Monday, May 19, 2014

@ The Poisoned Pen with Nathaniel Philbrick!

The first Friday in May found me heading over to my favorite bookstore to see one of the best non-fiction authors in the US today. The Poisoned Pen may be primarily a bookstore for crime fiction, but they have something for almost everyone-- from children's books to George R.R. Martin. This particular Friday evening was proof of that.

I first came in contact with Nathaniel Philbrick when I read his book In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex. This man is supremely talented, and he does something all historians should do if they want their books to be read by many: he synthesizes all his research into prose that reads like the best fiction. After that first sip, I went back to the well for another, and his Sea of Glory: America's Voyage of Discovery, The U.S. Exploring Expedition became one of my all-time favorite books. Now you understand why I hot-footed it over to The Poisoned Pen, don't you?

"Under Wraps" 

L to R: Unidentified woman, Nathaniel Philbrick, Barbara Peters

Since Denis wasn't with me, I had no one to sit in the front row and run camera interference. Fortunately they weren't doing a Livestream so I would be able to lean out into the aisle to try to get a shot of the author without someone else's hair in it. (See, there's an art to these recaps-- and in case you wonder why I don't sit in the front row, I think it's rude to sit right in front of someone who's trying to speak and take his/her photograph.) I have to admit that I was a bit nervous about using the camera Denis had bought to replace the ones that were stolen the previous month, and I was right to be because the photos turned out rather dark. Hopefully it's a short learning curve for me!

Bookstore owner Barbara Peters came out a few minutes early to introduce something new: "Under Wraps"-- paperbacks that have been carefully selected by The Poisoned Pen staff. Each book is gift-wrapped and has a tag containing a line from the book. You can buy them to surprise yourself, or as gifts to surprise others. I know I'll be buying one, and I know just what I'm going to do with it!

When the author came out to join us, Barbara introduced him and mentioned a few of the awards he's received (like the National Book Award). She then mentioned one of her Philbrick favorites, Why Read Moby-Dick? Philbrick is passionate about Moby-Dick and feels that too many people were forced to read it at too young an age. "It's a book that needs to be read when you have some life experience," he said.


Nathaniel Philbrick
Philbrick lives on Nantucket and wrote his first non-fiction book, Away Off Shore, about the island. "I've found each book I write to be a process of discovery."

Barbara then asked him, "Isn't there a deaf community on Nantucket?"

"No, that's Martha's Vineyard," Philbrick said.

"Ah, I'm getting my books mixed up," she said. "I have a friend who wrote four mysteries set on Nantucket with its cranberry bogs and all."

"Well, in the beginning, there were only twelve families on Nantucket, and they intermarried until whaling became big business and brought more people to the island. The same thing happened elsewhere, and it's not uncommon to run into genetic anomalies like the one on Martha's Vineyard," Philbrick said.

"It's about ordinary people."

Philbrick was raised in Pittsburgh, and for many years he was a freelance sailing journalist and stay-at-home dad. He first became aware of Bunker Hill when he read Esther Forbes' Johnny Tremain in the fifth grade.  "That book made me realize that history isn't about dates, history is about ordinary people," he said. "All my books, in one way or another, are about communities under enormous stress." 

Nathaniel Philbrick then proceeded to hold us spellbound as he wove a tale about life in Boston, Massachusetts during the earliest days of the Revolution.

The three best known patriots in Boston were John Adams, John Hancock, and Samuel Adams, yet when violence broke out, none of them were there. Instead, Philbrick's Bunker Hill: A City, A Siege, A Revolution focuses on Dr. Joseph Warren, an extremely persuasive speaker, and a Son of Liberty.

At the time, Great Britain was $20 billion in debt (in the currency rates of that day) and needed money. The best way to obtain money was through levying taxes. The American Revolution actually started as a conservative movement to keep the status quo. The colonists liked having a distant government that basically kept their noses out of American business. When the British government started raising taxes, there was a hue and a cry-- even though the colonists were only paying 1/50th of the taxes being paid by Londoners.

During this time, the East India Company had a tremendous surplus of tea, so they began selling it to the colonies at one-third its former price with a tiny tax included. An uproar ensued-- mainly because many American merchants were smuggling illegal Dutch tea, and this cheap British tea was undercutting them. Puts a different spin on the Boston Tea Party, doesn't it?

"The chat rooms of their day..."

Nathaniel Philbrick
Enter into Boston British General Thomas Gage. Gage was no stranger to the colonies. He'd spent seventeen years there and had even married a New Jersey girl. Yes, he was sympathetic to the colonists, but he was terribly misguided about how to handle things.

The recently formed Committees of Correspondence had turned Massachusetts town meetings into the chat rooms of their day. Gage quickly learned to hate those town meetings with a passion. While in Boston, Gage found out that the real radicals were in the countryside, so he devised the Massachusetts Government Act which shut down all those town meetings. That's when things really began to blow up.

There was a race for gunpowder because there was only one source. In 1774, the British marched to the Powder House, and waited until daylight ("they didn't think it was a good idea to enter a powder warehouse at night with candles to light the way") to remove the powder and take it to a nearby fort.

Dr. Joseph Warren was the force behind the Suffolk Resolves, which rejected the Massachusetts Government Act and demanded a boycott of goods imported from Britain. Warren knew that the colonists needed to form an army. Remember the midnight ride of Paul Revere? Warren was the man who told Revere and the other men the routes to take. He was a snappy dresser, but the man had no fear. In a skirmish Warren had one of his hairpins shot off by a British soldier. Word went round: "Did you hear? The British almost killed Warren!" The doctor was proving himself to be the type of leader the rebels needed.

Still Spellbound

Philbrick's book begins with the seven-year-old John Quincy Adams and his mother Abigail  watching the Battle of Bunker Hill. One of the things the author discovered was that a famous quote from the Revolutionary War had been changed to make it flow more trippingly off the tongue. "Don't fire until you see the whites of their half gaiters!" doesn't have nearly the same impact as "Don't fire until you see the whites of their eyes!" does it?

Dr. Joseph Warren was killed on the last charge to capture the redoubt. The British suffered 50% casualties, making the Battle of Bunker Hill the bloodiest of the entire war. Historians have said that, if Warren had not died at the Battle of Bunker Hill, George Washington would have been an obscurity-- and things would probably be a lot different. For example, he hated the town meeting mentality so cherished by those in Massachusetts. 

As hostilities grew, the colonials sent Henry Knox, a 25-year-old bookseller, to Ticonderoga for badly needed cannons. Everyone knew Knox was a colonel, but what they didn't know was if he was the right man for the job. He was. Knox and his brother, against tremendous odds, captured the cannons and managed to get them back to Framingham in March 1776.

Available Now!
March 17 is known as Evacuation Day in Boston because on that day in 1776, nine thousand British soldiers and sympathizers left the city. 

When the Declaration of Independence was first heard on July 4, 1776, most colonists understood it to be talking about their rights as British subjects. Bunker Hill bookends with the reading of the Declaration of Independence from the Old State House, and this time people knew that the rights being talked about were theirs as American citizens.

In the concluding epilogue, Philbrick once again has readers meet John Quincy Adams. This time he is in his seventies, standing at the Bunker Hill Monument.

What doesn't show in this recap is how Philbrick enthralled us all with these snippets from his book. This man makes history come to life, not only on the page but as he speaks. This was his first appearance at The Poisoned Pen, and I hope it won't be his last. He's fantastic!



  1. Cathy - I love the vicarious trips to the PP :-). And now I must read this book. This is a new-to-me-author.

    1. Oh, you have some absolutely marvelous reading ahead of you, Margot!


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