By Teri Kanefield. Abrams Books for Young Readers, 2016. 64 pages. $19.95/hardcover; $15.54/eBook. Recommended for ages 8–12.
This is a book I wanted to like as soon as I saw it. Susanna Wright is a fascinating woman and she deserves to be better known. She is worthy of a good, thorough adult biography, but in the meantime, The Extraordinary Suzy Wright: A Colonial Woman on the Frontier will have to do.
A picture book aimed at older elementary school children, it tells the story of an eighteenth-century Quaker woman who was well-educated, savvy in business and the law, and who preserved her rights by the simple expedient of never getting married. Because she did not have a husband, she could freely buy and sell property. As a single woman, she could conduct business in her own right.
In those days, young men usually learned the law by apprenticing with an established lawyer. Susanna Wright seems to have been largely self-taught in the law and may have been the first woman allowed to practice law in the British colonies. She wrote up wills and contracts for her neighbors and even served as the clerk of the local court. She was also successful at several businesses over the course of a long life, including being one of the first and most successful people to raise silkworms and spin silk cloth in quantity in the colonies—an enterprise she started when she was over 70-years-old. Her silk business may have been prompted by her correspondence with Benjamin Franklin, who recognized her as a fellow scientist and entrepreneur. Somehow she also found time to write poetry. In so many ways, Suzy Wright was quite simply extraordinary.
Teri Kanefield has drawn on a variety of sources to bring Susanna Wright to life. Her writings and illustrations paint a vivid picture of the frontier outpost Susanna helped to found and the world she lived in. Unfortunately, Kanefield’s scholarship is not always careful. Some of the errors are minor and will only be apparent to Quakers. For example, several times she refers to “a Quaker minister” as if such a person would have corresponded to a Methodist or Presbyterian minister.
Other errors are more serious. For instance, the final lines of the text read: “As Douglas Gwyn, a Quaker historian, said of the Quakers in Pennsylvania: They came to do good and they did very well.”
In an endnote, Kanefield identifies Seekers Found as the source, noting, “While the original source of this quotation appears to be anonymous, Douglas Gwyn analyzed and explained it.” In this context, the quote seems to credit Friends with performing good works in abundance, but Gwyn’s use is quite different.
First, it occurs in another of Gwyn’s books, The Covenant Crucified: Quakers and the Rise of Capitalism. More importantly, Gwyn used the quote to highlight the considerable wealth amassed by Friends who colonized Pennsylvania. While they may have done considerable good, this quip served to remind readers that riches can subvert moral goals.
This book is flawed. Still, I have to confess I am embarrassed by how little I knew about Susanna Wright before reading it (and I suspect I am not alone). How many other eighteenth-century Quaker women should be better known? It would make me happy if this book inspired historians to unearth those other stories and share them widely. Until that happens, our daughters and sons deserve to know about Suzy Wright. I’m sending a copy of this book to my granddaughter.