1789: Twelve Authors Explore a Year of Rebellion, Revolution, and Change
by Mark Aronson
eARC, 208 pages
Published September 1st 2020 by Candlewick Press
The acclaimed team that brought us 1968 turns to another year that shook the world with a collection of nonfiction writings by renowned young-adult authors.
“The Rights of Man.” What does that mean? In 1789 that question rippled all around the world. Do all men have rights–not just nobles and kings? What then of enslaved people, women, the original inhabitants of the Americas? In the new United States a bill of rights was passed, while in France the nation tumbled toward revolution. In the Caribbean preachers brought word of equality, while in the South Pacific sailors mutinied. New knowledge was exploding, with mathematicians and scientists rewriting the history of the planet and the digits of pi. Lauded anthology editors Marc Aronson and Susan Campbell Bartoletti, along with ten award-winning nonfiction authors, explore a tumultuous year when rights and freedoms collided with enslavement and domination, and the future of humanity seemed to be at stake.
Some events and actors are familiar: Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, Marie Antoinette and the Marquis de Lafayette. Others may be less so: the eloquent former slave Olaudah Equiano, the Seneca memoirist Mary Jemison, the fishwives of Paris, the mathematician Jurij Vega, and the painter Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun. But every chapter brings fresh perspectives on the debates of the time, inviting readers to experience the passions of the past and ask new questions of today.
I initially thought this book is a historical fiction anthology- I mean, it’s not explained anywhere on the synopsis that the “exploration” is fiction or not. So I was initially disappointed that it was a nonfiction essay collection, however my disappointment immediately disappear within the first few sentences of the first story!
1789 is the famous year where the French Revolution happened, where its ideas of freedom and equality spread and inspired other countries and various thinkers to explore what does these values mean. What I love the most about 1789 is how it gives different voices to different players who experiencing the revolutionary year. It takes you to various part of the world but many of the essays here are about French Revolution and early years of USA explored through the eyes of the nobles, slaves, fishwives, and founding fathers alike. The essays are not dry and very captivating, able to transport you to the era and invigorates your mind to think with the persons depicted.
There are 11 essays in this book, which I will review individually below.
📚 The Fishwives Make the Rules by Tanya Lee Stone: The first essay in this book and one that easily convinced me that essay collection does not equal to a boring book. This essay highlights the underrated story of the fishwives march to Versailles, who tired and desperate for food, they demand an audience with the king and became the spark that ignited the revolution. It explains the system at that time clearly, the Estates and the unfairness of it all. It is an inspiring opening and an interesting read, especially compared to the other essays that set within the French Revolution later in this book.
📚 The Contradictory King by Karen Engelmann: This story is about King Gustav III of Sweden, who is at odds with his parliament (The Risdag) but seeing the effects of the French Revolution, cleverly used this opportunity to get rid of them and secure his people support and throne. He stripped most of the Risdag privileges, securing power for himself, while opening more opportunities for the people to participate in the government and decide their own fate in the guise of equality which earns him support. It’s very clever and managed to get me interested to learn more about Gustav III.
📚 Pi, Vega, and the Battle at Belgrade by Aly Alznauer: This is the only story I did not finish as I find the explanation on pi to be meandering and not interesting for the point of the story. It’s about Jurij Vega and how he used math in the battle at Belgrade.
📚 The Queen’s Chemise by Susan Campbell Bartoletti: This is another story sets during the French Revolution, told through the eyes of Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun. She is a female painter, which an accomplishment of its own as at that time women did not have a career of her own. Every penny she earned was given to her father and subsequently her husband, but she had a remarkable talent and career that lead her to paint four portraits of Marie Antoinette. It is an interesting story of Élisabeth’s relationship with Marie Antoinette told through the four portraits she painted of her, and how one of them where the queen was portrayed in a simple white dress prompted a scandal that further lead to the downfall of the royal family. It’s interesting to see Élisabeth’s account of Marie Antoinette and the royal family, to see them as human and not as a villain of the revolution.
📚 The Choice by Mark Aronson: This one explores both American and French revolution as the central figure in this essay is Sally Hemmings, an enslaved woman who had a relationship with Thomas Jefferson. It highlights the different notion of freedom touted by the American and French revolution, where one still do slavery and the other abolish it. At one point in her life, Sally stepped on French soil and this essay sort of explore why she chose to return to USA where she would be enslaved rather than stay in France and be a free woman.
📚 All Men are Created Equal by Joyce Hansen: I think this one is my favorite as it tells the account of Olaujah Equiano, a slave who purchase his own freedom. His story is powerful and harrowing, from his peaceful beginning to his kidnaping and slavery, to his powerful way of declaring and purchasing his own freedom. As a freedman, he continued to advocate for abolition and I can see how his memoir helped the abolition of slave trade in Britain (even though this passed after his death).
📚 The Wesleyans in the West Indies by Summer Edward: This one is about the inception of Methodist church, its spread, and the consequences of Christianization to slavery at that time. The Wesleyans are hated by slave owners due to their objection of slavery but at the same time, apparently accepted by the slaves due to their notion of freedom and equality. This essays contrast the good that comes with Christianization of the slaves, which enforces the notion of equality and freedom, unite them, and taught them to read, but at the same time caused the slaves to relinquish and lose their tribal culture.
📚 Who Counted in America by Cynthia and Sanford Levinson: This one is the less remarkable essay compared to the others as it doesn’t specifically focus on one figure 😅 It’s set during the early days of USA, at the formation and subsequent discussion of the Bill of Rights, on what does “rights” mean, whether the slaves and Native Americans counted, and so on. It’s drier compared to the rest, but also give a detailed and comprehensive view of the debate at that time.
📚 Mary Jemison by Christopher Turner: This essay use the story of Mary Jemison, a white woman who was raised and eventually became part of the Seneca Nation, to root the story however, it’s actually about how the settlers took their lands and killed their people. It’s a harrowing story of how the friendly relations between the settlers and the native people turned into a disastrous one.
📚 Challenging Time by Sally M. Walker: This story is about James Hutton, known as the father of geology due to his revolutionary theory at 1789 that states earth is older than 6000 years as believed at that time. It explores his persistence and passion which really shines through the story.
📚 Mutiny on the Bounty by Steve Sheinkin: The final essay in this book and also the most fun to read! It tells the story of mutiny aboard the Bounty ship, the heroic survival story of the captain, the fate of the mutineers, as well as the disappearing act of some of the main mutineers. It’s like watching a high-seas drama with its dramatic twist of fate!
Overall, I highly recommend this book! Not all essays work for me but in general, they are very captivating and the topics discussed (mainly about freedom and equality) are still highly relevant in today’s age. I learned a lot from the people and values discussed on this book so if you’re interested to learn more about history, this is a book for you.
5 thoughts on “1789: Twelve Authors Explore a Year of Rebellion, Revolution, and Change by Mark Aronson”
I don’t usually reach for nonfiction, but this collection sounds so interesting!! I love learning history, so I’m so glad to have stumbled on this review! Thanks for the review and for putting this book on my radar 💕
Thank you for reading, I hope you’ll enjoy it if you decide to pick it up 🙂
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Looks good! Thanks for the review!
Thanks for reading!
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