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 30, 2011

Handsome Pictures in a Disappointing Picture Book

Henry Knox: Bookseller, Soldier, Patriot, by Anita Silvey and Wendell Minor, is a picture-book biography published last year.

The back cover shows Henry Knox as he might have looked at age nine, starting his apprenticeship as a bookbinder. In that picture I can perceive the features that Gilbert Stuart painted forty-seven years later, and the cheery, winning personality Knox’s contemporaries described.

All of Minor’s paintings are handsome and evocative. But I can’t recommend the book because the text contains too many errors and exaggerations. Some of those mistakes appear in popular biographies of Knox, such as the notion that the heavy cannon from Fort Ticonderoga were “all the working artillery of the Continental Army.” But others I can’t find any support for.

Most important is the statement that contemporaries called the trek from Ticonderoga with those cannon “Knox’s Folly.” In fact, the idea of hauling guns from Lake Champlain to Cambridge had been around for months before Knox undertook it. Massachusetts’s original orders to Col. Benedict Arnold to take the fort also told him to bring back the cannon inside. Gen. George Washington’s council of war in October 1775 agreed that the army should transport guns from Crown Point. It doesn’t take much away from Henry Knox’s hard work to acknowledge that he wasn’t a lone rebel standing up to a crowd.

There are a lot of other misstatements, large and small. When Henry was nine, it was not “difficult for such a young boy to find full-time work”; hundreds of Boston boys were apprentices by that age. There were not “several thousand British troops” in Boston when Knox came of age in 1771; there were a few hundred stationed on Castle Island. The British military never “surrounded the city” and kept out food; that’s what the provincial military tried to do during the siege.

Gen. Washington arrived in Cambridge not on 14 June 1775, but 2 July. “Randall lineback oxen” are a modern breed; the term does not date from the eighteenth century. A list of “all the major battles of the war” should include Saratoga, Brandywine, Monmouth, Cowpens, and more, not just Washington’s famous triumphs of “Valley Forge, Trenton, Princeton, and Yorktown”—especially since Valley Forge was a winter encampment, not a battle. Gen. Howe was not knighted until after the siege of Boston, and Gen. Ward spelled his name “Artemas.”

I wish I’d had a chance to fact-check this book before it went to the printer. Its basic story of Henry Knox is solid. With a thorough vetting, the text could have matched the quality of the art.

(Review based on advance unbound copy supplied by the publisher.)


fibrowitch said...

It saddens me that a book so poorly researched will be published. I hope you get a chance to speak with the author and point out the historical errors.

Our kids are already sadly uninformed about history, this does not help at all.

Donna Johnson said...

I find this to be very disappointing. It is unfortunate that as our children get older they will learn the truth about history and the misinformation they were given as small children.
Some of us work hard to make sure that Historical Accounts are true before passing on the information to anyone. It would be nice if everyone did that.