Every time we went to Costco when I was a child, I would insist that my parents buy me a Dear America book. These books make up a series featuring girls from across the range of American history – from the Mayflower to the Vietnam War. My favorite book and the one I’m focusing on for this post is The Winter of the Red Snow, by Kristiana Gregory. The “diarist” is Abigail Stewart, living in Valley Forge, PA in 1777, when the Revolutionary Army under George Washington camped there during a brutal winter.
Abby is eleven, but well aware of the war surrounding her. But what she isn’t prepared for is the stark reality of Washington’s army. Without provisions to speak of, barely clothed for winter, and mostly barefoot, Abby’s excitement is immediately quenched as she watches their arrival. “We watched for several minutes as they passed by. We were unable to speak. Their footprints left blood in the snow.”
This book is chalk full of historical fact and a detailed look at what it would have been like to live in Valley Forge that winter. The farmers want to help the starving and freezing army, but when soldiers steal their eggs, fence posts, and hay it’s hard to stay loyal. The British army, camped in the comfort of Philadelphia, will pay for supplies in gold and silver, whereas the impoverished Revolutionary army only pays in dubious “paper money.” The farmers and soldiers maintain a shaky truce, but as winter progresses it becomes increasingly fragile.
As the snow comes down, Abby visits the camps with Martha Washington and witnesses hangings, amputations, gangrene, small pox, and everywhere death. But she also spies George Washington dancing a jig on his birthday and the saving-grace alliance with the French. Primarily, she’s a witness to events around her, but her thoughts on the war and war in general are by far the most captivating part of the book. She battles to forgive the soldiers for the many troubles they bring, but is angered by the colonists who do business with the comparatively rich British forces.
Cruelties abound, but she still finds happiness in the survival of her baby brother and the fact that she no longer has to attend school lessons. Her compassion is unending – she gives her only cloak to a drummer boy and her bonnet to a friend who chopped off her hair for money. Often, she makes mistakes – serving General Howe bread, dropping a hot lid on her brother’s hands, thinking hateful thoughts about a boy who is later killed – they are honest mistakes, and she’s only eleven after all.
The Winter of Red Snow rates an AJ on the PSA. This is an easy read meant for younger readers, though this entire series has been used in classes for its attention to historical events and details, so don’t discredit it if you’re older. There are about 2398239830 other books written by everyone from Ann Rinaldi to Caroline Cooney, and though the series went out of print in 2004, it is coming back this year with reprints and a sequel to this book, called Cannons at Dawn.