Historical Fiction: The Clever Mill Horse, by Jodi Lew-Smith

The Clever Mill Horse (CMH, #1)

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In the 1700’s, most Americans relied upon linen for their everyday textile needs; cotton had to be imported and was costly enough to be considered a luxury fabric. By 1830, however, the invention of an efficient cotton gin and the emergence of Southern cotton plantations led to a reversal in that state of affairs. But what if an efficient flax gin had been invented first?

Jodi Lew-Smith has written a historical coming-of-age tale built around that question, set in the first decade of the nineteenth century. Ella Kenyon is an unusual young woman, one who feels more at home in the woods than the town. Her beloved grandfather, a blacksmith by trade, has helped her develop an unusual talent for engineering, and together they design a machine that can extract linen fibers from the plant. When her grandfather dies suddenly, Ella is determined to perfect and patent their flax gin. The Clever Mill Horse is the tale of her struggle to achieve that goal. On her long journey to Washington City, she must face countless obstacles, among them forest fires, horse thieves, accidents and illness, and unscrupulous lawyers. Before her journey ends, Ella will discover the truth about who she really is and why.

Ms. Lew-Smith fills her story with vibrant characters, vivid descriptions, and realistic dialog, She is skilled at evoking a sense of time and place. Does Ella achieve her mission? Yes and no. Now that so many things in her young life have changed, in what direction will she head?

This book, the first in a promised series, is suitable for adults and young adults alike.

Monday Morning Poem: The Pumpkin

excerpt from The Pumpkin, by John  Greenleaf Whittier

Ah! on Thanksgiving day, when from East and from West,
From North and from South comes the pilgrim and guest;
When the gray-haired New Englander sees round his board
The old broken links of affection restored;
When the care-wearied man seeks his mother once more,
And the worn matron smiles where the girl smiled before;
What moistens the lip and what brightens the eye,
What calls back the past, like the rich Pumpkin pie?

It’s a Mystery: A Death in the Small Hours, by Charles Finch

In this sixth entry in the Charles Lenox series, many changes have occurred in his life. For one thing, Charles is now a member of the House of Commons, and finds himself flooded with the demands of his new position. Perhaps more importantly, he and wife Lady Jane are now the parents of Sophie, with whom Charles is charmingly besotted. When chosen to give the opening speech to the Parliament, he decides that this great honor deserves his full attention, and to escape the distractions of London, he takes his family to visit his uncle, who lives in the countryside. But the quiet village of Plumbley will soon besiege Charles with distractions of a different sort, of the type that lead to murder.

Death in the Small Hours is a very mannerly novel, rich with the conventions of upper class Victorian society. The mystery itself is tightly constructed and multi -layered, and Charles is delighted to have the chance to flex his investigative muscles once more.There are plenty of suspects, but little hard evidence, and it isn’t until his uncle is kidnapped that the various threads start to come together in a surprising fashion.

Charles himself is somewhat prissy, in a Poirot-ish sort of way, and Lady Jane is a model Victorian wife and mother. All of the characters, in fact, could have been invented by Agatha Christy herself, such typically English types are they. As a result, the story comes across more as drawing room performance than sharp edged suspense.

Nonfiction Review: Stones and Bones of New England, by Lisa Rogak

The subtitle of this book is “A Guide to Unusual, Historic, and Otherwise Notable Cemeteries”, but I’ve found it to be a series of one to two page vignettes about 95 cemeteries in the six New England states. The author has selected what she found to be the most interesting tombstone in each graveyard, adding one or two more if she found them remarkable. A photo accompanies each of the locations.

The back cover describes Stones and Bones as a guide that provides all the tools that you need to explore on your own. If you like to drop into old cemeteries and putter around a bit, I suppose that’s true. For those with a deeper interest in funeral and burial practices, gravestonimagee iconography, and epitaphs, there is little here to hold that interest. Included is some limited but useful information on almshouse burials, some brief description of the headstones of a few famous individuals, and dashes of humor. The photos, though black and white, are sharp and clear. It also identifies the oldest legible gravestone in CT (1644, Windsor.) My favorite chapter was the final one, entitled Ben & Jerry’s Flavor Graveyard, where retired ice cream flavors are commemorated with hokey epitaphs and images of winged ice cream cones apparently ready to fly to ice cream heaven. Who knew?!

Recommended for the most casual of cemetery visitors.

Lorenzo Dow Raises the Devil

Quoted from Legendary Connecticut by David E. Phillips

Once there was this crazy preacher named Lorenzo Dow who was travelling in the northern part of Vermont, when he got caught in a terrible snowstorm. He managed to make his way to the only light he could see. After repeated knocking at the door of the humble log house, a woman opened it. He asked if he could stay the night. She told Dow her husband was not home and she could not take in a stranger. But he pleaded with her and she reluctantly let him in. He immediately went to bed, without removing his clothing, in a corner of the room separated from the main living quarters only by a rude partition with many cracks in it.

After he had slept for just a short time, the preacher was awakened by the sounds of giggling and whispering from the main room. Peering through a crack in the partition, he saw that his hostess was entertaining a man not her husband! No sooner had he taken this in, when Dow heard a man’s drunken voice shouting and cursing outside the front door, and demanding to be let in. Before admitting her husband (for it was he, returned unexpectedly), the wife motioned her lover to hide in the barrel of tow, a coarse flax ready for spinning, beside the fireplace. Once inside, the suspicious husband quickly sensed that his wife had not been alone, and demanded to know who else was in the house. When the quick-witted wife told him about the Rev. Dow, sleeping in the corner, he was not satisfied. After all, he was not so drunk that he would take his wife’s word for the identity of the houseguest.

“Well, now,” roared the husband, “I hear tell that parson Dow can raise the devil. I think I’d like to see him do it — right here and now.” Before the devil could shut up her boisterous husband, he had pulled the famous preacher from his bed, where he had pretended to be sound asleep. “Rev’rend,” he bellowed, “I want you to raise the devil. I won’t take ‘no’ for an answer.” Seeing that he would have to perform, Lorenzo finally said, “Well, if you insist, I will do it, but when he comes, it will be in a flaming fire. You must open the door wide so he will have plenty of room.” The husband opened the door. Then, taking a burning coal from the fire with the tongs, Dow dropped it into the tow cask. Instantly the oily contents burst into flame. Howling in pain from the fire which engulfed him, the flaming figure of the man hidden in the barrel leaped out onto the floor and, just as quickly, darted out the open door, trailing ashes and smoke. He ran down the snowy road as if pursued by demons. It is said that the sight of all this not only sobered the drunken husband immediately, but permanently cured his taste for booze. And that was certainly one of the Rev. Dow’s major miracles!

Crazy Lorenzo Dow: American original

During the 19th century, many an American mother named her new baby boy Lorenzo Dow, after a flamboyant preacher from Connecticut. The namesake of all these sons was born in Coventry in 1777, where he spent his youth much tormented by religious uncertainties. At the age of 21, he joined the Methodists, against the wishes of his father, and became a circuit preacher. The following year, Lorenzo traveled to Ireland as a missionary, and introduced to England the camp meeting system of the movement known as the Second Great Awakening.

Over the next 30 years, Lorenzo visited nearly all parts of the US, accompanied by his wife Peggy, and later, Sally. He quickly became famous for his eccentric dress and manner, and his sermons were always attended by great crowds (at times as many as 10,000), assembled in town halls, barns and open fields. He liked to appear in a town unexpectedly and announce that in exactly one year,

he would return to preach, and he always did. Skinny and unbathed, (lucky Mrs Dow) his long hair and beard were described as never having met a comb. He owned only one suit of clothing, and relied upon his listeners to replace pieces as they became too tattered. He carried nothing but a box of Bibles to give away. An ardent abolitionist, he was often run out of town.

Not surprisingly, there arose many stories about Lorenzo and his foibles and talents. Several are reproduced in the following posts.

Lorenzo Dow died in Georgetown, D.C. in 1834, having touched the lives of more Americans than any other man of his day.

dow

Sheep in Folktales: Mary Had a Little Lamb

Perhaps the most famous four line rhyme in the English language, Mary Had a Little Lamb is based upon and incident in the life of one Mary Sawyer, who grew up in Sterling, MA. But that is about all authorities can agree upon when attributing authorship to the verse.

Two New England towns claim bragging rights to the children’s poem . Years ago, the town of Sterling, Mass. erected a statue of a lamb to celebrate the birthplace of Mary Sawyer. In 1815, young Mary was followed to Sterling’s schoolhouse by her pet lamb. Her classmate, John Roulston, wrote the poem. In other versions, Roulston is described as a visiting Harvard student. It is said by some that Mary knitted some of her lamb’s wool into mittens and stockings that she sold to benefit Civil War soldiers, or alternately, to help save the Old South Meeting House in Boston.

Newport, New Hampshire, claims that the poem was actually written by their local poet Sarah Josepha Hale, and that she invented the lamb at school incident herself. Hale is honored in Newport with a simple plaque. In fact, Sarah Hale was the first to publish the poem in a book called Poems for Our Children, in 1830. Sterling maintains that the first three stanzas of Roulston’s poem were incorporated by Hale into her own verse.

There is a different theory, that the rhyme was written by an anonymous. Harvard student. Still others, (probably not haling from either Massachusetts or New Hampshire), contend that the rhyme predates Mary Sawyer, and originated in old England as a sort of religious parable. Mary, the mother of Jesus, had a little lamb (Jesus, of course) whose fleece was snow white (Jesus was without sin). The Jesus -Lamb is sure to go with his believers wherever they go.

As for the Sterling schoolhouse, it was purchased by Henry Ford and moved to The Wayside Inn in Sudbury, Mass; it’s authenticity as the very schoolhouse immortalized in the poem may be wishful thinking, however, as by that time it had been much modified and was serving as a barn. Mary Sawyer became Mrs. Tyler, worked as a schoolteacher and as a matron in a retreat for the insane, and died in 1889. She is buried at Mt. Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Mass. The house where she was born still stands in Sterling (as of 2003).