EARTHBOUND AND HEAVENBENT: Elizabeth Porter Phelps and Life at Forty Acres (1747–1817)

Elizabeth Pendergast Carlisle, Author
Elizabeth Pendergast Carlisle, Author . Scribner $26 (384p) ISBN 978-0-7432-4440-4
Paperback - 388 pages - 978-1-4165-6964-0
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Shortly before her 16th birthday, Elizabeth Porter Phelps began to keep a diary. By that age, she had already endured the death of her father during the French and Indian Wars and struggled with her mother's probable addiction to opium, yet her youthful narrative often reads like an American idyll, filled with references to quilting, berry picking, singing and sleigh rides. Over the course of her lifetime, Elizabeth despaired over both the American Revolution, which she thought of as a civil war, and the War of 1812, which prompted her to ask, "was ever so dark a day in America?" But Carlisle's account of Phelps's life, drawing heavily on the diary, is not a history revolving around battles and founding fathers. The heart of it lies with the routine tasks that filled Elizabeth's days on the family farm in Massachusetts: housework, bouts of illness, brief journeys to visit relatives, financial strain, child-rearing and marriage woes. Elizabeth's diary entries and letters show a reserve that confounds even Carlisle at times; periodically, for example, Phelps refers to a "bitter cup" in her marriage, and "new discoveries—bitter! Cruel." Carlisle can only speculate that such circumspect language probably refers to infidelity, but no other documents exist to confirm this suspicion. Such gaps in the narrative are, like most attempts to unearth the details of women's lives in early America, deeply intriguing and occasionally frustrating. Carlisle's debut is clearly modeled on Laurel Thatcher Ulrich's Pulitzer Prize–winning book, A Midwife's Tale , and its emphasis on the ways that women shaped early America offers a welcome addition to that crucial perspective on history. B&w photos. (Mar.)

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