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 25, 2006

Going Over Old Ground with Mr. Revere and I

In the middle of the last century, author-illustrator Robert Lawson created three novels for kids about the eighteenth century in the voices of animals accompanying famous men: Ben and Me (1939), Mr. Revere and I (1953), and Captain Kidd's Cat (1956). (He also wrote and illustrated I Discover Columbus in 1944.)

The only title of that bunch that I actually bought (or wheedled) for myself as a child is Mr. Revere and I, and hindsight says that was a clue that I'd end up studying the outbreak of the American Revolution in Massachusetts.

Mr. Revere and I has lasted in libraries and bookstores as most other novels for young readers about Revolutionary Massachusetts have faded. The main exception is, of course, Esther Forbes's stirring Johnny Tremain (1943). In fact, as I reread both books in recent years, I realized that my mind had amalgamated some scenes from them, melding Lawson's whipped British soldier with Forbes's executed one.

Forbes researched and wrote a Pulitzer Prize-winning biography, Paul Revere and the World He Lived In, as she wrote Johnny Tremain, so it's no surprise that her novel's research by and large holds up. I can't say the same for Mr. Revere and I, though I know it's foolish to be picky about historical accuracy in a novel narrated by a horse.

Still, I was surprised at how much Lawson shuffled historical events, especially given how well Forbes had sorted them out for him a decade earlier. For example, the novel skips the death of Revere's first wife, Sara, and his remarriage to Rachel Walker in 1773. The 14th Regiment arrives in Boston, presumably in 1768, and then stays straight through 1775; there's a mere mention of the little event called the Boston Massacre, which caused commanders to remove that regiment from the heart of the town in 1770. Chapter 11 begins, "Now Mr. Revere began the slow and difficult task of removing his family to Charlestown" before the war began. In fact, Revere's wife and children were trapped in Boston for a while.

As a storyteller I can see reasons for most of these deviations from the record. In the novel, Revere's big, happy family is a warm contrast to life in the British army. It probably wouldn't seem so warm to 20th-century children if Mother dies halfway through the book and Father remarries less than six months later—as really happened. Removing the family from Boston in early April 1775 allows the equine narrator to carry Mr. Revere out to Lexington, a task actually handled by a horse the silversmith borrowed in Charlestown.

But Lawson's most significant detour from the historical record is...what I'll write about tomorrow.

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