JACKSONVILLE (AP) – The gnarled towering oaks, the ring of the remnants of 32 slave cabins and the white home of Zephaniah Kingsley still stand near the St. Johns River in Jacksonville's far northern corner.
At one time, it was a thriving plantation tended by 60 slaves growing sea island cotton, corn, citrus and sugar cane. Built in 1798, the house is the oldest planter's residence standing in Florida.
Now Kingsley's wife and former slave, Ana Jai Kingsley, and her children are the main characters in a children's historical fiction novel by local writer M.C. Finotti.
The Treasure of Amelia Island focuses on a time almost 200 years ago when the Spanish still controlled Florida, slaves and plantations were a way of life, and statehood was decades away.
The story is told through the eyes of 11-year-old Mary Kingsley, one of the family's four children. Historical facts and characters are woven through the novel.
It deals with raids by American patriot forces wanting Florida's lush land and a decision by Ana Kingsley to burn her home and plantation on the St. Johns River near Mandarin and flee by boat to Fort George Island.
But occupying the attention of the Kingsley children were rumors of a pirate's treasure buried under an oak tree on Amelia Island.
The novel is the first for Finotti, a 51-year-old former TV reporter and high school teacher. The area's intriguing history and the engaging story of the Kingsley family prompted her to write the novel.
The short book is written for mid-level readers, those in the third through eighth grade.
Finotti has been interested in the Kingsleys for years, especially Ana Jai. Kidnapped in Senegal, she was purchased at age 13 in Havana by Kingsley and became his common-law wife.
“She had to be a smart person” as she helped with his business, Finotti said “He traveled a lot and she ran things at home. This woman who was once a slave became a slave trader.”
One of the book's most compelling stories is pure fiction, however. It deals with George Kingsley, Mary's older brother, being attacked by an alligator as they hunted for the buried treasure by moonlight.
The Treasure of Amelia Island, $14.95, is one of a series of children's historical fiction novels being published by Pineapple Press, a family-owned publisher in Sarasota, said executive editor Jane Cussen. It contains a reader's guide and a series of questions and projects for students interested in the subject.
Although Finotti has written some nonfiction and writes a weekly feature story on brides in The Florida Times-Union, she has “wanted to write children's books since I was young. I enjoy it.”
She is drawing praise from her publisher and readers.
“Her style is particularly engaging. She is really a talented writer,” Cussen said.
KC Smith, heritage coordinator at the Museum of Florida History in Tallahassee, called the book “engaging.”
Smith said history, social studies and geography have been pushed aside by teachers because they are not among the subjects on the Florida
Comprehensive Assessment Test, but she believes reading about history will help with the test.
“In fiction, you can do the impossible. There was a treasure. The impossible can happen in fiction based on real events.”
Kelsey Strange, a 10-year-old fourth grader from Jacksonville Beach Elementary school, initially had misgivings about the book, but changed her mind as she got into it.
“I thought it would be boring. Then I started liking it a lot. It was really cool,” she said. “I couldn't put it down. I liked the characters. They were actually pretty funny.”
She later visited the Kingsley plantation.
The children never found the pirate's treasure described to them by Gullah Jack, a runaway slave from Georgia.
“In the end, Amelia Island finally gave us a treasure. It just wasn't what we expected to find. The treasure though, proved far more valuable than we ever dreamed of digging up,” Finotti wrote.
ON THE NET:
Kingsley Plantation: www.nps.gov/timu/indepth/kingsley/kingsley_home.htm