Mary Alice Peale

God, I hated this book. I should start a tag expressly for books I hate, so people can better hate-read along with me. (Would you rather read about me hate-reading books, or gushing about books I think are amazing? There seems to be no middle ground.)

American Diaries: Mary Alice Peale, Philadelphia, 1777, Kathleen Duey, 1996.


I picked this book specifically because the cover art is so, so, so bad. God, I hope a real girl didn’t sit as the model for this, because how very dreadful. Besides having a pretty bad face the artist has thoughtfully accessorized with a “WTF” hairstyle and a gift-wrap bow around her neck. The whole thing has the air of “Colonial family if they had access to a camera and delighted in taking awkward photos of their children.”

Anyway, this book is almost exactly as bad as the last one. The premise is that the Peale family is a wealthy Loyalist family in Philadelphia, but Mary’s older brother has gone off to fight for the patriot cause, causing a lot of drama and strife in their family. They haven’t heard from him in some time, and Philadelphia is being occupied by the British army, so Mary’s older sisters are pretty obsessed with finding officers to marry. I know this sounds promising, but trust me: it is definitely not.

There is such a weird tone going on here. Mary has two older sisters who are getting ready for the ball they’re holding tonight (this entire book takes place over like an eight-hour stretch), but they’re alternately shown as vapid, dull girls, or other times they’re deeply affected by the war and just trying to set themselves up for afterwards. Which is it? Consistency—why bother? And what’s more, Mary runs around narrating her life to people when normally it would be just, you know, in thought. Their stable boy, Davey, is sent to come and fetch Mary to see her mother, but she doesn’t want to go, so instead she stands there telling Davey “I could go and admire the ballroom, but Abigale will make a row about the fitting.” Dude. Keep it to yourself.

As we meander along in the nothing-is-happening sphere, Mary thinks about her brother and how they haven’t heard from him in some time, and comes to the conclusion that her parents must not particularly care about him. (This is the only compliment I’ll give this book—that is definitely something a 12-year-old would think.) In the first chapter, her mother is super psyched about the ball and wants her daughters to have the pleasant time they deserve—in the third chapter she’s complaining because they’re going to spend all day getting ready. Pick one, lady.

While the servants are running around getting stuff ready, Mary notices Davey creeping back and forth to the carriage house like he has something hidden there, and assumes it’s a pet bunny. As you do. Then we have an interlude where Mary is getting dressed and stops to think about her bed—I swear. “The ropes that crisscrossed the frame needed waxing. The straw mattress on the bottom was matting down, too, getting hard as stone. It was time to tell her mother it needed replacing. Her feather mattress was still fine. The blue and white ticking cloth cover looked quite new. Mary loved the embroidery her mother had done along the borders.” WTF???? What does this have to do with anything?

She heads out to the carriage house to see what’s out there, and discovers HER BROTHER, lying there all bloody in a horse blanket. She freaks right out, but does nothing because another one of the servants comes looking for her so Mary can watch their cook make flummery—the better to instruct her own cook one day. Everything about this book is bizarre. She makes up an excuse to go into the garden to look for onions, and ruminates on all the dead ends of vegetables while making her way to the carriage house—AND WILLIAM IS GONE!!! Where did he go? It’s obvious he didn’t go there on his own, as he was unconscious and couldn’t go anywhere. Then when she dashes back into the house, her dad is directing some medics upstairs to the vacant bedrooms, so some British wounded can stay there. Other question: why is a house that’s ninety minutes away from hosting a ball the best possible place for wounded men to rest?

Mary grabs some blankets and dashes back out the carriage house, where Davey is standing awkwardly by some trees going “Ssst! Sssst!” and tells her that he managed to wake William enough to get him up the stairs to the loft where Davey sleeps. (He sleeps in an unheated attic of a carriage house? Harsh.) William makes Mary promise to not tell their parents, because they’ll be so upset with him, but Mary is wild to do something to help him. Her amazing plan is to find the British doctor who was bringing in the injured, and get him to have a look at William.

I can see a flaw in this plan.

Mary’s sisters get dressed, and her parents fawn over all of them, and the British officers begin arriving. Mary’s sister Abigale introduces her to the doctor who was there before, for no other reason than she happens to be nearby, and a little while later Mary bumps into the doctor in the hall again. She asks him “Will you come into the yard with me later?” and then clarifies (I imagine due to the doctor’s look of EXTREME HORROR, probably) that she wants him to have a look at a wounded man—her brother, the Continental soldier.

Dr. Morris has a look at William, and since doctors can’t do a whole ton for men with terrible, bloody injuries in 1777, he basically just rewraps his bandages and says “Eh, I’ve seen guys with worse problems than this recover, so, keep him quiet and warm and feed him broth.” Which is honestly fairly good advice for more than just bullet wounds, so I’ll give him that. He points out, correctly, that no recovering person should be kept in a crappy outbuilding, and Mary’s like “But if we bring him inside, my parents will recognize him!” You don’t say. Other problem: William is going to throw a major fit, or as major as he can manage having lost all that blood.

They pour some laudanum down his throat and manage to get him onto a stretcher. They cover him up with a blanket, and the doctor explains that this one was a latecomer, and Mary’s parents agree to let him take him upstairs. Mary is running around fetching broth and stuff, and then her father starts complaining that she’s missing the party to take care of some dude. Then he starts rambling about how the rebels should just give it up already as they’re making a mess out of everything, and Mary says he’s being a dick. Which, he kind of is. Mary points out that he wouldn’t be saying that if William was upstairs, then dashes upstairs with her father following her—where he just happens to overhear William saying that his father will throw him out if he finds out he’s there.

They stand outside the door, where William is suddenly conveniently ranting and raving about how mad his father will be, and Dr. Morris keeps telling him that it’ll be OK, and Mary and her father goggle at each other. Then he asks Mary to go fetch her mother and tell her William is home, and goes in to feed him some broth himself.

The end. That is literally the whole book.

Rating: D. This isn’t the worst book ever written, but it has very little redeeming value. The cover art, as I’ve mentioned, is atrocious, which wouldn’t normally bother me but it’s just egregiously bad. The plot isn’t terrible (divided family struggles with a missing son who turns up in a deadly situation), but the writing is quite bad and everything else that goes along with an engaging novel—engaging characterization, swiftly-moving plot, a tiny dash of humour—is missing. It just has almost nothing to recommend it. I couldn’t even do a full review on this book! There’s nothing to it! It’s boring and frustrating all at the same time! I don’t even want to keep my copy that I spent $1.29 Canadian on! Throw this book away!


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