In the Heart of the Sea

Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth) Man vs. Nature

NATHANIEL PHILBRICK  specializes in U.S. maritime history and combines his engrossing story-telling sensibilities with fine research. In 2000, his nonfiction National Book Award Winner, In the Heart of the Sea, inspired the 2010 PBS documentary Into the Deep directed by Ric Burns and narrated by Willem Dafoe. Next came the recent 2015 Ron Howard film, In the Heart of the Sea, starring Chris Hemsworth, Brendan Gleeson, Tom Holland, and Cillian Murphy. Of course, Herman Melville wrote the classic Man vs. Nature classic, Moby Dick, in 1851 about Captain Ahab’s obsession for revenge against the mighty Sperm whale. All four versions of the sinking of the whaleship Essex combine the history of Nantucket and the Romanticism between the sailor and the sea and his ship. All versions are worthy ways of spending your time and will enhance your knowledge of Colonial America.

The History 

The 50 by 30 mile stretch of land off Cape Cod became the heart of the whaling industry from approximately 1620-1865. Until the advent of kerosene, the highest quality oil used to make wax candles and light lanterns were from the rendered oil of whales. Dug out from the bulbous head of the Sperm whale, the Spermaceti oil could fill 34 barrels and was most valuable. At first, the Wampanoag and Nantucketers stripped and boiled the blubber from the drift whales which had been stranded on shore. Over the years, sailors ventured further off the coast to deeper waters and discovered pools of Sperm whales. It evolved into a two hundred year industry and sailors became more than hunters. The ships became floating factories for processing and storing the oil. They became merchants and explorers, too. For one to five years, sailors set off on voyages in search of whales to fill the empty barrels lying on the belly of their ships. From Nantucket, the Westerlies pushed them toward South America. They rounded Cape Horn and floated up the coast of Chile to the Galapagos Islands and kicked out into the expansive Pacific Ocean in search of the migratory pools of Sperm whales. According to scholars on the PBS documentary, Into the Sea, “By 1775, 360 whaling boats went out to hunt the whale; 15 came from Nantucket. Fifty percent of the profit of exports in New England came from the whaling industry.” I don’t think it can be stressed enough how important the whaling industry solidified the economic success of the burgeoning northern colonies. Consider that the South had cash crops (tobacco, rice, indigo, cotton) while the North had whales. It is interesting to consider that both regional ends vanquished mammals for their economic success – whales in the north and slave labor in the south. 

New Bedford Whaling Museum, Harpooning the Whale

The Romance

The culture of a sailor and his life onboard a ship was a mixture of extremes. Boredom, while waiting to spot the whale. Then,  “Thar she blows!” followed by the rambunctious attack with harpoons aimed for the lungs, the pull and the stabbing, the gross “flurry” as the whale drowns in her own blood, the shout from the crew, “Chimney’s afire!” and then the three-day processing of peeling off the blubber, melting of blubber, the furnaces stoked and the smells and the slime of oil glistening the faces of the sailors as if they labored in the pits of Hell. Ghastly.

Remember to factor in the religious temperament of the 17th and 18th-century colonist whose explanation of the workings of the world were inextricable with the Bible and Divine Providence. That is, the sailor, the captain, and her ship were “vessels of exoticism, traveling around the globe in the pursuit of conquering the Leviathan, a sea monster from the Old Testament.” The whale was considered evil; man’s conquering was a noble feat. Surviving a voyage was an adventure for the crew and the officers; it defined manhood. The beauty and wildness of nature attracted the sailor. The horizon blended water and sky into a location of unearthliness. There was no time or place. Out in the Pacific Ocean–it must feel to what astronauts feel out in space–one is a speck, surrounded by infinity, overwhelmed with fear and awesomeness.

The Film 

After watching the film five times, I am in admiration of Ron Howard. He followed Nathanial Philbrick’s book with the attention to detail that mirrored the historical climate from the book. The true voyage of 1820 combined an unnatural pairing of the first mate, Owen Chase, (Chris Hemsworth) the “fishy” second-in-command whose natural instincts and assertiveness commanded the respect of the crew, while Captain Pollard (Benjamin Walker) was more a “social” leader, seeking suggestions, and thereby perceived too passive.

Where Ron Howard might have lost a few critics and fans for lulls in the action was the overarching narration of the telling of the story from the perspective of an older Thomas Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson) who was a cabin boy during the sinking of the Essex and the 90 days lost out at sea. Fighting the shame and guilt of sins committed staying alive, Nickerson is paid by a young Herman Melville (Ben Whishaw) to share the survival story and strange actions of the angry 85-foot Sperm whale, Moby Dick, who “stove” the Essex.

By including this line of narration, Howard blends the history of the story with the American Romantic classic, Moby Dick. Philbrick’s book centers on the recently discovered diary from the 1990s of the cabin-boy, Nickerson, to add a fresh twist to the long staple, Owen Chase’s account of the disaster, written months after the 1820 disaster. Howard respects this and gives life to the orphan boy who found himself at 13 on the voyage of a lifetime.

Ron Howard is criticized for his sappy interjections in an otherwise interesting plot. It’s his Achilles Heel. In this case, while devoting his film to a logical, realistic account, he incorporates the Man vs. Nature elements of the novel Moby Dick by bestowing anthropomorphic qualities to the whale. It’s the climax of the film, so I can’t specifically say, but it is the flaw of the film for me that brings my rating down a notch. I will hint at it: when man and beast come eye to eye, they come to an understanding.

In Nathaniel Philbrick‘s account, the whale struck the ship and was never seen again. The film version embellishes the history by embracing Melville’s book. Those that love Herman Melville and the personifications found in the literature would not have issues with the personification of the whale in the film. If you want a realistic account of events, the climax might feel far-fetched. Does it work? You tell me.  4/5.

American Experience: Into the Deep: America, Whaling & the World DVD 

Parker, Hershel, and Harrison Hayford (eds). (2001). Herman Melville, Moby-Dick. A Norton

     Critical Edition. Second Edition, New York and London: W.W. Norton & Company.

     ISBN 9780393972832

Philbrick, Nathaniel. In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex., 2001. Print. 

ISBN-10: 0141001828  ISBN-13: 9780141001821

Five Shots: OBX

Kill Devil Hills Beach

North Carolina’s Outer Banks (OBX) has a history of pirates and lighthouses, THE LOST COLONY OF ROANOKE, and the location of Orville and Wilbur Wright’s famous first flight in 1903. Check out this CBS Sunday Morning video about historian David McCullough’s book, The Wright Brothers. (A great read).

On the OBX you will discover sand dunes and wild horses and your eyes will fill with brown sugar beaches and water–the Pamlico Sound on the west side and the Atlantic Ocean on the east side. In addition to the history, add Southern hospitality and all the seafood you can eat. The warm breezes and the chilly Atlantic relaxed us beyond measure. Jim and I attended a special wedding at sunset on the beach when the waves turned into silver and the tall grass on the dunes waved under the pink sunset. Living in the desert, the water was therapeutic for us. We were only there for a few days, but in my mind, I’m already planning to rent a house and have a full family vacation at the OBX in the future. But for now, it was a welcome retreat and an opportunity to rejoice in an intimate family celebration.  Which shot do you like best?

Fish Enchiladas at Bernie’s
Kill Devil Hills looking North
Pamlico Sound Tiki Bar at Duck

Pamlico Sound house pier
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Bodie Lighthouse
View at the top
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Looking down nine floors

Oregon Inlet fishing station. Today’s catch.
Mahi
Waves at Rodanthe
Sunset over Pamlico Sound
Supper’s Ready
The bride and groom and the proud witnesses

 

 

Are You Not Entertained?

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I was. Here continues a monthly series featuring the music, the books, and the movies that occupied my time.  

MUSIC

Bach’s six Brandenburg Concertos epitomized the Baroque period. Introduced to them twenty years ago, and despite my leaning toward the passionate Russian romantics, I learned to appreciate the symmetrical beauty of Bach’s piano works. In the 1950s and 60s, no one denied Glenn Gould the title of genius when performing them. A quirky man in a world of his own, humming on his own recordings, I highly recommend the unusual, artistic film of 32 vignettes by Director François Girard (The Red Violin) and Colm Feore starring as Gould.

And then, for a musical treat, I got a kick out watching an old television program which featured some fabulous icons–Leonard Bernstein, Glenn Gould, and Russian composer, Igor Stravinsky. You can watch Glenn Gould play around the 18:00-minute mark.

BOOKS 

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It’s been all about Steve McQueen in my house this past month. For the winter project, I’ve immersed myself in Marshall Terrill’s biography. As a cultural icon of the 1960s and 70s, I was reminded how free-flowing the sex, drugs, fast cars, and fashion mattered. McQueen loved it all and was an international star, commanding at his zenith almost a million dollars a film. In 1980, he died at the age of 50 of Mesothelioma from his days as a Marine, scraping asbestos off the walls of a ship. Did I like Steve McQueen after reading all about him? Not particularly, but he was cool to watch on the screen, and the biography was fast and fun, just like the man. 4/5.

MOVIES (TV)

st-vinyl-vol-1-front-cover_3000Stranger Things, the Netflix series starred a shrilled, hyperventilating Winona Rider, an ensemble of geeky pre-teens, stereotypical high schoolers, and two actors whose characters were interesting: Chief Hopper (David Harbour) and the fantastic Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) who reminded me of a young Natalie Portman. Nostalgic, dripping with Steven Spielberg tricks, it is my new guilty pleasure. 4/5

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Controversial director, Roman Polanski, has a gift for making beautiful films, and this political thriller is no exception. You may think you are on Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts, but not so. The sand dunes, bulbous gray clouds, and windy spray was located on the North Sea island of Sylt. The Ghost Writer matched style with substance. Ewan McGregor and Pierce Brosnan lead a fine ensemble cast with enough twists and turns to keep you engaged. And that closing shot is one of the best I’ve seen in a while.   4/5.

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Quiz Show(1994). Directed by Robert Redford. Stars Ralph Fiennes, John Turturro, Rob Morrow, and Paul Scofield. It’s funny. It’s smart. Based on true events, Ralph Fiennes plays Charlie Van Dorena WASP, a professor of literature, whose ivy-league-Brahmin-of-a-father has basked in fame and respect for decades and junior sets out to make a name for himself. Unfortunately, his moral dilemma piques the journalistic interest of a brilliant investigative reporter played by Rob Morrow. The acting is outstanding and Paul Attanasio‘s adapted screenplay is an English major’s dream. Who wouldn’t want to sit at the family picnic table with academian greats and listen to them recite Hawthorne and Shakespeare while munching on corn on the cob? Okay, well, I would. Robert Redford warns us of television’s manipulative power, run by executives, who will do anything for ratings. Sound familiar?  Mark Van Doren: Cheating on a quiz show? That’s sort of like plagiarizing a comic strip.”  4.5/5. 

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For the Love of Spock (2016). Even if you aren’t a Star Trek fan, I forgive you; everyone should watch this outstanding documentary for the cultural-historical relevance (breaking television boundaries with interracial mixing and science fiction influencing the leading scientists of today) and insight as to why Star Trek fans are a loyal bunch. On Netflix, it’s perfect entertainment during a work week evening when you are loafing on the couch with not much going on. Nimoy’s son chronicles his father’s life with balance and grace. I vividly remember as a girl lying on the floor in front of the TV mesmerized during all 79 episodes. Then came the movies. That’s a lot of emotional bonding and why creator Gene Roddenberry and Leonard Nimoy are tops in my book. 4.5/5 

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The Innocents (2016). At first, I wondered if this was a remake of the 1961 Jack Clayton film with the same title starring Deborah Kerr during Victorian England. Looks great! However, this is not the case. This French film directed by Anna Fontaine is about a young French Red Cross doctor (Lou de Laâge) who is sent in 1945 Poland to assist the survivors of the German camps and discovers several nuns in advanced states of pregnancy during a visit to a nearby convent. It is a fantastic based-on-true-events effort by Fontaine.  My only criticism is the space between the doctor and the nuns. The nuns remain “others” and in spite of the intimacy of delivering baby after baby; the nuns remain foreign entities other than a couple of brief conversations. On the plus side, I thought it a good call in the script to avoid flashbacks of the rapes. 4/5.

 A Man Called Ove (2016) This Swedish gem directed by Hannes Holms and his screenplay adapted from Fredrik Backman‘s novel of the same name was a surprise treat. This dark comedy affected me to tears which I wasn’t expecting. The grumpy old man, Ove, (Rolf Lassgård) who can’t come to terms with his wife’s death, discovers there’s still meaning in life. He seems like the dull model of mediocrity, but his love story told through flashbacks about his beautiful wife Sonja (Ida Engvoll) provides depth and surprises. The grumpy old man stereotype turns into a complex character when the people in his present like the Middle Eastern young wife (Bahar Pars) who helps him realize that life has a purpose even when you think you’re done with it. Touching and beautiful. 4.5/5.

 

Thomas Hardy and Pints at The Wiseman

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In 1996, I studied Thomas Hardy (Tess of the d’Urbervilles) in Dorset County, England for six weeks during the summer.  Dr. Morgan, an Illinois State University professor, was a Hardy Scholar and for over 20 years, he took students to this south-central slice of heaven. Before his retirement, I signed up for the graduate English course as one of a group of twelve. An Elizabethan summer home was converted into an Agricultural College and while students were out for the summer, our group used their dorm rooms and facilities.

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The upside to the incessant rain in June provided lush gardens for us to enjoy in July. img-216113732img-216113732

During the day, the gazebo at the top of this croquet garden was the perfect spot for reading Thomas Hardy’s books and poetry. At night, it was the perfect confessional for heart-to-heart talks under the stars.  Thomas Hardy lived in and loved Dorset County so much, he set his novels about the county, but changed the names of the towns and hamlets to fictional ones. For his most famous novel, Tess of the d’Urbervilles, our time in the Elizabethan mansion was a location spot, too. Hardy’s satirical story of Tess was a sad one. She was a milkmaid who was raped, loved and lost her man Angel. She became a mistress and a murderess. The double-standard of the Victorian female purity makes Tess a significant British novel.

For each of Hardy’s novels, we journeyed to the exact location of the plot and read it there. One such spot was Stonehenge. When I first visited Stonehenge in the late 70s, you could walk in and around and hug the stones, if you wanted. By the time I was last there in 1996, they had roped off the area due to vandalism. Imagine spray-painting one of the druid stones. Blasphemy! Now all one can do is walk around them from afar. If getting close to rocks is your thing, head up north to the other end of the island and take a ferry to the Orkney and Shetland Islands and you can dance around ancient rocks all day long.

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One spot (above) in Tess of the d’Urbervilles is the Sandbourne seaside resort area. Very close by is Lulworth Cove where a person can hike the trails for hundreds of miles along the southern coast. When I return to the area someday, I imagine hiking all day, followed by pints in the evening and a night in a B & B. What a great way to spend a summer in England, I daydream. Here are some of my favorite shots that I took.

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Speaking of pints, I love English pubs, especially thatched ones. When class was over for the day and we exhausted every angle of analyzing Tess, a small group of us would head off a mile away for evening mingling with the locals at The Wise Man Inn.

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Tuesdays were dart night. The league was getting ready to begin when a few of the men from the village had not shown up. There was a grandfatherly type who ran the show and he asked our table of six girls if anyone wanted to fill in. It just so happened I was a pretty good dart player; I had lots of practice when I lived in Scotland while stationed in the Navy.

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Feeling merry from the lager, I stood at the line, facing the board and wondered where to throw. UK dart players can count backward from 301 and reach zero a lot faster than I can, and the experienced dart players in a league liked to play quickly. It was our turn, and we had 103 points remaining to win the game. My partner, the old gentleman who’d been playing for sixty years, stood next to my ear and whispered where I was to throw the darts. “Triple 20.” Pling!  He whispered again, “Triple 13.” It was like he was in my mind talking to my hand. Perfect. Finally, he said, “Double two.”  Ha! We won the game, and everyone clapped. It was one of my finer moments.

“The Voice”

By Thomas Hardy

 

Woman much missed, how you call to me, call to me,
Saying that now you are not as you were
When you had changed from the one who was all to me,
But as at first, when our day was fair.
Can it be you that I hear? Let me view you, then,
Standing as when I drew near to the town
Where you would wait for me: yes, as I knew you then,
Even to the original air-blue gown!
Or is it only the breeze, in its listlessness
Travelling across the wet mead to me here,
You being ever dissolved to wan wistlessness,
Heard no more again far or near?
Thus I; faltering forward,
Leaves around me falling,
Wind oozing thin through the thorn from norward,
And the woman calling.

Are You Not Entertained?

Here continues a monthly series featuring the music, the books, and the movies that occupied my time.  

MUSIC

For anyone who likes 60s Rock and Roll music and music history in general, check out the 2008 documentary, The Wrecking Crew.  On Netflix,  it is easy to be absorbed with a unique story about the Los Angeles entourage of approximately fifteen session musicians who made groups and singers like The Mama and the Papas, Elvis, and The Beach Boys sound great. Their names didn’t make it on the album, but for fifteen-odd years, they played on hundreds of albums and created the iconic sounds we take for granted today. 4.5/5.

BOOKS 

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Margaret Atwood, The Robber Bride

What does Margaret do best? She creates a cast of characters, rich with dimension, and stages each with a different perspective about the world around them. First published in 1993, Atwood adapts the Brothers Grimm story, “The Robber Bridegroom.” Three friends are connected by Zenia, who rises to monstrous proportions and wreaks havoc on their lives. My favorite character is Tony, a professor of military history who sees the world via tactical advances and retreats. Tony plays word games by spelling them backward and noticing the how the spin transforms the word into a new connotation thus expanding her vocabulary in an atypical way. This is a clever example of how Atwood drapes details around her characters to breathe originality into her creations. If you appreciate character-driven stories, you’d like this one. 4/5.

MOVIES

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After watching director David Mackenzie’s efforts in Hell or High Water (2016), I want to see his British prison film, Starred Up (2013)Taylor Sheridan has an authentic, dialogue-rich script on his hands. As regionalist American writer William Faulkner was famous for revealing the death and disillusionment of the deep south in the early twentieth century, Sheridan and Mackenzie paint a gloomy, desperate rural Texas. Add the outstanding acting by Ben Foster and Chris Pine, brothers who are a believable team, and Jeff Bridges who reprises his guttural mutterings from True Grit to play the smart, irascible Texas Ranger, Marcus. His friendship with his Mestizo partner, Alberto (Gil Birmingham) is endearing. 4.5/5

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Hunt for the Wilderpeople(2016). The first third of the film was great. However, as the plot devolved into the ridiculous, I wondered what I was watching. Was it made for a young adult audience? The over-the-top she-cop (Rima Te Wiatta) made sense then. Was it a dark comedy for adults along the lines of Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom? The violence of the animal hacking and skinning and the themes of death and hopelessness made sense then. Sam Neill performed well as the hairy, grieving misanthrope and Ricky (Julian Dennison) was at times annoying to watch with alternating moments of flatness and sincerity. The lush New Zealand landscape was a plus. 3.5/5. 

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Dr. Strange (2016). I’ve read a lot of varying reviews regarding this new addition to the Marvel galaxy. Benedict Cumberbatch, who did his best to sound just like Harrison Ford, becomes the protegee under the marvelous sorceress, Tilda Swinton. I enjoyed the relationship between Stephen and Christine (Rachel McAdams), and appreciated the new spin on Inception/The Matrix borrowings of dimensional shifting and appearance vs. reality. The time-moving-backward scene was brilliant. I was less enamored with the talk and the trap of the golem. I loved the red cape that functioned as a cool suit of armor. Overall, it worked for me. 4/5.

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Congratulations, Viggo Mortensen, on another great performance. Wouldn’t it be cool if your brilliant parents hid you out in the middle of the woods, gave you lots of siblings, and you all grew up in harmony as a cult of the Übermensch? Captain Fantastic is a heartwarming tale that satirizes everything wrong with modern society. In the end, the individual vs. society argument ends with a compromise. The freak must conform to find happiness. The conformist must break free of materialism and live pro-actively. Far-leftists and homeschooling parents will love Captain Fantastic. Survivalists and naturalists will love Captain Fantastic. There is a lot to think about with this dark comedy. Let’s all turn off the television and pick up a book. I’ll start with Chomsky. 4.5/5  

mv5bmtyxmjk0ndg4ml5bml5banbnxkftztgwodcynja5ote-_v1_ux182_cr00182268_al_ Manchester by the Sea (2016)Yes, I agree with everyone that Casey Affleck gave an outstanding performance as the passive-aggressive janitor Lee Chandler. He wasn’t the only one. His ex-wife Randi played by Michelle Williams was outstanding.  Lucas Hedges played the tossed around nephew, Patrick, yet he annoyed the heck out of me. Many people know Matt Damon produced the film and indeed, writer and director Kenneth Lonergan, created a realistic, Bostonian culture with all the profanity that you’d expect. When the reason for Lee Chandler’s despair was exposed, I wept all over my buttered-popcorn stained napkin. I am not suggesting there should have been a happy ending, but I hoped for some type of resolution or redemption. Instead, this is a tale of a man who is lost and finds no solution to his guilt. It’s one of the more depressing films I’ve seen in ages. 4/5.  

The Wrong Man(1956) This American docudrama film directed by Alfred Hitchcock starred Henry Fonda as Manny, a poor musician from New York, who is in love with his wife Rose and his two sons. He is a sincere man, who cooperates with detectives who claim he has held up various stores and an insurance company. His wife, Rose (Vera Miles), cannot handle the scandal and upheaval of her life. Bernard Herrmann‘s score is a chisel to the brain. Hitchcock includes ingenious camera angles like the simulation of Manny’s panic in his cell by shaking the camera in a circle or the appearance of the real thief transposed over Fonda’s face. I expected something more from Fonda who felt wooden to me. Did you think it was suspenseful? 3.5/5.

 

IMO: Baby Talk and the Passage of Time

Fellow blogger, South African/Londoner,  ABBI O,  chronicled her thoughts of pregnancy; when “Little O” was born, Abbi continued her posts about the life-change, documenting her thoughts of motherhood and the demands of her now five-month-old son. Not only does her dry wit make me laugh, she makes me think about the passage of time. Her journal-in-the-making is a clever idea. I imagine Little O when he’s older and turns into Bigger O asking her what it was like to carry him inside her body? To have him? What was he like as a boy? She has gathered her posts and self-published them. She tosses her book to Bigger O and says, “Read all about it.” When Abbi is much older, she will toss the book to her pregnant daughter-in-law, and assure her the fear is universal, the experience is awesome, she understands, and it will bring comfort. When Abbi is ancient, she will revisit herself in words, that worried young woman from her past, and smile at her and feel pride that she muddled through it all miraculously just fine. She’ll look across the room at Biggest O, who is now a father himself, and wonder how time flew by.

Based on a diary, 1785–1812, professor Laurel Thatcher Ulrich investigated the entries of a midwife, Martha Ballard. It’s an interesting account because, in the center of a Maine community, she literally touched the lives of everyone in it and provided a glimpse of the values and expectations of gender, the struggle to fight the seasons, impartial diseases, techniques for perseverance, and the cycle of life through births and deaths. It is a rare, profound historical portrait. And yet, at the time of her writing, Martha Ballard was unaware her diary entries would become important one day. Her “voice” varied depending on time and tiredness. Martha was at times insightful, other times clinical, like her profession as she weaved in and out of households aiding the sick. Recommended. 4/5.

In my opinion, Abbi is creating a historical portrait, a primary source. Fifty years from now, a hundred years–two–social historians could look to her blog or self-published book about motherhood and life from 2016 onward from a historical perspective. I read about an abolitionist the other day whose date of birth matched my own, minus a hundred years. She was born in 1863 and lived until 1951. Can you imagine all that she saw? How much the world changed? From the death of Abraham Lincoln through World War II? From buggies to rocket ships? From the telegraph to the television? I wonder what life will be like if I made it until 2051. Just saying the date makes me shake my head in wonder.

Here is the passage of time illustrated by my granddaughter, Amelia. She’ll be four in February.

Where did the time fly? 

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