Thieving Forest

Thieving Forest

by Martha Conway

ISBN: 9780991618507

Publisher Noontime Books

Published in Romance/Historical, Literature & Fiction/Historical, Literature & Fiction/Literary, Literature & Fiction/Genre Fiction, Romance, Literature & Fiction

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Book Description

2014 North American Book Award Winner for Historical Fiction

On a humid day in 1806, on the edge of Ohio's Great Black Swamp, 17-year-old Susanna Quiner watches from behind a tree as a band of Potawatomi Indians kidnaps her four older sisters from their cabin. With both her parents dead and the other settlers out in their fields, Susanna makes the rash decision to pursue them herself, and the man who loves her is not far behind. Over the next four months Susanna’s life changes forever as she faces starvation, slavery, betrayal, and love.

Sample Chapter

On the day the Potawatomis come, Susanna Quiner is in her cabin splitting open peapods with the blade of her mother’s silver nail scissors.

“A peapod with just one pea in it is very lucky,” she says glumly, pulling one open into the shape of a canoe.

“Only if you don’t like peas,” her sister Beatrice says.

Susanna looks into the pod. “Well, this one has two.”

She exhales and does nothing more for a moment, wishing she was done with this task. The door to their cabin is open and a warm breeze wafts into the room. It is the first of June and unseasonably humid. It’s been raining for weeks, although it isn’t raining now, and outside the flat Ohio landscape is like a warm wet sea. From where she sits at the end of the table, Susanna can see the first few trees of Thieving Forest standing like sentinels or spies, marking the end of their settlement. Her sister Penelope, at the other end of the table, is crushing salt with a rolling pin.

Despite the break in the rain no one wants to go outside, and all five of them are in the cabin, five sisters, ranging in age from seventeen (Susanna) to twenty-three (Penelope). Aurelia is lying next to the hearth near Beatrice, who is warming bread for a chilblain on her heel. Naomi is playing her violin while she minds the store on the other side of the cabin, although there are no customers and haven’t been any since their parents fell ill. That was the same day it started to rain.

When Susanna looks down at the peapods again she sees the new black lace on her cuff. Her parents died almost two weeks ago and only one day apart, Ellen first and then Sirus, as unexpected as two suns setting in the same evening. Susanna, who is superstitious, has put a piece of rowan wood in the pocket of her black dress to guard against ghosts, although she misses her mother, and would almost chance the frightening encounter in order to see her again. She’s lonely for her. She’s lonely for both of them. Part of her feels gone as well, like there’s a room in her home that she can’t go into anymore. She thinks of her mother’s freckled hands cutting bread.

Her sisters probably feel this way, too, although today their grief is taking on the form of irritation. Penelope looks at Susanna, frowns, and puts down her rolling pin. The crushed salt is scattered on a dark cloth before her, still mostly in chunks.

“Susanna, what have you got on your hands?” she asks.

“Mama’s gloves. Her old ones.” Susanna likes to think she has the nicest hands of all of her sisters and wants to keep it that way. Also, the gloves still carry the faint scent of their mother.

“Goodness,” Penelope says. And Beatrice adds, “Susanna, that’s absurd.”

The two oldest sisters look at each other with shared opinion. When they rule in unison they are nearly impossible to overcome, but they are rarely in unison. Beatrice goes back to the bread she is toasting and Penelope hits the salt again with her rolling pin. Her hands, Susanna notices, are chapped and red.

“She likes to keep her hands nice,” Aurelia says from the hearth.

“Well good luck to her,” Beatrice says.

“Mama told me I should rub bear oil on them,” Susanna informs them. “She said that would keep them smooth.”

Aurelia tucks their mother’s blue pieced bed quilt under her feet. She is just getting over a fever and has pulled her straw tick over so she can lie near the fire.

“There’s not enough bear in the world,” she says.

Aurelia has strawberry-blond hair and a heart-shaped face, and Susanna thinks of her as the prettiest one. Beatrice is the smartest. Penelope is the best storyteller, and Naomi is the musical one. Ellen Foxworthy Quiner gave her daughters strong names as if arming them for a difficult life: Penelope, Beatrice, Naomi, Aurelia, Susanna, and Lilith. Or, as their father Sirus used to say, Please Be Neat And Seldom Late. They all have their mother’s small nose and small face and small full mouth, but they are best known for their red hair and rude manners. Susanna’s hair is the darkest shade of red—in winter almost brown—and she has equally dark eyebrows with hardly an arch to them, giving her a serious expression. But her sisters are not fooled by this, for they know her to be superstitious and fanciful and not good at chores, not even the simplest ones like shelling peas. Lilith, the youngest at fifteen, was adopted by their Aunt Ogg and never left Philadelphia. Only Penelope has been married, but her husband died almost eight months ago. Their parents are buried near him in the little plot set out as a graveyard, although the settlement as yet has no church. Graveyards are needed before churches.

Susanna wonders if Lilith in Philadelphia even knows yet; the letter to her was written only last week and mail is slow between Ohio and anyplace else. She looks at the black lace on her cuff again. It’s not shock, exactly, what she feels, but a stubborn kind of disbelief.

How can Ellen and Sirus be gone? Especially considering they only had Swamp Fever, and almost everyone in this corner of Ohio gets Swamp Fever every year. Some call it Marsh Fever and some call it Fever and Ague or even just The Ague, but it usually plays out the same: a week of shaking and low fever that eventually passes. The farmers claim that it comes from decomposing plants in the Great Black Swamp, ten miles away, and although it’s uncomfortable while it lasts, it isn’t an illness that generally kills you. Only sometimes another strain shows up, this one affecting the brain. That’s what Sirus and Ellen had the misfortune to contract. Susanna was shocked one morning to hear her mother call out to her own mother, a woman twenty years dead who never left Scotland.

“Mathair,” Ellen said, looking at the corner of her bed quilt. “I’ve missed you! Where have you been?” That’s when Susanna understood she would die.

It was raining on the day of their burial, and so muddy that all of them had to pull their boots out of their last step every few feet. Afterward, back in the cabin, Naomi would play only Bach on her violin. This is the first time I’ve eaten an apple without my mother being alive, Susanna found herself thinking. This is the first time I’ve darned a stocking. This is the first time I’ve opened the ledger. Even Beatrice was seen crying in odd places although she tried to hide it. Susanna felt at any moment she might see Sirus’s head poke out from the narrow doorway between their store and their living quarters—”What shall we give for three untanned martens?” He had an opinion but wanted to hear your ideas. His thatch of thinning white hair was like a nest on his head. At last Penelope said, “We can’t keep on like this. We have to make a decision. Should we stay here or move back to Philadelphia?” But even now, ten days later, they can’t agree on a plan.

The peapods are getting more and more tiresome to open even using her mother’s good scissors. The scissors’ fingerholes loop up into the shape of bird heads—swans or egrets. Through the open doorway that divides their home from the store Susanna can hear Naomi on her violin: Bach again, “Sleepers Awake.” No one has come into the store all week because of the rain, and now that the rain has finally stopped the farmers are all out frantically putting in their corn, late already. The Quiners are getting low on meat, and their shipment of broadcloth from Cincinnati is three weeks late. They’ve been alone in the cabin for days, but Susanna doesn’t mind. In the absence of her parents, their sudden and what will now be constant silence, she’s comforted by her sisters’ voices. Even their quarreling, familiar as it is, is almost consoling.

“We can’t stay here,” Penelope announces abruptly. She has said these exact words again and again over the last ten days. “We have five mouths to feed and no man to hunt for us. Every winter will be a worry.”

“Well I can’t move my chickens to Philadelphia,” Aurelia says from the hearth. “They’ll die.” Even when ill, she has only two interests: her hens and Cade Spendlove. And between those two, Susanna suspects that the hens come first.

“How can we support ourselves here?” Penelope asks.

“Sirus made a good choice of land,” Beatrice counters. “Three rivers and a road mean people passing through, and that means customers.” She has made this point before. They live in a prime location for trade, and where’s the competition? In Philadelphia there are already too many dry goods stores.

“It would be different if we could get married,” Naomi says from the doorway to the store, her violin resting on her hip. Penelope smacks the rolling pin on the table as if at a particularly stubborn chunk of salt.

“It’s not my fault!” she says, her voice rising.

“No one said it was,” Susanna puts in quickly.

“But you’re all thinking it. It was probably Thomas’s fault.” Thomas Forbes, her late husband.

“Don’t speak ill of the dead,” Beatrice tells her. She takes the bread off her toasting fork and looks at her heel. Susanna cannot see anything there, but Beatrice claims a chilblain is forming. Besides being the smartest Beatrice is also the most sensitive, often fancying little aches or pains on some part of her body.

“It’s ridiculous to think that just because I didn’t have a baby none of my sisters can have a baby,” Penelope goes on. “Ignorant farmers, they don’t know beans from bird eggs.”

“But there’s also Aunt Ogg,” Aurelia says wickedly. “She couldn’t have any babies, that’s why she adopted Lilith. And Aunt Carsen, too.” After ten years of childlessness, their Aunt Carsen died giving birth to a dead baby boy.

“And who told them about Aunt Ogg and Aunt Carsen, that’s what I’d like to know. Anyway, I did everything right. I married him and did everything right. When we get back to Philadelphia we can leave that rumor behind. They only say it because they don’t like us.”

“Well I’m not moving back,” Beatrice says, turning from the fire at last. Wisps of her red hair, the brightest red of them all, stick out all around her face. “And I told that to Amos Spendlove yesterday.”

“You what?” Penelope stops breaking up the salt and holds the rolling pin by one end like a club. “How could you tell him that?”

“We’ve been here ten years. This is our home.”

“Philadelphia is our home. We can open a store there.”

“With what money?” Beatrice asks. “Or do you think you’re going to buy it with an armload of pelts?” Their store takes payment mostly in goods.

“With Amos Spendlove’s money,” Penelope announces. She looks around pointedly at each of them. “He made an offer on the store two days ago. A cash offer. And I accepted.”

Everyone stops what they are doing and stares at her. Susanna feels a flutter of excitement. “A cash offer? How much?” she asks. She hates Ohio and wants to leave, but Penelope and Beatrice barely count her opinion. In the doorway to the store, Naomi drops her violin to her side.

“He’s coming over today with the money,” Penelope tells them. “Although maybe now he thinks the deal is off, because of you.” She glares at Beatrice.

“No. I won’t go,” Aurelia tells her, sitting up. “You had no right.”

“I’m the oldest. I have every right. Susanna, what are you doing with those scissors? Go take the slop out to Saul.”

“But I fed Saul yesterday!” This isn’t true, Naomi fed Saul yesterday, but Naomi never remembers anything except the fingering on any song she’s ever learned how to play.

“Penelope, you can’t ...” Beatrice begins, her voice tight. “You just cannot ...”

“Go on, Princess,” Penelope says to Susanna.

“How will we even get ourselves to Philadelphia?” Aurelia asks. “No. I’m not going. My hens will all die.”

And so they begin again. Susanna stands and looks for the slop bucket. Familiar though their voices might be, maybe she’s had enough for one day.

Out in the yard the sun is already beating down although it is barely midmorning. Susanna puts down the bucket for a moment and feels for the sliver of rowan wood in her pocket. Then she feels in her other pocket for the turkey hen bone that her father once gave her. The bone is her good luck talisman. Sirus found it in a field of wild rye after a herd of buffalo ran through it, crushing the stalks into carpet. Susanna still remembers the sound of their hooves like a waterfall moving closer and then away. Afterwards, Sirus walked into the rye to see what they’d trampled. It was the last buffalo they ever saw.

Susanna picks up the bucket again with her two gloved hands so she won’t get blisters and turns her back to the settlement’s few clustered buildings: Amos Spendlove’s iron goods shop, the public stable, the wheelwright, and their own cabin and store, all connected by a raised pine walk. On the other side of the walk are bare lots, empty spaces for a courthouse and a jail someday when there are resources to pay for them and people to put there. Once a Wyandot village stood in this spot but that village is long gone, and the Wyandots sold the land ten years ago to the settlers for horses.

Frogs croak in competing choruses but there is not one person in sight and the settlement feels deserted and lonely. After she pours out Saul’s slops Susanna straightens two of the pen’s fence boards, one of which needs to be replaced. Some people believe that pigs can see the wind coming but Saul rouses himself only for food. A sour old beast if ever there was one. She wishes they could leave for Philadelphia right now. A room with an even floor and long glass windows and a proper brick fireplace: this is what she pictures when she pictures what she wants. A place where they can buy cut wood and the milk is delivered.

After a while the heat makes her turn back. The heft of Thieving Forest is to her left but there are a few stands of maple trees between here and their cabin, and she makes her way toward their shade. She doesn’t want to be just the younger sister who never does anything as well as the others. What if I just never go back, she wonders. What if I saddle Frank or Bess right now and ride to Risdale, and find some way to get to a coach stop, and go east by myself?

She imagines writing her sisters: while you were quarreling I made my decision. Maybe they would see the sense of her actions and follow. That would be something, to have her sisters follow her lead for a change. Just as Susanna reaches the last of the maple trees Black Peter, Aurelia’s rooster, makes three sharp crows. He is standing in the doorway of the henhouse. Something tugs at her memory but before she has time to think what it is all the frogs abruptly stop calling out. Later she couldn’t say if it was this or something else that made her look toward the forest, but that’s when she sees the Indians.

At first she can’t tell who they are—Shawnee, Wyandot, Potawatomi, Kickapoo? Six of them—no seven, she counts. Maybe a few customers for the store at last. She watches as they step out from behind the trees like long-legged spiders, walking carefully over the bracken in their ankle-high moccasins and looking at the ground as if hunting small game. They wear straight sewn skins decorated with paint and beadwork, and a few have painted their hair and faces, too.


One of them steps neatly over the low wattle fence into Beatrice’s bean garden where he makes a complicated signal to the others. They are not going around front to the store. Susanna’s heart begins beating hard and high up in her chest. She steps behind the widest tree and looks down at her hands. Ellen’s gloves are dirty but still white. She tugs them off and stuffs them into her pocket. Then she takes off her bleached sunbonnet and drops it into the long grass beside her. She wants to scream but her throat feels suddenly too dry to reach above a whisper. Anyway, who would hear her?

Another sharp crow makes her look toward the henhouse again, and that's when she sees Aurelia, astonishingly enough, standing there with a bucket of feed. When did she leave the cabin?

“Au-re-lia!” Susanna hisses.

But Aurelia doesn’t hear. There is a good fifty yards between the maple trees and the henhouse with long yellow grass in between. Susanna can see Aurelia talking to her hens. Her face, pale from her recent illness, looks even paler out in the sun. She hasn’t noticed the Potawatomi. The hens bob toward her as if offering kisses but really they are just greedy for their feed.

Suddenly as if on a signal the Potawatomi all let out a shout and run into the cabin. Aurelia jerks her head around at the noise, and Susanna steps out from behind her tree. Now is her chance. She waves both her arms at Aurelia, Come here! There are two other maple trees on either side of her, both wide enough to hide behind.

But Aurelia doesn’t move, and Susanna realizes that the shrieking she hears is coming not from the Potawatomi but from Aurelia’s hens. She shouts her sister’s name. Aurelia looks over at Susanna with a wild, frightened expression but still doesn’t move. Susanna doesn’t know what to do—should she rush to the henhouse and grab her? But before she can take a step three Potawatomi come out of the cabin, one holding Beatrice by the arm and one holding Naomi and the last one carrying their mother’s blue pieced bed quilt. Susanna steps back behind the tree, beckoning to Aurelia—there is still a chance if she runs now.

At last Aurelia steps forward but instead of running to Susanna she picks up Black Peter, who immediately flaps his wings and makes such a noise as Susanna has never before heard. What is Aurelia doing? Is she in shock? Two Potawatomi run to the henhouse, both holding up axes, one with half of his face painted red. The other one, smaller but with a thick white scar running down the side of his face, begins to cut off the heads of any chicken he can grab, felling them neatly with one blow each. Black Peter, released from Aurelia’s arms, half flies and half jumps back to the henhouse door.

“Stop!” Aurelia screams at the man with the scar.

The Potawatomi with half his face painted red looks at her and then he says something to the man slaughtering the chickens, who puts down his axe and begins to tie the ones he’s already killed together by their feet.

That’s strange. Did the Potawatomi just spare Aurelia’s hens? But even stranger is this: he suddenly turns and looks right at the maple tree where Susanna is hiding, and in that first moment she swears that he sees her. He stares directly at her. She draws back, suddenly aware of her red hair and white neck and each glistening black button marching down the front of her dress. She pulls her head down and looks at her boots. She waits, her heart rocking in her chest. She hears Black Peter crow hoarsely again.

And now she remembers. A rooster crowing in a doorway means visitors are coming. An old Scottish superstition.

The saying fixes itself in her mind like a stone while she waits for the Potawatomi to come drag her away, and when no one comes she makes herself look again. The area by the henhouse is deserted. Aurelia is now on the other side of their cabin next to Beatrice and Penelope and Naomi, and the Potawatomi are roping up bags of loot.

Susanna grasps the tree trunk in front of her with her bare hands, feeling for any small holds in the rutted bark. Her mouth is so dry that it hurts. She can’t see her sisters’ faces but wisps of their red hair, each one a different shade, lift in the wind. Their black mourning collars and dark dresses bleed into the color of the trees, and only Beatrice has a cap on her head. One Potawatomi wrenches Naomi’s violin out of her hands and ties it up to the bundle of dead chickens. Then he pushes her with the handle of a spade—their father’s spade—and drives her and the others into the bracken and trees and the vines of small, unopened roses that mark the edge of Thieving Forest.


Excerpted from "Thieving Forest" by Martha Conway. Copyright © 2014 by Martha Conway. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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Author Profile

Martha Conway

Martha Conway

Martha Conway’s novel SUGARLAND is a Reader's Favorite Book Award winner, and her novel THIEVING FOREST won North American Book Award for Historical Fiction, and her first novel was nominated for an Edgar Award. Her short fiction has appeared in The Iowa Review, The Massachusetts Review, Folio, Carolina Quarterly, and other publications. Born in Ohio, she is one of seven sisters. She now makes her home in San Francisco.

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