Book Review: Revolution Song by Russell Shorto


Author: Russell Shorto
Title: Revolution Song
Narrator: Russell Shorto
Previously Read by the Same Author:

Publication Info: Recorded Books: 2017
Summary/Review:

This history of the American Revolution is in fact the parallel biographies of six individuals whose lives came in contact with the war and the underlying ideologies of American independence.  I really like this approach to writing history because while it is unwieldy to attempt a comprehensive history of the American Revolution, by focusing on six individuals you get a better sense of how the war affected different kinds of people.  And as Short tells their entire life stories we get a lot of detail beyond just the 8 years of the war of their lives before and after the conflict.  Finally, we also get to see how these six historical figures dealt with the ideals and challenges of freedom.  I should add, and Shorto makes this explicitly clear, that these six individuals are not representatives of greater populations but simply their own American Revolution stories.

The six subjects of Revolution Song are:

  • George Washington – The most obvious figure of the story of the American Revolution, and yet Shorto is able to get beneath the “great general and first President” story to get an understanding of a many struggling to find his place in society and the opportunities that military leadership bring.
  • Venture Smith – Born in modern-day Ghana as Broteer Furro, Venture Smith was kidnapped as a child and sold into slavery, eventually living in servitude in Rhode Island, New York, and Connecticut.  Venture purchased his freedom and that of his wife and children and became a successful farmer in Connecticut. One of his son’s would serve in Washington’s army during the war. His A Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Venture, a Native of Africa: But Resident above Sixty Years in the United States of America was one of the first published slave narratives.
  • George Germain – The only figure in the book who never set foot in the Americas is George Germain, 1st Viscount Sackville.  Having been court martialed during the Seven Years War, he was disgraced in aristocratic circles.  Nevertheless he was a favorite of King George III and was able to claw his way into politics and get appointed Secretary of State for the American Department. His aggressive approach to attempting to suppress the rebellion and lack of familiarity of the reality of the situation in the colonies is blamed for the British failure in the war.
  • Cornplanter – The chief warrior for the Seneca people who fought in both the French & Indian War and the Revolution allied with the British forces. He and his people suffered greatly when General Washington instructed Major General John Sullivan to carry out a scorched earth campaign destroying Iroquois Six Nation villages throughout New York. After the war, Cornplanter protested against the Treaty of Paris ceding Iroquois land to the United States that had never been under control of Britain, and met with President Washington in person in 1790.
  • Abraham Yates – A revolutionary lawyer and politician from Albany, Yates took a more radical position on individual liberty and mistrust of government.  He became a rival to Alexander Hamilton and a staunch opponent of Federalism and the Constitution.
  • Margaret Moncrieffe – The only woman in this book, Margaret Moncrieffe was a child when the Revolution started living in New York as the daughter of a British officer.  Her father arranged her marriage to the cruel British Lieutenant John Coghlan although she was in love with Aaron Burr. After moving to Britain, she separated from her husband and found a measure of independence as the mistress of several prominent men in Britain and Europe.

I think the stories of Venture Smith, Cornplanter, and Margaret Moncrieff are the most interesting since they are the type of people that don’t appear in histories that focus on military and political leaders.  Nevertheless, the whole book reads very well and is an interesting addition to Revolutionary War historical studies.

Recommended books:

Rating: ***1/2

Book Reviews: The Boston Massacre: A Family History by Serena Zabin


Author: Serena Zabin
Title: The Boston Massacre: A Family History
Narrator: Andrea Gallo
Publication Info: Recorded Books, 2020
Summary/Review:

The Boston Massacre is seen as a precipitating event of the American Revolution, but at the time, no one knew the revolution was coming.  People made the incident represent their political ideologies, whether it was Paul Revere depicting the British army  as butchers, or John Adams defending the troops in court.

To provide new perspectives and context to the Boston Massacre, Zabin performs a family approach to the history.  Soldiers assigned to Boston in 1768 often travelled with their family, wives and children who were derisively called “camp followers.” Other soldiers married local women.  The Massachusetts women who married into the military were criticized, but Zabin also notes that many of them were still considered upstanding members of society during the revolution.

The presence of British troops in the town’s streets caused tension as Bostonians were not used to being stopped at checkpoints. Zabin writes that using troops to quell civil disorder was common in the British empire and lead to multiple Boston Massacre-type incidents, even in London, in the previous decades. The arrival of a large number of men in a small town also created another conflict in that soldiers would take on jobs in an already tight labor market.  On the other hand, soldiers rented rooms and bought goods providing needed income for local landlords and retailers.  Some soldiers grew to have neighborly relations with the Bostonians they lived among.

Zabin concludes the family analogy with the idea that the Revolution was a divorce.  The strong family ties between Britain and her colonies were severed rather abruptly in the crises that would occur in the coming years.  This work is an excellent approach to understanding the meaning of the Boston Massacre beyond just a marker on the way to revolution.

Recommended books:

Rating: ****

Movie Review: Williamsburg: The Story of a Patriot (1957)


Title: Williamsburg: The Story of a Patriot
Release Date: March 30, 1957
Director: George Seaton
Production Company: Colonial Williamsburg Foundation | Paramount Pictures
Summary/Review:

For 63 years, visitors to Colonial Williamsburg have been introduced to the Historic Area with this docudrama account of the years leading up to the Revolutionary War in Virginia.  I first saw in 1985 at the Colonial Williamsburg Visitors Center and later on hotel tv loops, and now I got to revisit it on a Zoom presentation from the Williamsburg Regional Library (which included a slide presentation on the making of the film and its restoration).  This movie is short, and a bit corny, but I maintain a stupid love for it that I cannot explain.

A young Jack Lord stars as John Fry, a wealthy plantation owner who serves in the Virginia legislature in the 1760s and 1770s.  He interacts with famous historical figures like Patrick Henry, Thomas Jefferson, and George Washington as well as less famous historical figures like William Byrd III, John Randolph, and George Wythe.  The movie expertly depicts the series of incidents that precipitated the Revolution and the vote for Independence, and through Fry we see the gradual transition of someone from being a loyal British subject to supporting independence.  The movie also offers an introduction to the many sites in Colonial Williamsburg’s Historic Area, especially when Fry gives a tour of the city to his family.

The movie does fail from a social history perspective, as views of historical events outside of Fry’s patriarchal, slave-owning planter class are kept to the margins.  Nevertheless, the movie packs in a lot of historical detail in 37 minutes.  And it does it with a score by Bernard Herrmann (of Vertigo, Psycho, and Taxi Driver fame) and in beautiful technicolor.  When I worked at Colonial Williamsburg in the 1990s, I frequently had people ask if I starred in this movie which demonstrates that the movie doesn’t look like it was made 16 years before I was born and that these people did not watch Hawaii 5-0.

Can You Spot the Difference?

Jack Lord
Me.

 

 

 

 

 

 

All these years later, Williamsburg: The Story of a Patriot remains “ever the best!”

Rating: *****

Book Review: Siege by Roxane Orgill


AuthorRoxane Orgill
TitleSiege: How General Washington Kicked the British Out of Boston and Launched a Revolution
Publication Info: Candlewick (2018)
Summary/Review:

I received a free advance reading copy of this book through the Library Thing Early Reviewers program.

Siege is a book that tells the story of the Siege of Boston in 1775-1776 from multiple perspectives and entirely in verse.  It’s a spectacular way of presenting how the Continental Army was able to fortify the hills surrounding Boston and force the British Army to evacuate the city. And while there’s poetic license, almost all of this book is based on historical fact.  The characters include familiar names like George and Martha Washington, Colonel Henry Knox, Sir William Howe, and Abigail Adams, but also Washington’s aide-de-camp Joseph Reed, Washington’s enslaved manservant William Lee, and rank-and-file Continental Army privates Caleb Haskell and Samuel Haws.  Orgill also versifies Washington’s daily orders and the news from Boston.  This is a wonderful approach to presenting a moment in history and highly recommend it.

Favorite Passages:

“Funerals – three, four, five a day
General Gage has ceased
The pealing of church bells
They cast too melancholy a mood
They do not bring back the dead” – p. 31

“I believe it
from the jetsam
washed ashore
spindles
headboards
tables without legs
splintered drawers
carved backs of Chippendale chairs

they’re leaving the town intact
but nothing to sit upon.” – p. 171

Recommended books:

Bunker Hill: A City, a Siege, a Revolution by Nathaniel Philbrick, A Few Bloody Noses: The Realities and Mythologies of the American Revolution by Robert Harvey, and 1776 by David McCullough

Rating: ****1/2

Book Review: Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson


AuthorLaurie Halse Anderson
Title: Chains 
Publication Info: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, ©2008.
Summary/Review:

This historical novel set during the early days of the American Revolution focuses on 13-year-old Isabel, an enslaved girl promised freedom on the death of her master, but finds she has no recourse when she and her sister Ruth are sold to cruel new masters in New York.  Working a Loyalist household she finds herself drawn into spying for the revolutionaries, but soon learns that despite promises from Loyalists and Patriots alike, that neither side is concerned with freeing Africans from the bonds of slavery.  Anderson captures the anger of Isabel, but doesn’t neglect to also characterize her as having many concerns typical to a young teenager as well.  The author also really captures the uncertainty of the Revolution, the people of New York taking different sides in 1776, with some among them willing to shift loyalties to whomever has the upper hand.  She also doesn’t shy away from the horrors of war on the civilian community from a brutal fire to depictions of captured Americans cruelly held in cold, overcrowded, and disease-ridden prisons.  The book is the first of a trilogy of books called The Seeds of America and ends on a cliffhanger at a momentous occasion in the narrative so I will be sure to read the rest of the series.

Favorite Passages:

“Momma said that ghosts couldn’t move over water. That’s why kidnapped Africans got trapped in the Americas. When Poppa was stolen from Guinea, he said the ancestors howled and raged and sent a thunderstorm to turn the ship back around, but it was too late. The ghosts couldn’t cross the water to help him so he had to make his own way in a strange place, sometimes with an iron collar around his neck. All of Momma’s people had been stolen too, and taken to Jamaica where she was born. Then she got sold to Rhode Island, and the ghosts of her parents couldn’t follow and protect her neither. They kept moving us over the water, stealing us away from our ghosts and our ancestors, who cried salty rivers into the sand. That’s where Momma was now, wailing at the water’s edge, while her girls were pulled out of sight under white sails that cracked in the wind.” – p. 25

The woman in the yellow head cloth worked the pump for Grandfather. “The British promise freedom to slaves but won’t give it to the white rebels,” she said as she pushed the handle up and down. “The rebels want to take freedom, but they won’t share it with us.” She set down the first bucket and picked up the second. “Both sides say one thing and do the other.” – p. 166

Recommended booksThe Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Volume I: The Pox Party and The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Volume II: The Kingdom on the Waves by M.T. Anderson
Rating: ****1/2

Podcasts of the Week (s) (July 22-August 11)


I’m way behind on posting anything to this blog.  Here are some podcasts from the past few weeks that are worth your while:

BackStory – Are We There Yet?: Americans On Vacation

An interesting history of how Americans made use of their leisure time in the past.  Oh and try not to get fumed about the idea that people who worked with their brains needed vacations while manual laborers did not, an idea still well ingrained in labor policy today.

Ben Franklin’s World – Rosemarie Zagarri, Mercy Otis Warren and the American Revolution

Mercy Otis Warren – writer and revolutionary activist – is a remarkable women of her time and someone you should know more about.

Decode DC – Should Historians Be Pundits?

Doing a better job of comparing our present political situation with the past, and finding what in the past brought about the political climate of the present.

LeVar Burton Reads“The Second Bakery Attack” by Haruki Murakami

I’m really enjoying this new podcast series, which is basically Reading Rainbow for grownups.  In addition to LeVar Burton’s great reading voice, the production values are really strong.  This was the story that introduced me to Murakami over 20 years ago, and coincidentally I first heard it read aloud on a radio program.

99% InvisibleWays of Hearing

This podcast introduces a new series exploring the changes in sound between analaog and digital audio.  As an added bonus, there’s an appearance by Red Sox announce Joe Castiglione.

Politically Re-Active – Is this what democracy looks like? Jake Tapper & Jessica Byrd give their take

I enjoyed learning about Jessica Byrd who helps underrepresented communities engage in the political process.

The Story Collider Epidemics: Stories of Medical Crises

The first story by Ken Haller is a particularly powerful reminiscence of his personal experience of the first signs of the AIDS epidemic.

Twenty Thousand Hertz – Sound Firsts

Some of the oldest surviving recordings provide a jaw-dropping window into the past.  Check out FirstSounds.Org for more.

 

Book Review: My American Revolution: Crossing the Delaware and I-78 by Robert Sullivan


Author: Robert Sullivan
Title: My American Revolution: Crossing the Delaware and I-78
Narrator: Mike Chamberlain
Publication Info: Dreamscape Media (2012)
Other Books by Same Author:  The Meadowlands and The Thoreau You Don’t Know

Summary/Review:

Robert Sullivan and I share a surname and a lot of common interests.  In this case, local history and travelogue.  The American Revolution famously began in New England and ended in Virginia, but the majority of the war took place in New York and New Jersey where the battles are greatly overlooked.  Even the coldest winter on record when the Continental Army encamped at Morristown, NJ doesn’t get the press of the somewhat milder winter at Valley Forge, PA.

Sullivan visits sites in New York and New Jersey, attempting to experience the long marches of a Continental foot soldier, while also exploring the popular memory through books, poems, museums, and reenactments.   I really like the premise of the book and some of the historical details of the Revolution and how the landscape continues to inform the New York/New Jersey area.  On the other hand, the book is meandering and not very cohesive, and well … a bit boring at times.  For example, a long portion of the end of the book Sullivan describes in detail many visits to the Watchung Mountains in New Jersey to attempt signaling his family in Brooklyn using a mirror.  It’s just not lively reading.  All the same, I like the way Sullivan thinks and will seek out his other books.

Recommended books:  Lafayette in the Somewhat United States by Sarah Vowell, Snowshoeing Through Sewers by Michael Aaron Rockland and Confederates in the Attic by Tony Horwitz
Rating: **1/2

Book Reviews: Lafayette in the Somewhat United States by Sarah Vowell


AuthorSarah Vowell
TitleLafayette in the Somewhat United States
Narrator:  Sarah Vowell, with  John Slattery, Nick Offerman, Fred Armisen, Bobby Cannavale, John Hodgman, Stephanie March, and Alexis Denisof
Other Books Read By Same Author:

Publication Info: Simon & Schuster Audio (2015)
Summary/Review:

This audiobook includes numerous well-known actors performing the quotes of  historical figures in addition to the author reading the main text.  As the “Lafayette” part of the title implies, this is a biography of Marquis de Lafayette, the young French aristocrat who helped George Washington win the American Revolutionary War.  Vowell starts with Lafeyette’s historic tour of the United States in 1824-25 and then flashes back to Lafayette’s experiences in the war.  I wish that we learned more about the Grand Tour or Lafayette’s post-American Revolution activities, but the war-era biographical details are solid with a mix of Vowell’s humor and pop culture references.  For example, Vowell details the arrival of Baron von Steuben with falsified credentials on a direct continuum to the parade and dance party in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.

The universal admiration is contrasted to the “Somewhat United States” where it seems that Americans can never agree on anything or get along. The Continental Congress, the Constitutional Convention, the Election of 1800, and the Election of 1824 all provide numerous examples of this disunity through which the United States still persevered. It is somewhat comforting that if even the esteemed founders of our country had difficulty agreeing and maintaining cordial relationships that today’s political discord is just par for the course.

The book also takes the form of a travelogue as Vowell and various traveling companions visit sites associated with Lafayette, leading to an amusing side trip in Freehold, NJ to see Bruce Springsteen’s childhood home (both Springsteen and I were born in Freehold), and a very positive experience at Colonial Williamsburg for Vowell, her sister, and nephew.  Particularly interesting is an interview with the historic interpreter who portrays Lafeyette and his experience during the Iraq War era when anti-French sentiment was high.

This is an enjoyable popular history which makes a good introduction to Lafayette and his place in America’s cultural consciousness.

Recommended booksRevolutionaries: A New History of the Invention of America by Jack Rakove and Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow
Rating: ****

Book Review: Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow


Author: Ron Chernow
TitleAlexander Hamilton
Narrator: Grover Gardner
Publication Info: New York, N.Y. : Penguin Audio, p2004.
Summary/Review:

A straight-forward biography of General Washington’s right-hand man, Constitutional crusader, and founder of American finance as first secretary of treasury. It does not shy away from Hamilton’s failings such as an ill-tempered tongue and poor decisions, but mostly presents him as an honorable person who set the United States on the course to greatness before his own fall from grace (followed by his being felled by a dueling pistol).  Chernow relies on the unnuanced history that presents Aaron Burr as pure villain, but Burr did kill the book’s protagonist, so I suppose it’s only fair.  If you’re looking for an introduction to one of the United States’ overlooked but fascinating founders, this is it.

Recommended books:Duel: Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr, and the Future of America by Thomas Fleming, Ordeal of Ambition: Jefferson, Hamilton and Burr by Jonathan Daniels,  Fallen Founder: The Life of Aaron Burr by Nancy Isenberg, American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson by Joseph J. Ellis, Jefferson and Civil Liberties: The Darker Side by Leonard W. Levy, Passionate Sage: The Character and Legacy of John Adams by Joseph J. Ellis and John Adams by David McCullough
Rating: ***

Book Review: The Glorious Cause by Jeff Shaara


Author: Jeff Shaara
TitleThe Glorious Cause 
Narrator: Grover Gardner
Publication Info: Books on Tape, 2003
Summary/Review:

Turns out that wasn’t the book I intended to read. That’s okay, because this is an entertaining historical novel about the American War for Independence. Or is it a novelistic history? Because it really reads like a history book.  But a history book with an unusual knowledge of the thoughts and private conversations of its protagonists.  Because there’s a lot here that would never be known from the historical record and is at best educated supposition. Nevertheless it provides an interesting perspective where people are the heart of the narrative rather than a string of battles and military strategies.

The four point-of-view characters in this book are George Washington, Nathaniel Green, Lord Cornwallis, and Benjamin Franklin.  Each of these men is presented as brilliant and noble in their own way.  Their rivals are depicted much less well.  For Washington and Greene that includes Charles Lee, Horatio Gates, and members of Congress, while Cornwallis has to deal with Generals Howe, Clinton, and Burgoyne.  Meanwhile, Franklin faces off against the intrigues of the French court.

As I said, it’s entertaining as a novel and historically sound, and worth a read for a different take on the Revolution.

Recommended books1776 by David McCullough, A Few Bloody Noses: The Realities and Mythologies of the American Revolution by Robert Harvey, The Radicalism of the American Revolution by Gordon S. Wood and Revolutionaries: A New History of the Invention of America by Jack Rakove
Rating: ***