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Book Reviews

Notable Winter Books

May 2024
8min read

A Holiday Gift Special

The Gun

By C. J. Chivers

The most lethal and influential weapon of the cold war, argues C. J. Chivers, a former Marine and now a foreign correspondent for the New York Times, was not the nuclear warhead and infrastructure behind it but the AK-47, a cheap, handheld, Soviet-made automatic weapon that could be used effectively by the “mechanically disinclined, the dimwitted, and the untrained” to “push out a blistering fire for the lengths of two or three football fields.” More than 100 million AK-47s and its derivatives have been made—making it the rifle of choice among guerrillas, freedom fighters, child soldiers, terrorists, and criminals the world over.

Chivers’s story begins with Richard Gatling and Hiram Maxim, discussing their pioneering efforts in developing the machine gun. While the West proved slow in developing this new technology, the Soviet Union worked feverishly to create an automatic weapon that could be carried easily by a single soldier. Chivers dispels the myth created by Soviet propagandists that the AK-47 was created by the tinkering of a lone junior army officer, Mikhail Kalashnikov, but rather was the result of an immense state-coordinated effort.

While the American military initially scoffed at the AK-47 as crude and unimpressive, it turned out to be a brilliant compromise: power and accuracy traded off for simplicity of operation, indestructibility, and dependability. When the West finally realized the AK-47’s effectiveness, American designers hurriedly introduced the M-16, a weapon based on a faulty test prototype. In Vietnam untrained communist fighters bested crack American soldiers, whose M-16s jammed in the humid jungle conditions.

Chivers’s excellent book leaves us with a disturbing perspective on the AK-47’s remarkable effectiveness: “Their widespread presence empowers unflagged and undisciplined forces to commit human rights abuses on a grander scale, raises the costs and exacerbates the dangers of peacekeeping missions, emboldens criminals of many sorts, stalls economic development, and increases the social burdens of caring for the wounded, the orphaned, and the displaced.” (Simon & Schuster, 481 pages, $28)


Atlas of the Transatlantic 

Slave Trade

By David Eltis and David Richardson

Few episodes in the history of international trade approach the magnitude of profit and geographical scope of the 366 years of the African slave trade. Many books have been written about the Middle Passage and the extraordinary cruelties of slavery, an institution fueled by Europeans’ desire for sugar, cotton, tobacco, rice, gold, and silver that only slave labor could cost-effectively produce and extract. Yet not until publication of this atlas has anyone attempted to describe the economics and geographies of the transatlantic slave trade through maps and charts.

These maps show—in a way that narrative alone cannot—that nearly every European nation with an Atlantic coastline engaged in the trade, and every North and South American colony provided a market.

“Participation in the transatlantic slave trade before the 19th century was shaped by opportunity, not morality,” explain the authors. Using business records, Eltis and Richardson have mapped the mortality rates that rose in accordance with the duration of the voyage. Other diagrams show the value of shipping captured children, who were packed into ship decks in greater quantities. Slavers factored in the high costs of protecting their crews from their human cargo: slaves taken from Senegambia and Sierra Leone proved more rebellious, so the slavers instead plucked their quarry from the Gold Coast and West Central Africa. Finally, as European countries abolished the trade one by one and enforced antislavery laws, the costs overtook profits, and the trade ended.

The pages are interspersed with artwork and firsthand accounts that put the mapped statistics into context. Excerpts include descriptions of branding, sickness, crowded conditions, and the many horrors accompanying enslavement. (Yale University Press, 336 pages, $50)


The New York Times Complete Civil War, 1861–1865

Edited by Harold Holzer and Craig Symonds

“Victory At Bull’s Run—Sumter Avenged” reads the July 22, 1861, New York Times headline, not exactly squaring with the widely held view today that the Confederates won that early battle. One of the joys of reading this anthology of more than 600 of the paper’s war articles, including battle reports, election predictions, and editorials, is in seeing how often the fog of war spread over the whole countryside as journalists wrestled to report on unfolding and confusing events.

Articles appear in chronological order within a three-column-per-page format that re-creates the experience of reading the original newspapers. The editors have also added numerous illustrations, maps, and photographs, which did not appear in the newspaper.

Highlighted pieces include a series of hopeful telegraph dispatches sent from the Gettysburg battlefield as the battle heated up. Another story heaps praise upon 1864’s Tennessean vice presidential candidate Andrew Johnson, who later became the first president that Congress impeached. Other articles include the announcement of Lincoln’s assassination and editorials that fret about the increasingly violent acts staged by the “Kuklux Committee.”

The companion DVD-ROM disc contains the entire corpus of the Times’s war coverage—104,000 unedited articles, grouped by date and searchable by keyword and phrase. (Black Dog & Leventhal, 512 pages, $40)


Driven West: Andrew Jackson and the Trail of Tears to the Civil War

By A. J. Langguth

Between the War of 1812 and the Civil War, a perennial and widespread topic was territorial expansion, which was hampered by Indian occupancy of fertile territories coveted by the more lately arrived Americans. A. J. Langguth builds the case that skirmishes in the South over the contested ownership of Indian lands in the 1820s led to arguments about states’ rights and federal authority, which smoldered in defiant hotbeds and exploded into malignant fireworks in places such as Bleeding Kansas and Fort Sumter. In part, the author’s argument is a study in the wages of sectional and parochial interests; he shows that politicians’ taking the narrow view led to shortsighted goals and deplorable achievements.

He chronicles the events that eventually led to the infamous “Trail of Tears,” the death march in which the Cherokee Nation was driven at bayonet point from their homes in the verdant South to exile in prairie Oklahoma. It was an abuse of human rights as horrific as many that we lament in distant parts of the world today. (Simon & Schuster, 466 pages, $30)


The Last Boy: Mickey Mantle and the End of America’s Childhood

By Jane Leavy

An uncommonly handsome kid with an infectious grin, Mickey Mantle was idolized by baseball fans of every age and gender for his good looks, his stellar performances, and dogged heroics in playing hurt. A fixture in baseball’s “cathedral,” the original Yankee Stadium, from 1951 to 1968, he accomplished great feats: 536 home runs (18 of them in World Series games), three Most Valuable Player awards, one Triple Crown—all wearing the pinstripes, leading or limping the way to 12 pennants and seven World Championships. But for a knee injury occurring in his rookie year during a centerfield collision with Joe DiMaggio, there’s no telling how great a player this Hall of Famer could have become. But a decent man? Not likely.

As Jane Leavy reveals in this huge historical biography, he was a cripple from birth. Raised in a dying mining town, he was born to a family given to both cancer and drink. His father spotted his athletic potential, before dying young, and “drove him like a nail,” a friend said. When a Yankee scout signed him at $140 a month, “It was New York’s biggest steal since Peter Minuit paid the Indians $24 for Manhattan.”

Given his genes, personality, and the worship America gave jock heroes, it seems inevitable that he would become a spendthrift, drunkard, tomcat, and a vulgar bully. That Leavy makes this course seem inevitable and Mantle seem pitiably human is a credit to her deft writing and dogged research.

“The transformation of The Mick over the course of eighteen years in the majors and 44 years in the public eye parallels the transformation of American culture from willing innocence to knowing cynicism,” she writes. “To tell his story is to tell ours.” (Harper, 456 pages, $27.99)


Inventing George Washington: America’s Founder, in Myth and Memory

By Edward G. Lengel

Most of the stories you’ve heard about George Washington and the wisdom laid at his feet are bogus, argues Edward G. Lengel, the editor-in-chief of the Papers of George Washington documentary editing project at the University of Virginia. This is true partly because the father of our country would have it that way.

“Washington is an elusive quarry,” Lengel writes. “Conscious of his role as an actor on the public stage, he crafted an outward persona that obscured his private being. He deliberately hid certain elements of his inner life and carried them with him to the grave. He preserved the bulk of his correspondence and records, public and private, for posterity, and he fretted endlessly about how his countrymen would remember him after he was gone.”

Sadly for us, those records were horribly abused. Many of his official papers were literally cut to pieces by a sham editor who thought his own views and creativity more important than the raw material. Of his surviving personal papers, his wife, Martha, burned their letters, perhaps to assure her privacy and to save them from literary vultures and souvenir dealers. Another heir sold genuine autographs piecemeal, while so-called free-market demands fueled a huge counterfeit industry that continues today.

“Washington writing became a free-for-all business,” Lengel asserts, “just as wild and zany as any other capitalist venture in that [19th-century] laissez-faire society.” Washington Irving joined the legion of historians, revisionists, hagiographers, and hack writers looking for an easy way to make a serial living. All did their part in obscuring the real man. Some of their charlatan feats were better than Barnum and as enduring—none more so then the story and famous painting of the general kneeling in prayer in the snow at Valley Forge, an event that Lengel shows was as fictional as the perfect boy confessing to felling his father’s cherry tree. In fact Washington was mute about his spiritual beliefs.

Lengel implicitly honors the truism that every generation rewrites history to suit itself. Yet a more interesting cautionary point shines through this effort to debunk the fictions; it is the thesis that while separating fact from fancy can be difficult—even impossible in some instances—writing sound history based on the realities of the past is as challenging as it is important. (Harper, 272 pages, $25.99)


Ratification: The People Debate the Constitution, 1787–1788

By Pauline Maier

In her sweeping new account of how the U.S. Constitution came to be ratified in 1788, Pauline Maier, the William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of American History at MIT, clarifies the year’s heated debates. She samples a broad range of voices—from luminaries such as George Washington to anonymous detractors agitating against the weighty new order—to illuminate the complex rubric of regional history, individual biography, and political strategy that brought the nation to assent. She integrates local conflicts into the larger story of national unification by tracing the spread of arguments from one state to another in an expanding debate, which she argues “served to bind the nation together more tightly” and even reached across gender and class lines “to engross the attention of all classes of people,” as a Maine merchant reported in late 1787. Women made their views known in parlor rooms and dining halls.

Maier’s work demonstrates that the Constitution’s meaning did not emerge fully formed from behind closed doors at Philadelphia, but rather developed over time as citizens of all ranks brought their interpretations of the contentious document into the play of free and energetic debate. (Simon & Schuster, 608 pages, $30)


The Civil War: The First Year Told by Those Who Lived It

Edited by Brooks D. Simpson, Stephen W. Sears, and Aaron Sheehan-Dean

“From the houses then and the workshops, and through all the doorways, Leapt they tumultuous, and lo! Manhattan arming,” wrote Walt Whitman in spring 1861 after watching newly formed Union regiments march off to fight. Whitman’s vivid observations join a chorus of voices that ring out from the first year of the great ordeal in this book of wartime narratives, which contain more than 100 poems, letters, speeches, reports, and documents. (The Library of America plans to publish companion volumes for each year of the war.)

Among the documents: Mississippi Sen. Jefferson Davis’s official, surprisingly humble resignation speech to the U.S. Congress; Gen. George B. McClellan’s letter to his wife denouncing Lincoln; and a South Carolinian planter’s daughter writing in her diary about the “great and glorious victory gained yesterday at Bull’s Run.” Excerpts also reveal unexpected conflict over how to heal the unraveling nation: a personal letter shows how the recently elected Lincoln tries to maintain the status quo of being unsupportive of abolition, while 67-year-old Texas governor Sam Houston, a hero of the state’s independence movement, risks his countrymen’s wrath to protest secession.

The editors preface each document with a brief introduction, providing valuable context. This volume finds broadly appealing human voices in the country’s single greatest catastrophe—and its ultimate greatest triumph. (Library of America, 840 pages, $37.50)


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