What do you get when you mix a troubled dreamer with a young man itching to join the Battle of Plattsburgh? Toss in an abolitionist preacher for good measure. You get, it turns out, a surprising piece of historical fiction called "Among Friends: A Quaker Boy at the Battle of Plattsburgh."
Stephen B. Woodruff asked several historically simultaneous though disparate characters to co-exist between the paperback covers of his first novel.
The first is a Vermont Quaker named Joseph Hoag who, in 1803, had a disturbing vision of darkness covering the sun, schism among Quakers and slaves being freed. One of those guys. The second is H. K. Averill, a teenager in the Battle of Plattsburgh who wrote a forthright little journal. The third is Elias Hicks, an abolitionist Quaker preacher who advocated a more personal, mystic relationship to God.
Joseph Hoag, "Hank" Averill, and Elias Hicks all appear as minor characters in "Among Friends," but Woodruff invented a fictional character who shares elements of all three -?Elijah Hoag.
Melding the intellectual, spiritual, and emotional foment of these three figures into one, teenaged Quaker boy from the Peru Union is a tall order. Woodruff carries it surprisingly well, though the spiritual and social landscape overshadows Plattsburgh and its military specifics.
Most of the military history comes from Averill's mouth, who produces shockingly stiff lines of dialogue like "Intelligence has come to our generals that the British attack is imminent on the land and on the lake It is felt they will attack together."
While this may be more or less what H. K. Averill recorded in his diary, it is absurd in the mouth of a teenage boy razzed to shoot redcoats. That enthusiastic absurdity helps lighten the tone, and remind us that we're dealing with the urges and barely contained excitements of a real young man.
Hank's specificity contrasts sharply with Hoag family's timeless preoccupations with "the in-crowd." Elijah's father views the Quaker meeting as the anointed tribe, against whom the forces of the world might dash themselves.
Those worldly forces approach at the beginning of the book. The British forces march and sail down from Canada, and American militiamen come from all directions, converging on Plattsburgh.
While the Hoag family is not literally at the nexus of this clash, they are near enough to feel it acutely. Elijah and his brothers step out of the family farm for love, adventure, and opportunity, leaving their father heartbroken and alone with an unmanageable farm.
Throughout all of this action -?disownment, endorsed violence, and a fractured family - Woodruff takes on some serious theological arguments. Woodruff was trained at the Princeton Theological Seminary, which may account for his unflinching approach to tensions between Hicksite and Orthodox Quakers. This is the sort of territory that few would approach in a novel, yet Woodruff does it elegantly. In fact, this question of Quaker mysticism is at the heart of the book.
This, and some biblical resonances might be too heavy -?Elijah is blinded by an exploding musket, and awakes on the road, where "he rubbed each eye gently and the flaky substance fell away." If that ain't the road to Damascus, I'm a Pharisee.
That kind of thing is there if you want it. But so are other beautiful, nearly poetic scenes like one where Elijah is buried under a pile of straw, and kicks his way out into free will and opportunity.
Elijah struggles to listen to the spirit of the Lord, and a revelation about his interpretation of Quaker doctrine leaves him free to "be open to (his) dreams, the good and the bad." For Elijah is a dreamer. He is preoccupied with daydreams of working in a grain mill, of fighting the British, or of spending time with the neighbor's daughter. He was, as I suspect most imaginative boys are, hardly ever in the present moment.
And, in the tradition of good historical fiction, "Among Friends" walks a delicately between past and present by emphasizing the constancy of human nature and the fickleness of circumstances. Throughout the novel, I was left with the pleasant illusion that Elijah Hoag's dilemmas were much like my own, yet that I could place his troubles in a concrete and distant past.
"Among Friends" is an ambitious undertaking that goes far beyond the standard purview of historical fiction. Woodruff handles his spiritual and literary leanings well, and succeeds with history that is both informative and substantive.
This review reflects the individual view of the reviewer, not the views of the Adirondack Center for Writing or the Enterprise.