May 2011

Colleen Mondor

bookslut in training

In America

Of all the books I have read on America recently, Ann Bausum’s Unraveling Freedom: The Battle for Democracy on the Home Front During World War I is the one that will be staying with me for the longest time. If I could put this book in the hands of every American over the age of ten, I would -- the story she tells is important. Traveling back to the period when the war first began in Europe, Bausum moves forward through the tragedy of the Lusitania to America’s entry into the war. Bausum does cover some major overseas events, but this book is largely about what happened back home. Bausum takes readers step by step through the passage of the Alien and Sedition Acts, the arrest of those who spoke out against the war, and the strongarm tactics used against people of German descent. She shows how fear and mistrust, familiar to anyone aware of current anti-Muslim rhetoric, contributed to Prohibition (beer was primarily made by German Americans) and the dismantling of foreign language classes in our nation’s schools. It also led to union-busting in the defense of American ideals, as Bausum reports:

The Bisbee Daily Review praised Arizona vigilantes for their “display of patriotism and high-minded public spirit” in the roundup of striking copper-mine workers. The local sheriff described the strikers as “those strange men who have congregated here from other parts.”

Unraveling Freedom is a National Geographic publication, and as such, is full of impressive photographs, illustration, and outstanding collage designs. Bausum uses all of this as well as bold background colors, and standout typography for powerful quotes, to bring home her message of how easily a country dedicated to fighting for freedom can become obsessed with curtailing the freedoms of those back home. Generally, this is a story many of us will be vaguely familiar with, but World War I is woefully overlooked in most school curriculums, and thus the average reader will likely know little of something like the U.S. Postal Service’s effort to “revoke the postage rights of newspapers and periodicals that appeared to threaten the war effort.” More than half the German language publications in print before the war went bankrupt as a result of this aspect of the Espionage Act, and editors were “threatened with charges of treason just for publishing articles that questioned the effort.”

On the streets of America, people went to prison, lost their homes, businesses, and lives while the war in Europe raged on. The lesson here is that the fundamental basis of what America is can only and ever be preserved when brave people demand that it is protected no matter what. There were a lot of cowards, bullies, and monsters at work in the country between 1914 and 1920 and we need to make sure we never forget what they did and how they did it. Ann Bausum is to be commended for bringing this story to our attention in such an informative and entertaining way. Here’s hoping her hard work is remembered when awards time comes around.

Two recent historical novels aptly explore serious moments in 20th-century America: Deadly by Julie Chibbaro and Uprising by Margaret Peterson Haddix. Set in New York City, both novels focus on teen protagonists who find themselves at the center of catastrophic events. In Deadly, 16-year-old Prudence is a lackluster student at Mrs. Browning’s School for Girls where she learns how to be a good (meaning subservient) wife but little else. Her free time is spent assisting her midwife mother, which has given Prudence a unique outlook on how costly the price for motherhood can be. It has also opened her eyes to the world of medicine, which she finds both curious and compelling. This interest leads her to answer an ad for an assistant with the city sanitation department. It is there that Prudence learns about isolated breakouts of typhoid and becomes part of the team that tracks the disease to an unlikely source: an Irish cook named Mary Mallon.

Deadly is, of course, about the discovery and apprehension of “Typhoid Mary.” Chibarro layers the story with multiple subplots from the mystery surrounding Prudence’s long-missing father, who never returned from the Spanish American War, to her own discomfort working in an all-male environment. The plot stumbles a bit when it comes to male-female relationships; some encounters seem designed to force Prudence into reconsidering her future (can she handle working with men on a daily basis?), and others leave you wondering if a conscious choice was made to write an anti-romance. These are minor stumbles when balanced with the artful way in which Mary Mallon’s story is told, however, and Prudence’s struggle to acknowledge the very real danger Mallon represented versus her revulsion at the heavy hand the law took with her. An extra special touch is the inclusion of drawings throughout the novel, mimicking Prudence’s own diary entries.

In Uprising, Margaret Haddix covers the devastating Triangle Shirtwaist Fire of 1911 from the perspectives of three very different young women. Bella is an immigrant, fluent only in Italian and desperate to earn cash to send home. Yetta, from Russia, is an ardent union organizer whose frustration over unfair working conditions spurs her to participate in a groundbreaking garment worker strike. And Jane is an heiress trapped by society’s expectations, which demand she live more as an ornament than dynamic human being. When the three girls meet, in a wholly believable and historically accurate situation, their friendship is not immediate, but a valuable connection is made. Over time, as each of them awakens to the larger issues at stake, they form a serious bond. When the fire comes, they are all in the midst of it, and it is not until the final pages, in some truly excellent narrative closure, that readers learned who lived and what the fallout was for everyone from what has become an acknowledged national tragedy.

Both Deadly and Uprising address what it means to be an immigrant as well as tackling the many ways in which working people, and especially women of any means, were left behind by American society. (If you ever wondered why unions matter, then reading Uprising will set you straight.) Both authors do a first rate job of making history come alive and showing how a few people can change the future, by doing work that matters and not backing away when it gets tough. They also include afterwords, describing the factual events behind their stories and what became of the real people they write about. Chibarro and Haddix make history come alive, and come recommended not only for research purposes but pleasure reading of the best kind.

A couple of years ago, I came across a passing mention of the Mohawk Ironworkers in New York, but was unable to find more than a cursory discussion in the book I was reading. Historian David Weitzman specializes in technical and industrial topics, and latches onto this subject with zeal in Skywalkers: Mohawks on the High Steel. With copious illustrations of men, buildings, and bridges, he writes not only about what the Mohawks accomplished on skyscrapers, but how they got to those heights in the first place. From a look at longhouse construction in the early 17th century, to their reputation as “river men” after migrating north, there are several things about the Mohawk story that make it a fascinating aspect of American history. What intrigued me the most was how they adapted to changing times, such as when construction began on the Victoria Bridge across the St. Lawrence River in 1886, and the Mohawks saw their jobs as river pilots threatened. Rather than watch the future pass them by, they shifted their focus and entered the construction industry. Building bridges in the late 19th century meant two things, height and iron. Soon enough, the Mohawks were collectively on their way to writing a new story.

Weitzman explores a fair amount of construction history in Skywalkers as he highlights several jobs the Mohawks were involved in throughout the Northeast and Canada. These include the Quebec bridge tragedy, which resulted in the deaths of more than 70 men, as well as the successful completion of the Empire State Building. Beyond the inside look at building, the author also discusses the immigration problems the Mohawks ran into (resulting in a Supreme Court decision in their favor), and myths that have grown over the years about their superhuman composure at great heights. The famous 1932 photo of ironworkers taking a break on the high steel of the RCA building is included, as well as a serious discussion about how and why Mohawks continue to be attracted to such dangerous work. It’s interesting stuff that should engage all sorts of readers who are looking for an offbeat look at this little studied part of American history.

Everybody learns about Lewis and Clark in elementary school. Their epic journey is pretty much the only exciting thing that happens after the Revolution and before the Civil War. (Yes, there are two other wars in there, and the forced removal of the Cherokee but if any grade-school history class spends more than a couple of weeks on any of that, I’d be surprised.) The basic facts of the journey are well known: President Jefferson sent Meriwether Lewis and George Clark across the country to explore the Louisiana Territory and find a water route to the Pacific. They were also supposed to gather natural history specimens and forge bonds with a variety of Native American tribes. Things got rough, Sacawagea saved their butts more than once, they got there and back, and then Lewis died a short time later under mysterious circumstances. That’s the fifth-grade social studies version we all know and love, and beyond it are a whole lot of things we never even knew to ask about.

In the new Lewis & Clark, graphic novelist Nick Bertozzi tackles the Corps of Discovery with all its faults and accomplishments on an epic scale that suits the subject perfectly. With black and white line drawings capturing everything from the big action to dozens of minute, careful facial expressions, Bertozzi does an admirable job of bringing the thrills back into the journey. He focuses heavily on the trials the group met as they journeyed westward, with many tense panels showing the sheer physical labor that was required on the route. (The cover, which I love, is a perfect representation of what is in store once you turn the pages.) He also devotes a large section of the book to meetings between the Corps and Native American tribes. While Sacawagea is obviously front and center, there are also many other groups, some friendly and some not, who enter into the narrative and affect the journey’s success.

Beyond the actual trip itself, however, Bertozzi also delves into Lewis’s documented struggle with depression. He does this by having him see and verbally interact with a visual manifestation (almost a shadow gingerbread man) of his mental disorder. Lewis’s deteriorating mental state is a prevailing theme in the latter half of the book as Clark tries to hold the group together. As you would expect, things get a little complicated as the group begins to fray at the edges. This all makes for good reading, but does raise a few questions as do a few other aspects of the narrative.

Bertozzi shows Clark’s slave, York, as a historically accurate valuable asset to the mission’s success, but he raises an issue about York’s desire for freedom that stuck with me. At one point, in response to inquiries about why he has not run away, York states, “I am a Virginian as well as a servant. I will earn my freedom.” This cryptic comment made me stop and wonder why any slave would be intent on earning freedom when he could run away in the West and simply be free. (Perhaps he had family back home to look out for? I don’t know.) My questions about York were similar to those I had at several other points in the story, such as why Lewis’s dog was so prominently depicted early on (and accompanied him on the journey) and then disappeared completely from the narrative. Also, why was a young Native American woman shown as murdered by the French shortly before Sacagawea entered the story -- was this to show that she was similarly threatened if she did not marry her trapper husband? And why was her brother so angry when she returned to the Shoshone during the trip? Did this have something to do with her marriage? Most disturbingly, there is a passage in the book where Lewis is shown buying a dog from the Chinook and then grilling it on an open spit. In the next pages young Chinook children joke about eating a puppy. A Chinook warrior, apparently enraged by what Lewis has done, throws the puppy at him and calls the Americans “dog-eaters.” Lewis throws the puppy back, and it is later shown, alive and well, being carried away with the happy children. So somebody eats dogs in this book. I'm just not sure who.

This series of questions, culminating in what ulitmately happened to both Lewis and Sacagawea, is why although I am impressed by what Bertozzi sought to achieve here, I am disappointed by the lack of clarity in his final product. The choice to focus on Lewis’s mental state is a bold one, especially in a book for teens, when the heroic route is more widely taught in school. But the narrative is uneven and it is not always clear who is saying or doing what or why in the interactions with the many Native American characters. An author’s afterword could have cleared up a lot of this, as well as responding to some of issues raised by the depiction of Lewis’s death. Bertozzi took some chances with Lewis & Clark and I admire him for that, but I would have appreciated an effort to provide clear explanations to the many provocative issues he raises here.

Finally, Susan VanHecke takes on an interesting bit of America’s cultural past in Raggin’ Jazzin’ Rockin’: A History of American Musical Instrument Makers. Filled with photographs and illustrations, this survey of some iconic instruments (Steinway pianos, Martin and Fender guitars) is an absolute joy to read. This title sits firmly in the department of “I never knew that,” and is filled with detailed backstories on the people behind some of the most iconic music brands in the world. You find out how they fled famine and war to come to the U.S., how they built their companies from nothing, the interesting side industries they found themselves in (the Steinways built gliders for the military during World War II), and the manner in which their inventions rose to the top of the market. The invention and innovation aspect of Raggin’ Jazzin’ Rockin’ might just be the most significant; VanHecke shows how all instruments are most certainly not equal, and the manner in which continuous sound experimentation causes subtle yet significant improvements on pianos, guitars, drum sets, brass instruments, and synthesizers over the years. She takes what looks like (to non-musicians, anyway) static objects, and through profiling the people behind them, reveals what are actually continuous works in progress. From the basics of 19th-century design to the top picks of Ringo Starr and Eric Clapton, Raggin’ Jazzin’ Rockin’ is a celebration of what America is all about: dream big dreams, make wonderful things, and change the world through hard work. I didn’t expect to be so impressed and even moved by reading this book, and yet I was. It makes me happy to see what people have accomplished (and continue to improve). VanHecke has given me hope for what we can do when we try; for the brilliance we are all capable of. I’m a history geek and I know it, but sometimes you can’t deny how awesome nonfiction can be.

COOL READ: In the midst of all my historical reading for this column, I was sent Wheels of Change: How Women Rode the Bicycle to Freedom (With a Few Flat Tires Along the Way) by Sue Macy. A National Geographic title, this tightly-written survey of the bicycle’s impact on late 19th-century society is an excellent way to consider how very far we have come in the rode to equality. (I’m going to toss only one idea out there: the Victorian fear that riding bikes would affect a woman’s ability to procreate. Think about that for awhile.) In my early college history courses, we spent a class talking about bicycles, and I remember being struck by how something so innocuous and now so common as to be ubiquitous could have had such a galvanizing effect on the way we live. In that class, we talked more about society at large, whereas Macy focuses strictly on women. This allows her to cover a lot of the aspects of womanhood from the period, such as how fashion standards required female irders wear constrictive clothing that made walking difficult, kept them in poor health, and reinforced the notion that they were best served by staying at home. In truth, women were weak because all too often there was very little opportunity for them to become strong. The bicycle, which celebrated movement and the great outdoors, changed all that, and it did it in such an innocent manner that the world very nearly changed before anyone noticed.

Macy has done an excellent job of pulling from primary resources in her research, and the pages are full of quotes and references that bring home her message of transformative change again and again. The graphics are outstanding -- from photos to advertisements, she shows how bike-riding became accepted. (I was also quite happy to see photos of young African American women included here, which likely were not nearly as easy to come by as those of white riders.) Macy celebrates early female bike racers and inventors, explains why bikes for boys and girls are designed differently (it has to do with long skirts, and needs to go away), and why some people were so threatened by the notion of young women enjoying a ride. This is well written, wonderfully designed and thoroughly enjoyable pop culture history. Wheels of Change has enormous relevance today and could not possibly come more highly recommended.