| Mike Lydick
WILLIAMSBURG — For many people, history can be boring. One local author appears to have found an enticing way to blend history with the excitement and suspense of a good mystery in a series of novels set in Western Massachusetts in the World War I era.
Author Robert McMaster, who grew up in Southbridge and now lives in Williamsburg, is a former teacher at Holyoke Community College. He often took his biology students on hikes in the woods west of the campus. During one hike, McMaster discovered that one of the trails was actually the route of a streetcar line that once ran from Westfield into Holyoke.
“I remember discussing with my students how such an ‘interurban’ streetcar line changed peoples’ lives, allowing them to live out in the country, but work in the city. I recall telling them about my grandfather, who was just such a streetcar ‘commuter’ in Worcester County a century ago,” he said.
Discovering that streetcar line inspired “Trolley Days,” his first book in the series about the Bernard family who live on a farm in Westfield, approximately where Westfield-Barnes Regional Airport is today. They travel by trolley to Westfield or Holyoke for work, shopping, school, and other activities.
The book was so successful that it became the first in what is now the Trolley Day Series. The series follows the lives of teenagers Jack Bernard and Tom Wellington through “good times and bad, hope and despair, love and loss.” Each of his books involves a mystery that the young characters “get mixed up in” and eventually solve.
“The idea of a couple of teenagers becoming amateur sleuths and solving mysteries (a la the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew) fascinated me when I was a boy and I believed it would appeal to young readers who might not otherwise be interested in a historical novel,” explained McMaster.
His fourth and newest book in his series of historical-mystery novels, “Darkest Before Dawn,” sets much of the action in Westfield. Locations in the city include a farm on Southampton Road, Pequot Park (Hampton Ponds State Park today), and a fictious church, St. Agnes Church.
Some scenes also are set in Holyoke — a view of the city’s downtown skyline is the book’s cover illustration. McMaster used old maps of the area, histories of Westfield and Holyoke, and newspaper archives for all his books.
“The chapter set at Pequot Park is an important one to the story, and I spent a lot of time searching old books, maps, and travel guides to learn about the park,” he explained.
“Researching the books has enriched my life, giving me a much deeper understanding of that time in American history,” he said. He’s been especially fascinated by the story of World War I — how it started, how the U.S. became involved, and how it ended — which is the historical backdrop for all four books.
During World War I, McMaster said, there was a lot of suspicion of German Americans. In “Noah’s Raven,” the third book in the series, he crafted a story line about a sabotage plot happening in Holyoke.
He said there were many such plots planned and carried out in the U.S. by German agents between 1915 and 1917, with the Springfield Armory rumored to have been one possible target.
McMaster published his first book, “Trolley Days,” in 2012, when he was 64.
“Much of the book is based on my father’s childhood, so writing it and publishing it was my way of remembering my father and honoring him,” said.
He wrote that book with teen and young adult readers in mind, “but I was surprised to find how many older readers enjoyed it as well, perhaps bringing back memories of their childhoods or their parents.”
His own parents died more than a decade before he published his first book. He dedicated “Trolley Days” to his father, Robert W. McMaster, and his third book, “Noah’s Raven” to his mother, Ellen Stowers McMaster.
“I think they would have been pleased and perhaps even a bit surprised at how much of their childhood recollections I remembered and incorporated into my books.”
At the end of his second novel in the series, “The Dyeing Room,” Jack Bernard purchases an old motorcycle called a “Near-a-Car” and takes his girlfriend Anne Wellington on a ride.
“My father had a Near-a-Car and I remember my mother telling of how she somewhat reluctantly agreed to go for a ride on it. That motorcycle was still in our basement when I was growing up,” he said. “How I wish I had expressed an interest in having it before my father sold it while I was away at college.”
Many of the scenes and story lines in McMaster’s books come directly from his father’s recollections.
“They are so vivid in my memory that those parts practically wrote themselves,” he said.
The mysteries in each book, however, were far more difficult for him to work out.
“You want to draw in your reader with a compelling plot, keep the reader guessing as to how it will end, but give hints along the way without completely giving away the ending,” he explained. McMaster added that “it’s a very fine balance,” and he has the greatest respect for mystery writers who have done this so well.
One local author who was particularly influential to him was Carol Otis Hurst, who lived in Westfield.
“She was a librarian, and wrote many historical novels set in the area,” said McMaster. “I particularly admire one of her books, ‘Through the Locks,’ a novel about Westfield in the days of the Farmington Canal.”
All of his books also deal with the immigrant experience in the United States. The Bernard family in the series, for example, are from Quebec, and faced many challenges in adapting to life in New England.
Once he created the characters in “Trolley Days,” they started to feel like old friends to him — even like family members.
“Writing each subsequent book was like reuniting with those old acquaintances, almost like a family reunion,” he said.
While his books are “a mixture of mystery, adventure, and romance, with a good deal of humor as well,” McMaster also addresses some serious social issues. Among them: xenophobia, prejudice, labor rights, sexual assault and interfaith marriage, as well as political issues of those times, including women’s suffrage, child labor and the prohibition of alcohol.
The historical aspect of the books led McMaster to write teacher’s guides for each one. He provides them free on his website, www.TrolleyDays.net. Several teachers have even used his books with classes at Holyoke Community College, including some English as a second language classes with students who recently arrived in this country.
McMaster doesn’t know how long he will keep writing this series, or if he might continue with the characters into the 1930s, ’40s, and even the ’50s.
“It’s hard to say,” he said. “But I expect anyone who reads ‘Darkest Before Dawn’ will want to know what happens next.”
In the acknowledgements section he provides a hint, but explained that at the moment he’s working on a different project, “but I may just come back to Jack, Anne, Tom, etc., a few years down the road. As I said, they’re like family to me.”