Book Review: Poor Richard’s Lament by Tom Fitzgerald

I first read Poor Richard’s Lament, a Timely Tale by Tom Fitzgerald in March 2012. Nothing about it was as I expected. Most of us are familiar with Poor Richard’s Almanac, or Poor Richard, written by Benjamin Franklin in the mid-1700s. Today we classify it as Historical Fiction, a genre that has swelled in reader interest. Tom Fitzgerald’s intriguing vision of Franklin is more than Historical Fiction. I see it as Historical Fantasy Fiction, if such a genre exists. When I use the word “Fantasy,” I use it in the sense of awe and fascination –– complimentary in every sense. The book is a treasure trove of wordsmithing, of soaring imagination, and a new way of pondering what might happen when those in our past stand in judgement of us, should that fantasy happen.


Fantasy and mystery are woven throughout. The fantasy is obvious, truth and fiction, not so much. Franklin earnestly and emotionally sets out to make things right. With cane in hand, he tap, tap, taps his way around city plazas of Philadelphia, passing bronze statues of himself – and with no great surprise, all the while, afflicted with a disagreeable gout. He weeps often. I wept with him once, and came close at other times. He is the lovable, wise and deprecating elder all of us would love to have at our Thanksgiving table – without the need to know he is the great Ben Franklin. He eventually goes to New York for a very personal need, and on to Philadelphia to live out the tale with an electric ending.

There is only one book I can compare Poor Richard’s Lament to in style, and that is Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke – a brilliant ‘fantastical’ fiction (nothing to do with a real public personality). Both provide the intricacy of detail, the lure of a different time, place, and language and takes us to a fascinating world, cleverly conjured the authors.

In our knowledge of this particular Founder, we have an image of both great wisdom and efficacious humor, Fortunately, nothing in this fiction paints him in any other light –– other than when all his faults are laid bare in a most painful manner – and worse yet to be laid bare by fellow Founder John Adams, Franklin’s real life, sometimes nemesis.

The book begins with Franklin long dead, about 250 years dead. He has been abiding not in a grave with his beloved wife Deborah, but in a room reserved for him in the Plantation of the Unrepentant. He has petitioned the Court for his final processing and as the book opens, his time has come.

He arrives at the Supreme Celestial Court of Petitioners with excitement and great expectation. All goes well as his very long list of esteemed accomplishments are read out, and as a sober John Adams looks on. The Supreme Celestial Court of Petitioners can’t help but bring to the mind of a mere mortal, a vision of Judgement Day. The Almighty, or some fiery force, is represented by three flaming tongues of fire residing on a great granite (or maybe marble) bench. At times, the tongues transform in fearsome ways.

The action emanates from the Desk of Examiners. In a short time, the failings of Benjamin Franklin’s life are born on the fragile visage of this man so accustomed to being hailed as a mind for the ages, a writer, judicious and stingingly humorous.

In Fitzgerald’s novel, Benjamin Franklin defended against the slavery of his day, in a fashion. He was a kind master of his own, but didn’t fully rise to the occasion as he could have – and as he knew he should have. The relationships between blacks and whites, then and now, play a prominent role in Poor Richard’s Lament, as does his parenting of his own children, and his habit of being a very absent husband.

Along the way, we are transported to the Oval Office of the current day President of the United States, to a speaking engagement of the man who is opposing him in the coming elections. When the Celestial Court sends Ben on his way, he finds himself standing in the here and now, in front of his birth place on Milk Street in Boston. This begins a fascinating part of the book. Franklin encounters one soul after the other to be counseled with his industry, his frugality and the virtue of a winning smile – no matter what.

The book does not footnote what is history and what is fiction, including the wealth of quotations that you surely think are Franklin’s –– until you search them online, and find them missing. Remember, it’s fiction and fantasy. Many of the ‘quotations’ are from the considerable mind of author Tom Fitzgerald. Consider this one: “The circle is the only geometry.” What do you think? Is it Franklin or Fitzgerald?

Not for the casual reader. Small print and 604 pages of it, with most written as Franklin would have spoken it ‘back in the day.’ You will be rewarded with the redeeming nature yearned for by most of us, who only want to love and be loved –– as we work our way through our busy days, often not doing the best job of it. I won’t quickly forget the spirit and the imagined smile of this Ben Franklin.

Click the pic above to read more about the book. Kindle edition is $13.00, Hardback $30.00. Note: I am a new Amazon Affiliate. I buy a lot of books, and am stepping-up my efforts to review for authors at Amazon. The small commission from an Amazon purchase is appreciated, and helps toward blog hosting, but when you get to Amazon you can abandon the search. You know where and how you like to buy your books, and the focus is the book.

 A version of this review originally posted at MaggiesNotebook, March 2012

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