In a cozy Virginian parlor in 1810, a widow, her daughter and two servants stare at a box containing letters from the Revolutionary War written by Col. Leven Powell, who had fought with George Washington at Valley Forge. Now, in the throes of grief after his passing, Powell’s family struggles with how best to capture his legacy, piece together his story from the letters, and in the process define their own futures.
At the forefront of McLennan’s novel is the question of who controls Powell’s story and how it gets told. Should his biography be written by sons Burr and Cuthbert Powell, both politicians? Perhaps, but they hand the project off to their sister, Jane, who enlists the help of the other women.
Sally (Powell’s widow), Jane and the free servants Nancy and Dorothy act as a chorus for the reader. Amid letters about Native American wars, smallpox and slave armies, the women amend Powell’s words to account for the people most overlooked. In this way, McLennan expertly brings alive the Revolution by making the reader feel the immediacy of it.
But amid all the domestic work of mending, cooking and feeding relatives, the women are weighed down by the task. After all, women were not at the front lines but at home keeping businesses running and their families from starving.
McLennan’s novel is uniquely meta-textual; just as we are shown transcripts of letters describing major battles in the war, we see the women’s lives intersect behind the scenes. They know they are in the shadows of their husbands and that Col. Powell was in Washington’s shadow, but that their loyalty and talents are just as crucial to the success of the young country.
And when Jane’s brother Billy is hunted down for debt by one of Thomas Jefferson’s infamous hit men — the same who drove Aaron Burr out of the country — the past gets personal. Jane isn’t just reminiscing about her father anymore, but trying to piece together how her father’s involvement with Washington has made Billy a target.
Sally’s teenage grandkids are sent off to find Billy, following ancient Native American trails on their ponies and fighting back against thugs and thieves. It’s not quite a road trip by today’s criteria but just as riveting and atmospheric as the best of them.
Reading Washington’s Shadow is like being transported back in time and seeing a country where adventure and danger lurked at every turn. Part love story, political intrigue and coming of age novel, McLennan has created vibrant characters that will stay with readers long after the book ends.
As Edward, a house servant, explains the significance of Jane as the primary storyteller, “Make believe she’s Washington on his white horse. Show some respect.”
Washington’s Shadow is available for purchase.
Learn more about Barbara on her Author Profile page.
About Barbara McLennan:
Barbara McLennan has published eight books and numerous articles on various political, economic, and historical subjects. For two years she contributed columns and articles on local customs and local history to NorthernNeck.com, a local online newspaper serving the Rappahannock region of Virginia.
Holding both Ph.D. (University of Wisconsin, Madison) and J.D. (Georgetown) degrees, Barbara McLennan is a former professor, association executive and high level official in the United States Departments of Commerce and Treasury. Over the last several years, she has served as docent at Jamestown Settlement, and at Historic Jamestown. She also has assisted the historian in preparation for exhibits at the new museum of the American Revolution at Yorktown.
Dr. McLennan has taught in the Thomas Jefferson School of Public Policy, The College of William and Mary. She also has been a Visiting Scholar at William & Mary’s Raymond A. Mason School of Business, in the MBA program. She has held a commission as member of the Governor of Virginia’s Asian Advisory Board on trade and investment and is a Board Member of the Chesapeake Bay Writers Organization.