Tag Archives: history

AN EXTRAORDINARY LIFE LIVED LONG AGO

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BOOK OF AGES: THE LIFE AND OPINIONS OF JANE FRANKLIN
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.


STOP, LISTEN, SAY THANK YOU

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MORE STORIES: STRENGTH WITHOUT COMPROMISE by Teri P. Gay

There are stories that seem to demand that we stop, listen and say thank you.

There is a story in my family that tells of my great-grandmother, who when presented with a petition in the early years of the Twentieth Century supporting a woman’s right to vote, said, “Indeed! I will sign yes to that.” (They Came To North Tama by Janette Stevenson Murray p. 238.) She rose from her sick bed to attend to that task. It was one of her last acts, and in many ways a symbol of the courageous life she led.

In the nineteenth century Scotch community in Iowa that is the setting for my novel, women were often involved in business: making cheese and partnered in family enterprises. Some women attended high school in nearby cities, and even college such as Grinnell or Coe, located within a hundred miles of their home. We know that at least some among them were interested in community issues such as a woman’s right to vote.

I love to read about women who took the lead in past times in shaping our society. Then, and now, courage is required to work for social change. I’m especially interested in women who did this in rural settings.

Whether I am visiting in Arizona, Minnesota, or New York, I am likely to find interesting local history, and often some of it has to do with women’s efforts to support issues they felt important to their quality of life such as the right to vote. Rather than viewing these turn-of-the-century women as similar to the 1960’s female revolutionaries, we might see them as more interdependent and cooperative with their community. But there is little doubt that for many, voting rights for women was an issue dear to their hearts.

On a recent trip to New York, my friend gave me a book that examines women’s work in the 1890’s in this context. The book is titled Strength Without Compromise: Womanly Influence and Political Identity in Turn-of-the-Twentieth Century Rural Upstate New York. The author is Teri P. Gay. The book is available through www.amazon.com and at www.terigay.com. In this book the author tells the interesting story of the Easton Political Equality Club.

The women of that group were willing to address equal rights and women’s suffrage. Many women’s lives at that time were centered on home, family, marriage and motherhood, but politics, education and business were important to them, too. They combined these different elements of their lives in cooperative endeavors focused on creating a better life for themselves and their families. The women of tiny Easton used their bonds and their community to effectively influence for the rights of women. Whether producing plays, presenting speakers, making ice cream or decorating floats for parades, their collective actions made a difference. I’m grateful they persisted and today we take women voting as the norm. It is a right and responsibility all citizens of our country enjoy.

A post connected to this one can found on the Writing Page, “Where Do Stories Come From?” Most of us have family stories about our parents, grandparents and great-grandparents stepping up to take actions that influenced our present. This is an appropriate month to take a moment to say thank you.

Send us your stories. Say thank you to those who went before you.