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Children in Colonial America.

Children in Colonial America. Ed. James Marten (New York: New York University Press, 2007. xii plus 253 pp.).

Do not judge a book by its cover; at least not this book. Children in Colonial America, a new collection of essays on childhood edited by James Marten, is fronted by a conventional seventeenth-century Anglo-American portrait of stiff-backed and maturely-attired white children, the type of picture that once gave rise to the historiographical myth that children were '"miniature adults" prior to the eighteenth century. the articles that follow this deceiving cover, however, neither fall prey to such a hoary conceit, nor limit their gaze to privileged white children. Instead, Children in Colonial America brings together a broad range of provoative essays on a diverse cast of children from within and without the British American colonies.

A brief preface by Philip Greven introduces the focus of the collection as the "experiences of children and adolescents in the seventeenth-and eighteenth-century British American colonies" (ix). yet the first essay (and one of the most interesting), by Dorothy Tank de Estrada, describes the very un-British childhoods of Indian children in early Mexico. Other contributions that defy Greven's characterization of the volume include an essay on childhood and violence in New Amsterdam, by Mariah Aden, and an essay comparing the experiences of German Catholic girl immigrants to the French Gulf South and the Britishmid-Atlantic, by Lauren Ann Kattner. A fourth essay, by Audra Abbe Diptee, explores the childhoods of enslaved childrens in Jamaica. Rounded out by the collection; other studies on children achieves a nice "Atlantic" effect that could have been better introduced and theorized at the outset.

In addition to treating a range of geographical sites, the collection speaks to a diverse population of children. The scholars working within the mainland British colonies take for their subjects the experiences of Indian Children in southern New England (R. Todd Romero), wealthy white children in South Carolina (Darcy Fryer), disabled children in colonial Massachusetts (Parnel Wickham), and working class boys in revolutiobary Boston (J.L.Bell). C. Dallett Hemphill includs European-, Indian-, and African-American children in her cross-cultural analysis of sibling relations in early America.

Despite the diversity of the collection's subjects, the essays are united by their social-historical methodology. Historians of childhood often agonize over how to recover the lived experiences of actual children, rather than their representation by adults. Each of the authors in this collection takes seriously the charge to describe children's lives--their work patterns, their religious identities, their work patterns, their religious identities, their relationships with family members, their political identities and their gender formations. The exception to the pattern is Keith Pacholl's essay on education in colonial Philadelphia, which draws on prescriptive literature and feels less fresh than many of the other pieces. Perhaps the only weakness to the social-historical methodology of the collection is the author's general failure to address what they mean by the term "child". This question of cultural construction cannot be neglected by historians of childhood as they seek to understand their subjects' lives.

A common analytical theme that runs through the collection is that the history of children should be central to understanding the societies in which they lived. James Marten, in his introduction to the collection, states that the contributors ask not only "how did the colonial experience shape or even alter perceptions and assumptions about children" but how "research on the history of children [can] reorient our knowledge and interpretations of colonial history" (8). R. Todd Romero contents that "Indian children were often at the center of ongoing efforts by Native communities to persist"(33). Darcy R. Fryer argues that "childrearing was a central component of the vast colonial enterprices of estate building community building" (104). In the most theoretically-attuned essay in the collection, Mariah Adin argues that colonial power relations should be reconceptualized to place those "who often appear powerless, like children, at the very canter of the system"(91.

Adin describes children as willful agents, even in the context of their violent victimization (her article's subject). this is a claim that most of the authors in the collection would support. The children they describe sought to shape their circumstances, often, if not especially, in the face of great difficulty. Audra Diptee describes how enslaved children in Jamaica resisted their exploitation by running away or acting recalcitrant. C. Todd Romero describes how native children turned to religious practice for meaning in the context of a society desrupted by European colonialism. Helena M. Wall argues that even privileged youth in colonial America, such as the offspring of the wealthy Philadalphia Quaker-diarist Elisabeth Drinker, faced the fragility of life in an age of high childhood mortility, and struggled with the consequences.

The exception is John F. Navin, who in the weakest essay in the collection, agues relentlessly that children were "silent victims" of the Pilgrim migration to Plymouth plantation (127). Eschewing historicism altogether, Navin describes the Pilgrims as narcissistic and neglectful parents, carelessly subjecting their children to horrible circumstances while they traveled in pursuit of religious purity. He does not address whether parental love and concern for their children's souls may have guided the Pilgrims' decisions, although the argument is implicit in his evidence. Nor does Navin investigate whether Pilgrim children embraced or disregarded the religious identities and motivations of their parents, and thus whether the children may have been active and willing participants in the tribulations of migration. Navin is too busy condemning these seventeenth-century parents, in unfortunately DeMausian overtones, as cruelly abusive.

Overall, the essays in this fine collection should hold a lot of interest for social historians. In addition, the book is designed to be assigned to undergraduates. The essays are interspersed with primary documents that bear direct relation to the secondary work; they are stripped of distracting historiographical debates and footnoted sparingly; and the book ends with a series of questions that would work well to promote classroom discussion. Instructors planning courses on American social history, not only the history of childhood, would be wise to consider assigning this text.

Rachel Hope Cleves

Northern Illinois University
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Author:Cleves, Rachel Hope
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book review
Date:Dec 22, 2008
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