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April 4, 2014

Book Notes: Author to discuss Revolutionary War novel, set in Salem

Donna Thorland’s first novel, “The Turncoat,” was set in Philadelphia; her new one, “The Rebel Pirate,” takes place primarily in Salem. The action has also moved from land to sea.

But the aim of “Renegades of the Revolution,” the series both these novels belong to, hasn’t changed.

“What I really wanted to do was get people excited about the American Revolution, and write swashbucklers about our own revolution,” Thorland said. “They’ll all be swashbucklers with strong heroines. I think that’s what distinguishes these books.”

Thorland will discuss “The Rebel Pirate” this Sunday at 2 p.m. at the Salem Athenaeum, an event that is open to the public.

Her new book begins when Sarah Ward, the daughter of a pirate, is caught smuggling cargo into Salem Harbor.

“She’s sort of been embroiled in this plot to import French funding for the revolution, and she’s still a loyalist at that point in the story,” Thorland said. “I really wanted to write about a royalist heroine.”

Ward’s divided loyalties are complicated by the feelings she develops for the British naval officer who boards her ship, James Sparhawk.

Thorland previously managed architecture and interpretation at the Peabody Essex Museum, and has also written scripts for television. She draws inspiration for her books from popular sources like the novels of Rafael Sabatini, which include “Captain Blood” and “The Sea Hawk.”

“Those became those Errol Flynn movies,” she said.

“The Scarlet Pimpernel,” a classic novel about romance and daring during the French Revolution, motivated Thorland to find equal excitement in the American Revolution.

“Why should the French have all the fun?” she asked.

But she anchors her tales in meticulous research, samples of which are provided in the bibliographies that accompany her novels.

“I didn’t pin Sarah Ward on any specific Salem personality,” she said. “But there’s a great historian, Joan Druett, who wrote about ‘She Captains, Heroines and Hellions of the Sea.’

“She does have a few Salem ladies from different eras in there. There were some pretty tough cookies.”

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