I was offered the opportunity to read and review Poor Richard’s Lament, a Timely Tale by Tom Fitzgerald. Nothing about it was as I expected. I knew Poor Richard was historical fiction, which in general I love, although there is little of it available. But this book is not just historical fiction, it’s historical fictional fantasy, or maybe historical fantasy fiction. Whichever…the book is a treasure trove of wordsmithing, of unimaginable imagination, and the fullness of time, both then and now.
There is only one book I can compare Poor Richard’s Lament to, and that is Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke – a brilliant ‘fantastical’ fiction in my opinion. I don’t know how Mr. Fitzgerald will feel about this comparison, but the intricacy of detail, the lure of a different time and place, and language carries the reader away to a nether-world not possible to conjure in your own mind. Tom Fitzgerald’s Ben Franklin does the same.
We have an image of this particular Founder of both great wisdom and efficacious humor, and fortunately nothing in this fiction paints him in any other light…other than when all his faults are laid bare in a most painful manner – and worse yet for fellow Founder John Adams to be witness to, and take part in.
The book begins with Franklin long dead, about 250 years dead. He has been abiding not in a grave with his beloved wife Deborah but in a room reserved for him in the Plantation of the Unrepentant. He has petitioned the Court for his final processing and as the book opens, the time has come.
He arrives at the Supreme Celestial Court of Petitioners with excitement and great expectation. All goes well as his very long list of esteemed accomplishments are read out, and as his old nemesis John Adams looks on. The Supreme Celestial Court of Petitioners can’t help but bring to the mind of a mere mortal, a vision of Judgement Day, in a fashion. The Almighty or some fiery force is represented on a great granite (or maybe marble) bench with three great tongues of fire residing there and transforming in sometimes, dreadful ways.
The Desk of Examiners is where the action emanates from, and in short time the failings of Benjamin Franklin’s life are born on the fragile visage of this man so accustomed to being hailed as a mind for the ages, judicious and clever. Did you know Franklin was a racist? The book does not footnote what is history and what is fiction, including the wealth of quotations that you surely think are Franklin’s, until you look them up online and find them missing). Much is from the considerable mind of author Tom Fitzgerald. One, ‘the circle is the only geometry,’ I surely thought was Ben’s but since I can’t find it, it belongs to Tom Fitzgerald. I’ve already used it in a post.
In this story, Benjamin Franklin defended against the slavery of his day…in a fashion. He was a kind master of his own, but didn’t fully rise to the occasion as he could have – and as he knew he should have. The relationships between Black and White, then and now, play a prominent role in Poor Richard’s Lament, as does his parenting of his own children and a critique of him as a very absent husband.
Interspersed with the Franklin trial, we are transported to the Oval Office of the current day President of the United States, to a speaking engagement of the man who is opposing him in the coming elections, and to a once drug addicted painter working to become a counselor.
When the Celestial Court sends Ben on his way, he finds himself standing in the here and now in front of his birth place on Milk Street in Boston. This begins a fascinating part of the book. Franklin encounters one soul after the other to be counseled with his industry, his frugality and the virtue of a winning smile – no matter what. There is the young black student witness to a murder and the ne’er do well ex-soldier – both part of the current day that Benjamin Franklin is sentenced to spend in our modern world – to make recompense and to do what he will and can before his busy, eventful day ends. He eventually goes to New York for a very personal need, and on to Philadelphia to live out the tale with an electric ending.
Fantasy and mystery are woven throughout. The fantasy is obvious, truth and fiction are not. Franklin earnestly and emotionally sets out to make things right. With cane in hand, he taps, taps, taps his way around city plazas fitted with bronze statues of himself – and with no great surprise, all the while afflicted with a disagreeable gout. He weeps often. I wept with him once and came close at other times. He is the loveable, wise and deprecating elder all of us would love to have at our Thanksgiving table – without the need to know he is the great Ben Franklin.
This book is not for the casual reader. Small print and 604 pages of it, with most written as Franklin would have spoken it ‘back in the day.’ You will be rewarded with the redeeming nature yearned for by most of us, who only want to love and be loved, as we work our way through our busy days, not doing the best job of it most of the time. I won’t quickly forget the spirit and the imagined smile of this Ben Franklin. View it at Amazon here (click it – I don’t get a commission). Poor Richard’s Lament is also available in Kindle Edition for $13.00.