By Jill LePore
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf 2013
Genre: Biography, History
267 pages plus appendices and extensive historical notes
Source: Library copy

This is an extraordinary book about an extraordinary woman. Nothing I say can adequately praise it. Still, I will reach for superlatives and expect to support them.

The rhythm of the author’s lines is a kind of perfection not often encountered. “Benjamin Franklin was his father’s youngest son, but he wasn’t his youngest child. Josiah Franklin’s youngest child––the youngest child of the youngest child of the youngest child of the youngest child, for five generations––was a girl.” Often I yearned to read her sentences aloud, not to enable understanding, but to enjoy words and rhythms. I turned the pages with enthusiasm, dived into each new chapter. I couldn’t know enough about Jane.

We are able to know Jane Franklin, Benjamin’s youngest sister, in large part through correspondence. In that time the letter was a favor, an act of goodwill and kindness. We may wonder about the popularity of social media today. Remember this. In Revolutionary times, Jane and her brother wrote frequent letters throughout their long lives, even though the possibility of delivery often seemed unlikely. Many letters were lost and undelivered. The call to talk to each other lived with a strength that is almost unbelievable.

One of the strengths of this book, and one of the reasons I love it so much is the window it opens for us to understand ordinary life in the eighteenth century in early America. Benjamin Franklin left the family home when he was seventeen and his sister was eleven. Though he helped her financially in later years, for much of her life, she lived with hardships of many kinds, including poverty. She cared for children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, made soap, sewed, and took in boarders.

Jill Lepore teaches that history is to a large extent what is kept. What is not kept is lost. From a few letters and scant historical information she brings to life a woman who completely holds our attention and admiration. The author is masterful with details, details that matter.

She gives a sense of what life was like in a cold, crowded, dark, stuffy house at that time. The trades those in this family engaged in contributed to the unhealthy environment. They made soap, sewed, made candles, worked leather, and learned to set type and run a printing press. Often these trades were conducted in the home.

Death carried children and adults away with alarming frequency. Children were born and they died. Those that survived to adulthood in these crowded, less than healthy conditions, died while still young. Some of her children were a great sorrow to Jane, ill of mind and body, lost in time of war. One son remained so mad he needed constant care throughout his long life. Her husband was mostly a worry, ill or in debtor’s prison. Jane Franklin Mecom’s life was often dark in nearly every way.

But for one very important thing. She could read. She practiced reading. She practiced writing. She wrote in her Book of Ages. And in these endeavors, her brother gave her aid. She had time for reading and writing in her later years, but she had always made time for such. Her brother sent her books. She struggled to obtain books for herself. She kept a library in her home.

Book of Ages has received a number of awards and positive reviews. It is one of the most interesting and enjoyable pieces of history I have ever read. I was truly astonished by how this author brought Jane Franklin and her time to life.

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