“The Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin,” by Jill Lepore

In early 18th century New England, it was the law for all children to learn to read. And it was the law for every boy to learn to write. Benjamin and Jane Franklin were born in Boston to the same parents, six years apart. He became an internationally known statesman. She married at age fifteen, tried to keep the family together through her wastrel husband's repeated falls into debt, and outlived ten of her twelve children.

Benny and Jenny were two of seventeen children. Their father was a candle and soap maker. Jane was the youngest in the family. She was left behind to care for her parents when her siblings were married and gone—or dead and gone, as so many were before reaching old age. She had her parents, her husband, and her children to care for.

One of her great joys was letters she received from her brother. His letters were well-spelled and well-written. Hers weren't. She apologized for her rough writing and wrote with diffidence in the early letters. In later life, when she lived with a granddaughter in a house provided by Ben, when she had time to read more and felt more confident to express her opinions, she no longer apologized. She wrote long letters, chatty with news from home and her political views.

Lepore's book provides a fascinating look at what life was like for the average person in the U.S.A. before, during, and immediately after the formation of the country. Pages and pages have been filled with the stories of the men who formed the new nation. The story of the common man is not as often told and anything about women is told even less frequently.

Abigail Adams entreated her husband, John, to "remember the ladies" when writing the documents that would govern the United States. John smiled and put the letter away in a drawer. It would be almost 150 years before women won the right to vote. Jane Franklin Mecom bound a few pages together to create a book she entitled “The Book of Ages.” In this slim volume, she recorded births and deaths. She lived a life challenged by poverty, physical and mental illness, and death. Somehow, she was able to keep alive her intellectual curiosity and a wicked sense of humor.

The letters that went back-and-forth over miles and oceans between Jenny and Benny exhibit the deep, abiding affection of siblings. The letters also show the quiet strength of one woman who lived a hard life and died in peace.