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Check It Out

Courier Article by David Locker
Sunday, November 19, 2000

CNN Doesn't Have a Monopoly on History

History is exciting. When history is being made, a nation of television viewers sits glued to CNN. What is happening seems bigger than ourselves. We sit awestruck in front of the tube and feel the weight of the ages upon our shoulders. We cannot escape history. We know that things will never be the same.

History doesn't lose its thrill when it has ceased to be news. Our libraries are full of marvelous tales of men and women changing the world or surviving legendary ordeals. Aaron Burr shoots and kills Alexander Hamilton. A nation constructs a railroad through mountains by hand. A whaling ship is rammed by a huge whale and its crew must resort to cannibalism to survive the hostile and indifferent sea.

Nothing Like It in the World: The Men Who Built the Transcontinental Railroad by Stephen E. Ambrose (Simon & Schuster, 2000).

Ambrose considers the building of the transcontinental railroad one of the three greatest American achievements of the nineteenth century, along with the preservation of the Union and the emancipation of the slaves. It was certainly an engineering marvel, in the days when engineers slept in the open with their surveying tools, ever vigilant for Indian attacks.

Ambrose tells the story of the Chinese and Irish immigrants and Civil War veterans who built the road and while he does not absolve the money-hungry owners from blame, he appreciates the financial risks they took in undertaking the project.

The book gains momentum as the Union Pacific and Central Pacific converge on the Great Salt Lake in Utah.

The First American: The Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin by H. W. Brands (Doubleday, 2000).

It is the claim of Brands that among our founding fathers, only George Washington mattered more than Benjamin Franklin. Franklin discovered America in himself and then created it in the world at large.

Franklin was a late convert to the Revolutionary cause, after serving as London agent for the colonies, but his contributions were indispensable.

Franklin was much more than a revolutionary, however. He was a scientist, inventor, civic activist, and journalist as well. Brands is a master storyteller and has created an absorbing portrait of 18th century America and a highly readable biography of a complicated man.

Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation by Joseph J. Ellis (Knopf, 2000).

If you think you know Revolutionary War history, when you read Ellis, you may change your mind. The author of a National Book Award-winning biography of Thomas Jefferson is completely at home in the colonial period and is a very eloquent writer as well.

Ellis began the fashion of knocking Jefferson, and he continues that here, but he also explains why it is Jefferson's idealistic vision of America that stays alive today.

In six interrelated stories he corrects our history book's version of the Burr-Hamilton duel, expounds on Washington's farewell address, and demonstrates the importance of the partnerships between Madison and Jefferson and Jefferson and his one-time political enemy, John Adams. You will probably come away with a renewed respect for Adams.

In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex by Nathaniel Philbrick (Viking, 2000).

In 1820, the Nantucket whaler "Essex" was rammed and sunk in the South Pacific by a massive leviathan in an unprecedented attack by a whale upon a sailing vessel. This is the incident that inspired Melville to write Moby Dick.

Attempting to sail two thousand miles in three whaleboats to the coast of South America, the crew was finally reduced to casting lots for killing one of their own for sustenance. If you enjoyed The Perfect Storm, you will relish this eerie tale, the year's best historical thriller.

David Locker is a librarian with the Evansville-Vanderburgh Public Library. The opinions expressed in this column are personal and do not reflect policies or official recommendations of EVPL.