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Good Reading

July 2024
3min read

Crisis at Central High

by Elizabeth Huckaby

Louisiana State University Press

14 pages of photographs

222 pages, $12.95

Today at Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, half the students and one-third of the faculty are black, and the school is proud of its record of high academic achievement.

It is hard to believe that the ugly winter of 1957-58 ever occurred. That year nine black students enrolled in the school (the student population was eighteen hundred), a token response to the Supreme Court’s desegregation ruling. Most of us can recall what went on outside the school—Arkansas’ Governor Faubus barring the black pupils in defiance of the federal law, President Eisenhower finally sending in troops, and most of all, the hate-contorted white faces screaming epithets at terrified black children. We know much less about what went on inside the school. Now Elizabeth Huckaby, the viceprincipal for girls at that time, gives us an almost day-by-day account of that nasty, tense year. There weren’t many violent segregationists among the students, but they were tireless, mean, and self-righteous. They tormented white students who tried to be decent to the black teen-agers almost as harshly as they tormented the blacks themselves. Blacks were spat upon, doused with ink, tripped. Books were knocked out of their hands, and when their owners bent to retrieve them, they were shoved to the floor. They were pushed down stairs, and their lockers were repeatedly robbed, the clothes and books inside destroyed or stuffed into toilets. Once when Mrs. Huckaby was called to deal with a fight between two whites, she found that she “had almost forgotten that the kids at Central could have trouble that wasn’t racial.” It was a dreadful year, and this quiet, patient recounting of it is unforgettable.

CBS has made a television movie of Crisis at Central High , due to be aired in February. If it’s true to the book, it should be good.

Over Here

by David M. Kennedy

Oxford University Press

404 pages, $19.95

How World War I affected American society is the ultimately sad story that David Kennedy tells in this absorbing book. Progressives hoped that—under the generally progressive leadership of Woodrow Wilson—good could come out of the awfulness of war. Their dreams ran this way: Government would be forced by the exigencies of war to assume a larger role in American life, curbing what they saw as the naked aggressiveness of turn-of-the-century capitalism and forging a more equitable society. Labor would improve its bargaining position as it patriotically threw its weight into the war effort. Women and blacks would gain respect by their contribution, and service in the military would act as a leveler of men, creating fraternity where intolerance had ruled. It was a glorious dream, but it didn’t work out that way. Under the pressures of war, Wilson allowed his appointees to suppress dissent, and to whip up the kind of mindless patriotism that led to “slacker raids,” abuse of conscientious objectors, and the lynching of a man whose only crime was having a German name. By the time the war was over, Wilson could not find enough liberals to realize his dream of a nonpunitive peace. Newspaper publisher Oswald Villard noted, “At the very moment of [Wilson’s] extremest trial our liberal forces are by his own act scattered, silenced, disorganized. …” Or as reformer Amos Pinchot said more bluntly, Wilson had put “his enemies in office and his friends in jail.”

This is one of those rare books rich with ideas that provide the mind with genuinely new perceptions.

The Invasion of Canada, 1812–1813

by Pierre Berton

Atlantic-Little, Brown

21 maps

363 pages, $17.50

It was “a foolish war that scarcely anyone wanted or needed, but which, once launched, none knew how to stop.” And further, this well-known Canadian writer believes, if America had not tried to grab Canada in 1812, our vast Northern neighbor eventually would have become part of the Union “by osmosis.”

It was a ghastly war, too. During the thirty months it lasted, the casualties were not heavy, but the suffering of the combatants was frightful. The lucky victim died instantly. But that was not the usual way. Indians and whites hacked each other to pieces, often scalping their enemies while they were still alive. Men died slowly because they had no medicines, no rations, no proper boots or clothes. The American leadership was almost uniformly incompetent. The retired Revolutionary War heroes, on whom the government complacently relied, had grown old and soft and vacillating. And the soldiers they were leading were constantly so close to mutiny that the officers had to exhort them to fight as politicians exhort voters.

There is abundant documentation on this grim little invasion—which Jefferson predicted would be “a mere matter of marching”—and Berton has constructed a lively narrative almost entirely out of primary sources. The author has chosen to write in the present tense—an unfortunate choice—but the book is very readable nonetheless.

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