Tagged with " American history"
12 Oct
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Book Review: “The Underground River” by Martha Conway


Reviewed by Bev Scott

The Underground River by Martha ConwayMae Bedloe is the seamstress and all-around support for her more famous cousin Comfort Vertue. In 1838 they are in search of new opportunities in the theatre for Comfort who has booked them on the steamboat Moselle headed to St. Louis. After six days on board the Moselle, it sinks on the Ohio River.

While Comfort is hired to give lectures for an abolitionist, Mae ultimately finds work with a struggling acting troupe that performs on a floating theatre. Mae makes a place for herself with the troupe helping with costumes, ticket sales and other support tasks. As she takes on more assignments, and finds acceptance from members of the troupe, her confidence grows. I enjoyed the character development as Mae moves from a quiet and reserved subordinated cousin to an independent competent young woman taking risks to ferry slave babies to freedom.

The story is engrossing and a “page turner.” What a surprise when Mae boldly steps on stage putting the acting troupe in danger in order to take morally correct but illegal action. I found myself cheering Mae for her boldness and moral commitment at the same time I worried about her survival. The author, Martha Conway provides a well-researched historical context of another divisive time in our history which foreshadows the bitterly fought Civil War a few decades later.

I highly recommend this book.

8 Nov

The Tradition of Thanksgiving

blog by Bev Scott, vintage postcard for thanskgiving

Did you know that Thanksgiving did not become a permanent official national holiday until 1941 when Congress established the fourth Thursday of the month of November as Thanksgiving Day?

Today, Thanksgiving is a most American holiday tradition in which we gather with friends and family to share a sumptuous feast and express our gratitude. Many of us assume Thanksgiving in North America began with the Pilgrims story of Thanksgiving. The roots of our Thanksgiving can be traced back to the ancient traditions of celebrating the bounty of the harvest. I also discovered there were earlier ceremonies by other British colonists and Spanish explorers in North America before the Plymouth celebration of 1621.

Although Thanksgiving in the colonies became a regular event by the middle of the 17th century, the first national Thanksgiving was proclaimed in 1777 by the Continental Congress. The early Presidents continued to proclaim a national day of Thanksgiving but it was not an official holiday. In fact, by the middle of the 19th century Thanksgiving was limited to individual state observances and had evolved from the religious and civil day of commemoration and giving thanks to a family holiday of feasting. President Lincoln was convinced to declare a national holiday in 1863 in an effort to unite the war-torn country. Lincoln’s successors proclaimed a Thanksgiving Day each year until it became a permanent official holiday in 1941.

In researching my family history and writing the story of “Sarah’s Secret,” I have often found myself thinking about life in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries compared to my life today. Since I did not inherit any family traditions of Thanksgiving, my curiosity led me to explore some of the history of one of this favorite of American holiday which combines the ancient traditions of harvest festivals and the religious observances of the Puritans grateful and giving thanks for their survival after a year of sickness and scarcity.

Turkey on a farm, line drawing, blog by Bev Scott

Without any family stories or traditions, I turned to my imagination about how my grandparents might have celebrated Thanksgiving Day. Since it was not a firm national holiday and observed differently by state, my grandparents might not have even celebrated Thanksgiving as struggling homesteaders. Certainly, after my grandfather died leaving my grandmother in dire and impoverished circumstances, her ability to provide an extravagant feast would have been very limited. Yet, the tradition of acknowledging God’s blessings, giving thanks and expressing gratitude would have been important to my grandmother. I imagine that when the President of the United States did declare a day of Thanksgiving, which may or may not have been in November, that she probably commemorated the day. She may have cooked something special, maybe a wild game or fowl caught by my grandfather or her oldest son. I am convinced that she would ensure that she and her family offered a prayer of thanksgiving for the blessings in their lives. Since her birthday was November 24th and often fell on Thanksgiving, I also imagine that she probably ignored or discounted any celebration of her November birthday as too frivolous and extravagant.

This Thanksgiving, I am grateful not only for my comfortable twenty-first century life, but I am also grateful for the opportunity to write about the strong courageous woman who was my grandmother. I will honor her especially since Thanksgiving falls on November 24th this year. I have so much respect for this proud woman who was left a widow and raised her five children while she struggled with illness and poverty.

Thanksgiving Turkey drawing, blog by Bev Scott

Do you have inherited family traditions on Thanksgiving? What do you imagine your grandparents or great-grandparents did to celebrate a day of family feasting or to express gratitude and give thanks in their faith on Thanksgiving Day?

(A previous version of this article was published  in my blog “The Writing Life,” in 2015.)

30 Sep
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Book Review: “The Mind of an American Revolutionary” by Jon Foyt

The Mind of an American RevolutionaryReviewed by Bev Scott

Jon Foyt has written a well-researched and engaging book about the American revolutionary, Robert Morris.  We follow Robert’s life from his youth in Liverpool without a father or mother to his success in ocean commerce and trade connecting the New World to the rest of the world.  He became a trusted leader and influential citizen of Philadelphia during the American Revolution helping to finance the Revolution itself.

This is not an action-packed story of the intrigues and horrors of the Revolutionary War.   Foyt takes a different path than many authors in emphasizing the thoughts, opinions and feelings of the protagonist. Hence, the book is an exploration of the developing mind of Robert Morris as he achieves success, articulates the rationale for the Revolution and struggles with temptations which will increase his wealth or meet his sexual desires.

Early in the book, the author introduces a Major Lowenstein a Hessian Mercenary and doctor sent by his German Landgraf Prince to learn about what goes on in the mind of Revolutionaries.  Through conversations and interviews with Major Lowenstein, we learn about the dreams, beliefs and values of Robert Morris.  Morris articulates his dreams of freedom from the laws of the English Crown which he believes will bring expansive future economic opportunities.  Another character, a barmaid named Betsy, is also used in similar fashion to unearth the thoughts and opinions of Morris.  Although Morris was considered a member of the elite society, he remembered his own origins as an uneducated youth from Liverpool.  He knew that many of the subjects in the Colonies were intelligent and curious yet unable to read and write.  As he engages in conversation with Betsy, the barmaid, he treats her with respect and answers her questions and shares his views of the growing movement for freedom from the King.

Morris’s quick financial mind and his trustworthy reputation enable him to build a prosperous commercial ocean trading business and to marry into the upper class of Philadelphian society.  However, his expanding dreams for the new Republic and his belief in his own ability become contaminated with his own arrogance and greed, leading to his downfall.

Foyt opens the book by introducing us to an established and confident Robert Morris, and brings both Betsy and Major Lowenstein into the scene.  The author’s effort to provide the context for the relationship among these characters and to use them to explore the mind of Robert Morris results in a slower and less engaging start than the book deserves.  The pace picks up when we learn about Robert’s early life and the challenges he encounters when he arrives in the Colonies.  Because of the approach taken by the author to explore the mind of the American Revolutionary, the character of Robert Morris is well developed and engaging.  I was lost in the extensive description of the waterfront seen by the young Robert on his arrival to the New World, but Foyt brings in historical detail and “real” characters from our Revolutionary history which add depth and interest as the story unfolds.

I recommend this book if you love American history and you are intrigued by the development of the thinking, philosophy, and beliefs that led to the Revolution and to our Founding documents and the principles of democracy.

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