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Carol Jarboe’s character – the Irish indentured washerwoman “Maggie Delaney” – is incredibly inspiring to me. Carol has clearly sunk her heart and soul into this character. She and her husband Frank (both interpreters) are interviewed in the last couple of videos from Jas. Townsend & Son’s series on getting started doing living history interpretation. They have a website that’s worth exploring, too.

Today is Christmas Eve, and a Saturday. It’s a cool, rainy day, the perfect kind of day to spend indoors, with a fire in the woodstove, researching colonial American domestic history and also a few of my own colonial ancestors. And doing a bit of housekeeping – both external and internal.

This being the tail end of the year, my thoughts turn inward, and I look back over this most recent trip around the sun. I like to take stock, process what I’ve learned, filter it through the clean cheesecloth of common sense and the smothering muslin of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, then turn around and focus its light out over the precipice of the new orbital journey ahead of me.

It’s also a good time to get a lot of reading done in preparation for the coming spring, when we can finally get back outside and do things again. Back in October, I’d gathered up all the books on my winter to-read list onto one shelf in the front room. Today, I reassessed those choices. It’s still completely crammed, but more focused on English and colonial history (and especially domestic history, women’s history) and less on foraging and gardening. I figure I’ve spent nearly twenty years learning about plants. It’s okay to pull back a little bit, and focus my attention somewhere else for awhile. I have to trust there’s room enough in my brain for more than one body of knowledge.

When I’d finished rearranging that shelf, removing certain titles and adding others, I stood back and marveled at the “happy coincidence” that, apparently, long before I’d consciously considered doing living history, I was quietly accumulating not a bad little library to support doing that very thing. It’s almost as though my subconscious could see where I was heading – years ago – and went about selecting books that would help support me when I got there. They’re not all focused specifically on the 17th and 18th centuries, and I probably won’t get to all of them by spring. But it’s nice to have options. And it’s rather startling to take up a field of interest, start down a new intellectual and creative path, and discover that you already own an entire collection of books concerning several facets of that very thing.

  • The Scents of Eden – Charles Corn
  • Spice: The History of a Temptation – Jack Turner
  • A World Lit Only by Fire – William Manchester
  • Near a Thousand Tables: A History of Food 
  • 1491 – Charles C. Mann
  • French Provincial Cooking – Elizabeth David
  • How Indians Use Wild Plants for Food, Medicine & Crafts
  • Brother Crow, Sister Corn (Native American gardening)
  • Early American Gardens: For Meate or Medicine
  • John the Painter: Terrorist of the American Revolution
  • The Last Food of England
  • Dear and Affectionate Wife
  • Journeys in New World
  • A Sampler of Lifestyles
  • The Diary of Mary Gorton Smith 1835-1838, 1841-1843
  • Diary of an Early American Boy: Noah Blake 1805
  • Treasured Recipes from Early New England Kitchens
  • A History of Everyday Things in England
  • The Anglo Files – Sarah Lyall (what makes the English English)
  • Jane Austen’s England – Roy & Lesley Adkins
  • The Decline and Fall of the British Empire: 1781-1997 – Piers Brendon
  • The Weaker Vessel – Antonia Fraser (a history of women)
  • The Great Mortality – John Kelly (plague in medieval Europe)
  • Bedlam – Catharine Arnold (mental illness in Victorian England)
  • London Under – Peter Ackroyd (subterranean history)
  • The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet (the Dutch in 17th-century, Edo Japan)
  • Cranford (just for sheer pleasure)
  • Watership Down (for pleasure, and because I’m determined to finish it – started six months ago, before my trip to England and Scotland this past September)

Not on my shelf, but on my mental to-reread list: The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert. Also, it appears that Nathaniel Philbrick’s has a new book on the friendship between George Washington and Benedict Arnold. Yes, please. And I guess I will finally break down and watch a bit of Turn on Netflix, but with this historical critique in mind.

It seems to me that, in order to understand the American colonists – especially in the 17th century – you first have to understand them as English. These are Englishmen (and women) having a colonial experience. Clearly, after 100 years (and three or four generations) of sharing that experience, they would’ve felt less deeply identified with England. But they would still act and speak and eat and work and pray more like the English than like anyone else. Certain new plants would come into use, and new ideas from other groups they mingled with (Native American, Irish, French, Hessian, Scots, and African American) and the weather was harsher, and they didn’t have the ancient infrastructure of their homelands in England – everything, including roads, had to be made, forged, felled, planted, cleared, plowed, built, erected, dug, hewn, forded, and lain.