By Ed Adamczyk
The Tonawanda News
— “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.
Consequently, it works, admirably. The book also comes with a glossary and sample discussion questions, making it suitable for classroom use.
It stands on its own, though, as a history book. Any reader can learn a few things here about westward expansion, the French influence on American development and relations between settlers and the Native American population. A grownup should not be scared away, nor should we hardened readers of heavyweight history tomes; it’s the author’s narrative gift that makes book simultaneously enjoyable to read and marvelously informing.
In preface and in post-story, the author makes clear her credentials in delivering history lessons to the target audience of the book. I suspect the book is aimed at a tough audience, but it admirably tells a good story; it is not easy, engaging a young audience in matters 200 or more years old (unless it involves vampires, evidently), but the story of the French coat seems an excellent way to try.
It also leaves a lot out, for the good. I imagine questions really fly, in class, about how the characters in the story interact when Lafayette is not involved. For example, who does the building, the cooking, the sewing, the entertaining, and how are the roles assigned? Some of us have read enough books or seen enough movies to understand the delineation of labor in the colonies, but those new to their history need a starting point. This book is an excellent example of one.
Ed Adamczyk is a Kenmore resident and can be contacted at EdinKenmore@gmail.com.
• WHAT: "Journey of the French Coat"
• BY: Gretchen Duling
• GRADE: A