Anne Bartlett

The structure destined to become the Midnight Sun Mosque in Canada’s Northwest Territories had to be transported 2,800 miles from Winnipeg to Inuvik, much of it by barge. It’s now the worship house for some 100 Muslims, mostly men who were displaced from conflict zones and now drive taxis among the Inuit. They spend their spare time operating a much-needed community food bank.

On the other end of the North American continent is the Ahmadiyya mosque in Chiapas, Mexico. It’s run by a Mayan Indian, a former evangelical Christian and Zapatista leftist who got involved in Islam via a Sufi imam from an offbeat mosque in Spain founded by a Scottish hippie.

Neither fits the stereotype of a mosque that so many non-Muslim North Americans have. That’s exactly the point of Omar Mouallem’s absorbing Praying to the West: How Muslims Shaped the Americas, which explores the Muslim population of the Americas in all its staggering diversity.

Mouallem, a Canadian of Lebanese descent who grew up in a Muslim family but whose personal feelings about Islam became complicated as an adult, examines his own inner turmoil as he visits 13 mosques. They’re incredibly varied but fall roughly into two groups: communities founded by Muslim immigrants, like the Islamic Society of Greater Houston, and more idiosyncratic movements begun by non-Muslims, like the Nation of Islam.

The immigrant experience described by Mouallem will sound familiar to many Americans: the desire by the first generation to assimilate, followed by a rediscovery of roots by their children, then a more eclectic approach by grandchildren. The mosques he visits reflect these different relationships to assimilation. One early Muslim community, founded by Lebanese peddlers in North Dakota, for example, is now nearly indistinguishable from its Christian neighbors. Other, newer mosques have experienced more turbulence as they’ve acclimatized to their communities, such as a Quebec mosque that was the scene of a horrific massacre by a white man in 2017 and still has to employ tight security measures to protect itself.

Mouallem seems most attracted to Unity Mosque, which is open to all traditions and welcomes gay people and female faith leaders. He suspects North America will lead the way as Islam evolves, but regardless of whether that happens, his book has made it impossible not to see this faith tradition’s rich complexity.

Praying to the West explores the Muslim population of the Americas in all its staggering diversity and makes it impossible not to see Islam’s rich complexity.

The campaign for women's suffrage in the United States was a tough slog over three generations, from the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848 to the ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920. Frustrating defeats were the rule—except in the West. By 1914, 11 Western states already allowed women to vote. In Wyoming, they'd been doing it since 1869, well before statehood.

Winifred Gallagher’s comprehensive New Women in the Old West: From Settlers to Suffragists, an Untold American Story unearths this story through the lives of dozens of forgotten trailblazers. Suffrage is only part of it; women settlers were integral to building communities and developing the economy as the United States expanded, and the Native and Mexican women already living in the West were critical in the fight against encroachment and discrimination.

Early pioneer women were crucial full-time partners to men who were farmers and miners. Many became “town mothers,” the forces behind the establishment of schools, churches and libraries. Countless women built businesses, including Luzena Stanley Wilson, who became a successful hotel entrepreneur during the 1848 gold rush. A surprising number of women, like Oregon suffragist Abigail Scott Duniway, became prosperous as milliners, a business friendly to women at a time when everyone wore hats.

Beginning in the 1860s, the federal Homestead Acts, which granted applicants ownership rights to public lands in the West, and the Morrill Acts, which created land-grant universities, opened other paths for women. Female homesteaders, many of whom were immigrants, were relatively few in number, but they proved their claims at a higher rate than men. Coed land-grant universities also grew the teaching profession, newly open to women. 

Gallagher is candid about the less appealing elements of this story as well. Initial suffrage measures passed in part because white men hoped the votes of white women would offset those of immigrant and Black men. Additionally, Gallagher documents the ways in which white women who were missionaries and teachers demeaned people of color and backed damaging assimilationist policies.

Overall, Gallagher’s rediscoveries are inspirational. Hard conditions and sparse populations created opportunities for women in the West unavailable to them elsewhere. They fought their way into business ownership, education, professional careers—and ultimately voting booths and elective office.

The campaign for women's suffrage in the United States was a tough slog—except in the West. New Women in the Old West unearths dozens of forgotten trailblazers.

Imagine that you and your family have been taken into custody. You’ve lost your home and small business. Fellow Americans have berated and beaten you. Now you’re all living behind a fence in a single room in a squalid barrack in some desolate nowhere. And the government comes to you and says, “We want you to join the Army and risk your life to fight for the United States.”

It's astounding that anyone said yes, much less thousands of people. The Japanese Americans who formed the 442nd Infantry Regiment—the most decorated unit in U.S. history for its size and service length—were American patriots, and many felt they needed to demonstrate their loyalty to their country. They certainly succeeded.

In Facing the Mountain: A True Story of Japanese American Heroes in World War II, Daniel James Brown tackles this important story with the same impressive narrative talent and research that made his 2013 book, The Boys in the Boat, an enduring bestseller. He shares the story of issei (first-generation Japanese Americans) and nisei (second-generation Japanese Americans) who fought in World War II by focusing on four young men: three from Hawaii and the West Coast who joined the 442nd, and one, no less courageous, who went to prison for peacefully resisting what he believed were violations of the Constitution.


ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: American actor Louis Ozawa’s ability to speak both English and Japanese serves him well in narrating the audiobook of Facing the Mountain.


Brown takes us through the shock of the internment camps and the struggle for Hawaiians and mainlanders to overcome tensions and establish a cohesive fighting unit. The centerpieces of Facing the Mountain are the wrenching, on-the-ground descriptions of battles fought by the 442nd in Europe, most notably the uphill rescue of the “Lost Battalion” of Texans in France, in which the nisei suffered more than 800 casualties to rescue some 200 men.

Many readers will feel ashamed of the bigotry these men and their families faced—but every reader will admire the resilience that allowed these soldiers to create communities within the internment camps and to play such a pivotal role in the defeat of the Nazis. Most are gone now, but their stories will live on in this empathetic tribute to their courage.

Most of the Japanese American patriots who formed the 442nd Infantry Regiment are gone, but their stories live on in this empathetic tribute to their courage.

When Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans in 2005, thousands of people were forced to relocate. Some returned; others never did. As the city rebuilt, it changed, through both loss and revitalization. Fifteen years later, hurricanes still threaten New Orleans, but the city certainly endures.

Keep that trajectory in mind if you ever visit a magnificent urban archaeological site such as Angkor Wat or Pompeii. As Annalee Newitz shows in the marvelous Four Lost Cities, an ancient city’s fate was determined by complex interactions of politics, the environment and human choices—all of which offer insight into the challenges of climate change and disease that we face today.

Along with Angkor in Cambodia and Pompeii in Italy, Newitz’s four cities include Çatalhöyük in Turkey, the Neolithic site of one of the world’s first cities, and Cahokia, a Native American city that was located in the St. Louis metro region. Newitz takes us along on visits to all four locations, exploring their histories and cultures through interviews with the archaeologists doing cutting-edge research at each site.

Spanning different epochs and continents, these cities were of course quite different during their respective eras. Angkor and Cahokia were essentially spiritual sites surrounded by low-­density sprawl; Pompeii and Çatalhöyük were densely packed. Pompeii was a trading town; the others were predominantly agricultural. But all faced significant environmental challenges, such as climate change, flooding, drought, earthquakes and volcanic eruption. What’s perhaps most astonishing is how long they lasted in the face of these calamities. Like New Orleans, they were rebuilt, time after time, by their creative, adaptable citizens.

Through this brightly written, lucid narrative, Newitz shows us that these cities were never “lost” and rediscovered. Even when their people ultimately moved on, they took their cultures and memories with them. As we struggle with our own difficult urban realities, Newitz argues, it’s worth considering their resilience.

As Annalee Newitz shows in the marvelous Four Lost Cities, an ancient city’s fate was determined by complex interactions of politics, the environment and human choices.

In October 1957, Sputnik 1 went up, and America panicked: My gosh, the Soviets are winning the Cold War! At least that's how it seemed as the little satellite's beep-beep was heard around the world. President Eisenhower hated spending money, but even he was persuaded that an aggressive space program was crucial. The United States' prestige was at stake, and so NASA was born as an instrument of nationalist competition.

But that's not how it evolved, at least in global public perception. Teasel Muir-Harmony’s engaging Operation Moonglow: A Political History of Project Apollo reveals that the 1969 Apollo moon landing mission was the single most successful U.S. diplomatic effort of the late 20th century—precisely because it consciously avoided jingoism.

Muir-Harmony, a curator at the Smithsonian, draws on a rich cache of documents from NASA and the United States Information Agency, among other sources, to bring to vivid life the ground-level public relations onslaught surrounding the Apollo project. When U.S. diplomats organized exhaustive worldwide tours and exhibits about their country's successes, they quickly learned that American boasting was a turnoff. Instead, millions of people across the earth reacted with astounding enthusiasm to a message of global unity. The space mission was "for all mankind."

The astronauts assigned to the mission proved to be natural goodwill ambassadors, indefatigable in their unpretentious friendliness. Muir-Harmony brings us along for their post-flight tours—as Frank Borman wades into Paris crowds to press the flesh and as Neil Armstrong says just the right thing to charm the prickly wife of Yugoslav president Josip Broz Tito. The positive feeling generated by Apollo arguably helped Nixon jump-start his secret Vietnam War peace talks.

It feels like such a remote era now: Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon were all instinctive internationalists, despite their political differences. They believed the United States would prevail through U.S.-led alliances and openness, in contrast to Soviet secrecy and bullying. Muir-Harmony notes that, even with the achievement of the moon landing, NASA couldn’t overshadow global disgust with the Vietnam War or the nation's racial turmoil in any lasting way. Still, Operation Moonglow is a winning remembrance of a time when America thought big and optimistically about its role in the world.

In 1957, Sputnik went up, and America panicked: My gosh, the Soviets are winning the Cold War! At least that's how it seemed as the little satellite's beep-beep was heard around the world. President Eisenhower hated spending money, but even he was persuaded that an aggressive space program was crucial.

When the western part of the former Third Reich transformed itself with lightning speed into a stable democratic republic and economic powerhouse, it was the ultimate post-World War II success story. The story is true enough, but it wasn't quite that simple. In fact, the defeated German people were shattered after the war. Countless thousands were refugees, prisoners of war and rape victims, collectively blamed for the Holocaust. Unsurprisingly, these conditions caused widespread tension, illness, emotional breakdown and deep denial.

They also caused a now-forgotten witch panic. Historian Monica Black surfaces this deeply buried episode in her riveting A Demon-Haunted Land: Witches, Wonder Doctors, and the Ghost of the Past in Post-WWII Germany, which explores the connection between Germany’s trauma and an upsurge in superstitious hysteria. Included in this wave were Germans who accused their neighbors of being witches, a charismatic faith healer named Bruno Gröning who attracted thousands of followers and others who reported sightings of the Virgin Mary.

From 1947 to 1956, there were 77 “witchcraft” trials in Germany. To be clear, these were not trials of witches; they were cases brought by people accused of witchcraft against their accusers. (The word “witch” was seldom used; the accusers called them “evil people.”) The most notorious trial involved Waldemar Eberling, a lay healer and exorcist who told clients they had been bewitched by neighbors. He was called Hexenbanner, "witch banisher," and both he and his nemesis, a retired teacher who crusaded for the accused, had been anti-Nazis.

Black focuses much of the book on Gröning, a former Nazi believed by his legion of followers to possess magic healing powers against illnesses caused by evil. He eventually went to trial in a tragic case involving a teenage girl with tuberculosis who stopped medical treatment because of her faith in him.

All these cases were studied by doctors at the time they occurred, but Black perceptively points out that none of them ever publicly faced up to the heart of the matter. The terrible societal conditions that led to this outbreak, the experts said, was the fault of the Allied occupation. Guilt and shame over Nazi crimes were never mentioned. Only Eberling’s teacher-enemy pointed out—privately—that a hunt for “witches” was not unlike blaming the Jews.

Historian Monica Black’s riveting A Demon-Haunted Land: Witches, Wonder Doctors, and the Ghost of the Past in Post-WWII Germany explores the connection between Germany’s trauma and an upsurge in superstitious hysteria.

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