Book Review: The Pioneers by David McCullough (Four Stars)

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Book Review: The Pioneers: The Heroic Story of the Settlers Who Brought the American Ideal West by David McCullough

(Four Stars)

“Besides the opportunity of opening a new and unexplored region for the range of natural history, botany, and medical science, there will be one advantage which no other part of the earth can boast, and which probably will never again occur; that, in order to begin right, there will be . . . no inveterate systems to overturn.” Manasseh Cutler

Excellent history of the opening of the Northwest Territory after the American War of Independence. McCullough focuses on the individuals who formed and were sent out by the Ohio Company to settle in Marietta, Ohio and environs.

“As one widely respected, later-day historian, Albert Bushnell Hart of Harvard University, would write, ‘Never was there a more ingenious, systematic and successful piece of lobbying than that of the Reverend Manasseh Cutler’ and the great Northwest Ordinance of 1787 stands Continue reading

Book Review: Squanto, Friend of the Pilgrims by Clyde Robert Bulla (Three Stars)

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Book Review: Squanto, Friend of the Pilgrims by Clyde Robert Bulla

(Three Stars)

“The Indian boy lay hidden in the tall grass.”

Sugar-coated version of contact between native Americans and English explorers and settlers. A young reader’s book published in 1954. Disregarding all the historical inaccuracies—not to mention politically incorrect vocabulary—it still serves its function to entertain as well as, perhaps, encourage further reading.

Little is actually known about the native American who, speaking English, welcomed the Pilgrims at what is now Plymouth, Massachusetts. Intense journalists that the Pilgrims were, his role with them is well documented. Before that, not so much. Bulla’s version is supported Continue reading

Book Review: The Holy Thief by Ellis Peters (Four Stars)

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Book Review: The Holy Thief: Chronicles of Brother Cadfael #19 by Ellis Peters

(Four Stars)

“Cadfael shook himself free of vain wondering about souls that passed as strangers, and sighed, and went back into the church to say a brief word into Saint Winifred’s ear before going to his work in the garden.”

Classic Cadfael mystery: murder, misdirection, pride and humility, and of course young lovers. This story builds on several previous, especially The Potter’s Field.

“Many eyes followed the turning of the key, and the installation of the coffer on the altar, where awe of heaven would keep it from violation.”

In some ways a more religious story than many other chronicles, Pargeter explores vows, relics, penance, and various medieval religious practices: some Continue reading

Book Review: Behind the Scenes by Elizabeth Keckley (Four Stars)


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Book Review: Behind the Scenes: Or Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House by Elizabeth Keckley

(Four Stars)

“Mrs. Lincoln may have been imprudent, but since here intentions were good, she should be judged more kindly than she has been.”

An extraordinary primary source of the 1860s. Elizabeth Keckley, born into slavery in Virginia, managed to buy her freedom by her skill as a seamstress and the help of friends white and black. She set up business in Washington, D. C., and eventually become modiste and confidante of Mary Todd Lincoln.

“Mrs. Lincoln’s foresight in regard to the future was only confined to cast-off clothing, as she owed, at the time of the President’s death, different store bills amounting to seventy thousand dollars.”

“The Republican politicians must pay my debts. Hundreds of them are immensely rich off the patronage of my husband, and it is but fair that they should help me out of my embarrassment.” Mary Todd Lincoln

That Mary Todd Lincoln was the source and embodiment of her own troubles is not denied. Rather Keckley draws attention to those who tried to help the trouble woman, and those who did not.

“I believe that I could then have forgiven everything for the sake of one kind word. But the kind word was not proffered.”

A mirror of an age. Some of her revelations are unexpected. Notice the apparent contradiction between the previous and following quotations.

“You do not know the Southern people as well as I do—how warm is the attachment between master and slave.”

Keckley visited her former owners after the war, in apparent harmony.

“Even I, who was once a slave, who have been punished with the cruel lash, who have experienced the heart and soul tortures of a slave’s life, can say to Mr. Jefferson Davis, “Peace! You have suffered! Go in peace.”

Sadly, after this was published in 1868, Mrs. Lincoln suffered more tragedy, with the death of her youngest son, Tad, in 1871. She never recovered.

“What a sublime picture was this! A ruler of a mighty nation going to the pages of the Bible with simple Christian earnestness for comfort and courage, and finding both in the darkest hours of a nation’s calamity.”

Book Review: Of Noble Family by Mary Robinette Kowal (Four Stars)

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Book Review: Of Noble Family (Glamourist Histories #5) by Mary Robinette Kowal

(Four Stars)

“Perhaps she could paint me with a halo.” “Nothing so explicit. Simply a ray of light emanating from heaven, as if you are favored by God.” “Ah, for that, I only need you seated at my right hand.”

Fitting end to the series: Jane and Vincent must deal with family, that most Austenian of plot movers. But Austen–even glamour–gradually recedes for center stage as our protagonists move far from the shores of England into physical, political and social situations as outside their experience as being impoverished in Venice, to Antiqua in the Caribbean.

“She held his gaze and waited. If there was one thing that a young lady learned, it was how to wait with a tranquil expression.”

Kowal tries to maintain a Jane Austen tone–to the point that the grammar is often stilted–but her subjects are far beyond the cloistered existence of Regency England. Kowal enjoys, and makes good use of, resources far beyond anything Austen could imagine.

“It was difficult to avoid noticing how many times Julian had been whipped. Jane ground her teeth together as they worked.” This was not England, but England was responsible.”

That other cultures may understand and use glamour differently than Europeans might seem obvious, but Jane like us occasionally misses what is right before her. Kowal does a credible job defining these alternate approaches–remembering Jane as many Americans seem unaware that Africa is a huge and diverse place–and imagining a credible response for Jane to it.

“His eyes were wide and serious with the slightly troubled expression unique to newborns, as if he had come into the world knowing how to right all the troubles but could no longer quite remember how.”

Book Review: Forge by Laurie Halse Anderson (Four Stars)

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Book Review: Forge by Laurie Halse Anderson

Four Stars

“All because he stole something that should have been his to start with.”

This is historical fiction as it ought to be written: a vivid portrait of the times woven from many factual threads as well as period appropriate people and ideas. But this is no history, rather an engaging, enjoyable fiction. Each chapter opens with an epigram from some primary source draw from letters or journals of that time. The story also explores the lot of the common soldier encamped at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania that brutal winter of 1777-8.

“My humors fell out of balance, and I became tetchy and sour-minded.”

The voice of the protagonist, a young black male fleeing from slavery and joining the fight for American independence, sound authentic. Written to simultaneously capture the attention and persuade young readers.

“Even from his grave, Father could be an annoying fellow.”

A fictional treatment of American slavery risks either sugar coating what was an awful reality or demonizing everyone and everything involved. Anderson draws a clear line against slavery while exploring the varying attitudes and justifications of that day.

“The land which we have watered with our tears and blood is now our mother country.”

A good, standalone read, even though it is the sequel to Chains.

“If our luck does not turn for the good on its own,” she said, “we’ll make it turn.”