Abigail Adams: Witness to a Revolution

This little biography, written by Natalie S. Bober and published in 1998, is well-done. Abigail was addicted to letter-writing, and many of these letters still exist. Bober interweaves the narrative with excerpts from thousands of letters. Yes, Amy, I do think this one has the potential to be a classic… at least among biographies for young readers.

There’s a ton in here worth mentioning, so I’ll satisfy myself only with pointing out a few things which surprised me.

1) Abigail and John were sometimes separated for years at a time. Abigail coped by writing letters. I could see myself doing the same. She sacrificed so much of her own happiness for the good of the country she loved. 

2) Interesting–in those days, extended family really helped raise children in trying situations. Abigail sometimes had to have her kids live with her sister for a few years (for instance, when she went to accompany John to Europe for a few years). Sometimes Abigail raised nieces and nephews, when their parents were too ill, or when a teenage child was being a brat and “needed a new mother” while the real mom took a break. Sometimes she was raising her grandchildren when other grandchildren needed more focus from the parents, or during parental marital  difficulties.

3) Abigail was my kind of feminist. She defended women’s needs for education and showed that women were capable of holding their own in business and politics, but all the while she stoutly affirmed that her most honored responsibility was to her family. To Abigail, saying a woman’s place is in the home is not a prison sentence… it’s more like Spider-Man’s uncle warning that “with great power comes great responsibility”. A mother MUST be educated, because in her hands lie the foundations of her children’s educations–and thus the fate of the world lies in the mother’s hands.

4) Americans really discovered coffee after they dumped the English tea into the Boston Harbor, and had to boycott it. Again, Abigail points out that the revolution could not have happened without the support of the American women. Once America began boycotting British goods, it was the women who had to come up with ways to run their households without British imports. They started to weave their own cloth, make gear own pins, etc.

So yes, great little book. Now I’m motivated to read more about her! 

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Westward Ho! by Charles Kingsley (1855)

This is an historical adventure novel about the Englishman Amyas Leigh during the reign of Elizabeth I, and, my goodness, was it a wild ride. I spent spent the last six months reading this, and I always enjoyed the time I spent spent its pages.

You got to see, quite plainly, what the Elizabethan Anglicans thought of Catholics: traitors to the Queen and enemies of God. I had to roll my eyes at it way too many times, as well as put up with Kingsley’s tendency to ramble, but nevertheless this book is worth your time. I’d say it’s a forgotten classic, even.

There’s certainly adventure and romance. There are characters you want to be, and characters you wish were your friends, and characters you want slap silly. Sometimes, these are the same people. You get cameos from famous historical figures, such as Edmund Spenser, Walter Raleigh and Francis Drake. You get swashbuckling and sea fights. Forbidden romance and undying loyalty. And the lesson that an unquenchable lust for revenge will get you struck down by the Lord (or close enough for government work)!

I must warn you, though, that in searching out an unabridged paper copy, you have to get the Malcolm Day edition or electronic hunt down an antique copy. For some reason modern publishers are hesitant to publish the full 640-page book complete with ramblings and blatant anti-Catholic rants. Thankfully there’s the free unabridged Kindle version, too. 🙂

The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare

I initially had a hard time with this this play. Even by the end, I didn’t find myself rooting for or even liking any of the characters. And yet, I can’t help but feel that it was a worthwhile read.

I found the relations between the Christians and the Jews rather unpalatable. The England of Shakespeare’s day was closed to Jews, and many of the English had never met a Jew; the prevailing myths of the day were that Jews practiced strange rituals, offering Christian flesh to their gods. Strange, yes? Nevertheless, Jews were feared and hated.

This play, though performed first in England, is set in Venice. Our Venetian merchant Antonio has a dear friend Bassanio. Antonio loves him so much that he willingly goes into debt to fund an extravagant venture for Bassanio to woo the rich lady Portia. Unfortunately, he borrows the 3,000 ducats from Shylock, a Jewish moneylender. If Antonio defaults the loan, Shylock will be paid back by a pound of the merchant’s flesh. And, super creepy, Shylock simply can’t wait to rip that pound of flesh out of Antonio’s breast.

Well, Shylock is simply a despicable person. He’s also a Jew. The Christians in the story all seem to blame Shylock’s nastiness on his Jewish status: he’s not a Christian, so of course he’s awful, they say. Even more tragically, Shylock’s own daughter falls into this notion, and shenanigans result there. Furthermore, the Christians, while vilely complaining about the evils of Jewry are guilty of most unChristian behavior towards the poor fellow. You can easily gather why Shylock ended up so nasty after decades of mistreatment at Christian hands.

The whole situation makes me want to tear my hair out and sing Kumbaya.

But, Shakespeare has a way of making you feel Shylock’s pain. Check out these lines:

Hath not a Jew eyes? hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as a Christian is? 

If you prick us, do we not bleed? if you tickle us, do we not laugh? if you poison us, do we not die? and if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?

So yes, this play was a worthy read, even if it drove me bonkers with all the characters mistreating each other so egregiously. Shakespeare is still my favorite playwright of all time.