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Culture and Arts


Page Two of CultureWatch

In the winter of 1778 the Continental Congress called upon John Adams to join Benjamin Franklin and Arthur Lee in Paris as minister to France. Abigail gave up all hope of resuming a normal family life in Braintree. John sailed to the Continent, with their ten-year old son John Quincy, beginning an eighteen month absence. Barely home in August of 1779, he was once again marked as the man to negotiate a peace treaty with England. In November he again sailed for England, on this trip taking sons John Quincy and Charles.

In the “portrait’s” middle section, Gelles offers up an interesting pas de deux in which the principals touch and intertwine only through their correspondence, and sometimes not even that. In the current moment of instant messaging, twittering, and blogging, the months Abigail Adams endured with no letter from her husband or sons nearly takes on the aspect of science fiction.  But while John traveled, successfully negotiated financing for the American cause in the Netherlands, and fell in love with Europe, Abigail, at home, kept her family solvent with sage investments and mercantile ventures.

An absence of three years led Abigail to argue that she and John had been separated long enough and to hint that perhaps his affection was diminished. Months of epistolary negotiation ensued. John loved diplomatic life and so, finally, in June 1784 Abigail and her daughter sailed for Europe. She brought, according to Gelles, a personality that was “proud, prim, [and] provincial” along with New England values of “industry, frugality, and sobriety.” France and Abigail required time to adjust to one another.

Abigail softened through her reading of the French classics — she took her dictionary and read a play a day in French — as well as by listening to men like Jefferson who did appreciate French culture. She and John, according to Gelles, despite the interruptions in their partnership, came together easily as they reunited.

Gelles paints the sights and politics of Europe and England as seen through the events attended by Abigail and John. She gives a delicious account of the meeting of King George III and John Adams, and a charming description of  how Abigail insisted that her dress for the family’s presentation at court be “elegant” while preserving her republican image. At St. James, Abigail and her daughter waited four hours as the King and Queen made their way, one clockwise, the other counter-clockwise, through the crowd of two hundred.

The Adamses departed from England on April 20, 1788 arriving in Boston eight weeks later. Once a small town farmer and lawyer, John Adams was now significantly changed and about to join the new government as George Washington’s vice-president. Abigail, still very much a republican wife, faced a new period of being uprooted as well as more separations. In her final chapters, Gelles does a fine job of melding political talk and rivalry with the domestic issues faced by the couple, including health problems, personal family sorrows, and a wastrel son-in-law. As biographer, Gelles very much succeeds at putting a human face on the cost of public service to those who govern.

Gelles’ book is to be read and valued on two counts: First, it demands that we consider how and why some marriages succeed, and the conditions under which women are permitted, indeed, required to assume independence of action. 

Abigail and John is also important because it helps to regender early American history which remains overly focused on generals and male political leaders.

Jill Norgren, ©2009 for


By Lori Hahnel, © 2009
Published by Thistledown Press; paperback, 194 pages

Lori Hahnel’s collection of short fiction, Nothing Sacred, needs to be savored slowly, like a fine cognac. Her writing style is spare, subtle, literary but not pretentious in any way, and very pleasing. Often, she tells her tales in segments and the scenes move forward and backward in time. Each one has something to offer that lingers in the mind.  

Many of the women in these stories live in small towns. They love classic films and take comfort in them when the complexities or the sameness of their everyday lives beset them. In the title story, a nanny, entranced by old movie stars, neglects her charges and a calamity nearly occurs. In Leading Men, Kirk enthralls film fans Liz and James, until Liz persuades him to go to a Marx brothers’ movie. “How could I even be interested in a man who could sleep through Duck Soup?” she wonders.  When Kirk leaves them both behind, they turn to the movies for solace. In Poor Little Rich Girl, a maid who works for Mary Pickford reads her journal and that leads to a life-changing decision. Then there is Marion, a library worker who immerses herself in books about old movie stars like Gloria Swanson because “We Had Faces Then.” She stays in the library after it closes to look at Hurrell portraits and a stranger sexually assaults her, but she chooses not to follow Swanson’s example. 

Music also plays an important role in some of the stories. In Across the Universe, Maggie desperately wants to go to New York for the anniversary of John Lennon’s death, which is also the month of her break-up with her lover, but a snowstorm stops her. “It seems like I’m too late for everything… the big stuff — I’m always late for that,” she thinks. In the end, she returns to her small-town life. My favourite story with a musical thread in it is Ghost Rag. It is the story of Leila, a woman with a young family, whose husband dies. At first, she cannot bear to play or to hear the music she used to enjoy but when she is able to talk about her husbands’ death, she begins to want music again. 

The last story I want to mention is The Pass. It is only five pages long but it packs a wallop. A hundred years ago, a part of Turtle Mountain collapsed and buried seventy people. The Frank slide was unpredictable and devastating. When Joyce discovers that Mike, the trucker who has been in her life on and off for six years is married, she experiences her own landslide. “Part of me wanted to reach for him, try to keep him, but another part wanted to reach into his neck and rip out his veins.” She passes the slide site again on her way to a new start and now “It looks so small.” 

Nothing Sacred is Lori Hahnel’s second book and most of the short fiction in it originally appeared in literary journals. I’m glad it can now have a wider readership since it is available through Amazon, Chapters Indigo, and Thistledown Press. Her first book, Love Minus Zero was published in 2008. The novel is about a young punk rocker, her ill-fated love, her music and her self-discovery. It takes place in 1979. Hahnel lives in Calgary, Alberta.

Diane Girard, ©2009 for

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