Book Review: Martha Washington An American Life

Martha Washington An American Life by Patricia Brady

This is a refreshing and endearing portrait of Martha Washington as few people see her. She was a strong, beautiful, passionate, family-oriented woman, who had a deep loving relationship with both her husbands, Daniel Parke Custis and George Washington. Her graciousness shined and despite her longing to live a quiet private life, she stood by George’s side throughout their marriage. She met the challenges as wife of the commander-in-chief of the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War, and the first president of the United States.

Martha was born Martha Dandridge on June 2, 1731 on her parent’s plantation, Chestnut Grove, in New Kent County, Virginia. The author, Patricia Brady, describes the places, events, and expectations of the times with a level of detail that gives the reader a clear picture of the things Martha would have done and experienced—domestic, social, political, and religious expectations for a woman who came from a fairly well-to-do family.

Martha married Daniel Parke Custis in 1750, a man twenty years her senior whose father was abusive and controlling. This seemed to be a pattern. George Washington’s mother, Mary, was abusive and controlling, as well. As a reader, this suggests to me that Martha’s capacity for kindness and emotional support may have been one of the things that attracted both Daniel and George.

She and Daniel had four children. The two eldest died as toddlers. Daniel’s sudden death in 1757 left her, at the age of 26, the wealthiest widow in Virginia, with a 17,500 acre estate to manage and two very young children to raise alone: a three-year-old son, Jacky, and a one-year-old daughter, Patsy. This set a precedence. There was no male trustee to control her property. She was independent and free to make her own decisions, and she did so with confidence.

George Washington, whom she married on January 6, 1759, recognized this strength and rarely questioned her decisions while he was away.

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The Marriage of George and Martha Washington

In 1773, Patsy died of a seizure at age seventeen. It was terrible blow to Martha, as well as, George, who was a loving stepfather to Patsy and Jacky (Martha and George had no children of their own). Seven years later during the Siege of Yorktown, she would lose Jacky (who was married with children) to “camp fever”. Martha surrounded herself with family. Many young nieces, nephews, and grandchildren lived at Mount Vernon which was a great comfort to her.

Of course, the American Revolution greatly affected every facet of her life. The author describes the events of the war accurately and succinctly. George was away from the Washington’s home, Mount Vernon, in Virginia, the entire eight years. Martha spent every winter with her husband at the Continental Army camp, often accompanied by nieces, nephews, and grandchildren.

Patricia Brady expertly guides the reader through the eight years George was president and Martha’s outlook and influence on those years when the Washington’s longed for a private life that was not to be. After George’s death in 1799 and forty-one years of devoted partnership, Martha never truly recovered from the pain. She remembered her husband’s admirers and those who had hurt him, like Thomas Jefferson. When Jefferson was elected president in 1800, “she commented freely and acidly on his presidency.”

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Martha Washington, 1796

In the first week of May, 1802, Martha became ill with one of her frequent stomach upsets. She died at Mount Vernon on May 22.

I highly recommend this historical and spiritual book that contains elements of a great romance.

My award-winning historical fantasy book series:

Angels & Patriots Book One. Sons of Liberty, Lexington and Concord, Bunker Hill is available on Amazon in paperback, Kindle eBook, or read for free on Kindle Unlimited. Angels & Patriots Book One

Angels & Patriots Book Two. The Cause of 1776 is available on Amazon in paperback, Kindle eBook, or read for free on Kindle Unlimited. Angels & Patriots Book Two

Book Review: “Flight of the Sparrow: A Novel of Early America” By Amy Belding Brown

51HBuaNAc3L._SX334_BO1,204,203,200_Flight of the Sparrow: A Novel of Early America is largely based on the historical published account of Mary Rowlandson’s experience as a captive of Native Americans in 1676 during King Phillip’s War. Amy Belding Brown has transformed historical documents into the mind and heart of this Puritan woman who suffers many trials during her 11 week captivity. Spoiler alert.

I chose to read this novel for its parallels to my historical fantasy work in progress. My WIP (which I plan to be the first volume in a series surrounding the American Revolution) takes place in the first half of 1775 in and around the Massachusetts Bay Colony. It follows the actions of the Sons of Liberty, in particular Dr. Joseph Warren, British General Thomas Gage, and a brotherhood of banished angels who ally with the patriots as the Revolutionary War dawns.

Those parallels are:

~~~Flight of the Sparrow takes place in 1670’s colonial America in and around the Massachusetts Bay Colony. The subject matter addresses Puritan values at that time. These Puritans were ancestors to men like John Adams, Samuel Adams, and Joseph Warren, and their beliefs remained an influence in late colonial America.

~~~Mary Rowlandson’s narrative A Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson was first published in 1682. It was republished in 1771 and twice more in 1773. In his speech commemorating the second anniversary of the Boston Massacre in 1772 and the fifth anniversary in 1775, Dr. Joseph Warren invokes the image of the Indian as a devil, which was a familiar description in Puritan writings and may have been taken from Rowlandson’s narrative.

~~~The work is clearly historical fiction/fantasy which is my beloved genre.

Historical examination aside, Flight of the Sparrow is written to keep the reader immersed in the time period and the role of women in Puritan society.  Mary Rowlandson is depicted as a free-thinking woman who knows her place, but is constantly challenging that place in her heart and mind. The Puritan revulsion for the Indian savages is a mythological subject matter often discussed with perverse curiosity among the women as they work.

Mary, her three children, and friends and family are captured by Native Americans in January 1676, during a raid on the town of Lancaster where she lives with her husband, Joseph–a Puritan minister.  Joseph is in Boston to plead for protection from the Indians at the time of the raid.

Mary’s terrible struggle with her dying 6-year-old daughter, Sarah, is heartbreaking as she carries the body of her mortally wounded child through the wilderness for days until the child finally dies in an Indian wetu.  The suffering of some of the other captives, such as Ann Joslin who is heavy with child and subsequently clubbed to death by Indians when she begs to be released, is difficult to take.

Mary’s constant worry for her captive children, Joss and Marie, is not portrayed in my opinion, as being as much of a burden as her starvation, wavering faith in God, and sexual attraction to an Indian man named James.  Her enlightenment to the manner in which Indians raise their children with open love and tolerance, and the freedoms the native people enjoy, is a recurring theme even after her redemption.

Her husband, Joseph, is portrayed as unfeeling, even emotionally cruel, toward his wife as she struggles with her return and assimilation into society. He suspects her of being “violated” by the Indians although she assures him time and time again that she has not. Her husband’s sexual aloofness, in a manner, justifies her continuing longing for James and the realization that she is in love with this Indian man who was raised and educated among the English, participates in her redemption, and comes to her in the dark of night to taut her feelings for him.

The Puritan minister, Increase Mather, asks her to write a narrative of her experiences that he will transform into a lesson of God’s will. She hesitates to do so, but eventually gives in under a barrage of encouragement from Joseph, who tells her that this is a way for her to be socially accepted once again. It will allow those who gossip and look down on her, to see that God guided her during her captivity.

Mary doesn’t mourn Joseph’s sudden death in 1678. Instead, she sees his death as freedom from the chains that bind her.  Indeed, she later marries, Samuel Talcott for love and the opportunity to mother his 8 children.

Flight of the Sparrow is beautifully written and emotionally exhausting as Mary Rowlandson bravely follows her heart to a happy ending.