They would take Maude. Yes, they would take her and they would take his life. His heart hammered and he felt a liquid warmth fill his chest. He closed his hands on the reins and thought, Go! and Maude shot forward, her iron-shod hooves clanging on rock. The highwayman’s hand whipped across his body, grabbing for a pistol at his belt. As Maude spurted between the skittering gray horse and the stolid black mule, Gideon felt his knees slam into both men’s legs.

— From “A Stranger Here Below”

An old hymn serves as the title for a new book out by local author Charles Fergus, who penned “A Stranger Here Below,” the first in a new historical fiction series featuring main character Gideon Stoltz.

The debut of the new series is by no means the first published work for Fergus — he has 18 earlier books out, but just one other work of fiction, a book titled “Shadow Catcher.

Other earlier books by Fergus focus on nature mostly, including several titles on trees, “Trees of New England” and Trees of Pennsylvania” he relocated from there to the Northeast Kingdom with his wife, the writer Nancy Brown, and their son 15 years ago when their home state was being pressured by development and they sought a more rural way of life on a small farm here.

Fergus will read from his newest book, “A Stranger Here Below,” on Wednesday, July 17 at 7 p.m. at the St. Johnsbury Athenaeum.

About the origin of his newest novel, Fergus said, “I like to read historical fiction – novels that not only tell a good tale but also educate me about different times and places and cultures. I love mysteries, especially ones that are well-written, with compelling plots and strong, believable characters.”

“In my opinion, few mystery writers are able to convey the reality of murder,” said Fergus. “That’s not surprising, because they probably haven’t lived through the murder of a close friend or a relative.”

Fergus said, “In 1995, when my family was still living in central Pennsylvania, my mother was stabbed to death by a burglar in her home. I found her body. She was 73-years-old and a widow. The murder, and the subsequent trial of the man who killed my mother, were really difficult for me to get through. I was my parents’ firstborn son – I have two younger brothers – and my mom and I were close.”

“When I decided to write a murder mystery, I wanted to depict, as honestly and accurately as I could, the reality of what happens when murder claims a human life. I drew on my own experiences in creating the main character of “A Stranger Here Below,” a young Pennsylvania Dutch sheriff named Gideon Stoltz. As a child, Gideon lost his own mother to a murder. That crime remains unsolved, and its memory dogs Gideon as he tries to solve crimes in fictional Colerain County, Pennsylvania, which is modeled on the area where I grew up.”

Fergus said, “The novel’s title, “A Stranger Here Below,” is drawn from a shape-note hymn — a striking and distinctive form of American music that was popular in the early 1800s. Shape-note is still being sung today; I enjoy getting together with folks here in Vermont to sing this stirring old music.”

The reading is free and open to the public; the Athenaeum is handicapped accessible.

Of his newest release, Fergus said, “When people ask why I decided to set a mystery in 1835, I sometimes jokingly tell them it’s because of the old iron furnaces – beautifully built, weathered stone pyramids that are scattered through the part of Pennsylvania where I grew up. Those furnaces are about 50-feet high. They stand along roads and hide away in the woods. In the early 1800s, they yielded great quantities of pig iron. Back then, thousands of acres of Pennsylvania forest was chopped down to make the wood charcoal that fired those furnaces.”

“Seeing those old furnaces made me want to know what life was like back then. I read a lot of nonfiction books about the early 1800s,” said Fergus. “Many historical novels have been set around the time of the American Revolution, and many others take place around or during the Civil War. But the period between those two events is equally fascinating – it was a very rich time in American history.”


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