Book Review:
Tuttles Red Barn: The Story
of America's Oldest Family

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Tuttle’s Red Barn:  The Story of America’s Oldest Family Farm
by Richard Michelson, illustrated by Mary Azarian
(Putnam: cloth, 32 pages, $16.99).

Book Review by Rebecca Rule

Dover, New Hampshire boasts America’s oldest family farm.  Twelve
generations of Tuttle’s worked the land for their livings, beginning with John
Tuttle, born in 1616.  John emigrated from England in a ship that sailed into
trouble off the coast of Maine.  He “...watched from shore as the storm battered
the hull against the rocks.  In his hands, he held all that remained of his
possessions: his father’s ax and the two pewter candleholders his mother had
given him after they’d hugged good-bye.”  

Richard Michelson’s story Tuttle’s Red Barn, illustrated by Caldecott winner
Mary Azarian, checks in on the family in each generation. Michelson writes
with the economy of a poet about the evolution of the farm and, for good
measure, American history, as it affected life on the farm.  He moves from John
Tuttle and the cabin built on a patch of land to Grayson Tuttle, born in 1997,
who helps farm the 240 acres and helps out, too, in the Red Barn, where home
grown goods are sold to more than 1000 customers a day.  Those original
pewter candleholders bookend the story, a source of pride and symbol of
continuity.   When a customer asks Grayson about the candleholders for sale at
the store, he says:  “These are just like the ones we have on our mantle at home.
. . . My great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather brought
them over from England.”

For the children who read this story, Grayson’s pride in his heritage may reflect
or encourage their own.  Where does our family come from?  How long have
we lived in this place?  What are our family treasures?  What do we value? It
may lead them to a sense of identity:  I come from a people who  _____ (fill in
the blank).

Grayson comes from a people who sank deep roots and managed, when other
families could not, to find at least one person in each generation to keep the
family business going.  A simple story, but not so simple to tell. How does a
writer cover 400 years of history and twelve generations in 32 pages?

I’m telling you, it takes a poet.  Michelson is, in fact, an award-winning poet.  
His collection Battles and Lullabies made ForeWord  magazine’s list of the
twelve best poetry books of 2006.  He’s also the author of many books for
children, including Across the Alley, Too Young for Yiddish, and Tap Dancing
for the Relatives, called “deeply moving” by Elie Weisel, a man who knows a
thing or two about moving readers with words. Michelson organizes his story
by generation, from the first chapter, “John Tuttle, 1st Generation (1616-1683),”
to the last, “Grayson Tuttle, 12th Generation (1997-- ).”  He plunges into each
generation’s story with key elements and highlights, leaving much to the reader’
s imagination.  “John Tuttle Jr., 2nd Generation (1646-1720)” consists of just four
short paragraphs, a lively synopsis of a life, which begins:

John Jr. didn’t mind hard work.  By the time he was eight, he was already
preparing the cabin for the long winter.  He filled the chinks in the logs with
rock and clay, while his sisters rubbed linseed oil on the paper windows to let
in the light and keep out the rain.

Now John Jr. was getting hungry. He loved the smell of his mother’s rabbit
stew.  She was proud of the new brick hearth, with cranes to swing the kettles
on and off the fire safely.

In the spring, John Jr. helped his father clear two extra acres. They already
owned twenty. They fertilized the soil with oysters and grew all their own
peas, potatoes, pears, pumpkins and parsnips. They traded their extra
pumpkins to the Penacook Indians for beaver skins to send back to England.

Mary Azarian’s block print illustrations fill chinks, continue the story, and
suggest stories of their own.  To enhance John Jr.’s story, she shows the family
in action within the rustic cabin, getting the work done, wearing the clothes and
using the tools of the era.  

Each generation gets its own story, but Michelson connects them in more ways
than one.  Yes, the folks are all one family in one place  -- that’s the main
connection. Another traces the move from self-sufficiency to trade.  Another
documents the growth of the farm holdings and the growth of the town, the
transition from farming community to a small city.  Another example:  the
peaceful trading relationship with the Penacooks in John Jr.’s generation turns
to tragedy in his son, James Tuttle’s, time.  

One day James saw a fire in the distance.  The town mill was burning and half
a dozen of his neighbors’ cabins were also in flames. Then, Pow! Pow! Pow!
James heard gunshots.  He joined his father and brothers as they chased the
attackers away from the Tuttle Farm.  “The Penacooks killed twenty-three
people,” his brother Thomas shouted.  “And they took twenty-nine
prisoners.”  That meant more than one quarter of the townspeople were dead
or missing.  James was glad his family was safe.

Michelson personalizes the conflict between early settlers and Native
Americans.  He does the same thing with the American Revolution, when  
brothers must go off “to fight for the colonies.” William Tuttle (1750-1834)
witnessed the ratification of the Constitution.  New Hampshire was the ninth
state to approve.

Now it seemed like all two thousand Dover citizens had gathered on
Huckleberry Hill to celebrate.  Nine cannon salutes were fired nine minutes
apart, followed by nine hip-hip-hoorays.  William was finally a citizen of the
United States.

During Civil War times, the Tuttles sheltered runaway slaves on their journey
north.  Joseph Edward Tuttle, true story, sold a jug of maple syrup, “New
Hampshire sweetwater,” to Abe Lincoln.  In the 9th generation, William Penn
Tuttle bought a spiffy new Model-T truck, seen rusting behind the barn in the
10th generation.

Tuttle’s Red Barn tells the history of a family, a place, and a nation. It’s a tour
de force.  That’s French for wicked good book.

For more information on the work of Richard Michelson, visit  For more on Mary Azarian visit  She has prints for sale.  They’re beautiful.

To purchase a copy of
Tuttles Red Barn click below:

About the book reviewer:
Rebecca Rule is a humorist, author and storyteller, who is the author of two
collections of short fiction, including The Best Revenge, winner of the NH
Writers Project award for fiction.
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