Monday, June 07, 2010

Mrs. Adams in Winter: A Journey in the Last Days of Napoleon by Michael O'Brien

Being left in St. Petersburg, Russia in 1815 when her husband John Quincy Adams was made ambassador to France, Louisa Catherine Adams (1775-1852) decided to take a risky journey with her young son through war-torn Europe to join him in Paris. Selling off furniture and arranging for their possessions to be shipped later, she began the trip in deepest winter, when sleds provided better travel over the frozen ground than wagons, and arrived forty days later in Paris, just as Napoleon dramatically retook command of the French government after escaping from his exile on the island of Elba. Historian Michael O'Brien recounts Mrs. Adams's adventure with its annoyances and dangerous encounters in Mrs. Adams in Winter: A Journey in the Last Days of Napoleon.

O'Brien does more than just describe a trip. Using the forty days as a frame, he flashes back to Mrs. Adams childhood, courtship, marriage, and family life, all made difficult by the constant travel and the bankruptcy of her father. Though the child of an American tobacco salesman, she was born in London and spent her youth in Europe; she first saw America after her marriage to a future president, making her the only foreign-born first lady. Her mother-in-law Abigail Adams opposed the marriage, and many Americans suspected that she was unsympathetic to American causes. Through use of her letters and manuscript memoirs, O'Brien depicts her as woman who overcame shyness to tactfully stand up to border guards, innkeepers, bureaucrats, generals, and, ultimately, her own husband.

How Louisa related to John, who often made decisions without consulting her, is examined through the book. He was admittedly not a romantic man, who rarely even mentioned her in his diaries. The trip that she initiated and planned was a turning point in her relationship with him, showing that she had strength that he had discounted.

Mrs. Adams in Winter is also a history of a moment in Europe when nations were splintered and travel was dangerous. Tensions were high at many borders, and Mrs. Adams's command of languages helped her in several tight situations. While there were many criminals and rouge soldiers on the road, she was able to find sympathetic people, some of whom she knew from her husband's previous stations, who helped her exchange diverse currencies, get her passports approved, find trustworthy coachmen, and choose safest routes. History readers will find firsthand observations of a difficult time in this adventure biography.

O'Brien, Michael. Mrs. Adams in Winter: A Journey in the Last Days of Napoleon. 2010. Farrar Straus and Giroux. 364p. ISBN 9780374215811.

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