Let’s continue on with the Revolutionary War theme, because I have a truly surprising number of books on that topic.
Book: The Winter of the Red Snow: The Revolutionary War Diary of Abigail Jane Stewart, Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, 1777. Kristiana Gregory, 1996.
This is an interesting one because though it’s set in the Revolutionary era, it’s definitely during the progress of the war rather than in the “exciting” part of 1776, with the Declaration of Independence and the outbreak of war and all the other exciting stuff. Anyone who passed fourth grade can tell you right from the title that it’s going to be taking place during the terrible winter Washington’s soldiers spent at Valley Forge, where the men were starving and had no shoes and left bloody footprints in the snow. But like 99% of historical novels, there are going to be very few surprises here in terms of what exactly happened there.
It starts right in at the beginning of December, where Abigail is waiting for her father to bring the midwife since her mother is in labour. Abigail’s older sister Elisabeth and younger sister Sally are anxiously waiting with her, and when her mother delivers a son they go over the sad history of their siblings—besides the three girls, her parents have had five sons who all died in infancy. Which is pretty historically accurate, I have to say, and an interesting note is that male babies (in extremely general terms) tend to be weaker and somewhat less hardy than female babies. Doctors don’t really know why, only that preterm white male babies tend to have the poorest outcomes, and it’s nicknamed “wimpy white boy syndrome.” That was a digression into nowhere.
They name the baby John, and find out from travelers passing through that the British have retreated to Philadelphia, where the Stewarts have family. In response, Washington plans to quarter his soldiers through the winter at nearby Valley Forge to keep the British from taking the rest of Pennsylvania with him. The people of the town greet this with mostly alarm, since the advent of several thousand soldiers in their damn backyard is not exactly a reason for celebration. The pressure on food alone will be enormous, not to mention all the other pressures that thousands of hungry, lonely men would be placing on the town.
The soldiers arrive, and on page 12 we get the book naming sentence—“Their footprints left blood in the snow.” Abigail and her sisters are crying to see what kind of misery the soldiers are being forced to fight in. They see Washington, too, who is constantly referred to as an extremely dignified figure throughout the book. I can’t complain too much about a children’s book making a big deal out of Washington, but it’s an interesting contrast.
Elisabeth decides to sew a Bounty Coat for an attractive soldier, where the idea is that a young woman would sew a coat or a shirt or something and stitch their names into it so the man who receives it will know who they are and court them. Abigail is a little young, but sews a shirt for a drummer boy, noting that they will be too young to care either way.
Abigail and her sister Sally come across Washington in the woods, alone, kneeling in prayer. They’re really playing that saintly-Washington-card pretty hard. But on the other hand, Washington hires out his laundry to Abigail’s family. He pays well, but laundry is a hard, hot, heavy, miserable job even in the best of times, let alone in the middle of war. Abigail doesn’t exactly mince words about how miserable it is, either, and I love it when characters complain about chores because I do nothing but complain about chores myself and I like commiseration.
The soldiers cause a fair amount of distress in Valley Forge, stealing hens and wood and grain and fences and anything they can lay their hands on, whether to eat or to burn. Someone sleeps in the Stewarts’ barn and trashes it, someone steals their entire north fence, and desertion is rampant. Although Abigail’s father complains to Washington, there’s not very much they can do in the face of such wild desperation.
Abigail accompanies her father to Philadelphia on a visit to see their family there, and while Abigail is walking with her cousin Lucy, suddenly Lucy ducks into a wigmaker’s shop and sells her hair. Abigail is appalled, since a British officer might buy the wig made out of her hair, but Lucy says she doesn’t care and earned nine shillings from it. That’s quite a good sum, though, since the Stewarts make only forty shillings a month doing Washington’s laundry—a week’s pay for a haircut? Hard to say that I wouldn’t take that gamble, too, especially if I had some younger siblings at home and we were hungry.
But a couple of weeks later when Lucy and her family come to Valley Forge for a visit, Lucy confesses that someone stole the nine shillings and now she has nothing but the shame of her short hair. Women continued to grow their hair their whole lives, and this is a point that I didn’t really get it when I was a kid—having close-cropped hair like that would be a huge whack to her sense of self and if anyone saw it, it would be wildly embarrassing. So Lucy’s willingness to cut off her hair for her family is a very selfless act, but it comes at quite a risk—especially since she’s not telling anyone about it other than Abigail.
But a few weeks later, her secret is spilled when one of the boys living near Abigail runs up to Lucy in the market and tears off her cap. Lucy’s mother is horrified, but there’s nothing any of them can do—Lucy’s hair and the money is gone.
Abigail finishes embroidering her shirt and takes to Washington’s wife Martha to see if she knows someone it may go to. She asks Elisabeth to go with her to visit the soldiers, and Elisabeth comes home sobbing in horror. The next day Abigail goes with them, and it turns out that they’re going to visit soldiers who are undergoing surgery. And not the good kind of surgery that takes place in a hospital with anesthesiologists and a sterile operating room—the kind of surgery where they lop off parts of your body that are gangrenous from being frozen, and they can’t give anything except alcohol for the pain unless you’re very lucky, and the hands and feet are disposed of by tossing them in a trough where dogs steal them to eat them. No wonder Elisabeth and Abigail are upset by what they had to see.
Part of the reason the early Dear America books are so great is because they’re so like real life. Abigail’s diary is part story about the war, but it’s also large parts of recording the life of an average family in Pennsylvania. She fights with her sisters, complains about chores, mentions what they had for dinner, and seems like a very ordinary slice of life. For example: Mrs. Washington gives her the recipe for Washington’s birthday cake. “I remember the ingredients, but not how it’s put together: 40 eggs, 4 pounds butter, 4 pounds sugar powdered, 5 pounds flour, 5 pounds fruit, mace and nutmeg, wine & some fresh brandy.” I love it—I have no idea why, it’s just endlessly endearing to me.
Anyway, Elisabeth wasn’t pleased with the results of her first Bounty Coat, thinking that the young man who received it was too ugly for her tastes. So when a young Frenchman arrives to translate for one of the Prussian officers brought in to train the troops, Elisabeth is quite taken and decides to make him “a good American coat.” So Elisabeth takes apart the blue cloak that she shares with her sisters, and uses it to make a coat for the Frenchman, Pierre. Elisabeth is livid—because now neither of them nor their younger sister can leave the house again until spring. And what’s more, whenever they run into Pierre, he isn’t wearing his coat—and later Abigail finds out that he gave it to his dog to wear. Ouch, Elisabeth.
One of the soldiers who had his leg amputated dies of his wounds, and his sixteen-year-old widow comes to stay with Abigail and her family because she has nowhere else to go. She and Abigail and her sisters watch as the Prussian officers train Washington’s soldiers into a real army. They’re preoccupied with the Prussian until Abigail’s uncle comes to their house in the dead of night, looking for Lucy, who’s run away.
In the spring, it seems that von Steuben and his men have finally done something about Washington’s fighting force, and the news of the French alliance seems to have truly galvanized everyone. Helen bears a daughter she names Olivia, and the Stewarts celebrate that they have a son who’s lived through an entire winter.
Elisabeth’s first Bounty Coat soldier, the one she thought too ugly, comes by thank her for the coat, and Elisabeth thinks twice and writes to him. Maybe having her coat given to a dog gave her a different impression on things. He leaves with the rest of the Army, later that summer, and Mrs. Washington leaves as well. A story like this one doesn’t truly get a “happy ending,” but this one comes quite close—the war leaves their family’s backyard, Elisabeth eventually marries her ugly soldier, and Abigail marries a blacksmith.
This is the only Dear America novel that gets a sequel—Cannons at Dawn—in the rebooted series in the mid-2000s. Unfortunately, I’ve read Cannons at Dawn and it’s just dismally awful, which is so strange.
Rating: B. A solid B is nothing to sneeze at! It’s a great example of one of the early Dear America novels that truly feels more like a diary than a story, which isn’t to say that it has no plot, but rather that the plot is less like a creaking machine and more like a part of an everyday life. If I had my way, all of the books would have been like this one.