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February 21, 2013

Author helps readers connect with the Revolution

Eerie Evenings, a Halloween event that used to be held at the Peabody Essex Museum, was so popular that people would scalp their tickets.

“It was crazy, they used to get 10,000 people over six nights,” said Donna Thorland, a Salem resident who managed architecture and interpretation at the museum from 1996 to 2003.

Part of her job at PEM was “translating curator into English” in gallery guides and wall labels that explained exhibits, but she also wrote the ghost stories that made Eerie Evenings such a big draw.

“My boss suggested I go to film school,” Thorland said.

She already had degrees in classics and art history from Yale, but Thorland took her boss’s advice and attended the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts, which led to script-writing jobs for television shows such as “Cupid” on ABC and “Tron: Uprising” for Disney XD.

But she also applied her storytelling skills to write her first novel, “The Turncoat,” which will be published March 5 by New American Library.

Set in Philadelphia during the American Revolution, “Turncoat” follows a female spy for the Continental Army who must balance her dedication to the colonists’ cause with her Quaker values and her romantic feelings for an enemy officer.

The heroine, Kate Gray, is based on a historical figure, Lydia Barrington Darragh, who in 1777 overheard a British officer discussing plans for an ambush on Washington’s forces at Whitemarsh, Pa.

“It’s a fascinating story, because her daughter told her story, how she walked 12 miles in freezing weather to warn Washington’s army,” Thorland said. “But historians in the 19th century said, there’s no way a woman can do this. Then a British officer’s diary surfaced in 1909 confirming her story.”

Paying tribute to women in the revolution sets the record straight, but also gives some spark to this period in American history, which is missing from many accounts, Thorland said.

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