Benjamin Franklin’s Bastard
Sally Cabot’s Benjamin Franklin’s Bastard is an outstanding work of historical fiction, filled with characters so lifelike and true that the reader can imagine them behaving exactly as the novel presents. Even that icon of patriotism, Founding Father Benjamin Franklin, is portrayed as a complex man filled with often-conflicting emotions and motivations.
The novel begins in Franklin’s youth, where he is making a name for himself as a fine printer. Unfortunately, he has a taste for the ladies. He deflowers Deborah Read while rooming at her father’s inn. He tells her he wants to marry her, and then goes to England for two years. In the meantime, Deborah marries another man who later abandons her.
Enter the attractive but destitute Anne, who works at The Penny Pot, a local tavern. Franklin takes an immediate liking to her and manages to seduce her, too. Only Anne becomes pregnant. In the meantime, Franklin has convinced Deborah to become his common-law wife. When Anne delivers a son, William, Franklin convinces his “wife” to take the boy into their home. He then convinces Anne that giving up her son is best for the boy. Much of the tension and heartache that ensues from this action will drive a wedge between Franklin and his wife, and Franklin and his son; even his most loyal friends are affected by the taint of Franklin’s baseborn boy.
As the colonies begin to rebel against the Crown’s authority, the young man, William, finds a place for himself as Royal Governor of New Jersey. This position puts him at odds with his famous father.
A rousing good book with a great deal of heart, Cabot’s novel makes me believe I know Ben Franklin a little — and I am certain I know the women involved: their heartbreak is achingly familiar.