Friday, August 22, 2014

The Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin

 by Jill Lepore
Knopf     2013
464 pages     Biography
 The Shortlist

Just a few words about The Book of Ages by Jill Lepore. Unfortunately, I didn't get it all read before our book club meeting last night. I was completely occupied with grandchildren, and U.S. history, no matter how fascinating, does not go well with children running around. Jane Franklin Mecom, the subject of The Book of Ages suffered from a similar situation; she had to care for too many children and various and assorted relatives to do much reading or reflecting. However, whatever she was able to do is recounted in this absorbing history. She was the younger sister of Benjamin Franklin, and Lepore's history tells the story of her life and times juxtaposed with the life of her tremendously successful brother, Benjamin.

Quite frankly, Lepore has created a masterpiece of historical writing. She was a finalist for the National Book Award in 2013. Here is the citation which explains the theme of the book far better than I could:
"Using period spelling and reproductions of archival documents, Jill Lepore gives us a book about books: the paper and the binding, the letters, the printing, the printer. In writing about Jane Mecom, the younger sister of Benjamin Franklin, Lepore investigates how history is written and considers the silence of material that does not exist. The reader is allowed into Mecom’s parlor, where we share her sorrows and yearnings, and hear the shots of revolution outside her window."

One of our book club's young women loves historical books, and we read The Book of Ages at her recommendation. We talked a lot about the role of women in early America as reflected in the life of Jane Franklin Mecom. We suggested that while Jane may have been every bit as bright as her older brother Benjamin, the lack of opportunity for women to do more than bear and care for children hampered the lives of most women at that time. Her life has been, until this book, one of the great untold stories of American history. We were astounded that the average family in the 1700s lost so many of its infants and small children to disease--something we scarcely think about these days. Jane was pregnant 13 times in 20 years. Nine of her children survived until adulthood, and more than one suffered from mental illness. She was married to a n'er-do-well which added to the misery of her life. In her older years, she was able to rest, read, and write. She kept a book, which she called The Book of Ages, in which she recorded the lives of her family. She also kept the letters from her brother. On the other hand, in his autobiography, Benjamin Franklin never mentions his sister.

The appendices are as interesting as the book itself. In them, Lepore talks about historical writing, and about her sources. She mentions that because of the dearth of materials, she considered writing a novel, but thankfully she didn't. It is through all the extra materials that we gain a much better understanding of the role of women in colonial America. 

If you are considering reading The Book of Ages, here are a couple of excellent reviews.
A video of Jill Lepore reading at the National Book Awards

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