Woog’s World: Westporter’s book puts focus on perseverance, community
The success of “Hamilton” shined a spotlight on an often overlooked Founding Father. The life of the statesman/military leader/banker was revealed in new, nuanced ways. Wildly popular, it made the American Revolution cool.
“American Rebels” probably won’t do that. After all it’s a book, not a musical. But the latest work by Westporter Nina Sankovitch is certainly an eye-opener. And in this time of isolation, when we’re looking at our home town with new eyes while mired in a changing world, her work exploring another small New England town in an equally fraught time can help us better appreciate both place and time.
“American Rebels”’ subtitle is “How the Hancock, Adams and Quincy Families Fanned the Flames of Revolution.” Focusing on John Hancock, John Adams, Josiah Quincy Jr., Abigail Smith Adams and Dorothy Quincy Hancock - all childhood friends in Braintree, Massachusetts - Sankovitch traces the route by which loyal British subjects grew to oppose the king, fight for freedom and lead a fledgling country into existence. You may not know those patriots beyond names from history. But they were living, breathing men and women, with passion, pride, contradictions, foibles, strength, talent, worries and fears. The author brings them to life, explaining their relationships with each other and with the town that helped make them who they are.
This is Sankovitch’s fourth book. “Tolstoy and the Purple Chai: My Year of Magical Reading” describes how reading kept her going after her oldest sister died of cancer. “Signed, Sealed, Delivered: Celebrating the Joys of Letter Writing” is a history of that lost art form, written after she found a trunkful of letters on the Upper West Side. “The Lowells of Massachusetts” is a sweeping, novel-like look at another important American family.
Both “Lowells” and “American Rebels” demanded an enormous amount of research. Fortunately, Sankovitch loves poring over old documents. In fact, she says, the best parts of her first career as a lawyer was researching and writing. (Books are her third career. After leaving law she worked for the National Resources Defense Council, then served as president of Save the Sound.)
The idea for Sankovitch’s current book came out of her previous one. Researching the Lowells, she grew fascinated by John’s evolution from loyalist to rebel. “In school we were taught the colonists rose up against the crown, and won,” she says. “I wanted to look at what made that happen, for actual people.”
Though the Adamses, Quincys and Hancocks are well-known patriots, other relatives remained loyal. There are parallels today, Sankovitch says. Many families are split between Trump supporters and opponents.
There are other similarities. Opposition to the crown was not the only issue facing the colonists. With smallpox and dysentery rampant, they had their own survival to worry about.
“American Rebels” is about “perseverance and community,” Sankovitch explains. As she dove into research and writing, she noticed evidence of the Revolutionary War era here in Westport: the plaque near Christ & Holy Trinity Church, where George Washington stopped at a tavern. The roads the British marched on, headed to Danbury. The river they forded going back to their ships, before the battle of Compo Hill.
She notes too that John Hancock was married in Fairfield. An aunt is buried there. “We’re the living result of that history,” she says.
Hancock is one of the rebels who comes alive in Sankovitch’s book. “He was wealthy,” she says. “He could have ridden it all out. But he decided to use his position for the good of Boston.”
She also admires Abigail Adams. “I’d always heard stories about her. But I did not realize how strong and feisty she was with John Adams. There’s a real human dimension to that. She went the extra mile to become heroic.” Sankovitch believes “we all have that capability, even if we don’t realize it.”
There was no straight path to revolution, the author says. “At so many points, things could have turned out differently. Even the decision to rebel was not a certainty.” Again, she comes back to today. “We are in the midst of something very big and unclear. We don’t know right now how history will judge us.”
Sankovitch is not sure of her next project. But her interest is keen in studying “how people live in difficult times, and pull themselves through it.” Those parallels with the COVID crisis keep coming through.
The pandemic upended plans for her book launch. However she’s done virtual events, most recently with the Ferguson Library. Her Westport Library book chats continue.
That’s the difference between the 18th century, and the 21st. Just imagine if the American Rebels had had Zoom, along with their courage and wisdom to fight for freedom from their king.
Dan Woog is a Westport writer, and his “Woog's World” appears each Friday. He can be reached at email@example.com. His personal blog is danwoog06880.com.