Thursday, July 1, 2010
Betsy Ross and the Making of America
By the end of the first chapter, I had forgotten about the scathing review and was completely hooked. I literally couldn't put the book down. This was American history as I had never read it before. These were real people and real experiences, not the usual dry recitations of politics and battles and tactics. I never liked American history. I felt it was boring compared to the thousands of years of history of Europe and the Mediterranean. Having been forced in high school to memorize every battle and every general of the Revolutionary War, I subsequently tuned out the following 200 years, learning just enough to pass exams while devoting my spare time to Egyptian pharaohs, Roman emperors and English kings who chopped their wives' heads off. Now that’s history.
It is precisely the "sentimental fiction" that makes this book interesting to the general reader. Rather than a dry overview of the development of the city of Philadelphia, we see it from the point of view of Betsy's great-grandfather, a master carpenter. It's one thing to read about the tactics, such as boycotts, the colonists used to protest what they perceived to be unfair taxation. It's quite another to read about the effects those boycotts had on the local artisans and merchants. The yellow fever epidemics that killed so many residents of Philadelphia are more meaningful when we learn of the various family members lost. Rather than just numbers, they are people that we have come to know. Small details like the families who were split between loyalty to the king and loyalty to the rebellion, illustrates the upheaval caused by this colonial rebellion much better than the usual political analysis commonly found in books on the American Revolution.
The final criticism in the review with which I disagreed was that the author devoted "only" 50 pages out of a total of 362 pages to the last 40 years of Betsy's life, despite the fact that these are the best documented years of her life. I have to admit that after 300 pages, I was pretty much Betsy Ross'ed out. Not only was her life prior to and during the Revolution tumultuous (three husbands and seven daughters), but just trying to keep all the people, many of whom had the same names, straight made my head spin. The author's decision to gloss over the details of the latter part of Betsy Ross' life was a sound one. And, in the best Hollywood tradition, leaves room for a "sequel", a more in depth analysis of her life after the Revolution, to be written by the author or another historian.
After I finished the book, I went back and read the review again. My second reading of the review led me to the conclusion that the problem lay in the intention of the author. The reviewer was critiquing the book from a scholarly point of view whereas it seemed to me that the author intended her book to be read by both scholars and general readers. Scholars are more interested in facts and conclusions supported by facts. Hence the harsh review. General readers like myself do tend to speculate as we read. What was she thinking? How would I have reacted in this situation? We enjoy seeing events through the eyes and emotions of ordinary people like ourselves rather than from the lofty perspective of presidents, kings and generals.