Garage sale find tells woman’s long lost tale

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“An Extraordinary Ordinary Woman,” by Susan M. Ouellette

In an era of Facebook and Twitter, it can be a treat to find someone describing their thoughts and activities during an earlier era in longhand. Is it a love of history that makes discovery of a journal that valuable to us? Maybe a personal connection to a specific geographic location or event? Or perhaps a trace of schadenfreude when intimately viewing someone’s very bad luck?

Consider “An Extraordinary Ordinary Woman: The Journal of Phebe Orvis, 1820-1830” (State University of New York Press, 2017), a new book from Susan Ouellette. In this case, it’s clearly an opportunity to apply a well-honed craft to a piece of history familiar to her by both upbringing and profession. She’s a native of Keeseville, and Professor of History and American Studies at St. Michael’s College in Winooski, Vermont. Her interpretive skills help readers gain insight into aspects of colonial life we may never have considered.

The diary she dissects was a chance find at a Plattsburgh yard sale many years ago. The person who unearthed this small bound manuscript made the fortunate decision to keep it until he could find someone best able to wring value from it. Eventually it found its way to Ouellette.

Also fortunate is that Phebe Orvis Eastman, the woman who kept the journal, was an unusually bright and challenging woman not about to accept all the mores of her time.

Ouellette’s opening chapters analyze the diary. She mixes overview, general concepts and specific detail smoothly. Journal entries can be brief, she cautions us, as was the custom of the time. Opening words usually simply stated the weather, then continued with a list of activities for the day. A terse description of mood often followed. Even major issues are handled concisely.

Perhaps the biggest surprise for me was the degree of independence this young woman enjoyed in 1820s Briston, Vermont. Along with performing all the requisite daily chores of a household, Phebe became proficient in weaving and sewing. This enabled her to earn sufficient extra money to attend Emma Willard’s new academy for women in Middlebury.

Phebe visited friends regularly, often deciding to stay overnight on the spur of the moment. (Remember, in this pre-helicopter-parent era, there were no cell phones to let your parents know. Not even the telegram was available yet.) Dances and parties were regular parts of her schedule. So were shopping trips to nearby Middlebury.

Certainly not all days were good ones. We learn how Phebe’s family maneuvered to end a courtship and possible marriage they opposed, partly by convincing (some might say forcing) her to spend a year in far-away Hopkinton, New York. Relatives there, even after Phebe began teaching school, relegated her to chores she sometimes described as “slavery.”

Pushed into a marriage she likely didn’t want meant moving from her comfortable Vermont surroundings to a log cabin in a frontier-like Adirondack region. This circumscribed her life considerably, yet she adapted. The relationship with her husband improved into at least a tolerable one, though life became exhausting, especially when she began having children.

It’s staggering to consider how much this woman fit into a day. If washing, baking, food preservation, cleaning, weaving, sewing and attending to the needs of infants dooesn’t sound like enough, how about making a few dozen candles, learning to make soap, boiling off enough sap to produce 40 pounds of maple sugar, or slaughtering a couple of pigs?

If you think your day is long, you might not want to read Ouellette’s Chapter 4 for comparison. Not surprisingly, opportunities for reading diminished, and journal entries become more scant.

When it came to religion, she remained intensively engaged, partly because this became such a source of marital conflict. She consistently criticized her husband’s irreverent habits of hunting and fishing on the Sabbath. When he did embrace religion, he gravitated not toward Phebe’s Quaker faith but to the enthusiasms of the Baptist Church in a highly evangelical era.

And I’m not even touching upon the daily threat of illness and death that accompanied those times.

The entire journal is reproduced, so readers have the chance to draw their own inferences. I frequently went back and forth between chapters by Ouellette, and relevant parts of the journal. This may not be a book that appeals to everyone, but I suspect a surprising number of people will join me in finding it both informative and satisfying.

Nothing enlivens and heightens understanding of an era or an undertaking as much as learning about it in a participant’s own words. In this case, readers are treated not only to the primary source, but to insightful analysis as well. Anyone whose personal notes survive beyond his/her lifetime should hope they’re handled as expertly.

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