“The Back Bench” by Margaret Hope Bacon

This book can be categorized as historical fiction, but it is entirely different from “The Last White Rose” (see below). It’s very short. It covers one year in the life of a completely imaginary teenager during a very comprehensively documented historical period, namely 1837 – 1838 in Pennsylvania. The protagonist, 14 year old Myra Harlan, is sent from a Westchester (PA) farm to Philadelphia after her parents die.

Myra’s family is Quaker, the most common religious denomination in Philadelphia at that time, and much of the plot is driven by the schism (or Separation) suffered by Quakerism in 1827. Elias Hicks led a walkout from the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting of Quakers. The two factions were referred to as Hicksites and Orthodox Quakers. (Reconciliation was completed in 1955!)

Bacon makes her position clear. She depicts the Orthodox Quakers as status obsessed and materialistic, the Hicksites as salt-ot-the-earth farmers who practiced virtuous simplicity. Enrolled in the Orthodox Friends Select School for Girls, Myra is advised to keep her Hicksite background a secret. 

The other emphasis in this book is on race. Quakers disowned slave owners, supported abolition (with disagreements over process) and sometimes helped escaped slaves travel to safe areas, including Canada. Myra observes discrimination during Quaker worship – people of color, acknowledged members of Quaker congregations, were seated separately from others during worship. Based on her convictions and experience, Myra ultimately feels led to sit on the back bench with her acquaintances of African descent. 

Bacon wrote many books (mostly non-fiction), the best known being Valiant Friend, (1980), a biography of Lucretia Mott. I LOVE Mothers of Feminism, (1986). I had the good fortune to meet Margaret Hope Bacon at a Quaker event. She was there as a participant (not a speaker or workshop leader). Her name tag simply read “Margaret”. 

 

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