History

In Order to Live: a North Korean Girl's Journey to Freedom

Born weighing less than three pounds, Yeonmi Park, had to fight to survive infancy. Her can-do spirit and inner resiliency also kept her alive through the Great Famine that struck North Korea in the 1990s.

Park describes the horror that descended upon North Korea after Russia and China stopped supporting their economy. In the far north, Park’s mother and father had to scramble for work. Most of the manufacturing jobs in their city disappeared so Yeonmi’s father began selling on the black market.

Even doing this dangerous work, the family tottered on the edge of famine often, and at other times did quite well. But well in this context was relative. In the flush periods, the Parks had rice three times daily, and meat only two or three times a month.

Park also describes the rigid class groupings the North Korean government enforced. There were three classes (songbun) and movement between them went in only direction, down.

Sophie Scholl: The Final Days

While I was growing up in the 60’s and 70’s I learned in my history classes about the horrors of what happened in Germany during WWII.  However in these classes the German people were painted with broad sweeping strokes of black as supporters of the Nazi movement and Hitler.  I never learned of people such as Oskar Schindler, the German industrialist who managed to save the lives of so many of the Jewish people.  Nor had I heard of groups, such as “The Swing Kids,” “The Edelweiss Pirates,” “The Solf Circle,” and “The Kreisau Circle.”  All of these were groups of German Nationals who were either vocal opponents of the Nazi doctrine or actively fought against them as part of the underground resistance in Germany.  In fact there were a lot more “subversive groups” in Germany than I was aware existed.  Another group I had never heard of was one founded by Hans Scholl and his sister Sophie known as “The White Rose.”

The Weather Experiment: the pioneers who sought to see the future

People around the world are fascinated by weather generally and in particularly these days with so many unusual events. This intriguing book describes the explorations and discoveries of people who changed weather from a local phenomenon into a science that explains the why, where, and how of weather.

More importantly these new scientists could warn people before harsh storms struck to allow them to postpone travel, particularly by sea, or to mitigate the damage.

On Nov. 23, 1703 an intense storm rammed England with no warning. The Great Storm, as it came to be called, sent ships from the North Sea into Sweden. Many were shipwrecked; thousands of others drowned.  Leaders discussed the need for weather forecasting to warn the population of danger before it struck and produced casualties and massive property damage.  But alas little happened until the nineteenth century.

Did you ever wonder how meteorology got its name? Historically, “meteors” referred to any object in the sublunar zone. This included meteors of course, but also lightning, rainbows, clouds, and gusts of wind. The famous Dr. Johnson of dictionary fame defined meteors as “any bodies in the air or sky that are of flux and transitory nature.”

Jacob Lawrence: The Migration Series

Although migration is obviously a hot topic in the news these days, this beautiful MoMA art book is about an earlier internal movement that began during World War 1 when many blacks left the south for the industrial north of our country to find work and better living conditions. In the end, over six decades, more than six million African Americans left the South for northern cities and towns.

When he was only twenty-one years old, Jacob Lawrence completed a series of striking tempera paintings. Lawrence himself knew many of these migrants, having moved to Harlem with his parents when he was a young teenager from Atlantic City, New Jersey.

Before beginning this project of sixty paintings, Lawrence did months of research exploring diaries, photographs, news articles, and photographs of the people that made this brave trek into the unknown.

Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania

Are you looking for a big, absorbing book of nonfiction to fill these long winter nights?  One to give as a present to a friend or relative who loves nonfiction? Want to get lost in another time, another place? Want to take a sea journey the old-fashioned way in grand style?  In any of these cases, Dead Wake’s the book for you.

Larson brings the era just before the U.S. entered World War 1 to vivid life. Having just completed it, I feel as though I recently crossed the Atlantic in one of the most modern and luxurious vessels of the early 20th century.

Not only is Larson excellent at capturing everyday life in earlier times, but he also provides a cast of highly believable characters from the famous: President Woodrow Wilson to the obsessed: rare book dealer Charles Lauriat, to the vanguard: early feminist architect and spiritualist, Theodate Pope.

Some Luck

Before this century, farming was a way of life for many Americans. In the 1920s, 20% of our workforce labored on farms. Now it is less than 2%.  This novel, the first of a trilogy, covers the lives of an extended agricultural family, the Langdons, from the 1920s to the 1950s.

In 1920 Walter Langdon, a young 25-year-old walks the land of his new farm. His father thought he didn’t need to start on his own yet, but Walter disagreed. He had a wife after all--the beautiful and practical, Rosanna--and now a six-month-old son, the treasured Frank. As the first grandchild in the family, he receives tons of love and praise.

The novel covers a cycle of births, deaths, marriages, and children coming of age for two generations. The pace is slow, the characterization, deep, and you feel that you are really experiencing life as it was lived on an Iowa farm.

Gellhorn: A Twentieth-Century Life

“I was never deeply interested in being a child.” Twentieth-century war correspondent and novelist, Gellhorn always said these words would open her autobiography if she ever wrote one.

Unfortunately, she never did but Moorehead’s deeply researched biography of the writer is so rich with Gellhorn’s work, family life, love affairs, and travels that probably not even Gellhorn could have gotten it down with such precision.  Also, Moorehead provides a rich tapestry of historical and cultural information for the nine decades of Martha’s life.

During WW 11, the military refused to give her a pass to Normandy for the German invasion, so Martha sneaked aboard a troop ship and hid in the bathroom until they were well at sea.

Her father, an ex-German doctor settled in St. Louis and married Edna, an intelligent member of the local upper class. Both parents were half Jewish. One of the fascinating things in this book is to discover the lifelong extremely close connection between mother and daughter.

Mister Roberts (1955)

Mister Roberts (1955), starring Henry Fonda, is based on the stage play by Frank Nugent. Fonda, who starred in the Broadway play, reprised his role as Lieutenant Douglas Roberts for this film, with an A-list of players supporting him. Jack Lemmon also stars as Ensign Pulver, a role which won him an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor; James Cagney as Captain Morton and William Powell as "Doc" round out the cast. Sadly, the film also ended the longtime friendship and working relationship between Henry Fonda and director John Ford who, in a fit of anger, reportedly sucker punched Fonda in the mouth.

Circling the Sun

Miwanzo is the Swahili word for “beginnings.”  In this fascinating fictional biography, this word could stand for so many things: Beryl Clutterbuck’s family arriving in Africa from England when she was a child of four; the young girl establishing a close emotional bond with the local native families, known as Kipsigis; the first time she trained a thoroughbred on her own; and the first time she piloted a plane.

What an exciting life Beryl led. Beryl was one of those women who pushed against the boundaries of convention to fully partake in life.

She became the first female licensed racehorse trainer in Africa and the horses under her care won many races. She became an early bush pilot in Africa and the first woman aviator to fly across the Atlantic from east to west.

Hissing Cousins

This double biography of two famous first cousins, both belonging to the famous Roosevelt clan, brings the early 20th century to life in both Washington DC and New York and gives us a fascinating peak into two strong women’s lives, both of whom married or were born into politics.

Eleanor Roosevelt and her first cousin Alice were born just eight months apart. Alice came from the Republican Oyster Bay branch of the family and Eleanor from the Democratic Hyde Park (NYC) branch. Not only did they differ in political and social outlooks, but they even pronounced their last name differently. Alice’s family said Rose—evelt. And Eleanor’s pronounced the same name as Ruse-evelt.

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