Monday, April 07, 2008

Notes From My Knapsack 4-20-08
Jeff Gill

How We Got Here in Ten Easy Books

In a conversation with someone whose own history isn’t in the United States, the point was made: “I don’t get this country.”

A land with foundations in slavery, still plagued with racism and sexism, where a woman and African-American are running for the Democratic nomination and a black woman may be considered for the Republican ticket. Yep, we’re a head case all right.

I mentioned a few books that would fill in some gaps, but the end result was this – a list of ten books, mostly short and often novels, that could give a broad panorama of how we got here, wherever here is for 2008 in the USA.

In all fairness, I’m gonna mention more than ten, but you can pick your ten and get off easy. Eight for middle school to high school readers, and the last two for more grown-up tastes, which should include quite a few teenagers.

1. “The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin” - Ben was the “Sage of Philadelphia,” and he had the ear of a Muse or two, with the writing and storytelling still sharp over two centuries later. A colonial boy grows up to discover electricity, invent bifocals, and invented the very idea of “America.”

2. A choice: “The Light In the Forest” by Conrad Richter, or “The Beaded Moccasins” by Lynda Durrant – the first a boy, the second a girl, taken captive by Native Americans in the 1760s, and both returned at the end of Pontiac’s War in the great exchange at Coshocton in 1764. Born white, raised Indian, and asked to become in their young lives examples of what the recent scholar Richard White called “The Middle Ground” in his great scholarly work of the same name.

3. “Johnny Tremain” by Esther Forbes – not only a precise picture of Revolutionary Boston by a skilled non-professional historian (see her “Paul Revere and the World He Lived In” for the non-fiction version at length), but I firmly believe one of the best novels written in American English. Plot, character, dialogue, imagery . . . and excellent history. (And quite short.)

4. “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” by Mark Twain – this was a tough call, but “Huckleberry Finn” is more likely to be required in school, while Tom is fading into the shadows. Yet the picture of everyday village life and American society before the Civil War is in many ways more complete and detailed in this one.

5. “The Killer Angels” by Michael Shaara – to sum up the Civil War in one book is impossible, but this one comes close. The basis for the movie “Gettysburg.”

6. “That Printer of Udell’s” by Harold Bell Wright – my most quirky choice, but this book is still in print, you just have to hunt a bit more. A perfect summary of the Progressive Era at the turn of 1900, and an eye on the Midwest. Dated, but it wears better than Wright’s friend and colleague from down the road here, Zane Grey.

7. “The Color Purple” by Alice Walker – there is assuredly adult content here, but this is not a list for kids, even if a number of these books are often labeled “young adult” in the bookstore. On the other hand, older youth know this is a hard world, and this story tells just how hard it can be for some. Is there hope at the end? For some, mainly for us as readers.

8. “Dandelion Wine” by Ray Bradbury – if you really want to turn your head around, read “The Color Purple” and “Dandelion Wine” back to back. Two young people, at the same historic period, in the same country. Yeah. If you think Bradbury is “just” a science-fiction author, this book will cure that. A boy learns that he is alive, that he will die, and that . . . read the book.

The last two are the over 200 page, take your time, mature reflection picks that fill in the 20th century for you, both memoirs.

9. “Witness” by Whittaker Chambers – if you don’t understand why Communism was a powerfully appealing philosophy and political ideology in the 1920s and ‘30s, you need to read this. A spiritual and intellectual journey.

10. “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” aided by Alex Haley – which closes this circle, echoing intentionally the title of old Ben’s book. When Haley last met with Malcolm X before his assassination, he was told “Now you ought to go write down those stories about your family,” which led to “Roots.”

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio; he’d love for more people to read all of these books (14, if you’re counting each one mentioned). Tell him your reactions to the list at

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