Meet the Biographer: Gretchen Woelfle

G WoelfleGretchen Woelfle has written fiction and nonfiction books about Jeanette Rankin, William Shakespeare, and revolutionary-era writer Mercy Otis Warren for young people. Recently, she published Mumbet’s Declaration of Independence, a picture book about Elizabeth Freeman, an enslaved woman in eighteenth-century Massachusetts who fought for her freedom.

On June 28th, Ms. Woelfle will be signing copies of her books at the American Library Association’s annual conference in Las Vegas. She’ll be available to sign copies of Write on, Mercy! from 11-12 at Boyd’s Mill Press. From 2-3, she’ll be signing copies of Mumbet’s Declaration of Independence at Lerner.

This week, she chatted with Kidsbiographer about finding Elizabeth Freeman and researching her life.

Kidsbiographer: How did you learn about Mumbet and what made you decide to write about her remarkable life?

Gretchen Woelfle: My research for one book has often led to my next book. While researching my first book, The Wind at Work, a history of wind energy, I found a dramatic event that became Katje the Windmill Cat. Researching Write On, Mercy! The Secret Life of Mercy Otis Warren. Warren, a Revolutionary era heroine, meant delving into women in 18th century America – and I discovered Elizabeth “Mumbet” Freeman. While researching her life and times, I found many more amazing African Americans … and that’s your final question.

Kidsbiographer: In your author’s note, you mention that little is known of Mumbet’s life. Can you describe the research you conducted to write Mumbet’s Declaration of Independence?

Gretchen Woelfle: I ended my book with Mumbet winning her freedom, but she lived a long and productive life after that.  She became the housekeeper to her lawyer’s family, the Sedgwicks, and second mother to their seven children.  Mumbet was illiterate, so we have none of her writings. But Katharine Sedgwick became a well-known essayist and novelist and recorded some events in Mumbet’s life. I read Katharine’s essays and journals, as well as scholarly articles written about Mumbet’s legal case, books on the Ashley and Sedgwick families, and books on slavery in the North.

I always begin my research by reading several biographies (if they exist) of my subject. Then I look at the bibliographies and footnotes of those biographies and read books and scholarly articles cited. It’s important to establish context for young readers, so I read relevant political and social history as well.

In the midst of writing my book, I learned that two historians were close to publishing an adult biography of Mumbet, so I contacted one of them. He answered questions and read my manuscript for historical accuracy.

I traveled to Massachusetts to visit Mumbet’s home at Ashley House and met with historians there. I’ve always found experts to be generous with their time and resources. They have been eager to talk to a fellow enthusiast although it’s important to have a good grounding of your subject matter before you approach them.

Kidsbiographer: Throughout Mumbet’s Declaration of Independence, you frequently compare Mumbet and her desire for freedom to mountains and rivers. What inspired you to choose this very potent simile?

Gretchen Woelfle: My focus on the physical setting came from my visit to Sheffield and Stockbridge, Massachusetts, where Mumbet lived. I always try to visit the home territory of my subjects. Landscape plays a significant role in all of our lives – and includes social setting, demographics, architecture, climate, geography, and more. I toured Ashley House in Sheffield on a bright, cold day in January and saw where Mumbet worked and slept.  The Housatonic River flows by the bottom of the meadow near the house. Mumbet had a view of the Berkshire hills from the windows. It was easy to imagine that she saw the free-flowing river and solid strength of the mountains as symbols for her own situation.

Kidsbiographer: In one of my favorite parts of the book, Mumbet serves her owner, Colonel Ashley, and his friends refreshments as they discuss the coming war with Britain and their desire for freedom. Although Mumbet remains silent, as her situation compels her to, she wonders about the relationship between their rhetoric and her own enslavement. How did you conceive this marvelous scene?

9780761365891fc (1)Gretchen Woelfle: Mumbet’s Declaration of Independence is, strictly speaking, historical fiction for I relate some thoughts and conversations that were not recorded by Catharine Sedgwick. But nearly all the scenes are based on historical evidence.  In 1773, the leading men of Sheffield met to discuss the revolutionary rumblings coming from Boston and drafted the Sheffield Resolves, which supported the protests of the Boston patriots.

John Ashley was the richest and most influential man in town, and so it is likely that the meetings leading up to the Resolves were held at his house, upstairs in his study. Mumbet would certainly have served them refreshments and probably even heard their impassioned voices from the kitchen downstairs. Mumbet’s thoughts about her status as a slave were recorded by Katharine Sedgwick, and I chose to express such thoughts while she heard Ashley and his colleagues discussing liberty and natural rights.

Kidsbiographer: What do you hope young readers will take away from Mumbet’s Declaration of Independence?

Gretchen Woelfle: I would like readers to see Mumbet as a victor, not a victim. John Ashley had a legal claim to her labor, but she always and ever displayed a fiercely independent mind and spirit. She owned that. This strength of character and intelligence led her to challenge not only her powerful owner, but the entire legal system of Massachusetts.  In doing so, she freed not only herself and her daughter, but also all the 5000 slaves in the state, and ended slavery there.  I’d like young readers to realize that whatever challenges and limitations they face in the world, their minds and imaginations are free to transcend those limitations and perhaps act to overcome them.

Kidsbiographer: Would you like to discuss any current or upcoming projects?

Gretchen Woelfle: Related to your first question, as I researched this book, I came across many more African Americans who were inspired by the ideals of the American Revolution.  Some of these people are well-known, others less so, and some have never been written about for children.  I chose thirteen people and tell their stories in my next book, Answering the Cry for Freedom: African Americans in the American Revolution (Boyds Mills/Calkins Creek, 2016). Mumbet is one of the thirteen subjects in the book and I expand on her life after freedom. So to get her full story, stay tuned.


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