In Bat's alternate universe, the New World was settled by people from the Old World in ancient times. Because of this, classical and medieval customs still exist in the New World, such as lord/liegemen loyalties and an assumption that nearly all men and boys are capable of being attracted to both sexes.
The geography of the Dozen Landsteads is based upon the geography of the Chesapeake Bay region of the State of Maryland, halfway down the Atlantic coast of the United States of America. The history and culture of the Dozen Landsteads is more of a mixed bag: it is partly drawn from the actual history and culture of the Chesapeake region and partly from my own imagination. The Dozen Landsteads is an alternate-universe version of the Chesapeake region: it is what the region might have become if its ranking system, religion, and historical origins had followed the path described in this story.
The "watermen" mentioned in this story are based on the commercial fishermen of the Chesapeake Bay. Still active today, despite sharply declining harvests in the Bay, watermen were the center of a thriving Chesapeake culture in the 1910s. The watermen had a reputation – deserved or otherwise – for lawlessness. The servants' dialect in this story ("honey boy," etc.) is inspired by the modern dialect of watermen, which, as far as I can tell, extends back at least as far as the 1910s.
Emmanuel's reference to cigarettes being "coffin nails" is a phrase taken from Owen Johnson's Lawrenceville School stories, published between 1908 and 1922 and based on his experiences as a student at that American school. Although cigarette smoking was widely regarded in 1910s America as a coming-of-age rite for boys, some of the health dangers of smoking were known by then, so underage smoking was discouraged at Lawrenceville School.
One of the odder moments in my career as a writer of historical speculative fiction came while I was researching this story. I was hunting down online references to a "House of Reformation" for juvenile delinquents that had apparently existed in Southern Maryland during the 1910s, the setting on which I was basing my alternate history story. At a certain point in my hunt, I found myself staring with astonishment at a map of my old school grounds.
I was never a student at the "House of Reformation and Instruction for Colored Children," as it was called in the 1910s. But the school I attended during seventh grade – Cheltenham Center for the Emotionally Disturbed – was located on the campus grounds of the juvenile detention facility formerly known as the House of Reformation. (My school bus drove past armed guards every morning. It was a memorable opening to the school day.)
So at the time I started my research for this story, I was acquainted with the terrain of the former reform school in Cheltenham, Maryland, as well as the fact that the Cheltenham detention facility had come under criticism. What I did not realize was that criticism of the Cheltenham institution went back to the nineteenth century.
In retrospect, it is easy to see problems with the House of Reformation in the 1910s. Indeed, grand juries who investigated the school in the 1920s and 1930s were often biting in their criticisms. Yet at the time that it first opened its doors, in 1873, the House of Reformation was considered a model for liberal clemency. It provided a merciful alternative to the adult penitentiaries where most juvenile prisoners had hitherto been sent. Drawing upon the radical experiments of a penal colony in France named Mettray, turn-of-the-century reform schools such as the House of Reformation attempted to provide their young inmates with a more normal childhood through the use of "family houses," vocational training, a bit of classroom education, and freedom from prison cells.
I've drawn information on the House of Reformation's management from over five hundred pages of official reports dating from 1874 to 1917, as well as dozens more reports on the school from grand juries and from articles in The Baltimore Sun and The Afro-American. The latter newspaper, which had many harsh words to say about conditions in the school, printed a letter from a former inmate who had attended the school in 1912. (Incidentally, I have no information on whether any of the school's inhabitants chose to share a bed with each other.)
The House of Reformation's administrators and outside observers often provided wildly contrasting accounts of what was taking place in the school. On one subject alone they were in perfect unison: the school was terribly underfunded. While strict punishments and unflagging regimentation were common in turn-of-the-century prisons for inmates of all ages, the special problems that the House of Reformation faced seemed to be due largely to its perpetual lack of decent funding from the government. Some observers at the time suspected that this was due to the school's status as a reformatory for African-American children and youths.
In our world's classical era, service and slavery weren't determined by the color of one's skin. Likewise, service (and, in centuries past, slavery) are not determined by the color of one's skin in Bat's world. Although the surrounding nations are multiethnic and multiracial, the Dozen Landsteads are populated almost entirely by white descendants of that world's version of Britain. In the Dozen Landsteads, where servant status is inherited from one's parents, an equivalent institution to a prison for black children and youths would be a transformatory for servant apprentices and journeymen.
My characters and their society are imaginary. However, the letters by the Superintendent that I've placed at the beginning of chapters in this story, as well as the Superintendent's words of welcome to the newly arrived inmates and his remark about Bat's new suit, are all borrowed (and very lightly edited to fit Bat's world) from reports issued by the House of Reformation. The one exception is the letter to Servant Lucy, which is adapted from a letter reportedly sent by an official of the House of Reformation to the family of a paroled inmate. The committee report by Comrade Carruthers is adapted from reports on the House of Reformation by grand juries and by the Child Welfare League of America. The inscriptions of the three gravestones in the story are based upon the inscriptions of the three remaining gravestones in the school's cemetery. The digging of the tunnel by inmates (with the resulting lack of schooling), the boys who lost their feet to frostbite because of punishment and neglect by the school staff (and then were blamed by a nineteenth-century superintendent for self-inflicting that tragedy), the boy who saved the Administration Building from burning down, the boy who – on a separate occasion – burned down the broom factory, and many other details in my story are taken from real events at the House of Reformation. The buildings and grounds are that of the Cheltenham campus, as far as I've been able to reconstruct them from my memories, from a handful of historical photographs, from a modern aerial map, and from historical maps that don't agree with each other.
(The tree-lined lane that led to the Administration Building is still there. My school bus travelled down it every school-day in 1976, passing one of the last remnants of the reform school's fields. My school was in one of the modern buildings that had replaced the turn-of-the-century family houses. The turn-of-the-century creek became a pond that I and my schoolmates played beside. Frogs had a tendency to hop into our school.)
In the mid-1930s, when American society had changed sufficiently that the House of Reformation's older penal practices were finally recognized as abusive, the superintendent who had run the school for thirty years retired – apparently under pressure – and the State of Maryland took over the school. The school went through a number of name changes, eventually becoming Cheltenham Youth Facility. Its troubles did not end with the state takeover, however; inspections of the detention facility continued to show that conditions there were substandard and frequently dangerous. Officially desegregated in the middle years of the twentieth century, the institution remained eighty percent black in the twenty-first century. As the parents of youths who were housed there began to realize how long the troubles had existed, and how deeply tied those troubles were with Maryland's historical treatment of African-American youths, the parents held protests, petitioning for the institution to be shut down.
After nearly one hundred and fifty years, the former House of Reformation remains open.