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Book Reviews

Summer Books

May 2024
5min read

 Fur, Fortune and Empire: The Epic History of the Fur Trade in America

by Eric Jay Dolin

Through the prism of the fur trade, this topical approach relates a quite comprehensive history of the North American continent from the first Dutch voyage here in search of furs in 1611 to the signing 300 years later of an international treaty that banned pelagic sealing. In the course of those three centuries, fur was an economic engine and driving force as European nations vied to control New World territory in order to reap its wealth in pelts—first beaver, later bear, otter, deer, ermine, skunk, and buffalo. Author Dolin also deals with some of the derring-do of such iconic characters as the fabled mountain men and the mariners who sailed new routes to find the furs and deliver the goods. (Norton, 464 pages, $29.95)


Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches,

the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History

by S. C. Gwynne


Once they acquired their uncanny and unparalleled mastery of the horse, the Comanches of the western plains rose within a century from ragged bands of bullied Paleolithic hunter-gatherers into a massive empire stretching from the Arkansas River in the north to southern Texas. Gwynne, a former executive editor of Texas Monthly, offers surprising insights into this militaristic buffalo culture, to which many whites such as captive Cynthia Parker and her half-white son, the great chief Quanah Parker, remained devoted throughout their lives. Gwynne dispels the myth of the noble savage through contemporary accounts of the staggering Comanche violence that held white settlers’ expansion at bay for more than a century. But the U.S. Cavalry fought with equal cruelty, and the heartbreaking accounts of the humiliating submission and tedium of reservation life remind readers of exactly what was at stake for this doomed people. (Scribner, 384 pages, $27.50)


The War Lovers: Roosevelt, Lodge, Hearst, and the Rush to Empire, 1898

by Evan Thomas


In 1898 future president Theodore Roosevelt, his pal Sen. Henry Cabot Lodge, and press baron William Randolph Hearst worked in concert to lead the United States into what our ambassador to Britain called a “splendid little war.” House Speaker Thomas Brackett Reed and Harvard savant William James opposed the imperialist tide, as would Andrew Carnegie and Mark Twain, who “accused America of ‘debauching’ her honor.” In time public cheers for blood turned to cries for disengagement. Invading Cuba began as a celebrity event for the likes of John Jacob Astor, artist Frederic Remington, writer Stephen Crane, and Tom Mix (later Hollywood’s first cowboy), but then turned bloody. Roosevelt was slightly wounded in taking San Juan Heights, where he killed a Spaniard and crowed about it. Half the world away, Adm. George Dewey had an easier time destroying Spain’s naval fleet in Manila Bay without losing a man. Then the occupation of the Philippines became a years-long ordeal, with rising casualties, atrocities, and eventual withdrawal. (Little, Brown, 480 pages, $29.99)


The Man Who Ate His Boots: The Tragic History of the Search for the Northwest Passage

by Anthony Brandt


Brandt tracks ground (and ice and water) that has been tracked before—but rarely with such verve, muscular elegance, and readability. Recalling centuries of attempts to find the fabled passage, he focuses on Sir John Franklin, one of the most famous men in Victorian Britain. He was in turn a military hero close behind Lord Nelson; a colonial governor of Tasmania; husband of the remarkable Lady Jane; and finally an arctic explorer who returned to lead one last expedition to find a short, cold way to the Orient, failed, and got a monument in Westminster Abbey. Punctuated with breathtaking accounts of men in extremis, the book is enriched by rich perspective and a style both nuanced and crystalline. (Knopf, 464 pages, $28.95)


Betsy Ross and the Making of America

by Marla R. Miller


Like other myths surrounding great men and women, the one about George Washington asking Betsy Ross to sew the first American flag is a canard. This well-documented biography relates that, in the absence of real evidence, such a tale “must be seen through the lens of history that unfolded in the years between the supposed conversation and the recording of that story” by Ross’s aged daughter. Author Miller, an authority in women’s history at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, goes on to the more important matters of what is true about Betsy Ross. An upholsterer and, yes, a seamstress who made flags, she plied an important trade, knew important people who admired her, was twice widowed, and thrice married. This is a detailed portrait of an accomplished woman standing out against the panorama of her times. (Henry Holt, 480 pages, $30)


The Publisher: Henry Luce and His American Century

by Alan Brinkley


Henry Luce, a journalist, propagandist, idealist, jingoist, and genius of fascinating parts, invented a form of journalism that held up for Americans an idealizing mirror of themselves. “Part of his considerable achievement was his ability to provide an image of American life that helped a generation of readers believe in an alluring, consensual image of the nation’s culture,” Brinkley writes.

Creating Time, Life, Fortune, and Sports Illustrated (plus radio news programs and newsreels, in one of the first multimedia corporations), he “helped transform the way many people experienced news and culture.” In this biography, nearly as larger than life as Luce himself, the man’s partisan conservatism shines through, although “Luce always described himself as a liberal—not a liberal of the left, but a liberal in his openness to new ideas and his embrace of progressive change.” (Knopf, 560 pages, $35)


American Dreams: The United States since 1945

by H. W. Brands


“Never were America’s dreams more potent and beguiling than at the end of World War II,” writes University of Texas historian Brands. Not that everything went down from there, but most people experienced many roller coaster rides: from prosperity to recession, war to peace, security to anxiety, even from male to female—and in most categories, Americans went from one to the other and back again. The author of biographies of Benjamin Franklin, Andrew Jackson, and Franklin Roosevelt, Brands is known for lucid narratives and vividly portraying people within their historical contexts.  In this capsule kaleidoscope of three score years, he reviews kinetic themes and landmark events in all of history’s disciplinary segments: economic history, social history, political, diplomatic, and scientific history. It’s a captivating summary, if not quite a comprehensive analysis. (Penguin, 432 pages, $32.95)


The Great Task Remaining: The Third Year of Lincoln’s War

by William Marvel

Arguably one of the greatest speeches ever given, and certainly the most revered by Americans today, the Gettysburg Address is regarded as a declaration of ambiguity and paean of consecration (despite a rhetorical denial of the latter). Historian Marvel offers a contrary interpretation in this, the third volume of his projected reexamination of the Civil War. Lincoln’s great oration, he argues, was an intentional plea to disenchanted Yankees for their renewed support of the Union cause and for the continued prosecution of the war to end the South’s secession. He offers a close analysis of Northern sentiments and declining morale as the Confederacy seemed to rebound after near-mortal defeats at Gettysburg and Vicksburg. In the spring of 1864 “it was the weary and disillusioned who aroused more executive anxiety,” particularly as Lincoln faced the perennial challenge of raising yet another army. Before he could marshal forces to prevail in the field, he had to defeat a widening spectrum of antiwar sentiments and protests on the home front. (Houghton Mifflin, 464 pages, $35)


Supreme Power: Franklin vs. the Supreme Court

by Jeff Shesol


The loudest controversy ever to engage the Supreme Court resulted from President Roosevelt’s 1937 attempt to enlarge it with new appointments after its “nine old men” had invalidated most of his New Deal programs that were intended to ameliorate the deepening Great Depression. The president knew his proposal would infuriate the political right, but it also unsettled many on the political left who cherished the principle of an independent judiciary. Though Roosevelt lost this battle, he won the war, Shesol argues, partly because popular opinion favored the New Deal so widely that the Court was already becoming less obstructionist. It also appears that legislation granting federal judges full salaries after retirement also played a part in encouraging them to step down. In any case, a swing justice defected, leading a columnist to write unforgettably, “A switch in time saves nine.” (Norton, 656 pages, $27.95)



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