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Apr/May 2010 Reviews & Interviews

Some Way New Perspectives on the Civil War

Review by Colleen Mondor


Buy now from Amazon! In all my years of studying American history (and that includes a college degree on the subject) there was never one single classroom discussion on woman soldiers. While Clara Barton came up (and so did Betsy Ross, but that was more of a myth versus truth lecture) and sometimes Molly Pitcher, actual woman who bore arms and fought side by with the men—even who disguised themselves as men in order to do so—were invisible to my professors. Female soldiers were not part of any discussion of America at war, ever. And while we all knew they must have been there, we also didn't ask who they were or wonder why no one seemed to notice their contribution.

Fortunately for modern teens, Anita Silvey is a woman with a mission and the result of her dedication, I'll Pass for Your Comrade is a fascinating look at the lives of many woman who fought in the Civil War. The scholarship is impeccable, with numerous maps, drawings and photographs as well as excerpts from letters and diaries documenting the lives of the woman she writes about. She explains why women wanted to become soldiers (some to accompany husbands or family members, others out of their own great love of country), what military life was like and how some of them got caught (usually after receiving an injury or being captured). The most gripping chapter is "Women at Antietam" which details how several female soldiers were killed or wounded while fighting in the bloodiest battle in U.S. history.

For budding historians, the most interesting chapter will likely be the one at the end which describes what it was like for female soldiers after the war as they struggled to fit back into society. Some of them were most certainly not okay (post traumatic stress was first largely documented for soldiers after this war) but beyond difficulties coping with the war itself there was also the issue of not having their service acknowledged. Several of the women did successfully fight for benefits however, and also had their military rank placed years later on their gravestones.

I'm sure that I'll Pass for Your Comrade would be an excellent choice for students writing history reports or looking for subjects of an unusual biography. But Silvey's style work deserves more than assignment interest. This book is extremely well written and put together. Every page promises another revelation and introduces another long forgotten figure who commands attention. She shines a spotlight on woman who time forgot and in doing so shows just what solid American history should be about and what we have all so casually skipped without a second thought. It's a book written for children, but adults would do well to give it a couple of hours of their time as well.

Steven Sheinkin continues to impress me with his funny eclectic approaches to U.S. history. Following on the heels of his Revolutionary War title King George: What Was His Problem?, his look at the Civil War, Two Miserable Presidents is just as refreshingly honest. Accompanied by Tim Robinson's always caustic, expressive and spot-on line drawings, Presidents looks at both Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis, providing a sense of balance that is often lacking in Civil War histories. (Can anyone remember learning a single thing about Davis beyond his name?)

Both men are humanized, especially through the inclusion of family details. You get a real feeling for who Lincoln and Davis were as men, fathers and husbands in this book. Sheinkin certainly covers all the major political and military moments, (lots of Robert E. Lee, Ulysses Grant and Sherman and Jackson, etc), but the main focus is what secession and war meant to the lives of Lincoln and Davis. All through the book, as the war plods on, it is always to Lincoln and Davis that the text returns and it is their triumph and their pain the readers feel. This title will likely be the first time twelve-year olds feel like they truly understand either of these men and win or lose anyone would feel sorry for them both.

It's easy to understate the significance of Two Miserable Presidents; to dismiss it as a history book that rehashes what is taught in school. But don't make that mistake. Textbooks are, to be frank, remarkable mostly for their dullness and we all know it. Sheinkin and Robinson have hit on a fantastic formula of short chapters focused on interesting historic figures (many completely overlooked) with witty asides, pithy illustrations and a continuously forward moving narrative. These books never slow down and really, history shouldn't. There is plenty in the Civil War to keep a reader riveted and it's all here, from the commanders in the field to the spies to the abolitionists and politicians. Homeschoolers likely already have Sheinkin on their radar which is great but every kid past the third grade should be reading his books. With him as your guide, you learn, you laugh and you enjoy reading about history. Talk about a miracle worker—Steve Sheinkin is a historian I can not resist and will happily follow to whatever event he chooses to study. (And if you are new to U.S. history then it doesn't matter how old you are—this is the author to start with, hands down.)

While writing a picture book set during the U.S. Civil War is certainly nothing new, having it revolve around a meeting between a Southern Jewish family and Yankee Jewish soldier shortly after the war has ended raises all sorts of dramatic possibilities. Based on the true story of Myer Levy (as explained in an excellent afterword which includes photographs), The Yankee at the Seder is about Levy's experiences patrolling the recently conquered state of Virginia. When he spots ten-year old Jacob eating matzoh on his front porch he approaches and introduces himself. After meeting Jacob's mother and explaining that he has just received leave for Passover, Mrs. Josephson invites Levy to attend Seder with her family that evening. Jacob is appalled but his mother makes it clear that if they do not honor the message of Seder ("We say, "All who are hungry, let them come and eat; all who are in need, let them join us for the Passover meal."), then they do not honor Seder. Levy stays for the meal and while the exchanges with Jacob's father and grandfather do at times get testy, everyone maintains proper decorum and respect. In the end Jacob realizes that as Jews they have much in common with Myer Levy and while politically they do not agree with him, that does not change the need for civility.

This is a very interesting book—actually it is quite wonderful. First it is about Jews during the Civil War which is so uncommon in children's literature that I'm going to go out on a limb here and say it's never been done before. (There are maybe some small press obscure titles out there somewhere but they sure aren't popularly known.) The other thing that really stood out for me though is that Weber artfully confronts the conflict between religion and politics—between seeing each other as fellow Jews (or Christians, or Muslims, or Hindus, etc.) rather than two sides of a border fight. Yankees and Rebels still largely hated and mistrusted each other in this period but as Jews Levy and the Josephsons had much in common that transcended those arguments. The fact that they came together rather than stood apart in this very difficult time is inspiring and coupled with Weber's excellent afterword (plus her glossary of terms for non-Jewish readers) it puts The Yankee at the Seder way over the top for me. I should also mention Adam Gustavson's realistic paintings of the family and meal—especially when everyone is gathered around the table talking. This vision of civil discourse rather than civil war complements the text perfectly and makes the book a first class recommendation for any group learning about the Civil War.

I'll Pass for Your Comrade: Women Soldiers in the Civil War
By Anital Silvey
Clarion Books 2008
ISBN 0-618-57491-9
110 pages

The Yankee at the Seder
By Elka Weber
Illustrated by Adam Gustavson
Tricycle 2009
ISBN 1-58246-256-1

Two Miserable Presidents
By Steve Sheinkin
Illustrated by Tim Robinson
Roaring Brook 2008
ISBN 1-59643-320-5
240 pages

 

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