Nonfiction Worth Reading: New England Bound, by Wendy Warren

New England Bound: Slavery and Colonization in Early America

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Most Americans know about slavery on southern plantations, and about New England’s role in achieving abolition. As school kids, most Americans learned about the horrors of plantation slavery, and were taught to take pride in the wisdom and perseverance of  the Northern states as leaders of the abolition movement. What we weren’t taught anything about was the institution of slavery in New England, where many Native Americans and the first Africans were enslaved within a decade of the founding of Plymouth Colony. More than a few studies of this topic have been published in the past decades or so and are gradually making inroads into the public’s awareness of this hidden history.  Wendy Warren’s meticulously researched new book is a welcome addition to the discussion.  Prominent 17th century families such as the Winthrops and the Mathers, and countless ordinary families either owned slaves, trafficked in them, or built their fortunes on the forced labor, deprivation, and pain of several thousand kidnapped individuals.

New England Bound draws upon such primary documents as court records, journals, and runaway slave notices to illustrate the breadth of this system in the context of the Triangle Trade. But more interestingly, the author has interpolated some of the ways in which the lives of those enslaved were impacted by the experience.  For example, Indian captives were locally available but proved to be difficult to manage because, being natives, they had recourse to a network of kin; for this reason, they proved less reliable than Africans, and most Indians  were sold/shipped off to the West Indies. Warren does a particularly effective job of presenting the  psychological effects of being ripped away from one’s family and social network  to an alien environment oceans away. Slave laws prevented the forging of new connections (families, networks of friends)  for these victimized people, whose sense of isolation must have been profound, whether they were island bound or working in a New England farmstead.

Writing in a flowing style, Warren provides much food for thought. She also looks into the earliest anti-slavery tracts, the very first written at the end of the century by none other than Samuel Sewall of Salem Witchcraft fame. Reading this book will forever change the reader’s conception of America’s first hundred years.

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Intriguing Nonfiction: The Hermit in the Garden, by Gordon Campbell

 

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Just this very minute, I stumbled upon an article at Smithsonian.com about the town of Saalfelden, Austria, which has one of the last remaining hermitages in Europe. Recently, the resident hermits left to return to their secular careers, and the town is seeking a new hermit. Among the job requirements is a willingness to live without heat, running water, or electronics of any kind, and to serve a listener to strangers who might want to stop by to confide in someone trustworthy. Applications close in March. Click on the link above to read this intriguing story.

Book review:

Sometimes it really is true that fact is stranger than fiction. You know those little men in the pointy hats that we generally refer to as garden gnomes? They now have a history. You know those classical little “folly” buildings that dot the stately English garden landscape? Well, it turns out that some of these were not strictly decorative.  Gordon Campbell, a Professor of Renaissance Studies at the University of Leicester, has published The Hermit in the Garden: From Imperial Rome to Ornamental Gnome , the first book to describe the phenomenon of the ornamental hermit in Georgian England.

Professor Campbell believes that during the Reformation, the ancient custom of religious persons, sometimes called hermits,  choosing to shut themselves away from the world for constant prayer and meditation came to an end with the dissolution of the great religious houses.   During the 18th century, it became fashionable among the educated and the elite to be “melancholy”, devoting time to the admiration of nature and the study of philosophy. Gradually, some began constructing small rustic cottages, to use as retreats for deep thinking, or, in many cases, to impress visitors with their erudition. It wasn’t long before the wealthy began to  hire men to live in their garden “hermitage”, pretending to be a reclusive but romantic part of the landscape. Although this book is a serious and impressive work of research, Professor Campbell injects threads of humor where appropriate, as when he describes the difficulties inherent in finding men willing to don rough robes, go barefooted, allow their hair, beards, and nails to grow, and, perhaps hardest of all, remain silent, for a period of seven years.

Much of the book is a survey of historic and modern “hermitages” in England, Scotland, France, and parts of Europe, many of which are illustrated. There are numerous extant sites that can still be visited, though they’re no longer inhabited; health regulations prohibit! It ends with some speculation about how the ornamental garden hermit morphed slowly into the ornamental garden gnome, helped along by Disney’s Grumpy, Sleepy, et al.

It’s probably safe to say that there is no  more extensive compilation of information on this topic than The Hermit in the Garden. It’s a valuable addition to the field of garden history, and has much to say, or imply, about Western Civ.

Last summer, I acquired  the perfect little  gnome for my own garden.

Nonfiction Worth Reading: Living in Italy – The Real Deal, by Stef Smulders

Living in Italy: the Real Deal - How to survive the good life

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Italy, one of the world’s most beautiful places, is admired for many things – La Dolce Vita, pasta, wonderful wines, passionate people, and wonderful art. There is one particular institution, however, that is deeply puzzling to most non-Italians – its governmental bureaucracy. In Living in Italy, Stef Smulders relates the story of how he and his husband, Nico, relocated from the Netherlands to Lombardy to start a B&B. The grandfather of books like this is, of course, Peter Mayle’s bestseller A Year in Provence, published in the 70’s, and in 1996, Frances Mayes had similar success with Under the Tuscan Sun. Ex-pat narratives by now form a large genre of their own, and Living in Italy by Stef Smulders is a worthy addition to the category.

In 1998, Stef and his husband Nico moved to Lombardy from their native Netherlands to start a B&B. Being members of a very organized society, they arrived at their new home in Montecalvo with the assumption that the renovation of their new house would proceed efficiently. By the end of their first week, their belief in Murphy’s Law was firmly cemented. Living in Italy is a delightful series of vignettes, written with wry humor and an unpretentious air of befuddlement. How could all these snafus keep happening? It probably takes an Italian to understand. But for a year, Stef and Nico survived within the confines of their kitchen, surrounded by the noise, dirt, and chaos racket being carried out by a crews of artisans whose work ethic is decidedly, shall we say, casual. Forays into the intricacies of obtaining official documents and licenses (coda fiscale) are equally nerve wracking. Read these chapters and you feel as though you’ve personally known estate agent Olito, architectural engineer Cassini, and builder Torti. But Stef also writes engagingly about the local culture, on such topics as wine tasting, using public toilets, cooking lessons, and exploring the hardware store.

All’s well that ends well, and after a harrowing swimming pool installation, Nico and Stef are finally ready open the doors to Villa I Due Patroni. One of the pleasures of reading about their experiences, one that was not available for Provence or Tuscany, is visiting the property’s website to see the results of all their struggles. If I ever travel to Lombardy, that’s where I want to stay.

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Biography: Captive Histories

by Evan Haefeli and Kevin Sweeney

 

haefeli_sweeney_300In 1704, a French and Indian coalition raided the frontier village of Deerfield, Massachusetts, destroying property, killing 50 of the inhabitants, and kidnapping 112. Forced to march in the dead of winter to Canada, many of the captives died along the way. Many survived, however, and later printed narratives of their ordeals. The most famous victims of this raid were members of the Williams family, and much has been written about them in subsequent centuries. In Captive Histories, Sweeney and Haefeli have gathered primary documents pertaining to the Williams survivors and those less famous. The difference in this book is the inclusion of multiple perspectives, including the Abenaki and Mohawk stories that have been passed from generation to generation via oral tradition. Letters, military reports, oral narratives,and memoirs are collated and evaluated in such a way as to compare and contrast the English, French, and Native American points of view, and to assess belief systems, traditions, the the reliability of the evidence. Captive Histories does not read like a historical novel; it is an important and valuable piece of research and socio/political/cultural commentary on one of colonial New England’s most notorious events.

Great Nonfiction:New England Nation, by Bruce C. Daniels

New England Nation: The Country the Puritans Built
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Ever wonder why America always has to “save the world”? Why the town meeting style of government has survived on the local level for 300 years? Why Americans are so intent upon personal independence? Why higher education is so important to us? And what about due process of law?
While world views and social standards have changed drastically since Plymouth was settled, our core values, those that show up time and again in protests, demonstrations, and speeches have remained the same. Historian Bruce Daniels explains how this came to be in his 232 page narrative, a witty, fluent explanation of how the Puritans thought and why they behaved as they did, for good or bad. It’s not always a flattering picture, but it is a comprehensible one. Worth checking out for any reader of American history and sociology.

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Nonfiction Worth Reading: For Adam’s Sake, by Allegra di Bonaventura

Adam Jackson, for whom this book was titled, was a black slave who spent his life working in 17th-early 18th century New London, CT. But Adam’s own story does not begin until the book’s second half. The title’s second part, A Family Saga, is a more apt description of what this book is all about, though the word saga suggests much more drama than can be found here. Allegra Di Bonaventura, a scholar with a legal background, wrote a doctoral dissertation based upon the 47 year long Diary of Joshua Hempstead, an almanac-like account of his daily life in 17th/18th century Connecticut. For more than 30 of those years,Hempstead was Adam’s owner.

As a scholarly study, For Adam’s Sake is outstanding. The research is impeccable, much of it painstakingly extracted and interpreted from New London County Court records. There is a wealth of detail about the families whose activities shaped town development during its first century, with detailed information about the Rogerenes, a religious sect that engendered sharp conflict in the region, the Winthrops, of the ruling class, the Jackson family, part free and part slave, and of course, the Hempsteads. It is the chronicle of the way these factions interacted that forms the focus of most of the narrative. When Adam steps onto the scene midway through, most of the evidence concerning his own experiences is conjectural, based largely upon some 50 or so terse diary entries. Throughout the book, the narrative voice is dispassionate, as befits a study of this sort. Readers in search of a “saga” will not find it here; although there are some rather dry sections, there are also many interesting stories to be found within its pages.

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.