Boylston clearly admires Barton’s character and accomplishments. Her biography paints a flattering portrait of a woman who battled and overcame numerous ob-stacles—internal and external—over her entire life, a woman whose dedication, determination, and devotion to others saved lives and shaped history.
Boylston uses incidents and anecdotes to advance the narrative and to illuminate character. She favors action scenes, especially those showing Barton surmounting obstacles or opposition by her wits or determination. Barton’s work on Civil War battlefields is described in detail, enhanced by numerous vignettes illustrating her courage, ingenuity, and tirelessness. In contrast, her administrative work and periods in more settled locations receive only slight mention.
Boylston also streamlines and simplifies situations, keeping Barton ever at the center of the biography. Barton thus becomes the prime mover, and those who helped her—politically or otherwise—assume distinctly secondary roles. Similarly, other elements of Barton’s life, such as her friendship with Susan B. Anthony and her association with women’s suffrage, receive little or no attention. The biography also skirts the issue of Barton’s recurring depressions, mentioning them only in connection with the deaths of family members. (Boylston does, however, observe that Barton’s spirits usually lifted and her physical illnesses abated when she found compelling work to be...
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Barton provides an ideal subject for biographers: She not only led an active life but also preserved extensive records and correspondence chronicling it in detail. Three years after her death, Percy Epler answered the demand for information about her life with The Life of Clara Barton (1915), a four hundred-page juvenile biography. Seven years later, her cousin, Reverend William E. Barton, published a two-volume biography, entitled The Life of Clara Barton: Founder of the American Red Cross (1922), utilizing material from two vaults of manuscripts not available to Epler. Thus, the challenge facing biographers lies not in finding material but in limiting it. Boylston’s goal was apparently to construct a short and simple, but lively, account of Barton’s life, providing social and historical context as needed. In this endeavor, she succeeds. Many of the incidents that are included seem standard fare for Barton biographies, but Boylston strikes a smooth balance between her own concise prose and occasional narration from Barton’s papers.
Boylston was an appropriate choice for a Barton biographer, for the two came from similar backgrounds. Both were born and reared in New England and later established homes there, and neither married. A trained nurse, Boylston worked on the battlefields of Europe during World War I, then spent an additional two years abroad with the American Red Cross. Boylston is best known for her Sue Barton nursing series (19361952). Although Clara Barton was written several years after the last volume in that series was published, it is perhaps more than coincidental that Boylston should have assigned the surname “Barton” to her fictional creation, the embodiment of the perfect nurse.
Clara Barton is the fifty-sixth volume in Random House’s popular Landmark Books series. Subsequent biographers have cited it among their references; it also appears on several lists of recommended biographies.