George Rogers Clark: this is one sad story

George Rogers Clark: I Glory in War by William R. Nester

3 words: detailed, accessible, revealing

OK, guys. Things are about to get super geeky here.

Today we’re talking George Rogers Clark.

Here’s my reintroduction to the dude… The Dear Man and I were touring Cave Hill Cemetery a couple of years ago, so we could visit the grave of Col. Sanders.

So the guy at the gate gave us a map that showed the locations of all of the famous people’s graves. And George Rogers Clark was on the map. We discussed the fact that we pretty much didn’t know who that was, other than: 1700s? Military leader, maybe?

So: learning.

Here’s the quick synopsis of his life…

First, The Good:

  • Revolutionary War hero, but in the West
  • Led a military unit that captured forts in current-day Illinois and Indiana
  • Founder of Louisville

Next, The Bad (aka The Sad):

  • He had a serious drinking problem
  • He peaked in his 20s
  • He fell into poverty

And finally… The Ugly:

  • Late in life, he betrayed his country by making deals with France and with Spain
  • He was an angry, bitter, resentful man in his later years

 

So there we have quite the story arc. The early rise, and the long downward spiral thereafter.

Which makes this book not the most jolly of stories.

 

Locust Grove

Nevertheless, the reading experience was a really good one, because the writing is fluid, the narrative is dynamic, and the subject matter is pretty darn fascinating. We got ourselves a seriously flawed hero here, guys.

I finished reading the book during our recent canoe trip to the Lexington area, which involved a stop in Louisville. Because we are some serious history geeks (when we’re not being fast food geeks [I was serious when I said we were visiting Col. Sanders’s grave]), we visited Locust Grove, the final home of George Rogers Clark. The house actually belonged to his sister and brother-in-law, but Clark lived there for the last several years of his life, when he was an invalid.

 

The office at Locust Grove

 

Give this book a whirl if you like… the American Revolution, narrative nonfiction about forgotten episodes of major historical events, true stories of the downward spiral, flawed historical figures

 

So, my fellow readers… what semi-obscure historical figure have you found fascinating?

Visiting the dead presidents

Dead Presidents: An American Adventure into the Strange Deaths and Surprising Afterlives of Our Nation’s Leaders by Brady Carlson
3 words: rollicking, enthusiastic, informative
Bybee, you’ve done it again. Your fantastic, enticing review of Dead Presidents sent me directly to that book, and I devoured it with complete delight.
Turns out, author Brady Carlson and I are of the same tribe. We’re the ghoulish sorts who visit cemeteries for fun. And if there’s a president buried there, we plan our vacations around the presidential grave visit. 
Yep. You’re hanging out here with one sick puppy.
And I gotta say, I think we also have a similar graveside manner: reasonably reverent, but with an eye for the peculiar.
For example, when the Dear Man and I were in Louisville, we visited the grave of Zachary Taylor. 
(Brief pause, while we reflect on the fact that while Taylor is more memorable than, say, Pierce, he sure ain’t no U.S. Grant. OK. Back to our story…)

And on the way there, we Googled Taylor and found out dude had been disinterred during our lifetime!
(This is one weird world we live in, my friends.)
Apparently (who knew?!) there have long been rumors that Taylor had been poisoned. 
(Test results say: ummmm… NO.)
Brady hits that story in this here book, and lots of other great little anecdotes that will surprise and delight.
And we mere civilians can also attend! 
Imagine a world where Grover Cleveland’s grandson rubs elbows with the grand-nephew of Harry Truman…
Pure magic, right?
For a book dealing with dead people, this thing is awfully darn fun. Carlson’s tone is ebullient, and his observations sharp and delighted. 
There are moments in this book that made me laugh out loud, such as this one:
“We take a look through the Harrison items in the back room, including something called an ophicleide, which looks like the love-child of a tuba and a bugle, played when Harrison was interred in North Bend in 1841 and brought out again at the renovation of the tomb in 1922.”  (p. 34)
(Love-child of a tuba and bugle!) 
If you’re even vaguely interested in Geek Tourism or the presidents or travel memoirs, give this book a whirl. Carlson’s a fun and knowledgeable tour guide who’ll skip the boring parts and delivery only the good stuff. 
Confession time, my friends… What’s your weirdest travel quirk? 

War? Pretty much hell

Co. Aytch by Sam R. Watkins

3 words: unflinching, immediate, direct

I seriously love a conversational first-person narrator. So when we were visiting Kennesaw Mountain battlefield and I saw Sam Watkins quoted all over the museum and then saw his book blurbed as one of the most compelling memoirs of the Civil War… I was there.

I nearly bought a copy right there in the gift shop.

But then I thought: audiobook.

And, in retrospect, that might’ve been a mistake. The thing is this: Watkins is a Southerner. And the narrator of the audiobook? Pure Yankee. It created kind of a strange disconnect.

But that’s my only quibble with this book.

Watkins wrote one doozy of a narrative.

Although he wrote this memoir a couple of decades after the war, his story feels fresh and honest and unflinching.

And there are moments that’ll rip your heart out. Moments like when he describes the horrible death of a fellow soldier in vivid detail, then states simply, “I loved him. He was my friend.”

And then he picks up the narrative as the army marches on.

There were moments I halted what I was doing, to just pause and feel all the feels.

Watkins doesn’t sugarcoat a thing. He lets us know how horrible that war was. He unsparingly describes the fury and the horror at the Dead Angle at Kennesaw.

(When we saw that place during our visit, I stood and gaped. It was hard to believe that soldiers mounted an attack on that ground. Sobering stuff, my friends.)

And call me weird, but I find it strangely comforting when someone speaks the full truth about something horrible. So I found Watkins’s memoir both moving and  refreshing.

 Anyone else like the full honest truth in their books?

 

Hamilton read-along

Lafayette in the Somewhat United States by Sarah Vowell
3 words: enthusiastic, light, informative
Like 60% of the free world, I’ve been sucked into the Hamilton vortex, and each day a different song from the soundtrack accompanies me in my brain. (Here’s the one that makes me laugh every time I listen to it.)

But let’s listen to a Lafayette song, because we’re focusing on that guy here today.
(photo credit: By Daderot – Daderot, CC0, https://commons.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=21104068)

He’s a big old important secondary character in the Hamilton story, but in Vowell’s book, he’s at center stage.

And… Dude.
The dude was only 19 years old when he sailed over here from France to take on the British at Washington’s side.
And this is how we know the story’s true, because it’s too unbelievable to be fiction.
Sarah Vowell is a confirmed history nerd, and she’s one of my favorite writers of popular history.  
The woman is enthusiastic, and I’m all about that.
And she’s also hilarious.
Besides filling in the Lafayette story with a great deal of her own panache, Vowell gives us the most perfect vignettes of his allies and foes.
Take this:
“A patchwork of amateur militias made up of barely trained farmers, lawyers, shopkeepers, and artisans who, thanks to a hometown book nerd’s folkloric stunt, drove some of earth’s most experienced professional warriors out of a long-suffering city.
So, the moral of that story, other than never underestimate an independent bookseller, was that the Continental Army and its commander in chief had a soft spot for Chief Artillery Officer Henry Knox.” (pp. 84-86)
That line about independent booksellers full-on delighted me.
The whole book carries on this way, with fascinating anecdotes that bring historical figures to life, and it’s the most fun way (short of a musical) to catch up on the history we either didn’t learn or completely forgot. 

OK. All you Hamilton freaks… I know you’re out there. What’re you reading to go along with the soundtrack?


Bookish tourists on the Black Hawk Trail

Black Hawk: An Autobiography by Black Hawk

3 words: personal, dramatic, frank

While on a recent road trip, the Dear Man and I noticed a fair number of references to the Black Hawk War. And then we realized that we were living right in the middle of a place filled with history, and we knew precious little about it.

Being industrious, curious types, we set out to fix that.

The Dear Man asked the Librarian if she’d considered reading Black Hawk’s autobiography.

Flash forward one week, and I had a copy in my hands.

Flash forward another week, and he also had a copy in his hands.

And then we started learning all kinds of cool stuff about a nearly forgotten period of history.

If you’d asked me what I had on the Black Hawk war, I would’ve said, “Um… young Abraham Lincoln?”

Cuz, YEAH: dude served in the Illinois militia (never saw battle, but buried some scalped soldiers).

The cool thing about this book is that it’s told in Black Hawk’s words. Or at least, sort of. My only real complaint with the book is the inclusion of way too many exclamation points and italicized words for emphasis. And in some places, I doubted that Black Hawk would have spoken in the way the words were written on the page.

But at least we get his viewpoint.

And that’s explanation enough for this book to still be in print more than 175 years after its initial publication.

This is a book that doesn’t go down easy.

I found myself seething at the way Black Hawk’s people’s land was taken from them.

I kinda got worked up.

Then I recalled the passages where they’re doing the scalp dance, and I shuddered.

Then I thought about them approaching the militia with a white flag of peace and being fired on. And I got worked up again.

It was fascinating to see the episodes through Black Hawk’s eyes, and to understand it from his perspective. He’s narrating the story as an older man, near the end of his life, and while he’s faced plenty of hardship, his spirit is still lively.

Besides describing the battles and difficulties faced by the Sauks, Black Hawk also paints a detailed picture of their daily life.

Visiting the Hauberg Indian Museum, located at the Black Hawk State Historic Site in Rock Island, Illinois, reinforced the descriptions of the Sauks’ annual cycle of farming, hunting, and trading. The museum has a fine display, some great artifacts, and some really good maps that helped us find our way to the area nearby where Black Hawk was born and lived.

We read the Donald Jackson edition, which is also the edition on display at the Hauberg Museum, so it’s got some decent cred.

The thing I liked about this edition was Jackson’s terrific introduction. He sets the scene, including some unexpected details, such as a riveting description of Black Hawk’s hair in comparison with the hairdo of Andrew Jackson.

And Donald Jackson analyzes the validity of the autobiography and its various versions over the years, and that’s good stuff, too.

So… what books have inspired you to take to the road?

Me & Ben improve ourselves (mostly he does that, while I listen)

The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin by Benjamin Franklin

3 words: literary, straightforward, ambitious

Before listening to his autobiography, here’s what I could’ve told you about Benjamin Franklin:

  • That electricity thing with a kite
  • That quest for self-perfection
  • Philadelphia boy
  • Dude went to France
  • Poor Richard’s Almanack
  • That really bad hair

 

As I listened, though, I remembered what I’d known and forgotten:

  • Founded one of the first lending libraries in America
  • Worked as a printer
  • Known for his writing (oh, thank goodness!)
  • Self-made man

 

And I learned things I never knew:

  • Dude was a wise, wily politician
  • Not into church-going
  • Founded a fire department in Philadelphia

 

I found his autobiography a rather uplifting reading experience. Granted, his life could be considered a success, but he describes his mistakes with honesty and humility. He owns that crap.

And his writing is clean and surprisingly straightforward for its day. I was prepared for all kinds of flowery speech, but he preserved us from that fate. (This might be one of the reasons this book is still so widely read.)

My favorite section was the part where he describes his plan to become a better person by observing the 13 virtues he identified and worked on, one by one: temperance, silence, order, resolution, frugality, industry, sincerity, justice, moderation, cleanliness, tranquility, chastity, and humility.

Oh, I liked this part a lot.

I had all kinds of happy little flashbacks to reading Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project. Her formula for happiness is “being happier requires you to thinking about feeling good, feeling bad, and feeling right, in an atmosphere of growth.”

It appeals to me so strongly, that “atmosphere of growth” stuff. And Franklin’s life embodied that concept.

So hanging out with him while he told his life story was pretty darn inspiring. While I scrambled eggs, he described figuring out how to set up a fire department and save lives, all while living a life of frugal, tranquil sincerity.

So yeah, inspiring and enjoyable. Glad I read it.

 

New Year, old scandal

Watergate tourist. I know: sad.

The Last of the President’s Men by Bob Woodward
3 words: fascinating, strange, bitter
My Watergate obsession rages on.
And when Bob Woodward releases anything linked to those days, I get truly a little bit scarily excited.
So this book made me bliss out (even though it made me sad to see the word “Last” in its title — Bob, don’t let the well dry up!)
It’s the story of Alexander Butterfield, the person who blew the whistle on the taping system in the Oval Office.
I’d always wondered why he spilled the beans, and this book basically answers that question. 
Dude was ticked. 
He’d given up an important position in the Air Force to work for his old buddy Haldeman in the White House, only to discover his boss’s boss had severe social anxiety and was too nervous to meet him for weeks. (We’re talking here about the President of the United States, people.)
And that’s merely the tip of the iceberg.
One of my favorite lines from the book: “The Nixon inner circle sounded like both snake pit and kindergarten.” (27)
Oh, boy.
So, yeah, some dirt is dished here. Seems like Butterfield’s still kind of holding a grudge, which could cause a person to take this book with a grain of salt, except: Woodward pre-salted it. He acknowledges Butterfield’s lingering anger and knows it’s part of the reason he consented to share long-concealed documents he removed from the White House when he left.

Fascinating stuff.

It’s official: I’m related to a witch

Witch House, Salem (photo credit: Library of Congress)
The Witches: Salem, 1692 by Stacy Schiff
3 words:
detailed, narrative, dense
Related to a witch! 
Actually,
I’m not. 
But my 8th great grand uncle* (a male witch—even more
unexpected!) was accused of witchcraft (and later released).
This was
vaguely horrifying and mostly thrilling. It may have been the high point of the
book for me.
Years
ago, I read Saint-Exupery: A Biography by
Stacy Schiff, and it was one of those remarkable reading experiences where a
book just drew me into its world and I wanted to stay there.
So this
new book, The Witches, enticed me powerfully.
Schiff has become a Name in the world of biography writing, and I was excited
at the thought of reading another one of her books.
And then
I got into this book, and I felt frustrated.
Here’s
why: Schiff does a masterful job of gathering and presenting an immense array
of research, so she is able to present a wonderfully detailed account of the
events of 1692 in Salem. She places the reader in the scene, which is a
terrific accomplishment.
But I
was bothered by the lack of analysis of why
this group of adolescent girls was twitching and writhing and accusing
others of being witches—and why innocent people were confessing to being
witches.
There
was no sense to it! And it was really bugging me.
And I
realized that as a reader, I needed some interpretation along the way, to help
explain the madness that was taking place in Salem—to cut my irritation with the
utter nonsense of the situation.
Relief
arrived in the final chapters, where Schiff explains some of the possible
reasons for the witch accusations and trials. But I’d
just experienced over 300 pages of descriptions of utterly bizarre behavior
without much of an explanation. I was worn out and slightly peevish.
That
having been said, I don’t want to undercut the book overall. Beyond being a
magnificent researcher, Schiff has a delightful writing style—and even manages
to add some humor occasionally, despite the grimness of her subject matter.
For
example:
“He that
summer took in thirteen-year-old Martha to see to her cure. She cantered,
trotted, and galloped about the Mather household on her ‘aerial steed,’
whistling through family prayer and pummeling anyone who attempted it in her
presence, the worse houseguest in history.” (21)
And:
“…the
devil aimed to destroy the villagers because they bickered among themselves and
their ministers. (In fairness, were those the criteria, Satan would have had
his choice of New England congregations.)” (303)
I wanted
to love the experience of reading this book. But I merely liked it. I remain un-bewitched.
*my personal
history of genealogical nerdiness is indeed quite something

Flight the Wright way

The Wright Brothers by David McCullough
3 words:
triumphant, character-driven, family
David
McCullough is one of my guys. Two of his books appear in my blog banner, which
I realized only when I was reading his latest, about the Wright brothers.
(courtesy of Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division)
Me and
Wilbur and Orville, we go back a ways, too. 
For
years, I’ve gotten all misty-eyed and boring at cocktail parties* every
December 17, because I regale anyone within earshot with the news that it’s the
umpteenth anniversary of the first powered flight. 
I say the words “Kitty Hawk”
and “Kill Devil Hills.” 
I say the words “muslin-covered wings” and “wind tunnel.” 
I speak in awestruck tones about seeing the Wright Flyer at the Air and Space Museum.
I’m seriously
the life of any party.
So this
book had me all in a flutter. The
flutter was worth the while.
McCullough
is a wonderfully comforting writer, who is a master of his craft. His sentences
just flow.
The
other thing that makes him comforting is that he tends to tell the heroic
stories, in a tone that’s relatively wart-free. He’s not out to tell how the
Wright’s competitors tried to make them out as mean-spirited moneygrubbers
whose protection of their patents bordered on the obsessive.
No, this
book is about their hard work and their triumph. And it’s very much about their
personalities and their family.
Neither
man married, and they lived with their father and sister. Which sounds kind of
horrid, except that it sounds like they had rather a happy home life.
And they
were quiet fellows who largely kept to themselves, at least until fame struck.
So there
are quiet, wonderful moments like this one, when Wilbur was about to take off
on a demo flight in France:
“Finally,
at six-thirty, with dusk settling, Wilbur turned his cap backward, and to Berg,
Bolée, and the others said quietly, ‘Gentlemen, I’m going to fly.’” (p.
170)   
Reading
those words made me stop and clap a hand against the center of my chest and do
the heartstruck look.
So,
yeah.
McCullough
is a pleasant, talented author, and he’s writing about these quirky fellows
whom he finds pleasant and talented himself, so it’s a whirlwind of goodness.
And
despite the theme of flight, McCullough keeps it down to earth:
“Their
nephew Milton, who as a boy was often hanging about the brothers, would one day
write, “History was being made in their bicycle shop and in their home, but the
making was so obscured by the commonplace that I did not recognize it until
many years later.’” (p 113)
Warm,
heroic, and stoic.
*I avoid
cocktail parties like the plague. But anywhere else I am, I bore people with
this December 17 business. Avoid me on that date.

Huge buzz, decent book

Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of
the Lusitania
by
Erik Larson
3 words:
immediate, tragic, anecdotal
I’ve
lived my entire life as a Lusitania ignoramus.
If
you’d’ve asked me what I could tell you about it, I’d’ve said “British ship
sunk by the Germans during World War I. Americans on board, so the U.S. entered
the war.”
Yeah,
sort of right. Partial credit. Actually, it took 2 more years for the U.S. to
declare war. (Who knew?!)
So this
is an Erik Larson book, which often means we’re gonna have dual narratives.
This one’s no exception. Except: Wait—there’s more!
Here
we’re on board the Lusitania; on
board the U-boat that sunk the ship; hanging out in the code-breaking room in
England; and eavesdropping on President Wilson, who’s wooing his second wife. And
there are some side trips to shipping offices, too.
But the
main storyline is, as expected, onboard the Lusitania,
which (didn’t know this, either) had an unusually large number of children and
babies aboard during its last voyage. (Sad, guys. This stuff is sad.)
Larson
did some fine research, so we get to hear the story from several of the
survivors. He paints a detailed picture of life on the ship.
Now,
maybe this is just me, but one thing I expected from this book—since it’s
tragedy and it’s true, and I love that stuff—didn’t actually happen. I thought
I’d become slightly obsessed with the topic, Googling and YouTubing and looking
up other books about the Lusitania
But I find that this book is enough. And I’m not sure whether that’s because I’m not
the ideal audience [pretty sure I am] or because Larson’s narrative didn’t completely
pull me in to the story. Unlike every time I’ve read Walter Lord’s A Night to Remember, the classic
account of the sinking of the Titanic,
Dead Wake didn’t make me feel like I
was there. I’m beginning to think there’s something about Larson’s style that just doesn’t
jibe with me. 
This is
a fine book in many ways, and I liked it rather much. But I really wanted to
love it.