Friday, December 17, 2010

Like being a fly on the wall

All too often I think great historical figures such as the American Founding Fathers come across as distant and maybe even almost god-like in their achievements. The accomplishments for which we rightly honor them today can make them seem cold and unapproachable. And I wonder if this turns a lot of people off from learning about history, which would be a shame because once you discover how fascinating it is you want to read more.

First Family: Abigail and John AdamsOne writer who breaks this mold is Joseph Ellis, who has an amazing talent for introducing readers to the great figures of the American Revolution. He makes you feel as though you've lived in their homes, eaten family dinners with them, and become close friends. And perhaps none of his books do that so well as First Family: Abigail and John Adams.

In contrast to the reserved and aloof George and Martha Washington (who actually cultivated that air of distance), John and Abigail Adams left a small mountain of correspondence that bridge not only the time they spent apart but an ocean as well. In their frequent and highly personal letters we get a narrative of America as it fights for independence and struggles to remain independent. But we also get an intimate portrait of one of the most central families in the early years of the new nation, with the struggles they also faced as husband and wife and parents as well. And while Ellis has acknowledged that Adams is his favorite of the Founding Fathers, he doesn't shy away from revealing his immense vanity and hyperactive ambition. Instead he personalizes the man and his equally intelligent and capable wife, Abigail, who provided an appropriate counterbalance in his life. And that's another thing that makes this such an outstanding book - it's not often we hear so much about the great women who influenced the course of the Revolution.

Joseph Ellis' books aren't as much straightforward biographies and histories as they are character studies of what their subject's personalities were like and what they were thinking and what made them tick. Readers who want to read David McCullough's excellent John Adams but are put off by the length might want to consider starting with Ellis first. He eases you into the history in a way that makes it easier to later dive into the others. This is not to say that there's little substance to this book; on the contrary, I found myself constantly reaching for a pen to underline and mark sections that I thought were so insightful and important that I'd want to reference them again (not something I often do). You come away with a better feeling and appreciation for the issues and challenges those historical figures faced, and the nuances behind the actions and accomplishments. Very highly recommended! (I got this book from Amazon Vine).

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