Who Wore it Best? 8 “Girls” who dressed as Boys in the American Revolution

Dear Friends,

Happy March! What happened to January? And February? It seems like just yesterday, I was celebrating New Year’s Eve, and now March and Women’s History Month is upon us.

The publicity surrounding the revival of the musical 1776 this past year made me think about women wearing men’s clothes in the American Revolution. The best part of the show for me was its costumes that transformed actors identifying as women, nonbinary, and trans to men (in the words of AmRep). 

Dressing my Characters

When I dress the characters in my writing, I always think about how they would feel wearing a particular clothing item or outfit. One theme of my yet-to-be-published novel, A Little Rebellion, is how several people might feel wearing a British Red Coat. They include a free Black teenage boy who enlists with the British, a self-proclaimed pacifist Quaker boy, and a non-traditional girl.

I had plenty of material to work from. Novels and true accounts of the American Revolution include a number of women/girls who dressed as men/boys. Whether they did so out of necessity or desire is speculation. But think about how they felt. Here are eight and a few books you might enjoy:

  1. Let it Begin Here: Deborah Samson

Perhaps the best known of the group, she disguised herself as a young boy to join the Continental Army in New England at the height of the American Revolution. Revolutionary by Alex Myers describes the effect wearing men’s clothes had on the wearer: “She shook off the stray strands and then walked across the chamber, watching herself in the glass, seeing how her stride had stretched out, how her arms swung loose at her sides. She looked just like a young man. She stared and stared, trying to believe this wasn’t someone else. This was her reflection. This was Robert Shurtliff. If you want to meet Deborah Samson/Robert Shurtliff you’re in luck. History at Play (Judith Kalaora pictured above) performs live and online each year, telling Samson’s story.

  1. A couple of Male Soldiers: Anna Maria Lane and her husband

Virginia’s only female soldier in the Revolutionary War, Anna Maria Lane joined the Continental Army in 1776 along with her husband. Dressed in men’s clothing, she performed the duties of a soldier in battles in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Georgia. At the Battle of Germantown, Pennsylvania, Anna Maria received a leg wound that left her with a life-long disability. She was later awarded a pension for her courage. I haven’t found any novels about her; let me know if you do!

The Teen Corner

  1. Sybil Ludington: A Girl Paul Revere

On April 26, 1777, 16-year-old Sybil Ludington rode her horse, Star, astride in borrowed wool breeches during a driving rainstorm. She travelled 40 miles to warn local residents that the British were planning to raid the Continental Army’s stockpile of provisions in Danbury, Connecticut. Not unlike Revere, who two years earlier alerted the communities outside of Boston to British troops on the march to seize arms, Ludington raised the alarm in Putnam County, New York. While the British were successful in their raid, the Patriots, alerted by Ludington’s alarm, encountered the British at nearby Ridgefield, Connecticut. They successfully drove them back to Long Island Sound. 

  1. Betsy Dowdy and the Best Pony Ever

On the night of December 6, 1775, on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, news reached the Dowdy family. 16-year-old Betsy Dowdy overheard the story that British General Dunmore had captured Great Bridge, closing off the islands from trade goods. Dowdy made up her mind to go to American General Skinner herself on her pony, Black Bess. After swimming across Currituck Sound, she rode through the Great Dismal Swamp, Camden, and then Elizabeth City. Galloping more than 50 miles, she finally reached the outskirts of Hertford, where she told General Skinner about Lord Dunmore’s plans. Calling his men to arms, the troops marched north just in time for the Battle of Great Bridge.

  1. Susanna Bolling and her Midnight Ride

Susanna Bolling, a 16-year-old from Hopewell, Virginia also outsmarted the British on horseback. In May of 1781, British General Lord Cornwallis and his troops invaded Susanna’s family’s land at City Point. Overhearing Cornwallis’s plan to capture American ally General Lafayette, Susanna decided to act. Dressed in her brother’s clothes, Susanna rowed alone across the Appomattox River. Borrowing a friend’s horse, she raced 10 miles to warn Lafayette, allowing him to escape and carry on the fight against the British.

  1. Dicey Langston and a Difficult Horse

15-year-old “Dicey” Langston, who lived during the Revolutionary War, was a Patriot who carried messages from the Loyalists. By doing so, she saved many lives and helped to win the fight for freedom. Overhearing that a band of Loyalists known as the “Bloody Scouts” were going to attack the Elder Settlement at Little Eden, South Carolina at dawn, she put on some of her brother James’s clothes. Why? She did it to smell like her brother and to ride a stallion that would only let her brother near him. Crossing a swollen river, she nearly drowned, but made it in time to warn James so that he and his men could warn the Settlement. When the Bloody Scouts arrived the next day, the Settlement had been evacuated. 

An Army of Women….

  1. Prudence Wright and her female militia: why not?

A patriot, soldier, and hero, Prudence Cummings Wright defied traditional gender roles to protect her town during the American Revolution. Her husband, David, along with other patriotic Pepperell, Massachusetts men, responded to the war’s first shots at Lexington by marching to a nearby town to intercept advancing British troops. Prudence then came up with an idea for the women left at home: a female militia. They dubbed themselves the “Minutewomen.” Prudence, who had been elected the militia’s captain, and about 30-40 other townswomen dressed as men, shouldered muskets, wielded pitchforks, and marched to Jewett’s Bridge. It was here on the Nashua River that the “Prudence Wright Guard” planned to intimidate the approaching Redcoats. The courageous women successfully stopped the British, captured several soldiers, and intercepted vital dispatches regarding troop movements.

Outside Betsy Ross House, Philadelphia
  1. The Widow of Mount Holly: Betsy Ross??

David Hackett Fischer writes in Washington’s Crossing, of a “mysterious widow” who may have played a crucial role in the victory that George Washington and his troops won at Trenton, New Jersey, on the day after Christmas in 1776.

During the fall of that year, Washington and his army had been chased across the Delaware River into Pennsylvania by the British Army. The commander of the British-allied Hessian forces was Colonel Carl Von Donrop. Having come to Mount Holly, he decided to stay and to keep most of his troops with him despite the fact that he was far from the action in Trenton. Why? Because of an “exceedingly beautiful young widow,” according to his contemporaries.

Donrop stayed the night in Mount Holly on December 23 and then through Christmas. When Washington crossed the Delaware River on Christmas night and attacked the troops at Trenton early the next morning, Donrop was not close enough to offer support.

Fischer speculates that the widow may have been Betsy Ross. She had family in the area, and her husband John Ross had died earlier that year. While entertaining Donrop, the Widow probably wore women’s garb, but in the book The Turncoat by Donna Thorland, the Widow shows up in a variety of disguises, including that of a young boy stablehand, as well as a generic “man.”

Of course, women fought and helped in many other ways during the War for Independence. I know I’ve left a lot of heroines of the American Revolution out, but please let me know if you’re a fan of any others!

Peace, Kate

P.S. If you haven’t had a chance to read my short story, “Welcome,” yet, I’ve recently added a Writing Page!


My goyishe potato pancakes: A Jewish-Christian/Quaker Tale

Dear Friends,

Happy holidays! 

At our last Book Club of the year, I was chatting with one of my friends. She was talking about the Italian Christmas she grew up with. Christmas Eve for her was a bigger holiday than Christmas itself, with numerous relatives, and the Feast of the Seven Fishes, a multi-course meal ending with fabulous desserts and an all-important “cookie course.”

Christmas in Dyker Heights, an Italian neighborhood in Brooklyn

Not really what he was expecting…

For those of you who don’t know me IRL, I’m in an interfaith marriage, having married a Jewish guy 30 years ago. You can read more about it here. When Mr. Brooklyn (as he’s known on social media) met me, he’d grown up not celebrating Christmas at his house, but spending Christmas Eve with his Italian friend down the street, experiencing the above. When I met him, he asked me what I did on Christmas Eve with my family. “Um…we usually eat quiche and then go to a low-key Episcopal Church service.” Not really what he was expecting….

Christmas at Woodford Mansion


I listened to a TED talk this summer from Brene Brown on the recommendation of another Book Club friend. Brown describes nostalgia and longing for a feeling (of childhood or times past) as not missing actual things: the Christmas tree, a present, a food, a particular person, or even that time of life, but the FEELING we had at that time. While my humble Christmas Eve might sound uninspiring (and perhaps sprung from my mother’s Quaker roots), it always seemed magical to me: the anticipation of Christmas, Christmas music, waiting for Santa (when I was young), waiting to see if the animals spoke (if I were watching the Waltons). In the same way, the Christmas Eve of my husband’s youth sounds amazing even though it was totally removed from his culture.

Christmas at Betsy Ross’s house with some greenery for decoration. Christmas trees weren’t a thing until the mid 1800’s.

Do Quakers Celebrate Christmas?

For this question, I defer to Quaker.org who can explain things better than I ever could! It is my understanding that Christmas for Quakers is not really a Feast of the Seven Fishes kind of holiday. There is some celebration of Christmas in contemporary times, despite the lingering Quaker belief that “all days are holy days.”

Whose Culture is Better?

One thing I learned from speaking with many interfaith families is that it is never a great idea to talk about whose culture is better. By “culture,” I mean anything from what you have for dessert on Christmas Eve to whether you’d favor silence over music in a church service. By the way, those who are interested in the intersection of Quaker heritage and contemporary culture should drop everything and read Albion’s Seed immediately! As a distant Quaker cousin says, “this book explains everything–why I act a particular way, why I like a particular kind of custard!”

In a partnership, it’s better to focus on what you can’t possibly give up for another person. Many times, this comes down to things that don’t make logical sense (you want to have that pudding, or this particular kind of lox, or a tree, or a creche, or a menorah. These pieces of your culture may seem more important to you than any theological disagreement because they’re tied to those nostalgic feelings.

Lox for breakfast––or Reality is a Social Construct!

On Christmas morning, our family always has bagels and lox. Why? Because when my husband spent Christmas with me and my parents years ago, they served him bagels and lox Christmas morning because they thought he might really like them. And so he’s always thought it’s a Christian tradition, much like the Feast of the Seven Fishes, rather than something we did one time for him.

In my writing…

I haven’t written any Christmas scenes into my novels because…well, Quakers! But I do have Eben buying a book of Latin poetry for Elizabeth for Christmas, and then hiding it away. I also have a tendency to write snow scenes, having grown up in some of the snowiest parts of the U.S., but then I realize I’m writing about England…or Philadelphia.

Oh, my latkes!

I did mention them, didn’t I? My husband and I celebrate both Christmas and Hanukkah now, and I’ve developed a feeling for Hanukkah not borne of childhood memories but celebrating with my own children. As for Jewish cooking…let’s just say I dabble and then sometimes add more non-Jewish elements. A rabbi at a Hanukkah party examining my crumbling sweet potato and pepper latkes remarked, with the solemnity of a brain surgeon, “I think it’s an issue with the starch.”

Whatever you’re celebrating…

I hope the December holidays bring you peace, the joy of nostalgia, the discovery of new traditions and maybe even an appreciation of silence (in between the endless soundtrack of Christmas songs.)

Happy holidays, Kate

P.S. Still querying. The word on the street from agents about my Revolution-era novel: “this is a hard time period to sell!”

P.P.S. Still amazed…This blog from 2020 continues to draw thousands of views from all over the world.

P.P.P.S. Still working…if you didn’t catch my story in Friends Journal last month, take a look. I’m now drafting a novel and the story is one chapter within it.


“Welcome”: a short story

Dear Friends, 

Last year, Friends Journal decided to do a fiction issue for the first time. This year they decided to do it again, and I’m excited that my story, “Welcome,” is in it. If you have a few moments, please check out my very short, short story. 

My story is a fictional account of a young couple’s journey on the ship Welcome in 1682. My research into my Quaker ancestry inspired me to write both the story, and a longer WIP, working title: A Little Journey. I’ve written a very messy first draft and am planning to spend the winter working on it.

You may recall I retraced my ancestors’ steps by taking a journey to Oxton, Nottinghamshire, UK in 2019 as documented in my blog Why would you ever leave? I then spent some time on the other end of the journey at Darby Meeting where my Quaker ancestors worshipped, after sailing on the Welcome with William Penn in 1682.

Once you’ve read the story you might want to come back here for more information on the Welcome:

The Voyage of the Welcome:


More on the Voyage:


More on William Penn



17th Century Hornpipe Music

I hope you enjoy the story as well as the other Quaker fiction! 

Peace, Kate


Deconstructing the Bonnet

This book caught my eye when I saw it go by on Twitter

It’s the end of September and I’m back at my desk reading and writing about all sorts of things. Reader, I am no longer in the habit of reading literary essays. It has been years! But I stumbled upon this book on Twitter and just knew I had to read it…

First, can we talk about the bonnet? Does it look to you like a Conestoga wagon? Or is it just me? From scholar Carolina Fernandez Rodriguez’s “American Quaker Romances: Building the myth of the white Christian nation” (you’ can read a synopsis of the book at this link), I’ve now learned that a bonnet is not just a bonnet. In the essay, she cites Jennifer Connerly who posits that the “Quaker bonnet” is a deeply-erotic object. Huh? I would brush this off, but I do remember an episode of “Love, American Style” (really dating myself here) with a woman who refused to take her gloves off…it drove the men in her life completely wild.

But I digress…

Here, I am getting a little too excited about bonnets

I agree!

First, compared to Fernandez Rodriquez, I’m a total piker when it comes to reading Quaker romances. Though I set out to do much the same thing, I stopped at about 10 Quaker historicals. She read 44! Including ALL the Lyn Cote Quaker books. Wow. I’ve just barely cracked open “Their Frontier Family (Wilderness Brides Book 1).” You can read more about my journey here.

Wow, she read them all, even the really dull ones. And to read them with a critical eye, not just a “when is this going to be over, this is pretty bad” is amazing. I was also happy that she discovered some of them are not terrible!

Bonnets: I agree with many of the points she sets out. First, many a bonnet novel is written by a non-Quaker seemingly hoping to mirror the success of similar Amish bonnet novels (displayed prominently at Hudson News). At one point she quotes Valerie Weaver-Zercher, marketing president for a Christian publishing house who said, “You slap a bonnet on the cover and double the sales.”

Religion: there is a strange evangelical undertone to many of these works that seems antithetical to Quakerism. I noticed it in one collection of Quaker novellas where hardly anything resembled Quakerism as I know it (I’m not a Quaker, but I know.) Then again, there ARE evangelical Quakers, but these stories were something else entirely and even seemed to have an odd political agenda (something about states’ rights suddenly became the focus of a 19th Century romance.)

White, ever so white: Indeed, there are BIPOC minor characters in many of these novels, who take on the role of side-kick, helper, or just carry the plot forward. They tend to be “rescued” by Quakers rather than taking action. I would point out that this is the case not only in Quaker romances, but in many, many Quaker historical novels.

So what did I learn from this?

Well, I am guilty of using many of these same tropes in my writing. I don’t have a lot of bonnets, but I definitely have religious conversion experiences, and plenty of white people running around in multi-racial communities being major characters. I believe it’s worthwhile for authors to think about their use of these tropes, and ask themselves why they’re using them.

Bonnets and hats at the Samuel Slater Experience

But my heart sort of goes out to…

ANYONE who wants to write a novel about Quakers. First of all, there are so few Quakers in the world today, that nearly any book about them is interesting to me. Yes, they’ve had an outsized influence in America, but often because they were doing groundbreaking things like starting integrated schools or working at the center of the movement to abolish slavery.

Second, I don’t believe anyone is getting rich writing Quaker novels (correct me if I’m wrong.) Most of the bonnet romance series books were published at least five years ago if not much longer, and then have faded in popularity.

Third, I am of the opinion that writing a book that is pro-abolition is okay. Sure, abolition can be a plot device…but it is also a plot. And it’s a better plot than many less important things romance novels include.

Lastly, I do have a soft spot for plain speech, and bonnets, and homespun dresses on unassuming heroines. My grandfather still used plain speech from time to time. I’ve never really thought about bonnets as “blinders” but some of them are truly works of art. Plain clothing is fascinating to me, and I’m especially intrigued by young Quakers who still practice it.

All in all, the book is worth a read, whether you’re a fan of the bonnet book or just see Quaker romances as another sign of late-stage capitalism.


Anthony Benezet’s Revolutionary Academy for Children

Benezet set up a school for free Black children in his home on Chestnut Street between 3rd and 4th Streets

Dear Friends,

Happy August! Are you already thinking about back-to-school? I am––when I walk through a pile of dried brown leaves, and their smell brings me back to college orientation (when it was still summer, the leaves just beginning to fall). Or it feels like I’m walking home from second grade, or my kids’ “Curriculum Night.” This month seemed like a good time to revisit my Work In Progress and how I wrote about Quaker schools.

Girls like Betsy Ross spent half their school day doing needlework.

Elizabeth, Eben, Grace, and Ishmael go to school

In writing “A Little Rebellion,” my Quaker historical novel taking place during the American Revolution, I was intrigued by the idea of free Black students attending school with white students, and the resulting problematic power dynamic. I did research, but also took some literary license. Wealthy Quaker Elizabeth and her country friend Eben would have been schooled at home, or at the early Penn Charter, but not with their free Black neighbors. However, read on: the idea of an early racially-integrated school in Revolutionary Philadelphia is not a far-fetched one.

At Betsy Ross House, Phillis the Washerwoman explains that her Quaker enslaver taught her to read and write.

In the Country: Small Schools

Beginning in the 1600s, there were informal schools in the Pennsylvania countryside, one-room schoolhouses in tiny communities. Locals started schools primarily out of necessity, rather than idealism, and the schools were not “public” (they charged fees). These schools mainly educated white children. But enslavers, including those who were Quaker, also educated their enslaved in the hopes that they would “obey” and be part of the “Christianizing process.” Many of the enslaved and those manumitted were educated in the Bible and catechism in their enslavers’ or employers’ homes, but some attended these tiny schools.

In the City: Penn Charter

In 1700, William Penn founded the first public school: Penn Charter. He and other Quakers worked to create a school of “arts and sciences” open not only to the well-to-do, but also to white students of limited means. As well as Penn Charter, there were small, informal “schools” in Philadelphia for which students’ parents paid a fee.

Betsy Ross gets Schooled

In Betsy Ross, Quaker Rebel by Edwin S. Parry, a book that is more fantasy than accurate description, Betsy Ross and her older sisters attend Friends Public School (Penn Charter) on South Fourth Street below Chestnut. (For more on Betsy, see my previous blog). Quaker Rebel talks about children of wealthy families walking to school there as “8 o’clock rang out from the State House Clock.” Students studied and recited until six o’clock, taking a two hour break at noon for dinner. While boys studied Latin, girls like Betsy would spend the bulk of each afternoon doing needlework. On First Day (Sunday), additional schooling took place in the afternoon, after Meeting for Worship.

Marker for Anthony Benezet’s house, Philadelphia

Anthony Benezet

Anthony Benezet began teaching in the late 1730s in Germantown. He eventually ran the Penn Charter School from 1742-1754. In 1750, Benezet began tutoring Black children and adults in his Philadelphia home. James Forten (abolitionist), Richard Allen (AME Bishop), and Absalom Jones (abolitionist and clergyperson) were all educated here. “When it became clear that his students were capable of the same achievement as whites, Benezet undermined popular assumptions about Black intellectual inferiority and helped convert Benjamin Franklin, Benjamin Rush and others to abolitionism, according to this great article about Raspberry Street Schools.

In 1755, Benezet left Penn Charter to set up the nation’s first public girls’ school whose students included Sally Wister.

A Philadelphia School in 1777: the first racially integrated urban school in America?

In 1773, Jacob Lehre, a schoolteacher working for Benezet, took over the education of approximately 50 Black children. By 1775, only nine remained. The school’s Board of Overseers decided to visit all the parents to encourage better attendance. They also set out a call to admit poor white children to fill up the classroom. Lehre began teaching both 40 Black and six white students–boys and girls–in his classroom, perhaps the first integrated (and co-ed) urban school in America (though a charity school, not a public one).

1800’s: the end of integrated schooling in Pennsylvania

By the early 1800’s, Pennsylvania had passed a law prohibiting Black and white children attending to school together. Whatever the reason for this law (perhaps the actions of persistent racist lobbyists) it reflects the general prejudice of the times. However, it also occurs 20 years after Pennsylvania abolished slavery. Even among the Quakers, the idea of “separate, but equal,” prevailed. Benezet’s school had by then become the African Free School, run by Philadelphia Yearly Meeting..

Revolutionary Friendships

In “A Jack of All Spaces: The Public Market in Revolutionary Philadelphia” we see evidence of interracial social life beyond school and employment. Candice L Harris talks about “young slaves and servants” gathering in the Market for a raucous nightlife, young people who knew each other from the streets they walked upon during the day, from school, and from the households where they toiled. For a brief moment around the time of the Revolution, social life for young people looked like it might become more racially integrated. But what were these friendships and romances like? How did the American Revolution affect them? And where were the Quakers in all this? Those are many of the questions for which I sought out answers. As I’ve said before, I’m looking forward to bringing my story to you!

In the meantime, what are you looking forward to this school year?



A Quaker Day in Darby

Dear Friends, I have been busy! After finishing the seventh (what?) revision of my first novel, I’ve made a goal to query an agent a day this summer. Why not? If I don’t have any luck, I’ll work on my own e-book and audio versions.

Meanwhile, my sister and I had a wonderful day last month in Darby, Pennsylvania where I once again got to visit Darby Meeting and see Darby Free Library. (DFL) The Library just received a well-deserved $1 million grant to make their library accessible and updated with necessary repairs. Darby Meeting House and Darby, Pennsylvania are among the settings in my current WIP and my next…Thomas Worth’s “journey to America” story.

John Bartram and other members of Darby Free Meeting founded DFL in 1743. They began shipping books from England to Darby and the librarian kept them in a trunk and shared them in the local community. May’s event included descendants of the original library board. I’m not one of them, though I am a descendant of a Darby Friends Meeting family.

Darby Friends Burial Ground

Darby Friends Burial Ground

Our day began with a visit to the Darby Friends Burial Ground. I think I’ve written about this before: my ancestors were buried there but without markers. This proved to be a mistake for the Quakers. In their quest for simplicity, they set up burial grounds where you didn’t know where the deceased were when you went to bury someone else! Headstones soon came into fashion and we saw John Bartram’s, among others. Bartram was buried here despite being kicked out of Darby Friends. Wait–did you read Membership Discontinued?

Darby Friends Meeting House

Meeting for Worship

Following the tour of the burial ground, we attended (silent) Meeting for Worship in the 1805 Meeting House. I love all the little details of the Meeting House including old graffiti, an ancient ladder, and the bonnets (now kept in a glass case so I’m not tempted to try them on again)!

Past Times Present sings about John Bartram

John Bartram and the Daisy

I also was delighted to meet John and Jan Haigis of Past Times Present. I had a great phone call with them during height of the pandemic, but I hadn’t been able to meet them in person. They live in Darby and know much about local, Quaker, and Revolutionary War history. Here, they entertained us with their “John Bartram and the Daisy” song. I love that Bartram taught himself both Latin and botany. There are a few Quaker references in the song.

Darby Free Library receives $1 million federal grant

Darby Free Library

After a nice lunch, including incredible sweet goodies from Shane Confectionery (I met the Friendly owner, Ryan Berley), we went on to Darby Free Library. Today, the one-room library supports the local Darby community on a budget of only $85,000! Darby Friends helped connect the Library with the federal grant. DFL stayed open throughout the pandemic. The library provided young people with a cozy place to read, and adults with a place to connect with community resources, or just use a printer. You can visit their FB page to find out more about their resources and funding. I loved hearing about the library’s Quaker roots.

Back in the Meeting House

Darby: the First 200 Years

After the check presentation at the library (more sweets!), we were back at the Meeting House to learn more about “Darby: the First 200 years,” in other words, 1682-1882, from Harold Finegan. I’d long wondered why the Darby Quakers were among the only 30% of Quakers in Early America who didn’t enslave people. Harold believes it was because of the persecution this particular group of Quakers had experienced in Northern England before coming to America. The group’s persecution at the hands of the English led to an affinity for those who were oppressed. Darby became a community involved in abolition work and “fair trade” policy in early Pennsylvania.

The Blue Bell Tavern: setting of many scenes in my book!

The Blue Bell Tavern

We wrapped up the afternoon with a trip to the (now shuttered) 1766 Blue Bell Tavern. The Tavern is the site of my Quaker characters Elizabeth and Eben’s clandestine meetings. Woodland Avenue was at one time the main stagecoach road between Philadelphia and the southern colonies. It still marks the boundary between Philadelphia and Delaware Counties. George Washington made it his headquarters September 12-13, 1777 just after the Battle of Brandywine.

All in all, a fabulous day. I always soak in more atmosphere and find new details to use in my writing when I visit a Quaker historical site. I also was happy to support Darby Free Library’s project, and meet some other folks whose ancestors made the voyage to America in 1682.

Coming up: How do you decide which books to read each year? And how do you decide where to buy or borrow them? I’ve given this some thought and will report back later this month.


“Membership Discontinued” or the 5 Best Ways to Get Kicked out of Quaker Meeting

Me in front of Darby Meeting House in 2019. My ancestor was kicked out of Darby Monthly Meeting, as were John Bartram, and John James Pearson. Fornication, disbelief in the Holy Trinity, and fighting in the American Revolution were all big Quaker no-nos over the years.

Quaker disownment fascinates me. In the genealogical research I’ve done for my writing, I’ve found a couple of rule-breakers in my family tree. For example, I came upon Thomas Worth’s son, briefly disowned for–and I feel embarrassed saying this because it sounds way worse than I, in 2021, perceive it to be– “fornicating” with his fiancée. Years ago, the Quakers, famous for their openness, had a fair number of rules and rule- breakers.

Here are five you might try (or be accused of) if you were a member of Pennsylvania Meetings between 1680 and 1776.

1. Find a fiancé outside your faith
The biggie. Between 1680 and 1776 in Pennsylvania Monthly Meetings, nearly 5,000 Meeting members were disowned for “Marrying contrary to discipline.” Among them were Betsy Ross and four of her sisters who left the Quaker fold for those outside the faith, leading to their discipline and the prospect of disownment. Betsy left to join the Free Quakers, famous for not observing the Peace Testimony. My research pointed out, though, that the majority of those who joined the splinter sect did so because of intermarriage and their objection to the idea of disownment, in and of itself.

Bed, Betsy Ross house

2. Get pregnant out of wedlock (or get someone pregnant)
Another biggie. 1311 disowned for this. I guess you could say you’re sorry but then what? “Fornication with fiancée” is 1311 but “other fornication” is 727. Early readers of my WIP keep asking “where were the parents?” Frankly, I don’t know! Did the Friends decide young people could chaperone themselves? Maybe. Also, I’m going to throw this in, because it may have led to the above: Drunkenness: 613

Monthly Meeting Minutes, Darby Monthly Meeting, John James Pearson was disowned for fighting in the American Revolution

3. Disagree about something important
Slavery: 123 disowned. Not surprising since it was one of the tenets of Quaker doctrine not to enslave after 1776 (there were a number of Quaker enslavers before that time including William Penn.) A bigger number is 504 for military attendance, including fighters in the American Revolution like Bevan and John James Pearson. Both were kicked out of Darby Monthly Meeting. John James was wounded at Brandywine.

John Bartram’s house

4. Raise a big theological stink
Schism: 54. John Bartram did not ascribe to Trinitarianism, the belief that God is “three in one: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.” Darby Meeting did. Farewell, John. World-famous botanist Bartram ended up retreating to his estate on the banks of the Schuylkill, including words of protest/theology in the stonework above his greenhouse.

5. Disagree about something unimportant
Fiddling and dancing in your home: 1. I’ve cheated a bit here. This number is from Disownment in Hopewell, NM 1760-1809.

I learned from this 1991 article that Quakers did not“excommunicate” members in the same sense that other Christian churches did throughout history. The article states that Quakers have sought a way to both disown their Friends, while at the same time loving them. “Excommunication was aimed at the offender, whereas disownment was aimed at the world.” While no one was ever really prohibited from attending Meeting for Worship after being disowned, disownment precluded participation in the Meeting’s business. But still, many left Worship as well, whether to marry their sweethearts, enjoy fiddle music, or more chillingly, continue to enslave people.

Bottles above bar, Revolution House Restaurant, on the site of a former Meeting House in Philadelphia

Disownment provides tension in many of the Quaker novels I read. In Dash Shaw’s Discipline, Charles Cox faces disownment when he enlists in the Union Army during the Civil War. In Lilli DeJong by Janet Benton, Lilli’s father is disowned for “beginning to drink to excess” as well as marrying his cousin (who wasn’t a Friend, and marrying her two months after his late wife’s death, rather than waiting a year.) In Tracy Chevalier’s The Last Runaway, Honor Bright fears disownment for her “silent protest” of slavery in 1850’s Ohio. In Lars Hedbor’s The Light, Robert Harris is read out of Meeting for crafting Revolutionary War weapons in his forge.

What better way to raise dramatic tension than to have a person’s faults read out loud during what we think of as a silent sect’s Meeting? Or to have that person rise in the middle of Meeting to defend themselves and call out others? I’m totally using disownment as a great scene-setter in at least two novels I’m writing. Do you have a story about disownment? Share it below or write me.

P.S. Like what you see here? Click here to read about the book I hope to bring to an audience soon!


10 popular novels that taught me how to write about Quakers

Hi all and Happy November!

When I started writing my first Quaker novel three years ago, I decided to take a look at other fiction featuring Friends. I didn’t want to look at the classics (nope, Moby Dick, don’t think I can write that!), but at popular books. I started by working through the “Fiction with Quakers” list on Goodreads. These books run the gamut…from classic literature to what I would call Hudson News novels (think: evangelical Quakers). Here are a few of my favorites, by time period, and with lessons learned. If you’re interested in reading any, I’m providing links to the authors’ websites (where I could find them). You should be able to order most of these books from your favorite bookseller (or find them at the library!) – Kate

17th Century

  1. 1. The Peaceable Kingdom by Jan de Hartog

“I am George Fox,” said the fair-haired stranger. “May the Lord bless thee and awaken thee, Margaret Fell.” His eyes went on searching hers. They were blue like a sailor’s and of an odd shape and rather slanted.

Oh Mylanta…an 800-page book about Quakers…from George Fox in the 1650’s to the American Revolution? Yes, please! I then started to write one myself…a long, long family saga in multiple time periods. I was so excited! And then I spoke to a friend who remarked that I’d be much better off dividing my book into four books. But what about Jan de Hartog? Don’t people want to read an 800-page book with long, ponderous sentences, and Quakers behaving ever-so-badly and scandalously? Perhaps. But perhaps not. Jan de Hartog wrote in the 1970’s and historical fiction was long…and ponderous. But presenting Quakers with all their frailties and warts? Along with their history? Why not? https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Peaceable_Kingdom:_An_American_Saga

Lesson: I could write a Quaker potboiler, but did I want to?

2. Forged in the Fire by Ann Turnbull

England, 1665. Will and Susanna, separated for three years, are at last free to marry. But Will’s plans to leave London are overtaken by the spread of the plague, which traps him in the city. Susanna leaves Shropshire and goes in search of him – but has their love survived?

I stumbled into the middle book of this series because the other two were hard to get from the library. By the time I reached “Forged,” the Quaker teens at the heart of the story had raging hormones, were anxious to get married, but then––why wait? The description of the Great Fire of London riveted me. But even more so I loved the story of two kids who can’t keep their hands off each other.


Lesson: I could write a sexy scene with two unmarried Quaker teens.

18th Century/American Revolution

3. The Light by Lars Hedbor

As a Quaker blacksmith, Robert is used to the challenges of fire and iron. When the American Revolution splinters his own family and threatens his community, he will wrestle with questions of belief and philosophy. He must rely on his inner light to keep his family safe, and lead them to freedom.

Lars Hedbor did a ton of research to write this book, including looking at 18th Century dialect and how Quakers used plain speech at the time of the American Revolution. I loved reading the dialogue. Early readers of my WIP were thrown, though, by plain speech, and even remarked that I was using it incorrectly. Not so! My grandfather and great-grandmother still used plain speech on occasion while I was growing up. I had a general idea of how plain speech had evolved, and was sure to use time period-accurate thee’s and thy’s. But so many people complained, I took the plain speech out to make it more readable. P.S. I kept it in, in one scene! It’s a dream sequence where an older relative appears. (I couldn’t get rid of it entirely, I love it so much.) https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/18474763-the-light?utm_medium=api&utm_source=author_widget

Lesson: I could use plain speech (if I wanted to).

4. The Turncoat by Donna Thorland

Major Lord Peter Tremayne is the last man rebel bluestocking Kate Grey should fall in love with, but when the handsome British viscount commandeers her home, Kate throws caution to the wind and responds to his seduction. She is on the verge of surrender when a spy in her own household seizes the opportunity to steal the military dispatches Tremayne carries, ensuring his disgrace—and implicating Kate in high treason. 

In between ever-so-accurate descriptions of period furniture by Donna Thorland (who I learned worked at the Peabody Essex Museum), there’s a lot of sex, cross-dressing, and spying. Betsy Ross might have been a spy? Really? I love this. https://www.donnathorland.com/revolutionary-war-novels/the-turncoat/

Lesson: I could write about Quaker spies.

5. Sybil Ludington, Revolutionary War Rider by E. F. Abbott

What would you do if your country was counting on you? If you had a message that only you could deliver? That’s the story of sixteen-year-old Sybil Ludington’s famous midnight ride.

Quakers get a lot of walk-on roles in books set in the American Revolution. They’re usually not fighting, but patiently explaining pacifism to people, or sort of “helping out” without using weapons. They’re sympathetic to Patriotism and the other fighting characters deeply respect them. This Sybil Ludington book has a helpful Quaker. And then there’s Sybil herself: a girl Paul Revere. So why not a Quaker girl Paul Revere? And that’s where I ended up in my WIP. https://us.macmillan.com/books/9781250104120/sybilludingtonrevolutionarywarrider

Lesson: Quakers show up for the American Revolution.

19th Century

6. Discipline by Dash Shaw

During the Civil War, many Quakers were caught between their fervent support of abolition, a desire to preserve the Union, and their long-standing commitment to pacifism. When Charles Cox, a young Quaker from Indiana, slips out early one morning to enlist in the Union Army, he scandalizes his family and his community.

A friend mentioned this graphic novel to me, out just last month. Dash Shaw grew up in a Quaker family and I loved what he did in this book. His drawings depict the horrors of war, the horrors of slavery, and the tension in his character’s Quaker family and Meeting as they wrestle with pacifism. I write about questions around the Quakers’ Peace Testimony in my WIP and I wrote about “disaffection” last month. https://www.dashshaw.net/discipline

Lesson: I could pose questions about war and pacifism, without providing easy answers.

7. Delivering the Truth by Edith Maxwell

Midwife Rose Carroll becomes a suspect and then a sleuth in two cases of murder. Can Rose’s strengths as a counselor and problem solver help bring the murderers to justice before they destroy the town’s carriage industry and the people who run it? 

I’m not a mystery reader and this was the first cozy mystery I’ve ever read. It was so much fun! I liked how Edith Maxwell wove details of 19th-Century midwifery in with murder, mayhem, and Meeting Houses. So I have a knife in my next book, which one of my characters picks up AFTER a murder. I’m developing what he does with it.https://edithmaxwell.com/books/quaker-midwife-mysteries/

Lesson: I could include a murder weapon to amp up the tension!

8. The Last Runaway by Tracy Chevalier

Honor Bright, a modest English Quaker who moves to Ohio in 1850, only to find herself alienated and alone in a strange land. Sick from the moment she leaves England, and fleeing personal disappointment, she is forced by family tragedy to rely on strangers in a harsh, unfamiliar landscape.

In this novel,Tracy Chevalier not only writes about slavery and the Underground Railroad, but also quiltmaking and millinery. The more I read about Quakers and needlecraft, the more I realized I might and should include embroidery and flagmaking in my WIP. https://www.tchevalier.com/story

Lesson: I could incorporate needlecraft into my Quaker novel.

9. Lilli de Jong by Janet Benton

A young woman finds the most powerful love of her life when she gives birth at an institution for unwed mothers in 1883 Philadelphia. She is told she must give up her daughter to avoid lifelong poverty and shame. But she chooses to keep her.

“You have to read this book!” my sister told me, over and over. She loved it and went to hear Janet Benton speak in Germantown. The book portrays Quakers not as heroes, but as a sometimes insular community capable of some terrible group and individual behavior (think disownment and heavy drinking). https://janetbentonauthor.com/

Lesson: The Quaker community I write about could be harsh and unforgiving.

10. The Movement of Stars by Amy Brill

It is 1845, and Hannah Gardner Price has lived all twenty-four years of her life according to the principles of the Nantucket Quaker community in which she was raised, where simplicity and restraint are valued above all, and a woman’s path is expected to lead to marriage and motherhood. But up on the rooftop each night, Hannah pursues a very different—and elusive—goal: discovering a comet and thereby winning a gold medal awarded by the King of Denmark, something unheard of for a woman.

This is a quiet book about astronomy and an interracial love affair in 19th Century Nantucket. Wait––did we say 19th Century Nantucket?? So here for that. Beautiful descriptions of the beach, the town, telescopes (!) and another fire. Great period details. I’ve tried to weave descriptions of beautiful landscapes into my writing. So while I’m working on pace, I also have plenty of quiet in my WIP.


Lesson: I could write a “quiet” book

There you have it. What Quaker books have you read and loved? Please comment below. I’d love to hear from you.  – Kate

Off to Historical Novel Society North America with a sample book cover!

Dear Friends,

I’m excited to be planning my trip to Historical Novel Society North America’s (HNSNA) 2023 Conference in San Antonio next month!

I’m planning to pitch my finished novel to a couple of smaller publishers while I’m at the conference and learned I need something called a “pitch sheet.” This sheet will have a blurb (much as one might have on the back of a book), a bio, and some historical background information.

Pitch Sheets

I looked at a couple of pitch sheets online and thought, “maybe I should do a sample cover?” Thanks to living in the 21st Century, I went on Fiverr, and sent a few images from my Pinterest to an artist along with a brief description of my heroine, and the plot and tone of the book. The artist sent a cover back in a little over two days. $30! I feel it was well worth it.

2021 Conference

I attended HNS’s conference back in 2021 when the entire thing was on Zoom and I loved it, quickly getting to speed in what’s going on in traditional publishing today, self-publishing, craft and marketing. One of the most valuable sessions was Jane Friedman’s “Self-Publishing 101.” I was stunned to learn not only that people now buy book covers online, but to learn that people sometimes bought pre-designed covers and then write the books around them––wow! 

My other favorite 2021 moment was when I attended a “Cozy Chat” with others writing about the American Revolution. We all had tri-corns. On hand. For when the occasion called for it. And we put them on!

I’ll write more next month after the Conference; wish me luck with my pitches!



P.S. I’ve also helped HNS-NYC re-vamp their website over the past couple of months. Take a look if you’re interested in past events, or want to see what’s going in NYC, whether you’re a historical fiction reader or writer.

10 Ways I Consumed Books in 2021

Dear Friends,

It’s July! Do you have time off? Are you going to the beach? Are you reading more? I have been thinking more about my reading habits––there are always so many books I want to read. 2021 was a big reading year for me; I read a total of 40 books, including some of the Quaker ones I mention here. However, I barely made a dent in the three million books currently in print I could have read, not to mention the out-of-print ones. I recently started to think about ways I consumed books last year: both where I bought them, and what influenced me.

How many books do you read a year?

I am neither a voracious reader (romance readers reportedly read an average of five books a week) or one of the one-third of Americans who read no books at all. Wait––did you read “No One will Read Your Book?” So great. Two important takeaways: “The market for our attention is intensely crowded,” and “Not enough people read enough books.” Amen. A recent article in the New York Times about diversity in the book industry came to the same conclusion when publisher Lisa Lucas asked, “Instead of fighting over slices of a shrinking pie, can publishers work to make the readership bigger for everyone?” More reading! More readers! More books! But back to my habits…

Last year, I spent $500 on books but last year was kind of an outlier. I generally read 15-20 books per year. But last year, with my local libraries closed, and as I waited to be vaxxed, and be “ok” to go out in public, and then…went back inside during Omicron, I had more alone time to read.

Why do I still read so slowly? 

I sub-vocalize as I read. I go back when I don’t understand things. Wait, where was the castle again? I print out lists of characters from Wikipedia if the novel is dense. I look up plots online. I edit in my head. I plod on to the end like a dutiful student and rarely DNF unless I hate something. Reading for me has always been kinda painfully slow…yet still sort of enjoyable in a very nerdy way.

So how much does my reading 40 books contribute to the publishing industry?

The U.S. publishing industry made $15.4 billion in 2021 (note that this number includes instructional materials.) $15 billion may seem like a big number but remember that Americans spent over $10 billion on single-day holiday Halloween in 2021, and $103 billion on pets. But my $500 was no doubt part of the $1.1 billion increase the industry experienced in 2021.

Thinking more about 2021: how did I chose my books and where did I get them from?

Reader: my habits here may seem downright odd. I don’t usually look at the NYTimes Book Review, or Bestseller lists, or Bookbub, or emails I get from publishers, or what people are reading on Goodreads, or library displays, or ads that pop up. So where do I get my books? And how do I decide what to read? Bear in mind, I am in the midst of writing historical fiction and my tastes are pretty niche. These lists are not a guide to where I feel people should get their books, but where I actually obtained books in my biggest reading year.

Books: my 2021 sources from least to most with totals

From the street to my bookshelf…
  1. I picked them up on the street! TOTAL: 1 For years, I have tried not to pick up anything from the street, no matter how appealing. Bed bugs! COVID!! Book Lice! But I couldn’t resist: there was a brand new copy of NORMAL PEOPLE lying on the bottom step of a building. And I had been in touch with a book group that was reading it. And I was watching the series…
  1. Foreign bookseller TOTAL: 1 There is nothing more exciting than finding an obscure book, only available in another country. I was super-excited to order OXTON for my research from Nottingham Books. Of course…things happen…and I had to re-do my order a couple of times to make sure the money was exchanged correctly and covered the postage. But it did and then that moment there’s a package from overseas in your mailbox: Yay!!
I forgot that flea markets have books: this could be dangerous!
  1. Flea Market TOTAL: 1 In 2020, I moved to the center of Flea Markets: Sturbridge, Massachusetts. Walking around an inside market last year, I found a copy of that old American Revolution chestnut (that I’d always meant to read), MY BROTHER SAM IS DEAD, for like $1.35. Why go to the library? The library was still closed anyway.
  1. Buying second-hand online TOTAL: 1 I love Thrift Books. I am often looking for that random, scholarly book, only available by going to a research library (not open last year) that is $85 new, or $5 on Thrift Books.
  1. Museum TOTAL: 2. I am a sucker for the museum gift shop. The tinkly soft music (new agey or 18th Century, or what have you), the smell of fake parchment and sachets and then…there is that book you thought about getting at the library, but maybe you can carry that happy museum gift shop moment with you. Sold!
  1. Wal-mart TOTAL: 2 Yes, I’m sorry to admit it, the company store, and all that. But they do carry A LOT of books, often at discount prices, and weirdly, some that aren’t carried on Amazon. 
From the TBR pile to “read!”
  1. Old Books on Shelf TOTAL: 2 Is it weird?I really only have a few books left I haven’t read on my shelves. And there they were in the midst of COVID. Why not read them?
  1. The Library: TOTAL: 2 Remember how some libraries still weren’t open last year? And then they were.
  1. Indie Bookstore TOTAL: 2 I don’t want to talk about the indie bookstore closest to me when I’m in NYC (where “You” is filmed) and where you just can’t…believe the comments on Yelp. Yikes! I am SCARED to go in there!
  1. Amazon TOTAL: 26: Reader, I admit it. It’s quick. It’s convenient. And last year I needed to get that book for book group right away. Jeff Bezos is laughing all the way to the bank, as usual.

Now that I looked at the places I obtained books, I started to think about how I actually chose them in 2021. I really surprised myself when I went to analyze this. 

Books: My 2021 Influences in choosing books, from least to most with totals

“You really should read this book!”

Friend recommends TOTAL: 1. “You should really read this book about Quakers in the Civil War..” Yes, I should. A writer in multiple book groups, I get this comment all the time.

Twitter: TOTAL: 1. I keep seeing people talking about that book on Twitter. I really should read it.

Catnip to me! Here I am at the National Constitution Center getting ready to buy another book.

Museums gift shops spontaneous purchase TOTAL: 2 See #5 above in re. the tinkly music and the zen-like state I find myself in. Before you know it, I’ve left with a book in my hand.

The Week Magazine TOTAL: 2  A magazine for people who like their news slow.I’m a fan. I always look at the Review of reviews: Books section, especially for nonfiction and the Book List. I love the authors’ lists of their chosen “best books.”

Friend or acquaintance from college writes TOTAL: 2. If I know the writer, I’m more likely to read it.

Hulu TOTAL: 3 Ugh, yes it’s true. I’ll watch the series/movie and then there I am…buying the book.

Birthday gift TOTAL:  3 I usually request particular books nowadays. But in the past, family members and friends often gave me books that became (see above #7) Old Books on Shelf. I really should read that…last year I did.

Facebook TOTAL: 3 Ugh, also true. It’s not the ads. It’s when someone in a group recommends a book. In my case, it was books on writing and religion. I guess that’s one reason FB has groups…to sell stuff, and study how we buy stuff. Ugh.

Food and cute dogs make reading contemporary fiction palatable to me.
  1. Book Group TOTAL: 10. We take turns recommending books. One of my favorite parts of being in a book group is reading something I ordinarily never would, like bestsellers. 
Nothing like reading an historical novel in front of the fire!
  1. Historical Novel Society and HFChitChat: TOTAL: 13! I was surprised by this, too,…all of those tweets and critique groups and online presentations…and there I was. Last year I attended HNS’s online conference and I regularly watch HNS of NYC’s Zoom presentations. @HFChitChat is a group on Twitter that regularly discusses historical fiction in chats, online groups or just day-to-day Tweets. All these groups were super-influential in my choosing books to read.

How do you choose your books? Do you look at what’s selling? Or do you have niche interests like mine? Has social media been an influence? Or are you influenced by what your friends are reading IRL? I hope the rest of 2022 has us trying to make more of a dent in that 300 million books, visiting libraries, and hanging out at friendly neighborhood bookstores (if you’re lucky enough to have one).

Happy summer reading! Kate

A Quaker “Happening” in Darby, PA May 1!

Live in the Philadelphia area? Interested in Quaker, Philadelphia, or library history? I’ll be at Darby Friends Meeting House at 10 a.m. on Sunday, May 1, with others celebrating a new federal grant made to the Darby Free Library. Darby Free Library is the oldest library in continuous use in the U.S., founded by Darby Friends in 1743. Come tour the Darby Friends burial ground, join in Meeting for Worship, and learn more about Darby Friends and abolition. I’m not organizing this event, but lmk if you have questions.


10: – 10: 45: Meet for a walking tour of the Darby Friends Burial Ground

11:00 – 11:45: Participate in Meeting for Worship at the Meetinghouse

Attend at your preference, or spend more time at DFBG. They are 2 blocks apart.

12:00 – 12:50: Lunch + meet & greet

1:00 – 1:30: Press event, with Congresswoman Scanlon

1:45 – 3:45: Presentation: The Darby Quakers, the first 200 years.

Chiefly, this is about abolition. When Quakers came in 1682, 70% were slaveholders — but the Darby Quakers were not. As early as 1693 they began to work to convince their brethren of the error of their ways. It took 92 years for the Quakers to ban slavery amongst Friends. they then broadened and expanded their efforts to end slavery in our country.


Flag above White with Collage, Jasper Johns,

I was never a great painting student but I tried. My senior year at Oberlin I took Color Theory with Forbes Whiteside. Mostly I took painting because it was easy. And relaxing. You did have to put time in at the studio. But even if you were pretty awful, you’d still get a decent grade. It wasn’t like writing an essay about a French novel.

Forbes was an interesting guy. At first, he appeared gruff and I was more than a little afraid of him. The fact that my paintings were…ahem…sort of random things I painted without having much grounding in studio art didn’t help my confidence. Forbes (as I recall through the misty goggles of time) was obsessed with Jasper Johns and some of his own painting followed Johns’s style. So along with learning about color theory, we learned about Jasper Johns.

Forbes taught us that color doesn’t really exist in the way we think it does. Look at the shadow in the photo above. The wall appears to be off-white, but now look at the shadow below: I see beige and then a deeper brown. What color is the wall?

Forbes sent us out to the Campus Diner (local coffee shop) to look at an orange wall. Staring at it, I realized that the wall wasn’t just “orange;” there were gradations of orange color depending on how the light (artificial or daylight) hit it at various times of day. and even where you stood. Rendering wasn’t just about painting an “orange wall;” it was also about what colors we saw. We spent hours in class mixing paint to approximate the various shades we saw when we looked at an object. 

Forbes died in 2015 and I learned from his obituary that “From 1941 to 1945, Whiteside captained aircraft in the Pacific theater. He achieved the rank of second lieutenant and received the Distinguished Flying Cross. His more memorable experiences included six days in a raft with his flight crew after the successful ditching of their disabled seaplane, and a flight over Nagasaki following the dropping of the second atomic bomb.”

What feelings did these experiences lend to Forbes’s art? Patriotism? The horrors of war? Or were flags and pillow cases and cityscapes and a coffee house wall pieces of color that didn’t have to be symbolic at all?

My attempt at painting: red pencil sharpener on a white pillowcase

Forbes barely said a word to me in class until one day he stopped right in front of my easel. I was very nervous. “This is an incredible painting!” he roared. Then he regarded me, his piercing eyes staring at me from below his shock of Warholesque wild white hair. “Is this really how things look to you?” he asked incredulously. 

“Uh, yes?” I answered.

“Well,” he answered. “Your work has a delightful primitive quality! It reminds me of Neil Jenney!” I took it as a compliment even though one of my friends teases me about that compliment to this day. 

Fourth of July Still Life, Audrey Flack

A painted flag or a painting of a flag?

Are you on the blue team or the red? What do you see when you look at the American flag? How do you feel? Included? Excluded? Outraged? Warmed?

And what do you see when you now look at the Flag of Ukraine? Overnight, most of us are rallying around the blue and yellow. Already, those colors provoke emotion inme. I don’t think I could tell you what the Russian flag looks like though. I never think about it.

Jasper Johns painted the American Flag (the painting was called “Flag”) two years after being discharged from the U.S. Army. Because I’m not an art critic, I’m going to quote from Wikipedia here: “Johns’s selection of the US flag allows him to explore a familiar two-dimensional object, with its simple internal geometric structure and a complex symbolic meaning. Johns was attracted to painting “things the mind already knows,” and claimed that using a familiar object like the flag freed himself from the need to create a new design and allowed him to focus on the execution of the painting. Critics were unsure whether it was a painted flag or a painting of a flag; Johns later said it was both.” 

Was Johns mocking patriotism and the flag? Or did he see the flag as a hopeful symbol? Or was it just… a flag…a piece of fabric made up of colors? MOMA refused to buy it, seeing it as anti-patriotic. Why? What did they see in it that makes it this way?

White Flag, Jasper Johns

In later pieces like White Flag, and Map, Johns continued to tease us with symbols/objects. Again from Wikipedia, “Johns’s selection of the US flag allows him to explore a familiar two-dimensional object, with its simple internal geometric structure and a complex symbolic meaning. The built-up collage distorts the flag’s flatness, while the off-white encaustic obliterates the flag’s usual red-white-and-blue colouring, leaving a ghostly embalmed remnant.”

Molly Pitcher at the Battle of Monmouth

In 1777…

I’ve written a bit about Betsy Ross and the American flag here. And I’ve learned a bit about flag-making in writing my current novel. Why were flags important to Americans in the Revolution? Primarily, because there were so few uniforms. Flags provided something for troops and militia to gather under when perhaps all they had was a white slip of paper in their hat to symbolize that they were a soldier.

In “Revolutionary War uniforms are not so easy to pin down,” by John Kelly: “Soldiers then wore a rainbow of colors. And the hated British weren’t the only ones in red coats. Some American soldiers wore them, too. One Connecticut regiment had red coats with yellow accents. The 4th New York Regiment had white coats with red accents. The drummers for one New Hampshire regiment had green breeches and canary yellow coats. If they got coats at all. Uniforms were hit and miss, and many soldiers suffered without boots or coats. With no standing army, the Americans sort of made it up as they went along. Nearly every unit was different.”

Flags weren’t standard either. Before 1777, Patriots had a variety of flags like this one:

Philadelphia Light Horse Troop Flag, Fraunces Tavern

What would we make of the American flag if it looked like this?And did it promote unity (among a people who were pretty divided) or did it symbolize dissent from the British?

Liberty and Union Flag 1777, Fraunces Tavern

What we think we see depends on where we’re standing

I got an A in painting. It balanced out some of my other not so stellar grades. To my characters, a flag means many things: a hobby, a dangerous object, a handicraft, an expression of defiance. At times it’s something to be hidden; at times a unifier that gathers a ragtag group together. Forbes Whiteside taught me so much but above all, what we think we see depends so much on where we’re standing.