For 40 days, I am choosing a book from my personal book shelves. It will be a book that is insightful, intriguing, or illuminating about women. I will write why I think this book is a positive one and worth a read. This isn’t advertising for me or to promote any of my friends. It’s simply praise for good books.
Day 23, Or Give Me Death by Ann Rinaldi
Who first said, “Give me liberty, or give me death?” Was it statesman and patriot Patrick Henry, in a speech delivered to the Virginia Congress that galvanized support for the American Revolution? Or were those words first spoken by his wife Sarah, pleading to be released from the dry-cellar, where she was put when her bouts of madness became uncontrollable?
This is one of many questions posed in this haunting and illuminating story of Patrick Henry’s family. Narrated by the eldest daughter, Patsy, it tells of her mother’s decline through a veil of fear, love, and helplessness. Sarah Shelton was sixteen when she married Patrick Henry. Years of financial uncertainty wore her down, but it was the birth of her sixth child that hastened the deterioration of Sarah’s mental health. Now Patsy, herself sixteen, must always be on alert because Sarah nearly drowned her baby, and when Patrick left home to attend the House of Burgesses, Sarah told her children he was dead. Sarah is tormented by dreams and visions and egged on by a superstitious servant who thinks Sarah’s “possession” can be prayed away if she is locked in the cellar. This seems a cruelty to Patsy, who is betrothed to a young man—MyJohn—and wishes she could leave home to begin her own marriage. But how can she, when Mama might harm herself or one of the children? As the support for freedom from England grows, Patrick Henry’s home life is equally torn. He and Patsy tour the new “lunatic asylum” in Williamsburg, and come away bonded in one vow: they will never put Sarah Henry in that horrible place. And so they turn the cellar into a place for her, and make it as comfortable as possible, while Patsy realizes with dread that her mother’s madness may be the hereditary kind.
Why is Or Give Me Death a good read for women? Historically, women have been at the mercy of their husbands’ wishes and control, and never more so than when a wife suffered from mental illness. Patrick Henry, though a visionary for a young new country, was a husband of his times. Patsy wonders why her Pa, who is so forward thinking in politics, can be so stern and controlling when it comes to “a wife’s place in the scheme of things?” Can his belief that a wife must never be displeased with, opposed to, or angry at her husband be contributing to Sarah’s madness? Patsy is no more enlightened than her father, but together they must figure out a way to keep their family’s burden from destroying them all. Ann Rinaldi has made a career of making history come alive for young readers. This is one of her best.