BOOK REVIEW: The Sewing Girl’s Tale: A Story of Crime and Consequences in Revolutionary America by John Wood Sweet (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2022)
It is one of the great ironies of historical studies that the people who were most numerous are the ones about whom, as individuals, the least information survives. The ordinary citizens, the working class people, tend to be lumped together as homogeneous masses, not because their importance is not recognized but because specific information is lacking. It is a real treat, then, when an entire book can be devoted to the tribulations of a single person, a sewing girl in post-revolutionary America, for whom chance would leave a substantial documentary record of one event in her life.
Lanah Sawyer lived and worked in the city of New York in 1793. Her life became eventful, and her place in history was secured, that year, but her story carried on for another half-decade. Moreover, what began as her story gradually became the story of men and other men, initially involving only a harbor pilot and a petty gentleman, but gradually adding in many of the city’s most prominent politicians and lawyers including Alexander Hamilton. As the story becomes ever more complex, author John Wood Sweet deftly introduces characters and provides background without straying too far from the plot, giving the story texture while maintaining its pace. We learn, for example, that her stepfather had a dangerous interaction with the British military in early 1776 that could have cost him his career; rather than a space-filling side story, the author shows the importance of this event in establishing his reputation and legal acumen that would play an important part in his stepdaughter’s life almost twenty years later. Each character is introduced with enough context to make their point of view, and their role in the story, understandable if not sympathetic. To be sure, there are heroes and villains, but in all cases we can see, if not accept, why they act the way they do. Context is vital to understanding history, and the author does a superb job of establishing context succinctly.
It becomes clear in the book’s first pages that the author put substantial effort into researching Lanah Sawyer’s world – the city streets where she lived, the profession at which she earned a modest living, the neighbors that she encountered during her daily routine. These details quickly draw the reader into her world, giving the first few chapters a strong sense of realism and relatability. There are parts of the book that are, by necessity, slower and more tedious to read, but by that point the story is well-enough developed that the reader cannot lose interest. This is a story that does not get stale, a story that must be read to completion.
There are, invariably, gaps in historical records, details that we would like that simply were not recorded. Authors are faced with challenges about how to fill in gaps, whether with analogous information from other areas of history, or with educated guesswork. John Wood Sweet relies mostly on the former technique, occasionally relying on the latter, but always making it very clear the difference between what is known and what is not known. There is no confusion about what we are learning from Lanah Sawyer’s story, and what we are learning from the author’s extensive research on related stories.
It is striking, but in the context of the era not surprising, that the Sewing Girl herself is at the same time both pervasive and absent through much of the story. Nothing survives of her own actions, much less her thoughts and feelings, during years of machinations over events that were set in motion because of her. That is one of the key takeaways from this book: even though women had substantial impact on history, little about them survives in the historical record. In writing The Sewing Girl’s Tale, John Wood Sweet has made a major contribution to our understanding of the world of working-class women who are so often overlooked.