Since I picked up Anya Seton’s The Winthrop Woman last year, I’ve been interested in Seton’s other works. She writes about women, usually historical women. I’ve read two more of her novels, including this month’s book report, a book about two women who lived in Marblehead, Massachusetts: Phebe, present at the founding of the colonial town when Massachusetts was a Puritan settlement and Hester, one of Phebe’s 19th century descendents.
The stories are intertwined as Hester’s father is proud of his family’s legacy. The novel is powerful because of Seton’s writings about women, in this case women from an historical time in which women’s stories were often lost. As a novelist, Seton is sometimes uneven but as an historian, she is thorough and her imagined characters are surrounded by a rich and accurate historical world. In this respect, Seton’s musings on the lives of women lost to history is powerful.
I think of this often, teaching 7th graders early American history. They love to step into the feet of historical people and it’s a challenge for me to ensure that they step into the shoes of a variety of historical lives. Famous founders, of course, are easy enough to bring back to life as their works and works about them are abundant. But the lives of working men and women who are the backbone of the American people are harder to animate. The histories of the enslaved and the poor are often hazy, their lives lost or ignored in the stories of those with the time and the skill to write.
So a novelist like Seton helps me to feel those forgotten people. I add them to the established social history that we know and then use it to teach my students about the lives of 1625 or 1860 and everything in between. I’ve got a few more Seton novels in my pile of books to-be read and I look forward to filling my mind with more musings on the ordinary lives of those whose history is the foundation of our world.