Dear Abigail

A million years ago, when I had first finished my doctoral dissertation and was tiptoeing toward writing about history for an non-academic audience, I headed off to a week-long writing class in Iowa. Along with the rest of my gear, I packed David McCullough’s then newly released John Adams, on the assumption that it would keep me interested during the down moments but wouldn’t distract me from the task at hand. Wrong. It kept me turning the pages like the most thrilling of thrillers.

Adams was fascinating, but the person who really caught my imagination was Abigail. I suspect I’m not the only one who felt that way. If you, too, are an Abigail fan, here’s your chance to learn more:

In Dear Abigail: The Intimate Lives and Revolutionary Ideas of Abigail Adams and Her Remarkable Sisters, Diane Jacobs returns to the topic of smart women in revolutionary times that she previously explored in her biography of Mary Wollstonecraft.

Readers are familiar with Abigail Adams thanks to her sharp-witted and loving correspondence with her husband. But John Adams wasn’t the only person who benefited from Abigail’s pen. In Dear Abigail, Jacobs uses the correspondence of Abigail and her sisters to build a picture of what it was like to watch the American Revolution from the sidelines.

Mary, Abigail, and Betsy Smith were the daughters of a wealthy and influential Massachusetts minister. They were highly educated, well read, and opinionated–and married men who valued those qualities. In their letters they complain about gender inequalities and household problems. They discuss the intellectual issues of the time from the theological questions of the Great Awakening to the philosophical underpinnings of revolution. They arrange to be inoculated for smallpox–a controversial issue at the time. They share news about the war. They worry about their parents, their husbands, and their children.

Much of the book deals with the day-to-day difficulties of the war. Of the three, Abigail suffered the most. (Some of the most poignant passages of the book show her struggling alone with a difficult pregnancy and ultimate stillbirth.) But all of them deal with shortages, lack of information, and fear.

Dear Abigail is the perfect pendant to McCullough’s John Adams: the American Revolution as seen through the eyes of three of its Founding Mothers.

Much of this review first appeared in Shelf Awareness for Readers.

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