Book Bag: ‘I am a Bitter Enemy to Slavery’ by Robert Romer; Amherst College LitFest 2022; Leverett writer wins Caldecott Honor 

  • Vietnamese-American author Viet Thanh Nguyen, a 2016 Pulitzer Prize winner, speaks at Amherst College’s LiFest Feb. 26.  Image from Amherst College website

  • 2021 Pulitzer Prize winner Natalie Diaz speaks at Amherst College’s LitFest on Feb. 25.

  • Leverett children’s author Micha Archer has won a Caldecott Honor for her 2021 book “Wonder Walkers.”

Staff Writer
Monday, February 28, 2022

I am a Bitter Enemy to
by Robert H. Romer;
Levellers Press


Robert Romer had a distinguished career at Amherst College as a physics professor, teaching there for over four decades (he’s also a 1952 Amherst alum). In addition, he served for 13 years as the editor of the American Journal of Physics.

But since retiring two decades ago, Romer has turned to exploring, writing and talking about local history. His first book, “Slavery in the Connecticut Valley of Massachusetts,” published in 2009 by Levellers Press of Amherst, offered the first account of Colonial-era slave labor in the Valley.

Romer’s newest book, “I am a Bitter Enemy to Slavery,” also by Levellers Press, examines the issue more indirectly. It’s a profile of Christopher Pennell, an Amherst College student in the early 1860s who decided he needed to leave his studies and fight for the Union Army in the Civil War.

Using letters that Pennell wrote to his parents, to a young woman he was drawn to, and to other people, Romer tells the story of how Pennell, the son of a minister from West Stockbridge, decided to enlist in the Union forces in June 1862, just after his junior year at Amherst.

In a letter to his mother in the spring of 1861 after the war had begun, Pennell, born in 1842, penned the words that serve as the title of Romer’s book, adding, “I will not live in a country where treason is unpunished, & where slavery rules. If I must die to uphold what honor there is left to our flag, I believe I am ready.”

He also sought his father’s permission to enlist and pleaded that his evidently stern father not consider him “a foolish boy. I know you will … But I know I am not a coward.”

Pennell eventually joined a regiment of Black Union soldiers composed of formerly enslaved men from the South, the 19th United States Colored Troops, where he was commissioned a lieutenant. He then became an aide-de-camp to the unit’s commander, Colonel Henry Goddard Thomas, a 1858 graduate of Amherst.

In 1864, these troops were committed to siege lines outside Petersburg, Virginia, and took part in an infamous attack launched on July 30, in which Union forces tunneled beneath Confederate trenches and filled the space with vast amounts of gunpowder.

The plan was literally to blow a hole in Confederate lines to break the siege. But what became known as the Battle of the Crater went disastrously wrong for the North after the detonation killed about 275 Confederates. Union troops, both Black and white, swarmed into the crater created by the explosion, rather than around it, and were shot down by counterattacking rebels lining the edge of the crater.

Many of the Black soldiers were shot or bayoneted by Confederate troops even as they tried to surrender, Romer says. Pennell was also shot dead as he tried to rally the troops, as his commander, Colonel Thomas, later recounted:

“[H]is bravery was so conspicuous that … a number of his men were shot because, spell-bound, they forgot their own shelter in watching this superb boy.”

Romer brings some special poignancy to this story by detailing a correspondence Pennell had with Sabra Clark Snell, the daughter of one of his professors at Amherst. Pennell, who was in love with Sabra, feared his feelings were not reciprocated, until he received a letter in late July 1864 that left him giddy, Romer writes.

He notes that Pennell penned a heartfelt letter to Sabra a day later — just before his own death. “It is impossible not to feel happy for Christopher,” Romer writes. “Yet, as he writes ‘Thank Heaven, I am sure now [of your love]’ … we know he will be killed in action just two days later.”

LitFest returns to Amherst College

Now in its seventh year, Amherst College’s LitFest is being presented in a hybrid model in 2022: mostly in person for the college community, with virtual attendance options for the public for many of the sessions, which run Feb. 25-27. That comes after last year’s literary festival was entirely virtual.

LitFest, which began in 2016, brings a wide panel of writers, poets, editors, journalists and others to the college for three days of talks, readings and workshops, with a particular focus on recent National Book Award nominees and winners.

The festival is a collaboration between The Common, the literary journal based at Amherst, the college itself, and the National Book Foundation, which presents the annual National Book Awards and also brings nominees and winners to colleges to speak.

Among the writers coming this year are novelist Elizabeth McCracken, whose short story collection, “The Souvenir Museum,” was longlisted for a 2021 National Book Award; Mohave poet Natalie Diaz, whose collection “Postcolonial Love Poem” won a 2021 Pulitzer Prize; and Viet Thanh Nguyen, author of two acclaimed novels of the Vietnamese-American experience.

Topics for discussion include the future of voting rights in the U.S., in a forum including Vann Newkirk, senior editor at The Atlantic, and David Graham, a staff writer for the magazine. Other forums will review the work of the late poet (and Amherst grad) Richard Wilbur and the work of new immigrant writers.

Members of the public can attend these events virtually by registering (for free) at amherst.edu/amherst-story/literary-amherst/litfest. Public events begin Feb. 25 at 8 p.m. and conclude Feb. 27 after 3 p.m.

Valley writer wins Caldecott Honor

“Wonder Walkers,” a book by children’s book author and illustrator Micha Archer of Leverett, has been named a Caldecott Honor Book, which recognizes the artist of the most distinguished American picture book for children.

The story, whose “sumptuous artwork” (Publisher’s Weekly) includes oil paint and textured collage, invites children to explore the natural world around them, be thrilled by its variety, and ask questions about their connections to it.

“Wonder Walkers” was previously named a Best Book of the Year for 2021 by the New York Public Library, just one of a number of awards Archer has won. Her book “Daniel’s Good Day” was named an honor title by the 2020 Massachusetts Book Awards.

Archer, who previously taught kindergarten for 15 years, also consults with teachers on ways to incorporate art into their classrooms, offers arts workshops for children and adults, and does design and illustration work for a variety of clients. Her website is michaarcher.com.