One-Minute Book Reviews

April 2, 2012

What I’m Reading … Maya Jasanoff’s ‘Liberty’s Exiles’

The latest in a series of posts about books I’m reading that I may or may not review later

What I’m reading: Liberty’s Exiles: American Loyalists in the Revolutionary World (Knopf, 460 pp., $30), by Maya Jasanoff.

What it is: A Harvard professor’s dense, scholarly history of the diaspora of colonists who stayed loyal to Britain during the American Revolution and fled afterward to countries that included Canada, Jamaica and Sierra Leone.

Why I’m reading it: Liberty’s Exiles was a finalist for the 2011 Samuel Johnson Prize for nonfiction, which produces a consistently high-quality shortlist. The book also won the most recent National Book Critics Circle Award for nonfiction.

How much I’ve read: The first 55 pages, a 34-page chapter on loyalists who fled to Jamaica, and more, about 100 pages in all.

Quote from the book: Anglo-Americans in Jamaica “went to appalling extremes” to protect their authority over black slaves, including many brought into the country by loyalists who left the U.S. after the Revolutionary War: “A dispassionate record of Jamaica’s everyday sadism survives in the diaries of plantation overseer Thomas Thistlewood, whose 37-year-old career on the island ended with his death in 1786. By then, Thistlewood had scored tens of thousands of lashes across slaves’ bare skin, practically flaying some of his victims alive. He had had sex with 138 women (by his own tally), almost all of them slaves. He stuck the heads of executed runaways on poles; he had seen cheeks slit and ears cut off. He routinely meted out punishments such as the following, for a slave caught eating sugarcane: ‘had him well flogged and pickled, then made Hector shit in his mouth.’ Such incredible barbarity symptomized the panic that pervaded Jamaican white society: the fear that the black majority might rise up and slaughter them in their beds.”

Comments: Liberty’s Exiles has the redundant phrase “wealthy heiress” in the first sentence. Its author also has an unfortunate lust for the adjectival use of  “very”: “the very fact,” “their very names,” and “the very bosom of American homes.”  Among adverbial uses, she gives us “the very same ships,” “the very same rooms,” and “the very first signer.” But I’ve found the book worthwhile for its overview of loyalists in exile and its expansive portraits of some, including the young wife and mother Elizabeth Johnston, who lost her three-month-old daughter to smallpox in Jamaica.

Published: February 2011 (Knopf hardcover). March 2012 (Vintage/Anchor paperback).

Read more about Liberty’s Exiles in a review in the Spectator.

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 © 2012 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

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