Reading Guide: Swimming with Serpents
A Historical Novel of Love, War and Redemption
Cassandra King, author of The Same Sweet Girls writes:
"Swimming with Serpents is an astonishing accomplishment, a debut novel of historical importance that is not only a riveting page-turner but also beautifully written. Keep your eye on Sharman Ramsey, an exciting new voice in Southern fiction."
-Cassandra King, author of The Same Sweet Girls
Janis Owens, author of My Brother Michael and American Ghost
“Swimming with Serpents is a lush plunge into a forgotten corner of American history: the brutal Indian wars at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Star crossed lovers share the page with the larger than life figures of history, creating a vivid, detailed story that reflects the passion and the brutality of the day and gives insight to the nation we have become.”
About the Book
In Sharman Burson Ramsey’s debut novel, we are immediately and vividly thrown into the world of two boys, half Creek Indian and half white. The loss of their mother and the birth of a new sister happen simultaneous to their kidnapping by William Augustus Bowles, whose goal is to be Emperor of the Muscogee, and Savannah Jack, whose goal is to kill as many whites as possible. They want the boys’ father’s trading territory and total control of the Creek nation.
As they grow up, friction intensifies within the Creek nation as more and more Americans come down the Federal Road. Tecumseh, a cousin of many in the Creek Nation, comes south to push for a Pan-Indian Confederacy to push back against the continuing flood of settlers intruding into the lands of the Native Americans. An earthquake happens and the Mississippi river runs backward assuring religious fanatics, the Red Stick’s prophets and followers of itinerant preachers like Lorenzo Dow, of God’s judgment. The world demand for fur pelts and hickory nut oil declines just as the Creek dependency on European goods increases. The effort to shift the Creek culture to an agricultural society taking the men from their traditional role as hunter and provider to doing the women’s work of planting and harvesting leaving women free to spin and weave providing goods for sale and barter turns Creek society on its head. Add to the mix the human elements of jealousy and greed and the tinder for war is laid.
Cade Kincaid and Lyssa Rendel meet as children on a pack train into Creek country. Lyssa manipulates a wedding based on a childhood promise. The two must then survive the Fort Mims massacre and the ensuing Creek War to reunite. This is a story of love, war, and redemption with pathos and lessons that transcend the centuries.
About the Author
Sharman Burson Ramsey was born in Dothan, Alabama, the daughter of two World War II veterans, a doctor who served in the Philippines and a nurse who won a battle ribbon for her service at the Battle of the Bulge. Though Ramsey has degrees in Education and History from the University of Alabama and Troy University and has taught middle school through university, it was genealogy that led her to write about the Creek War. She discovered that her fourth great grandmother, Vashti Vann Jernigan, was Native American, the first cousin of Chief James Clement Vann of the Cherokee and the granddaughter of the Squirrel King of the Chickasaw in addition to being a descendant of the great Powhatan . She learned that her fourth great grandfather, Benjamin Jernigan, was asked by Andrew Jackson, his neighbor in South Carolina, to move from Burnt Corn Springs to Fort Crawford (near the modern day town of Brewton, Alabama) to herd cattle there to supply his anticipated raid on the Spanish in Florida. That led to the writing of this novel and its sequel, Nest of Vipers, set against the backdrop of the First Seminole War.
Questions for Discussion
- How are Lyssa, Cade and Gabriel different from other children?
- How is Lyssa’s family life different than that of Cade and Gabriel? How does that difference affect them?
- How does the make up of their family – two different races -- create a bond between Cade, Lyssa, and Cade's brother, Gabriel?
- Why does Cade fear relationships? How does this reluctance play into the plot of the novel?
- What examples in the novel break common stereotypical ideas of the education and lifestyle of frontier people?
- What did Benjamin Hawkins and Jake Rendel have in common?
- What effect did John Witherspoon and the Scottish Enlightenment have on Benjamin Hawkins, James Madison -- and Jake Rendel? What effect did it eventually have on the frontier and the Creek country?
- What roll did education play in the life of Lyssa Rendel? What books did she read as a child that helped her to survive later?
- How does the Creek War fit into the bigger world event, the War of 1812?
- What actions on the part of Great Britain helped bring about the Creek War?
- How does religion play a part in the bringing about the Creek War?
- What was the message of the Red Stick prophets? How does this compare to the message of Lorenzo Dow, the itinerant Methodist minister?
- What natural events played into the hands of those who might be labeled religious fanatics?
- How did the world economy affect the Creek Indians? Looking from both perspectives, describe the misunderstanding between the Indians buying and selling the goods and the traders buying and selling goods.
- What roll did location have on the establishment of Fort Mims?
- Why was Fort Mims selected as a target for the Creek attack? What role did the battle at Burnt Corn Creek have on the selection of Fort Mims as a target?
- Did family relationships play a part in the Creek War? The family trees of some can be found at Family Trees at Sharman Burson Ramsey.com.
- What family relationships surprised you? Is this unique to this war?
- Who among the Creek Indians would you consider “good” people?
- What were Red Stick Creek leaders’ goals for their people? What motivated them in their actions? William Weatherford? Josiah Francis? Peter McQueen? Captain Isaacs? Big Warrior? Tecumseh? Savannah Jack? Menawa? Will Montfort?
- Did the role of women contribute to this conflict? Has the role of women been a significant in other wars? Explain.
- What was the racial make up of the militia within Fort Mims? What was the racial make up of the inhabitants of the fort?
- What motivated Jackson’s soldiers to fight the Creek? Altruism? Experience with other Indian attacks? Greed to conquer lands they could then settle? Think about Sam Dale, James Caller, Davy Crockett, Sam Houston, Brigadier General Ferdinand Claiborne, Colonel Daniel Beasley
- What motivated Andrew Jackson? What was his ultimate goal?
- Some say that the Massacre at Fort Mims was the first battle of the War of 1812 fought in the South. What roll did this massacre have on building the stature of Andrew Jackson?
- Did the Creek War have on impact on Andrew Jackson’s later career?
- List Judge Harry Toulmin’s accomplishments. Are these the qualifications one expects when one thinks of a frontier public servant?
- What was Benjamin Hawkins’ background?
- What were Hawkins’ goals for the Creek Indians? Do you agree with his goals?
- Discuss the theme of this novel as stated by Cade Kincaid inside the devastated Fort Mims, “If this was the will of Yahola, a judgment upon evil, why must the innocents perish?” Is war the will of God?
- How does redemption become a thread in the plot of this novel? How can this be applied to contemporary events?
- Can understanding the causes of war help prevent war?
- Did you realize that understanding all of these issues go into writing historical fiction?
Enhancing Your Book Club
1. Visit Sharman Burson Ramsey’s website at http://www.sharmanbursonramsey.com. You'll find videos, reviews, behind-the-book extras and interviews.
2. Discuss how the situation in the Creek country escalated to the point of war. Is there a point at which the conflict could have been avoided? Is there a lesson here in considering religion, the economy, and cultural conflicts in today's world?
3. To find out more about victims of war here in the U.S. visit http://www.fugeesfamily.org/