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Convincing biography of a Colonial woman

Special to the Recorder

“Earthbound and Heavenbent: Elizabeth Porter Phelps and Life at Forty Acres” by Elizabeth Pendergast Carlisle (Scribner, 368 pages, $26)

Constructing a biography is a tricky task. How can a writer in the present discern the thoughts and feelings of a person in the past?

Elizabeth Pendergast Carlisle is frank about what she knows and what she can only guess about the life of her subject, Elizabeth Porter Phelps (1747-1817) of Hadley. She uses the materials at hand wisely and convincingly in “Earthbound and Heavenbent.”

Carlisle’s subject is a woman who witnessed and, in some cases embodied, changes in New England and in the nation. Born to a prominent Connecticut River family (Carlisle calls Elizabeth Phelps’ class “The River Gods”), she survived three wars — the French and Indian War, the Revolution, and the War of 1812. The first of these took her father’s life when she was a child.

Elizabeth spent all but the first five years of her life in a house called Forty Acres built by her father, Moses Porter, in Hadley. It is now the Porter-Phelps-Huntington House Museum.

The house itself becomes a character in Carlisle’s book. The author brilliantly uses the building’s changing architecture, setting and furnishings to infer and interpret Elizabeth’s habits, feelings and relationships with others.

Carlisle also uses Elizabeth’s writings to sketch out her subject’s life. Elizabeth kept a diary for much of her life and wrote letters to friends and family members. These writings are sometimes illuminating, sometimes just intriguing as the writer doesn’t always explain herself. Carlisle is forced to make educated guesses about several of Elizabeth’s physical and emotional difficulties.

She does a lot with the material she has, however.

She shows the ways in which Elizabeth’s life and that of her family symbolized an evolution away from the colonial past — in terms of religion, in terms of community relations and in terms of agricultural practice.

As the reader follows the ups and downs of Elizabeth Porter Phelps’ life, she comes across as a hardworking, emotionally complex woman. She produced a number of goods on her farm.

Some of these — candles, soap, meat — were consumed by family and friends. Some (bonnets and cheese) were sold to bring in the cash that even farmers needed in an age in which economic self-sufficiency was beginning to yield to interdependency.

She worked to sustain those around her spiritually as well as physically. Above all, she worked to grow ever closer to God and to her family. In the end, her affectionate yet self-examining nature wins the reader’s heart. The author helps her heroine forge a bond between Elizabeth’s past, her present and our own present.

Carlisle lives in Leverett. She will talk about Elizabeth Porter Phelps on Thursday, July 18, at 7:30 p.m. in the Garonzik Auditorium of Deerfield Academy’s Koch Science Center.

This free program is part of Historic Deerfield’s summer lecture series “Through Her Eyes, In Her Words: The Lives and Writings of Three Colonial Women,” which begins on July 11. For more information, call Historic Deerfield’s education department at 775-7216.

Tinky Weisblat is the author of The Pudding Hollow Cookbook (www.merrylion.com) and the new Pulling Taffy (www.pullingtaffy.com). She is always looking for new books from Franklin County authors to review for this paper. If you have a book suggestion, email her at

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