by Kim Van Sickler
[Kim's posts will all relate to her MG historical fiction novel with a paranormal twist: Muleskinner. Here's the pitch: An extraordinary canal dog gives twelve-year-old mule driver, Clay, the conviction to fight against a highly suspect Indenture agreement his pa supposedly signed...right before Pa was found swinging from a tree above Lonesome Lock.]
The Ohio Canal where my muleskinner travels on foot leading his mules was inspired after the Erie Canal running through Pennsylvania and New York. It was constructed by many of the same Irish and German immigrants. These men worked all day long for about 30 cents AND a ration of whiskey. With make-shift pockets of German and Irish workers springing up along the canal, cultural, religious, and ethnic differences were magnified. Many "Americans" resented the influx of so many foreigners because it threatened the established order. Catholic Irish seemed to bear the brunt of xenophobia from the Protestant majority. Stereotypes of Irish as whiskey-swilling, hot-headed, dirt poor potato-eaters were rooted in the plight of the Irish at that time. German Catholics were also viewed with distrust by many.
In fact, religion was the impetus for the formation of the No Nothing Party in the 1850s. The party's creation was an attempt to keep German and Irish Catholics out of government for fear that their religion was antithetic to republican values and a thinly disguised political agenda to allow the Roman pope to control American politics. A short-lived party, operating at peak membership levels between 1854-56, it was only open to Protestant males.
Muleskinner takes place before the formation of the No Nothing Party, during a time when immigrants played a major part in working on the Ohio Canal. Clay, my muleskinner, and the family who takes him in to crew on their boat are Irish. The other characters Clay encounters are either Irish, German or English. Although the canalers themselves learned to deal with one another, directing their prejudices at times toward non-canalers or town jakes, they were surrounded by more settled people who viewed the newer arrivals with a mixture of uncertainty, misunderstanding, and fear.