February 01


Bringing History Home by Beth Anderson

Prudence Cummings Wright of Pepperell, Massachusetts, has inspired her community for nearly 250 years. Her story, handed down through oral history to become part of the written record, is one of home, the courage of action, and consequences of decisions. I found the power of her story in the personal and how that allows us to connect today.

History books tend to report on main events and a small portion of people from the dominant group. But most of us live behind the main events and aren’t major actors. No wonder many find it hard to connect to history. When you consider the popularity of ancestry research, however, it’s clear that “history” is not the problem. Rather, people are seeking personal connection. They’re trying to find their place in the past, where they came from, what they carry forward from previous generations. History becomes meaningful when we tell more personal stories that let us tap into the experiences of real people—their lives, challenges, decisions, and actions.

As an author, it’s fascinating to immerse myself in a different time and place and step into another person’s shoes. When I do that, I see that people from the past faced so many of the same issues we deal with today. Bringing history home means connecting a story to “where we live,” not physically, but to the reality of our lives, to us as individuals, as family, and as a link in the network that is community. My challenge is bringing my discoveries to readers in a way that invites them to wonder…

            How does history connect to my life?

For me, it begins with research. I contacted a woman from Pepperell who knows Prudence’s story well. She put me in touch with others. As they all shared their knowledge and resources, I saw how one person from the past has inspired people today. Like the women in the story, “they were bound together, like blocks of a quilt.”

Often what brings a story “home” for me are the small personal details. Anecdotes like the one about Prudence “besting” the boys at school. (You go, girl!) Or that she “earned” a piece of paper and made a keepsake that lasts to this day. (Amazing!) Or how she made beautiful designs when she “sand-scoured” the floor. (That’s a rabbit hole!) All the tidbits give you glimpses into that unique person, revealing character and personality. Artifacts never fail to give me goosebumps. My Pepperell contacts shared photographs of Prudence’s precious piece of paper that she painted as a child using the juices of plants; the lantern she carried when the “minute women” marched to the bridge; and her handwritten church “relation” expressing humility and gratitude. Real items from her hands and words from her heart breathe life into a name from the past.

            What will be passed on from my life? What will it say about me?

We’ve all heard of the “Boston Tea Party,” boycotts of British goods, Founding Fathers that led the resistance, Paul Revere as an alarm rider, and the battles of Lexington and Concord. But what did all this mean for average people like us? Prudence Wright’s story brings all this home, sharing the reality for families, women, children, and communities.

In the colony of Massachusetts, the network of resistance against English rule that led up to the war for independence “stretched from Boston to meeting houses across the colony and into homes.” When patriot leaders urged boycotts of British goods, the men of Pepperell voted to join the fight. But the hard work happened at home where women and children had to produce their own goods and deal with the hardship of doing without. They spun yarn and wove cloth, made maple sugar and herbal tea. And this was on top of the usual chores like splitting wood, growing crops, raising animals, preserving food, making candles, and more.

            Will my extra efforts to make life better matter?

Male and female roles were more defined and separate than today. In history books we see the men run off to battle, but we seldom hear about what happened on the home front. Children of soldiers may understand the consequences for a family, but most often we don’t think about this. Who took over the men’s work on the farm or in the blacksmith shop? Who safeguarded the town? Along with the fight for a nation’s independence, women broke free of tradition, doing the men’s work as well as their own. Though it would take the country a long time to recognize it, the women acted as full citizens.

            Will others understand how I’ve been affected by big events?

Prudence Wright’s story is about the impact of the revolution on home, family, and community. It’s about the decisions everyday folks face when danger threatens or times are tough. It’s about taking risks, responsibility, and action. When a picture book allows us to see that every person has the power to act, not just the “stars,” we understand that we all play a role in history. We’re not ending points, we’re links.

Did Prudence’s home front actions impact history?

It’s impossible to know. But there’s no doubt she impacted people, and that her story continues to inspire today.

And when you bring that question home…

Do our decisions and actions make a difference? Do they have far-reaching impact?

Without the advantage of time, it’s impossible to know. But stories like Prudence’s make me believe that the answer is YES.

There’s no doubt that when people uncover their ancestry, they see decisions and actions that reverberate through time, all the way to today.

A story, whether it’s your own family history or someone else’s, can bring history home—          

            connect us like descendants,

            offer us an opportunity for gratitude, inspiration, and awe,

            and give us a gift to share.

Beth Anderson, a former teacher, combines her love of writing with the joys of discovery and learning in her narrative nonfiction and historical fiction picture books. Visit bethandersonwriter.com.