History Made Real in 'April Morning'

Sally Gunning. Credit: Sally Gunning

Sally Gunning is the author of the critically acclaimed historical novels, The Widow's War and Bound. At this writing, she is still living with her husband in an old cottage set on cinder blocks not far from Cape Cod Bay. But the house is sinking fast — Send raft! Soon! hide caption

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Maybe you knew me — I was that pale, skinny kid with the dark circles under her eyes who ran off the school bus, grabbed a book, went into her bedroom and locked the door. But before you start putting me in the same crate with the eggheads, I'd better mention it wasn't any math or history book I grabbed, it was a Hardy Boys or a Nancy Drew.

I remember a panic close to nausea one day when I realized that I'd run out of both my books and my brother's books, and was forced to visit my parents' bookcase. Bypassing anything that looked like an encyclopedia, I pulled out a thin little thing called April Morning by Howard Fast.

The subject of the book, the battle at Lexington and Concord on April 19, 1775, looked unpromising, but the jacket blurb insisted that it was a novel, and novel meant made-up stuff, so I decided to give it a try.

I'd learned the facts in school concerning the morning of April 19 — that the British had marched out of Boston on their way to Concord to destroy the rebel arms, and that along the way they met up with a band of local militia assembled on Lexington Green. A shot rang out; the British fired; Americans died; the war began.

I thought I understood the significance of that day, but after I read Fast's fictional account I realized I'd understood nothing. I also realized something that would substantially alter my later course in life: that fiction could be more real than fact.

April Morning begins with a resentful 15-year-old boy named Adam Cooper being dressed down by his father, misunderstood by his mother and plagued by his brother. Having recently experienced all three, that was all it took to put me right there with Adam in 1775, sweating and cursing under my breath and cranking the handle on the well. And, yes, I was a teenaged girl, but I went right along with Adam when he assembled with the other men and boys on Lexington Green, queasy out of fatigue rather than fear, and not really believing the British would come. Then Adam — and I — hear the drums, and the fear begins, his and mine.

The British crowd onto the green, shots are fired, bodies fall, but it's nothing like it's described in my history book, and nothing like Adam and I had planned. We vomit. We cry. We run. And for the first time, I begin to understand.

After I finished April Morning I returned the book to my parents' shelf, but I couldn't put Adam Cooper out of my mind. Did he survive the rest of the war? Did he make peace with his family? Did he marry that large-hearted, but feisty, girl next door? Just so you don't think I was totally out of my senses, I soon came around to the fact that Adam Cooper was a fictional character who didn't really exist. But don't try to tell me that meant he wasn't real.

A few years later I went off to college, took a summer job in a Revolutionary War Museum, read April Morning again, and raged and sweated and cried with Adam one more time. A few more years down the road, I began writing historical fiction of my own. But it was only after hundreds of hours in dusty archives that I fully grasped the lesson that Fast had begun to teach me so long ago: Fiction can be more real than fact, but only if the writer has the facts well in hand. So even though Howard Fast is dead, I'd like to thank him for that lesson, as well as the inspiration. And I'm sure you'll understand, Howard, if I take an extra second here to thank Adam, too.

You Must Read This is produced and edited by Ellen Silva.

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