History

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.

The Lifeboat

Charlotte Rogan's debut novel The Lifeboat restores your faith in 21st century writing.  In this historical novel, two narratives intertwine: the more dramatic one being the story of the shipwreck of the Princess Alexandria during the first months of WWI on a voyage from England to America.  The second story is about Grace, a young woman whose family has suffered a financial collapse. Suddenly, needing to make her own way in the world, Grace's choices are narrow:  to become a governess or find a rich husband, Grace being resourceful and not wanted to be tied down by a job with long hours and little pay chooses the latter.

She finds her husband material in an unlikely place:  the engagement listings of a London society paper.  Henry Winter, an American financier, is handsome and rich and works for a company rapidly increasing in power and influence. Amazingly, this part of the plan works. They marry and set off for America. On the ship, as a sign of her newly altered status, Grace and Henry are invited to sit at the captain's table.

But there Grace's good luck ends. For one thing, Henry has not cabled his parents about the marriage, and seems reluctant to do so. His parents send him telegrams about his former fiancee but does she even know that she's become history to him? In the middle of the night the Empress mysteriously explodes and the new bride finds herself the last person squeezed onto a lifeboat, and without her husband.

The Last Runaway

In The Last Runaway (as in all Tracy Chevalier's historical novels), you feel as though you are living exactly in the time period that she is describing. Her combination of research, realistic dialogue, characters true to the day, plus her skill at capturing the myriad details of daily life make her writing very believable.  In this novel, Chevalier transports us back to 1850s Ohio to a small town at the edge of the wilderness. But first, we experience a grueling ocean voyage from Quaker Honor Bright's perspective.  

Honor Bright accompanies her sister to America where Grace plans to wed someone from their English hometown.  After Honor suffers terrible seasickness on the journey, she refuses to take the lake route to Ohio, so they proceed by train and carriage. However Grace comes down with yellow fever and dies on the trip. Not knowing what else to do, Honor continues the journey to Faithwell, Ohio.

She catches yellow fever also and stops in Wellington at a local milliner's shop. Belle Mills takes her in.  Unfortunately, she's already met Belle's brother on the journey. Donovan is a slave hunter and he has stolen the key to Honor's trunk after ransacking the carriage while searching for runaway slaves.

Three Day Road

I read a review of Three Day Road, Joseph Boyden's first novel of World War I, which mentions that this isn't necessarily an anti-war novel.   I had to read the sentence in that review several times to make sure I wasn't misreading or misunderstanding.  Does a war novel have to come out and specifically declare a stance? 

Really, Boyden includes anti-war elements right up to the breathtaking ending: senseless killings, madness, morphine addiction, shortsighted military leadership, dehumanization, and the day to day terror.  The characters in this book do seemingly impossible and horrible things in the name of combat.  Is that not stance enough?  Is it even important?

It is true that this book is about more than the descent into the hell of trench warfare.  It is a really poetic story of Xavier Bird and Elijah Whiskeyjack, Cree Indians who have grown up in Canada near Hudson Bay.  They have spent their childhood patiently hunting, skills which serve them well as snipers in some of the worst battles of World War I, including around Vimy Ridge and the Somme.  Maybe it needs to be said, but being good at killing moose to survive the winter is different than being good at killing Germans. Xavier and Elijah react differently, but equally destructively, to war.

Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience and Redemption

Unbroken tells the amazing true story of Louie Zamperini, a rascally little boy who grows up in Southern California to Italian immigrant parents. As a child, Louie is constantly in trouble and has a restless energy. His saving grace is being introduced to long distance running by his older brother. Louie ends up running in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin and is focused on the 4 minute mile and another chance at the 1940 Olympics.

Back home, he enrolls in USC and continues running when the War interrupts. Louie joins as a gunner in the Army Air Forces. He is eventually sent to the Pacific theater and after a few successful missions, his plane crashes in the Pacific during a search mission. Three members of the aircraft team make it to two small liferafts and his unbelieveable story continues. Louie's 40+ day survival on a life raft seems impossible. Then he is shot at and captured by the Japanese and unofficially is held in horrible war camps. Here too, his survival is seemingly impossible.

Louise does survive, his spirit is damaged, but also hopeful. Louie's story will stay with you. I kept thinking of him and his story well after I finished the book.

Buddha in the Attic and Narrative Mode

BuddhaAttic"On the boat we were mostly virgins" begins Julie Otsuka's gem of a book, The Buddha in the Attic.  One of the noticeable things from that first sentence is the unique narrative mode.  The whole book is written in the first person plural style.  This type of narration can be awkward -- most fiction is written in either first person or third person.  Convention can be comforting, we know immediately how to read the story and relate to those characters.  In first person plural, the story is told from the group's perspective, and with no main character, the rules are different.

Otsuka said in an interview that she wanted to tell the story of Japanese picture brides -- not just one bride, but that as a group.  And in this case, the narrative mode makes perfect sense.  Between 1908 and the 1920s, thousands of young Japanese women came over to the United States after an arranged marriage agreement.  Instead of focusing on one story, this book introduces the reader to many stories, some devastatingly sad, some happier, but all of them are sympathetic.  And by not focusing on just one story, we read the book with a fuller picture and are moved by their collective experiences and struggles.  The stories begin on the boat, and follow them through marriage, manual labor, child raising and the heart wrenching internment following the attacks on Pearl Harbor.  I can imagine that this book might appeal to a wide range of fiction readers -- fans of historical fiction, women's fiction, immigrant stories, Asian-American experiences, World War II home front, and readers of fiction set in California and the West.

Helen Keller in Love

Just after college I worked as a social worker at an agency for the blind in New Orleans. I remember one client particularly well. He was totally blind and deaf--an older fellow who spoke in a modified sign language and by spelling letters lightning-fast into your palm. Pat, who had worked there for years, was his favorite person to communicate with, but when she was gone, he'd come to me. Occasionally, while biking home from work, I'd see him from a distance crossing four lanes of traffic on St. Charles Ave.--usually against the light--his white cane held like a sword before him. He was always too far away for me to help, but my stomach would clench, and I'd hope that he'd make it across safely another time.

Reading Helen Keller in Love gave me a fresh awareness of what blind people endure especially the deaf and blind. When I was young, The Miracle Worker played in movie theaters (with Patty Duke and Anne Bancroft) and this movie painted Helen in saint-like tones. How refreshing and humanizing is this biographical novel. In her first novel, Rose

The Sisters Brothers: A Most (Un)usual Western?

I've worked in libraries for years including a few in Texas, so it is a wonder that I've never read a western.  Part of the problem then with reading your first book in a genre is that you lack the language to properly describe it or make comparisons.  Now I wonder if I shall ever read another for the fear that the next one won't hold up to The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt.

It is the gold rush years and the infamous Charlie and Eli Sisters are riding from Oregon City to San Francisco on orders from the Commodore to kill Hermann Kermit Warm.  There is trouble with horses, whores, a red bear pelt, excessive brandy drinking, a man named Mayfield, a witch and a mysterious magical formula. Large sums of money come and go. The characters are unique, but without a lot of overall development.  Is this usual for a western? Is the level of violence similar to other westerns?  Is this a parody of the genre, a homage or both?

What's an Alex Award?

In ZanesvilleWarning! Don't look for these books in the Young Adult section! These are "Adult Books," written for adults. Teens beware!

Ok, now that I've got your attention, let me also say that these books are just great for teens. So great, in fact, that the Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA) made an award just for them, and named them after a famous Baltimore librarian - sort of. Her name was Margaret A. Edwards, but her friends called her Alex, and that's where we get the Alex Awards. The 2012 Alex Awards feature ten books written for adults, but with special appeal to teens.

High Seas Adventure (and so much more)!

"An action packed historical novel set on the high seas!" claims the book jacket for Heart of a Samurai by Margi Preus.  Normally these aren't quite the descriptors I am looking for in a good book, but this Young Adult novel has amazing visual appeal and lying underneath the "high seas adventure" is a true heart of gold. 

Preus tells a fictional account of a true story: Manjiro, a young man from a small fishing village, becomes the first Japanese person to set foot in America.  Japan at the time had closed borders and a deep distrust for anything foreign.  When Manjiro is rescued with his friends after being shipwrecked on an island by an American whaling ship, his life is changed forever.  Captain Whitfield sees that Manjiro is a quick study, both in language and sailing and takes him under his wing.  The more Manjiro sees outside Japan, the more he wants to learn and explore eventually ending up attending school in New Bedford, Massachusetts living with the Whitfields.

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