Tag Archives: American History

Rick Fontes – The Time of the Preacher (2014)

TimeofThePreacher

Rick Fontes’, The Time of the Preacher, will appeal to anyone who has a love of the Western genre. While the book has some issues, it proved to be a fast paced and enjoyable read.

Fontes’ book centers around the character of Brian McFee, an Irish immigrant who get’s mixed up in some questionable dealing in the Western United States before trying to reform himself by becoming a preacher. Unfortunately the Irishman’s past follows him, and he never gains full control of his temper.

While the story is compelling, at times things feel a bit rushed. Fontes definitely could have spent some more time on character development and flushing out the details of the plot instead of trying to make it a fast-paced, like many other Westerns. I would have loved some more information about Brian McFee’s past, and it could have definitely added another dimension to the character. The character of Salome too, who generally plays the role of a victim throughout the novel, could use some more development. There were a number of times when I didn’t really understand the motivations behind her actions.

I did appreciate that Fonte’s did not get too attached to his characters, and acknowledged their flaws. With a bit more editing and time, this novel has real potential to be quite something.

J.B West – Upstairs at the White House (1973)

Upstairs at the White House

In honour of American Thanksgiving, I’ve included one of my favourite books about the Presidency, AND a recipe for apple pie. Enjoy!

It is not easy to write about the Presidency and not get political. West does just that however, and while some might be looking for more of a political slant, West does not, and will not provide it. This book must be read for what it is, an account of the presidents and their families who occupied the White House for the years that West was in service there. West’s loyalty as a White House Butler is to the White House and the Presidency itself, not to the individual men or their families.

West came into service at the White House just as Roosevelt was entering his final years. He then served in the house through the Presidencies of; Harry Truman, Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, and Richard Nixon. Each family getting its own set of chapters with details about their decorations, family traditions, favourite meals, and personalities. West provides charming details into the lives of the families he worked for including how different having the Kennedy’s in the White House was, simply because they had young children, and how Mamie Eisenhower’s style broke with that of earlier first ladies in that she wanted everything to be pink and frilly. Throughout his writing however, West maintains his professionalism and never writes anything that betrays the confidence of the families he worked for.

One of the most interesting aspects of this book was the financial side of things. Presidents have a very limited salary and were always allocated a specific sum to be used to redecorate the White House. I find that even though we see the President as having a domestic life, we don’t always think about things like managing a household budget. The anecdotes that make up West’s work make this book worth reading; he puts a more humane face to the Presidency (even Richard Nixon) and provides and compelling behind-the-scenes look at life in the White House

Serve With

Homemade Apple Pie!

While there are a number of White House cookbooks and websites that provide information about the favourite meals of various Presidents, in honour of American Thanksgiving I decided to make a traditional all-American apple pie.

Lily Koppel – The Astronaut Wives Club (2013)

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I was a little shocked to see such negative reviews of this book on Goodreads. Many complaints cited the fact that this was more of a “story” rather than a history. While as a historian I did have a slight problem with the lack of footnotes or sources to back up the stories Koppel tells, over all I felt this was en enjoyable read.

Astronauts during the Space Age were literally larger than life, and their wives often had to keep up the appearance of the nuclear families. While I always assumed the hardest part of being an astronaut wife was dealing with the fact that your husband was continuously in danger, most of these women were previously army wives and were quite used to this aspect of the job. It didn’t necessarily make their lives easier, but they had dealt with the possibility of their husbands not coming home for many years before they became astronauts. The hardest part of the job was the spotlight that these women were inevitably put under while their husbands raced to the moon.

One of the most enjoyable parts of this book was the discussion of how the government and NASA injected themselves into every part of the women’s lives from the way the dressed, where they lived, and even what colour lipstick they wore. In a photo shoot for Life Magazine the wives had all decided to wear pink lipstick, but when the cover was printed the colour was changed to red to symbolize the women’s patriotism.

While overall I liked the book, it got a bit hard to follow since Koppel wanted to talk about all astronaut wives, not just the Original “Mercury Nine.” I began to loose track of the wives and “who’s who.” Furthermore I would have loved to know more about the wives of the Apollo 13 astronauts. This book would have been stronger had Koppel simply chosen to devote all her attention to the original Astronaut Wives Club. I still enjoyed the book and would recommend it; I think that there is a lot more work to be done on the lives of the astronaut wives.

Rating: 4/5

Anne Hyde – Empires, Nations, and Families (2011)

In Empires Nations and Families, Anne Hyde undergoes an incredibly ambitious project; providing a history of the American West from 1800-1860. She does so in an ingenious way, using an original interpretive framework to cope with a large volume of material. By looking at individual family units and tracing their connections over different spaces and at different times, Hyde provides an engaging and interesting look at the history of the American West.

Hyde begins her study of the American West with Part I of her book, “Replacing a State: The Continental Web of Family Trade.” In these chapters, Hyde explores the expansion of the fur trade and how it linked different families in different places. In Part II, titled “Americans All: The Mixed World of Indian Country,” Hyde details the Native American responses to the fur trade, war, and removal, and emphasizes how important Native groups were for business and diplomacy. In Part III, “From Nations to Nation: Imposing a State, 1840-1865,” Hyde moves on to discuss the conquest of the West and the ways in which new ideas surrounding race and imperial power changed the North American West. Overall, Hyde emphasizes the importance of family connections as business affairs were often built on personal relationships. Kinship also helped to protect families against change and even adapt to it. In the end however, kinship networks between Anglo and Native Americans proved to be fatal, as mixed race people in the West were the ultimate losers after the new discourse on race and imperial ideology took over following the Mexican War.

Hyde claims that the task of her book is to “impose narrative and analytical order over such disparate stories and geographic space to build a larger story about the trans-Mississippi West between 1804 and 1860,” (15) and she accomplishes just that. By studying these families Hyde shows how the identities and loyalties of these people living in the West lay more with one another and other families that with any nation or exclusive ethnic identity. Looking at families such as the Chouteaus, Bents, Ballejos, and McLoughlins, Hyde uses a staggering amount of sources including family papers, territorial documents, journals, Office of Indian Affairs documents, Hudson’s’ Bay Company papers, and a wide range of secondary sources. Hyde’s use of sources as well as her framework and analysis of families makes Empires, Nations, and Families a well researched and interesting read. One of the only things missing from the narrative is any sort or discussion about slavery. Westward expansion certainly raised questions pertaining to the transfer and movement of slaves, something that Hyde does not look at focusing mostly on family ties and how expansion effected Native Americans. Regardless, Hyde provides a fresh and new way of studying the American West, one that is highly recommended for anyone seeking to gain a greater understanding of the American frontier.

Rating: 3.5/5