American History

Orphan Train

I had a personal connection to this novel because my mom was raised as an orphan in Chicago. Luckily, she never had to experience adoptions or sharing foster homes with unloving parents but she did start out on her own at age sixteen working as a salesgirl in the Chicago Loop.

This touching intertwined story of two orphans: one contemporary and one from depression era days, was a quick and touching read. It begins with Goth-looking Molly, a young, half-Native America girl from Maine who just got busted for stealing a book from the public library.  Really? Well not every detail in a novel has to be 100% authentic.   

In case you’re curious, Molly took the third and the most beaten-up copy of Jane Eyre.

Monuments Men

It’s not often that a World War II film comes my way that stirs my soul.  It’s even rarer that what stirs my soul is not the personal story of an individual or a small group  of people standing up for what is right against the Nazi’s or an escape from a German internment camp despite impossible odds.  It’s not that I don’t enjoy a good war film, but most war films have the same basic features,

Jane Has Her Say

I love this new age of biography where not only famous people’s lives are examined but also everyman’s or in this case everywoman’s. Of course, Jane Franklin’s life would have faded into history were it not for her very famous older brother. But this compelling biography gives a very interesting account of the life of an ordinary, rather poor Boston woman during the time period of the Thirteen Colonies.

Jane grew up in a big family and Ben was six years her senior, and he taught her to read. They corresponded their whole lives, and were for many years the last two left from their nuclear family. Many of Jane’s letters have been lost, but can be somewhat reconstructed from her brother’s responses to them. Like her brother, she was very opinionated and thought of Benjamin as her “second self.”

At age fifteen, she married a saddler named Mecom, and for the next twenty plus years, she was either pregnant or nursing children. She had twelve children and all but one died before she did. Most, unfortunately, died as adults which was less common at that time. Her husband was not a good provider and eventually went crazy. So Jane and her children boiled and sold soap from home.

Her letters to her brother and his gifts of books, many of which he had printed himself, gave her an intellectual life that she otherwise would not have had.  They shared many secrets from the rest of the family, some of them jokes.

Detroit: An American Autopsy

DetroitLeading the news today is the announcement that Detroit filed for bankruptcy. They aren’t the first municipality to file, but they are the largest. What this means for residents, city workers, retirees and the state of Michigan remains to be seen. 20 billion dollars is hard to wrap my mind around, and is a figure without names and faces.

Hoping to personalize this story is native son Charlie LeDuff. His recent nonfiction work is called Detroit: An American Autopsy. LeDuff is a journalist who left Detroit at an early age and traveled the world covering international conflicts and won a Pulitzer for his contributions at the New York Times. He returns to Detroit to work for The Detroit News.

This book covers a variety of stories, including the fall of ex-Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, city council corruption, the crumbling auto industry implications, and the struggles of a local fire station. You also meet LeDuff’s family and follow them while they are coping (or not) with living in and near Detroit.

America's First Tornado Scientists and What They Taught Us

I was afraid this would be another macho book about reckless men roaming the plains chasing tornadoes during storm season. Instead it turned out to be a wonderful compendium of tornado lore through the centuries. Also included are biographies of some of our most  important weather scientists.    

Storm Kings begins with a description of how during the 1600s New England settlers called any phenomenon that happened in the sky meteors including: meteors (of course), lightning, thunder, rainbows, comets, clouds in the shape of hands and faces, etc.  Although the science behind tornadoes was not understood and barely documented then, many colonists recognized that the weather in America was much more violent than in their home countries.

When a tornado swooped down near Cambridge, MA in 1680, two farming families were shocked when one lost a servant and another a barn during the storm.  They were so frightened by this event that one wrote to Increase Mather (the father of Cotton) asking about it. Increase, who was a self-educated weather expert, had no answers so he wrote to a scientific association in Europe. No one replied to his inquiry, but Benjamin Franklin found this letter seventy years later when he became interested in the study of weather and electricity.

Civil War Fiction

Killer AngelsThis summer will be the 150 year anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, one of the deadliest periods of the Civil War.  The three days saw record causalities and is also considered one of the turning points of the war.  Instead of breaking out a dusty nonfiction tome, consider The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara. This fiction book does a good job at adequately describing the events that did occur, but shines at getting into the heads of the major players. We meet Lee, Longstreet and Chamberlain and start to understand their thoughts, positions, opinions and fears as they prepare and head into battle.  This is well researched, and really readable.  The maps give you a good visual perspective as well.

One of the things I love most about history is not only learning the outcomes and the details of the events that took place, but investigating the other possibilities, thinking about the what-ifs, and figuring out the decisions that went into what really happened.

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