A scholarly study of the interactions among families—from wealthy landowners to impecunious African and Indian slaves—in New London, Conn., in the 17th and 18th centuries.
Di Bonaventura, an assistant dean (Graduate School of Arts and Science/Yale Univ.), debuts with this adaptation of her doctoral dissertation, and it retains the strengths and weaknesses of that type of writing. Her research is thorough and imaginative. Although much of the story rests on the diary of Joshua Hempstead—a diary he kept assiduously for 47 years—di Bonaventura also explores other significant primary documents from churches and various civic and private archives, integrating the work of other historians of the region and time. The titular “Adam”—Adam Jackson—was a black slave whom Hempstead—a shipwright, farmer and respected local citizen—purchased when his sons were beginning to move on to form their own families. Virtually all of what we know about Jackson’s time with the Hempsteads comes from the slave owner’s diary, but di Bonaventura uses inference and documentary sources to flesh out his story of long, dutiful servitude. She also interweaves the stories of Jackson’s family with those of other significant families—e.g., the Livingstons, the Rogers and the Winthrops. Throughout the relevant decades, these families interacted in various ways—in church, public forums, courtrooms, etc. Di Bonaventura offers some gripping stories—notably, John Jackson’s (Adam’s father) fierce attempts to keep his family together, poor Mary Livingston’s losing battle with cancer and the nasty nature of John Winthrop IV. The author pauses occasionally to instruct us about the importance of stone and wood, the legal system, Indian tribes, shipbuilding, the Great Awakenings and much more. Her voice remains generally detached and scholarly throughout.
Although the scholarship is stellar, readers may yearn for more attitude and animation from the author.