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Stealing Andrew Jackson's Head Paperback – October 22, 2011
About the Author
Charles D. Rodenbough, grandfather, is a writer and historian, author of four books and many articles in historical magazines and journals. This was a special project because he partnered with his grandson, Ryan Ray Rodenbough, who added the perspective of a twelve-year-old boy
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Reared in rural Stokes County, North Carolina, a graduate of the University of North Carolina, he left the Air Force at the age of 26 intending to work toward a doctorate in history and a career as a college professor. Life, and "responsibilities," intervened. He worked in real estate, insurance, headed a travel agency, and participated in various projects in Russia -- but as time flowed on he immersed himself in history, local, state and national, and tentatively at first and increasingly with more confidence began to write about it.
He broke free in 1994 with the publication of his first book, "Governor Alexander Martin: Biography of a North Carolina Revolutionary War Statesman." Since then he has researched, written and honed his craft full time.
You can read of his many projects on Google, on Amazon and elsewhere. Here let's now address the book at hand, Charles Rodenbough's latest novel: "Stealing Andrew Jackson's Head, based on the life of Captain Samuel W. Dewey."
Dewey, cousin of the Admiral, friend of the famous, became a sailor at 14, a ship captain at 15 and for the next 12 years traveled the world. By age 27, his restless mind sought new challenges. Dewey involved himself in canals and railroads, taught himself geology, and became a trader in stocks and land.
As a "mineralogist" he roamed, among other places, the Sauratown Mountains in Stokes County, North Carolina a few miles from Charles Rodenbough's future home. He unearthed in Virginia the largest diamond (up to that time) ever found in America. He wandered the world. He was, for want of a better phrase, a most interesting man.
Captain Samuel W. Dewey is also known to history as the man who cut off Andrew Jackson's head. To explain: when the ship USS Constitution was rebuilt in Boston in 1834, a wooden figure of President Jackson was carved and added to the ship's bow. Many New Englanders, including Dewey at that time, objected to Jackson's politics, and under cover of night, in a rain storm, Dewey rowed out to the ship and sawed off the statue's head.
Most men would have stopped there. Not Dewey. He decided to present the head to Jackson himself. The President was ill at the time so Dewey met with Vice President Martin Van Buren, who passed him on to Secretary of the Navy Mahlon Dickinson, who after some argument accepted the head. It passed through many hands after that, but you can read about this in the book.
As a reader, and now a reviewer, I could argue that Samual Dewey is sufficently interesting as to find the head story almost a distraction from the richness of his life otherwise. In his obituary in 1899 the New York Times termed him "one of the most picturesque characters in American history."
Another interesting aspect of this book is that Charles Rodenbough lists his grandson, Ryan Ray Rodenbough, 12, as co-author. This is not exactly accurate, since in the book the grandfather, representing Captain Dewey, tells the grandson his story, and here and there the grandson interjects to comment or ask a question. This works, or does not work, depending on your point of view. Either way it is an imaginative approach, and adds another dimension.
Dewey himself was no slouch as a writer. Here he describes a visit to Alexandria, as the guest of the Khedive of Egypt:
"... I was not, by tradition, allowed to enter into his harem but he provided me with a harem of my own to service my every need...He asked me if I would like to select one of the beautiful women as a wife and as a gift from him...I told him that I was returning to a society where such arrangements were not allowed...and that the situation would be a very unhappy experience for her. He asked me, `But would it be a happy experience for you?' When I told him it would, he was not able to comprehend why the happiness of the woman would even be considered..."
Dewey died in Philadelphia aged 93, poor and alone. As Charles Rodenbough says in the frontpiece to this volume, "The green leaf will surely turn to the yellow of autumn." In Samuel Dewey's case, those leaves flamed and shone very brightly before they fell to earth in the end.
Ken Byerly, author of Mountain Girl and other books.
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The novel is framed as an old man, Samuel, telling his memories to a young boy, Jake. A relationship develops between these two. Jake is in awe of what Samuel has accomplished in his life, while Samuel is thrilled with the opportunity to tell his tales. Here's a sample of one of Samuel's first stories:
“Well, I know you know where Boston is, and when I was three my family moved there. Then when I was in my seventh year, the United States had its second war with England. I remember my father got very excited in those days every time an American sailing ship was boarded from a British ship and our sailors were impressed into the British navy. It was the tactic of a bully and it was against international laws of sailing rights. Or course Massachusetts, like Philadelphia, depended on the commerce of the sea so we were in direct competition with Britain for control of any part of the sea. Since my father was already a sea captain and he had his own ship, he and his ship were placed under command of the United States Navy...”
Each story Samuel tells has its own charm. The stories of sailing are very different from the stories of mining in North Carolina, but they are all fascinating. The title story is wonderful. It's about the politics of the times and about the audacity of a young man. When I googled Samuel W. Dewey I found a number of references to that incident. The other stories are more obscure, but this book is a great place to find out about them.
Stealing Andrew Jackson's Head is appropriate for all ages. I think it would be an interesting fit for a history classroom with a creative teacher.
Steve Lindahl – author of Motherless Soul