The “blindspot” of this hilarious tale of Colonial America was slavery. Most accounts of that time and place deal with the colonists’ increasing distaste for domination by the British King. But the bondage of captured Africans was an everyday reality even though people both before and since failed to see it. That blind spot figures in a prominent way as the story unfolds.
Estimated reading time: 5 minutes
Authors Jane Kamensky and Jill Lepore wrote Blindspot in the language and style of the 18th Century. That’s unmistakable at the outset, since its subtitle is “By a Lady in Disguise & a Gentleman in Exile.” The book tells the unlikely tale of Stewart Jameson and Fanny Easton, who find themselves caught up in the chaotic politics of pre-Revolutionary America. They’re present at its epicenter in Boston as they seek to solve a murder of one of the city’s most prominent men.
Historical figures enter stage left
Major Revolutionary-era figures such as Ben Franklin and the portraitist Gilbert Stuart appear in thin disguises with bit parts. Others turn up without camouflage of any sort. And a major character, Dr. Ignatius Alexander, is billed as “the celebrated African genius.” He greatly resembles the historical figure, Mr. Ignatius Sancho, who bore the same distinction in that era.
The authors make generous use of the corny dramatic plot devices found in 17th Century literature and on the stage, but it works anyway. Though I felt guilty from time to time about squandering my time on the often sophomoric humor, I enjoyed Blindspot immensely.
Blindspot by Jane Kamensky and Jill Lepore (2008) 500 pages ★★★★☆
The historical setting
In the years leading up to the Revolution, Boston was the third largest city in the American Colonies, behind Philadelphia and New York. In 1765, the last surviving census before the Revolutionary War reveals that the town consisted of 2,069 families living in 1,676 houses. There were just over 8,000 white inhabitants under the age of sixteen and 6,500 over that age. Eight hundred eleven “negroes and mulattoes” lived there, and thirty-seven Indians. According to the US Census Bureau, the city’s population in 1770 was 15,520. But by 1780, so many people had left the city during the British occupation that its population declined to about 10,000.
Like its somewhat larger sister cities further down the East Coast, Boston was a busy port. The Massachusetts Bay Colony exported fish, lumber, and farm products to Europe. But, according to the History of Massachusetts Blog, “Slavery also played an important role in the Massachusetts Bay Colony’s economy. Starting in 1644, Boston merchants began to engage in the Triangle Trade, a three-stop trade route in which merchants imported slaves from Africa, sold them in the West Indies and then bought cane sugar to bring back to Massachusetts to make molasses and rum.”
About the authors
According to her bio at Harvard University, Jill Lepore “is the David Woods Kemper ’41 Professor of American History and Affiliate Professor of Law at Harvard University. She is also a staff writer at The New Yorker [where she has been contributing since 2005]. Her many books include These Truths: A History of the United States (2018), an international bestseller, named one of Time magazine’s top ten non-fiction books of the decade. Her new book, The Deadline, will be published in 2023. She is currently working on a long-term research project called Amend, an NEH-funded data collection of attemts to amend the U.S. Constitution.” She has written thirteen nonfiction books and innumerable articles and essays. Blindspot is her only novel.
Jane Kamensky is also a professor of history at Harvard University. (At the time this novel was published, she chaired the history department at Brandeis University.) She holds a BA and a PhD in History from Yale University. She is the author or editor of four works of history as well as Blindspot. Kamensky lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with her husband and two sons.
Kamensky and Lepore wrote this book to have fun, and I’m glad they did. I had a great time, too.
For related reading
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