The small primer that Malcolm gifts Juno in Watermark was indeed an actual 19th century textbook. I purchased it myself in order to get a feel for the lessons in pronunciation and to envision the full scope of Juno’s challenges in overcoming her illiteracy. The version I have was printed in 2002, but it’s an unabridged reprint of the 1824 edition. It’s actually an incredibly efficient little book, and it’s little wonder that it helped “build the most literate nation in the West.” According to the publisher’s note, many of the nation’s Founding Fathers used the Blue Back Speller, as Noah Webster’s The American Spelling Book or A Grammatical Institute of the English Language was commonly called, to teach their children and grandchildren to read, beginning with its first publication in 1783.
In Watermark, the reader only ever sees Juno advance through lesson twelve (helped along by Malcolm’s very creative tutelage), but it’s inferred in the epilogue that she continues her studies and becomes well-educated, which is hardly surprising considering the sheer number of tutorials covered in her beloved primer. The Blue Back Speller is packed full of simple and complex pronunciation tables, but also fables like The Cat and the Rat and The Fox and the Bramble, facts such as the inhabitants of the United States (beginning in 1790 and ending in 1820 in my edition), the names of rivers, lakes, and cities, and the crowning glory, a piece called “Domestic Economy, or the History of Thrifty and Unthrifty.” How scintillating that last one is! A real page turner, I swear…snore…
All in all, I loved writing Juno’s character and her quiet determination to better herself, just as I loved Malcolm’s for admiring education in a woman and encouraging Juno to accomplish her dream with his gift.
Curious about all those lessons and page-turning fables? The Original Blue Back Speller is still available for purchase on Amazon by clicking here.
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