Thursday, February 18, 2021

In the Room Where It Happened: Starting from Seneca Falls Karen Schwabach

The cell was five feet by nine feet and stifling hot. It contained a bucket, a pile of dirty straw, and Bridie. Up near the ceiling was small barred window.

If Bridie jumped up and grabbed the bars of the window, she could pull herself up and see the poorhouse children weeding the cabbage field outside. Bridie would be weeding with them, except that she had opinions about the way things ought to be and spoke up about them.

And because of her opinions, Bridie finds herself on trial to be indentured to Farmer Kigley and quickly learns that he beats his wife almost as as often as he beats her. So Bridie runs away in the dark of the night and makes her way to the nearest town. Starved and cold, discovered by a black servant girl named Rose, Bridie is taken in work for a kind lady and unexpectedly finds herself in the midst of history. The town is Seneca Falls and the kind woman is Elizabeth Cady Stanton, already in the midst of planning the 1848 Seneca Falls Women's Convention, to be attended by Abolitionists Frederick Douglass, Lucretia Mott, and Lydia Marie Child, as well as Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman medical student.

Bridie finds herself attending the local school and assisting Mrs. Stanton, working on her "Declaration of Sentiments" which urged that women be given rights to their wages and inheritance and all rights before the law, and Bridie even gets a chance to help the local print shop set the type for Mrs. Stanton's posters advertising her historic Seneca Falls convention.

The boy, Davie, came up and took the notice from her hand. He was wearing a blue apron and was covered in ink. Davey smiled at her. "Want to watch me set the type?" he smiled. He picked up an empty composing stick and started to set the type. "You can do the next word if you want," Davey offered. Bridie did want. The moment the stick was in her hand, it felt like it belonged. She felt as if she was standing on the edge of something important.

Davey allows her to set the word RIGHTS on the document, and Bridie resolves to become educated and become a printer herself someday. Mrs. Stanton's Declaration of Sentiments is adopted with a majority of votes, and beginning in Seneca Falls, her plans for the advancement of women and former slaves made at that convention eventually changed the nation and spread around the world. But first Bridie must avoid re-capture by Farmer Kigley, barely escaping aboard a tow boat on the Erie Canal, where Rose and Bridie hide until they can make their way to the home of Frederick Douglass in Rochester, New York, where  Bridie soon  learns the printing trade working on the famous Abolitionist newspaper, The North Star. And from there, it's all history.

From Seneca Falls you could go anywhere! And Bridie did, in Karen Schwabach's Starting from Seneca Falls (Random House, 2020), an exciting novel of two girls, one an orphaned Irish immigrant and one a free-born black girl, who managed to stay free and make lives for themselves in a rapidly changing world. With details of the life of women in the mid-1800s, from the independent and energetic Elizabeth Stanton, a pioneer of the emancipation of women, the devout Quaker Lucinda Mott who fought for the emancipation of all races, and the courageous Frederick Douglass who believed in both, this historic novel is filled with danger and adventure which takes the reader back into that time, into the very rooms where it all happened and their future and ours were changed. With fast-paced action, hairsbreadth escapes, and brave female characters who help shape their own lives and change those of the future, this historical novel should be a first purchase for school and public libraries, and in classroom collections for Women's Month activities.

"The political is personal in this effective introduction to 19th-century society and women’s rights," says Kirkus Reviews.

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