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Archive for the ‘Historical Nonfiction’ Category

uglowBig social histories can seem forbidding with their blocks of print, lots of footnotes, and, too often, turgid writing style. In the hands of Jenny Uglow, though, history is anything but pedantic. I have been a fan of Uglow’s history writing since I read The Lunar Men, a collective biography of five men who, as Uglow posits, were “the inventors of the modern world, 1730-1810.” Here, Uglow brings her fluid writing style and attention to detail to the lives of the inhabitants of the Great Britain at the end of the 18th and beginning of the 19th centuries.

In many ways, these times do not seem so far removed from our own, as social unrest, sectarian violence, fear of war and invasion, and income inequality set the tone. Napoleon’s military successes on the European continent led to his increasing power in France and heightened fears that his next target would be the English coast. Uprisings in Ireland only exacerbated these fears. Food shortages across England left many starving and taxation to pay for the war proved unpopular, leading to civil unrest that in light of the recent deposition and execution of Louis XVI left King George concerned not only for his crown but for his neck.

In telling these stories, Uglow moves easily and with mastery from the general to the specific. She makes exceptional use of diaries, letters, and journal entries to indicate how individuals responded to circumstances and then puts those reactions into the broader picture.

With the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo coming in June, anyone interested in the Napoleonic period will find something to enjoy here.

Check the WRL catalog for In These Times.

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jacketStrange that on a fine afternoon I’m thinking of death. Especially the death that killed whatever hope remained of a free Roman Republic—not that much hope existed. Julius Caesar had crossed the Rubicon, civil war wracked Rome, and the provinces were restive under the thumbs of local governors bent on earning glory on the backs of the locals. Caesar’s hollow gestures gave the discontented Senate little public reason to oppose him. He had the power to elevate or destroy the ambitious, he controlled both the public purse and a private fortune, and he was insulated by the support of his troops.

And so, over the course of a few weeks, senators conspired (I love that word—it literally means breathed together, conjuring up images of whispering figures close enough to smell each other’s breath) to test the waters and find the like-minded who believed Caesar had to go in order for the Republic—that is, the already-powerful—to rule. And on the Ides of March, gathered in the Theatre of Pompey, the conspirators struck.

Shakespeare’s famous scene compresses events that actually took place over a period of weeks as ordinary Romans tried to figure out which faction was either in the right or stood the best chance of winning the civil war everyone saw coming. Gladiators served as bodyguards for the conspirators, while army veterans swarmed into the city to ensure their land and pensions weren’t at risk. Both sides sculpted their public events to create drama and win support, but in the end it came down to money. Who could both fulfill Caesar’s will and pay the troops who would fight the actual battles?

Strauss pulls out of the wings a number of characters who are not featured in Shakespeare’s version. One of the most interesting is named Decimus, whom Shakespeare cast in a minor role as Decius Brutus. In fact, he was one of a trio—Marc Antony and Octavian being the other two—honored in one of Caesar’s triumphs, and was widely considered a rising star. It was Decimus, not Brutus, whose betrayal was more likely to have shocked Caesar, and Decimus whose post-assassination indecisiveness cost the conspirators their opportunities. Strauss also introduces us to the politically powerful women who pushed, pulled, financed, and slept their way to positions of influence. Far from the passive skirt-clutching simps that popular imagination consigns pre-Friedan women to, these were tough, astute players who had a vision of Rome’s future and who did all but carry swords into the battle.

Shakespeare can take credit for making this the most famous assassination in history, and his drama explores deeper themes than are found in the history. But the history is fascinating, and Strauss makes it read as a drama just as wonderful as Shakespeare’s.

Check the WRL catalog for The Death of Caesar.

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3MinutesThis is a powerful history. It is a story of survival, loss, atrocity, renewal, guilt, luck, sadness, and hope. Three Minutes in Poland is a painstakingly-researched book that grew out of a home movie made by David Kurtz, the author’s grandfather. In 2009, Glenn Kurtz happened upon the movie in a family closet. Having emigrated to the United States years before, David, his wife, and friends toured Europe in 1938, just before the outbreak of World War II. David Kurtz, with his 16 mm movie camera, sporadically recorded the excursion, including three minutes documenting a small Polish town from which the family had come.

The significance of those three minutes in 1938 was immediately clear to the author. Within a year the Holocaust had started. By 1942 most of the 3000 Jews from the town had been murdered. This short record offered a rare pre-war snapshot of the Jews of Poland, happy and thriving. With unrelenting determination, Glenn Kurtz undertook a project to identify the faces captured in his grandfather’s home movie. He wanted to learn more about the small town, what it meant to his grandfather, his extended family, and the Jews who lived there. Kurtz’s book not only chronicles that research, it brings to life again some of the lost souls who died during the Holocaust.

In writing this book Kurtz traveled around the globe. He followed leads throughout North America and made friends and discoveries in Israel, Poland, and England. Despite how few people survived, Kurtz assembled an extensive network to identify and interview individuals with first-hand knowledge of the town and its people. He focused on the survivors to reconstruct this town documented in his grandfather’s home movie. In particular, the author spent many hours talking with Morry Chandler (whose granddaughter identified him as one of the waving children in the home movie).

Three Minutes in Poland is an intimate portrait of how many Jewish families were devastated, and yet some managed to survive. Throughout his well-crafted book, Kurtz weaves a story of past, present, and future that engages the reader. The personal element of reconstructing his heritage notwithstanding, much of Three Minutes in Poland also is a reminder to never forget the victims of the Holocaust. Through intelligence, perseverance, and skill, Kurtz presents a compassionate history that will move and inspire almost any reader.

Check the WRL catalog for Three Minutes in Poland

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Justinians FleaFive centuries after the birth of Christ the ancient Mediterranean world was booming; architecture, literature, trade, and philosophy, were experiencing great leaps in development. In Constantinople, Justinian was trying to hold together the Roman Empire despite inroads from barbarians from all directions. By all accounts he was an able (if at times brutal) leader, but he was unable to fight the first pandemic of Bubonic plague. From 541-542 it is estimated to have killed 25 million people, depopulating cities and perhaps leading to the shape of the modern world from the European nation states to the rise of Islam.

Justinian’s Flea tells this story with sections ranging from the biology of rats, and their passengers of fleas and Yersinia pestis (the bacterium that causes Bubonic plague), to the political intrigues of Justinian’s Court. The author has brought together disparate disciplines and facts including climate estimates from tree rings, the technological advances of ancient warfare, grave sites, and notarized wills. The book is fleshed out with wrenching quotes from contemporary accounts such as the prolific Procopius who said “there was a pestilence by which the whole human race came near to being annihilated.”

Justinian’s Flea is a weighty but readable tome and since I don’t usually read nonfiction history, I learned an enormous amount.  I lean towards science nonfiction and this book is a great companion for other books about the role of diseases in human history such as The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson, Rabid: a Cultural History of the World’s Most Diabolical Virus by Bill Wasik and Monica Murphy,  Plague: A Very Short Introduction by  Paul Slack or The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer by Siddhartha Mukherjee.

For fiction readers, Year of Wonders: A Novel of the Plague by Geraldine Brooks, which is set in the time of the Black Death (Bubonic Plague 600 years later), includes harrowing descriptions of the disease and the effects on people even if they survived. For those interested in visuals you could also try the History Channel DVD The Dark Ages.

Check the WRL catalog for Justinian’s Flea.

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Link to the Past CoverIt can be fun working right next to Colonial Williamsburg, the world’s largest living history museum; not only do we get to see Thomas Jefferson wandering along the street texting, but we also get to walk past old-fashioned zigzag, split rail fences and see fields of farm animals in the middle of the city.

Link to the Past, Bridge to the Future: Colonial Williamsburg’s Animals is a great way to learn about these animals. It includes sections on cows, sheep, pigs, chickens, pigeons, fish, horses and pets, with simple, clear descriptions of animal management and use, in both colonial times and the present day. It points out that in colonial times animals shared people’s daily lives in a way that they don’t often do today. Of course the colonists used the meat, milk, eggs, and wool from their animals but there were also surprising uses such as including animal hair in plaster for house building, which Colonial Williamsburg brickmakers still do, as they always strive for authenticity.

Modern farm animals have been bred for specific traits over the last several hundred years so to be authentic, Colonial Williamsburg has researched, bought and raised rare breeds such as the Leicester Longwool Sheep. Their research includes works written by the colonialists so Link to the Past, Bridge to the Future has several quotes from George Washington about how he managed his animals.

The text explains and complements the pictures, but like the other books about Colonial Williamsburg Link to the Past, Bridge to the Future is an enjoyable and worthwhile book just for the photos. Every page includes wonderful photographs of the interpreters in costumes performing their farming tasks by hand, as well as photographs of the animals as they go about their lives.

This book is great to read with other Colonial Williamsburg titles: Vegetable Gardening the Colonial Williamsburg Way: 18th Century Methods for Today’s Organic Gardener, by Wesley Greene, or The Colonial Williamsburg Tavern Cookbook, by The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. It also includes the history of chickens which you can learn about in greater depth from Why Did the Chicken Cross the World?: The Epic Saga of the Bird that Powers Civilization, by Andrew Lawler.

Check the WRL catalog for Link to the Past, Bridge to the Future.

Baa-bara
Baa-bara who came to meet children at Williamsburg Regional Library’s “Sheepish Storytime” on February 21.

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Blizzard“No-one knew THEN that this was the day which was to be remembered when all the days of 70 years would be forgotten.”

If you’ve spent any time in the last few weeks watching the Weather Channel, you’re accustomed to the long lead-in we have to any winter storm. Plenty of time to gas up the generator, run to the grocery store for more milk, or double- and triple-check the school closings. This riveting and often heartbreaking look at a 19th-century blizzard reminds us that once, the only warning of a deadly cold front was the wall of fast-approaching clouds and a plummeting thermometer.

In January 1888, an unprecedented winter storm swept across Nebraska, the Dakotas, and southern Minnesota, freezing cattle in their tracks, freezing farmers and their children where they fell, or sometimes even where they stood. (Yes, Jim Cantore, there was also “thunder snow.”) It became known as the “Schoolchildren’s Blizzard” because it struck on a clear, fine day when many youngsters were at school, and it was their attempts to reach the safety of home that ended in so many tragedies. Laskin’s history draws on memoirs and oral histories from pioneers who lived through the blizzard, and he notes that even the most taciturn, uncomplaining immigrants wrote about this storm as being unlike anything they had lived through before.

Just like any modern weather event, there’s a lot of talking before the weather actually hits. Laskin spends the first half of the book describing the lives of the Swiss, German, and Norwegian immigrants who came to the great prairies in search of land and freedom. He surveys the 19th-century weather service, run by officers in the U.S. Army Signal Corps. The scandal-ridden weather service was surprisingly entertaining: it depended on staff like the fellow who took all of his weather observations at the local pawn shop, where he had hocked his barometers to pay off a poker debt. Laskin is actually quite poetic in describing the atmospheric dance of high and low pressure areas that builds to a winter storm. Then, finally, the blizzard itself arrives: blowing in at 45 mph, temperatures and visibility plummeting. Across the prairies, students and schoolteachers take stock of the situation and decide whether to shelter in place or strike out for the warmth of nearby homesteads. And you, the reader, want to warn them, just like we warn characters in horror movies not to head to the basement… don’t leave the schoolhouse.

The narrative follows several individuals and groups who walked into the storm and were blinded and disoriented by the wind’s intensity. They were assaulted not by the “lacy star-patterned crystals” of Christmas-card snow, but a fine, choking, blinding dust of nearly microscopic ice crystals. Disoriented, travelers wandered from their paths. The lucky ones found shelter in haystacks. Others died within sight of their destinations—if only they had been able to see. Hundreds died that night, although some survived, like schoolteacher Minnie Freeman, “Nebraska’s Fearless Maid,” who roped her charges together on their walk to safety, or so goes the song. In telling these stories, Laskin explains the physiology of hypothermia and frostbite and why some survived a night of exposure only to drop from cardiac failure as soon as they stood up the next day.

If you enjoy tales of survival and disaster like Erik Larson’s Isaac’s Storm, The Children’s Blizzard is a sad but fascinating winter read.

Check the WRL catalog for The Children’s Blizzard

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PioneerLaura Ingalls was my first heroine. Despite her tales of crop-destroying grasshoppers and bitter winters and wolves howling outside her door, there was something in her spare, vivid writing that made me want to live in a log cabin in the Big Woods of Wisconsin.

Pioneer Girl is a handsome volume, compiled with love and scholarship by the South Dakota Historical Society Press. It presents Laura Ingalls Wilder’s first, handwritten memoir, which was later reworked by the author and her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, into the beloved “Little House” series.

Many of the episodes will be familiar to readers who followed the Ingalls’s westward migration from Wisconsin to De Smet, South Dakota. Other incidents, memorably the death of a nine-month-old baby brother, never made it into the children’s series.

The manuscript has been annotated with microscopic attention to detail, cross-referencing Wilder’s recollections with census records, land records, old family photographs, and news articles. Footnotes sift fact from fiction and fill in some historical context: why were Indians hanging out in Ma’s kitchen, helping themselves to the food? Because the Ingalls were homesteading illegally on land still belonging, by treaty, to the Osage tribe.

You may not need to know the exact species of leech from the infamous incident in which Laura led her nemesis, Nellie Oleson, into the bloodsucker-infested waters of Plum Creek (Erpobdella punctata). You may not want to know that Nellie Oleson herself is a fiction, a composite character made into a villain to give the narrative a stronger structure. (Life, so frequently, lacks a strong narrative structure.) But if you are interested in these details, or in the process by which a novel is made out of memories, then this is a worthwhile book to browse through on a cold winter day.

Check the WRL catalog for Pioneer Girl.

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