Book Review of Benjamin Franklin's Bastard: A Novel by Sally Cabot
*I received an ARC (advanced review copy) of this book in exchange for my honest review.
Benjamin Franklin's Bastard is a novel I couldn't put down. We all know the story of Benjamin Franklin - the Founding Father, the author, printer, scientist, postmaster, politician. Yet how many of us have delved into his personal life and known him as a husband, lover, father? What of the women he loved and the children he raised?
I must admit the novel didn't draw me in at first. However, after continuing on, it grasped me and never let go until the last page. I was loathe for it to end because the author Sally Cabot wraps you up in the lives of characters you care about as she takes you on a journey through history, tragedy, triumph, mistakes, heartbreak and love from a number of different angles.
The novel covers several perspectives and is mainly told through the eyes of Deborah, Franklin's wife, Anne, Franklin's rejected mistress and William, Franklin's bastard son. All throughout these 3 stories Franklin is woven and made a touchable and knowable person instead of some distant historical figure.
Anne was the strongest and most likeable character for me. Although no one really knows the true identity of William's mother, Sally Cabot sifted through rumors that flew around Philadelphia and other places at the time, discarding the ones she believed were politically motivated or highly improbable. What she came up with was a wonderful imagining of what might have been - a sixteen year old girl born into poverty, struggling to survive and finding a new way to procure an extra bit of food beyond her job as a serving girl at the Penny Pot Inn. After being wooed by a young Franklin she finds herself pregnant, out of a job and in an even worse and desperate situation then before. When little William is born she loves him fiercely but struggles to provide for him in the filthy back alleys of colonial Philadelphia. Franklin manages to persuade her to give him up to the promise of a better life. Anne does but suffers over the agonizing decision and can't tear herself completely away from her child. She will do whatever it takes, trade whatever she has, even if it's herself, to have the smallest sliver of a glimpse into William's life. It's painful to watch her make the choices she does, knowing there aren't many other options. She's hungry, desperate, aching for her child...
Deborah is no less interesting, although certainly less likeable. After being wooed by Franklin and then all but abandoned by him after his trip to London, she ends up in a terrible marriage that she finally leaves. Time goes on and Franklin returns. He eventually sets her up as his common-law wife - a tenuous position that isn't recognized by the higher levels of society Benjamin begins to climb. She is snubbed and rejected by the people her husband begins to spend more and more time with. Franklin asks her to raise little William and Deborah feels she has no choice. Taking him in, she never does fully accept him, especially after losing a young child born after him to illness. Franklin loves Deborah, but at times he loves his projects more. While madness coils around her after her son's death, new opportunities arise for Franklin's old mistress Anne to claw her way back into William's life with consequences for them all.
And finally, there is William. Always hungering for his stepmother's love and approval. Never realizing there is another mother aching for him. Though loved by his father, he is sometimes set aside in the whirl of the times and the events in Franklin's very public life. As he grows up he is influenced by others and comes to a final choice: loyalty to the crown or loyalty to his father.
This novel covers a huge swath of time but does so gracefully. It's utterly compelling and extremely well-written. It successfully weaves real events from history and Franklin's life into the narrative and really helps you better understand not just the times, but the man. This is historical fiction at its best. Highly recommended.
Now for the mom part of the review: This novel is not for children due to s*x (which is pretty general and not really explicit), affairs (Franklin is unfaithful), prostitution and some violence.