Ghostland, by Colin Dickey

Ghostland Colin DickeyGhostland: An American History in Haunted Places
by Colin Dickey
Pub Date: October 4, 2016

“If you want to understand a place, ignore the boastful monuments and landmarks, and go straight to the haunted houses.”

Just in time for Halloween, here’s a fun and intellectual pick not only full of some fascinating ghost stories, but also some fascinating history. The author traveled across the United States seeking out haunted places, and looking into not only the truth behind those stories, but also what those stories say about the people who tell them, the people who believe them, the people who seek them out, and the culture that reveres them. I found myself pretty riveted from the first chapter on. The author doesn’t claim to believe these stories, or convince you to believe them, here merely lays them out with other evidence gathered, and allows you to come to your own conclusions.

Personally, I love a good ghost story. And I think that most of them are made up for scares, many are based in fact, or have some facts in them, and a small margin may even be true, though likely embellished. Who am I to argue with someone’s experiences with the thin veil that separates the living from the dead? Dickey covers some well-known ghost stories, like that of the Salem Witch Trials and the Winchester Mystery House, and other more locally-relevant ghost stories. Some focus on a person, some on a house, some on a place. (The author also recently wrote this entertaining piece about the correlation between hauntings and McMansions.)

One chapter I found particularly interesting focused on Civil War ghosts. I am a total Civil War buff and collecting Civil War-era ghost stories is fun for me. It talked about some of the typical type of hauntings around Gettysburg and Shiloh battlefields, and slowly evolved into how the Ku Klux Klan used the idea of ghosts and fear of ghosts to enact their early reign of terror. They would claim to be ghosts of Confederate soldiers out to seek vengeance on hapless former slaves and perform some illusion to make it seem as though they were supernatural to get a scare out of their victims. The author does point out that it’s debatable whether or not the former slaves believed the “ghosts” — they could have been feigning fright to appease the men terrorizing them so they would go away sooner and with minimal damage or violence.

What I like about this book is it’s a fun history book. You’re learning history, just through a different (and entertaining) lens. It causes you to think about how we remember our dead, how we treat our ancestors, and what kind of impression we ourselves might leave one day. While you yourself may not believe in ghosts to the extent of others, you might start looking at ghost stories in a different light and discern new things about the people and places involved. (You might also try another book I reviewed last year called American Ghost.) This isn’t a book looking to give you a fright, but it is full of some great stories that could be fun around a campfire as well.

 

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The Hamilton Affair, by Elizabeth Cobbs

Hamilton Affair Elizabeth CobbsThe Hamilton Affair
by Elizabeth Cobbs
Pub Date: August 2, 2016

Like most of America, I am in love with the musical Hamilton. I am obsessed. When the original Broadway cast recording came out late September of last year, I bought it the day it came out, and pretty much didn’t stop listening to it until Christmas, when I felt I needed to listen to holiday tunes. In the vernacular of the internet, I am definitely trash of the thing. So when this book crossed my path, I immediately had to give it a read. I started it anticipating that it wouldn’t be particularly good, and was delighted to find it quite enjoyable.

A quick sum-up for those of you not obsessed with the musical Hamilton — Alexander Hamilton was the nation’s first Secretary of the Treasury, a Revolutionary War vet and aide to George Washington, and previously most famously known for being killed by Vice President Aaron Burr in a duel. What the musical brings brings into play, and what the focus of this fictionalized account is, is his marriage to Elizabeth (or Eliza) Schuyler that produced a number of children, but was also marred by his affair with Maria Reynolds.

The story of The Hamilton Affair alternates between Alexander’s and Eliza’s perspectives, starting when they are young – Eliza in New York, and Alexander in the Caribbean. I will say I was a little bored with the initial chapters of their youth. I understand the author wanting to give character development and show scenes that influenced these people as adults, but I thought it dragged on a little too long. However, once Alexander and Eliza meet, I thought the book picked up the pace and was far more engaging. I could be biased because of my love of the musical (and imagining Lin-Manuel Miranda and Phillipa Soo in the roles in my head), but the book definitely got a lot more fun once they got together. Despite Alexander’s later affair, it was evident to those who knew them that they were a loving couple, and after her husband’s death Eliza dedicated much of her time to memorializing her beloved husband. That affection comes across so well in the novel, and when the author begins the descent that leads to Alexander’s affair the author explains his motivations in a way that makes some sense. NOT JUSTIFYING HIS ACTIONS, but giving a plausible explanation. Then the story shows the last years of Hamilton’s life, the tragedies that befell the couple, and ultimately reconciliation. (The man did call Eliza “best of wives, best of women,” a line that never fails to make me tear up.)

The author had begun the research and writing of this book before the musical gained acclaim, but I do wonder if a few lines were changed here and there in the manuscript to slyly reference the musical. At least, I found it easy to slip into singing lyrics from the musical as I read, which added to the fun of reading it. And the author for sure used Ron Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton as a reference. I’ve read Chernow’s book, loved it, but it is mighty hefty, and for those of us who might not have the inclination to read such a thick book, this more breezy novel covering some of the same information might be far more enjoyable.

I would recommend it to any fans of the musical, or those at least mildly interested in Hamilton’s life, early American history, or just a good romantic story. It’s well-written, gives historical insights and details, and brings to life two fascinating people pivotal to the development of our country.

Hamilton The Musical

“Best of wives, best of women”

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March Book One, by John Lewis

MarchMarch Book One
by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell
Pub Date: August 13, 2013

I admire the people who participated in the Civil Rights Movement. So when I heard that John Lewis was going to write an autobiography of his life in a graphic novel format, I knew this was a book we needed in the library. It didn’t disappoint. The story describes what the South was like for black people, as well as showing some of the beginning events in the Civil Rights Movement. Graphic novels are such a great way to take history beyond words into something visual. I am glad John Lewis decided to tell his story, and to tell it as a graphic novel.

After reading this, I am sure that I could not have been one of the protestors. The training they went through to prepare to be violently and physically abused was rigorous. With rules like ‘do not strike back or curse if abused,’ ‘do not laugh out,’ and ‘show yourself friendly and courteous at all times,’  I could not have handled violent or tense situations for hours. It is truly remarkable what John Lewis and people like him were able to accomplish through peaceful protest. As John Lewis says, “We wanted to change America—to make it something different, something better.” They certainly did.

I would recommend this book to anyone who likes to learn about history in a personal way, especially if you have never read a graphic novel. This is a great history book: it’s not dry facts and it’s fast-paced. Also, March is a great book for reluctant or struggling readers.

The Boundless by Kenneth Oppel

boundlessBoundless
by Kenneth Oppel
Pub. Date: April 22, 2014

For a good time adventure without kissy romance scenes or descriptive violence, this is the book for you. It has everything from Sasquatch to circus performers to scam artists. With the story of the transcontinental railroad as a backdrop, Oppel has created a tale of mystery, suspense, and fun with some historical facts mixed with tall tales that become reality. It is quite a page turner that several of my teens in the book club described as “unable to put down,” and one teen I have never seen read a book was excited to tell me about what he was reading.

Will wants adventure. He has grown up hearing about all the adventures his father experienced while building the Canadian transcontinental railroad, and now he wants to experience his own adventures. Yet, his father has different plans for him that includes a position in the family business. Will has this one train trip on the Boundless left before he is expected to begin schooling in business. What could go wrong in a few days?

At their first stop, Will witnesses a murder. As he goes from train car to train car trying to avoid the men trying to kill him as the only witness to their crime, Will meets up with the circus performers travelling on the train and that’s when the fun begins.

Personally, I loved this story. I can recommend it to people who want a clean book with a lot of adventure and memorable, inspiring characters. I also appreciated that several of the characters are not perfect, but have difficult moral questions that they have to work out. Also, I love the circus characters.

So, if you want a fun, historical story without too much romance or violence (and a clown, strongman, and elephants) you now have what you are looking for: Boundless.

Liar Temptress Soldier Spy, by Karen Abbott

Liar Temptress Soldier Spy Karen AbbottLiar Temptress Soldier Spy: Four Women Undercover in the Civil War
by Karen Abbott
Pub Date: September 2, 2014

If you know me past a few superficial conversations, you learn pretty quickly that I’m a Civil War buff. I lived in Georgia at the end of high school and for college, but it wasn’t until I left the South for a few years that I developed a thirst for learning about the Civil War (I think this was how my homesickness manifested itself. I truly love it down here). In particular, I have an affinity for anything involving the women of the time period. So when this book came along, it was on my radar with a quickness.

The author Karen Abbott has made a name for herself writing popular history books on interesting women (previously she wrote about Gypsy Rose Lee and the infamous Everleigh Sisters – not to everyone’s taste, but well-written titles regardless), and continues the trend with this hefty but engaging history of the Civil War through the lives and adventures of four women, two Confederate and two Federal: Belle Boyd, Emma Edmonds, Rose O’Neal Greenhow, and Elizabeth Van Lew. You might have heard of at least one of these women in passing in a high school history class or college course, but getting them grouped together like this really gets you curious for all the other women’s stories that don’t get the same clout or attention as so many male personalities of the time.

The stories of these four women are told over the course of the conflict, and Abbott seems to have a lot of fun with the narrative, leaving you on a cliffhanger with one story and picking up with another, and before you know it you’re engrossed in the book and not realizing how long you’ve been reading. It’s like an adventure story where the four main characters don’t actually interact but have parallel story lines.

All of these women had at least some small brush with espionage, so if you’re into spy stories mixed with American history, this is one to try out. Emma Edmonds dressed as a man to fight in the war, and was one of at least 200 documented cases at the time of women doing so. (Honestly, the stories of Civil War era women impersonating men for a variety of reasons will never cease to amaze and impress me.) Rose Greenhow spent time in prison for her exploits, along with her young daughter, and still managed to get information out of the Yankees and to the Rebels. While one might be hesitant to herald these women as role models necessarily, there’s no denying they all showed a great deal of courage and can be admired for their stealth, wit, fierceness of beliefs, and mettle. Plus, as a woman, I like reading about other women. Women are pretty amazing.

There are a certain number of books on the Civil War that I think are necessary to read if you get into the subject, and this one was definitely added to that list. No dry history tome here – this fast-paced collection of stories will keep you invested until the end.

The Oregon Trail, by Rinker Buck

The Oregon Trail Rinker BuckThe Oregon Trail: A New American Journey
by Rinker Buck
Pub Date: June 30, 2015

I never had the opportunity to go on Trek while I was in Young Women. I’ll no doubt get the chance later in life if I get a calling in YW or have kids who go on Trek, but right now my outdoorsy adventures have been Girls Camp and exploring historic sites with Civil War reenactors. I did play a heck of a lot of Oregon Trail back in grade school, so my primary association with the Oregon Trail is “caulk the wagon!” and “David has died of dysentery.”

So I was delighted to hear about this book being published! The author, Rinker Buck (what a fabulous name!), is a curmudgeonly unemployed journalist leaving middle age who decides he’s going to take a covered wagon and a team of mules and retrace the pioneer’s trek along the famed Oregon Trail. Because why not?! This is a total nerdfest for history buffs! His younger brother Nick (the epitome of a kind of redneck renaissance man) joins him on the journey, along with Nick’s smelly but lovable dog Olive Oyl, and Buck not only recounts the trials, tribulations, and triumphs of the trek West, but also gives robust histories of various aspects of pioneer life and the Oregon Trail, like the breeding and raising of mules, how the pioneers packed their wagons, the variety of covered wagons, and recounts a number of biographies of colorful pioneer characters.

Speaking of colorful, I should warn you that the language in the book is a little blue. Buck’s brother doesn’t have much of a filter, and Buck isn’t all that much better. So if that’s really going to bother you, maybe pass this one along, but I found the history and the story arc of the journey well worth it. There’s also two chapters where he talks about the Mormon migration and visits what sounds like a multi-stake Trek. It might be best for some to skip those chapters because he’s pretty sarcastic in tone, and though he gets some facts right in his history, it’s through a very skeptic lens. But he does thank the LDS Church in the acknowledgements for help with his research.

Throughout the story, Buck recalls a similar endeavor he made with his father in 1958, heading from New Jersey to Pennsylvania in a covered wagon. On the back of the wagon his father made a sign that told any impatient motorists that they were going to “See America Slowly” and to pardon the delay. I love that. My great-grandparents raised sheep for a time, and one of the favorite places to play when we were kids was in the old sheep wagon parked in the back of their house. It was basically a primitive RV in the form of a covered wagon, and just delightful (but not much fun to sleep in when you’re a seven-year-old used to air conditioning and nearby bathrooms). Buck shares a number of memories of that trip and of his father, seeking some reconciliation with their rocky relationship. It’s very clear where the Buck brothers get their personalities, and reaching the points in the narrative where Buck talks about his father were highlights for me.

Another thing that struck me and the author is how incredibly friendly people along the route were. They were delighted to see a Real Covered Wagon pass by, and offered advice, places to stay, food, wagon repairs, and loved on the mules. You get a real sense of the kind of America we all want to experience.

This is a highly entertaining travelogue of two middle-aged guys with a fierce determination to travel the route of their pioneer forebears. And though they never got to actually “caulk the wagon,” they do run into some dangerous and nerve-wracking situations that will keep you moving along with them. If you’re looking for a book that gives some nitty-gritty details about pioneer life, and are really into Trek, this may be a fun read for you.

Readalikes: If you’re a fan of history buffs going on journeys, I highly recommend Land of Lincoln: Adventures in Abe’s America by Andrew Ferguson and Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War by Tony Horwitz. While both are obviously Civil War-centric, the authors do describe a past America, correct common misconceptions, and see how much or how little certain aspects of American life have changed in 150 or so years.