Grounded in History

Johnny Appleseed: “Select Good Seeds and Plant Them in Good Ground”
By Richard Worth
(Enslow Publishers, Berkeley Heights, NJ, 2010, $ 31.93)

Every American student studies John Chapman, better known as Johnny Appleseed, possibly because he is one of the least controversial figures in American history. Born in Massachusetts just before the Revolution, Chapman later moved west. He started nurseries throughout western Pennsylvania and Ohio, selling apple trees to settlers. Sometimes, he bartered seedlings for food and clothes; when pioneers couldn’t pay; Chapman gave them trees outright. Chapman’s eccentricity and selflessness were legendary even during his lifetime. He cared nothing for appearances, wearing ragged garments and giving his clothes away to those in need. He was a vegetarian before a vegetarian movement existed. Chapman also preached the teachings of Swedish philosopher Emanuel Swedenborg, who believed in the sacredness of all life, to the early settlers.

In Johnny Appleseed, Richard Worth attempts to bridge the gap between the few known facts and many folktales about Chapman’s life. Because historians know relatively little about Chapman, Worth scrambles to meet his required word count. Background information about the American Revolution and the War of 1812 comprises entire chapters when a couple paragraphs would have sufficed. Children may forget that they’re reading a biography as Johnny Appleseed often reads like a history textbook. The book is most engaging when Worth includes settlers’ memories of Chapman, poignant anecdotes that illustrate his gentle, unassuming nature. Without the lengthy digressions into military history, Johnny Appleseed would have been a much stronger, albeit shorter, biography.

Biographers must decide whether they want most to inform, inspire, or entertain readers. Johnny Appleseed certainly educates kids about early American history, but Worth fails to engage readers about Chapman himself.

©Dorothy A. Dahm

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