• The Last Slave Ship by Ben Raines *** (of 4)

    On the face of it, the story of 100 enslaved Africans smuggled into Mobile, Alabama does not feel that significant among the 12.5 million Africans shipped to the New World (10.7 million survived the Middle Passage.) Aside: I am only now figuring out that more than 90% of the people kidnapped, chained below decks, and, if they survived, sold, went into the Caribbean and South America. America’s four million enslaved people were mostly bred (breeding is a term used by slavers) by their owners here.

    The Clotilda was the last ship carrying human cargo to arrive in the United States, running past naval patrol ships into Mobile Bay in 1860. After the south lost the Civil War, many of those transported by the Clotilda settled in Africa Town just outside Mobile. They lived long enough to be interviewed and photographed. They provided firsthand accounts of their lost African families, details of their capture by Dahomian warriors, the life-threatening Middle Passage, and sale to other humans to do animal-like labor. They also recall African customs that persisted inside Africa Town.

    The author, Ben Raines, describes the Clotilda from the days of its inception as a ship bound for Africa in contravention of American law, its scuttling after disgorging its human cargo into the swamps of Alabama, until its rediscovery 2019. The ship’s story brackets the story of its enslaved Africans and their offspring.

    A century of racism haunts Africa Town and its descendents to this day. And yet, The Last Slave Ship grows stronger until its finish, describing a sordid history that somehow still points a way toward recognition and finally, forgiveness.

    Africa Town today. The commerce is gone now, and you see boarded up homes and vacant lots in the neighborhood. Link to NPR story.

  • How the Word is Passed by Clint Smith *** (of 4)

    Clint Smith educates white Americans who likely never learned the true extent and depth of slavery in the foundation and enduring legacy of the country. He does so, however, with poetic passages rather than a two-by-four across the side of your head. He applies the same gentle approach as he makes clear that never in America’s history – today included – has a Black person ever felt complete freedom. Skin color defines every interaction on the street, in a store, at a bank, during an interview, or in front of a jury. Consider for even sixty seconds, the strain that must induce.

    Using the same understated approach, while visiting seven important landmarks in the history of enslavement, Smith establishes that there never was, nor could have been, such a thing as acceptable or benevolent enslavement of other human beings, despite numerous enduring attempts to suggest otherwise. If enslavement as it was practiced in America cannot be justified by any rational or compassionate human, how, asks Smith can any veneration of The Lost Cause, Confederate Soldiers (and their reenactors), so-called defense of state’s rights, or idolization of Confederate leaders be tolerated? Wasn’t every Confederate, in essence, a subversive fighting to overthrow the rule of law. Wasn’t the Civil War fundamentally an armed insurrection in defense of the right to hold other human beings in conditions to which they could be flogged, starved, detached from their families, or worked to death?

    At his best, Smith interviews white tour guides at Monticello (working to teach anti-Racist history) and white Daughters and Sons of the Confederacy and does so without malice or confrontation, an act of noble restraint. He reminds each person he speaks with, however, what it has meant to him to grow up in a country that has never taught him, or itself, about its true history.

  • Black Cloud Rising by David Wright Falade *** (of 4)

    As the Civil War dragged on and Union troops made advances across the south, formerly enslaved people fled bondage to take up refuge behind northern armies. Some of the escaped men were organized into fighting regiments: Black soldiers fighting for the Union cause.

    Richard Etheridge, a Sargent in the African Brigade of Colored Troops, is the primary subject of this fictional account of a real-life American hero. The Colored Troops traverse the lowlands of North Carolina dispossessing former plantation owners of their property, burning their homes when necessary, and gathering up enslaved people still being held in bondage. The embedded racism among white officers and southerners of all stripes is laid bare and real as the author, David Wright, incorporates an exceptional amount of homework. All that research, however, makes the book, and its attempt at period vernacular, hard to follow at times. A list of dramatis personae at the beginning of the book would have helped we readers keep all the players straight.

  • River of the Gods by Candace Millard **** (of 4)

    By the 1860s California had absorbed an influx of hundreds of thousands of gold miners, the southern states of the U.S. had seceded, and North America’s native populations were mostly subdued, and yet in those years the only parts of the African continent known to western Europeans was its long perimeter. Ninety percent of Africa’s interior was unreliably mapped by whites. River of the Gods describes British expeditions to locate the source of the Nile River.

    An expedition into Africa’s interior required a combination of hubris, fearlessness, undaunted courage, and an unquestioning belief in racial superiority that is mortifying to behold. Without ever becoming overbearing, Millard’s description of the men, British and African, who risked their lives in search of the Nile’s origins, pits innate curiosity and urge for exploration — who doesn’t want to know the headwaters of the world’s longest river? — against the sheer audacity of believing that exploration can only be achieved by khaki-clad Britishers in charge of scores of largely nameless local guides, porters, and pack animals. Sir Richard Burton and John Hanning Speke hiked for months at a time, enduring, no exaggeration, more than 20 diseases and fevers which left them periodically blind, paralyzed, unable to speak or swallow, and crazed for weeks and months on end. Yet they marched forward, sometimes born on litters, often to the complete detriment of their physical, mental, and social wellbeing.

    Richard Burton (left) and John Speke in an engraving by Emile-Antoine Bayard (1837-1891). Credit.

    River of the Gods is part adventure tale, part biography of key explorers, and a rendering of an age of recognition, that colonialism, though not yet finished, was nearing its climax. Africa’s interior was about to be overrun by European countries whose competition with one another would expand from the purchase of bonded human chattel to the exploitation of timber, minerals, and colonial boundaries. It is a marvelous book that can cover the intricacies of Richard Burton’s courtship with his wife, the swarming insects of Africa’s jungles, and the international race for hegemony.

  • To a Mountain in Tibet by Colin Thubron *** (of 4)

    Mount Kailash in Tibet is a mountain revered and sanctified by Hindus and Muslims. Walking around its base cleanses the soul and brings respect and understanding to our dead ancestors. The mountain is reached from Nepal into Tibet, but is now monitored by China, intent upon Sino-fying the ancient kingdom of Tibet. Colin Thubron is one of Great Britain’s preeminent travel writers, barely a hare’s breadth away from nineteenth century British explorers, bedecked in pith helmets and khaki shorts, who preceded him.

    Thubron, already in his 70s, made his own pilgrimage immediately following the death of his mother, his last remaining relative and does so bathed in introspection. He pays exquisite attention to details noting interesting stones along a path made nearly entirely of stones. He shows us prayer flags worth looking at, discarded flashlights, exhausted acolytes crawling their way toward Nirvana, icy torrents, and armed Chinese soldiers anxiously hunting for protestors. He takes notes by the light of yak-butter lanterns and provides enough religious, spiritual, and political history to inform without overwhelming. He hikes to 18,000 feet in elevation meditating on his mother, who, like him, at the end, was gasping for oxygen, and his long-lost sister buried by an avalanche at the age of 21. Thubron’s adjectives cut like razors to the heart of every description. His account on life, death, and walking should be taken one step at a time, with concentration.

  • Between Genius and Genocide by Dan Charles *** (of 4)

    Fritz Haber may be the most important forgotten man in history. He is responsible for saving more lives than any other human being and, at the same time, can be blamed for some of the most concentrated killing ever perpetrated by a single person. First, the good news. Prior to Fritz Haber’s discovery of how to transform inert atmospheric nitrogen into ammonia for fertilizer, the only way to nourish crop plants was with manure: from animals or people. Or by burning and plowing forests and grasslands into submission. By the beginning of the 1900s nearly all of the earth’s arable land had already succumbed to the plow and the production of manure was never going to be able to keep pace.

    When Haber created a process for making nitrogen fertilizer from air (and a ton of energy) he released humanity from a perpetual cycle of famine. Without exaggeration it is estimated that 40% of the population of the world today (more than 3 billion of us) eats on a regular basis because of nitrogen fertilizer. Of course, there are numerous downsides affiliated with nitrogen fertilizer, including the additional demands of a global population that has quadrupled since Haber’s 1913 invention.

    Haber is also infamous for the invention of chlorine gas first used by Germany’s military to slaughter French troops in World War I. The pain, terror, and death inflicted by chlorine, then phosgene, and finally mustard gas were never before experienced, and was so awful that they have been used rarely ever since.

    Dan Charles does an outstanding job of laying out the man, the science, and the context for Fritz Haber and makes us wonder if he was a genius or genocidal maniac? Was Haber inhumane for using chemical weapons first or no different in his methods of killing than the first person to kill from a distance using a bow and arrow, a bullet, a laser-guided missile, or a drone operated by a soldier half a world away?

  • Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher by Timothy Egan *** (of 4)

    As the 19th century was drawing to a close, the photographer Edward Curtis took it upon himself to photo-document and record ethnographic information on every Indian tribe left in America. Pause for a minute and consider the audacity of the undertaking. At a time when the majority of white Americans still considered that only dead Indians were worth celebrating, Curtis not only took up a morally opposing perspective, but was determined to meet and speak with any indigenous tribe with enough function left to be whole and visitable.

    In what would ultimately amount to a 20-year project to produce the 20 volumes of The American Indian, Curtis took 40,000 images of more than 80 tribes.

    Photographs made during the early days of photography, while staged, remain some of the most iconic and artistic of any people in any era.

    His subjects transmit history, pathos, despair, and pride directly into the camera.

    Writing a book about the visual arts is no small feat and yet, Egan, a multiple-award winning author, succeeds in telling the life story of Curtis, the obsessed photographer, and the nadir of Indian life in America. Curtis was so obsessed with the need to document The American Indian he forfeited his marriage, his home, and his income. America, however, and its Indians owe debts of gratitude to Curtis for his fortitude and to Egan for so elegantly drawing him to our attention.

  • The Queen by Josh Levin ** (of 4)

    In principle, the story of Linda Taylor, the woman stuck with the appellation of America’s Welfare Queen, upon whom so much political scorn has been laid is worthy of a solid retelling. She is reviled by all working class taxpayers for her rampant and rambunctious fleecing of America’s welfare systems. Ronald Reagan made her infamous as he campaigned for President, mentioning the Welfare Queen as representative of all that was wrong with government in America. Linda Taylor had amassed scores of aliases, ID cards, addresses, social security numbers, and heartbreaking sob stories in pursuit of tens of thousands of dollars and Reagan repeated that description every chance he got.

    Buried beneath Reagan’s rhetoric, but not very deeply, was the implication that People of Color were primarily, and as a group, collectively, foregoing work in favor of taking free money supplied by lower-class, hard-working, white Americans. Reagan relied upon racism in place of either research or data. It worked then and continues to work now.

    Complicating the story still further was Linda Taylor’s background story as the child of mixed-race parentage in the South where miscegenation was illegal and the product of such a relationship was to be shunned at all costs. The Supreme Court did not strike down laws forbidding Blacks and Whites to marry until 1967 and many southern states sill support the rights of businesses and churches to deny services to mixed-race couples. In some ways, becoming a con-woman was a smart business move on Taylor’s part and she succeeded to such a degree that she seems to have lost all touch with reality or the truth, shifting stories about who she was or what she was up to on the turn of a dime. As a world-class con-artist without regard for veracity she reminds me of a very recent president.

    The Queen is meticulously researched. Every crime on Taylor’s long list is evaluated in full detail and therein lies the downfall of the book. It is gruelingly detailed.

  • The Eagle’s Claw: A Novel of the Battle of Midway by Jeffrey Shaara *** (of 4)

    Ostensibly, the single battle that shaped the outcome of WW II (of which, there are no doubt many such single battles bearing that accolade), is the Battle for Midway Island in the Pacific. In the summer of 1942, America’s Navy was still reeling from its ravaging in its home port of Pearl Harbor. The Japanese Navy ruled the Pacific.

    This fictionalized, but very-well researched, account describes most effectively the strategic plans needed to fight a battle. Generals, and in this case, Admirals, too, must plan to the last spool of barbed wire and final gallon of jet fuel the necessities to carry out an invasion or counterattack. Then they need commanders to follow orders, without wavering, even in the heat of battle. Except they also need commanders smart and brave enough to improvise when the enemy or conditions fail to match plans created in the comfort of an office space.

    The Midway Islands atoll.

    Aside from its airfields and appearance above the surface of the Pacific Ocean between Hawaii and Japan, Midway is not really worth fighting for, but it was here that the Japanese and American fleets and their shipborne aircraft had at it. Weirdly, for all of Shaara’s experience as a writer of war stories, the drama ends mid-book. Nonetheless, his description of the cultural distinctions between Japan and America and bravery and reticence of various fighters, if true, is intriguing.

  • Looking for the Good War by Elizabeth Samet *** (of 4)

    An onion of a book, not just because it can bring you to tears, but because of its layers. In the outer layer, Samet re-describes World War II. Often referred to as The Good War and its fighters as The Greatest Generation, Samet invites us to take another look. As Studs Terkel pointed out in the 1980s when he interviewed Americans about their experience of the war, and Samet emphasizes, under what circumstances do the words “good” and “war” deserve to appended one to the other. Simply put, war is the projection of unlimited violence, and as we too easily forget, Americans and our soldiers were as vicious as the Axis powers; maybe more so, as we were on the winning side.

    One layer deeper into the onion, Samet delivers a master class in the value of the humanities in reflecting the human experience. She analyzes our perspectives on warmaking and wartime suffering using sources as old as the Iliad and Odyssey and Shakespeare’s plays and then brings it up to date to show us the hidden depravities and despondencies of the Greatest Generation. She reviews scores of films of the 1940s and 1950s to show us despairing veterans, criminals, PTSD, lost youth, and oppressed women and communities of color.

    Her onion reveals how World War II has been recalled rhetorically by every subsequent President as validation for a newfound projection of unspeakable violence and how the Civil War — no American war has been deadlier — as a noble cause in both North and South.

    The onion’s core is its sweetest. Elizabeth Samet is a Professor of Humanities at West Point, teaching America’s future military leaders the true cost of violence. That is a mark of profound hope. If only her classes were required of our political leaders.