Monday, March 10, 2008

Book review: In Search of Molly Pitcher by Linda Grant De Pauw

In Search of Molly Pitcher, by Linda Grant De Pauw, is a young adult novel that not only seeks to solve the mystery of just who Molly Pitcher was, but also the mystery that confounded all of us in grade school: how the heck am I supposed to write a paper about that?

The protagonist is Peggy McAllister, a thoroughly modern heroine. An eighth grader, Peggy is very bright, a little weird and a lot lonely. Her single mother works long shifts at Wal-Mart to make ends meet; her best buddy is her 90-year old “Greatgramps,” a World War II vet and former private investigator. Peggy is a misfit at school, seemingly friendless, and throws herself into her schoolwork to keep busy. When a local contest offers prize money for “excellence in eighth grade social studies,” Peggy decides to enter with a paper on a great American hero. She picks Molly Pitcher out of a list her social studies teacher provides to the class even though the teacher tries to dissuade her from this selection, saying too few facts are known about Molly. Peggy is tough, however, and more than up for the challenge.

And what a challenge it is. Conflicting stories abound – some calling Molly a sergeant and others a captain; some saying her husband was killed and others just wounded; some saying she carried a pitcher and others a bucket – and very few are based on primary sources. Peggy soldiers on, with support from her Greatgramps and a local historian/historical romance author, collecting a huge amount of evidence about the numerous women who were on the battlefields of the Revolutionary War. She finally develops her thesis that “Molly Pitcher” was not an actual person but instead the embodiment of female martial bravery during the American Revolution. Peggy writes her paper and wins her prize (although her cranky social studies teacher gives her a B- for writing about several women as opposed to one American hero, as was the assignment).

Peggy is a very believable little girl. The quest she goes on to uncover the truth about this American icon is likewise laid out in realistic fashion. In Search of Molly Pitcher is as much an instruction manual on how to undertake a research project as it is a detective story about one of American history’s mysteries. De Pauw takes the reader step by step through the research process her main character follows: figuring out what questions need answering, learning the difference between primary and secondary sources, assembling a bibliography, organizing information into hard evidence and leads for further exploration, and putting the mass of information into cohesive form.

It’s been a long time since I had to write an eighth grade research paper. I’m also not that interested in the American Revolution. But I sat down and read In Search of Molly Pitcher in one sitting, as excited as Peggy as she sorted out the facts from the fiction about her hero. This book takes an innovative approach to getting middle schoolers interested in history. If only someone had done something like this for math when I was in grade school I might be able to solve the mystery that is my checkbook register today.

Postscript: The book jacket illustrator is a Maine artist - cool!

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