Let’s do another Compare and Contrast of one historical event: Loyalists in the Revolutionary War in both Dear America and next week, Dear Canada!
Love Thy Neighbor: The Tory Diary of Prudence Emerson, Green Marsh, Massachusetts, 1774, Ann Turner, 2003.
I’m not crazy about Ann Turner as an author, and this book really didn’t do anything for me. It’s more childish in tone than a lot of the other entries in the series, which I think works against it. A tone that could have worked for a less fraught period really doesn’t function incredibly well here, and ends up inadvertently minimalizing the issues at hand. The protagonist of the novel for the opposite perspective, The Winter of the Red Snow, is even younger, but the general tone of that book is much more mature. I would love to say that it was a stylistic choice, but I doubt it.
Prudence, the narrator, lives in a small village in Massachusetts with her family (two parents, two brothers, three sisters) on the eve of the Revolution. They’re Tories, but Prudence’s best friend is Abigail, a girl whose family are all Patriots. That doesn’t last very long, since on Page 9 Abigail tells Prudence that her father has forbidden them to socialize with one another any more. In an effort to give some of the basics behind the war, Prudence wonders why it isn’t a good thing to be loyal to the king, or why anyone would want to do anything else, or why they should change. I get it—it’s just a bit heavy-handed. It isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it just strikes me as vaguely odd.
Another thing that aggravates me about this book is that it features that classic trope of Girl Who Hates Typical Feminine Chores So Modern Readers Can Relate. (I need a catchier title.) And another thing (while I’m at it) is that Prudence keeps complaining of her “corsets,” and that she can’t breathe. They were called “stays” in the eighteenth century, not corsets, they weren’t called corsets in English until the 1830s. And stays were much less restrictive than corsets and were not intended to inhibit breathing, but only to support the breasts and back. Things like this make me pretty irritated with the lack of research and makes me fret for the rest of the novel.
But that’s pretty minor, I suppose. Anyway, as we continue, Prudence’s family hears that their cousins are planning on leaving or England if things get much worse, but they don’t intend on going anywhere if they don’t have to. They couldn’t if they wanted to, at least for a while, because Prudence’s sister Kate gets sick for a couple of weeks—very sick indeed, sick enough that some of their Patriot friends who haven’t spoken to them in weeks actually come by to see how she’s doing. But by the new year things go back to their old ways, and Prudence’s family is being carefully watched by some of the Patriot families. Her mother goes along with midwifery as per usual, and Prudence keeps going to school (for a while, at least) and nothing much more happens until their preacher gives a sermon about how King George is a dictator, and Prudence’s family storms out.
At the end of January, a friend of their family has his horse stolen, and painted with “strange designs” and the words “Tory Nag” on one side. From the way Prudence goes on and on about this it’s clearly meant to be The Most Horrible Thing Ever, and obviously it’s not great to steal someone’s horse and vandalize it, but…I can’t get as worked up about this as we’re clearly supposed to be. When Prudence goes to see Charity, whose father owned the stolen horse, “Charity said ‘We had to wash him with a rag and soapy water!’ Her lips trembled, and I took her hand. I had no words of comfort.” How else do you wash a horse? I can’t get on board with this, even for a kids’ book. It just doesn’t resonate.
Prudence and the other Tory children are effectively kicked out of school, and Prudence’s mother begins teaching them from a primer. Her brother Walter, though, is old enough to be done with school, and so Prudence is taken aback to see him talking with a known Patriot outside the tavern one afternoon. Walter is the only one in their family who is staunchly opposed to leaving their home—all the rest are open to moving or going back to England or pretty much anywhere else. In February a band of Patriots try to force Prudence’s father to sign up with the militia, and he refuses, but that’s pretty much the shape of things in Green Marsh.
Prudence assists her mother at a couple of births, and as much as she enjoys helping, she’s very sad to see that so many of their neighbours refuse to speak with them any more. Someone throws a rock through their kitchen window, terrifying the whole family. Prudence’s father meets with the other Tory men in an effort to start a home defense league, but one of them runs off his mouth in the tavern and is delivered a ball of tar and feathers to intimidate him. (Again: less scary than it’s intended to be.) Prudence makes a list of words to describe Patriots, including “Evil and wicked….The muck out of stalls.” Ouch. Prudence’s aunt comes to live with them, which Prudence hates, just in time for them to hear about the battles in Lexington and Concord.
Another Tory family in town has their house stoned, and that is the last straw for Prudence’s family. Her father decides he’s going to move the whole family to Boston to live with their cousins. Walter stays, along with their aunt, to run their house and their father’s store, but everyone else leaves for Boston the following week. Luckily, Prudence’s aunt and uncle Seth and Dolly are quite well-off, and Prudence’s cousin Betsy is about her age and is so excited to have a cousin her own age to entertain. Betsy is interested in a British soldier, and drags Prudence around town showing off all the soldiers and keeping them both busy.
But pretty quickly things start to get hairy, since their cousins were doing fine with three people but suddenly feeding six extra mouths is a pretty big burden. Prudence notes that “some Patriots call [the British soldiers] ‘bloody-backs.’ What a horrible and wicked name!” Really? As horrible as “evil and wicked?” Or “The muck in our stalls?” Hypocrisy: it’s not just for adults any more. In June the Battle of Breed’s Hill takes place not far away, and Prudence’s family actually go on to the wharves to see if they can watch any of it. Seth hitches up his carriage to help carry bodies after the battle, and they’re all horrified to see that the Patriots have given them a pretty thorough pounding.
In July, the soldier who’s courting Betsy comes down with a fever and dies the following week, which devastates Betsy—and the news that it’s smallpox petrifies everyone else. Prudence’s father opts to move their family again, to Nantucket, thinking it will be safer there than in the city. They leave before the end of July—Prudence and her siblings and their parents and her cousins’ family alike.
In the epilogue, the family settles and prospers on Nantucket, but Prudence’s cousin’s family emigrate to England after the war. The most aggravating part is the line “Mama continued to be a midwife and became a beloved figure on the island. The islanders used to say that Mrs. Emerson never lost a baby or a mother.” This is completely unbelievable and it says even earlier in the book that Prudence’s mother delivered babies for women who had previously had a number of stillbirths! Are we reasonably expected to believe that a woman in the 1780s was lucky enough to never, ever, ever lose an infant OR a mother in childbirth? This is the last straw for me in a book that I already hated.
Rating: D. Ugh. Okay. It wasn’t horrible. No, I lied. It was pretty bad. Which is a shame, because this could have been so good! I would have loved to read a book about a Tory family (maybe struggling with a son who was a Patriot—it would have been great to see that thread explored a bit more!) being persecuted and driven out of their home and trying to emigrate somewhere more friendly, which in theory is what this book was, but it just absolutely did not land. The narrator sounds pretty immature for a 13-year-old, especially compared with other books in this series, or even for other books on the American Revolution in this series. There isn’t a lot of depth or introspection, mostly just a recounting of events, and while that’s fine, there’s no real sense of reflection here. That’s the great part of a diary-style series, and it’s a shame here that it’s insufficiently used.