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As I sat down to write some quick reviews of three books I read recently, I realized that they are connected. All three are true-life tales (a historical fiction, a journalistic novel, and an autobiography), and all three grapple with different ideas of what it means to be American. I chose them randomly, but I’ve been thinking so much about our country lately in the current political climate that my subconscious might have weighed in. From revolutionary colonies, to southern voodoo culture, to backwoods holler poverty, these books deal with social structures, law, racism, and at the heart of so much...education and parenting. These blurbs do not do the books justice, but you might find yourself wanting to give them a try.
America's First Daughter
Stephanie Dray and Laura Kamoie
This book presents a long but interesting look at the life of Thomas Jefferson’s daughter, Patsy Jefferson Randolph. It begins on the day that Jefferson and his family flee Monticello to escape being caught by British soldiers. Her story takes us from Philadelphia to Paris to the White House and ultimately back to Monticello. Intertwined with major historical events, her personal trials include suffering from unrequited love, surviving an abusive marriage, covering up family scandal, and birthing eleven children. She wrestles with the immorality of slavery and the fragility of agrarian prosperity while serving as almost an adviser to her very wise but very complicated father. She ultimately shapes his legacy by editing his letters and journals before passing them on for preservation.
The process by which books like this are written is as fascinating to me as the stories themselves. There are so many documents that have survived from this period in history, as everyone wrote letters to one another. We have so many details from Jefferson’s political and intellectual life, yet the records contain obvious gaps where Patsy excluded anything that might sully how her father was remembered. Dray and Kamoie immersed themselves in research and filled in the holes with their best guesses at what most likely occurred “off parchment”. Much of the dialogue is taken directly from primary sources. I think that interpreting between the lines of the Jeffersons’ words to connect the dots of their lives must have been like watching a puzzle come together.
Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil
So the title alone drew me to this book, as did the fact that it takes place in Savannah. I’m a lifelong Yankee, but I’ve always been enamored with a romanticized version of the South: front porches with rocking chairs, peach orchards, sweet tea, and Scarlett O’Hara. I have little to no real life experience in the Southern states, but I love lots of things associated with this part of our country. This book satisfied that craving with descriptions of Old Savannah architecture, exclusive southern belle galas, unsurpassed southern hospitality (the city is actually famous for its parties), and even some graveyard voodoo. Berendt, a New York journalist, travels down for work and then decides he can’t get enough of the place. He befriends scores of residents and exposes the fabric of an extremely rigid but also surprisingly rebellious society. Laws are flouted but tradition is revered.
Berendt’s chapters are episodic, and his dynamic personas take you through a story that is part murder mystery, part travel guide, part impartial interview. It’s engrossing and enlightening and will definitely have you adding Savannah to your travel bucket list and undermining what you think you knew about this city.
The Glass Castle
I could not put this book down. If you love Frank McCourt or anyone who candidly but artfully relates a rough childhood, Walls is for you. She begins with her earliest memory--cooking hot dogs while standing on a chair in a pink tutu that catches fire. She was three years old.
Walls’s mother is a free spirit who would rather not be troubled by maternal life, yet she teaches her children life lessons and wants the best for them. Her dad is a dreamer who blows the rent money on booze and challenges the establishment, yet manages to come through at some critical moments for his offspring. They are fly-by-night gypsy-like squatters who gamble and squander while their kids walk around with holes in their clothes and eat out of garbage cans, but they are also well-read, intelligent, and not without love for their children. Her dad’s blueprints for “the glass castle” symbolize the life he wants to build for his family and the promise that Walls holds onto for most of her childhood. When she realizes that his American dream will never happen, her disillusionment still does not obliterate the love she has for her dad. She paves her own way and eventually comes to understand the bearing that her past has on her future.
Our country is built upon a pioneering, innovative spirit that has never wavered when it comes to bravery and individualism. But we have also been held back by the snares of ignorance and greed. On this day, Veteran’s Day, I’m thankful for the sacrifice of our soldiers, and forever grateful to be born in this great country. But I do think that it is up to all American citizens to educate themselves. To read. To listen. To learn from our parents but also from those who do not think like we do. To teach our children that we are indeed proud Americans but also citizens of the world. If we try to understand who we were, we can begin to make sense of who we are, and, finally, to plan what we want to be.