AbigailPadget-FRONTcoverA new book! Three characters. Spooky Louisiana setting. Blood.

I don’t live in Louisiana, do not teach history, have never been imprisoned and don’t “believe” in vampires. Yet An Unremembered Grave is the story of a history professor, a prisoner and yes, a vampire, in Louisiana. So what was I thinking?

The History Professor

Danni Telfer was abandoned as a toddler and has no history, which may account for her getting a Ph.D. in the subject. But amphitheater classrooms of bored college freshmen aren’t doing it for Danni. When an ill-advised affair with her department chair results in an invitation by the dean to get out of Dodge for a semester, she scrounges an obscure grant to study the history of cotton in Louisiana. Danni has always been “different,” prone to odd experiences no one else seems to share. And now she’s about to find out why.


“History” in my long-ago formal education was an agony of boredom. Kings, wars, names and dates memorized and instantly forgotten. A wasteland of data actually painful to recall. But I hang out with friends now who are History professors, and from just listening to their shop-talk quickly learned that “history” isn’t like that any more. Approached creatively, it’s a vast cache of stories, most of which do not involve kings, battles or specific dates. Had I to do it over again, I might major in History! Thus is born Danni, an alter-ego whose academic skills I admire and envy even as I create them from the distant perspective of the English major.

The Prisoner

Antoine “Monk” Dupre didn’t murder anybody in Opelousas ten years ago. Yet he was convicted and sentenced to life in Louisiana’s infamous maximum security prison at Angola. Monk, in the company of his cat, Bastet, works as head inmate counsel, helping other men struggle toward freedom even though his own case is hopeless. In the prison hobby shop he fashions exquisite wooden cats in the image of the Egyptian deity for which his own cat is named, only joking that his carvings might have magical power. But all that is about to change.


Once a plantation, Angola is an entire town that, as such, appears on no map. It lies imagesat the end of a single, two-lane road in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by wild, snake-infested hills and a treacherous stretch of the Mississippi River. Isolated even now, seething with brutal history and snared in Louisiana’s traditional laissez-faire political corruption, Angola might be seen as the prison exemplar, a fantasy prison embodying all prisons. Except Angola is real. For seventeen years I visited a friend imprisoned there and talked on the phone with him every week. We even wrote and published a short story together. But that’s another whole book, a memoir in progress. For now, Angola belongs to Monk, a desperate man whose life hangs on the skill of a History professor… and a vampire.

The Vampire

sabrewolfThe man, Stephane Grimaud, was born to Basque shepherds near Bayonne, France, before there was France. But Grimaud is no longer a man; Grimaud is a vampire. Staked and buried by a courageous but dying slave during the Civil War, Grimaud has slept beneath the soil of the plantation called Angola for 150 years. When a crew of prisoners grading a golf course for the warden unearths his grave, Grimaud struggles to stand, starving and terrified. He will need help if he is to survive in a world unimagined before he slept. How fortunate that an adept is nearby, one of the mortal humans who see and understand realities beyond the accepted one. Her name is Danni and he knows what she is, but why does she flee from him in terror?


Kids love stories of the occult, witches and vampires, magic and all things outside the quotidian. Most outgrow it. I never did. So it was with fascination that I observed the recent, sudden and unprecedented popularity of vampires in fiction and media. (At this writing there are 10,920 vampire novels listed on Amazon Kindle, most written in the last five years!) What is this about? I dived into the research and came up with a theory. Interest in vampires demonstrably increases during periods of social change. The current time is such a period, a paradigm shift of incomprehensible dimensions, and so of course there are vampires everywhere. But why? Why do people, particularly young adults, crave endless stories of deathless, humanoid beings who drink human blood?

Eureka!  In human blood is encoded the history of the human race. But history is threatened with obliteration by social change, and the blood-coded stories in every individual perish when the individual dies. Vampires cannot die, and so shoulder the task of consuming and preserving human history. The vampire, born of a Balkan folk belief and refined by the minds of many writers, including mine, is a symbol rising from our collective unconscious. Young adults, teetering between the dying world of their parents and grandparents, and the unknown world in which their children will live, are acutely, if unconsciously, aware of the shift. They, and I, long for the vampire, who preserves what we cannot. And so… Grimaud!



strawgirlNEW3I’ve never written about this, the darkest of the Bo Bradley mysteries. I haven’t because anything I can say is likely to anger a few people, but they aren’t likely to read my books anyway so why not?

Strawgirl is on a promotion right now – 99 cents from 8/8 to 8/15. Please tell your friends unless they’re among the few referenced above.

So here’s the upsetting idea from which this book grew – The only difference between psychiatric delusional states and “sanity” is the absence or presence of consensus. If one person thinks something irrational is true, that’s a delusion and a psychiatrist must be called. If many people think something irrational is true, societies will respond as if it is. Witch hunts and McCarthyism are examples, but Strawgirl was spun from much more recent stuff.

I went to work as a child abuse investigator in the late eighties, in the wake of the McMartin Preschool “Satanic/Ritual Child Abuse” madness. And I use the term “madness” deliberately. The case, which involved accusations of satanic child sexual abuse with fantastical elements such as children being flushed down toilets to secret underground tunnels where they were molested in the presence of circus animals and murdered babies, went on for seven years. The McMartin criminal trial was the most expensive in American history but, not surprisingly, resulted in ruined lives but no convictions.

The mass hysteria did result, however, in enormous federal funds pouring into “training programs” which would enable child advocacy professionals to recognize evidence of satanic child abuse. I was one of those professionals and had no choice but to sit through mandated satanic abuse workshops. Really.

In one of these we were told to scour record collections in the homes of clients for

Ozzy Album Cover

Ozzy Album Cover

those by Ozzy Osbourne (heavy metal rock personality), as these were indicative of satanic influences in the home.  That night my teenage son and I  joked about burying album covers in the yard to avoid being arrested as satanists even though he was never into heavy metal and didn’t own a single Ozzie record.

But not everybody was laughing. The mindless hysteria endured well into the nineties, spreading across the country and wrecking hundreds of lives. And there are still individuals and organizations who, in the absence of any evidence whatever, seriously believe in satanic ritual child abuse. This is madness, but because it is espoused by several rather than one, it is not so-labeled. Nobody was or is dragging these individuals and groups off to see the shrink.

So I wrote Strawgirl, in which bipolar child abuse investigator Bo Bradley (who really does live with a psychiatric disorder) must battle the undiagnosed craziness of mass hysteria around satanic/ritual child abuse. Complicating her task is the opportunistic psychologist, Cynthia Ganage, who’s riding the craziness all the way to the bank, and Bo’s own supervisor, who’s determined to use Bo’s psychiatric diagnosis to end her career.

An Extraerrestrial

An Extraterrestrial

I wanted to point out that special interest groups, sometimes called “cults”, are usually harmless and often interesting, so created the “Seekers,” people who believe in or hope to see extraterrestrials. Eva Broussard, a half-Iroquois psychiatrist who studies the Seekers, becomes Bo’s new psychiatrist. And of course Dr. Andrew LaMarche, whose interest in Bo is far from professional, is again at her side despite her unorthodox methods. But without the courage of one homeless man, probably living with schizophrenia, Bo would not have been able to solve this case.

In real life people labeled “mentally ill” carry the stigma of crimes committed by thousands who are perfectly “sane” as well as the highly-publicized few committed by a handful of their number. In Strawgirl, a bipolar social worker, a homeless mentally ill man and a renegade psychiatrist revered by a cult, combat an epidemic of societal madness to protect a child.

It’s a dark novel with unpleasant details presented graphically. The villain is vile, but he isn’t crazy. Bo is sporadically crazy, but she isn’t vile. Both exist in a world distorted by a dangerous mass delusion that has passed, but pockets of which still exist and can flourish again in other forms, at any time.

Cornell historian George Lincoln Burr is often quoted as having said, “… that the Salem witchcraft was the rock on which the theocracy shattered.” If only that were true!





imagesI don’t read reviews of my books because authors aren’t supposed to respond to reviews, ever. Gads, this is hard! Reading them, I’m dying to email the reviewer, saying, “Yes! You got it! You’re brilliant!” or something coolly courteous like, “I think if you check page 117 you’ll see that your comment is egregiously in error.”

But prior to launching a promo (going on now – Child of Silence is 99 cents on Kindle through August 1) I thought it might be a good idea to look at those reviews for some idea about reader reactions to Bo and her rather unusual life. One review really captured my attention.

imagesIt was one of those “bad” 3-star reviews over which authors tear their hair because anything below 4 stars drags the overall ratings down, but it was a “good” review. It was intelligent, thoughtful and articulate, exactly the sort of review I’d love were it not for the star issue on which my livelihood depends. (I loathe the star system, but it seems intractable, a permanent blight.) In it, the reviewer expressed concern that in Child of Silence readers might fail to “…recognize the difference between influences of mental illness and belief founded on faith.”

So now I’m dying to take this clearly intelligent and thoughtful person to lunch so I can say, “Um, there is no difference!” Humans (we don’t know about animals) are wired, some much and some almost not at all, for awareness of the other, the mystical. In some bipolar humans during manic episodes, such awareness can become extreme, but it’s the same awareness.

Bipolar Bo Bradley at times bases her interpretations of events on ancient Celtic imagesimages learned from an Irish grandmother. Bipolar Martin Luther documentably suffered brutal depressions and almost certainly nailed those Ninety-five Theses to the door of All Saint’s Church in Wittenberg on October 31 (Hallowe’en, gotta love that manicky symbolism!), in a full-blown manic episode that would result in Protestantism. Fictional Bo accesses energy from mysticism and saves kids. Non-fictional Martin used his lutheran symbolextreme experience to reform a major religion and inspire the founding of the Lutheran Church, without which we wouldn’t have the music of Bach.

There’s a continuum of experience, reviewer, but no matter what interpretative labels get attached (“mental illness” or “faith”), it’s all interesting, possibly inspiring and ultimately personal. No lines need be drawn.

And I don’t dare read any more reviews!


Child of SilenceAuthors must orchestrate promotional events for books; there is no other option. Thus, Child of Silence will be available on Kindle for 99 cents July 25 – August 1. Please tell reader-friends and anyone else you know who has any connection whatever to psychiatric illnesses, medications, hospitals, doctors or just brilliant theories. Because even though I wrote this series of mysteries with a bipolar sleuth years ago, the issues have not vanished or even diminished.

Now there’s even a TV series (on ABC), Black Box, featuring MV5BNjcyNDI4MjUyOF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNDk5MzI2MTE@._V1_SY317_CR12,0,214,317_AL_an impossibly gorgeous bipolar neuroscientist (Kelly Reilly) who actually has fairly realistic manic episodes. And her wonderful shrink (Vanessa Redgrave) never hits a false note in outlining precisely what her patient must do to control the disorder. (Advice her patient of course fails to follow.) Black Box, like the Bo Bradley mysteries, shines a light on the traditionally hidden realities of psychiatric illness, or at least of the classic bipolar realities, the while providing readers/viewers a cornucopia of fast-paced plots crammed with the sort of unusual information savvy readers love.

I’m certain that Bo, in that nearby slipstream world where fictional people live, records Black Box and happily binge-watches show after show. Between cases, of course.


The Beginning

The Beginning

A few days ago I witnessed a violent confrontation in and above the massive eucalyptus tree in the canyon behind the house. There was much outraged squawking, mid-air collisions and black feathers tumbling loose in the wind. I imagine the dialogue went something like this –

She: What part of NO! don’t you get? I told you already, I need some space, maybe some time at the beach. I’m not doing this again, NO!

(Crashing leaves, he falls but manages an upward swoop and returns)

He: Beach? What, you think you’re a seagull? Take a look in a mirror. Come on, honey, it’s spring and you know what that means.

She: I do. 35 interminable days sitting in a pile of twigs full of smelly egg shells and screaming kids. Been there, done that. I’m going to Mexico, maybe shred papel picano for a trendy new nest decoration or learn to sing corridos.

He: (Leering) Crows don’t sing and you’re not going anywhere. The biological imperative, remember?

She: (Wings threatening, black eyes blazing) Take your biological imperative and…

(Savage swooping and screeching above the eucalyptus, collisions and slashing beaks,  both fly away in opposite directions.)

The Middle

The Middle

At dusk she’s back in the eucalyptus, and from across the canyon he executes an elegant series of calligraphic maneuvers toward her, a black pen writing across lavender sky. In his beak is a succulent grub and a bit of pink ribbon snatched from a neighborhood birthday party. These he offers on the branch at her feet.

She: (Giving in)  Awww…

In the morning their conversation has changed. Both fly back and forth with sticks and twigs and bits of string. They still argue, but the tone is different, the squawks individual and opinionated.

He: I still think the pepper tree would have been better.

She: No, I don’t like the smell and the sap irritates my claws.

On the second day he flies in with what looks like a red cocktail straw.

She: (Loudly) Plastic? I thought we were going green this year. No synthetics!

He shrugs black shoulders and tosses the cocktail straw into the air. It falls and catches on a lower branch of the eucalyptus. They both fly in and out all day, each trailing building material from beaks. They rustle and squawk, heads bobbing with effort, until gradually a dark lump is visible at the top of the eucalyptus. The nest. Both try to sit in it but it isn’t big enough and over and over again one falls out, wings flapping.

On the third day they seem hurried, rushing more and more palm strings, twigs and wooden popsicle sticks into the eucalyptus. They’re making clucking sounds now, and cooing.

He: Pretty nice, huh?

She: I love it. Wonderful view and way too high for the raccoons and cats.

He: So you’re not, you know, upset about Mexico and all that?

She: (Pensively) Some day I’m not going to do this, you know. Some day I’m just going to fly away, learn things, just be me. Don’t you ever want that?

He: Sure, I think about it, but then spring comes and I forget. Spring comes and we have to make more crows. Why fight it?

She: If you don’t know I can’t tell you.

On day four she’s alone in the eucalyptus. She’s silent and still. I can see the flat edge of her tail feathers hanging over the edge of the nest, a black smudge amid purple stems and green leaves.  She can’t leave now. She’s trapped.

The End

The End

From the balcony upstairs, only fifteen yards from the nest, I read to her from murdered Rosario Castellanos’ play, The Eternal Feminine.

“It’s not good enough to imitate

the models proposed for us that are answers to circumstances

other than our own. It isn’t even enough to discover who we are.

We have to invent ourselves.”

I know she tried. Maybe next year…

The Hotel

The Hotel

My sequential gasps of delight at The Grand Budapest Hotel were not shared by my companion, whose gaze often wandered to the nearest EXIT light. “But didn’t you get it?” I insisted as we walked out. “The girl with the book visiting the author’s statue, the three old men in black on the bench, reprised later by the three creepy sisters in black, the crippled shoeshine boy, Serge’s sister with the clubfoot, the doggerel poetry, the greedy, villainous son and that wonderful, huge oil of a black boar at the reading of Madame D’s will?”

“No,” she said.

And that’s when I realized that The Grand Budapest Hotel is a writer’s movie. And probably not just any writer’s, but only those who’ve read so long and so widely among classic popular fiction, children’s tales, comic books, plays and poetry extending back to the Victorian Era as to see the wonderful mash-up of literary tropes that the movie is. I felt compelled to write a guide.

In the opening scene a young woman dressed for the 1940’s and carrying a book enters the ramshackle gates of the “Lutz Cemetery” somewhere in a fictional, lost, middle-European country. Three old men in black sit, staring straight ahead, on a bench. And right away we know that what follows will be magical, mythical. Because, you know, three? The Triple Goddess, the Christian Trinity, the three witches of Macbeth, the three pigs, billy goats gruff, bears and wishes traditionally offered in tales the world over? Three is a dead giveaway; a tale is coming!

The young woman hangs a hotel room key on a bronze bust of a man in round, wire-framed glasses. Other keys adorn the figure, which is labeled merely, “Author.” (It is actually (sort of) a likeness of Stefan Zweig, a world-famous author of the pre-WWII era, which absolutely nobody would know but which is terribly significant.) She sits and opens a book entitled The Grand Budapest Hotel. Ah, the tale will be about a hotel, but not a Hyatt or a Hilton; these are too banal for the symbolic foreshadow already cast over the opening idea. This hotel will mean something far beyond mere hostelry.

Next we see the author in a seeming filmed interview, trying to tell the story behind the book while a child, presumably his son dressed in a sort of military-school tunic, disrupts him by shooting a toy gun. Children are always harassing authors who are trying to work, but the tunic and the toy gun? More foreshadowing. The hotel’s tale will be broken by war.

And at last we arrive at that 19th century literary convention, the Tale Told to a Traveler. The author (Jude Law), suffering from “scribe’s disease” (characterized by a need for solitude familiar to all writers), has taken, in 1968, refuge in the now-derelict hotel that was in the 20’s and 30’s the epitome of gracious accommodation. There he meets (in the hotel’s crumbling baths, probably a subtle tribute to the bisexual ambiguity of the story’s hero) an elderly, lonely man, Zero Moustafa, the faded hotel’s owner. Zero, a lobby-boy in the hotel’s heyday, tells the author the story that will become the book that will become the movie.

Zero, a child-refugee from a fictional war-torn desert country, was the protégé of the hotel’s concierge, M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes). But it is the fussy, elegant, whimsically politic M. Gustave whose character must bear the weight of an era we, and possibly he, can only imagine as a literary conceit. A wealth of literary conceits, actually.

Don’t miss the crippled newsboy, the frequent Dr. Zhivago-esque trains against snowy landscapes, a funicular, singing monks, covert sexual encounters, an empty and eerily-lit museum, several murders, including the signature (and never-solved,

Tilda Swinton as the Dead Madame D

Tilda Swinton as the Dead Madame D

but see if you can catch that single, mysterious shot of a bottle of cyanide) murder of 84-year-old Madame Celine de Villeneuve Desgoffe und Taxis. (“Desgoffe” is the name of a French painter in whose style the movie’s pivotal “Boy with Apple” is painted, and “und Taxis” is the terminal element of an ancient and aristocratic German family’s compound surname, probably chosen just because it sounds so off-the-wall to English speakers.) Enjoy the painstakingly made-in-miniature hotel’s façade and its dramatic interior (shot in an abandoned German department store). But don’t try to trace the provenance of the “romantic” poetry M. Gustave recites at dramatic moments (“If this then be the end…” as he hangs by his fingernails over a bottomless, frozen crevasse). There is no provenance; it’s all just charming nonsense.

But despite the delightful tangle of familiar plotlines and the handsomely classic story-within-a-story-within-a-story, The Grand Hotel Budapest leaves one (or at least left me) with an odd nostalgia, a curious sense of something lost. The obscenely wealthy of my time seem crass and uninteresting. They pretend no standard to which anyone would attain. So despite the facts that I know perfectly well 98% of the population of Europe had no access to grand hotels and within that 98% all women were crushed by patriarchal cultural constraints, it’s still oddly nice to imagine the confection – a world of elegance, the arts, courtesy.

Austrian postage stamp celebrating Stefan Zweig

Austrian postage stamp celebrating Stefan Zweig

For some, maybe there was such a world. Stefan Zweig, on whose novels The Grand Budapest Hotel was vaguely based and whose ghost may be seen in M. Gustave, was such a one. Zweig lived in Vienna a cultured life, writing learned biographies and world-acclaimed novels. Fleeing Hitler, he moved to London, then New York. There in 1941, at a huge PEN fete celebrating his work, thousands of writers in attendance were stunned when he opened his remarks with these words quoted from an NPR interview with Zweig biographer George Prochnik: “I’m here to apologise before you all. I’m here in a state of shame because my language is the language in which the world is being destroyed. My mother tongue, the very words that I speak, are the ones being twisted and perverted by this machine that is undoing humanity.”

Zweig’s world wasn’t the goofball literary buffoonery of the movie, but the writer’s world that lies behind it. That world of art and letters, of depth and subtlety, was annihilated by Nazism. Writer Stefan Zweig, unable to endure the shattering horror born in his own language, committed suicide only months after his speech at the Biltmore Hotel in New York. I would be born two months later, and would remain unaware of Stefan Zweig until two days ago, researching a movie. I hope you’ll see it, and understand the meaning of a young woman with a book, hanging the key to a forgotten hotel on the statue of a bookish author.







Writing “real” book reviews, meant for public consumption, is a dicey business requiring the skills of a world-class diplomat. I write them occasionally, but writing reviews non-diplomatically and from a personal perspective seems like more fun. Here are some favorites from this week.

Karen Shepard

Karen Shepard

The Celestials, Karen Shepard

Wonderful, deftly nuanced historical fiction based on the (real-life) arrival of 75 young Chinese men to work in a shoe factory in North Adams, MA, in 1870. Slightly too much attention to labor unions for my taste, despite the fact that conflicts over cheap Chinese labor were largely responsible for the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, prohibiting the immigration of Chinese citizens to the U.S. until 1943. Still, with a shameless lack of political corrrectness I skimmed those sections in order to hang on to the backbone story, which is intelligently drawn, compelling and shocking in that way that makes you wonder what will happen. (Not to give anything away, but there’s an adulterous, cross-cultural affair that symbolizes an atavistic fear underlying all racial conflict and gives the narrative a zingy urgency.) Main characters and era are so well-developed as to create the illusion that the reader is actually there and privy to the inner lives of both New England Victorians with their innocent, churchy good intentions, and Chinese immigrants whose difficult, wary grasp on survival in what amounts to a senseless, Alice in Wonderland American world, feels real. The author is Chinese American, which may account for the seeming accuracy and depth of that fictional Chinese experience.

Roland Merullo

Roland Merullo

Vatican Waltz, Roland Merullo

Comfortably agnostic, I probably wouldn’t notice if the Catholic Church vanished overnight. Nonetheless, I belong to a Catholic community for the sole reason that I want to support its three legally ordained priests – two married women and a gay man (who jokes that he really wanted to be a nun.) I’ve been waiting for a novel that would explore issues around the ordination of women, and so was eager to read this one, which purports to be about a young woman who feels that she is called to be a Roman Catholic priest. It isn’t. What it is, is an interesting spiritual essay dressed in a novel’s costume that doesn’t fit.

Protagonist Cynthia Piantedosi is a young Catholic woman who lives in a working class Boston community and may qualify as the most boring character in contemporary American fiction except when she’s interpreting spiritual matters. Her theology is quite expansive and lovely if not remotely Catholic or even Christian, so readers may be forgiven for wondering why on earth she wants to become a Roman Catholic priest. A broad hint that the novel isn’t really about women’s ordination may be found in the single sentence dismissing the existence of some 64 women in the U.S. alone who are legally ordained Roman Catholic priests. If interested, see http://www.romancatholicwomenpriests.org/.   Delete the already-weak novel plot, and the first 2/3 of the book could (and possibly should) be republished as a series of thoughtful spiritual impressions suitable for people of all (or no) religious persuasions.

But the final third? Disaster.

(Spoiler Alert) Cynthia goes to Rome with the intention to urge reconsideration of the Church’s obdurate refusal to ordain women. The streets are crawling with nasty Vatican henchmen out to kill her (as may have been the fate of her liberal priest advisor back in Boston), but she is spared because – although women aren’t supposed to be priests (silly girl!), they do have a spiritual calling. Women are called to get pregnant. Aarrgghh! Centuries of feminist struggle obliterated in one awful deus ex machina plot twist that hopelessly reinforces all institutional misogyny.  Cynthia, who has never had sex with anybody, is pregnant. And we’re back to square one.

Jill Lepore

Jill Lepore

Book of Ages;The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin, Jill Lepore

I love this book, love the scholarship, love the footnotes and totally love the rascal intent behind 442 indisputably erudite pages about a woman of whom almost nothing is known and so, one might assume, almost nothing may be said.

Jane Franklin was Benjamin Franklin’s sister, six years his junior and said to have been his favorite sibling in a brood of seventeen. While “Benny” educated himself into history, “Jenny” (Jane) may or may not have been raped, but in any event married at fifteen (when according to Lepore the average age at marriage for women at that time was twenty-four) a worthless, improvident scoundrel named Edward Mecom to whom she bore twelve children, only one of whom survived her.

And that’s basically it. Jane lived in poverty, struggling to take care of her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. A miserable life despite Lepore’s rather twee attempts at romanticizing the experience. But Jane could read and write, and at times exchanged letters with Ben. Almost all of her letters are lost, but Ben carefully preserved his correspondence, including his responses to Jane. It is from Ben’s replies that Lepore constructs approximations of what Jane might have said in the first place, her “opinions.”

But the greater delight in this work, disparaged for some reason by significant reviewers, is to be found in Lepore’s attention to Jane’s milieu. This is history made fascinating, not the toxic litany of kings and wars to which we were all exposed. The houses, the streets and food and slang usages of the time are pulled from obscurity, explained, made enjoyable. Books Jane owned or may have read, printed sermons with which she may have been familiar, newspapers, essays and interesting philosophical debates that were common fare and in which her brother frequently offered his opinions, are included in Lepore’s conversational style. History here is anything but tedious!

Amid the riches in Book of Ages, I will restrain my enthusiasm to only two in the interest of space. The first is the intense interest in writing that flourished then. Standardized spelling was new and its use the mark of an educated person. (I can’t help but compare the social status associated with standardized spelling then, to the social status associated with cell phone texting now, in which standardized spelling has perished.) Books on how to write letters were widely read, with specific models for every conceivable sort of correspondence – mother to unmarried daughter, uncle to recently-apprenticed nephew, etc. There was even a model letter entitled, “A Father to a Daughter in Service, on hearing of her Master’s attempting her Virtue.” As girls usually received no formal education, most who could read and write knew nothing of standardized spelling and used the old method in which words were randomly spelled as they sounded. Thus a convention arose in which women were expected to apologize for their ignorance as a part of every letter they wrote. Jane Franklin doggedly observed the convention.

The other detail destined to capture my personal attention was the “madness” of Jane’s son, also named Benjamin for his famous uncle. Jane’s son was buffeted by a psychiatric illness long before his illness would bear any name other than “lunatick.” There was a hospital, America’s first, founded in the 1750’s with Benjamin Franklin included among its founders. It was in Philadelphia, called Pennsylvania Hospital and offered treatment to those suffering psychiatric illnesses, but only to those who could pay. Ben Franklin’s nephew Ben was never a patient there. Instead, Franklin made arrangements for his nephew to be “confined” in a “house” in Burlington (MA) from which, near Christmas in 1776, during the Battle of Trenton, young Ben escaped. Jane never heard from her son again and thought he was dead, although there is later evidence that he wasn’t. His ultimate fate is unknown. In the eerie way of these things, I’ll be in Burlington for a writer’s conference in July, and will walk the streets of a place I’ve never been, acutely aware of Jane’s son who ran from whatever wretched prison that “house” was, and into oblivion. Thanks to Jill Lepore, somebody will remember. I will.

The author is Professor of History at Harvard, Chair of Harvard’s History and Literature Program, recipient of significant awards and a Pulitzer nominee. Clearly, she’s paid her academic dues, waded through years of grueling graduate study and managed to rise to the top of a system so refinedly brutal that it’s ground countless others to pulp. I like to imagine that with this work she’s finally been able to write in her own voice, a superbly educated, intellectual woman’s voice, and in so doing to reset entirely the rubric for the writing of history.


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