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21 April 2010

Book Review: Paul Revere and the World He Lived In

Paul Revere and the World He Lived In 
by Esther Forbes


Esther Forbes is most known for her wonderful children's book, Johnny Tremain. Paul Revere is not so much about Paul Revere, but, as the title describes, about what life was like in his day.  This book was published in 1942 and it shows. Many veiled, side-long-glance references to what we now call World War II that don't resonate without explanation in 2010. Sometimes Forbes assumes knowledge about Boston or the folk who peopled the Revolution that is not common (or at least not common now, in 2010.) So, in many ways, the book doesn't wear well. But, in many ways, it does and, frankly, the middle-aged-lady-smoking-a-cigarette-with-one-hand-while-typing-with-the-other-writing-sneeringly-of-something-or-other moments are wonderful, enlightening and the kind of laugh-from-your-gut fun that one does not find often in biographies today. Comments like "He excelled in writing Whig poetry (if anyone can be said to excel in that doubtful art)" pepper the book. One of my favorite moments is a Forbes riff on one of her primary sources, (the recollections of Hannah Mather, who lived in Boston during the time) and never have I laughed so hard reading a serious biography.

"Her vocabulary was limited ('respectable' being her favorite adjective, with 'very pleasant' for alternative) ... As she writes of the people who lived about North Square in Revere's time, they seem somehow to diminish in stature. They, and the Square, become quaint toys. At Hannah's command little men pop out of little houses, hardly real people with real houses - and it is all so 'very pleasant' and everyone so 'respectable' ..."

It is a book that should only be read by folk who have a good working knowledge of the Revolution, though. I think I missed a lot because I am not well-versed in Revolution lore. But I learned a lot; Paul Revere made bells. He was the first in America to learn how to make sheet copper, which was very important during the War of 1812, as, prior to that, America had to import from England. He was generous. He loved his wife. He fashioned false teeth and was one of the first to use the "science" of identifying bodies by dental work. He lived to be 83. And he wore old-fashioned shoe buckles long after they went out of style.