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Culture Watch

In this issue:


Ladies of Liberty by Cokie Roberts has quality gossip. Even at its meanest, it is well-articulated and pertinent. The prose in Patricia Cornwell's The Front moves fast and furiously, rather like the tough-guy, noire novels of the ‘30’s.

The Self-Help Shelf

The First 30 Days and Just Who Will You Be? represent two books we feel review-worthy in the self-help category



The Women Who Shaped Our Nation

by Cokie Roberts, ©2008

Wm. Morrow/Harper Collins, publisher; hardback, 402 pp

How did your high school American History class begin? Were you faced with chanting sing-song the long list of presidents in an effort to memorize them, or asked to read interminably dull tomes that made every participant in America’s formation into either a hero or a villain, both of whom somehow managed to be incredibly boring?

If so, Ladies of Liberty is an antidote that will tickle your fancy, bring history into the realm of real, flawed, very interesting people, and make you incredibly proud to be a part of a country that brings to mind Mr. Shakespeare’s Miranda, when she said, “O brave new world, that has such people in’t.” Only in this case, it would have to be “... that has such women in’t.”

Ms. Roberts narrows her focus to women who influenced our young country between the years of 1800-1825, which is to say the years from the election of the second President, John Adams, through to the election of his son, John Quincy Adams, a period covering five presidents. J.Q. Adams was the sixth man elected to the Presidency, but Roberts does not cover his presidential years. By the end of this book, she doesn’t need to, because we have already become intimately acquainted with him and his wife, Louisa Catherine Adams. That acquaintance is probably stimulating enough to suggest doing some research of your own to fill in the next few years.

Do not think that it’s only the first ladies who are featured in this book, although Roberts’s reportage on Abigail Adams and Dolley Madison (”oh, that unfortunate propensity to taking snuff!”) would be more than enough to recommend it. However, Ms. Roberts delves deep into a staggering amount of correspondence preserved during that period. At the end of the book, there are something like 65 pages of footnotes to attest to her thoroughness.

We meet feminists, reformers, educators, abolitionists, women who started businesses and charitable enterprises, explorers, creators of religious schools (including a Roman Catholic school begun by Mother Seton in Baltimore, and Jewish Synagogue Schools formed by Rebecca Gratz in Philadelphia, both brave and unusual ventures in a country largely Protestant). I particularly loved her descriptions of the Snake Woman, toting her infant son as she led Lewis and Clark into the West. Without Sacagawea, the expedition probably wouldn’t have made it to the Pacific and back. She served as their interpreter. She had unerring knowledge of the tribes and the topography of a vast area of the uncharted country. She even knew how to dig for wild artichokes and to forage for other berries, roots and herbs to supplement the travelers’ diet (i.e. whatever meat they could shoot). And all this when she was at 16 or 17 years of age.

As you might expect in a book devoted to women, there is plenty of gossip about everything under the sun: who is doing what with whom; what someone had the audacity to wear; who gave the world’s most boring speeches, etc. This, however, is quality gossip. Even at its meanest, it is well-articulated and pertinent. Those nineteenth-century ladies were wonderful writers.

One of the most surprising aspects of the stories is the amount of traveling done by these women, in all manner of wagons and buggies and even on horseback, on roads that were little more than bumpy, unmarked trails. It took not hours but days and weeks to get from New England to Washington, let alone from the Ohio Territory or the southern states. But they also crossed the ocean, to France, to England, to Spain, to Russia. When a trans-Atlantic voyage took upwards of two months and ran the risk of storms, warships, and pirates, it must have taken incredible courage for women and sometimes their children, too, to chance the trip. Many made the round trip more than once.

The forty-day journey of Louisa Catherine Adams and her seven-year-old son, through snow and mud and dangerous territory, from St. Petersburg in Russia to a Paris which was then in the grip of chaos, is as hair-raising as any tale in an adventure novel. Talk about a cool head and grace under pressure — well, read it for yourself. Please do.

That is the advice of yr. obed. svt.


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©2008 Julia Sneden for

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