Thomas Paine and the Dangerous Word

posted in: Good Reads: Nonfiction | 0

What a delightful book!

Sarah Jane Marsh shows that big events in history can be simplified for younger readers without dumbing them down. She establishes on the first two pages that Paine is a dreamer, enamored with words. On the third: “Thomas’s door to the world slammed shut.” Problem established: No more expansive thoughts for Paine. “Measuring. Cutting. Sewing.” His life is as clipped as Marsh’s sentences. A  painful period for Paine and of little interest to the author’s purpose. All we readers need to know is that it lasted “For seven…very…long…years.”

After an adventure at sea and some successes on land, Paine suffers more setbacks. Again, Marsh telescopes: “He opened his own corset-making, but the business failed. He married a maid named Mary Lambert, but she died. He worked as a preacher and teacher, but earned little. He worked for the government as a tax collector, but was fired.”

Marsh has a way of capturing her reader’s attention in surprising ways. Just as Paine is finding his voice, he pens a letter to Parliament petitioning for a raise in pay for tax collectors like himself: “Parliament ignored his proposal. But the government did take one action. They fired Thomas. Again.” After arriving in America, Paine browses in a bookshop, though what he really needs to do is find work: “Thomas struck up a conversation with the store’s owner who was launching a new magazine and needed an editor. Thomas was launching a new life and needed a job.”

The book is written in an informal style. It aims to be fun. (The illustrations reinforce the tone, though, in fact, they are a bit of a disappointment.) Yet there is a scholarliness that undergirds the entire text. The Source Notes for Quotations lists forty-six citations of Paine’s words or words by contemporaries about his words. Many of these are written large, in calligraphic script as part of the illustrations accompanying the text. (Eleven are more traditionally embedded in the back matter.) One sequence of three pages includes four documented responses to Paine’s Common Sense in illustrations of a newspaper, a letter, a speech, and a pamphlet. The large words leap off the page.

Before opening the book, I took the subtitle (“The Dangerous Word”) to be general: words are powerful. After reading it, I understand that it refers to one word, written in bold script across an entire two-page spread as Paine’s story reaches its climax: “Independence.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.