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Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson

With recent events across the nation, the deaths of several unarmed black men, the deaths of policemen, Just Mercy is an incredibly timely read. As I read, I came to a new understanding of just how the deck is stacked against poor criminals and poor criminal suspects in particular, even as I questioned the author’s perspective on the crimes he wrote about. Seemingly, according to Bryan Stevenson, there are no heinous crimes deserving of the death penalty, and there are only misunderstood and wrongly convicted persons on death row.

Notwithstanding the author’s preconceptions about the justice system and the death penalty, his book and the stories recounted therein are well worth reading. If you are a critic of the death penalty, you will find your views bolstered and supported. If you are a proponent of the death penalty as a just punishment in certain crimes, you will find your support for it challenged. And that’s a good thing. The imposition of execution in response to crimes of murder and rape should only be undertaken by a society and a justice system under very limited circumstances and after much consideration, if at all.

So, Bryan Stevenson tells in his book the stories of several clients of his Equal Justice Initiative in Alabama. The story of one client, Walter McMillan, a black man who is sentenced to death for a murder he insists he did not commit. The book tells the stories of other death row prisoners who were helped, or not, by Stevenson’s EJI, but the thread that runs through the entire book is Mr. McMillan’s story of injustice, eventual freedom, and continued brokenness and struggle even after his release from prison.

Some quotes from the book show Stevenson’s perspective on mercy and justice:

Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done. My work with the poor and the incarcerated has persuaded me that the opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice. Finally, I’ve come to believe that the true measure of our commitment to justice, the character of our society, our commitment to the rule of law, fairness, and equality cannot be measured by how we treat the rich, the powerful, the privileged, and the respected among us. The true measure of our character is how we treat the poor, the disfavored, the accused, the incarcerated, and the condemned.”

“We are all broken by something. We have all hurt someone and have been hurt. We all share the condition of brokenness even if our brokenness is not equivalent.”

“At the church meeting, I spoke mostly about Walter’s case, but I also reminded people that when the woman accused of adultery was brought to Jesus, he told the accusers who wanted to stone her to death, ‘Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.’ The woman’s accusers retreated, and Jesus forgave her and urged her to sin no more. But today, our self-righteousness, our fear, and our anger have caused even the Christians to hurl stones at the people who fall down, even when we know we should forgive or show compassion. I told the congregation that we can’t simply watch that happen. I told them we have to be stone catchers.”

Author John Grisham wrote about this book on Goodreads: “Not since Atticus Finch has a fearless and committed lawyer made such a difference in the American South. Though larger than life, Atticus exists only in fiction. Bryan Stevenson, however, is very much alive and doing God’s work fighting for the poor, the oppressed, the voiceless, the vulnerable, the outcast, and those with no hope. Just Mercy is his inspiring and powerful story.”

The other scene in the book that impressed me was when the author, who also happens to be a black man, describes his own encounter with the Atlanta (I think) police. Because he was sitting in his own car outside his own apartment for an extended period of time, listening to music, the police stopped, ordered him out of the car, and searched and questioned him. That’s a scary experience, and apparently it’s one that happens repeatedly and disproportionally to people of color, especially black men. One more quote:

“Of course innocent mistakes occur but the accumulated insults and indignations caused by racial presumptions are destructive in ways that are hard to measure. Constantly being suspected, accused, watched, doubted, distrusted, presumed guilty, and even feared is a burden born by people of color that can’t be understood or confronted without a deeper conversation about our history of racial injustice.”

This book is a part of that deeper conversation, and it certainly made me think about some of my own presumptions and attitudes.

The Three-Year Swim Club by Julie Checkoway

The Three-Year Swim Club: The Untold Story of Maui’s Sugar Ditch Kids and Their Quest for Olympic Glory by Julie Checkoway. “For readers of Unbroken and The Boys in the Boat comes the inspirational, untold story of impoverished children who transformed themselves into world-class swimmers.”

The author, Julie Checkoway, is a National Endowment for the Arts individual artist grant recipient and a journalist for the New York Times and other respected publications. She chose a really good and inspiring Olympic story, from poverty in the sugarcane fields of Hawaii to Olympic glory in the swimming pool. However, the execution and the storytelling just weren’t up to par.

I read the entire book, and I’m glad I know the story of these swimming champions from Hawaii and their eccentric Japanese-American coach. However, I feel that the same story in the hands of a Laura Hillenbrand or John Krakauer could have been so much better. I never really understood what motivated the non-swimming coach, Soichi Sakamoto, to spend so much time and energy teaching a bunch of kids to swim competitively. Although Sakamoto is the central character in the book, he remains an enigma throughout, with a shadowy and stereotypical Japanese inscrutability. And when Ms. Checkoway moves the focus to other characters, one of the kid swimmers in training or the famous Hawaiian veteran swimmer Duke Kahanamoku or Sakamoto’s wife, that focus is still soft and indistinct. I never felt I knew any of these people or what they lived for.

Another problem with the story is the lack of suspense or dramatic tension. Almost anyone reading would know that the Hawaiian swimmers’ dreams of going to the Olympics in 1940, and Japan’s dreams of hosting the 1940 Olympics, were doomed by World War II. The only suspense that remains for us is to watch and read about how the characters in the book find out that that there will be no Olympics in 1940 nor in 1944. And after the war, the focus changes again to a new generation of swimmers who didn’t have to train in a sugar ditch and who are more “normal” and middle class and therefore less compelling and interesting than the original group of come-from-behind swimmers who somehow managed to learn to swim and win national championships in spite of their poverty-stricken beginnings.

I think Ms. Checkoway tried to to flesh out her characters and make them more knowable and therefore more interesting, but unfortunately, probably because of a dearth of people to interview almost eighty years after the fact, she often speculates or imagines what the thoughts and feelings of her characters might have been. As I just did. I really don’t know why the author couldn’t or didn’t find out more about what her characters were thinking and feeling, but I assume it was a lack of access to interviews of the characters themselves. Ms. Checkoway makes these sort of assumptions throughout the book, and I didn’t always agree with her imaginary attribution of feelings and thoughts to the people she writes about.

Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand and The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown are still the gold standard for Olympic narrative nonfiction. This book, while it has its moments, doesn’t even medal. Do you have nominations for the bronze medal in this genre?

Reading Through The Olympics

Here are a few of the books in my library related to the Olympics:

Biographies of Olympic heroes:
Jim Thorpe, Olympic Champion by Guernsey Van Riper. A biography of the Native American athlete known as one of the best all-round athletes in history, for his accomplishments as an Olympic medal winner as well as an outstanding professional football and baseball player.

Babe Didrikson, Girl Athlete by Lena Young de Grummond and Lynn de Grummond Delaune. Babe Didrikson Zaharias was an all-round Olympic champion female athlete, with ability similar to Jim Thorpe’s in a number of events. After her Olympic career, Didrikson Zaharias excelled as a professional golfer.

Eric Liddell by Catherine Swift. A biography of the famous runner and missionary from the movie, Chariots of Fire.

The Boys in the Boat (Young Readers Adaptation): The True Story of an American Team’s Epic Journey to Win Gold at the 1936 Olympics by Daniel James Brown.

Mary Lou Retton: America’s Olympic Superstar by George Sullivan.

Highlights of the Olympics: Past and Present by John Durant. This history includes the origin of the original Greek Olympics and of the modern-day version and then highlights mostly American Olympics athletes through 1964.

Unbroken: An Olympian’s Journey from Airman to Castaway to Captive (adapted for young adults) by Laura Hillenbrand. The best true Olympic story ever.

About kids participating in Olympic, and not-so-olympic, sports:
Stop! the Watch: A Book of Everyday, Ordinary, Anybody Olympics from Klutz Press. Host your own Olympic games with raisin-tossing, finger snapping, and under the bed crawling.

Everybody’s a Winner: A Kid’s Guide to New Sports and Fitness by Tom Schneider. A Brown Paper School book.

Jump: The New Jump Rope Book by Susan Kalbfleisch.

Olympic sports-related fiction for elementary and middle grades:
Mission to Marathon by Geoffrey Trease. The first marathon in 490 BC. Philip must run across the mountains to warn his family and all of Athens that the Persians are invading. Will he get to Athens in time to save the city?

The Winning Stroke by Matt Christopher. Swimming.

Soccer Halfback by Matt Christopher.

Stepladder Steve Plays Basketball by C. Paul Jackson.

Break for the Basket by Matt Christopher. Basketball.

Soup’s Hoop by Robert Newton Peck. Basketball. Soup has a plan to help his favorite hometown basketball team win, including the use of a musical instrument called a spitzentootle.

The Hockey Trick by Scott Corbett. When three brothers, all extraordinary baseball players, move into the neighborhood, two rival teams play a game of hockey to determine which team will get them.

Face-Off by Matt Christopher. Hockey.

Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome. Sailing. The jolly crew of The Swallow pursue summer adventures in their sailboat.

Young adult fiction:
The Contender by Robert Lipsyte. A Harlem high school dropout escapes from a gang of punks into a boxing gym, where he learns that being a contender is hard work. Young adult.

The Moves Make the Man by Bruce Brooks. For Jerome Foxworthy, basketball is a metaphor for life. But trying to to teach the moves to Bix Rivers is a job that even Jerome may not be able to handle. Young adult.

The Runner by Cynthia Voigt. In the Vietnam War era, a black student joins the track team, forcing Bullet Tillerman to question his own prejudices. But nothing will keep Bullet from running. Nothing. Young adult.

In the process of making this list, I’ve decided to read some Olympics books myself, and also a book or two set in Brazil. I’d like for most of the books I read to be from my library, but I’m open to suggestions. Do you have any great Olympics-related books to recommend?

New Biographies in the Library: July, 2016

I’m going to start posting here about the books that I acquire for my library. For those of you who don’t know, I have a private subscription library in my home, mostly for homeschoolers, although others who are interested in quality books are welcome to visit or to join. I have a lot of older books that are no longer available from the public library as well as some new books that I think will stand the test of time.

Here’s an annotated list of some of the new/old books I’ve acquired (from thrift stores, used bookstores, library sales, donations) in the past month:

Harry Houdini: Young Magician by Kathryn Kilby Borland. Illustrated by Helen Ross Speicher. Childhood of Famous Americans series.

Albert Einstein: Young Thinker by Marie Hammontree. Illustrated by Robert Dorms. Childhood of Famous Americans series.

Kate Douglas Wiggin: The Little Schoolteacher by Miriam E. Mason. Illustrated by Vance Locke. Childhood of Famous Americans series.

George Eastman: Young Photographer by Joanne Landers Henry. Illustrated Rawson. Childhood of Famous Americans series.

I have a young library patron who devours these Childhood of Famous Americans series books. They are a series of somewhat fictionalized biographies of almost all of the famous Americans you can think of. They’re written on a primary grade/easy chapter book reading level, and the stories are engaging and adventure-filled. The bios focus on the childhood years of the subject, hence the series title, but do give information about each person’s adult life as well. I recommend them for second to fourth graders who want to read about real people. I find them to much more readable and “narrative” than more recent biography series for that age group, which sometimes tend to be dry and factual and focused on the adult lives of the biographical subject.

The War in Korea: 1950-1953 by Robert Leckie. World Landmark series is another great series for children and young adults, this one more middle grade level and usually about historical events or time periods, although some are biographies. I didn’t really have any books in my library about the Korean War or set during the Korean War, so I was glad to pick up this Landmark history book.

The Story of Beethoven by Helen Kaufmann. Another series, Signature Books from Grosset and Dunlap publishers. Excellent biographies written by top-notch authors.

Giants of Invention: Stories of the Men Whose Inventions Remade our World by Edgar Tharp. Illustrated by Frank Vaughn.

History’s 100 Greatest Composers: Life Stories of the Immortals of Music Selected by America’s Top Music Critics by Helen L. Kaufmann.

On a Beam of Light: A Story of Albert Einstein by Jennifer Berne. I found this more recent title, a picture book biography emphasizing Einstein’s unrelenting curiosity, at a thrift store. It’s a lovely introduction to the great scientist and his work.

Four Seasons in Rome by Anthony Doerr

Four Seasons in Rome: On Twins, Insomnia, and the Biggest Funeral in the History of the World by Anthony Doerr.

I read Anthony Doer’s Pulitzer prize winning novel, All the Light We Cannot See, last year, but I never did review it here at Semicolon because I just didn’t love it the way everyone else did. It was OK, but I probably went into it with my expectations raised too high. So it turned out to be just OK.

However, I did like Mr. Doerr’s writing enough that when Modern Mrs. Darcy recommended Four Seasons in Rome to one of the guests on her podcast, I thought I’d give it a try. And I thought it was quite a lovely book. It’s short, about 200 pages, and sweet, all about the year that Doerr and his wife spent in Rome with their twin baby boys. The day after the twins were born, Mr. Doerr got a letter inviting him to be a fellow in literature at the American Academy in Rome. He will have a year work on writing anything he wants. He doesn’t have to produce anything or prove anything to anybody, just write, expenses paid. It’s too good an offer to turn down, even though the birth, care and feeding of their twins has thrown both Doerr and his f=wife, Shauna, for a loop.

Everyone thinks Doerr and his wife are crazy to take six month old twins and move to Italy, to Rome. But what an adventure! The author spends approximately equal time on the difficulties and joys of caring for twin boys, the beauties and treasures of Rome, and the characteristics and dilemmas of the writer’s life. It’s a good combination. Just as I became a little tired of reading about teething and toddlerhood, the narrative would switch to the death and funeral of Pope John Paul II, and then to Mr. Doerr’s studio as he attempted to work on his novel, All the Light We Cannot See, but was only able to write a short story plus the journal entries that formed the spine of this book.

On twins: “There is a circle of understanding, an unspoken fellowship, between parents of multiple babies. Two days ago a Roman mother grappled her twins onto the tram at Largo Argentina, one baby clipped to her chest and other in her arms. She flipped her hair out of her face and her gaze took in Henry and Owen, the stroller, me, and for a half second our eyes met. Something in my heart flared. I thought, Hang in there. You’re not alone.”

On writing: “I x-ray sentences; I claw away at a paragraph and reshape it as carefully as I can, and test it again, and peer into the pages to see if things are any clearer, any more resolved. Often they are not. But to write a story is to inch backward and forward along a series of planks you are cantilevering out into the darkness, plank by plank, inch by inch, and the best you can hope is that each day you find yourself a little bit farther out over the abyss.”

On Rome: “Something about this city exacerbates contrasts, the incongruities and contradictions, a Levi’s billboard rippling on the facade of a four-hundred-year-old church, a drunk sleeping on the tram in $300 shoes. Four mornings ago I watched a man chat with the baker for five minutes while half a dozen of us waited behind him, then climb into a Mercedes and tear off at fifty miles hour. As if he had not a single second to spare.”

Recommended, especially if you’re planning a trip to Rome anytime soon—or if you want to make a journey there vicariously.

Cola Fountains and Spattering Paint Bombs by Jesse Goossens and Linde Faas

A book of 47 science experiments for children to do at home. (Why 47?)

This colorful book has the basics plus a few: volcanoes made of baking soda and vinegar, a storm in a jar or clouds in a jar, a bouncy ball made of borax, cornstarch and glue, invisible ink, and lava lamps, just to name some. Each experiment has a set of symbol pictures next to the title to indicate that it might be “exploding” or “messy” or easy or difficult or requiring fire or safety goggles or a longer time period than usual.

This book is a Dutch import, but the translators and editors have done a good job of Americanizing, as far as I can see. I didn’t catch any “European-isms” in the ingredients lists for the experiments. The measurements are in the units commonly used in this country: cups, tablespoons, and teaspoons. American parents might be a little surprised by the “paint bomb” with which one can “turn your doorstep into a painting!” But it’s marked as “messy” and “explodes” and “do this outside”. Maybe there should be another symbol for “ask your parents first before you paint the front porch.”

These experiments involve lots of baking soda, lots of eggs and balloons and sugar and salt and bubbles and explosions. There is a note in the front of the book on the reverse side of the title page opposite the table of contents, easy to miss, that tells readers: “All of the experiments in this book require adult supervision, and some require careful, hands-on adult assistance. Even materials that might not appear dangerous can be harmful in certain situations if mixed, or if used improperly. Any experiments using fire are safest performed outside and require particular adult assistance and attention. Some materials and experiments may endanger people or pets, either in the process of doing them or if left unattended or stored improperly. Get adult help to decide which ones are right for you, and make sure an adult is there helping along the way. Read through the experiment completely before starting.”

I’m quite curious as to whether or not that same disclaimer appears in the Dutch edition of this book. Or is only Americans who feel the need to warn children in tiny print that fire burns and that chemicals combined may explode or poison the dog?

How the Scots Invented the Modern World by Arthur Herman

How the Scots Invented the Modern World: The True Story of How Western Europe’s Poorest Nation Created Our World & Everything in It by Arthur Herman.

What a fascinating piece of narrative nonfiction history! I learned so many things that I didn’t know before:

The Treaty of Union between England and Scotland (1706-1707), according to Mr. Herman, was actually a huge boost to Scottish commerce, progress, and culture. As he writes the story, the Scots may have given up their independence, but they received innumerable benefits from the deal, including a paradoxical and practical independence from English interference in their affairs that enabled the Scots to “invade” London and indeed England and become leaders in government, education, and business for over a century.

Philosophers Adam Smith and David Hume, historians and biographers James Boswell and Thomas Babbington Macaulay, poets Robert Burns and Sir Walter Scott, inventors John Macadam (macadam roads), Thomas Telford (canals and bridges galore), James Watt (steam engine), and many other men, both famous and under-appreciated, were all Scots or of Scottish extraction.

Scotswomen, other than the Jacobite heroine Flora MacDonald, seem to have been quite unheard of and unremarkable in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, at least. The dearth of women in the pages of this book reminded me of the scarcity/non-mention of dwarf women in The Lord of the Rings. You know there must be women, and every once in a while a “mother” is mentioned, but the women were not part of literary, educational, or polite society. (Scotsmen remind me of dwarves, or vice-versa, anyway.)

The whole Bonnie Prince Charlie thing and Highland kilts and bagpipes made the Highlands of Scotland a tourist attraction in the early 1800’s, mostly because of Sir Walter Scott’s novels.

Scotland’s literacy rate (boys and girls) was higher than any other country in the world by the end of the eighteenth century, and printing and book-selling were major industries in Edinburgh during that same century.

And lots more. I found this book fascinating, even if it was a somewhat one-sided view of the power, influence and sheer overwhelming greatness of Scotland and its culture. If everything good, especially in the eighteenth century, came out of Scotland, what happened in England, Ireland, France, America, even China? Another fault in the book, the author begins his story with the true tale of Edinburgh theology student Thomas Aikenhead who was hanged in 1697 for the crime of “obstinate blasphemy”. Herman calls Scotland “a nation governed by a harshly repressive Kirk; a nation of an unforgiving and sometimes cruel Calvinist religious faith.” However, the rest of the book makes little of the influence of the “Kirk” or of Calvinism or indeed of Christianity in general, even though most of the Enlightenment figures in Scotland who dominate the culture for the next two centuries were professing Christians, many of them ordained ministers. With the notable exception of atheist philosopher David Hume, it’s as if their religious beliefs were baggage to be hidden away or overcome and not an influence on their thinking at all.

I would have liked to read more about how the faith of men such as educator, theologian, and philosopher Francis Hutcheson shaped their theology —or perhaps how Mr. Hutcheson was able to reconcile his Presbyterianism with his belief in the innate goodness of man. In fact, the author, Mr. Herman, does highlight the Christian faith of Hutcheson, although with less of a explanation of how that faith was worked out in his life than I would have liked. But the faith of other men who are featured in the book would have been valuable to explore and in treating to read about.

Nevertheless, even if the book is biased in favor of Scotland’s influence and standing in the world, and even if Scots Calvinism is given short shrift in the building of that Scottish moral philosophy, How the Scots Invented the Modern World certainly was a good read. It made me want to look up and find the names and histories of some of my own Scottish ancestors so that I could claim a part in the Scottish heritage that Mr, Herman so ably extols.

The Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap by Wendy Welch

The Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap: A Memoir of Friendship, Community, and the Uncommon Pleasure of a Good Book by Wendy Welch.

I forget where I saw a reference to this delightful nonfiction book about a little bookstore in rural southwestern Virginia (Appalachia), but big thanks to whomever it was that recommended the book to me. The actual name of the eponymous bookstore is just about too long to fit on the cover of the book: Tales of the Lonesome Pine Used Bookstore, Crafts, and Cafe. The owners Jack and Wendy Welch serve up Scots shortbread, tea, both iced and hot, and loads of used books in every conceivable genre. Ms. Welch, in her memoir about how two inexperienced innocents started a used bookstore on a shoestring and a prayer, gives unwary wannabe bookstore owners fair warning: running a halfway profitable and successful used bookstore is hard work, especially in a small town of about 5000 people. Don’t try this at home, folks. Well, the Welches did try it at home (they live upstairs above the bookstore); however, after reading The Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap, I wouldn’t dare to copy their business plan. If you are an aspiring bookseller, I would at least advise reading Ms. Welch’s book to get some idea of what you may be getting yourself into.

Nevertheless, this book about books and bookish people was a great read. As you can see from this video of A Typical Day at Tales of the Lonesome Pine, the little bookstore would be a lovely place to visit, even with all the cats and dogs running loose. (I’m not an animal person, but I love my books enough to put up with a few animals.)

When Ms. Welch quoted C.S. Lewis, Edith Schaeffer, and the Dalai Lama within the first fifteen pages of her book, I knew I had found a kindred spirit. Then, the subtitle of “community and the uncommon pleasure of a good book” is so akin to my little project of creating a community of families who love good books in my little private library. I just settled in and read all about Jack and Wendy and their adventures and misadventures in their little bookstore. I promise that if I ever get anywhere near southwestern Virginia and Big Stone Gap, Tales of the Lonesome Pine Bookstore will be high on my itinerary. And just reading about it made me want to go on a used bookstore adventure trip of my own.

So, what are the best used bookstores in your neck of the woods? Where do you go when you want to browse, and smell, and dip into a multitude of old books?

The Boy Who Became Buffalo Bill by Andrea Warren

The Boy Who Became Buffalo Bill: Growing Up Billy Cody in Bleeding Kansas by Andrea Warren.

Ms. Warren says in her author’s note at the end of the book that she set out to write a book about Kansas history, “Bleeding Kansas”, during the time prior to and during the Civil War. She needed a “hook”, a young person who lived in Kansas during the time period and who experienced the difficulties and vicissitudes of war-torn Kansas. She chose Buffalo Bill Cody who moved to Kansas with his family at the age of eight in 1854 and who grew up at the center of a conflict that shattered his family, tore apart the entire region, and made Billy Cody both a responsible man and a participant in the violence and fighting at a very young age.

What was fun for me in reading this new book, just published in November of last year, was how it serendipitously impinged upon and overlapped with several things we have already been reading and discussing in our homeschool this semester. We’re studying the Civil War right now—and its aftermath. So, a biography of Buffalo Bill, especially one that concentrates on his childhood in Bleeding Kansas before and during the war, is just parallel to what we are reading and studying. Then too, we have been reading the Newbery award winner Rifles for Watie by Harold Keith as our morning read aloud book. The protagonist in that book is a young Union soldier, Jeff Bussey, from Linn County, Kansas. I was fascinated to read, in conjunction with the fictional Jeff Bussey’s adventures, about Billy Cody’s adventures as the son of an abolitionist father and later, as a Jayhawker himself. Bill Cody, at age seventeen, went on raids across the Kansas-Missouri border with a group called the Red-Legs, “one of the most infamous Jayhawker bands of them all.” Jeff Bussey encounters Southern-sympathizer Bushwhackers who come to his home on a raid and give him good reason to join the Union army.

Another intersection between this biography and our other studies came as I marveled at the age at which young Billy shouldered responsibility for tasks and decisions that we in this day would never allow or even conceive of at his age. With my adult children I have been discussing the tension between over-protection of children in our culture and the need to protect them from the over-sexualization and violence that our culture promotes. Billy’s parents didn’t seem to be interested in protecting him from hard work, hard living men, or adult decision-making. Two examples:

“Billy drove the supply wagon back and forth to Uncle Elijah’s store in Weston (MO) to get supplies—a big job for and eight year old since it meant crossing on the ferry with the wagon and horses, loading all the goods into the wagon, and then recrossing the river, driving the wagon to the store, and unloading everything. But Billy liked the challenge and was proud that he could already do the work of a man.”

“Billy (age nine) worked alongside several other herders as they moved the cattle from one grazing site to another to fatten them for market. At night the herders ate by firelight and slept under the stars. Billy missed his family and worried about his father’s health and safety. But otherwise it was the perfect life.”

At age fifteen Bill Cody was a rider for the Pony Express. At seventeen, he joined the Union Army. These freedoms and responsibilities were allowed and even expected for young Billy Cody in a Kansas that was a much more dangerous place than 21st century Houston, TX. There were Jayhawkers, Bushwhackers, horse thieves, Native Americans who were still at war with the United States, knives, guns, and all of the other possible dangers that were part of living on the frontier in a state that was near to anarchy. And we are afraid to allow our children to walk to school by themselves?

Another book that my daughter and I are reading together is Jim Murphy’s The Boys’ War: Confederate and Union Soldiers Talk About the Civil War. In that book boys as young as ten or eleven join the Union or the Confederate armies. Some of them ran way from home to join up and lied about their ages, but others were allowed or even encouraged by their parents to sign up. Boys in that era were expected to be men at age twelve or thirteen, to do a man’s work and to shoulder a man’s responsibilities. (And girls often got married at thirteen, fourteen and fifteen and saw themselves as adults, too.)

I don’t say we should go back to those times and those mores in all respects, but perhaps we should quit infantilizing our young men and women and start asking and allowing them to meet challenges and gain the pride and maturity that comes from feeling that they can do the work of a man—or a woman. (Do hard things.)

Anyway, I read this entire book avidly and found it to be a fascinating account of a boy growing up on the frontier. There’s a little bit of information in the final chapters about Buffalo Bill’s show business career, but that wasn’t the focus of the book. And that wasn’t what made it so appealing to me. Bill Cody made some bad decisions (becoming a lawless Jayhawker) as well as good ones (becoming the sole financial support for his mother and sisters after his father’s death) as he became an adult during his teenage years. But he lived a rich and mostly honorable life, full of adventure and yes, responsibility. Young men (or women) who spend their lives playing video games and watching youtube would, I think, be incomprehensible to a time-transported Buffalo Bill.

Tippecanoe and Tyler, Too by Stanley Young

If you have any young readers in your family who are planning on a military career, this biography of William Henry Harrison, one of the Landmark history series, would be a good book to share. If any of them have political ambitions, it might be of interest for them to to read at least the last few chapters of the book in which Harrison runs a political campaign and is elected president. And those of us who are fascinated by language and the history of words and phrases can find in this story of a frontiersman turned statesman, the origin of such American colloquialisms as “keep the ball rolling” and “Long Knives” (for white men) and “OK” and of course, the titular campaign slogan, “Tippecanoe and Tyler, too”.

William Henry Harrison isn’t a well-known president. He only served in office for one month before he died of pneumonia and passed the presidency on to his vice-president, John Tyler. However, he lived quite a colorful and adventurous life, both in the military, fighting the Indians in the Northwest territories, and as a public servant, serving in the Ohio legislature, the House of Representatives, the Senate, and finally, the presidency.

The funniest part of Harrison’s story was his nomination as Whig candidate for president. Harrison was nominated instead of Henry Clay, the most famous Whig, because the party convention thought Clay might be too controversial to win over the incumbent Democrat Martin Van Buren. (Clay was furious when he didn’t get the nomination, saying, “My friends are not worth the powder and shot it would take to kill them!”) The Whigs also thought Harrison would be more discreet and more popular in the West, where he was a hero for fighting and defeating Tecumseh and his Indian confederation. One of the Whig leaders, Nicholas Biddle, warned Harrison to not say anything that could possibly be construed as taking a position on anything: “Let no Committee, no convention, no town meeting, ever extract from him a single word about what he thinks now or what he will do hereafter.” Sound political advice? Or somewhat cynical and impracticable?

I enjoyed reading about this little known president and military hero, and it made me want to read more about Tecumseh and Henry Clay and John Tyler and . . . lots of others. Oh, the serendipitous rabbit trails of a reading life! I also found out that Harrison trained and became friends with Meriwether Lewis and William Clark at Fort Pitt. And Harrison served as ambassador to Colombia for a year, where he met and supported Simon Bolivar, the great South American liberator. What a varied and fascinating life!

The pen and ink illustrations in the book, by prolific illustrator Warren Chappell, are particularly detailed and would be excellent for study or for copying by budding artists. Author Stanley Young, was, as best I can figure out, a playwright and partner in the publishing house of Farrar, Straus and Young, later Farrar Straus Giroux.