The Lives of the Saints gave way to the Lives of the Patriots
American Children’s Literature changed in 1809 with the publication of George Mason Weems’ The Life of Washington the Great, with its well known (but invented) story of the young and future president chopping down his father’s cherry tree. Before that, America’s young were given biographies about children who were virtuous in a religious way. But after Weems’ immensely popular book, the Lives of the Saints gave way to the Lives of the Patriots. A number of children’s books in this season’s crop of biographies continue that stirring tradition.
At a time of year when others recite “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas” or sing “Oh, Holy Night,” Lynne Cheney seems something of an exception. Apparently when the Cheney clan (including her husband, the Vice-President) gathers with hot chocolate around the yule fire, Lynne Cheney recounts how George Washington crossed the Delaware River in darkness and surprised a garrison of Hessian soldiers. “This is the story that I tell my grandchildren at Christmas,” she writes.
Recall that story. By the end of 1776, the British had soundly defeated the rebels in quick succession at the start of the war. Thinking his “mission accomplished,” the British General Cornwallis had grown confident and lax. The issue then was: How could a ragtag bunch of insurgents “succeed against the mightiest power in the world” and “the greatest army in the world”? The answer, Cheney tells us, was “surprise.” Several hundred fighters rowed across the Delaware in the middle of the night, staged a guerilla attack on Christmas day upon occupying coalition forces (Hessian mercenaries employed by the British), killed many and took hostages, and the tide of the war changed forever. I must add that if this wasn’t actually a part of our country’s past, it might seem uncanny how Cheney unwittingly echoes recent events in Iraq–where roles are reversed and the American occupying force is battling ragtag insurgents.
While more impressionistic, Peter Fiore’s accompanying paintings remind me of N.C. Wyeth’s pictures for the Scribners’ edition of Treasure Island. It was at first puzzling why so many in Fiore’s rendition of Washington’s ragtag army looked like pirates and buccaneers. Then I recalled Frank O’Hara’s poem about Emanuel Leutze’s famous painting “George Washington Crossing the Delaware,” the one with our standing hero facing forward at the front of the boat, the Stars and Stripes unfurling behind him. It’s “a pirate’s flag,” O’Hara observes.
In familiar advertisements in yesteryear’s comic books, Charles Atlas (once a “97 pound weakling”) sold his regimen of bodybuilding exercises by picturing a bully kicking sand in the face of a thin fellow lying at the beach with his girlfriend. The young Teddy Roosevelt, Judith St. George tells us, was also a puny child and suffered horribly from asthma. But he overcame those problems by playing outdoors, going to the gym, camping and riding, and learning how to box in order to take on childhood bullies who taunted him about his thick glasses. He became the twenty-sixth president of the United States.
This book is the first in a promised series of stories about the childhoods of our forty-two presidents and the “turning point in their young lives.” These days, predictably, that means “Facing Problems and Overcoming Them.” Another president (Ronald Reagan) once said, “Government does not solve problems; it subsidizes them.” The same might be said about much of contemporary children’s publishing.
To tell the larger story of the Second Continental Congress and the signing of the Declaration of Independence, Jan Cheripko takes up the minor story of Caesar Rodney–a largely unknown delegate from Delaware who rode some eighty miles by horseback to attend the meeting at the last minute and vote. By means of this technique, readers are introduced to information about the issues then being debated and we see in the background those patriots (John Adams, Ben Franklin, and others) usually found in the foreground. Balancing foregrounds and backgrounds, Gary Lippincott provides competent illustrations for the book.
The story is made compelling by sacrifice and suspense. Rodney’s ride was long and hard, and Cheripko makes much of the fact that Rodney had suffered from cancer of the face and asthma; but for a story of patriotic sacrifice, one can only wish that he might also have had to plow through horrible snowstorms rather than just suffer from saddle sores and a July thunderstorm. Suspense is generated by cinema-like crosscutting between Rodney’s ride and events unfolding against the clock in Philadelphia where the vote would be taken for a declaration of independence or not; of course, it would have been wonderful if the vote was close and Rodney had arrived just in time with a tie-breaker but, as the author concedes, that wasn’t quite the case.
History has a way of not being as interesting as fiction, but this book goes to great lengths to overcome that by trying to put Caesar Rodney’s Ride right up there with Paul Revere’s.
Aside from exemplary problem-solving, then, there is one good reason to buy this book and that is Matt Faulkner’s terrific pictures. Faulkner knows the one piece of advice routinely given to amateur photographers: always take several steps closer to the scene you wish to capture. But more than this, he has a comic genius that recalls the very best of similar moments in Disney’s films (say, the village scene in “Beauty and the Beast” or caricatures in “Pinocchio”). This comic touch is just the right counterbalance to this earnest story because it reminds us that, besides grit and determination, problems are just as often solved (or dissolved) by wit and humor.
A version of this essay originally appeared in Parents’ Choice (January 2005).
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