If you are like me, you have often wondered how our most talented novelists would see important historical characters. Gore Vidal has whetted our appetite with his novels about the first hundred years of the United States. In Aspire to the Heavens, talented mystery writer Mary Higgins Clark makes George Washington come alive as a simple man with many personal challenges in his life. Although I was familiar with the material in this book, Ms. Clark did a wonderful job of both making it more interesting and accessible by making his life into a personally focused biographical novel. As a result, I got a lot of new perspectives on my own life that I will benefit from for many years to come.
The book's title alludes to a promise that George Washington's mother asked for and received from him. She wanted him to always do his utmost. In her family, that had meant "Aspire to the Heavens." He took on that promise with her encouragement. Out of his own character, though, he decided to be the most decent man he could possibly be. That latter promise to himself is the one that this book focuses on.
The form of this book is to describe George Washington through the lens of his personal life, rather than his public accomplishments. The style reads more as though it is a novel rather than a biography, and there is certainly some literary license in the ascriptions of motives and personal thoughts. Yet, these devices work well as long as you remember not to take them too seriously and literally.
Although Washington will always seem larger than life to all Americans, he was a man who had many setbacks in his own life. Before the Revolutionary War, he was certainly not considered to be the great man most now believe him to have been.
Life was hard as a youngster. His father died when he was fairly young, and his mother carried a whip to help assert her authority over him and his siblings. She did not keep a very attractive household, which young George resented. Although she loved her son, she put him down verbally at every opportunity. Her opposition to his desire for an ocean-going career was a fortunate one for the United States and democracies everywhere, but a bitter disappointment to him at the time. George sought escape from her whenever possible, especially to the home of his half-brother at Mount Vernon (which he would eventually inherit and buy out from his sister-in-law).
An early friendship with the Fairfax family led to a long relationship with the first and greatest love of Washington's life, Sally Fairfax, his proposal to her similar-appearing sister (which was refused), as well as his interest in surveying as a career.
His mother constantly tried to discourage his military career, and complained bitterly about the risks he was taking during the colonial campaigns before the Revolutionary War. She blamed the early death of George's favorite half-brother on war-related illnesses.
It is fun to read Martha Washington referred to by her pet name of "Patsy" throughout the book. You will also read here a sensitive interpretation of Washington's frustrations as a step-father and in securing Patsy's love and attention. As you may know, the story ends tragically as both step-children die at fairly young while, while the Washingtons never have children of their own. Their step-daughter asks them to adopt two of her children after her husband dies, whom the Washingtons' raise.
The book's structure is an interesting one. The main historical thread is the aftermath of John Adams's inauguration and the Washingtons' trimphant return to Mount Vernon to farm. This development is interspaced with flashbacks of key moments in the lives of both George and Patsy.
After you have finished enjoying the book, I suggest that you evaluate your own life from the perspective of how you will be remembered as a family member and as a friend. Many people focus too much on their careers and public accomplishments. This book can help you assess the balance you have achieved in your life. All of us can learn from how George Washington came to keep silent when something upset him rather than creating a fuss that would have hurt his closest relationships. He was a fine family man and friend, as a result, as well as an inspiring, steady leader.
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