Friday, May 26, 2017

The Cabin Faced West: Historic Children's Author Jean Fritz Dead at 101 Years of Age - My Personal Tribute

"Jean Fritz, the author of nearly 50 books for children, most of them fast-paced, vividly written works of history and biography, died May 14 at a retirement home in Sleepy Hollow, N.Y. 
She was 101.
The cause was complications from pneumonia, said her son, David Fritz."

Jean Fritz had more of an affect on my life than nearly any other person, and I had never even met her. Yet, it was she who got the historical ball rolling for me. 
Who is Jean Fritz, you ask?
Why, she is the author of the one book that inspired me like no other.
Please allow me to explain - - - 
I am certain that nearly everyone of us can pinpoint the time in our lives that we became history geeks. For some it may have been their first visit to Gettysburg or some other historic place that initially captured their interest and imagination. To others it was because they had a teacher in school who may have given them that spark.
Me? My mom said I "came out of the womb into history" (yes, this is a direct quote).
Yeah, it's true...I don't remember a time when I didn't have an infatuation for America's past; the seed was planted very early. However, I can tell you of when the "big bang" of my personal passion for times long gone occurred...that moment when my interest in the past took hold and never let go; it was when I purchased a book while I was not quite yet out of my single digit age.
My original copy from about 1970
For regular readers of Passion for the Past, you may recall in other postings where I have mentioned a book about life in colonial times called "The Cabin Faced West" and how it affected me and played a pivotal role in my future in history. I bought my copy at a school book fair many years ago when I was only around nine - we're talking 1970 here. And, as a young boy I didn't care that it was a story based around a girl who was about the same age as I, for it was also about history that showed daily life, and there weren't very many like it available at that time. In school, even way back then, we were instructed to learn names of famous people (usually politicians), historic events (usually wars), and dates of said events. Though I understood the importance of knowing this information - and I did learn it - names and dates was what I was not quite as interested in.
I wanted to know how people lived in the past.
I wanted to read what it was like for people like me to live back then; people I may have known had I lived in those old days.
I wanted to know of their everyday lives.
And, as mentioned, this one book, more than any other I have read, was life-changing for me, for it directed my future course into my passion for American History. I still have my original copy and read its yellowed and brittle pages every couple of years.
I still enjoy it to this day.
Jean Fritz, near and dear to my historical soul, was not the most well-known author; children's history books aren't usually best sellers, and even less so now in today's age than in the time of my youth, so I am not suprised at the blank stares I receive upon mentioning her name. She began her literary career by writing for Humpty Dumpty Magazine, and then started to write typical fiction “picture books” for children. Not long after, she turned to history after realizing “the facts were more exciting to me than my own stories.”
Part of her inspiration for exploring American history came from her childhood, which was spent in China, where her parents were missionaries.
"The first 13 years of my life I lived in China. My parents were missionaries there, and I was an only child. Often I felt lonely and out of place. While we lived (there), my parents often spoke fondly of their memories in the United States, and my father shared fascinating tales about American heroes. I began to form strong emotional bonds to the United States.
I was American, but I didn’t feel like an American.” 
It didn’t help that a British bully at the school she attended often taunted her about the country she scarcely knew.
“Every day at recess,” Mrs. Fritz said in 1990, “that boy came up to me and said, ‘George Washington is a stinker.’ So I had to fight. I was the only one there to defend my country.
I developed a homesickness that made me want to embrace not just a given part of America at a given time, but the whole of it. My interest in writing about American history stemmed originally, I think, from a subconscious desire to find roots - I felt like a girl without a country. I have put down roots quite firmly by now, but in the process I have discovered the joys of research.
Throughout my years of writing, I have taken on plenty of people, starting with George Washington in 'The Cabin Faced West' (1958).
That was Mrs. Fritz's first historical book, and was based on a family story about her great-great-grandmother, who encountered George Washington on horseback in a remote part of western Pennsylvania and invited him to join her family for supper.
Mrs. Fritz then embarked on a series of books on heroes of the Revolutionary War, followed by others on explorers, presidents and historically significant women. Her books were illustrated by a variety of artists, including Tomie de Paola and Margot Tomes.
Mrs. Fritz did monumental amounts of research for her books, including visiting the places where her subjects had lived. Much of the dialogue in her books was taken from the historical record.
Among other subjects, Mrs. Fritz also wrote about the Constitution and such historical figures as Benjamin Franklin, Pocahontas, Christopher Columbus, Alexander Hamilton, Paul Revere, George Washington’s mother, James Madison, Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt.
However, it was "The Cabin Faced West" that pulled me into the world of the past.
Here is a quick synopsis of the story: 
One of my favorite illustrations from the book
depicting Ann Hamilton and Arthur Scott
It is 1784, and young Ann Hamilton is living in rural western Pennsylvania with her parents and siblings. She is lonely from being in the isolated wilderness and longs for her old friends and cousin back east in Gettysburg; she does not enjoy living on what was then the frontier. Throughout the story we see her doing her daily chores, we learn how young people entertained themselves, and even how they did schooling when there was no school building to attend. One particular part that intrigued me when I first read it was when her cooking fire went out and she had to go and "borrow" fire (a real experience of the time that I knew nothing about from my school books).
But when a great storm blows up and nearly ruins their crop - their means to survive - and when an unexpected stranger, who we find out is General George Washington, rides up the hill and stays for supper, well, you'll just have to read the book to find out what happens.
Yes, this is a book meant for the younger set (good for pre-teens to young teens), but I still enjoy it to this day. The author has an engulfing way of bringing the past to life with actual historic detail.
I took note of the postscript at the end of the book where the author notes that "There really was an Ann Hamilton, she was my great-great-grandmother."
And George Washington really visited and dined with the Hamiltons, as he himself wrote in his diary of September 18, 1784:
18th. Set out with Doctr. Craik for my Land on Millers run (a branch of Shurtees [Chartier’s] Creek). Crossed the Monongahela at Deboirs Ferry—16 Miles from Simpsons—bated at one Hamiltons about 4 Miles from it, in Washington County, and lodged at a Colo. Cannons on the Waters of Shurtees Creek—a kind hospitable Man; & sensible.
In a Scholastic Books interview, Jean Fritz was asked: Can you tell me more about your great-great-grandmother, Ann Hamilton?
“I can't tell you very much. I know Washington did stop and have dinner with the Hamiltons. I know she did marry David Scott. I know as an old lady, she visited her daughter in Ohio and got sick, died, and was buried there. I was once in the town where she died. I looked up the church, went to the cemetery, and there she was. All the family members in the book The Cabin Faced West are real.”
In the book The Cabin Faced West, did Daniel ever get married?
“I wish I knew! He went off to Kentucky. My family was embroiled in the Whiskey Rebellion
(of 1794). And both of those brothers were very active in it. David stayed in western Pennsylvania and became master of the Hamilton house. Daniel went to Kentucky and disappeared, as far as I know.”

And now this author, Mrs. Jean Fritz, has passed away at 101 years of age. 
I don't usually make a big deal over famous people dying, but, for me, the passing of Jean Fritz is sad in a different sort of way.
Like losing a favorite teacher or a kind of mentor.
Yes, her death saddens me. And because of her influence on me, it is a bigger deal than, say the death of Roger Moore.
I will continue to read The Cabin faced West - my original copy, pictures at the top of this post - in honor of her. 

Until next time, see you in time.


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