November 2013

Colleen Mondor

bookslut in training

The past ain't through with us

Two gorgeous and informative titles about the Civil War have been released recently and should be considered immediate go-to books for teens studying this period of American history. The Civil War in 50 Objects by Harold Holzer and the New York Historical Society provides readers with a peek into the society's collections, and Smithsonian Civil War: Inside the National Collection does likewise for the Smithsonian. Both are full of color illustrations with short chapters addressing every aspect of the war from uniforms to personal correspondence to flags to some amazing finds such as a military footlocker with belongings that was used by one Union officer and preserved by his family. (This artifact in the New York Historical Society made me want to immediately fill my father's footlocker, which I have, with a vast array of unusual tools and diaries, so I could also posses a similar spread of awesomeness in my own home. I do not apologize for my history nerdiness.)

The Civil War in 50 Objects comprises fifty short chapters that take readers through the length of the war, starting with a series of slavery-related objects ("Slave Shackles Intended for a Child," ca. 1800) and ending with the manuscript, signed by President Lincoln, of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, rendering slavery illegal. The text notes that while Georgia became the twenty-seventh state to ratify the amendment, thus making it law in 1865, Kentucky did not do so until 1976 and, most appallingly, Mississippi did not ratify the Thirteenth Amendment until 1995. Old resentments die hard, indeed.

More heavily illustrated and in an oversized design, Smithsonian Civil War provides an overview of 150 objects from its collections in one-page chapters with accompanying photographs. The selection is just as varied as the New York collection: here are pieces such as Confederate General J.E.B. Stuart's pistol, General Ulysses S. Grant's nickname-making "Unconditional Surrender" letter, and a bloodstained map taken from the body of David Starr Hoyt. Hoyt, a relative footnote to history, was killed by pro-slavery forces in Kansas in the summer of 1856, during the period that came to be known as "Bleeding Kansas" in the run-up to the war.

Edited by Neil Kagan, the text of Smithsonian Civil War focuses less on the specific pieces than on the events that surrounded them. Thus a photograph of the dead at Spotsylvania punctuates a discussion of the battle itself, illustrating themes broader than the photographer or specific victims or how the photo came into the Smithsonian's possession. The Civil War in 50 Objects is more in-depth on its specific items, but the Smithsonian book offers a wide look at the war and its impact. Combined, these two beautiful books are history at its finest and outstanding ways for teens to learn about the war and all the ways in which it affected American life. I can't recommend them enough.

Smithsonian Books has also released Lines in Long Array, a collection of poetry and photography commemorating the Civil War and edited by David Ward and Frank Goodyear III. It pairs contemporary poetry from numerous contributors and photos from Sally Mann with the wartime pictures of Alexander Graham and historic poems from Julia Ward Howe, Walt Whitman, Herman Melville, Emily Dickinson, and more. The compilation not only imparts deep emotion for the war period, but also shows how views of the conflict have evolved.

While most of the poems address the horrors of war, the contemporary verses include a much wider variety of styles and formats. Several of them also use the exact words of those from the conflict, such as Jorie Graham's Union soldiers writing home presented in columns to echo their ranks in "Message From the Fourth Tour" and Tracy K. Smith's heart-wrenching excerpts from the letters of African-American soldiers in "I Will Tell You the Truth About This, I Will Tell You All About It." Several of the poets write from the perspectives of others, giving readers the fictional thoughts of Matthew Brady, Abraham Lincoln, or Walt Whitman. This technique is largely absent from the historical entries, which emphasize both loss and victory from a more omniscient point of view.

Poetry is often a hard sell with teens, but the differences between the past and present viewpoint when writing on such a huge event in American history should make this an interesting title for use in classroom discussion. The photos (also past and present) would prompt thoughtful exchanges about memorials and changing space around battlefields, a worthy topic for a multitude of reasons. Aside from all these academic reasons, however, Lines in Long Array is effective for a far greater reason: these poems and pictures make you care about the war all over again. They are thoughtful and stirring and passionate and in such a quiet, understated presentation, they speak loudly for why poetry matters. I took many classes on the Civil War in high school and college and those instructors would do well to consider these lines from Geoffrey Brock's "Staring Back at Us: A Gallery":

Facing a thousand tomes on the Civil War
in our local bookshop, my son asks: Why so many
books on a single subject? A long story,
I say. And if there's an end, it's just beginning.

On a lighter note, curator William Bird, Jr. describes a series of eccentric and often head-shakingly weird (famous people's hair!) objects from the Smithsonian's Division of Political History in Souvenir Nation. In a witty introduction, Bird provides an insightful, thorough overview of early curators and the sometimes odd origins of the collections at the National Museum of American History before delving into the book's true purpose: interesting "souvenirs" from our nation's past housed in the museum. With full-color photos on one page and the objects' histories -- funny, strange, surprising, or even stirring -- opposite, Bird takes readers on a crazy turn through our nation's past with many people readers have never heard of but will enjoy nonetheless.

There is a "jailed for freedom" suffragette pin that I covet (donated by a suffragette who was jailed for several days in 1917), a letter opener made from a shovel used to build the Grand Coulee Dam, a towel used as a flag of truce at Appomattox, two framed collections of hair (one of famous people and one of presidents), and the chairs from the infamous Kennedy-Nixon first televised debate. There is no real rhyme or reason to the items included, although Bird does organize them into loose categories such as "Diplomacy and War" and "The Cause of Freedom." Mostly this is what the title suggests: a look at the souvenir collection at our national museum. It makes as much sense as anyone's souvenir collection (how many of us want to justify our spoons, salt-and-pepper shakers, or shot glasses from national parks?). But in bringing them together in such a lovely presentation, Bird provides a unique look at American history, always welcome to this fan of the subject.

Karen Bush Gibson turns her attention to a group of women that are excellent historical subjects for teens with Women Aviators. This twenty-six-chapter collection includes a wealth of information on a multicultural group of female pilots who have been overlooked by history. Amelia Earhart is here, but so are Bessie Coleman, Katherine Cheung, Beryl Markham, Willa Brown, Jackie Cochran, Patty Wagstaff, and Jerrie Cobb, among many others. Gibson provides succinct overviews of their accomplishments, sidebars on more notable moments (Cochran was the first woman to break the sound barrier, for example), and book lists to learn more. In every way possible this handsome volume is exactly the sort of biographical introduction that works for those both interested in the subject and eager to learn more and those in search of unusual subject matter for deeper research. The short, fast-paced chapters make it is a solid fit for middle- or high-school students, and Gibson's inclusion of women from several countries and ethnic groups is inspiring.

Though renowned for his wartime graphic novels such as Safe Area Gorazde and Palestine, Joe Sacco has long been fascinated by the First World War. His new "illustrated panorama," The Great War, focuses on the first day of the Battle of the Somme (July 16, 1914), and designed in a twenty-four-foot-long accordion style, this is a wordless look (included separately is a sixteen-page booklet with an essay on the first day of the battle by Adam Hochschild) at a war where, as Sacco has explained: "armies clubbed each other for year after year over small bits of ground." The lack of words on the drawing itself was important to the illustrator. In material from the publisher he writes:

Making The Great War wordless made it impossible to indict the high command or laud the sacrifice of the soldiers. It was a relief not to do these things. All I could do was show what happened between the general and the grave, and hope that even after a hundred years the bad taste has not been washed from our mouths.

World War I is the source of many of our modern conflicts, and Sacco's treatment of it should be welcomed not only by his fans but also from anyone with an interest in appreciating the conflict's true devastation.

COOL READ: The marvelous Scientists in the Field series had a very exciting entry recently with Eruption! by Elizabeth Rusch. Rusch, who formerly wrote about the Mars rovers for the series, covers several geologic hotspots including Columbia and the Philippines as she covers the dangers of volcanic eruption. Readers will find all the hallmarks of the series here -- clear, full-color photos by Tom Uhlman, a text that conveys big scientific concepts and information in language comfortable for the layman (or elementary aged child), and a topic that both informs and entertains. Rusch gives readers a hardy band of scientists who are determined to save lives by getting better at predicting volcanic activity and then vividly shows just how significant that prediction can be to a population that lives near an active volcano. She also explains why people would choose to occupy such dangerous real estate.

Vulcanologists are an enormously compelling bunch, and though Rusch's subjects would likely not consider themselves superheroes, they certainly come across that way. Through painstaking research and the careful deployment of sensitive instruments (which is an adventure unto itself), these men and women take risks to save lives in a careful and quiet manner that is deserving of a lot more attention then they receive. Eruption! puts readers right there in the path of danger with them and goes a long way toward demystifying volcanic eruptions. It's exciting, interesting, and quite engaging to read. Another hit for the folks who spearhead the series and further proof of just how wicked cool science can be.

Colleen Mondor writes a lot about Alaska and aviation over at her personal site chasingray.com. She also sometimes writes about what she is reading and reviewing, in case you want a heads-up on future columns.