May 1, 2008

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Strawbery Banke: A Seaport Museum 400 Years in the Making, by J. Dennis Robinson (2007, Peter E. Randall Publisher, 393 pages)
By Lisa Parsons lparsons@hippopress.com

Is a big, solid coffee-table book with lots of pretty pictures of Portsmouth old and new. It is more generally about Portsmouth and New Hampshire history than its title might lead you to expect.

Robinson, a popular local historian, describes it as “really three books”: the history of Portsmouth; the story of the museum; and the illustrations. All three form a coherent whole, but it’s true that each of these aspects is appreciable in itself. Robinson has done a bang-up job with each.

Organized chronologically, the book begins (after an introductory get-your-bearings chapter) with the Native Americans living here for 12,000 years before the Europeans arrived, and ends with a “Back to the Future” chapter covering 1985 through 2008. As the book progresses it gets more narrowly focused on Strawbery Banke preservation efforts. Early chapters are of broad interest to any New Hampshire resident; some of those readers, the ones with no interest in Portsmouth’s inner circles, will dwindle away by the end of the book.

For those of us who grew up out of state, perhaps in places with more vivid recorded histories, Robinson’s words in Chapter 2 are validating: “The founding chapter of New Hampshire … is vague and tattered or missing altogether.” (So it’s not just me.) He continues: “The artistic flaw is obvious. Captain John Mason, the protagonist in this story and the driving force behind the colonization of New Hampshire, dies off in the opening scene. … The story of New Hampshire, from that very early point, became a tale told by orphans on scattered scraps of paper.”

Well, at least now we’re getting somewhere with the scraps.

Poking a little fun at the folks who’ve argued about which strawberry patch did or did not give Strawbery Banke its name (probably none; it was likely named after a Strawberry Bank in England), Robinson takes it upon himself to look into more substantive matters of Portsmouth history.

He gives us John Smith charting the Isles of Shoals after Jamestown. He relates witchcraft stories and describes the early white settlers who “did not believe in bathing … did not swim … did not drink water, but imbibed great quantities of beer, run, and wine. They believed in the Devil as a living, breathing presence on Earth. They believed, without question, that some people were born to be servants, while others were born to be kings and queens.” He tells of Indian raids and of a booming timber industry wherein local sawmills made ships’ masts from white pine.

The photographs are many and varied. There’s a picture of Mark Twain, who spoke at the Portsmouth Music Hall, and one of FDR riding in a car down a city street. But it’s the everyday photos that perhaps speak the loudest, like the one where “Former bordello owner Alta Roberts poses in front of her former Water Street (now Marcy) establishment in 1933 at the age of 78, two decades after the closing of the red light district.” That building, Robinson tells us, still stands.

Robinson, who lives in Portsmouth and edits the Web site seacoastnh.com, grew up in Bedford and went to West High School. He’s compiled a lively, detailed history in a very handsome package. One can only wish he would tackle Manchester in similar fashion. A-Lisa Parsons