My Year in Books

Since 2001 (holy crap–that’s 15 years!), I’ve kept a reading journal.  2001 was the year I graduated college, so it flows through that last year at Hendrix, into grad school, early working years, furlough years and now the executive director years.  Most likely, I’ll never again hit the highs of 2001 (116 books), aided in large part by a paper I wrote on the Dear America series. For many years, the written journal has been supplemented by Goodreads, where I also keep a pretty daunting To Read list.  You can find my complete list for 2016 here.

As I looked back at the books I ranked 5 stars, several things stood out. In what should be fairly obvious, almost all my favorites had some connection to history. There are two exceptions to that. Simon Vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli, was a pick for my Forever Young Adult book club. I loved the characters and the very real consequences of awkward high school things in the age of social media. Another YA novel I loved was P.S. I Still Love You by Jenny Han–it’s far from perfect, but deeply satisfying. Sometimes, you just need a fluffy romance!

This year, I discovered a new author to keep my eye on. Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand by Helen Simonson came out a few years ago, but I just got to it this year. Was so pleasantly surprised by this book! In 2016, she released The Summer Before the War, which is one of those books that hits all my buttons. World War I, independent woman, England. It’s really one of the best of that genre, and I’d put it right up against one of my all time favorites, Rilla of Ingleside by L. M. Montgomery (though no WWI fiction will ever beat Rilla!)

The most gut-wrenching book I read this year was Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys. Listening to the audio book during a road trip seemed like a good idea at the time, but sobbing while on I-35 on a weekend makes driving difficult. I wrote about this book earlier this year.

After visiting Detroit in January last year for a program committee meeting for AASLH, I decided to follow up on two book recommendations before my return for the conference in September. Both landed on my 5 star list. The Turner House by Angela Flournoy is a family saga of 20th century urban, African American Detroit. The family home is way upside down on the mortgage, and the large family deals with that reality in very different ways. I almost wish I had read this after The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroiby Thomas Sugrue, a non-fiction work that takes a look at how Detroit got to where it is today. Reading it through the lens of what’s happening in Dallas right now (and my own increasing knowledge about affordable housing) made it extra fascinating. Highly recommend reading these two books together–they’re ultimately telling the same story, but in very different ways.

Rounding out my Five Star list are The Affair of the 39 Cufflinks by James Anderson (a 1930s whodunit that is simply fun and clever), Anne Frank: The Book, The Life, The Afterlife by Francine Prose (fascinating look at how Anne Frank became the phenomenon it still is today), The Boston Girl by Anita Diamant (a DHV book club pick that is an excellent coming of age, early 20th century history), and Half Broke Horses by Jeanette Walls (a fictionalized biography of the author’s grandmother).

Not a bad year at all–filled with plenty of strong women and a lot of history. Hope you also had an excellent year in books!

Making the hidden visible: World War II Fiction

There are certain periods in history that seem to get all the attention.  The pioneer experience. The Civil War. World War II. I’ve always enjoyed the less exposed parts of history more. My “preferred” war is World War 1, and the quantity of material centered around it pales in comparison to WWII.  Though I know there are many, many great stories about WWII, I’m rarely drawn to them.  However, I’ve read two WWII books in recent months that I adored.  Of course, both of them concern less visible parts of that well known story.

Because I’m friends with some of the organizers at the North Texas Teen Book Festival, I got roped into moderating two sessions.  One featured history.  Ruta Sepetys is an author that has been on my to-read list for quite some time, but knowing that she was a featured speaker at the luncheon as well as a likely candidate to be on my panel, pushed her to the top.

25614492I was able to get her most recent book, Salt to the Sea, on audio and listened to it during a long drive to Corpus Christi. All I really knew going in was that it was about the largest maritime disaster in history, the sinking of the Wilhelm Gusltoff.  It follows 4 young adults, struggling to outrun the advancing Russian army. The Wilhelm Gustloff offers a promise of freedom and a new life.  It’s a gripping, intense novel, and I had to think carefully about when to listen to it during my drive.  For the record: listening to the final chapters while heading north on I-35 in Sunday afternoon traffic is not recommended.

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This afternoon, I finished an older novel, Esther Hautzig’s The Endless Steppe, about her family’s exile to Siberia during WWII. Though the story of them suddenly being rounded up and piled into cattle cars was very familiar, the story of exile in Siberia was very different. When they were finally allowed to go back to Poland, Esther didn’t want to go–she had made a home in Siberia. And of course, home was now very different–almost their entire family that had stayed in Poland had died in concentration camps.

One of my questions for Ruta was about the piles of research that was necessary to write a book such as Salt to the Sea. Her answer surprised me: she wrote as she researched.  She was able to interview some survivors, and the story unfolded as she researched. I am baffled and amazed that she is able to do this.

Esther wrote her book based on her own memories, but published more than 20 years after the war.  One of my favorite tidbits in the book comes in the afterward. . .

The important thing about books such as these is they help make the hidden visible. You can’t tell every story in a classroom or a museum. But a book for every story?  That, perhaps, we can do.

 

Filling a gap on the timeline

Dead End in NorveltIn anticipation of a solitary road trip, I headed to the library for an audio book.  Dead End in Norvelt by Jack Gantos caught my eye, in part due to these lines in the description: “melding the entirely true and the wildly fictional.”  Now, this was something that would make the miles pass faster.

As luck would have it, the road trip got cancelled, so instead I listened to it in fits and bursts during my regular commutes and while cooking.  This is definitely not the best way to enjoy an audio book, and sometimes days would pass before I was able to listen to the next chapter.  And there were times that I really wished I had been reading it, as there were some really, really good lines about history.

Modern fictionalized autobiographies, books that carry on the traditions started by Laura Ingalls Wilder, Ruth Sawyer, Carol Ryrie Brink and Maud Hart Lovelace, seem to be in short supply, but this book certainly fits the bill.  Jack Gantos grew up in a town with an unusual origin–Norvelt was a planned community, launched during the Depression as another relief organization.  Originally called Westmoreland Homesteads, town members later renamed it in honor of the woman who pushed this program through the legislature, Eleanor Roosevelt.  The book is just one important summer, a summer in which he’s grounded and becomes the official scribe for the obituary writer.  Miss Volker is a sheer delight–cranky and opinionated, but with a strong sense of history and her duty to pass that history on.  Her obituaries are truly a work of art.  As a historian, I loved watching the way she would weave past and present together.  At the same time, she was also a bit of a history preacher.  For example, there’s this great quote: “Be suspicious of history that is written by the conquerors.” Or this one: we have to save the history we have. You never know what small bit of it might change your life–or change the whole world.”

This book won the Newbery in 2012, and that award wasn’t well received by many critics.  I don’t pretend to be able to keep up with all the books in the running each year, so I won’t give an opinion on its worthiness.  Though this book wasn’t perfect, it does meet all my requirements for quality historical fiction.  It’s funny.  It has a good story.  It makes you want to find out more (I totally did some research on the history of Norvelt).  And it contains lots of details that you just might not include if your only knowledge of the time period was through research.  Do I think Jack will have the staying power of Laura and Betsy?  Probably not, but it was fun to get to know him.  And as a historian, it fills a great spot on the timeline of childhood during the 20th century.

With baby boomers’ strong tendency towards self reflection, I’m surprised that there aren’t more books like this being published.  Or perhaps I’m just missing them?  Who might be the next Laura or Betsy?  As technology marches on, childhood in the 1950s or 1960s is becoming more and more foreign, and it seems like this should be a booming sub-genre of children’s literature.  And honestly, after reading a lot of YA fantasy, it was a relief to be in a world for a while with no supernatural happenings.  Who else is writing fictionalized autobiographies for a young audience?  Is there a Laura for the mid-late 20th century waiting in the wings?

Required Reading?

231631There are some books that I just assume everyone has read.  Often, these lines are somewhat generational.  For example, I just assume that everyone my age and younger has read Harry Potter.  And I had also always assumed that most older women have read Little Women.  (I definitely think it is less-read today, but I also think it’s more read than people assume.)  For the museum’s book club, we decided to focus this year on books written during our time period (1840-1910) that have been repeatedly mentioned in other things we’ve read.  Little Women was at the top of the list.  Going into our discussion, I assumed that this would be a reread for everyone–though it had probably been decades since they had last read it.  But almost half or our group had never read it!

This led to a really interesting conversation about why they had missed it and what it was like to read it for the first time as an adult.  Everyone liked it, though I’m not sure if our first-timers loved it.

Frankly, I was even more surprised because all of these women love history.  It seems like there are certain books that all of us history lovers (especially the women) have in common: Little Women, Little House on the Prairie and Anne of Green Gables seem to be the three most common. We also chatted a bit about what books they had read, and not a lot of historical fiction came up.  Though I still believe kidlit history is one of the best paths to history, it is good to be reminded that there are many ways to become a history fan.

As you know, I have often incorporated my own love of children’s literature into museum programming.  During our Little Women themed event about a year ago, one of my most devoted junior historians confessed that she hadn’t read any of the canon–or even those of the “secondary” canon–Frances Hodgson Burnett, Maud Hart Lovelace, etc.  We might have teased her. I might have threatened to kick her out of the program if she didn’t read at least one of my favorites.  I might have sent over her buddies (who had read all of the required books!) to give her a hard time.  Don’t know if she ever picked anything up, though I still allow her to be a junior historian.

So, what titles make you say “I can’t believe you haven’t read that!”?  What’s in your kidlit history canon?

Small books about big wars

In the fall of 2011, my family and I made our first trip to Hawaii. In what should be no surprise, we made sure to make time for a visit to Pearl Harbor. My knowledge of World War II is probably deeper that the average bear, but I’m not even close to being an expert. Before visiting Pearl Harbor, I had never really considered the impact of that attack on civilian life in Hawaii. Their exhibit spaces made that abundantly clear, and I found myself thinking deeply about all that had to happen after the attack. And of course, the USS Arizona Memorial was incredibly moving, even though it was also incredibly crowded.

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Like any good museum professional/tourist, we made a lengthy stop in the museum store.  While there, I picked up this little book.

Dancing in Combat Boots

And then it sat in my to-read pile for two years.  And I felt bad when I finally read it, because it is a gem of a book.  Funke took real women and fictionalized their war stories.  She did an excellent job of choosing women from a variety of backgrounds that did a variety of things in a variety of locations.  At the back, there’s a paragraph about each woman’s real life, adding a few nuggets of details.  And the stories themselves are beautifully written.  I think my favorite was “Three Thousand Men.”  Attie sketched thousands of soldiers in their hospital beds in LA.  The story itself takes place in modern times, as Attie is trying to find a permanent home for her copies of the sketches.  Attie says towards the end of the story:

I’m not asking for recognition for myself.  But some of these boys never made it home.  Do you see?  There should be a place where their families can go to find these portraits.  There should be a way for people to see what we sacrificed in that war, a whole generation of men lost.  I didn’t paint anything else those four years.  I put all my energy into this.  Four or five sketches a day, and then I’d have to stop.  Your eyes can only take so much.  This was the most important work of my life.

There is also a story set on December 7, 1941 and the days following.  Newlywed Marjorie is living on base with her army husband.  The chaos of the attack is vividly brought to life as Marjorie flees with a neighbor, not knowing if or when she’ll see her home or husband again.  In huge, dramatic events like this, it’s sometimes the details that capture the imagination.  When Marjorie returns briefly to her home, she instantly notices the dirty dishes in the sink: “‘Never again will I leave dirty dishes in the sink,’ I promised myself.”

World War II is such a big story–just go to any bookstore and see how many books about the war span the shelves, especially compared to other wars or periods in history.  Is there a place for a small book of fictional stories about women on those shelves?  I would argue that books such as Dancing in Combat Boots give people something small enough to hold on to.  Shelf after shelf of fat books about military strategy, soldiers, the European Theater, the Pacific Theater, the homefront, and politics are going to intimidate a lot of people.  But by its very nature, fiction is less intimidating.  And when you have a book like this, one that has good, solid historical research behind it and tells engaging stories, you’re one step closer to teaching people about the past.

I’ve recently returned from a three week professional development seminar that was all about the place of history museums in the world around us.  We spent hours discussing history’s role in public life and ways to increase the relevance of history.  Some people argued that we have to teach the public more about the ways of doing history.  There was also a subtle undertone that fluffy, feel good history was something we should abandon–we must focus on the Seriousness of History.  I have always believed that you lure people in through their comfort zone, and then you push them a bit.  With that pushing, they may realize they’re ready for a deeper exploration of the past.

And that’s what books such as this do so well.  The look of the book is utterly charming, but inside are some difficult stories about the Japanese internment, sexism in the workplace, and the fears when a POW comes home.  And these stories certainly have inspired me to look again at the stories surrounding World War II.

A Texas Twist

A gazillion years ago, I spent most of a semester reading the Dear America books.  Officially, it was for a grad school paper, but I was also kinda curious.  (I’ve now just spent 10 minutes looking for said paper, because I’m totally the kind of person to keep such things.  But I can’t find it anywhere.  And as it was at least 3 computers ago, I definitely don’t have a digital version.)  In the early 2000s, these books had just burst on the scene and were lauded as some magical device to get kids to like history.  After all, once you read the one about the Titanic, why wouldn’t you immediately go read about the Carlisle Indian School?

There are, of course, two flaws in this particular system.  One is that only true history nerds are going to read all of them, and most kids will probably pick and choose, based on the time periods they’re interested in.  The second is that all of them are written by different people, and some of them are a lot better than others.  What if a kid gets bogged down in one with a terrible plot, even though it’s good history?  Again, totally wishing I could find that paper so then I could quote some of the clever observations I made 10+ years ago.  (see, this obsession with kidlit history is long-standing!)

Get Along, Little Dogies: The Chisholm Trail Diary of Hallie Lou WellsAt any rate, I was reminded of that long ago paper a few weeks ago, when I finally read the first volume of the Lone Star Journals, Get Along, Little Dogies: The Chisholm Trail Diary of Hallie Lou Wells.  Unlike the Dear America series, these are all written by the same author, Lisa Waller Rogers.  But they’re definitely in a similar mold–a fictional diary with some additional background information at the end.  There are two others in the series–one about the Runaway Scrape after the fall of the Alamo and one about the Galveston Hurricane.  And, of course, even more importantly, they’re about my home state of Texas.

As you might suspect, Get Along, Little Dogies is about a girl who gets to go on a cattle drive.  She’s an accomplished horsewoman, kinda annoyed that she’s a girl, and eager for the adventure.  Along the way, they run into outlaws, Indians, and all the other things you might expect to happen in such a book.  It’s a good, quick read, and the supplemental information includes background on the Chisholm Trail, women on cattle drives (including one of my favorite Texas women, Lizzie Johnson Williams), and lots of photos.  My only quibble with this book is that Hallie found serious romance on the trail–and she’s only 14!  If I was a kid reading that, I would be horrified.  Heck, I’m a little concerned now.  I know girls certainly married that young, but I don’t think it happened as often as we assume.

These types of books will never be my favorite way of introducing history to kids, since so often they focus on historical objectives rather than a good story.  But it is refreshing to see a series for children featuring uniquely Texas stories.  I hope Rogers continues writing them–would love to see something on the oil boom at the turn of the century.  Now, there’s a rip-roaring tale!

A 20th Century Pioneer

In these days of an enormous to-read list on goodreads and an online library reserve system, I don’t spend a lot of time browsing the stacks any more.  Though I probably stop by the library about once a week, I truly get in and get out.  On Saturday, the same song was playing on the radio when I got back to the car!  But a few weeks ago, I felt like browsing.  My branch library is less than a year old, so browsing is a true pleasure–all the books are bright and shiny!  It was there that I found Hattie Big Sky by Kirby Larson.

207798Two things convinced me to check it out: a homestead story from 1918, past what people assume is the “pioneer” era and the fact that the book is based on the author’s family history.

Hattie is a wonderful character–just 16, she’s an orphan that has been shuffled from home to home.  Her aunt has found her a job at a boarding house, so tells Hattie that it’s time to quite school and move out.  And then a letter arrives–an uncle has died and left her his homestead, though she has to “prove up.”  So, she heads to Montana.

Those first few chapters about her life in Montana are amazing.  Here’s a girl that has left a community with running water, cars, and other “creature comforts” and is now living in a shack.  She is grateful that her aunt had refused to upgrade her stove, so she knows how to cook on a wood stove.  She arrives in the dead of winter–on the first morning, her hand freezes to the water pump.    Can you imagine going back in time that way?

In our tendency to generalize about the past, we forget how long the frontier era lasted, and how long it took for modern technology to reach all the corners of the United States.  I applaud this book for reminding us that the West wasn’t settled as soon as the Pa Ingalls decided to settle down.

Throughout the novel, Larson weaves in the bigger story of World War I (Hattie is writing a friend from school who is serving abroad) and anti-German sentiment (her closest friends are German).  It’s a solid, engaging novel and none of the extra bits of history seem tacked on.

Hattie also has a close, personal relationship with God.  When she’s alone, working her land, she talks to God and I’m so glad these conversations became a part of the novel.  I adore this passage:

To keep myself company, I’d taken to conducting chore-time conversations with God.  My self-imposed rule was that each conversation must start on a thankful note.  Sometimes that kept the discussion from really getting going.  I lifted my petticoat out of the wash basket.

“Lord, I do thank you for that warm wind and the promise of spring.” I bent for another clothespin to secure the petticoat.  “And I am very thankful that my wash load is small.”  Here I thought of Perilee, washing for her family of five.  “I count it a true blessing that there are no diapers in my wash.”  I shuddered to think of that.  “Now, you know I’ve been working on keeping a sunny lookout on life, but I must speak to you about Violet, who is more devil than cow.”

How can you not fall in love with a character that has that kind of spunk?

But there is one thing about this book that just breaks my heart.  It’s this passage, from the author’s bio:

Thanks to her eighth-grade teacher, Kirby Larson maintained a healthy lack of interest in history until she heard a snippet of a story about her great-grandmother’s homesteading by herself in eastern Montana.  Efforts to learn more about Hattie Wright’s homesteading felt like detective work; why hadn’t anyone told Kirby research could be this much fun?

Sigh.  I do wonder what this teacher did that turned her off so much.  But at least Larson shared her new-found love of history in a delightful book.  Hopefully, she’s been able to convert a few more folks into history lovers.