As a sophomore in college, I was sitting in an Intro to Sociology class listening to the instructor lecture on games children play and their social functions. As an exercise, she asked each member of the class to write their favorite childhood game on a notecard and pass it to the front. Each of the fifty to seventy students did so, and she began reading off some of the answers: “Barbies,” “Guess Who,” “Hide-and-Go-Seek,”—and then that horrible pause and furrowed brow—“Running from the German Army.” I had written that answer on my notecard, but she had–through her tone–inserted the extravagant question mark at the end. The ellipses throughout the room was audible, and the silence was broken by snickering and shifting in seats to try to figure out who had written such a strange childhood game on their notecard.
“Who wrote this?” The instructor asked.
I should have kept my hand down, but anyone who has ever suffered through a class with me knows that’s not what happened. I raised my hand, cheeks on fire. The instructor smiled. “Would you mind to explain this game? I’ve never heard of it.” (I hadn’t realized we had to submit names of games everyone had heard of, or I would have chosen something kosher—Pogs, for example.) Voice shaking and rot-faced, I explained that “Running from the German Army” was a role-play game in which some of my sisters pretended to be Jewish children and some of us pretended to be non-Jewish children whose families resisted the Nazis and helped the Jewish children—the scenarios differed each time the make-believe took place—and we created and enacted different story lines which all revolved around the basic plot of trying to escape from the Nazis. (I blame my mother for reading my sisters and me Corrie Ten Boom’s The Hiding Place as young children.)
It occurred to me, as I pondered how to frame a synthesis for Sarah Kemble Knight, Elizabeth Ashbridge, Mary Anne Talbot, and William Apess, that these four historical characters (a merit perhaps questionable where Talbot is concerned), each lived and wrote about lives that could as easily have appeared on an Intro to Sociology notecard had I known about them as a child. No seven-year-old makes believe she’s Cotton Mather or Samuel Sewall—no offense to those fine gentlemen, and it’s not because they weren’t important.
The Mathers and Sewalls of history occupy a no-less significant role, but they lack that colorful quality to which young imitators flock. Mather and Sewall were thinkers; Knight, Ashbridge, Talbot, and Apess were also thinkers, but—more importantly—they were also doers. And not only did they do, but they did uncommon things. In many ways, exciting things! Knight was a courageous traveler in a time when it was dangerous for women to travel alone; Ashbridge defied an abusive husband to become a woman preacher, also travelling trans-Atlantically; Talbot was orphaned—always a good candidate for role-play plots—and forced to dress as a boy and participate in military service; and Apess was an American Indian who was, like Talbot, mistreated as a child and conscripted as a drummer boy. These are the types of characters my sisters and I would have gravitated toward in our imaginings.
It also always helps–perhaps not for all children, but for my sisters and me–when a character is an underdog, has the Cinderella quality. Jewish children living under Nazi oppression obviously had the Cinderella quality, and Apess, Talbot, Knight and Ashbridge also each lived within and struggled against oppressive and restrictive conditions. This is another strike against Cotton Mather and Sam Sewall as role-play candidates: they might seem less special because they were members of the power class, and as such had always lived in the castle; they never had to squeeze their toes into a glass slipper to prove their value. Women like Sarah Kemble Knight, Mary Anne Talbot, and Elizabeth Ashbridge–matriarchs of tomboys and Pippi Longstocking-wannabes–had the Cinderella quality, except they didn’t have time for trying on slippers. They were too busy bushwhacking from Boston to New York on horseback, acting in masculine disguise as powder monkey in the heat of battle on a war ship, and traversing oceans for the cause of Christ, respectively. For a Cotton Mather or a Samuel Sewall to do any of these things would have been far less remarkable; the fact that women living in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries–with severely limited social roles and legal rights or protections–did these things is remarkable. The same is true of William Apess: though a male, his American Indian lineage makes his experience (even the fact of his literacy, and skillfully eloquent and rhetorical literacy, at that) noteworthy.
Fortunately, William Apess, Elizabeth Ashbridge, Sarah Kemble Knight, and Mary Anne Talbot recorded their spell-binding stories, the kind of stuff into which Hollywood blockbusters could easily be made, for our instruction, our entertainment, and our inspiration. And perhaps, in ways, for our imitation. By increasing awareness of their stories, we give attention not only to experiences of lesser-known voices, but we gain a more complete vision and understanding of history.