J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Fathers and Sons of Liberty

Sons of Liberty is a graphic novel scripted by Iowa history professor Marshall Poe, illustrated by Leland Purvis, and published in Simon & Schuster’s Turning Points series. I heard about it at the beginning of the year, and grabbed a just-published copy when I was in London with my dad this summer.

Unlike most of the graphic novels for classrooms that I discussed during Comics Week last year, Sons of Liberty declares itself as fiction. Using a trim size and black-and-white printing familiar to kids who like manga, this book tracks Revolutionary history through a Boston boy named Nathaniel Smithfield.

We meet Nathaniel as a ten-year-old in 1768 during the riot over the Customs service seizure of John Hancock’s ship Liberty. In fact, the boy fears he may have set off that riot. (Throwing a rock at soldiers can do that.) In 1770, Nathaniel goes to work for Paul Revere, delivering his engravings of the Boston Massacre. Despite living in Boston, he manages to be on Lexington Common on 19 Apr 1775. A year later, the eighteen-year-old carries messages to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia. As the story ends, he appears to be a clerk of that legislature, reading the Declaration of Independence. Nathaniel’s story thus brings us to several turning points in the early American Revolution.

As a fictional comic, Sons of Liberty can do some things that nonfiction can’t. One is to dramatize the political arguments of the time by putting them into the mouths of two related characters, in this case Nathaniel and his father.
This argument between parent and child parallels a common Revolutionary-era metaphor, which has come to dominate how we remember that conflict (as Michael Kammen analyzed in Season of Youth). Americans see the independence movement as our national coming of age, breaking away from the influence of a well-meaning but oppressive mother country. As in most American novels about the period, the hero’s maturing process stands in for the nation’s.

I haven’t found many real examples of father-son conflict like this in Revolutionary Boston. Even more than we do now, children tended to take their political leads from their parents. And the patriarchal ideal probably meant that such arguments, if they occurred, weren’t written down for us to know about.

Eventually Mr. Smithfield comes over to the Patriot side. And if you’ve read Esther Forbes’s Johnny Tremain or Howard Fast’s April Morning, then you know what’s going to happen to Nathaniel and his father at Lexington.

Poe’s choice to put Nathaniel on the scene of half the major political developments of the period makes them even more dramatic. However, it also strains credibility. After a promising start as a rambunctious boy torn between loyalties, the main character turns into a convenient symbol of American youth.

At least Poe didn’t need to find an excuse to make Nathaniel privy to decision-making at the top of the London government as well. These days we generally expect prose novels to stick closely to their protagonists’ points of view, showing us only what those characters can see. But comics, like movies, can shift scenes in an instant with a simple caption, as these panels show.
(In the top two frames of the second page, note how Purvis sketches objects in the background with thinner lines and no dark areas, pushing our attention to the figures in the foreground.)

TOMORROW: How accurate is the history in Sons of Liberty?

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