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THE STORY BEHIND THE BOOK

A historian finds women, children, and ‘family history’ at the Boston Massacre

David Wilson for the Boston Globe

Serena Zabin, a professor of history at Carleton College in Minnesota, taught a class on early American trials for years. One day, while showing her students a pamphlet that collects depositions taken after the Boston Massacre, she noticed something new.

“The very first deposition talks about a soldier’s wife,” Zabin said. “I don’t know how many times I read it before the penny dropped and I thought, a soldier’s wife? I didn’t even know the soldiers had wives.”

Unlike modern warfare, 18th century British armed forces often brought along their wives and children when posted overseas. Or they married and had children with local women, as Zabin found while researching in the Massachusetts Historical Society. “That’s the thread I started pulling,” she said.

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In “The Boston Massacre: A Family History,” Zabin urges readers to look at the familiar 1770 event with new eyes, especially taking into account the idea of family. “I wanted to think really completely about families because they were there,” Zabin said. “What happens when we think of this as an event that is populated by women and children as well as just guys with guns?” In addition, she added, family was the prevailing metaphor for the relationship between England and her colonies. “They used that language all the time,” she said, “and that language became more than metaphorical when families broke up.”

We will likely never know the exact cause of the massacre, Zabin said. “We’re never going to know that answer,” she said. “It turns out that’s not the right question. The right question is, what did the shooting do? What did it mean? What did it create? I hope that what they’ll take from it is both a sense that history and politics are constituted by all kinds of personal relationships, not all of which do we see and not all of which we do know.”

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Serena Zabin will read 6 p.m. Thursday, March 5, at the Boston Public Library, and 7 p.m. Friday, March 6, at Harvard Book Store.


Kate Tuttle, a freelance writer and critic, can be reached at kate.tuttle@gmail.com.