Friday, December 5, 2014

American Phoenix

 Published in 2013, this fascinating new biography about John Quincy and Louisa Adams gives full proof that the age of good writing is far from dead. We're on the tail end of the War of 1812 bicentennial here in America, and this fitting offering encapsulates what Americans can be most proud of in their heritage: namely, the faithful men and women who sacrificed much for their country.

A recent read-aloud in our home, American Phoenix by Jane Hampton Cook is a poignant and classily written book about America's ambassador couple to Russia. A portrait of history, of marriage, of dominion and perseverance, and certainly one that any lover of history would enjoy.

Here's why.

The Book
[From Amazon:] American Phoenix is the sweeping, riveting tale of a grand historic adventure across forbidding oceans and frozen tundra—from the bustling ports and towering birches of Boston to the remote reaches of pre-Soviet Russia, from an exile in arctic St. Petersburg to resurrection and reunion among the gardens of Paris. Upon these varied landscapes this Adams and his Eve must find a way to transform their banishment into America’s salvation.
Author, historian, and national media commentator Jane Hampton Cook breathes life into once-obscure history, weaving a meticulously researched biographical tapestry that reads like a gripping novel. With the arc and intrigue of Shakespearean drama in a Jane Austen era, American Phoenix is a timely yet timeless addition to the recent renaissance of works on the founding Adams family, from patriarchs John and Abigail to the second-generation of John Quincy and Louisa and beyond.

My Thoughts 
Jane Hampton Cook sets you squarely down in 1800s Europe and never lets you leave. While most biographies give a respectable overview of a person's life and a dash of what's going on in the world, Cook's portrait of the Adams' couple is staggering because of it's lush inclusion of everything. Medicine. Politics. Art. Famous Who's Who. You'll come away not only with an intimate portrait of the Adams, but a firm grasp of what's going on in France, Russia, England, and America during the War of 1812.
I knew a little about John and Abigail Adams, and a very little bit about John Quincy, but almost
nothing about Louisa before this book. She's a woman well worth learning about. Struggling with moving across continents, separation from her boys, and countless miscarriages, along with ill health and social struggles--there's a wealth of points to take from her life. Not only from a historical point of view, but also the sheer awe of a woman who endured all those things in a world with no Skype calls to see her boys and very little medical help for a baby girl with seizures. She struggled with trusting her husband, grieving over her children's deaths, and living in a terrible climate away from everyone she knew. Cook gently captures the failures and redemption of this dedicated and loving woman as she tries to raise a family and represent a country at the same time.
Cook's writing style does have a couple of flaws. At the beginning of the book when Louisa is separating from her children and exiling in St. Petersburg, Cook subtly puts the reader sympathy squarely on her side with a scant dash of sympathy for John's political struggles. But as the book goes on she evens out the perspective between them--both their flaws and their virtues--and gives us an honest and laudable portrait of them both.
Cook tries to infuse her narrative with similes and metaphors that are in keeping with the era that she's writing--using them to teach readers even more about the culture and the times. Sometimes it's a bit contrived, but in the grand scope of the book that's easily forgivable. Most times it works, and works well. Occasionally Cook puts in fictional imaginations such as "Louisa might have felt this, or done this, or worn this,"--but she quickly strikes a good balance by using those conjectures to support historical details rather than personal conjectures.
I can't stress just how much detail she puts in: Russian culture, the emperor Alexander's family, and the social rules that Louisa and John were in constant fear of breaking as they tried to establish trade relations between Russia and the young America. The expense, the political jockeying with French and English ambassadors--even to the point where sledding parties with other adults were more than just a good time.
Louisa is not the only one who receives a poignant portrait. John, too, has struggles of his own that are honestly included. He writes privately about exile because of matters of principle, his keen drive to satisfy his father's expectations, and the constant fight between participating in frivolous events for the purpose of diplomacy or staying away for the purpose of economy. Over and around all that Cook wraps his concerns as a father and husband--over his wife's health and his boys' education in America. John is not a demonstrative man, perhaps not even as demonstrative as Louisa--but when he writes words of affection in his private diary they are true and honest and heartfelt.

American Phoenix reads like a fiction novel, but the majority of it is true. An excellent read that will educate and entertain in all matters history, marriage, and the hearts and minds of John and Louisa Adams.


  1. I enjoyed this review, Schuyler! It sounds like a great book--I've added it to my "list". :D I love it when historical books are written in an engaging and story-like way.

    Oh, that's right, I'd forgotten about the bicentennial of the War of 1812. I hope that the book's description of America's *ahem* loss was not too depressing. *cough* :P

    Praying for you!

    1. Dear Kyla,
      If you are looking for Christmas list ideas for yourself, I would highly recommend adding this one. It is a thick book, but well worth the read and one you would very much enjoy. I thought of you, and it is just your cup of Irish tea. ;) (Though there is nothing Irish about it!)

      Ahem. As for the War of 1812, this book actually portrays America's right to win trade rights and establish itself as a legitimate nation in a time when we were looked upon as a bunch of unsupervised children. We won the War of 1812 in the sense that we achieved what we set out to do--force Great Britain and France and Russia to acknowledge that we were a real country with real governmental rights.

      But we did not win Canada. That I willingly concede. It is pretty clear that it was not the will of God for us to stretch our territory that far. But I wouldn't count that a loss. *cough* :P Just a clear redirection of Providence. :wasntme:

      Thanks for your prayers! I really appreciate them, especially writing-wise right now. :)


  2. This was a fun read aloud!! Cook writes in such an engaging style, and it's neat to see a modern author come out with a really good book. :)

    These books show how much people had to sacrifice during the wars America was in. It's pretty amazing to get a inside look at Louisa's heart as she went through this separation and exile.


    1. I loved getting a good grip on this period of history. I knew about the sailor issues and a good bit of the war on American soil, but how it was placed worldwide was new. :D


  3. This book would have been pretty difficult to write had not the Adamses copied and saved their letters, as was the custom during that period of time. In relation to that, it keeps coming to mind that, "If you want history written accurately, you have to write it yourself." I wonder how our history will be portrayed in 150 years or so, now that a lot of communication is done electronically? Kind of makes me want to save a bunch of stuff in a hardcopy form!

    The portrayal of the diplomacy was fascinating, especially regarding the minister (diplomat?) to France who didn't want to go to any social functions and none of the French thought he was worthy to be there.. I think it's a subject worth studying.

    The only book I read all summer (besides Jonah and Nahum). And I ended up reading it TWICE!! :)

    1. I wonder if we'll have books of email collections someday. It seems plausible, for a lot of people put good art and writing into emails, even though it's not in written form. I save all my emails and hand-written letters from friends. It's like having a piece of them tucked away whenever you get lonely.

      Diplomacy and civility are vital skills to learn. :) And good communication skills are some of the best equipment to getting you where you want to go in life.

      It was a great book to read twice! Thank-you so much for sharing it with us. I enjoyed it, and would love to own a copy someday.



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