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Tea Party Winners: Vicki Talley McCollum's Never Say Goodbye, A National Park Romance novella goes to: Caryl Kane, Deanne Patterson, Deana Dick, Carrie Fancett Pagels' winners Beverly Duell-Moore and Cindy Pratt, Roseanna White's winners - Betti Mace, Gabrielle Meyer's winners -, Deb Marvin's paperback winner - Rachel Dodson

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Colonial Spies, Fact and Fiction

by Roseanna M. White

Many of us with a love for Colonial history have been very excited about the premiere of AMC's Turn. Based on the exploits of the Culper Ring as researched and expounded by Alexander Rose in Washington's Spies, Turn (Sunday nights, 9 p.m. on AMC) promised action, drama, adventure, and espionage.

They also deliver violence, which was a bit much for many viewers I've spoken to. I seem to have an immunity to TV violence and honestly scarcely noticed it, so...I'm not the one to talk about that, LOL. Instead, I wanted to touch on some of the fun ways I noticed that Turn has taken fact and heightened it into good fiction.

Because I already researched this history for Ring of Secrets, I was largely familiar with the story they'll be telling. But because it was several years ago, I had to break out my copy of Washington's Spies and do some fact checking--which made me grin, because I'm that kind of geek.
The major players in AMC's Turn

The most important thing to note when viewing this or any other show based on  history, is that facts get bent. And that's good, because in reality the events are dragged out over years, and tension isn't always high. As viewers, we would get bored and soon be flipping to another station. I give the writers of Turn a lot of kudos for putting together major players in the Revolution that didn't (so far as we know) actually meet up, for creating backstory and emotional investment to explain actions and make the characters relatable...and for asking a lot of what ifs.
My version of what ifs are a bit different...but based on the same history

Thus far in Turn, we've been focused largely on Abraham Woodhull, who was the primary operative in the Culper Ring during its first years of operation. He was, in fact, given the code name of Samuel Culper, after whom the whole group of intelligencers was named. In the show, Abraham's father is a judge in Setauket--and loyal to the Crown. By choosing farming above the law, Abraham had introduced strained relations long before the first scene opens. Added to it is the fact that his loyalties are torn.

In reality, Abraham was from a farming family (though he himself became a magistrate and judge after the war!), and he was the primary caretaker of his aging parents on the family farm after his two older brothers are killed in the early days of the war. This, combined with the death of his uncle, who was a Patriot general, are what spurred Abe to take on the role his childhood friend asked him to consider--namely, gathering all the information he could on British movements and passing it along toward Washington.

Also in the show, Abe is married to a lady named Mary but was once engaged to Anna, who's now married to Selah Strong. In reality, Abe wasn't married, and Anna was a neighbor a decade his senior (so no young love there, LOL), who did indeed aid him in his clandestine tasks, and even posed as his wife when he was running information--married couples traveling together were not often halted and searched by the British, but single men always were. It wasn't until 1781 that Abe got engaged to Mary (a relative of Anna's, actually), at which point he more or less resigned from the Culper Ring so he wouldn't risk bringing calamity down on his family.

And according to the history, Abe was never torn in his loyalties. Though he knew how to bite his tongue to keep from drawing the attention of the British, his writings make no secret of his very Patriotic bent...and also make it clear that this quiet young farmer took great pleasure from tricking the British overlords plaguing his town.

As a writer of fiction, I can certainly appreciate how the TV writers have tweaked fact to make a good show. And as a history nut, I always love noting where the differences are.

9 comments:

  1. Roseanna, this is very interesting. I like to learn more about our history and I love reading your books.

    I turned on the movie Turn the first night it aired, but like you mentioned, some of us did not like the violence--I was one of those and turned it off after a few minutes. I don't know if future episodes will have the same amount of violence or not.

    Blessings, Tina

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    1. I was going to say I didn't think the last one was as violent, but...um...it might have been, LOL. I really don't notice it in scripted TV anymore, because I've watched so many behind-the-scenes things and know HOW they do it. Now, home videos that involve people getting hurt I can't watch. There's something about knowing it's real/fake...

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  2. I am watching online and need to catch up! I really enjoy your take on it, given your research! I love knowing where the story was stretched. I almost wish they would do a little asterisk type aside **by the way, folks, some events and characters are fictionalized but know that the Culper Ring did exist (or something like that. I don't suppose it matter if Abraham's father and wife are fictionalized or not... but...this is how history gets retold. Washington's Cherry Tree chopping becomes the most important thing an elementary school student recalls of the man!

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    1. LOL. That would be funny. Apparently Alexander Rose (author of the book it's based on) was on set for the filming and lent his take on the writing, so while parts are stretched, the heart of the history should remain intact.

      Of course, we all know the REAL intelligence came from Winter Reeves. Ahem. Cough, cough. ;-)

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  3. Thanks Roseanna for your insights on the mini-series and your own thorough research. I watch TURN like I watch some Mel Gibson movies, with my hands over my eyes quite often. I enjoyed the book Washington's Spies, as well as your own books on the subject.

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  4. Roseanna, I am taping and watching Turn, or the majority of the scenes, because I love the history. However I've not allowed my Christ-trained adversion to violence and sexual scenes grow so jaded that I'll watch scenes of blood and gross violence or bed scenes. I never want to grow immune to such and was sorry to hear you feel you have. I'm doing some fast-forwarding past those scenes and may have to quit watching at all. I actually can't understand why this series doesn't have an R rating. I don't tape or watch R-rated movies. But it seems PG-13 is turning into R. I still teach our Children's Church and my six-year-old grandson the neat little song, "Oh, Be Careful Little Eyes What You See" and I have to believe it also applies to me. I am sure your book would have made a much better film. Maybe the popularity of this series will cause some Christian filmmakers to begin looking for similar mss. If so, we are happy yours is available. We are in a great moral battle in America over what's being depicted on the big screen and its effect on the minds of adults and young people. I know which side I stand firmly on. Elva Cobb Martin, President AChristianFW-SC Chapter.

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    1. It's certainly not something I let my kids watch, for sure. And I'm far from immune to REAL violence or injury, and I understand those who have no tolerance for the on-screen version. It always bothered me until I started watching behind-the-scenes commentaries. When I knew what it was I was seeing, I honestly just came to appreciate the skill of the actors and special effects people and no longer associated it with blood. But that was as an adult, certainly not as a child, and I take great care to keep my kiddos innocent eyes pure!

      I'm definitely hoping the series gets some attention for the Culper Ring, though, and that it trickles my way a bit. One of the things I most loved about the historical figures was that they were all men of incredible faith--and that's something I suspect won't come through on the screen at all, for which I'm very sorry. The story loses something that is, to my mind, vital when you take from it that key motive.

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    2. You're so right about Christian faith being ignored, Roseanna, in modern historical movies. In TURN, in fact, there is not a single character or reference to the strong faith of many of our patriots. George Washington was so strong in faith and many others. The only church, I think, we see on screen was the one turned into a barn/headquarters for the British. We are shown horses eating hay there! What a message the director was giving! There's nothing to this church/God thing he was saying. It's part of the rewrite of our history that has taken place, not only in our school textbooks but definitely in modern movies. You will need a Christian filmaker to take your book. Thank God for the recent successes of several Christian films that are making Hollywood sit up and take notice. And also giving all of us encouragement that America still has a strong faith and our group is growing. Did you know that we have a young church here in our small town of Anderson, SC that now has 35,000 plus members, many college age, that Generation X that have left so many churches. They have, in fact, started church campuses in about seven other SC cities. It's been an astounding thing to watch. I attend another small church that greatly needs my hubby's music help but I pray for that strong church and pastor daily. I think and pray America is headed for a Great Awakening like that led by Jonathan Edwards! Now there's a story I might want to blog on later.

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  5. Neat history lesson
    Thank you
    God bless you
    ChrisG

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