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Foodie Lit

Richard Alan Schwartz's The Advocate

“We simply assert that women, as they are, are unfit to vote.”

New York Times. March 18, 1859


Dr. Abbey Kaplan thought after her work as surgeon in the Civil War, she would easily be accepted as a surgeon in hospitals. That was not the case. But as Abbey had fought to be accepted during the Civil War, so now she fought many battles to have her voice heard. She realized that unless she could vote, she could not confront the many problems she was encountering. Despite the editorializing of the NY Times, eventually they were proven wrong.

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I love a good series. I get to follow a character, see the individual grow, encounter difficulties and succeed or fail.  Such is the case of The Advocate. We met Doctor Abbey Kaplan in The Surgeon and now we observe her in the Post-Civil War Era struggling again to be accepted as a female and Jewish physician.


As with her fight to bring sanitation to surgery, Abbey finds innocent people imprisoned in asylums and works to give these people a voice. The lack of a voice for women becomes the source for so many issues in the post war era—Abbey becomes a suffragette and fights to bring a place for women, the poor, the imprisoned. As Abbey finds a place for her medical skills, she uses her leadership to work for the women’s vote, and finds love and family, her faith leading her to a full and giving life.


One of the difficult problems, then and now, was poverty, and with it, a lack of education and possibilities. Poverty creates situations where corrupt and manipulative individuals can force victim into untenable situations. I asked author Richard Schwartz how Abbey is both a victim and an influencer for change.


Richard replied, “The fact that she had a career which paid above average allowed her the time and financial independence to become involved in the early stages of suffrage. From my research, I’ve learned this was the case for most of the women involved at the beginning of the suffrage movement and they became and remained the leaders until their goal was achieved.”


The details of the era’s daily living are drawn so well, from clothing to food to transportation to medicine. These details become personalized and the stories come alive. Richard told me that he imagines his characters telling him their stories in the era’s dress and in the context of their surroundings. His research goes beyond the broad sweeps of history and timelines to include primary sources-- letters and documents written in the era.

What also creates the believable is how Richard jumps off personal experiences to develop motivation and drive in his characters. One moving example that Richard shared was the importance of Abbey forming a group of strong-minded women to confront the evils she felt compelled to change.


"A few years ago, a hurricane slammed into the Louisiana-Mississippi coast and vast flooding occurred. Many hundreds of folks from all over Texas hitched their flat-bottomed boats to their pickups and headed over there to help before anyone even asked. Thousands were rescued. A few years later, the vast city of Houston and its surrounding area had terrible flooding. The number of trucks and flat-bottom boats with Louisiana and Mississippi markings were so numerous and rescued so many, the news reporters began referring to them as the Cajun Navy. While a surgeon can affect the lives of many people, a societal change needs folks to come together with the motivation and numbers of a Cajun Navy. Abbey alone, could not have generated the political energy to achieve societal change any more than a single man with a single boat could have rescued thousands of people."


The incident itself has little to do with the problems confronted by Abbey in this post-Civil War era yet the image was powerful and instructive as to the way our author’s mind works. His writing artfully combines the historical and the personal, drawing the reader into the era and minds of his characters.  


Abbey prepares a traditional Friday night meal for family—a cholent. When I suggested my cholent recipe, Richard exclaimed, “Eating cholent is like eating family history” and then told me the story of his grandmother’s cholent through privation and through abundance. “Share your cholent recipe? Great idea! Let’s gather family around the table and eat some history!”

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