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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Thursday, June 17, 2010

Retracing John Greenwood’s Journey

Yesterday, just in time for today’s anniversary, I received a complimentary copy of John Greenwood’s Journey to Bunker Hill, written by Marty Rhodes Figley, illustrated by Craig Orback, and published by Lerner for classroom use.

John Greenwood is one of Boston 1775’s favorite veterans of the Revolution. As a boy he was close friends with Samuel Maverick, a victim in the Boston Massacre. At fifteen he enlisted as a fifer in the army outside Boston. He remained a soldier for years, then spent time on a privateer and in prison. As an adult, he was George Washington’s dentist. And he left a first-person memoir that’s actually fun to read.

Figley adapted the part of that memoir that starts with young John’s decision to run away from his uncle in Maine and head to Boston, where the war has just broken out, to make sure his parents are safe. The book ends with John’s mother leaving him to go back into occupied Boston. In between, there’s a little thing called the Battle of Bunker Hill.

John Greenwood’s Journey looks like a traditional picture book, with Orback’s color illustrations filling two-page spreads. Its text is longer than most of what’s in bookstores these days, but it’s a different sort of book. Lerner Classroom published this volume for teachers to use in “Reader’s Theater,” which is a technique I don’t remember from my own elementary school but have heard a lot about in the last few years. Twelve pages of the paperback repeat the story in script form for a class to read aloud.

The narrative carefully follows John Greenwood’s account of those months, with one deviation that I’ll discuss another day. Greenwood’s first-person memoir becomes a third-person omniscient narrator, so some details that might reflect his perceptions or wishful memories are stated as fact. Then again, Greenwood’s story is refreshingly open about his emotions, so the text can show us his ups and downs without adding to the record.

The one page spread that tripped me up shows the fight at Lexington. Roback’s picture of troops shooting in front of the meeting-house is clearly inspired by images that go back to the Amos Doolittle prints of 1775. But it shows two fallen British soldiers, though the regulars took minimal casualties that morning.

The text on that same page spread says:

Militiamen came from near and far. They chased the British soldiers all the way back to Boston. The British government was furious. Soon thousands of British soldiers poured into Boston to keep the colonists under control.
The British government was indeed furious about what happened on 19 Apr 1775, but they didn’t learn that news until the end of May. Thousands of British soldiers did indeed arrive in Boston between the start of the war and the Battle of Bunker Hill, but the London government had sent them off weeks earlier. Those sentences strike me as implying that the London government sent troops in furious response to the Battle of Lexington and Concord, but the tough part about managing an empire in the 1700s is that nothing was ever that quick.

If I were directing this reader’s theater, I might change the last two sentences to: “But there were many more British soldiers in Boston, and thousands more on the way. The British government was determined to keep the colonists under control.” Then again, I wouldn’t relish that challenge of explaining to a second-grader why I’d deviated from a printed text.

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