The Passed Note Issue 6 February 2018 - Page 11

MRO: Before I had my first child nine years ago and switched to part-time teaching at Genesee Community College, I taught eleventh and twelfth grade English for several years at Kendall High School, a rural school in Lake Ontario fruit country. Teaching there was a unique experience. Instead of a student bringing me an apple, I’d get a whole bushel of Winesaps or Northern Spies. Many of the local families have been farming their land for generations. Once, when I was wandering around an old cemetery in the area, I realized just how far back these farming families go. Several of the grave markers from the early 1800s were inscribed with familiar last names—the last names of some of my students! I thought that was really neat. Then, my friend Diane, a historian, told me about the importance of the Genesee Valley, in terms of our country’s westward expansion. She also shared a collection of Orleans County pioneer accounts. All of this fed my interest in our local history. I feel a lot of tenderness and love for this area: the sprawling orchards, its big sky, the rich soil, Lake Ontario, the Erie Canal, and the gorgeous, historic cobblestone houses. I wasn’t born here. My Kendall teaching job brought me to the area. But I settled here—and I’m so glad I did.

SRJ: I love Harriet. She’s strong, funny, stubborn, but also sweet and loyal. How did Harriet come about? And was she always going to masquerade as a boy? How did that plot point happen?

MRO: Pregnancy complications and childbirth historically accounted for so many deaths. In the novel, Harriet’s own mother didn’t survive labor. I wondered what it would have been like to be a young woman in the early 1800s, realizing that that tragedy is remarkably common and yet also confronting the reality that marriage and childrearing are basically society’s expectation for all girls. It wasn’t like young women could pursue a Plan B or a Plan C—not without incurring society’s wrath. The masquerade (a plot twist I planned from the beginning) allows Harriet to expand her opportunities. In some ways, her pioneering is twofold: she ventures into unclaimed territory and also explores and challenges her place in society, particularly as it pertains to gender roles and societal expectations.