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No Ordinary Lives: Four 19th Century Teenage Diaries Review by Donna Campos

EditedEdited and annotated by Marilyn Weymouth Seguin
Branden Books, Division of Branden Publishing Co.
P.O. Box 812094
Wellesley, MA 02482

No Ordinary Lives: Four 19th Century Teenage Diaries is a soft cover book of 192 pages measuring 5" x 8" inches. It provides a glimpse into the lives and times of four very different young people between the ages of 12 and 20. The book includes a one-page Table of Contents, two pages of Preface, a three page Introduction, two pages of suggestions for keeping a diary of your own, three pages of resources, two pages of acknowledgments, and one page that lists other books by Marilyn Seguin. Each of the four diaries begins with a bit of information about the author, a few illustrations, and then the actual diary pages. Additional resources (either by or about each diarist) are listed for those who wish to expand on the reading.

The first diary is that of young Nathanial Hawthorne, although the editor admits it has been called a forgery and it is not known whether it is authentic. He would have been 12 to 15 years old at the time of the writing, approximately 1816. The second is that of August Harding Skolfield, a sea captain's daughter who went by the nickname "Middie," short for midshipman. She was 19 to 20 years old in 1880, the time of the writing. The third diary is written by Delmer Charles Wilson, a Shaker boy about 13 to 15 years old in 1887. The final diary is from Ethel Godfrey of Bangor, Maine, a middle class teenager who was 15 to 16 in 1894. Fatherless from the time she was five, Ethel reveals much of her day-to-day life growing up with her widowed mother.

No Ordinary Lives provides an informative look into the lives of other teenagers who lived more than 100 years ago. It is appropriate for use with a homeschool history curriculum when parents desire to provide a real life look into the lives of individuals of the 19th century. We were excited that the first diary is possibly that of young Nathaniel Hawthorne, as he is a favorite writer in our home. It was nice to imagine how he grew up and what his day-to-day life might have been like, and the editor does provide comments to enhance the entries. Even if it is not authentic, it does provide interesting information about the time period. Our family found the third diary fascinating, as it was written by a child sent to a Shaker community when his mother was unable to care for him. We were interested to learn that "The Sabbathday Lake Shaker Family in New Gloucester, Maine, is the only active Shaker community left in the world." Plenty of entries regarding birth of stock, tapping trees for maple syrup, and other day-to-day activities of Shakers are included. Also, the circumstances of a mother leaving her two children to a community when she could not properly care for them (and the difficulties that arose when she returned for them years later) were eye-opening to our older children as we read together. The final diary was probably the most amusing for our family, as our daughter is about the same age as the writer.

Interesting facts and tidbits of information are to be found throughout the book, but sometimes the entries describing simple day-to-day realities were a bit dry. The second diary in particular (that of Augusta, or Middie), had missing portions that left us wondering what had been left out. Better explanation of some of the terms she used would have helped as well, as we did not understand when she "commenced working a calla on a tidy." At other times the definitions provided in No Ordinary Lives were incredibly enlightening. At one point Middie says they are in the "doldrums," which the editor defined as "ocean regions noted for dead calm and light winds," whereas I only knew today's understood definition of being down in mood or depressed. It was great to see where some words have changed over time and usage. We did feel that, overall, much of this diary selection was too repetitive, with many entries having the same beginning: "A nice day and..." But that could serve to encourage readers to be more creative and varied in their own writing.

The editor is careful about noting details, even noting the use of the word "slut" in the fourth diary. The reference was actually from the author's father's writing, telling her to "Be very, very careful never to give the least occasion for being called 'a slut.'" In that context we felt it was appropriately used, particularly as these are diaries for teenagers by teenagers. Her diary tells of visiting friends, reading together, or working on educational pursuits. We were surprised to see her attending school occasionally on Saturdays in order to make up missed work. The references to dances and the process of having young men sign up for specific dances were amusing and informative.

The final portion of No Ordinary Lives: Four 19th Century Teenage Diaries brought home the entire purpose of a book like this for today's reader. "Keeping a Diary of Your Own: Some Suggestions" provides ideas for writing. The author mentions options such as social networking sites, online blogs, paper notebooks, audio essays, videos, and more. There are even ideas for themed logs, such as dreams, travel logs, family stories, recipe collections, and more. This book about four very different lives may be just what your teenager needs to write more seriously about himself/herself. We enjoyed the book, and our family will use it in the future as a daily read-aloud. This will provide our children a truly comparative history of daily life and a wonderful example of what a difference a century of change makes!

Product review by Donna Campos, Senior Product Reviewer, The Old Schoolhouse® Magazine, LLC, May 2010