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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Monday, September 14, 2009

A Republican (with a small r) Picture Book

Tricking the Tallyman: The Great Census Shenanigans of 1790 is another recent picture book on how Americans set up the early republic. It was written by Jacqueline Davies of Needham, and illustrated by S. D. Schindler of some far-off city called Philadelphia.

Jackie’s a friend, and I saw the manuscript for this book in a writing group some years ago, so I can’t claim this is an unbiased review. But I liked how Tricking the Tallyman gets to the core of what it means to live in a democracy: the balance of rights and responsibilities.

The story begins as census-taker Phineas Bump rides into the town of Tunbridge. Back in that writing group, I suggested that the story would be more dramatic if we saw the action unfold only through the townspeople’s eyes, with the government agent as an antagonistic stranger we only gradually come to understand. “Remember, he’s The Man!” I said, and Jackie correctly deduced that I’d recently watched Jack Black in School of Rock.

Jackie stuck with her initial approach of introducing us to Phineas Bump first, and eliciting sympathy for him: “he was heartsick, saddle-sore, and down on his luck.” Only after a couple of pages do we meet the Pepper family, who help to simplify the story by speaking for all their neighbors.

The Tunbridge townsfolk suspect Bump has come to take down names for the tax and conscription rolls. Everybody hides except for Mrs. Pepper, who assures the census-taker that she’s a childless widow and the town’s only inhabitant. Bump notes this information skeptically and rides off.

Then the Peppers hear a different rumor: the tallyman has come to count people for their representation in the new Congress. So the more people live in town, the more political clout the region will command. Mrs. Pepper cajoles Bump to return for a new count. And this time all the locals come out to be counted, bringing their dogs, sheep, and pigs dressed up as citizens. (Jackie told me that Cecile Goyette, her editor at Knopf, was eager to make the book as wacky as possible.) Again, Bump does a skeptical count and rides off.

And then the townsfolk realize that their tax bills and their political clout are linked. They can’t have one without the other. Will they be able to bring the tallyman back for a fair count? This being a children’s book, it’s up to one of the town’s younger citizens to find the solution.

S. D. Schindler’s pictures come in an attractive style between realistic and cartoon-style. Tunbridge probably looks more primitive than even a small, remote farming town in 1790 would have looked—no one there seems to have any house paint. I count three bearded men, which is three more than would likely be found in such a town in 1790. The women wear their hair loose under caps while portraits from the decade show that most pinned their hair back, with perhaps a lock or two draped across the shoulder. Nonetheless, I give Schindler points for definitely trying to depict the early republic and not some vague image of “historical.”

Were there really “Great Census Shenanigans” in 1790? American householders were used to being counted by local officials for their taxes and their militia service; I’ve cited the 1765 census of Massachusetts a few times. But the idea of enumerating all citizens to figure out fair representation was indeed fairly new.

TOMORROW: How Massachusetts’s eighteenth-century constitutions determined representation.

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