FDR and the American Crisis by Albert Marrin

History professor Albert Marrin has been writing nonfiction narrative history for quite a while: his first book for young adults was Overlord: D Day and the Invasion of Europe, which was published in 1982. He has written more than thirty history narratives for children and young adults, including Flesh and Blood So Cheap: The Triangle Fire and Its Legacy, a National Book Award finalist.

In his latest book, Marrin returns to the World War II era and to the Great Depression and to the president who shepherded America through both of those crises, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. FDR was a complicated character, and Mr. Marrin presents him—warts, strengths, and all—in the context of the events and attitudes of his time. FDR and The American Crisis is, above all, a comprehensive and balanced vision of Roosevelt, what he did for the United States and what he did to change the country, for better and for worse.

In addition to my appreciation for its even-handedness, I was most impressed with the personal tone of Mr. Marrin’s very detailed, yet broad, narrative. Mr. Marrin is 79 years old. Born in 1936, he actually remembers some of the events of Roosevelt’s presidency and of the second World War. And he’s not afraid to gently insert himself into the narrative with an “I remember” or a “we all wonder if” statement. In addition, Marrin isn’t reluctant to share his own informed opinion when it’s appropriate:

“Critics branded Hoover a ‘do-nothing’ president who let Americans suffer due to his commitment to old-fashioned ideas. It is untrue.”

“The media developed a teenager’s crush on the Red Army.”

“Convinced of his own virtue and wisdom, he (FDR) thought too highly of his personal charm and powers of persuasion. He misjudged the murderous Stalin.”

“Those who praised him (FDR) as a saintly miracle worker are as wrong as those who bitterly cursed him as a monster.”

Bottom line, I learned a lot from reading FDR and the American Crisis—and I learned it in a throughly pleasant and absorbing read. Mr. Marrin once said in an interview, “Kids are very bright. I’m not going to write down. If anything, I’ll have them read up to me.” This book is not dumbed down, nor is it a breezy hagiography of a famous president. Any high school, or even college, student looking for both an in-depth and readable introduction to FDR and his presidency could not do better than to read Mr. Marrin’s book first.

The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown

The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics by Daniel James Brown.

With the (winter) Olympics coming up and my aforementioned current interest in the 1930’s, The Boys in the Boat was just the ticket for reading on a very cold day in January. The nine Americans in the title were: Don Hume, Bobby Moch, Stub McMillin, Johnny White, Gordy Adam, Shorty Hunt, Roger Morris, Chuck Day, and Joe Rantz. They were the crew of an eight-man shell for the University of Washington. Their coach was Al Ulbrickson, and George Pocock, famous for building racing boats for Washington and for many other championship rowing teams, was their mentor and the builder of their shell, the Husky Clipper.

The story focuses on crew member Joe Rantz, since he was the member of the Olympic team that the author first met and from whom he heard the story of the “boys'” journey to the Berlin Olympics. I put “boys” in quotation marks because by the time their story was published last year (2013), the boys in the boat had all passed on. But Mr. Brown got to interview some of them before they died, and he spent a great deal of time researching the backgrounds of the boys, talking to family members, reading journals that some of the boys kept, and preparing to write an inspiring and flowing account of their rise to glory at the Olympics.

One of things that the book emphasizes is that rowing is not easy:

“Competitive rowing is an undertaking of extraordinary beauty preceded by brutal punishment. Unlike most sports, which draw primarily on particular muscle groups, rowing makes heavy and repeated use of virtually every muscle in the body. . . And rowing makes these muscular demands not a odd intervals but in rapid sequence, over a protracted period of time, repeatedly and without respite. . . The Seattle Post-Intelligencer’s Royal Brougham marveled at the relentlessness of the sport: ‘Nobody ever took time out in a boat race,’ he noted ‘There’s no place to stop and get a satisfying drink of water or a lungful of cool, invigorating air. You just keep your eyes glued on the red, perspiring neck of the fellow ahead of you and row until they tell you it’s all over. . . Neighbor, it’s no game for a softy.'”

I was filled with admiration for these college boys who practiced in rain, sleet, wind and snow to go to a total of two races: one in their own Washington waters against arch rival, the University of California, and the other in Poughkeepsie, competing against California again and against all of the East Coast teams who saw the westerners as country cousins who were out of their league in the East. The persistence and fine-tuning of the team and its precise movements required all that the nine member team could give, mentally and physically–and then, a little more.

The book also made much of the contrast between Depression-era country boys struggling in Washington State to get an education and make the Olympic team at the same time, and Hitler’s desire to make the Berlin Olympics into a showcase for the Nazi regime in Germany and the Aryan youth of Germany who would be competing for the glory of the Reich. The impending war serves as a focus and a frame for the story, even though the boys in the boat were completely unaware of the imminent approach of a world war that would change all of their lives.

Some interesting mentions in the book:

Actor Hugh Laurie’s father, Ran Laurie, was member of the British eight-man crew at the 1936 Olympics.

Louis Zamperini (Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand) is mentioned once in this book, as possibly the only athlete on the boat to Europe for the Olympics who had a bigger appetite than rower Joe Rantz.

Swimmer Eleanor Holm was expelled from the U.S. Olympic team for drunkenness on the boat over, after an all-night party with some journalists, who then proceeded to make headlines with The Eleanor Holm Story in newspapers all over the United States.

The coxswain for the team, Bobby Moch, found out for the first time in a letter from his father just before he left to go to the Olympics, that his relatives in Europe, whom he had never met, were Jewish, and therefore that he was of Jewish heritage.

Hitler’s pet filmmaker, Leni Riefenstahl, made a well-regarded propaganda film about the 1936 Olympics, called Olympia. The film was secretly funded by the Nazi government, and it was shown all over the world to great acclaim.

All in all, The Boys in the Boat is a great book for anyone interested in sports stories in general, rowing in particular, the rise of Nazism, the 1930’s, Olympic history, and just plain inspirational stories of perseverance and courage. If there were a few extraneous details, they were details that I enjoyed learning. And the prose was well above average.

Setting: 1936-39, Just Before the War

A friend of ours is writing a book of stories set in a small English village just before World War II, and I’m reading The Last Lion, the second volume of a three volume biography of Winston CHurchill, about the years from 1932-1940. So I’m particularly interested in the time period right now, especially in Europe and Asia. (I didn’t include books set in the United States during the 1930’s.) Do you have any recommended additions to this list?

Spanish Civil War:
Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell. Nonfiction.
Life and Death of a Spanish Town by Elliot Paul. Fiction.
For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway. Fiction.
Winter in Madrid by CJ Sansom. Fiction. Semicolon review here.

Sino-Japanese War and The Nanjing Massacre:
Shanghai Girls by Lisa See. Fiction. Semicolon review here.
When We Were Orphans by Kazuo Ishiguro. Fiction. Semicolon review here.
Living Soldiers by Ishikawa Tatsuzo. Fiction.
Nanjing Requiem by Ha Jin, reviewed at Semicolon. Fiction.
The Devil of Nanking by Mo Hayder. Fiction. Reviewed by Nicola at Back to Books.
The Rape of Nanking by Iris Chang. Nonfiction.
Dragon Seed by Pearl S. Buck. Fiction.

The Kindertransport, 1938-39:
Sisterland by Linda Newbery. YA fiction.
Far to Go by Alison Pick. Fiction.

Stalinist Russia, Before the War:
Darkness at Noon by Arthur Koestler.
Sashenka: A Novel by Simon Montefiore.

Britain, Before the War:
Miss Buncle’s Book by D.E. Stevenson. Fiction.
A Blunt Instrument and No Wind of Blame by Georgette Heyer. Fiction.
Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh. Fiction.
Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day by Winifred Watson, reviewed at Semicolon.
The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill: Alone, 1932-1940 by William Manchester. Nonfiction.
Several Agatha Christie mysteries take place during this time period, titles too numerous to mention.

Continental Europe, Before the War
Pied Piper by Nevil Shute.

Links and Thinks: June 5, 2013

Great Summer Reading Suggestions from Breakpoint and The Chuck Colson Center.

Free June Desktop Wallpaper and Calendar from The HOmeschool Post.

Born on this day:

Federico Garcia Lorca, b.1898, d.1936. Spanish playwright and poet. He was actually executed by Nationalist forces during the Spanish Civil War.

Richard Scarry, b.1919, d.1994. Author of busy, busy children’s books set in Busytown and featuring characters such as Lowly Worm, Bananas Gorilla, Huckle Cat, Mr. Frumble, and others.

Allan Ahlberg b.1938. Author with his wife Jan of The Jolly Postman, The Jolly Pocket Postman, and The Jolly Christmas Postman. Ahlberg on children’s books: ” . . . just because a book is tiny and its readers are little doesn’t mean it can’t be perfect. On its own scale, it can be as good as Tolstoy or Jane Austen.”

Ken Follett, b.1949. Mr. Follett gained fame as a writer of political thrillers, and then turned to historical fiction with 1989’s epic novel The Pillars of the Earth. I read Pillars, but I wasn’t terribly impressed. He’s good at creating characters and setting, but the attitudes and cultural mores in the book sometimes felt anachronistic to me.

1936: Books and Literature

Published in 1936:
The A.B.C. Murders, Murder in Mesopotamia, and Cards on the Table by Agatha Christie.
Double Indemnity by James M. Cain. Cain’s novella is the source for the screenplay for this movie that I watched last summer, starring Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck.
Jamaica Inn by Daphne duMaurier.
Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell. This book was the #1 fiction bestseller of 1936, and of course, it went on to become the 1939 award-winning movie of the same title.
The Allegory of Love by C.S. Lewis.
Absalom! Absalom! by William Faulkner.
How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie.

'Life' photo (c) 2007, Jennifer - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/Also in 1936:
Life magazine is first published.

The Carnegie Medal for excellence in children’s literature, published in the U.K., is created and awarded for the first time to Arthur Ransome for his book Pigeon Post.

Newbery Medal for children’s literature is awarded to Carol Ryrie Brink’s Caddie Woodlawn. Caddie has gotten some flack and bad press in recent years for its stereotypical and inaccurate portrayal of Native Americans. But I think this practice of reevaluating classic literature by modern PC standards is spoiler-y. Caddie Woodlawn is a good story, and the Native Americans in the book are portrayed as a child of Caddie Woodlawn’s era would probably have viewed them. ‘Nuff said.

Best-selling authors of 1936, besides Margaret Mitchell were: Sinclair Lewis, Lloyd C. Douglas, Rebecca West, Aldous Huxley, Anne Morrow Lindbergh, and Clarence Day.

1936: Events and Inventions

January 28, 1936. King George V of England dies, leaving his oldest son Edward to become king.

'Volkswagen Käfer' photo (c) 2009, Dmitry Klimenko - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/2.0/February 26, 1936. The “People’s Car”, Volkswagen, is born. Hitler inaugurates the first factory to build the cars that he believes will do for Germany what Henry Ford’s automobiles did for the United States, make ordinary Germans, car owners and drivers.

March 7, 1936. In violation of the Versailles Treaty, Hitler’s troops march into the Rhineland, territory that was ceded by Germany to France after World War I. Hitler is gambling that the French will not want to go to war over the Rhineland, and they don’t. Hitler proposes a new treaty that will “guarantee peace for the next 25 years.”

April 28, 1936. Prince Farouk becomes King of Egypt, following the death of his father.

April 30, 1936. The Italian army takes Addis Ababa, the capital of Abyssinia (Ethiopia), crushing the forces of Haile Selassie, the current ruler of Ethiopia. The Italian air force drops mustard gas on the civilians and military forces in order to pacify the capital. By May 9th, Mussolini boasts, “Italy at last has her empire. It is a Fascist empire because it bears the indestructible sign of the will and power of Rome.” (Fascism, according to my dictionary, “tends to include a belief in the supremacy of one national or ethnic group, a contempt for democracy, an insistence on obedience to a powerful leader, and a strong demagogic approach.”)

June 8, 1936. New French Premier Leon Blum, a socialist, promises the French people, suffering from the worldwide economic depression, pay raises, a 40-hour work week, two weeks per year of paid vacation, collective bargaining rights, and binding arbitration in labor disputes.

July, 1936. The giant German airship, Hindenburg, crosses the Atlantic in a record time of 46 hours.

'El Correo Español' photo (c) 2010, Las Mentiras de  El Correo Español - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/2.0/July 19, 1936. Generalissimo Francisco Franco lands Fascist troops in Cadiz coming from Morocco to take over the Spanish government. Franco’s troops move through Spain to Madrid, the capital, and tales of horrible atrocities are told from both sides of the civil war. In Barcelona and Madrid, there are reports of assassinations and house searches for rebels and arms. In Badajoz in August Fascist soldiers line Loyalists (Republicans) up against a wall and shoot them after a Fascist victory.

October, 1936. The $120 million Hoover Dam opens on the Colorado River between Nevada and Arizona.

December 11, 1936. King Edward VIII of England abdicates the throne so that he can marry Wallis Simpson, a twice-divorced American. The king will be succeeded by his younger brother, Albert George (George VI). (Watch the Academy Award-winning movie, The King’s Speech, to see a dramatized version of the year’s events in regard to the British monarchy and the effects of those events on younger brother Albert George, “Bertie”. It’s a wonderfully inspiring movie.)

Moon Over Manifest by Clare Vanderpool

So, on Monday Moon Over Manifest was something of a surprise winner of the Newbery Medal for “the most distinguished American children’s book published the previous year” (2010). And I just happened to have a copy of the winning book in my library basket, a leftover from the Cybils Middle Grade Fiction panel that I hadn’t been able to find before the deadline in late December for our shortlist to be finalized. I read the book yesterday.

I can now say that if the publisher (Delacorte) had seen fit to send a review copy, I might very well have pushed to put Moon Over Manifest on our shortlist. Of course, that’s easy to say now, hindsight and all. But I haven’t been too excited about or fond of some of the recent Newbery Award books. And I said so. Last year’s book, When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead was great, but of course, I’m a Madeleine L’Engle fan, so I would like anything that paid tribute to A Wrinkle in Time. I tried to read Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book three times year before last and never got past the first few chapters. Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! seemed sort of, dare I say it, boring, and The Higher Power of Lucky was just O.K.

Moon Over Manifest is the story of a girl, twelve year old Abilene Tucker, whose father, Gideon, is a hobo. Abilene and her dad have been riding the rails together for as long as she can remember, but now (summer, 1936) Gideon has sent Abilene to live with an old friend of his in Manifest, Kansas while Gideon takes a job on the railroad back in Iowa. Abilene is not happy about being separated from her loving and beloved father, and she is determined that Gideon will come get her by the end of the summer. In the meantime, Abilene wants to find some information about the time Gideon spent in Manifest during World War I, before Abilene was born. What she gets is a nun, Sister Redempta, who teaches at the Sacred Heart of the Holy Redeemer Elementary School and gives her a summer assignment on the last day of school. Abilene also meets:
Shady Howard, the bootlegger who is also the interim pastor of the First Baptist Church
Miss Sadie, fortune teller, spirit medium, conjurer, and story-teller extraordinaire,
Hattie Mae Harper Macke, newspaper columnist and amateur historian of Manifest,
and two new friends, Lettie and Ruthanne, who join Abilene in searching for The Rattler, a spy who may or may not be selling secrets from Manifest to the enemy.

The story alternates between 1936 and Abilene and her friends and 1917-18 when the Manifest townspeople of 1936 were just growing up and when Abilene’s father should have been making his mark on Manifest’s history. Will Abilene find mention of her father in any of the stories Miss Sadie tells? How does Miss Sadie know so much about all of the secrets and events that make up the story of Manifest, Kansas? Does Shady have stories to tell about Abilene’s father? Who is or was The Rattler, and is he still in Manifest, spying on people and keeping secrets? Will Gideon come back to get Abilene, or has he deserted her for good?

Let’s start with the cover. Abilene is walking on the railroad track, thinking about her father and about the stories Miss Sadie tells. Do kids walk on the railroad tracks anymore? I lived about four blocks from the railroad tracks when I was growing up, and I certainly did. I walked along the tracks and looked for lost coins and thought about stuff. I love the cover of this book. So nostalgic.

Then there’s the story. Abilene is an engaging character, independent, feisty, and determined. But she’s also respectful and grateful for the people in Manifest who help her and feed her and take care of her. I like respectful and thankful, since it seems to be in short supply sometimes in book characters and in real kids. Abilene’s story feels real and has a flavor of the summertime adventures of the Jem and Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird. Abilene and her two buddies roam all over Manifest all summer long, and they make up stories and hunt for The Rattler with impunity and without much adult interference. The adults are available, but not over-involved. I think my kids could use some of that kind of independence and free-range experience.

As Abilene grows up over the course of the summer, she also learns more about her father and about his history, his character, and his flaws. Twelve is about the right time for a daughter to begin to see her father as a real person with a past and with hurts that need to be healed. In Moon Over Manifest, Gideon is a good father who “deserts” his daughter for good reasons, unlike the mother in another lauded book of 2010, One Crazy Summer. In facter the two books could be compared in several ways—feisty young heroine, absent parent, a summer of growth and discovery, people who are not who they seem to be–and I think Moon Over Manifest would come out the winner in a head-to-head competition between the two books.

So, Moon Over Manifest is a fine novel; it will probably appeal most to mature readers with good to excellent reading skills. The chronological jumps are well marked and easy to follow, but some of the psychological insights into family history and relationships are going to go over the head of young readers no matter how well they can follow the plot. Still, Ms. Vanderpool’s book is a good addition to the historical fiction of the Great Depression and a worthy Newbery Medalist.

The Biscuit

I finished reading Seabiscuit: An American Legend by Laura Hillenbrand today, and I must say it’s been a good read. I really like nonfiction that tells a story, is rich in detail but doesn’t get bogged down in meaningless facts and figures. Seabiscuit, as everybody already knows because of the movie, is the story of a race horse. Most of the action takes place just before World War 2, 1936-1940. The book is about the horse, his owner, Charles Howard, his trainer, Tom Smith, and his two jockeys, George Woolf and Red Pollard. They’re a colorful lot. Seabiscuit himself is almost deformed in the knees, a horse that loves to eat and sleep–and run. One of his jockeys is blind in one eye; the other has chronic diabetes. Smith the trainer is eccentric, to say the least, and Seabiscuit’s owner is a self-made millionaire from San Francisco who started out as a bicycle repairman. All of these characters come together to create an unforgetable episode in American history. I’ve never been interested in horseracing, but I am interested in people and in history. I thought Hillenbrand captured the personalities of the people in her book (and even of the horses) and made me want to know what happened to them. What decisions did they make? How did each of their life’s “races” turn out?
Pollard, for example, was a Canadian, “an elegant young man, tautly muscled, with a shock of supernaturally orange hair. . . he lived entirely on the road of the racing circuit, sleeping in empty stalls, carrying with him only a saddle, his rosary, and his books: pocket volumes of Shakespeare, Omar Khayyam’s Rubaiyat, a little copy of Robert Service’s Songs of the Sourdough, maybe some Emerson, whom he called ‘Old Waldo.’ The books were the closest things he had to furniture, and he lived in them the way other men live in easy chairs.” Don’t you already want to know what will happen to a man like that when he meets up with Seabiscuit, a championship horse with so many quirks that only Pollard, and his friend Woolf, understand him well enough to ride him to victory?
Seabiscuit showed me a whole subculture that I knew nothing about, the horse racing world. And it was a fascinating world.
Some other worlds you may want to visit:
One Child by Torey Hayden–The world of mentally disturbed children and their teacher.
Soul of a New Machine by Tracy Kidder–The world of computer geeks and computer wizards.
Men to Match My Mountains by Irving Stone–The world of the Wild West; a readable history of Utah, Nevada, Colorado, and California.
Small Victories by Samuel Freedman–The scary world of public high school in New York City.
A Severe Mercy by Sheldon Van Auken–The world of a very special marriage.
The Conquering Family by Thomas B. Costain (and its sequels, The Three Edwards, The Magnificent Century, and The Last Plantagenets)–The world of medieval England and its royal family.

So there you have it, some of my very favorite nonfiction worlds.