Another classic that I had very little memory of, but on rereading it all came screaming back to me. I must have read this a dozen times as a kid during my American Revolution phase.
The Fifth of March, Ann Rinaldi, 1993.
Parts of this went a bit over my head as a kid, but I remember enjoying it a lot nonetheless. The picture is pretty bad, but this is the cover of the book I had—I guess it was re-released recently with an ugly cover, and I actually quite like the one I had. This is another book in the Teenage Girl Falls In Love With Soldier From The Other Side genre that I so dearly loved, but man, it was not as interesting this time around.
Rachel Marsh is the nanny and general ladies’ maid in the home of John and Abigail Adams just prior to the Revolution, in 1770. She is an orphan, her father having died on the Plains of Abraham (1759) and her mother having died a few years later. Her French father and English mother had to live with her mother’s crank of an uncle, Ebenezer, who resented Rachel for various nefarious not-totally-stated reasons, and though he’s come into some wealth in Boston now, he doesn’t have any interest in sharing any of it with Rachel.
Rachel is at that point at fourteen where she isn’t quite sure what she wants out of life, but she hasn’t aimed much higher than to marry and have a home of her own (which is pretty reasonable for a servant). She is pretty satisfied with her position, since the Adamses are reasonably kind to her, don’t work her too hard, and have promised to give her a dowry when she’s done her service. While Rachel is out with the children, she runs into a friend of her friend Jane’s, who tells her that John Hancock, the wealthy merchant, is to be arrested for smuggling against the crown. Hancock asks John Adams to defend him against the Crown, and the villainous Uncle Eb asks Rachel to be a spy in the house and let him know what Adams decides.
Rachel is worried about betraying the people she works with, since she’s come to admire Abigail Adams a very great deal. She confides a bit in Abigail how she feels not as worthy as gentry and wants to learn, and Abigail sends her to Henry Knox, a bookseller and patriot there in Boston. When she goes to visit on her day off, she finds Henry to be a genial book-lover who has no end of books to suggest to her. Rachel also meets Lucy, Henry’s girlfriend whose wealthy parents don’t approve of their relationship. Rachel takes the books and goes home, earnestly believing that this will be the route to becoming a woman like Abigail Adams.
There is trouble at the Adams house, though, while John is busy debating over whether or not to take Hancock’s case—which will either uphold or repeal the Townsend Acts, depending on the outcome. He decides to defend Hancock rather than prosecute him for the Crown. The Villainous Uncle Eb comes to visit Rachel, scaring the living daylights out of her, and when Rachel tells him that she doesn’t know what Adams is planning on doing, he starts berating her for being a terribly ungrateful niece. He rants and raves on a bit over what he had to do to earn his living, and when Rachel continually refuses to spill about what the Adamses are up to, he disowns her (although he agrees to set up a trust for the amount of her mother’s original share in his store, so, he’s not very good at disowning her). And when she serves tea to John Adams that night, she tells him what happened, and he thanks her for being so honourable and trustworthy. This is Foreshadowing with a capital F, or possibly FORESHADOWING WITH ALL CAPITAL LETTERS.
A few months later the British send their ships to dock in the harbour there, and the soldiers disembark to many boos and hisses, and set up their camps around Boston—one right across the street from the Adams house. And the people of Boston react accordingly (and predictably), and one evening when Rachel is going to the bookstore, she runs into a mob planning some mischief that night, led by Crispus Attucks, who is eventually going to become the (famous) first casualty of the war later that year.
And the very next day, on her return from the bakery, Rachel finds a sentry stationed at their front door and when he questions her she flies into a rage. He’s just a teenager himself, and under his breath he begs her to just do it because his superior is watching and he’ll be punished if she doesn’t. That same sentry is stationed in front of their house for the next few months, and Rachel talks to him occasionally to learn what’s going on in the camp. He asks her if soldiers can work in their spare time at the ropeworks, and confesses that he doesn’t have enough to eat. She gives him some cinnamon buns, and immediately confesses to John Adams, who tells her that basically, she shouldn’t lose her humanity in the face of the war. Matthew Kilroy, the soldier, is pathetically grateful for the bits of food she gives him, and they flirt and talk almost every night before she knows what’s going on. One night he sees her hair and comments on how beautiful it is—which I thought of as impossibly romantic as a teenager.
For Christmas, Matthew gives her a copy of Pamela (ugh—well, she likes it, but I’d be pretty upset if someone gave me that as a gift) and asks if she’ll “walk out” with him on her day off (i.e., date for real instead of just awkward teenage flirting). Ugh, it’s really sweet, but Rachel tells him that the Adamses won’t like it and Matthew tells her (somewhat understandably) that the Americans talk a lot about knowing their own minds and doing their own thing, but then keep asking for permission for everything. But eventually Rachel agrees to do it, and Jane tells her that it’s stupid to think that a man and a woman can just be friends when everyone knows a man can’t be just a friend to a woman. (This is also FORESHADOWING WITH ENORMOUS CAPITAL LETTERS A MILE TALL because wow, subtle.)
So they go for walks once a week and hold hands, and when the Adamses have to move to a different house, Matthew starts pressing her for more. They argue a bit, and Matthew says it’s because she’s afraid to let him kiss her, and she tells her that he’s full of it. But he kisses her (and it’s weirdly non-consensual) and she freaks out and runs home.
That fall, the mobs begin attacking Tory shops illegally importing British goods. Villainous Eb is one of the shops attacked, and Rachel goes to see him out of worry. After an argument, he tells her that her mother was pregnant before her parents were married, and Rachel receives this news with absolute and total shock. Which is a little bit of a crock, because plenty of servant women and lower-class women were pregnant before their weddings in pre-Revolutionary America. I mean, it wasn’t exactly congratulatory material, but it wasn’t the “OMG I’M GOING TO FAINT” thing that Rachel makes it out to be. But I digress. Again.
Anyway, later that fall the Adams’s youngest infant dies, and Matthew comes by expressly to offer his condolences. When he sees Rachel he pesters her again for not being “nice” enough to him, and rants a bit about how nastily the people of Boston are treating the soldiers. Which, while true, is not without some merit. He tells Rachel that he’s going to take a job at the ropewalk works, and when she says he’ll get into some kind of fracas, he says “Mayhap what I need is a fracas.” Rachel reflects on how she knows that she loves him, but doesn’t know what to do about it, and just lets him wander off.
[I have to admit this is the part where my attention started wandering and I left the book splayed out on the kitchen counter for almost a week. Oops. Sorry, Ann Rinaldi, you’re not as compelling as I used to think you were.] Mrs. Adams is mourning the death of the baby, and Rachel keeps trying to comfort her as best she can, and Mrs. Adams hits on the idea of beginning to outfit Rachel’s dowry. They go shopping for linen and things, and Abigail is beginning to brighten up a bit, but the next day there’s a riot in the North End. One of the boys killed is Chris Snider, a friend of Rachel’s friend Jane, and one of the rabble-raising boys in favour of liberty.
In the wake of the funeral, there’s a “fracas” at the ropeworks, which Matthew is of course involved in, and Rachel goes to see him. There’s a really frustrating part where Matthew blames Rachel for his own damn involvement in the fight, saying “You drove me to this,” because of course he does. Anyway, on the one hand Rachel is saying how irritating it is that Matthew can’t separate friendship and his “basest needs,” and on the other hand Matthew laughs at this and then in the same breath is still blaming her. What. Matthew also tells her how his own older brother sold him into the army, and all his pay goes back home to help his brother pay off his gambling debts, and that’s why he’s always hungry and never has any money.
Not too much later after that, there’s a disturbance at the Customs House, and Rachel slips out late at night to see what’s going on. People are shouting that the soldiers are going after civilians and attacking them, and when Rachel and Jane reach the Customs House, there’s a sentry out front being pelted with ice and rocks. A group of soldiers turn out in his aid, and Matthew is among them because of course he is, but the crowd doesn’t disperse when the officer in charge orders them to. Someone throws a chunk of ice into the face of one of the soldiers, and he goes down, but still they don’t fire. Crispus Attucks shows up, hurling a club, and the officer gives the order to fire. Shots go every which way, and Matthew shoots a man and then stabs him with the bayonet. Rachel flees.
The next morning the Adams house is full of men, and John Adams is asked to defend the soldiers who are being charged with murder. Rachel goes to see Matthew in prison, and when she comes home she finds out that Adams has agreed to do it. She accidentally lets slip that she was there that night, though, which Mr. Adams is not exactly pleased to hear. Later that week, Rachel speaks with him again about how the soldiers were provoked, and how it’s really her fault because she “drove Matthew to it” (ugh ugh ugh), and Mr. Adams asks her to not go and visit Matthew in prison because it reflects badly on the family and Matthew is a thief and general scoundrel. Rachel is all “You just don’t know him like I do!” (ah, the cry of true love) and Mr. Adams is like no, still, you really can’t go. Which Rachel ignores and continues to go and visit the prison on her days off.
The soldiers leave Boston (spurred on by the riot), but Matthew remains in the jail, and Rachel continues to go and visit him twice a week and bring him food. Matthew complains a bit that he’s a terrible lout and blames it on the people of Boston, who he says are full of “unnatural hate,” and on Rachel’s way home she stops in to see Henry, the bookseller who’s become her friend. Henry’s girlfriend, Lucy, is from a highborn Tory family, who loathe Henry and want to drive Lucy away from him. Lavinia, one of Lucy’s sisters, has seen Rachel going to the prison, and Lucy warns Rachel that Lavinia is going to cook up something to get them both in trouble. And when they warn Rachel to stop going to the prison, she throws a fit and leaves.
But nothing stops her from going to the prison, where a Quaker woman, Alice, does quite a lot to help out the prisoners, and Rachel helps her. The Adamses are too busy with a new baby and trial prep at home to really notice (or care, probably) what Rachel is up to on her off days, until August when Lavinia stops by the Adamses with some fresh fruit. She lets slip to Mrs. Adams that she’s seen Rachel at the jail, and while Mrs. Adams says nothing at the moment, later that evening Rachel overhears them talking about her in the study. They don’t want her to look after the children anymore, but they don’t want to just discharge her, either, so they decide to tell her they’re going to Braintree and won’t need her services any longer, and they’ll offer to find her a new place
When John Adams breaks the news to her, Rachel thinks her heart is breaking—she loves the children so much, and she doesn’t want to leave the Adams house, but they’ve really given her no choice. The trial opens and after a week Matthew is declared guilty of manslaughter, but not murder, and sentenced to be branded and sent back to England. After they brand him (on the thumbs), Matthew asks Rachel to accompany him back to England to marry him, but Rachel demurs. So the soldiers are sent away, and Rachel goes home to the Adams house, and doesn’t know what to do with herself next. Alice asks that Rachel be sent over to sister in Philadelphia, who is looking for a good nursemaid, and Adams agrees and sends a good note of reference. He asks Rachel to leave without saying goodbye to the children, since it will just upset them, but Rachel decides to do them one better. That night she goes without taking any of her dowry things nor the money she’s owed, in an effort to demonstrate her “good breeding,” and she visits Terrible Eb on her way out of town, telling him that she doesn’t need anything from anyone, and then she’s off to Philadelphia.
Rating: C. Ugh. This did not stand up to review. Actually, it would have worked much better as an adult novel, I think, rather than YA. The dramatic mob violence and courtroom schemes aren’t written with any sort of verve or excitement, so they tend to drag, and I think they would likely resonate more with an adult audience. It’s not very compelling, but it’s decently well-written, and I’ll give Ann Rinaldi her credit for creating an interesting and realistic teen girl character in Rachel—she’s irritating, but she makes a lot of decisions that seem pretty true-to-life for a teenage girl who doesn’t really know what she’s getting herself into or what is going on around her. So for that I’ll raise it to a C.