(August 6, 2014)

Robert Love's Warnings: Searching for Strangers in Colonial Boston

Cornelia H. Dayton and Sharon V. Salinger

University of Pennsylvania Press; 237 pages

If you're familiar with Tom Stoppard's play "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead," which depicts the action in "Hamlet" through the eyes of two minor characters, then you may sense a similar approach in "Robert Love's Warnings: Searching for Strangers in Colonial Boston." This account of the pre-revolution days focuses not on icons such as Paul Revere or John Adams, but rather on an unassuming man who devoted his life to bureaucracy — and, occasionally, crossed paths with Revere and Adams, or at least lived in proximity to them.

The book's title is certainly juicy enough. From those few words, one might imagine a tale of prejudice and xenophobia, centered on a dour man who assumed the job of threatening "strangers" in town with the unspeakable. As it turns out, though, the warnings in question were a much milder affair. Sharon V. Salinger, a history professor at UC Irvine, and Cornelia H. Dayton, who teaches at the University of Connecticut, spun their narrative from the records of Love, a town clerk assigned the duty of informing newcomers that they were to depart Boston in two weeks.

What happened if the newcomers didn't obey? For the most part, nothing. Warning, in colonial Boston, was predominantly a legal formality that absolved the city of paying poor relief if residents needed it. If a new arrival in town had been warned, then he or she would receive aid from the province treasury rather than the city, and warned individuals could go on living and working in Boston indefinitely.

That may sound like a less-than-invigorating premise for a book, and indeed, "Robert Love's Warnings" is more impressive as an act of research than a page-turning narrative. Over these dense chapters, we get fleeting allusions to milestones in colonial history: the Seven Years War, the Boston Tea Party, Revere's midnight ride. While it may be notable that Love delivered 14% of his warnings to strangers on their first day in Boston, the events taking place on the margins often dwarf the central story in interest.

"Robert Love's Warnings" works best as a record of everyday life in Boston, shown here as a city constantly in transition and dominated by landlords and passers-through. Through the brief biographical snippets of the people Love encountered, we spot glimpses of the racism that hounded free blacks, the hard lives of soldiers and the colony's puritanical moral code (one woman, convicted of fornication, was sentenced to 10 floggings "on the naked back").

As for Love himself, who was he? Salinger and Dayton provide a surprisingly thorough backstory, even describing his arrest for taking place in a youthful fracas in 1722, and quote an obituary that deems him "well-esteemed and respected by all that knew him." At the same time, the authors can only speculate about his appearance and voice, and little evidence implies that he had a strong personality or led more than an average town clerk's existence.

Still, his records survive, and we can take them as a reminder that behind the exalted heroes, the colonial world simply played home to people making mundane ends meet. A few years ago, New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell published a book called "Outliers," about the world's most remarkable movers and shakers. "Robert Love's Warnings" is very much a book about inliers. Well, it took a lot of those people to populate the New World.

—Michael Miller


Sound of Change

The Dirty Heads

Five Seven Music, 11-track LP (13-tracks on iTunes)

When the Dirty Heads hit the scene in 2008, it was clear that they played a fusion of alternative rock, hip hop and reggae. I remember listening to their debut album, "Any Port in a Storm," and being impressed with the way they incorporated all of those styles into every track.

However, after listening to this Huntington Beach quintet's latest LP, "Sound of Change," I sat at my desk wondering, "What direction are the Dirty Heads heading in?" The 11-track album (13 tracks if you buy it off iTunes) still has all of those elements, except now they're found on individual tracks rather than together.

The band's breakthrough single, "Lay Me Down," from its first album, is the perfect example of combining the three genres. Frontmen Dustin Bushnell and Jared Watson rap the verses, and guest artist Rome of Sublime sings the chorus, all on a bed of laid-back reggae.

You're not going to find many of those songs on "Sound of Change," except maybe for the opening title track. Melodically, the instruments sound grand and deep, which is done with echo effects. If an organ was thrown into the mix, it would almost sound like a church hymn. While all three genres are there, the track could use more reggae influences.

I also need to toss the next track, "My Sweet Summer," into this exclusive category. It may have more of an electronic music feel to it, with more synthesized beats than I've ever heard the band use before. It still encompasses a nice fusion of reggae, alternative rock and hip-hop.