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50+ Nonfiction Books for 50 States

I found this list of 51 adult nonfiction selections, one for each state in the union and D.C.,, interesting but rather slanted toward the liberal (Obama’s book for Hawaii and Biden’s memoir for Delaware?) and the trendy and lurid (lots of drug memoirs and true crime). Maybe “Flavorwire has dug up some of the best nonfiction about specific American locations — in this case, our 50 states — and found 50 books that will shed light on every corner of the country,” but maybe there are better nonfiction books for at least some of the states.

So I thought, why not come up with our own list? I wrote in the ones that I liked or agreed with from the Flavorwire list and added in a few of my own suggestions.

Alabama: Salvation on Sand Mountain: Snake-Handling and Redemption in Southern Appalachia by Dennis Covington. This exploration of Alabama/Appalachia sounds fascinating. Suggested by Nancy Pearl in Book Lust To Go.
Alaska: Tisha: The Wonderful True Love Story of a Young Teacher in the Alaska Wilderness by Robert Specht and Anne Purdy. I’ve seen this one recommended by more than one person. Anyone here read it?
Or maybe A Land Gone Lonesome by Dan O’Neill, recommended in this article at Salon.
Arizona: Going Back to Bisbee by Richard Shelton. Memoir.
Arkansas: Cash by Johnny Cash with Patrick Carr. From Flavorwire. I haven’t actually read this one, but it sounds good. Any other suggestions from Arkansans?
California: Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water by Marc Reisner. I’m adding this book because it looks interesting and informative. Has anyone else read it?
Colorado: Men to Match My Mountains: The Opening of the Far West, 1840-1900 by Irving Stone. I could make this one the definitive book for California, Utah, Nevada, and Colorado, but I put it here, arbitrarily. No matter which state you focus on, this book is fantastic, readable, well researched, educational, and entertaining.
Connecticut:
Delaware:
Florida: Dream State: Eight Generations of Swamp Lawyers, Conquistadors, Confederate Daughters, Banana Republicans, and Other Florida Wildlife by Diane Roberts.
Georgia: Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt. From Flavorwire. I haven’t read this one either, but I’ve intended to read it. Comments anyone?
Hawaii:
Idaho: The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire that Saved America by Timothy Egan.
Illinois: The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America by Erik Larson. Another book been intending to read, recommended by my sister.
Indiana:
Iowa:
Kansas:
Kentucky: The Thread That Runs So True by Jesse Stuart.
Louisiana: Huey Long by T. Harry Williams. I read this doorstop of a biography about thirty years ago, and I still remember it. For better or for worse, my conception of Louisiana politics is highly formed and colored by this book.
The Little Way of Ruthie Leming: A Southern Girl, a Small Town, and the Secret of a Good Life by Rod Dreher. I can’t resist providing an antidote to Mr. Long’s out-sized loudmouth life with this tribute to a small life well-lived, also in Louisiana. If you only read one of the two, read Dreher.
Maine:
Maryland: Charm City: A Walk Through Baltimore by Madison Smartt Bell.
Massachusetts: Paul Revere and the World He Lived In by Esther Forbes.
Michigan: The Other Side of the River: A Story of Two Towns, a Death, and America’s Dilemma by Alex Kotlowitz. Crime and racial division in southern Michigan.
Minnesota:
Mississippi:
Missouri: Truman by David McCullough. Truman was probably about the best thing that ever came out of Missouri.
Montana:
Nebraska: My Nebraska: The Good, the Bad, and the Husker by Roger Welsch.
Nevada:
New Hampshire:
New Jersey:
New Mexico: The Making of the Atomic Bomb by Richard Rhodes. From Flavorwire. Engineer Husband recommends this Pulitzer prize winning classic.
New York: The Cross and the Switchblade by David Wilkerson. An unromantic contrast to West Side Story, this book tells how God was still working among gang members in New York City in the 1950′s and 60′s.
North Carolina:
North Dakota:
Ohio:
Oklahoma: The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl by Timothy Egan. This book could be classified under “North Texas” or even Kansas, but Oklahoma seems like the center of the Dust Bowl.
Oregon:
Pennsylvania:
Rhode Island:
South Carolina: Scratch Beginnings: Me, $25, and the Search for the American Dream by Adam Shepard. Adam Shepard went to Charleston, South Carolina with $25, a sleeping bag, and the clothes on his back. His goal was, by the end of a year, to have a car, a furnished apartment, and $2500 in the bank.
South Dakota:
Tennessee: Maybe The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II by Denise Kiernan?
Texas: Friday Night Lights by H.G. Bissinger. Texas is a big state, practically five states, but this book at least illuminates one aspect of Texas culture.
Utah:
Vermont:
Virginia: Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard. From Flavorwire. OK, I’ll go along with this recommendation, even though I’ve tried it and not been able to get in the mood for this nature observation journal of a modern-day pilgrim. I’m still willing to grant that it’s probably very good, and I’ll probably enjoy it very much someday.
Or The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot.
Washington: The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics by Daniel James Brown.
Washington D.C.:
West Virginia:
Wisconsin:
Wyoming:

What do you think? Do any of my readers live in one of the states for which I do not yet have a book listed? I’m even willing to reconsider one I’ve already listed if you have a better choice. Help me fill out this list with books to give us a sense of each state in the union.

Ocean of Fire by T. Neill Anderson

Ocean of Fire: The Burning of Columbia, 1865 by T. Neill Anderson.

If you’re a Civil War buff, even a little inclined in that direction, you must read this somewhat fictionalized story of General Sherman’s capture of the city of Columbia, South Carolina during his “March to the Sea” and the subsequent conflagration that burned the city to the ground. I say “fictionalized” because the author has filled in dialogue and even thoughts that he could not be privy to but could reasonably assume from the available sources. However, the events and characters in the book are real, and their actions are as verified as possible.

Mr. Anderson says that he “relied heavily on the moving, haunting, and tragic first-person accounts of Emma LeConte, Joseph Le Conte, and the Reverend Anthony Toomer Porter.” Indeed, the book basically focuses on the stories of Emma, her father Joseph, and the Rev. Porter. And their stories were moving, haunting, and tragic. I kept picturing the burning of Atlanta in Gone with the Wind as I read about how Columbia burned in much the same way as her Georgia counterpart.

General Sherman, who famously said “war is hell” and who determined to make sure it truly was for the areas of the South that he conquered, has a lot to answer for in the hereafter. He and General Ulysses S. Grant “believed that the Civil War would end only if the Confederacy’s strategic, economic, and psychological capacity for warfare were decisively broken.” (Wikipedia, Sherman’s March to the Sea) Perhaps they were right. The girl, Emma, is pictured in this book as harboring a “white-hot hatred” for the Yankees,and none of the Southerners whose stories are featured are ready to surrender, either before or after the burning of their city which they, of course, blame on the drunken Yankee army. There is some possibility that the Confederates themselves were responsible for starting the fire. No one really knows, and the book doesn’t settle the question.

Another mystery is left unsettled, and I would really like to know the answer: who was the mysterious soldier named Charles Davis? Was he possibly a Confederate spy or did he work for the Yankees? After the city’s collapse he seems to have mysteriously disappeared. Where did he go?

Ocean of Fire is T. Neill Anderson’s second book of his Horrors of History series. The first book in the series, which I have not read but should, is City of the Dead: Galveston Hurricane, 1900.

“The President Has Been Shot!” by James L. Swanson

51Km7NeeU2L._SY344_PJlook-inside-v2,TopRight,1,0_SH20_BO1,204,203,200_On the evening of November 22, 2013, I was reading, not an unusual activity for me. But instead of reading C.S. Lewis or any of the many novels that I want to finish, I was reading one of the Cybils YA nonfiction books that was nominated this year. “The President Has Been Shot!” The Assassination of John F. Kennedy by James L. Swanson was the sad story of what happened in Dallas fifty years ago, and I was reminded of the fragility of human life and the sinfulness of mankind.

Yes, I remember where I was when I heard the news of Kennedy’s death. Unfortunately for my reputation for perfect recall, I remember incorrectly. I was in first grade in 1963, but for some reason I have a vivid memory of being in my second grade classroom with my second grade teacher, Mrs. Bouska, announcing to us that the president had been shot. I’m not sure why my first grade memory has transposed itself in time into second grade, but there it is. Memory is unreliable.

So we have books—to record the memories and the events and keep us honest. A lot of the information in this book I either never knew or I didn’t remember. I had no idea that Kennedy was shot through the back of the head and his head either fell or was pulled into Jackie Kennedy’s lap where she held pieces of his brain in her hands all the way to Parkland Hospital. Gruesome. Then, it was also rather grisly and horrific to read that Jackie refused to change her blood-stained clothes all that day, saying repeatedly, “I want them to see what they’ve done.” People certainly do grieve and react in different ways to shocking, appalling events.

“History is more than a narrative of what happened at a particular moment in time—it is also the story of how events were reported to, and experienced by, the people who lived through them.” (For Further Reading, p.240) Mr. Swanson does a particularly good job of giving readers a feel for the time period and the way newspapers, magazines, radio, and television reported on the death of the president. Black and white photographs interspersed throughout the book add to the verisimilitude of the story, transporting readers into the early 1960′s when color television was still not in widespread use and newspapers and many magazines were filled with black and white photographs.

Swanson’s 2009 nonfiction tale of an assassination, Chasing Lincoln’s Killer, was adapted from his adult book, Manhunt. “The President Has Been Shot!” was written specifically for the YA market, and it shines as an example of a nonfiction history narrative that doesn’t talk down to teen readers and yet keeps the detail to a level that suits young people who may be new to the subject of the Kennedy assassination. I highly recommend the book for students of history and politics who want a simple but thorough summary of the background of Kennedy’s presidency and the events surrounding and leading up to his assassination.

Women of the Frontier by Brandon Marie Miller

51aDnzTnIKL._SY344_PJlook-inside-v2,TopRight,1,0_SH20_BO1,204,203,200_Women of the Frontier: 16 Tales of Trailblazing Homesteaders, Entrepreneurs, and Rabble-Rousers by Brandon Marie Miller.

This collective biography/history was a fascinating book, although I found myself skimming the explanatory material at the beginning of each chapter to go directly to the stories of the women themselves. Some of the women I knew something about: Margret Reed, a survivor of the ill-fated Donner Party; Narcissa Whitman, missionary to Oregon; Carry Nation, prohibition campaigner; and Cynthia Ann Parker, captive of the Comanches and mother to Quanah Parker, famous Comanche chief.

Even about these women I learned new things:
According to the author, Narcissa Whitman grew to nearly despise the Native Americans she traveled to Oregon to minister to and convert.

After years of “smashing” saloons to protest the evils of alcohol, Carry Nation settled in Eureka Springs, Arkansas and opened a home for the (abused) wives of alcoholics. The home was called Hatchet Hall.

Indian captive Cynthia Ann Parker was taken back from the Comanches when her son Quanah was only twelve years old, and she thought he was dead. She did not know that he became a great warrior chief of the Comanche.

Then, there were the many seemingly ordinary, actually extraordinary, women who managed to survive a life of hardship and vicissitudes that would have put me into an early grave. Amelia Stewart Knight traversed the Oregon Trail, “out of one mud hole into another all day.” And she was four months pregnant when she and her husband and their seven children left Iowa to head for Oregon. Luzena Wilson learned that she could make more money by cooking and cleaning for the 49ers in the California gold fields than she or her husband could by mining. Then, she learned by experience with both that a fire or flood could destroy everything she had built and earned, and she learned to start all over again.

Mary Lease fought for government regulation of the railroads, the graduated income tax, the direct election of senators, and suffrage for women. She lived to see all of these things enshrined in law. Sarah Winnemucca and Susette La Flesche, on the other hand, both championed the rights of Native Americans, but lived to see most of the promises of the U.S. government to the Native peoples broken and the Native people themselves mistreated and disrespected.

I was inspired and a bit humbled by the stories of these ladies. Again, I’m not sure how I would have done, given their circumstances and faced with their choices. I’d like to say that I would have persevered and made a life despite the difficulties and adversities they faced, but I don’t really know.

Said one Kansas woman:

“It might seem a cheerless life, but there were many compensations: the thrill of conquering a new country; the wonderful atmosphere; the attraction of the prairie, which simply gets into your bloom and makes you dissatisfied away from it; the low-lying hills and the unobstructed view of the horizon; and the fleecy clouds driven by the never failing winds.”

Maybe those things, and more, were enough.

Emancipation Proclamation: Lincoln and the Dawn of Liberty by Tonya Boldenn

Award-winning children’s and young adult author Tonya Bolden “offers readers a unique look at an often misunderstood American document.” It is unique. Part 1 of this nonfiction book about the proclamation that “freed the slaves” begins with a quotation from Frederick Douglass, recounting the the atmosphere on Thursday, January 1, 1863 as about three thousand people waited at Tremont Temple in Boston for word from Washington, D.C. that the Emancipation Proclamation had been signed:

“We were waiting and listening as for a bolt from the sky . . . we were watching,as it were, by the dim light of the stars, for the dawn of a new day; we were longing for the answer to the agonizing prayers of centuries.”

Part 1 continues on in third person plural as if both author and reader were there, waiting, too. “We waited for all America to repent.” “We abhorred the compromise of 1850′s Fugitive Slave Law.” “Many of us put great faith in the fledgling Republican party.” Since I wasn’t there and since I’m not a “person of color”, I found the continued use of “we” and “us” to be off-putting, at best, confusing, at worst.

Then comes Part II which is written as straight third person history. The author tries to get behind the history and unravel the enigma of Lincoln’s thoughts and motivations, but like most other authors who’ve tired, she meets with limited success. Lincoln was “moody, prone to brooding,”; he “truly loathed slavery.” Yet, Lincoln told abolitionist Charles Edward Lester in regard to freeing the slaves, “We must wait until every other means has been exhausted. This thunderbolt will keep.” And so, throughout Part II of this narrative history, Lincoln is is pushed and pulled back and forth by the events of the Civil War and the politics of maintaining what there was left of the Union, and he proposes or considers first one solution and then another for the slaves: partial emancipation of some slaves, compensation to slaveholders, banning slavery in the territories, gradual emancipation, allowing escaped slavs (contraband) to enter the Union Army, confiscation of Confederate property including slaves, deportation of freed slaves and free black persons to Africa or South America.

Part III returns to the disconcerting “we” for a couple of pages (p. 75-76) and then, inexplicably, back to third person narrative voice. I compared the entire book to the old classic children’s history of the same vent that I have on my shelves, The Great Proclamation by Henry Steele Commager, published in 1960. Other than the fact, dissonant to modern ears, that Mr. Commager calls African Americans “Negroes”, the book differs from Ms. Bolden’s account of the same events in other ways. Commager paints Lincoln as an unadorned hero, bravely attempting in every way possible to free the slaves as quickly as practicable. Commager does not quote Lincoln’s famous statement in a letter to Horace Greeley in 1862:

“If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that. What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union; and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union.”

That statement of intent should be a part of any discussion of Lincoln and his attitude about emancipation, and Ms. Bolden includes it prominently in her book. Ms.Bolden’s book also has the great advantage of 21st century illustration techniques, layout and design. Mr. Commager’s text in a layout similar to that of Ms. Bolden’s book would be a great improvement. However, what Mr. Commager does well is tell the story of the “great proclamation” straight, without the confusing changes in point of view. So, in the end I think I would either go with Commager’s book or find something else that would be less poetic and and more attuned to current historical perspectives than either of these books. There seem to be several to choose from.

Other books for children on the Emancipation Proclamation (found on Amazon):
Lincoln, Slavery, and the Emancipation Proclamation by Carin T. Ford.
The Emancipation Proclamation by Karen Price Hossell.
The Emancipation Proclamation (Cornerstones of Freedom) by Brendan January and R. Conrad Stein.
The Emancipation Proclamation: Ending Slavery in America by Adam Woog.

Emancipation Proclamation: Lincoln and the Dawn of Liberty by Tonya Bolden has been nominated for the Cybils Award in the category of Young Adult Nonfiction. The thoughts in this review are my own and do not reflect the thoughts or evaluations of the Cybils panel or of any other Cybils judge.

The Big Burn by Timothy Egan

The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire that Saved America by Timothy Egan.

I remember the story from history class of how FDR tried to pack the Supreme Court by creating new justices behind Congress’s back and of how John Adams tried to fill a bunch of vacant judgeships with his own appointees just before leaving office so that Jefferson wouldn’t fill them with his people. Teddy Roosevelt tried something similar, but with forests, and he got away with it—to the everlasting benefit of all Americans.

“In 1907, an amendment was tacked onto a spending bill, a bit of dynamite in a small package. The add-on took away the president’s authority to create new national forests in a huge part of the West without congressional approval. . . .

Roosevelt felt cornered. Not so with Pinchot. To the forester, the Senate amendment was no defeat; it was an opportunity–but only if they acted quickly. The president had a week to sign the bill, and it had to be signed because it kept the government in operation. Pinchot had an idea. Why not use the seven-day window to put as much land into the national forest system as possible? Just go full bore and do in a week’s time what they might normally do over the course of four years.

Roosevelt loved it. He asked the Forest Service to bring him maps–and hurry!–a carpet of cartography, every square mile in the area Heyburn was trying to take away. . .

At the end of the week, Roosevelt issued executive proclamations covering sixteen million acres of land in half a dozen states, bringing them into the fold of the national forest system. And then he signed the bill that prevented him or any other president from doing such a thing again.”

That was 1907, and although the National Forest Service had the land, it didn’t have the personnel and equipment and funding to take care of the land, to build ranger stations, and to watch for and fight fires, because Congress still wasn’t on board with Teddy’s little conservation mania. Speaker of the House Joe Cannon declared, “Not one cent for scenery!” And a lot of senators and representatives were in agreement with Cannon. Then, Teddy Roosevelt’s two terms as president were over, and he went off to Africa on safari and left President Taft, his hand-picked successor, in charge. But Taft wasn’t Teddy, although he promised to carry out TR’s conservation policies, and then came the Big Burn.

On August 20, 1910:

“‘All h–l broke loose,’ Bill Greeley reported. For the minister’s son this was as emphatic as he got. His rangers–those still in contact–were sending dispatches that made it sound as though virtually all of the forested domain of the United States government was under attack. They wrote of giant blowtorches flaming from treetop to treetop, of house-size fireballs rolling through canyons, pushed by winds of seventy miles an hour. They told of trees swelling, sweating hot sap, and then exploding; of horses dying in seconds; of small creeks boiling, full of dead trout, their white belies up; of bear cubs clinging to flaming trees, wailing like children.”

It was the worst forest fire anyone had ever seen, and the end result was over 100 people dead, about three million acres of forest burned to a crisp, and the National Forest Service with a mandate for the future: Prevent Forest Fires.

Aside from the availability of helicopters, better communications, and some more advanced firefighting methods, this nonfiction book about the worst wildfire in U.S. history sounds a lot like the newspaper articles and stories from the Colorado wildfires that are still raging and the fires that we read about every year in California. We still don’t know exactly how to manage forests and fires in forests.

Colorado State Trooper: “Forests didn’t used to grow to the point where you have these catastrophic fires. We would have a lot of little fires all the time. We’ve got to stop trying to preserve forests. I think we should work the forest. If we’ve got a 40,000-acre area burning because we have had a lot of beetle-killed trees over a decade, maybe should have done something during those years?”

Colorado State Senator: “We need to thin this dead stuff out. A timber industry can help keep the forest healthy.”

Americanforests.org: “For quite some time, the United States’ federal fire policy focused on suppressing all fires in national forests to protect timber resources and rural communities. However, decades of fire exclusion have resulted in unusually dense forests in many areas, actually increasing the risk of intense wildfires. As suppression proved to often be more damaging than beneficial, federal policy turned to more practical measures, such as prescribed burns and forest thinning. Even these, however, must be practiced carefully to avoid damage to the ecosystem by artificially providing a process that would occur naturally.”

They were saying some of the same sorts of things over a hundred years ago: We can’t let the forests burn because we need the timber. If we just let logging companies harvest the timber, there won’t be any fuel for big forest fires. If we allow forest fires, rural communities will be endangered. We have to save the forests. We have to use the forests.

The added element nowadays is the concern that both controlled and uncontrolled fires can add to the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and contribute to “climate change.” Or maybe climate change is contributing to insect infestation and dryer conditions which in turn cause more forest fires.

Yeah, it’s complicated, like everything else these days. Nevertheless, The Big Burn is a good book, and it features my favorite president, Teddy Roosevelt. If I didn’t learn how to manage forests and wildfires, I at least learned that wildfires in the forests of the United States are nothing new. And I learned the history of the National Forest Service, a bumpy start and a fine heritage.

Timothy Egan also wrote The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl, the book I passed out for World Book Night in April.

Christmas in Gonzales, Texas, 1835

Friday, December 25

“I awakened before the sun was up and saw that Mama was still by the hearth. I think she stayed up all night. The turkey was roasting on a spit over a low fire. It must have been the wonderful smell that woke me up. I hugged Mama’s waist and said Merry Christmas. She reached into her apron pocket and gave me a little gift wrapped in a scrap of blue velvet and told me to go ahead and open it before the menfolk got up. It was a beautiful ivory button, carved to look like a rose. It came from her mother’s wedding gown and I knew that it was precious to her and worth much because over the years in emergincies, Mama had sold all the other buttons like it. I threw my arms around Mama’s neck and kissed her face, still warm from the heat of the fire. It didn’t matter what else I got; this was the most precious gift I could receive.” ~A Line in the Sand: The Alamo Diary of Lucinda Lawrence by Sherry Garland.

Z-baby (age 11) and I have been reading this Dear America book together as an assignment for her Texas history class at co-op. I thought it showed quite well the hardship and indecision of individual families in the face of the war for Texas independence. Lucinda’s father is against fighting, against the Mexican army, partly because he knows the cost of war. Lucinda’s brother, Willis, goes off to San Antonio to help defend the Alamo. Lucinda herself is conflicted, proud of her brother and her new nation of Texas, but also unsure whether Texas independence is worth the deaths of brave men and the loss of homes and friendships and families.

Bravely stepping over that “line in the sand” to fight against tyranny isn’t an easy decision, and there’s always a cost.

Christmas in Rheims, France, 496 AD

A battle was fought at a place called Tolbiac, not far from the present city of Cologne. In this battle the Franks were nearly beaten, for the Alemanni were fierce and brave men and skillful fighters. When Clovis saw his soldiers driven back several times he began to lose hope, but at that moment he thought of his pious wife and of the powerful God of whom she had so often spoken. Then he raised his hands to heaven and earnestly prayed to that God.

“O God of Clotilde,” he cried, “help me in this my hour of need. If thou wilt give me victory now I will believe in thee.”

Almost immediately the course of the battle began to change in favor of the Franks. Clovis led his warriors forward once more, and this time the Alemanni fled before them in terror. The Franks gained a great victory, and they believed it was in answer to the prayer of their king.

When Clovis returned home he did not forget his promise. He told Clotilde how he had prayed to her God for help and how his prayer had been heard, and he said he was now ready to become a Christian. Clotilde was very happy on hearing this, and she arranged that her husband should be baptized in the church of Rheims on the following Christmas day.

Meanwhile Clovis issued a proclamation to his people declaring that he was a believer in Christ, and giving orders that all the images and temples of the heathen gods should be destroyed. This was immediately done, and many of the people followed his example and became Christians.

Clovis was a very earnest and fervent convert. One day the bishop of Rheims, while instructing him in the doctrines of Christianity, described the death of Christ. As the bishop proceeded Clovis became much excited, and at last jumped up from his seat and exclaimed:

“Had I been there with my brave Franks I would have avenged His wrongs.”

On Christmas day a great multitude assembled in the church at Rheims to witness the baptism of the king. A large number of his fierce warriors were baptized at the same time. The service was performed with great ceremony by the bishop of Rheims, and the title of “Most Christian King” was conferred on Clovis by the Pope. This title was ever afterwards borne by the kings of France.
~Famous Men of the Middle Ages by John H. Haaren.

The Mapmaker and the Ghost by Sarvenaz Tash

Goldenrod Moram loves maps, and Meriweather Lewis (Lewis and Clark Expedition) is her hero. When she sets out on a summer adventure to map her entire town in detail, she gets more adventure than she bargained for. She meets a gang of teen delinquents, a strange old lady who sends her on a quest for a blue rose, and the titular ghost.

The ghostly and magical elements in this adventure/mystery novel seem to be inserted for sparkle rather than being an integral part of the plot. The basic plot reminds me of the mystery books I loved when I was a girl: Nancy Drew, Trixie Belden, the Boxcar Children. But there’s a ghost and a magical blue rose.

I enjoyed reading The Mapmaker and the Ghost. I think I liked the mystery/historical fiction elements better than I did the fantasy elements. If you’re a fan of both contemporary mystery adventure stories and ghost stories, and if you like maps, The Mapmaker and the Ghost would be the perfect combination.

The Freedom Maze by Delia Sherman

When thirteen year old Sophie, bored with her life in the summer of 1960 in rural Louisiana, wishes for a magical adventure, a nameless, capricious, ghostly creature sends her 100 years into the past to the year 1860 in Louisiana, just before the outbreak of the Civil War. Sophie gets a lot more adventure than she bargained for, and she soon realizes that going back into the past isn’t all fun and games.

The Freedom Maze is kind of a Gone With the Wind tale, set on an antebellum Louisiana plantation and told from the point of view of the black slaves instead of the white masters (or mistresses). In fact, it might be a good balance or antidote to Gone With the Wind and other romanticized versions of life in the Old South. It certainly wasn’t all belles and balls and big dresses, especially not for the slaves who made the economy and culture of the region workable by their bondage and labor. I thought it was fascinating, educational, well-written, and terribly sad, with a touch of hope at the end. Older middle grade readers (age 13 and up) who are interested in learning the truth about what slavery was really like will find the story illuminating.

Warning: This book contains “hoodoo” and herb magic and superstition and ghostly magical creatures. The way these things were portrayed in the book wasn’t a problem for me as a conservative, evangelical Christian, but if you don’t want any elements like these in your reading or your child’s, then The Freedom Maze is not for you. Even more problematical for some readers might be the recurring stories of attempted rape and miscegenation as slave owners “meddle with” their female slaves producing light-skinned progeny who remain enslaved and considered “black.” That this sort of thing happened frequently is undeniable, and the descriptions are not graphic. However, my eleven year old would be clueless and confused as to what was going on in this story. My thirteen year old just might learn something about the tragedies of life and of our history.