Serena Zabin’s mention of “military men and women” in “The Boston Massacre: A Family History” is brief and in the middle of a sentence but it seems designed to bring readers up short: “Wait. Military women? In 1770?”
Title notwithstanding, the Carleton College history professor’s work isn’t really about the massacre, which happens two-thirds of the way into the book and is dispensed with quickly. Instead, it’s about the atmosphere of pre-Revolutionary War Boston and, specifically, how most people didn’t think it was a big deal to have Brits garrisoned in the city, mingling with Bostonians, until the March day when British soldiers opened fire right in front of the seat of the government.
Zabin begins in Ireland, where women waited to find out if the British army would send them with their husbands to the American colony. Zabin’s research unearths fascinating details about these women, whose stories have not been told: about their fight to stay with husbands they worried they’d never see again and how they adjusted to life in America.
On this side of the Atlantic, the book is about how quickly Brits integrated into American society, with soldier/hottie Samuel Strain, for instance, seemingly viewing life in Boston much like today’s college students view spring break in Daytona Beach.
Memorable anecdotes also reveal how crucial the British women were to their country’s efforts. The British army would not have acknowledged those unofficial “military women” as such, but just as Napoleon said that an army marches on its stomach, Zabin makes it clear that the British army couldn’t have functioned without unpaid wives cooking and doing laundry.
Meanwhile, Zabin documents so many occasions when Brits and Americans visited, flirted with and even married each other that she upends the notion that the massacre happened because British soldiers and Americans, who hated each other, finally erupted. In fact, while it’s true that the massacre fueled unrest that would lead to revolution, it was not a final break. As Zabin notes, “Local women continued to wed soldiers in the weeks and years after the shooting.”
Zabin’s writing is clear, even witty, as when she quotes a letter from a British commander remarking on his troops’ fondness for American women. “ ‘Debauch,’ ‘seducers’ — it seems the army had suddenly found itself inside a novel by Samuel Richardson,” writes Zabin, citing the “Pamela” novelist who was the 18th-century equivalent of Danielle Steel.
The result is a complex picture of a society where, yes, some were beginning to chafe under British rule but where others were happy to have that protection. Where, yes, officials told wives of the soldiers who were displaced after the massacre that the city was not obliged to provide for them since they weren’t citizens, but where the city ended up caring for some of them, anyway.
“We think of the American Revolution as a political event,” Zabin writes, “but it was much more like a bad divorce.”
Also, we tend to view America as a country on the brink of war in this time period but Zabin finds details and anecdotes that depict Boston as it would have felt then, when there was no such thing as the American Revolutionary War, rather than as it looks to us now. Her Bostonians and Brits-in-Boston don’t think of each other as combatants or enemies of war. They think of each other as neighbors.
Chris Hewitt is a Star Tribune critic. 612-673-4367
The Boston Massacre: A Family History
By: Serena Zabin.
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 296 pages, $30.
Events: 7 p.m. Feb. 20, Content Bookstore, Northfield; 7 p.m. Feb. 27, Magers & Quinn, 3038 Hennepin Av. S., Mpls.