the women were feeling without having to use some of the most derogatory language that would have been present at the time. The first thing my agent said was, “You’re going to have to get some sensitivity readers.” That’s really important for historical fiction. After a lot of searching, I found a Shawnee sensitivity reader. I was able to use some of the Shawnee language, and this elder, George Blanchard, was so thrilled. His mission is to help the Shawnee language live on. It’s very much in danger, as are a lot of Native languages.

What do you hope the audience gains from the book?

I have one scene in the novel with Susannah, the oldest Boone daughter. When her father is reading Filson’s account out loud, he reads, “I chose a dozen men, well-armed, to cut this road,” and she interjects, “Not just men. We were there, but no one will remember.” I’m hoping people will recognize that women were there. Women have always been there. We just haven’t always been noticed. So much of history is about wars and the exploits of the men who fought them. But behind every one of those stories is a story of the women who were impacted by those events.

By Patricia L. Hudson
Fireside Industries
November 1, 2022