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Colonial Farce in Beantown

By Carolyn See,
who may be reached at www.carolynsee.com
Friday, December 12, 2008

BLINDSPOT

By Jane Kamensky and Jill Lepore

Spiegel & Grau. 500 pp. $24.95

"Blindspot" is a novel both frisky and learned. You know you're in for a treat when you read one of the blurbs on the back of the jacket: " 'A most inimitable performance. Who is he, what is he, that could write so excellent a Book?' -- John PUFF, the prolific author of very many eighteenth-century blurbs." Set in pre-revolutionary New England, in the year 1764, and narrated in the style of an 18th-century novel, "Blindspot" was written by two historians who are lifelong friends. They must have had a wonderful time putting this good-natured project together.

Jane Kamensky and Jill Lepore write about a time when Boston was a town of around 20,000 souls; when many people, if not most of the white populace, owned African slaves as personal servants; when the British government was tightening the screws by imposing exorbitant taxes on sugar and stamps (everything that was sold, more or less, had to have a stamp on it, and the proceeds swelled the coffers of the king). This was a time when many colonists began to rumble in protest: Were they free British citizens, with all the rights that entailed, or were they merely second-class colonials, to have their wealth stripped from them as fast as they could create it? Some Bostonians were beginning to cry out for real freedom, even as they greedily held on to their own slaves, and the whole idea of slavery, as a form of order and even patriotism.

Our hero here is Stewart Jameson, portraitist -- or, as they were called in that day, face-painter -- who has been forced to leave England in a hurry, under the threat of debtors' prison. He is referred to as a gambler and a libertine in the "Wanted" notices that follow him across the Atlantic, but in fact he is a good man with a huge capacity for friendship and love. He has incurred an enormous debt, it's true, but for the noblest of reasons.

Eventually, he will meet a fetching young lady with enough pluck for an army of plucky heroines. Fanny Easton, daughter of a stuffy and prominent Boston family, had earlier carelessly allowed herself to become impregnated by her painting instructor. In one of the first of many misunderstandings that inform the structure of this book, she comes to believe that her nefarious instructor was also consorting with a beautiful house slave, Hannah. Fanny's baby is stillborn (maybe), and the new mother flees her father's house to become, for a while, a girl of the street, only to end up in a ghastly workhouse for fallen women. Somehow, she comes across an ad in the Boston newspaper: There's someone out there seeking a face-painter's apprentice. She has the talent and ambition to fit the bill, and soon begins a new life, disguised as a boy, Francis Weston, employed now by the artist Stewart Jameson, who, though he's always thought of himself as a manly sort, becomes swiftly and guiltily enchanted by the "boy" who works for him.

A third character turns up: an African of slave parentage who, on a bet, has been raised with a white man's education in England. Dr. Ignatius Alexander is both madly erudite and furious about the injustices of slavery. He's an old friend of Jameson's. But is he a free man or a runaway slave? It depends on whom you ask.

Trouble is brewing in the Colonies. A certain Samuel Bradstreet has been campaigning for freedom from British rule and also freedom for slaves -- a position that has made him both deeply loved and hated in the town. He's been looking a little green around the gills for quite some time. In fact he's being slowly poisoned, and half of Boston, including his virago wife, may be guilty of this crime. When Bradstreet finally does expire, Jameson, the open-hearted face-painter (Weston, the apprentice in disguise) and Dr. Alexander, the "African genius," contrive to discover who has carried out this murder of so fine a man.

Of course the fourth major character here is Boston itself, at a time when Holyoke was a person instead of a college, when felons were burned at the stake for their infractions, when rebellious slaves were hanged and then left in cages so that the crows could pick their bones. Most of the tropes of 18th-century melodrama appear here: those constant misunderstandings, the idea that people you've known for years can remain disguised for months at a time and you'll never notice; missing babies; long-lost foundlings; sudden surprises; contorted explanations. Kamensky and Lepore even carry on at an 18th-century length, which doesn't serve "Blindspot" all that well. Being sprightly for close to 500 pages is harder than it might first seem, and even the most avid reader may begin to flag toward the end. But what an engaging way to relearn American history! And how amazing (and more than a little sad) to realize that we, as a country, are plagued by many of the same conundrums -- pervasive racism, class distrust, venal officials -- now as we were then.

Sunday in Book World

· William Least Heat-Moon wanders America.

· Jewish pirates sail the Caribbean.

· Michael Dirda laughs at Robert Louis Stevenson.

· Laura Miller returns to Narnia.

· And the best children's books of the year.

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