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Apr/May 2010 Reviews & Interviews

Truly Historic Moments

Review by Colleen Mondor


Buy now from Amazon! Of all the major twentieth century events that are neglected by the masses (meaning we don't learn much about it in school or talk about it much in national discourse), none is more overlooked than World War I. There is no "day of infamy" to recall it, no "greatest generation" to laud and no ongoing modern conflict predicated on it (like the active DMZ in Korea). And yet no event more impacted the rest of the century more that this conflict. You can trace World War II directly back to the Versailles Treaty of 1919, and also the future break-up of Yugoslavia, the Middle Eastern conflict, wars in Afghanistan, India and Pakistan, the rise of communism in China, and on and on. All of them have some origin in what transpired between 1914 and 1918; the last great war of global aggression changed everything for the century that followed. And yet it receives less attention from teachers than the Pilgrims.

This completely drives me crazy.

Jack Batten tackles the war head on with his recent title, The War To End All Wars while Jim Murphy focuses on one particular incident (and its far reaching implications) in Truce. Both books are heavily illustrated with photographs and while providing necessary political and military background, are much more about individuals then nations. Each provides readers—even those with little or no knowledge of the war—with a great entry point to this period of history and several people (and groups) with whom they can identify.

Batten opens with chapters on both "The Path to Catastrophe" and "The Spark that Lit the Fire." He dispels the long held myth that an assassination in Sarajevo brought the world into war and instead shows how the death of Archduke Ferdinand was merely one more step on an inexorable march that several countries (namely England, France, Russia, Austria and Germany) had been determined to embark on. With so much of American history tied to World War II—the war no one but Hitler and/or Japan supposedly wanted—it is often hard for students to recall that large catastrophic European wars fought strictly for territorial gain were once the rule and not the exception. World War I was the end of all that, but wrapping your twenty-first century head around how it could happen in the first place is not so easy. Batten's patient, careful analysis and his focus on theaters that usually receive a footnote in western texts (Gallipoli and East Prussia for example) will broaden perspective in a positive way. It also doesn't hurt that Batten is a Canadian writer and gives Canadian military leaders their due here—something again that American students will know little to nothing about.

Venerable children's author Jim Murphy turns his sights on the infamous Christmas truce of 1914 when soldiers up and down the Western Front put down their weapons and shared some much longed for peace. There have been many instances over the course of military history when isolated pockets of fighting have temporarily stopped for a variety of reasons such as to remove the dead and wounded from a battlefield. The "Christmas Truce" is significant for several reasons however—most notably that it lasted much longer than expected and further, the lengths that military leaders went to in order to stop it (including removing men from the front lines and replacing them with raw recruits who did not know about the truce). It is also noteworthy that the Western Front was generally populated by the French, Belgians and Germans, three countries that had a great deal of mutual familial and friendly ties prior to the war (keep in the mind the leaders of Britain and Germany were both Queen Victoria's grandsons and the Russian Czar was married to one of her granddaughters.) In other words, these were people who generally had associations on the both sides of the borders they were fighting over and so a truce was not unexpected.

The photographs in Truce are particularly effective—seeing soldiers singing Christmas carols, carrying mistletoe or exchanging gifts will likely be hard to believe for unaware readers. But after reading Batten's look into the many mistakes made by military readers—and the hubris that knew no nationality, it is Murphy's stark look at how determined leaders were to force men to fight during the truce that will linger long after the book is finished. We have often heard that peacetime lament "What if we held a war and no one came?" and the Christmas Truce is the closest a global conflict has ever come to putting that adage to the test. What we learned from it is that the men found a way to end their war but the leadership (both military and political) wouldn't let the war end. Thus, on a small scale Truce tells the same story as The War To End All Wars; that World War I was a war started for the most selfish of reasons and then not allowed to end until everyone had suffered as much as possible.

If that's not a reason to make it the most important subject of study in the last one hundred years, then I don't know what is.

The story of the Titanic will likely be familiar to even younger children but particularly middle grade readers for whom Don Brown's All Stations! Distress! is written. Brown starts at the beginning in the docks where the ship was built and with the men who first declared her "unsinkable." He introduces the first class passengers, men and women "offered luxurious staterooms, excellent restaurants, a swimming pool, a gym, and an elegant grand staircase", and also those in steerage, who were "poor, yet ambitious." No swimming pool for them.

The iceberg appears almost immediately; clearly the story here is mostly what happened after the accident and not before (which is what readers will likely want). In the chaos that follows the impact, Brown shows who was where as the lifeboats were launched and takes time to point out how many of them went into the water with empty seats, as men waited for women and children to leave the sinking boat first. After the last boat goes in he then shows the rush of people from steerage, which includes many many women and children who were not deemed worth saving due to the "stubborn notion that the poor shouldn't mix with the rich, not even in the face of calamity." It's at this point that the book truly takes its tragic turn and Brown shows the passengers in the water waiting in the boats, several making a decision not to turn back and look for potential survivors. In one impressive two-page spread, the Titanic is upended in "an absolute vertical position" as men cling to the last lifeboat, collapsible B, which flipped on launch and offered slight safety, but not much.

There are heroic moments in All Stations! Distress! and Brown shares them, although adult readers will likely be surprised by some of the lesser known choices he makes. In the final two pages he explains what happened to some of the higher profile survivors and there is also a bibliography for future reading for the especially curious. Along with Brown's characteristic simply line drawings with their pastel washes, All Stations! Distress! brings readers a first rate look at the most famous boat that sank in the world, and some of the people who were unfortunately along for the ride.

Author Michael Spradlin highlights a short-lived but legendary piece of American history in his exciting and beautifully illustrated (with paintings by Layne Johnson), Off Like the Wind. With a brief opening explanation of how the Pony Express came to be (through the planning of three businessmen), Off Like the Wind then unfolds in play-by-play fashion as Spradlin follows the first riders cross county on their unprecedented journey. As he explains in a final note, whenever possible he used real names and dates/locations and real heroes soon emerge. Spradlin also used more general aspects of the riders' cumulative history to show encounters with a buffalo stampede, American Indians, wolves and inclement weather. There is no gratuitous violence here however, the final note explains that documented incidents between the riders and wildlife did occur and the Pah Ute raid against the Williams Station, a stopping point for the Express riders, did happen on May 7, 1860. So as dynamic as the story is presented, it is also historically accurate which gives it that much more power.

The Pony Express is a perennially popular subject and Spradlin balances excitement and truth perfectly. Johnson's dark, dynamic paintings are a great complement, giving this story the level of significance it so richly deserves. Legends are all well and good but when the facts are this exceptional, we do well to place them in such capable hands and let them speak for themselves.

The folks at McSweeney's have done a good job of shaking up a traditionally staid biographical collection with the very fun 109 Forgotten American Heroes. Forget about the Founding Fathers, the editors give us Sybil Ludington who also made an impressive night ride during the Revolution and David Bushnell, inventor of the first submarine, the Turtle (which was used during the war). There are pages of interesting people in this book and the cheeky view of history—from what you might not know about a well known thing (such as the battle by Stephen Tying Mather to create the National Park system or Garrett Augustus Morgan's invention of the traffic signal) to what you just don't think about much at all such as John Stapp and the crash test dummy and Elbert Botts' highway dots ("Botts Dotts") which alert drivers that they are drifting across lanes—makes from some very compulsive reading. It's a colorful design with a ton of different font and illustration styles and a host of characters including both genders and is multi-ethnic to boot. When I read this one I kept thinking of reluctant readers in particular who will love the pick up and put down nature of the organization and also all the offbeat choices (Shamu and French fries are included for example).

McSweeney's already has a justly deserved reputation as a most independent publisher and that same bold attitude is ever present in 109 Forgotten American Heroes. This reminds me of what good things encyclopedias used to be—how you could find something new and interesting on each turn of the page. Kudos to them for showing how to do history in a very fun way.

 

Truce
By Jim Murphy
Scholastic 2009
ISBN 0-545-13049-2
116 pages

The War to End All Wars
By Jack Batten
Tundra 2009
ISBN 0-88776-879-8
146 pages

All Stations! Distress!
By Don Brown
Roaring Brook Press 2008
ISBN 1-59643-222-5
64 pages

Off Like the Wind: The First Ride of the Pony Express
By Michael Spradlin
Paintings by Layne Johnson
2010 Walker & Co.
ISBN 0-8027-9652-3

109 Forgotten American Heroes
Presented by McSweeney's
DK 2009
0-7566-5405-4
175 pages

 

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