Telling the story of Harriet Beecher Stowe, the 'little woman who made' the Civil War


March 10, 1995|By Molly Dunham Glassman | Molly Dunham Glassman,Sun Staff Writer

Jean Fritz's historical biographies rank among the best nonfiction books written for children. During the past three decades she has brought to life dozens of famous men, from George Washington to Teddy Roosevelt, from Christopher Columbus to Sam Houston.

Her latest work, "Harriet Beecher Stowe and the Beecher Preachers" (Putnam, $16.95, 144 pages, ages 11-14), will draw cheers from teachers and librarians digging for quality books to recommend during women's history month.

Ms. Fritz's eye for detail and sense of humor have never been sharper. She moves right into the home of the Beecher family, a clan headed by Lyman Beecher, a stern Calvinist whom Ms. Fritz calls the most renowned American preacher of the early 19th century.

When he wasn't chastising his flock, Lyman Beecher was a hypochondriac given to long bouts in bed. He had 12 children, seven of them boys. The boys were expected to be preachers. The girls, well, "though he loved his girls dearly, their future was limited."

Little did he know that by writing "Uncle Tom's Cabin," Harriet would prove to be the best Beecher preacher of them all.

Harriet's childhood wasn't a happy one. Her mother died when she was 4, and she was never close to her stepmother, who arrived two years later. Harriet's oldest sister, Catherine, was forever running her life.

Harriet was 25 when she married Calvin Stowe, and seven children followed. Like Lyman Beecher, Calvin was given to fits of "the hypos." But he was devoted to his wife, and he encouraged her to write for magazines whenever she could steal the time. It wasn't easy, as she had to run the household and teach part- time to supplement Calvin's teaching salary.

She managed to send off a few pieces, but trying to write in her house was like raking leaves in a windstorm. She could hardly start a sentence before the children would get into a fight, the fire would need attention, or someone would be at the door.

"Uncle Tom's Cabin," originally a serial in four installments that Harriet sold to the National Era magazine for $300, was published as a book in 1852. Six months later, 150,000 copies were sold.

As she tells Harriet's story, Ms. Fritz keeps readers abreast of current events. Before "Uncle Tom's Cabin," Harriet had become increasingly frustrated with her father's reluctance to call for the abolition of slavery. After the book was published, she became one of the abolitionists' biggest allies. She visited the White House in 1862 to urge President Lincoln to sign the Emancipation Proclamation. "So this is the little lady who made this big war?" Lincoln said.

Ms. Fritz includes an impressive bibliography, a family tree and dozens of photographs, the majority from the Stowe-Day Foundation in Hartford, Conn., where Ms. Fritz did much of her research. Once again, the author has dusted off a piece of history and gotten rid of all the mustiness.

* For a fresh take on women's history, check out "The Ballad of the Pirate Queens" by Jane Yolen, illustrated by David Shannon (Harcourt Brace & Company, $15, 32 pages, ages 4-8).

Ms. Yolen, author of more than 150 books, tells the story of Mary Reade and Anne Bonney, who sailed with Calico Jack Rackham on a pirate ship called the Vanity in the early 1700s. It seems that Rackham and the rest of the men on board were drinking and playing cards below deck when one of the governor's ships pulled alongside the Vanity.

"A ship, a ship!" did Mary cry

"Come up and lend a hand."

But Rackham and his merry men

Came not to her command.

Mary and Anne tried to fight the sailors, but the pirate ship was captured. Calico Jack and his crew were hanged, but Mary and Anne "pleaded their bellies," meaning they were pregnant. According to this account, the judge set the pirate queens free.

Ms. Yolen's ballad is engaging, but Mr. Shannon's illustrations steal the show. He paints in acrylics on illustration board, with the text on parchment (like a pirate's treasure map) opposite haunting paintings in grays and sepias. Just a touch of white here, a flash of red there, and the scenes come alive.

Fans of his earlier books, "The Rough-Face Girl," "Encounter" and "How Georgie Radbourn Saved Baseball," will find this Mr. Shannon's finest work yet.

* Of local note: Authors Rebecca C. Jones, of Annapolis, and Johanna Hurwitz will be the featured speakers at the 1995 Children's Literature Festival at Towson State University, March 29 at the University Union. Admission is by preregistration only, and the deadline is March 20. Cost is $15 for the lectures, and $30 for the lectures plus dinner. For forms, contact Elizabeth McAllister in the Elementary Education Department at Towson State, (410) 830-2565.

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