“The Journey of the French Coat” was written to solve a mystery and resolve a memory for its author, Gretchen Duling, she says in the preface.
It traces French settlements, and the interchange between the French and indigenous tribes (including a war), from our Fort Niagara to Gallipolis, Ohio, on the Ohio River where the author grew up. The Marquis de Lafayette is heavily involved, on his post-Revolutionary War tour of the states, and the book is aimed at an elementary school audience, one not noted for its passion for history.
That’s a lot of freight for a slim book to carry, and it succeeds, splendidly. Duling, a retired Williamsville teacher, has packed her work with detail, storytelling, commentary and asides; every paragraph is impressively loaded with information conveying a deliberate and valuable mindfulness about the subjects and their times.
To use a phrase this reader and historian considers vague and abhorrent, she makes history come alive.
Fortunately, a two-page map is provided, the better to understand the travails of the Fort Niagara to Gallipolis route (the town was founded by French aristocrats in 1790).
The narrative follows a gold coat, currently on display in a small Gallipolis museum, and it is Duling’s take-off point for a story aimed to involve young readers who likely have little understanding of the sort of personal hardship that accompanies most of history. The book includes several young characters (it is nominally a novel, with a heavy overlay of fact and incident, what a subtitle dourly identifies as “regional historical fiction for youth”) and a charming description of a party to which Lafayette was invited. Having lost his wardrobe, the community loans him the fancy coat.
Thus do we have a book aimed at kids, about incidents so far removed from today it could be ancient history to young readers, full of fact. The author pulls it off marvelously; she is in storytelling mode for much of the book, turning brief diary entries into conversations and keeping the narrative rolling. Like Tolstoy or Mickey Spillane, she knows how to set a scene.