Sunday, January 19, 2014

Book Reviews: Looking at Their World Through Their Eyes

I love books.
Okay, let me rephrase that:I love HISTORY books.
Especially the kind of history books that will allow me to see through the eyes of those that were there.
For this week's posting I'd like to tell you about a few books of this sort that I've picked up recently. The books I will be writing about here tend to go beyond your typical history book. Read on to see what I mean...
Let's begin with one I snagged from the Barnes & Noble booksellers discount shelf:
"Reporting the Revolutionary War."
There are many worthwhile books on the Rev War. In particular I feel Thomas Fleming's "Liberty!" is an excellent source of the War and of the times that is filled with rich detail one would hope to find along with a myriad of beautiful illustrations that greatly enhance the text.
Two other books (or booklet in one case) that are geared more toward the upper elementary grade level through high school age youth that do a pretty decent job in covering the battles of the Rev War are "American Revolution: Battles and Leaders"  and "American Revolution" - both put out by DK Books.
But ""Reporting the Revolutionary War" is different in that the information is taken directly from the newspapers of the time. As it states on the front cover: before it was history, it was news.
And the back cover information says: For the first time, experience the sparks of revolution the way the colonists did - in their very own town newspapers and broadsheets.
Beginning with the Stamp Act and ending with the resignation of George Washington as Commander in Chief, virtually every important and not-so-important aspect of the Revolutionary War is covered as was originally printed at the time.
And you even get replicas of four period newspapers (see photo above).
Also included is an excellent history of the colonial newspaper business as well as a chapter entitled "Revolutionary Newspaper Reading Tips," giving the reader 'direction' and explanations in reading such material. For instance, the author advises the reader to Put Yourself in the Period, News Time Lag, Inconsistent Grammar, Bias and Propaganda, and eleven other notations.
I love the line, "Toss out all preconceived notions about how we became a country. Read the papers as if it is all happening now."
The next book that I discovered (by way of a Facebook friend) and would like to tell you about really took me by surprise. "Wenches, Wives and Servant Girls: A Selection of Advertisements for Female Runaways in American Newspapers 1770 - 1883" is, to me, an invaluable source in the description of the (mostly female) populace of the colonial era. Full and complete 'advertisements' from the newspapers of the years listed in the title are here giving us in the 21st century an amazing characterization of every day people living in the late colonial era of our Nation's history. I mean to say that we get a wonderfully detailed description of these 18th century women (and some men), such as what was written in April of 1776 of a young Scottish runaway (original spelling and punctuation intact):
A Scotch Girl, named Forbes, about 20 years of age, ran away from the subscriber, in Arch Street, Philadelphia, a round full face, with high cheek bones, is pitted with the smallpox, had black eyes, and a soft inarticulate voice, speaks much in the Scotch dialect, has the appearance, of great good humour, and affects a modest downcast look; her dress was a cloth coloured pelong bonnet, lined with pale blue mantua, light coloured cloth cloak, with a hood, and gimp, broad striped ribbon round her neck, white kenting handkerchief, brown and yellow camblettee gown, blue stuff quilted petticoat, lined with blue baize, and a pale green and white striped lincey jacket and petticoat. Twenty shillings will be paid to any person who secures her in any goal, within 20 miles of Philadelphia, and forty shillings if at a greater distance, together with all reasonable charges. (Pennsylvania gazette, 3 April 1776).
Note how great the description is here in all manners.
Other descriptions for other runaways note tall and lusty, stoop shouldered, with short light or sandy coloured hair, and another mentions a woman being 5 foot 3 inches high, pretty much pitted with the small-pox, well set...and yet another, this time a servant man by the name of John M'Gonnegall, 22 years of age, and 5 feet 7 or 8 inches high, thin visage, slim build, grey eyes, light brown hair and wears a club to it; he had on and took with him, a blue cloth coat and jacket, buckskin breeches, almost new, three shirts, one brown linen, a corded white jacket, striped linen ditto, a pair of white striped trowsers, a half worn castor hat, a new pair of black train shoes and plated buckles, both his legs sore, one very bad... 
The one thing that took me off guard was how many of the folks are "pitted with the smallpox." It seems that so many of the 400 advertised runaways in this book had the scars of smallpox. We don't think of our colonial ancestors that way, do we? You see, I'm the kind of living historian that will find a way to 'scar myself' to give a more accurate look should I happen to get into colonial living history one day.
Yeah...I'm nuts that way...

Another book in my library that centers on the American Revolution was actually first published in installments in Harper's Weekly in 1850 by author Benson J. Lossing. From his initial research travels in 1848 through being published in Harper's and then released in book form as "The Pictorial Field-Book of the Revolution," in 1853, sketch artist and historian/writer Lossing traveled thousands of miles throughout the original 13 colonies of the United States as well as parts of Canada researching the original mostly untouched locations where so much of the Revolutionary War took place. He visited nearly every place made memorable by the Revolutionary War, interviewed and recorded the first-hand accounts of Rev War veterans, and then recorded his research so that future generations would know the personal history of America.
As if that weren't enough, Lossing also gives us a wonderful lesson about the age of the great discoverers and the founding of America by the Europeans. Contrary to the popular myth of today that historians before our 21st century age of enlightenment never wrote about the Indians who were here first, this mid-19th century Victorian made it plain that, yes, the natives were already here, calling pre-European America the "native empire," and even went so far to say that "the Aztecs and their neighbors were beaten into the dust of debasement by the falchion blows of averice and bigotry..."
Anyhow, this series of books by Lossing is about as extensive as I've ever seen on the Revolutionary War. The author really did his research and footwork. Imagine, in the days of horse and carriages traveling thousands of miles in only two years AND writing enough to have it ready for magazine publishing.
Simply amazing.

Now let's move up to the latter part of the 19th century to a series of books that so many have read as children, but I have to wonder how many have re-read them as adults.
I'm talking about the Little House series by Laura Ingalls Wilder.
Having never read the books myself, I watched the TV show as a youth and thought it was okay, but definitely geared to a younger more feminine set. But being the history buff I was (and still am), I loved watching nearly anything that took place in an earlier time, and this show fit the category.
It was kind of like a western movie for families.
But after the first few seasons, my attention began to wane. The quality seemed to diminish, leaving only a few episodes per season as what I would consider decent.
Earlier in 2013, I found a collection of a few of Ingalls' novels all together in one compact hardcover book on the discount shelf at Barnes & Nobles booksellers (just like the "Reporting the Revolutionary War" book above) called simply "Little House - The First Five Novels," and felt that it was cheap enough that I could purchase it. The five books featured in this collection are "Little House in the Big Woods," "Farmer Boy," "Little House on the Prairie," "On the Banks of Plum Creek," and "By the Shores of Silver Lake." So I thought, "Why not get it?" I have found books geared toward children to be filled with all kinds of social history not usually found in the more 'academic' history books. A book I purchased as a pre-teen, "The Cabin Faced West" is one that is filled with showing every day life of the late 18th century - I still have my original copy! - and I will re-read it every-so-often. Considering Mrs. Wilder wrote these Little House books about her own youth I figured I could not go wrong.
Boy - - this purchase was spot on! The details in each novel I've read so far are amazing, covering everything from travel to holiday celebrations to fall harvest to school days to surviving winter to...well, you get the picture. And it was written mainly from first-hand accounts!
Compared to the Little House books, which were loaded with the everyday life experiences of a typical pioneer family of the 1870's, the TV show could not even compare.
And Wilder filled her novels with plenty of interesting daily life experiences of the 1860's and '70's social history that are only touched upon in the so-called nose-in-the-air 'academia' history books. There is plenty to interest, whether the reader is male or female / adult or youth.

I believe you can see why I get excited about reading the books mentioned here, for finding first hand descriptions and accounts mean so much more to me than your typical informative history book. And there are others as well, most notably "Our Own Snug Fireside," which I quote from often.
And, of course, we cannot forget the great journal, diary, and letters books readily available, with my very favorite of these being "The Cormany Diaries."

I hope you enjoyed my short book review posting. There are many, many books that I haven't mentioned here. Perhaps I will in a future posting. But these are the few that have stood out lately for me.
By the way, all of the photos here came from the books mentioned.

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Have you seen my Table of Contents page yet? It has links to many of the postings in Passion for the Past. Just click the link!



Ruth Torrijos said...

These are very interesting, Ken... I think small pox came about from bad living conditions. The Virgin Queen Beth got them from being in the tower of London too long, so I would imagine that the scarred-from-smallpox population would mostly be the very lower classes :) Or am I imagining wrong? LOL cool books, though :)

Thanks for sharing!

Stephanie Ann said...

Nice post! The newspaper book seems really interesting. I'll have to check it out.

Betsy said...

I wonder how different small pox scars would be to normal acne scars?

I too re-read the Little House books from time to time as an adult and enjoy them immensely. When you're finished with the first five, remember to read the last three that aren't included in your set!

Historical Ken said...

Ruth -
That's a good question, but something in the recesses of my mind tells me that many from all walks of life got the small pox. I may be wrong though...

Stephanie Ann -
Yes - it really is an amazing book. It foes put you "right there" so to speak.

Betsy -
I heard the scars were similar to chicken pox scars.
And you can bet I will read the last three after the first five Little House books!