Author Jean Rae Baxter talks to Debbie Bateman

1. In your recently released novel, The Knotted Rope, the protagonist holds a place in both the Indigenous and settler worlds. He was born white but adopted by the Oneida tribe. How does this unique perspective contribute to the main themes of the novel? 

JRB: The Knotted Rope is the third novel in which Broken Trail is the protagonist. In the first of these novels, the eponymous Broken Trail, he was thirteen years old and desperately wanted recognition as a warrior, but he had enemies who refused to accept him as an Oneida. By the time that he reaches his early twenties in The Knotted Rope, he is fully accepted. Any conflict resulting from his divided heritage is long past. His reunion with his sister Hope brings about an exchange of memories untinged with conflict. He was given the name of Moses Cobman at birth by his settler parents. But when he says, “My name is Broken Trail, or Moses Cobman, depending on where I am or who I’m talking to,” he means it.  

2. There are separate communication channels for each culture. Slaves have a network, Indigenous peoples have their networks, and so do the settlers. Sometimes important information remains hidden, such as the true reason for the dead bodies found downstream of Niagara Falls. Can you reflect on the impact of secrets and separate communication channels in this story?

JRB: The story begins with an incident witnessed by Broken Trail while on his way to deliver a report to Lieutenant Governor Simcoe. The use of such a messenger was routine with Indigenous leaders as well as white. Communication channels for the enslaved Blacks were necessarily secret, whether they consisted of subtle whispers at the marketplace or recognized secret symbols. The placement of a particular article of clothing on a clothesline might signal, “This is a safe place to hide.” The settlers who have been retrieving bodies from the river discuss their assumption that slavery is somehow responsible for the deaths, but they need no words to communicate their shared sense that these bodies deserve a decent burial. The slaves imprisoned in the cave make no attempt to communicate. Do channels of communication dry up when all hope is lost?

3. This is a complex story of tensions between nations, cultures, and systems of belief, and yet it is accessible to young readers. What were the challenges and benefits of writing this story as a young readers’ novel?

JRB: The benefit of writing this story as a young reader’s novel was to teach the next generation something important about Canada’s history. American cultural influences—movies, television, books—are almost overwhelming. But Canada is a different country; we do things differently. We didn’t end slavery by having a civil war. We did it by legislation and by building the Underground Railroad to help Black people escape from bondage in the United States. I wanted to show this. At the same time, I wanted to show Canada’s relationship to the struggle of the Indigenous peoples to retain what they could of their lands. That was my main theme in other books in this series. In The Knotted Rope, the biggest challenge was to explain the loophole in the law through which an escaped slave might become legally free, and to do this in an adventure story without bogging down the action. 

4. How do you think the work responds to the questions it raises in the context of the time and place the characters are situated in? How do you think the questions and responses in the book relate to the time and place of the intended readership?

JRB: In the context of its time, The Knotted Rope deals with two questions. First is the question of slavery. The story is set in Upper Canada (Ontario) in 1793, the year that the province’s first Lieutenant Governor pushed through the legislature a new law to gradually end slavery in Upper Canada. The Preamble begins, “WHEREAS it is Unjust that a People who enjoy freedom by law should encourage the Introduction of Slaves…” The second question relates to white settlement taking over the traditional lands of the Indigenous peoples. These two questions raise important issues that are not yet fully resolved even today. We have ended slavery, but not prejudice. That is why we still have protests declaring, “Black Lives Matter!” As for the injustice done to the Indigenous peoples, that is the reason why in 2022 we are still fumbling with treaty rights, land claims and reconciliation.

5. How did you arrive at the title? What did you want the title to do?

JRB: I arrived at the title, The Knotted Rope, before I had even finished writing the first draft. I liked it immediately because it works on two levels: literal and symbolic. The knotted rope is, literally, the means of escape. A group of fugitive slaves imprisoned in a cave behind Niagara Falls crawl through a tunnel under the Niagara River and then, using a knotted rope, climb up through a crevice in the limestone to reach freedom. Symbolically, the knotted rope is double-purposed. The slaves had been roped together, so “rope” suggests their plight as captives. But the knots, which provide handholds and footholds so they can climb up the rope, suggest something complicated; that is, the intricacy and complexity of the new law and the subtlety of the loophole through which the slaves in the story become legally free.

6. What kind of research did you have to engage in order to create the story world?

JRB: Research for The Knotted Rope comprised many areas of scientific, historical, social, and legal information. Scientific research included looking into the geology of the Niagara Escarpment, which is hard limestone overlying soft shale. There were also other details, such as the depth of the Niagara Whirlpool (125 feet). Historical accuracy required research into the life and work of John Graves Simcoe, as well as a search for contemporary descriptions of roads, taverns, villages and ferry service. Social research confirmed that conditions of slavery in Canada had not been completely the same as in some of the United States. For example, in Canada, it was not illegal for a person to teach a slave to read and write. The legal research was the most painstaking, because I had to understand the 1793 legislation, introduced as “An Act to prevent the further introduction of SLAVES, and to limit the Terms of Contracts for SERVITUDE within this Province.”

7. What was your main concern about your choices regarding the point of view? Did you try alternative points of view for the protagonist / main characters before settling into the final points of view that you ended up using?

JRB: By the time I had written the final sentence of The Knotted Rope, I had been showing the world from Broken Trail’s perspective from the time he was a rebellious little boy protesting, “It’s not fair!”, until he became an adult intent upon ending slavery. Broken Trail had a special sense for detecting injustice, and the insight and energy to do something about it. I knew from the start that his was the best point of view for this story. Dedicated to the work he was doing as an aide to Mohawk War Chief Thayendanegea (Joseph Brant), he shared Thayendanegea’s goal of uniting the native people in a federation to stop white encroachment on their lands. But Thayendanegea was a slave owner. This posed a dilemma for Broken Trail. There had to be a major shift in his perspective as he adjusted to a new reality. Making this shift both convincing and consistent was my main concern about choices in this book.

8. If you had the chance to visit the periods or the places in the work, what would be the first place you’d visit and why?

JRB: I have frequently visited Niagara-on-the-Lake (then Newark) and the Falls. As a child, I rode my bicycle to the Niagara Escarpment caves at Rattlesnake Point, where my brother and I explored the tunnels navigated by the escaped slaves in my book. Those caves likely haven’t changed since 1793. However, the town of Newark, where Upper Canada’s first Parliament met, is greatly changed today. I would like to see it as it then was. I would like to see the tent which was the Lieutenant Governor of Ontario’s official residence. He brought the tent from England, where he had purchased it from the estate of the famous explorer, Captain Cook. I would like to see the Niagara River before the construction of the first of the Welland Canals. Maybe I could travel by horseback or ox cart from Newark to Fort Erie along the mud road called the Niagara Portage. 

9. Would you say the pace of the story is uniform through the work? How did you consciously deal with pacing? 

JRB: The pacing is not uniform throughout the book, nor do I think it should be. There are violent scenes like Chloe Cooley’s frantic struggle not to be thrown into a boat for transport across the river. There is tension during the dinner when Mr. Steele speaks of his slaves as livestock while Broken Trail tries to remain polite. There is the poignant reunion between Broken Trail and his sister, and the terror-filled passage of the escaped slaves through the tunnel. Each is as different in pacing as it is in tone. For each scene, I made a selection of concrete details appealing to the senses: the smell of the upset chamber pot, the roar of the Falls, the homely details of Hope’s cabin, the damp and dark tunnel. During action, short sentences give punch. During conversation, natural speech establishes personality and conveys information. The final trip to freedom is celebrated with a song of joy.

10. What was the most satisfying aspect about writing this book (other than perhaps the satisfaction of finishing it)?

JRB: By the time I completed all six novels in the Forging a Nation series, I had become attached to the characters. I had followed two families, the Cobmans and the Coopers, since 1777, when the violence of the American Revolution drove them from their homes in the Mohawk Valley. All had suffered. Some had died. At the end, some were reunited with loved ones. Broken Trail, the protagonist of three of the books, had undergone many adventures. He had been abducted by Oneida hunters, adopted, raised to be a warrior, attended a residential school, and served as an aide to Mohawk Chief Thayendanegea (Joseph Brant). It was satisfying to me as his creator to have him survive so many dangers, solve the moral conflict that resulted from his working for a slave owner, and finally join the fight against slavery, a cause to which he could unreservedly devote his life.

Jean Rae Baxter’s writing pursues two distinct paths. She writes literary fiction for adults and historical fiction for young readers. The Knotted Rope is the final book in a series that follow the fortunes of young members of two connected Loyalist families from 1777 to 1793. The other titles in the series are The Way Lies North (2008), Broken Trail (2011), Freedom Bound (2012), The White Oneida (2014) and Hope’s Journey (2015). Her writing has won awards in Canada and the United States. She lives in Kingston, Ontario, where she leads writing workshops. Visit her website at http://www.jeanraebaxter.ca.