Friday, February 25, 2022

Booth (Karen Joy Fowler)

In the Author's Note at the beginning of Booth, Karen Joy Fowler explains that she did want to write a book about, nor give any more attention to, John Wilkes Booth. Which left her with a writing conundrum. She solved it by choosing to focus on his fiercely loyal family. This works most of the time, but unfortunately, you can't really write a book about the Booth family without talking about its most infamous member.

But the other Booths were interesting in their own right...and very, very theatrical. Father Junius Brutus Booth was a famed Shakespearean actor with many personal demons. This included abandoning his wife and child and running off to the United States with another woman. This woman, Mary Ann Holmes, became the matriach of the Booth family. Together, they had ten children, only six who lived to adulthood. 

Fowler follows the stories of these six -- June, Rosalie, Edwin, John, Asia, and Joe -- through their upbringing to adults. Three (June, Edwin, and John) followed in their father's footsteps to become actors. Booth is historical fiction though, so Fowler admits that she needed to take some liberties in the book. This is particularly true with Rosalie's story because hardly any historical materials exist about her. 

I had mixed reactions to Booth. I was fascinated by it at the beginning, but then the stories became a bit too tedious. As a reader, you can't help but wonder when she is going to get to the main event of which the Booth family will forever be associated with. This doesn't happen until almost the very end. It seems like Fowler is trying so hard not to focus on John Wilkes, that she focuses a bit too much on the other members of the family. All in all though, this is a worthwhile read. 


Wednesday, February 23, 2022

Ends of War: The Unfinished Fight of Lee's Army After Appomattox (Caroline E. Janney)

Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Court House is typically marked as the ending of the Civil War. While the remaining and rapidly weakening Confederate armies eventually surrendered, the end was not a clean transition. With the chaos and anxiety of Lincoln’s assassination, combined with tens of thousands of Confederate troops returning to their homes (including rebel soldiers who lived in the North but fought for the South), the end of hostilities was messy and tension-filled. Adding to this mess was the fact that not all of Lee’s soldiers surrendered on that April day, vowing to continue their cause until death or capture.

Caroline E Janney’s Ends of War: The Unfinished Fight of Lee’s Army After Appomattox shows the weeks and months after Appomattox in a different light. Janney argues that Lee’s surrender was less an end than a start of a new phase that was marked by uncertainty and tension in both political and military circles. Ulysses S. Grant, the head of the Army of the Potomac who defeated Lee, offered generous terms to every rebel soldier who would surrender. However, there was tension over how much leniency could be granted. In some towns that were close to the North or were against secession, Confederate soldiers were not welcome and were quickly kicked out of town or arrested. Janney’s account shows that the Spring and Summer of 1865 were unsettled and chaotic as the White House and the military deliberated over how to handle the rebel army.

Ends of War is a powerful depiction of how the Civil War did not simply end in one man’s parlor in Appomattox. The account of soldiers, politicians, and citizens to show the chaos and confusion in the months after Lee’s surrender demonstrates the enormous difficulty that faced the Union in its attempts to stitch the country back together again and that some were dead set against it from the get-go.


Thursday, February 10, 2022

The Last Viking: The True Story of King Harald Hardrada (Don Hollway)

Harald Sigurdsson, also known as Harald Hardrada, was a well-traveled Viking mercenary who ended up as King of Norway in the middle of the 11th Century. He fought from a young age, forced into exile in what is now Ukraine on account of losing a battle in 1030. From there, over the course of the next fifteen years, Harald served in a number of military roles for two kingdoms, eventually finding his way back to Scandinavia where he ultimately became a king in his own right. His demise while attempting to take over England in 1066 at the battle of Stamford Bridge set the stage for William the Conqueror’s defeat of the Anglo-Saxons shortly after. 

Don Hollway captures this mercenary-turned-ruler’s lifetime account in The Last VIking: The True Story of King Harald Hardrada. In it, Hollway traces the steps of Harald from Norway to Kyivan Rus’ (made up of modern-day Poland, Lithuania, and Ukraine) to Constantinople. While serving the Byzantine Empire, Harald fought through the Mediterranean and even in the Holy Land. It’s clear Harald got around - not just militarily, either! In the book, you’ll find he was very much a guy who couldn’t remain committed to a single woman.

In the last twenty years of Harald’s life, he gradually returned to Norway, eventually becoming king of his home country. Harald’s rule was not particularly popular, with a standing army putting down any opposition in often brutal fashion…even by Viking standards of the time. Ultimately, driven by a desire to claim land, he attempted to conquer England and suffered a fatal wound in the Battle of Stamford Bridge. With Harald’s death, the Viking impulse to conquer slowly ebbed over subsequent decades.

Hollway’s book combines a number of sources from Norse sagas, Byzantine texts, and elsewhere to capture the story of a warrior that fought and lived life hard, similar to many other Viking warriors of the Middle Ages. It is a well-researched, thoughtful, and entertaining read.


Friday, February 4, 2022

James Madison: America's First Politician (Jay Cost)

Author Jay Cost’s James Madison: America’s First Politician is a fair and analytical look at one of the nation’s founders. Madison, like all of the Founding Fathers, was imperfect. His political views seemingly waffled at times (although it was more a matter of nuanced thinking that drove the perceived waffles), his decision making helped push the nation to the brink of losing to Great Britain in the War of 1812, and his views on slavery were incompatible with the modern concept of liberty. However, Madison’s brilliance was in the construction of America’s government and his deep thinking in looking at how problems should be addressed.

Cost’s biography captures Madison’s dedication and singular focus on developing the American republic. He covers Madison’s political philosophies over his lengthy career in public service and how they helped shape the early nation and its gradual transformation from coastal colonies to a country increasingly on the move west. Cost also captures Madison’s handling of slavery with regards to the Constitution and how the issue gradually became a larger and larger wedge that was driving the nation into conflict, first with the Nullification crisis in the 1830’s, followed gradually by the Civil War.

Historians and political science enthusiasts will enjoy Cost’s account of an early American leader who was the first consummate career politician in a nation where politics was, at the time, less of a career despite it being arguably as noisy as it is in our modern day.