Tongue of Flame Essay - Critical Context

Milton Meltzer

Critical Context

The subject of this biography is not a household name. She is perhaps known best for her poem The New England Boy’s Song About Thanksgiving Day, with its famous opening couplet “Over the river, and through the wood,/ To Grandfather’s house we go.” It is not common knowledge, however, that the self-educated Child was one of the first to write a sympathetic novel about Native Americans, was the editor of the first American children’s magazine, and was the author of the first history of women, the first books about “good housekeeping,” and the first syndicated newspaper column. Most important, she was the first American to write a condemnation of slavery.

Meltzer, a historian and biographer of more than sixty books of nonfiction for young people, has described himself as a chronicler of the underdog; his books, he claims, are mostly about “aspiration and struggle.” Writing and editing books about African Americans, immigrant Jews, the Jews of the Holocaust, and histories of slavery and the Civil Rights movement, among others, Meltzer, though blatently sympathetic to those who have historically overcome great barriers or those who have helped others selflessly, is never overawed by his subject.

Using about two hundred letters at the time of the writing of this biography to “draw” his subject—he has, since the publication of this book, edited all Child’s correspondence—Meltzer has vividly re-created the life and times of a strong-willed and wholly likable human being. It is clear that he was drawn to Child because they shared common causes and social concerns, but he wisely never lets his enthusiasm intrude. This is an extraordinarily well-researched, never-dull work of scholarship that brings to life a woman whose legacy of writing is as important in all times as well as in her own.