To look back upon Benjamin Franklin and his favorite sister “is to stare at the sun and moon,” said Dwight Garner in The New York Times. One became an inventor, a statesman, and “probably the most interesting public man this country has produced.” The other never left home, devoted herself to raising children, and, as The New Yorker’s Jill Lepore writes, “strained to form the letters of her name.” Yet under the ministrations of Lepore, “this moon casts a beguiling glow.” Jane Franklin Mecom grew up at a time when girls were taught to read but not to write. At 15, she married a husband who became a serial debtor. She bore 12 children and buried at least 10 of them. But her voice, in letters, suggests “a lively mind that was mostly left to wither.” We’re fortunate to have the chance to get to know her.
Jane Franklin didn’t leave much for a historian to work with, said Susan Dunn in The New York Review of Books. Though she and her famous brother corresponded regularly for six decades, every letter that Jane wrote before age 45 is lost to time. Lepore has compensated by writing about Jane’s Boston world, and by speculating—for example, that Jane was pregnant when she married. But Jane starts speaking for herself eventually, and, “as Lepore is delighted to point out,” we can see her learning to assert herself, said Julia M. Klein in The Boston Globe. In one of her missives, she tells Ben she wished the Revolution had never happened.
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Not all the creative liberties Lepore takes pay off, said Amy Gentry in the Chicago Tribune. It’s reasonable to wonder aloud if Jane might have suffered a miscarriage before giving birth to her first child, but Lepore’s speculation about Jane’s resulting mental state “veers into sheer melodrama.” Worse, Lepore sometimes uses Jane’s comments out of context and doesn’t let on for half the book that they were written late in life. “Lepore’s book stands as a valiant testimony to the tragic erasure of women in Jane’s time. But perhaps there are times when too much has been lost, and all we can do is mourn.”
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