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, September 29, 2009

Gender, Class, and the Road to Revolution!

I’m doubling back to Road to Revolution!, the new graphic novel about the outbreak of the Revolutionary War in Massachusetts by Stan Mack and Susan Champlin. Like any other historical fiction for a popular audience, this book reflects today’s values as much as, or even more than, the values of the time it depicts. That may be necessary for connecting with young readers (and their teachers and parents), but it makes the past seem less of a foreign country.

One of the biggest challenges in children’s historical fiction today is depicting how circumscribed the lives of women and girls were. These days we expect novels to treat gender-based limits on behavior or opportunities as problems to be solved. I happen to agree that they’re problems to be solved, but an accurate depiction of past society would portray those limits as firmly in place and widely accepted, by women as well as men.

As a result, there are far more spunky and rebellious girls in historical fiction than there were in history. Penny in Road to Revolution! fits that model. The book has a running joke that whenever she bumps into Nick, she finds her skirt getting muddy. She’s annoyed about that, but that doesn’t mean she’s happy with the clothing everyone expects her to wear. When Penny rips up her petticoat so Paul Revere can muffle his oars on 18 Apr 1775, she says, “I hate wearing it anyway.” Penny even ends up dressing as a boy in order to sneak out of Boston. I’m not totally convinced she has to, but the episode provides both comedy and drama, and gets her out of her limited role. (The driver in those panels, by the way, is William Dawes.)

Another knotty issue is class. Road to Revolution! depicts the political conflict in Boston as between snooty rich Tories and salt-of-the-earth Patriots. A key to “Main Characters” at the start of the book shows “Tories” as a well-dressed couple, and within the story they appear even worse.

Now there was a snootiness to Loyalist political thinking. Supporters of the royal government distrusted the more democratic politics of their opponents, in large part because they kept losing. But not all Loyalists were both rich and rude.

What’s more, many prominent Patriots were just as rich and upper-class. In this book we meet Samuel Adams, described as a “rumpled old goat,” with no hint that he was a gentleman with a master’s from Harvard. Dr. Joseph Warren is introduced as a “dandy,” but we spend more time with craftsmen like Dawes, Revere, and Penny’s tavernkeeper father.

In contrast, we never see rich Patriot merchants like John Hancock, James Bowdoin, and Thomas Cushing. We meet Gen. George Washington, but don’t learn that through a happy marriage he managed one of the biggest slave-labor plantations in Virginia—talk about upper-class!

As the book begins, Nick is at the very bottom of Boston society: he’s an orphaned pickpocket, a “nameless street urchin.” I haven’t found much hint of such boys in Boston at the time. The town wasn’t London, with its million inhabitants; there were only 16,000 Bostonians, hemmed in on almost every side by water. It would be hard for an urchin to hide from the authorities.

And the town authorities, specifically the Overseers of the Poor, had the job of finding masters for orphaned boys like Nick. Furthermore, unlike England, America had a labor shortage. Farmers, ship’s captains, shipyard owners, and other businessmen would have been happy to sign on a healthy young laborer like Nick. And realistically, he would have seen such a place as much less risky than picking pockets, which is really a profession of last resort.

But for plot purposes, it helps to make Nick a free agent, living on his own and by his wits. And I suspect that also makes him a more sympathetic, romantic character for today’s readers.

Late in the book, Nick becomes an assistant to Dr. John Warren, and near the end a caption tells us he’ll serve as “a doctor in the Battle of Long Island.” This reflects a modern notion of class mobility that would have surprised Americans in 1775. It might have been less surprising to Americans of 1785, I admit, but that society still had a much wider divide between the genteel and working classes than we’re comfortable with.

In the late 1700s, doctors put more weight on knowing Latin than on washing your hands before surgery. Medicine was becoming even more professionalized; doctors formed associations, including the Massachusetts Medical Society, to establish high standards for new entrants. Nick, having grown up on Boston’s streets, might have been able to become a barber who did some surgery for poor people on the side. But a doctor? That reflects our modern values—which, again, I happen to believe in.

1 comment:

J. L. Bell said...

On the topic of connecting with today’s readers through today’s values, I quote from School Library Journal’s review of Road to Revolution!: “One of the book’s strengths lies in the inclusion of a strong female character, and the story often comments on the limited roles available to women at the time.”