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All American History Coverage

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June 12, 2024

5 books that dads will love

Dads are notoriously difficult to shop for. For Father’s Day, we recommend five dad-worthy history books, including the latest from Erik Larson, a biography of John Lewis, the story of the space shuttle Challenger and more.

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Adam Higginbotham’s international bestseller, Midnight in Chernobyl, chronicled the disastrous 1986 nuclear reactor explosion in Ukraine that was caused by a Soviet program plagued with a toxic combination of unrealistic timelines and dangerous cost cutting. His new book, Challenger: A True Story of Heroism and Disaster on the Edge of Space, describes a surprisingly similar catastrophe that very same year, this time at the hands of NASA: the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger that killed all seven people aboard. Hefty, compelling and propulsive, Challenger overflows with revelatory details.

Reading this book is like watching a train wreck unfold in slow motion. One can’t help but hear a drumbeat of dread while getting to know the astronauts—Christa McAuliffe, Gregory Jarvis, Ron McNair, Ellison Onizuka, Judith Resnik, Dick Scobee and Michael Smith—and their families. Details will stay with readers long after they close the book: McAuliffe’s appearance on The Tonight Show, her husband’s increasing anxiety at launch time, the horror and disbelief of the families as they watch their loved ones die, the grim details of the recovery efforts and the attempts of professionals both to warn against the mission and to bring to light why it failed.

Among the latter is engineer Roger Boisjoly, who, over a year before the explosion, wrote a memo voicing fears to senior management, stating, “It is my honest and very real fear that if we do not take immediate action . . . we stand in jeopardy of losing a flight along with all the launch facilities.” Unbelievably, in the hours just before the mission commenced, Boisjoly and a team of 13 other engineers unanimously advised against the launch, yet their concerns were not even voiced up the command chain. After the explosion, physicist Richard Feynman sought to bring clarity to the commission tasked with investigating the tragedy. The scientist noted that “the management of NASA exaggerates the reliability of its product to the point of fantasy.”

Higginbotham excels at delineating not only the science, technology and history of NASA’s Space Shuttle program, but also the bureaucratic snafus and mismanagement that led to the catastrophe, including economic pressures and a nonstop race to get people into space. As with Midnight in Chernobyl, Challenger proves Higginbotham is a master chronicler of disasters, demonstrating an unflinching ability to pierce through politics, power and bureaucracies with laser-sharp focus.

Challenger proves Adam Higginbotham is a master chronicler of disasters, piercing through politics, power and bureaucracies with laser-sharp focus.
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There’s no such thing as a spoiler alert when a story’s subject is taught in most every American history class across the country. Injecting hold-your-breath suspense into a narrative history, particularly one in which we already know the story’s ending, is a task that Erik Larson has mastered. In the Garden of the Beasts took on Nazi Germany on the cusp of war; The Splendid and the Vile explored Winston Churchill’s stewardship of under-siege England. In his new book, The Demon of Unrest: A Saga of Hubris, Heartbreak, and Heroism at the Dawn of the Civil War, Larson turns his attention to the immediate aftermath of the election of Abraham Lincoln and the unlanced boil where the war began: Fort Sumter.

Larson covers just a few months of American history—but perhaps the most consequential few months. Lincoln, Jefferson Davis and other well-known figures from the period play key roles, but so too do a British journalist on assignment, a young private stuck in the besieged fort and a Southern society woman watching the events unfold. They aren’t key characters in the grand arc of the Civil War or the country’s history, but they did write a lot down. Their accounts help Larson propel the narrative without relying entirely on the stories of people who have already been the subject of hundreds or thousands of other books.

There are obvious parallels to the current moment: a refusal to accept the results of a presidential election, threats to march on the Capitol, a tendency toward civility and appeasement in the face of existential threat and other more subtle links to the present. Some of the connections are unavoidable and necessary; others, Larson perhaps injects as a result of recency bias.

Even after a century and a half of books about the subject, it remains remarkably unclear what course of action key figures should or could have taken to avoid America’s bloodiest war. Maybe we’ll never figure that out, but The Demon of Unrest is a damn good read.

In The Demon of Unrest, Erik Larson crafts a tale of hold-your-breath suspense about the crucial three months leading up to the Civil War.
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June 1939: British naval sub HMS Thetis sinks in sea trials. Ninety-nine people die. August 1942: Allied forces raid the coastal town of Dieppe in German-occupied France. Thousands are killed, captured or wounded, in part because coastal scouting was minimal. September 1942: British-manned torpedoes attack German battleship Tirpitz. All crewmen are captured or killed. Catastrophes have a way of concentrating the mind: Do it right next time. Luckily for the Allies in World War II, a group of scientists in London risked their lives in secret pressure chamber “dives” to give future underwater and amphibious missions better odds.

Author Rachel Lance is a biomedical engineer and blast injury specialist who has worked on underwater equipment for the U.S. Navy, making her unusually suited to unveil the forgotten story of these scientists in Chamber Divers: The Untold Story of the D-Day Scientists Who Changed Special Operations Forever.

Their project at University College London was led by J.B.S. Haldane, a brilliant, annoying eccentric who hired scientists shunned by others, among them Jewish refugees, women and Communist sympathizers. As the bombs in the Blitz exploded around them, these scientists subjected themselves again and again to dangerous pressure in chambers that simulated deep underwater dives in order to design more effective breathing equipment for submarine crews, frogmen and torpedo riders.

Relying on their experiment notes, Lance takes us inside the metal tubes where scientists suffered life-threatening injuries. She explores their backgrounds and relationships, which included a love affair between Haldane and research colleague Helen Spurway. And she ranges throughout combat zones to show us the dangers of underwater action, from the perspective of individual combatants on both sides. But Lance’s singular strength is her lucid explanations of the complex science behind the experiments, making it accessible to untrained readers. Lance also uncovers the combination of official secrecy, prejudice against outsiders and bureaucratic skullduggery that obscured this story until now.

Lance begins her book with the Dieppe disaster and ends with D-Day—an Allied triumph that might have gone badly wrong without the chamber divers’ dedication and resilience. Chamber Divers is a necessary reminder that not all war heroes were on the front lines.

In Chamber Divers, Rachel Lance uncovers the Navy scientists who risked their lives to improve the odds of underwater and amphibious missions in World War II.
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With its near 500-page count and robust endnotes, The Achilles Trap: Saddam Hussein, the C.I.A., and the Origins of America’s Invasion of Iraq might at first glance scare off readers who haven’t sniffed a textbook in years. But thanks to Steve Coll’s crisp and dynamic prose, what’s between the covers feels little like an academic tome.

Despite appearances, The Achilles Trap is not really an Iraq War book (just as Lawrence Wright’s The Looming Tower is not really a 9/11 book). Yes, you get there eventually, but Coll, like Wright, has more to say about the years leading up to that cataclysm. The narrative details Saddam’s upbringing, rise to power and entrenchment as a key strongman in the Middle East, sometimes allied with the United States and sometimes its biggest pain in the ass—and sometimes both at the same time.

In the two decades since the American invasion of Iraq began, Saddam Hussein has become a sort of caricature. Here, Coll reintroduces the dictator to an audience that has either forgotten his nuances or never knew them. There is unimaginable cruelty, family drama and even comedy—like when Saddam sets out on a career as a historical romance novelist just a few years before his death.

Coll, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Ghost Wars and a longtime journalist for The New Yorker and The Washington Post, has a special combination of mostly unrelated skill sets that eludes so many narrative nonfiction writers: He’s a groundbreaking reporter and researcher who is able to uncover new information in a tightly wound arena, but also a deft stylist with a natural gift for both narrative structure and fluent yet surprising writing. Like a baseball player who can both pitch and hit with the best, the rare union places Coll at or near the apex of the craft.

Detailing Saddam’s own cruelty does not mean Coll lets the U.S. off the hook, though. Sprinkled among what is at times a tense political thriller are scenes of astounding myopia, hubris, miscommunication, dark hypocrisy, betrayal, stupidity, cruelty and violence of our own. Though the events of The Achilles Trap concluded 20 years ago, there are few better roadmaps to where American foreign policy in the Middle East has ended up today.

With agile prose, groundbreaking reporting and narrative splendor, The Achilles Trap is a gripping history of the Iraq War.

Like his mentor Martin Luther King Jr., John Lewis had a dream. Amid the turmoil and violence of a segregated South and a nation embroiled in the struggle for racial reconciliation, Lewis envisioned and championed what he called a “Beloved Community” in America, “a society based on simple justice that values the dignity and the worth of every human being.” In his captivating John Lewis: In Search of Beloved Community, Raymond Arsenault narrates the mesmerizing story of Lewis’ evolution from a Civil Rights activist to an eminent congressman who never lost sight of his vision for a just and equitable society.

Drawing on archival materials and interviews with Lewis and his friends, family and associates, Arsenault traces Lewis from his childhood in Troy, Alabama, where he daily witnessed the indignities and violence of racial segregation. Steeled and inspired by the Montgomery Bus Boycott, he entered American Baptist Theological Seminary in Nashville, Tennessee, and began his storied activism in earnest. Lewis and his contemporaries incorporated the principles of rightness and righteousness—what their teacher James Lawson called “soul force”—with methods of nonviolent resistance. Arsenault documents Lewis’ participation in the Freedom Rides, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the Selma to Montgomery marches and his advocacy for the Voting Rights Act. After King’s 1968 assassination, Lewis’ optimism turned to despair; he had a feeling, Arsenault writes, that “maybe, just maybe, we would not overcome.”

But that didn’t last. Elected to Congress in 1986, Lewis went to Washington with a legacy to uphold and a commitment to carry on the spirit, goals and principles of nonviolence and social action. He was always disillusioned by self-serving politicians and their infighting, and he devoted his career to building coalitions among opponents. In a 2020 speech, Lewis uttered the remarks that cemented his legacy: “We cannot give up now. We cannot give in. . . . Go out there, speak up, speak out, get in the way. Get in good trouble, necessary trouble.”

With John Lewis Arsenault offers the first comprehensive biography of the icon and serves as a fitting bookend to Lewis’ own autobiography, Walking With the Wind. The work provides an inspiring portrait of a man whose vision and moral courage propelled him to share his belief in the Beloved Community and inspire generations.

Raymond Arsenault’s mesmerizing biography of John Lewis chronicles the life of the Civil Rights icon and congressman whose vision of a just and equitable society has inspired generations.

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Dads are notoriously hard to shop for. For Father’s Day, we recommend five dad-worthy history books, including the latest from Erik Larson, a biography of John Lewis, the story of the space shuttle Challenger and more.
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National Book Award-winning author Tiya Miles has tackled a variety of tough, intriguing subjects in books like Wild Girls and All That She Carried. She felt stymied, however, as she approached the life of the legendary Harriett Tubman. As one friend told her, “No one could catch her then. It’s going to be hard to catch her now.” 

And yet that is exactly what Miles so beautifully achieves in Night Flyer: Harriet Tubman and the Faith Dreams of a Free People. One of the biggest hurdles Miles faced was Tubman’s illiteracy, which meant her life experiences were all documented by others—“typically white, middle-class, antislavery women who recorded her speech and told her story.” Despite the roadblock of such “swamped sources,” often “submerged in the perspectives and biases of others,” Miles applauds a number of existing traditional biographies. As she explains, her goal was not to replicate these, but rather to explore Tubman’s eco-spiritual worldview. 

In her trademark deeply researched, thoughtful and exquisite prose, Miles successfully avoids popular depictions of Tubman as a superwoman “prepackaged in a box of stock stories and folksy sayings” among other “abolitionist avengers.” Instead, she places her firmly within the realm of Black female faith culture, noting that she was “one of a kind—singularly special and part of a cultural collective.” To illuminate Tubman’s spiritual purview, Miles delves into several memoirs written or dictated by Black women evangelists of Tubman’s time, writing that their relationships with the divine mandated “challenging entrenched social systems of racial and gender subjugation at the risk of [their] own safety, health, and social acceptance”

Calling her “arguably the most famous Black woman ecologist in U.S. history,” Miles also brings to life the haunting sights, sounds and dark, bewildering moments that Tubman experienced as she led herself and others to safety through the night wilderness. Tubman studied the plants, animals and stars as a matter of necessity for survival, believing that these god-given guides were proof of the need for spiritual and political liberation. 

Often, when Tubman told her story to biographers, she touched the writer, as if “by laying her hand on this person, her feelings may be transmitted.” With Night Flyer, Tiya Miles seems to transmit the weight of her subject’s hand and heart.

With the exquisite Night Flyer, Tiya Miles looks at Harriet Tubman from an entirely new perspective: her spirituality.
STARRED REVIEW

Cool off this summer with 5 splashy books

These books starring bodies of water include Morgan Talty’s latest and everything you never needed to know about sea turtles.
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Book jacket image for My Life with Sea Turtles by Christine Figgener

The illuminating My Life With Sea Turtles sheds light not only on the beauty and mystery of sea turtles, but also on the urgent need

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Book jacket image for Swift River by Essie Chambers

Swift River is a mesmerizing account of inherited trauma in a “sundown town,” propelled by the insightful and often-humorous narration of 16-year-old Diamond Newberry, the

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Book jacket image for The Great River by Boyce Upholt

Boyce Upholt wrangles the geological, political and cultural history of the wild Mississippi River in a compelling, lively narrative that will delight history fans.

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Book jacket image for Fire Exit by Morgan Talty

Morgan Talty follows up Night of the Living Rez with Fire Exit, a beautifully written novel that is sometimes funny, often heartbreaking and hopeful against

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Recent Reviews

These books starring bodies of water include Morgan Talty’s latest and everything you never needed to know about sea turtles.
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The difficult task of establishing a government for the United States required the development of a stable national economy that could deal effectively with a huge debt and other critical concerns. William Hogeland chronicles the twists and turns of the early years of the new republic in his drama-filled and insightful The Hamilton Scheme: An Epic Tale of Money and Power in the American Founding. The nation’s first treasury secretary, Alexander Hamilton, welcomed the challenge and had an approach he thought could not only save the country from catastrophe but also move it to become an imperial power. Hamilton’s plan, however, favored the elite, and failed to benefit the broader population that sacrificed much in the war. A scheme, Hogeland notes, “can mean simply a plan or design. But it can also mean a secret plan or design for nefarious ends.”

Hogeland writes of Hamilton’s biggest boosters and adversaries. Readers will not be surprised to see George Washington, who was “first and foremost a politically well-connected businessman,” among Hamilton’s supporters. On the other hand, the “flamboyant war profiteer” Robert Morris may be new to many readers. Coining the term “money connection,” Morris believed that the key to national greatness was “a consolidation of wealth and government.” His influence on the young treasury secretary was so strong that Hogeland contends that “without him the United States probably wouldn’t exist.”

Among those who disagreed with Hamilton was Albert Gallatin, “a brilliant, abstemious Genevan émigré” and treasury secretary to Jefferson and Madison who “[wore] himself down to the nub in the fetid summers of barely built Washington, D.C., trying to discover the antidote to Hamiltonianism.” Another was Herman Husband, an idealist, abolitionist and objector to the conquest of Indigenous North Americans’ land who was “so highly regarded by ordinary people in the remote western regions where he lived that he was . . . ranked by Hamilton as a danger above all others.” These finely drawn characters bring The Hamilton Scheme to life and show the divisions in postwar economic philosophy that are still at play today.

The Hamilton Scheme covers a lot of ground, sometimes at too fast a pace. However, it should be of special interest to readers who want to know about the beginnings of America’s economic history.

Drama-filled and insightful, The Hamilton Scheme chronicles the beginnings of America’s economic history.
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It should come as no surprise that a book about the legendary Mississippi River covers centuries of history, tons of mud, hundreds of levees and a rogues’ gallery of characters. Boyce Upholt turns it all into an absorbing tale in The Great River: The Making and Unmaking of the Mississippi.

When Upholt took on a writing assignment about a paddler and tourist guide in 2015, he had no experience with the Mississippi. In the following years, he would go on to catch rides in oyster boats, tour the delta with a parish councilman and absorb the worries of the president of the Louisiana Shrimp Association.

Of course, many before Upholt were also drawn to the river. Spanish explorers are credited with “discovering” the river on a mission to plunder the riches of Indigenous people—a historical narrative Upholt calls “that tired idea that a white man can discover something that has already been used as a watery highway for thousands of years.” Enslaved and free Black people and generations of restless migrating white settlers found their way to the territory alongside the river. Mark Twain and his iconic character, Huck Finn, lured cramped, disillusioned city dwellers to the wild river’s endless spaces. Flatboats gave way to steamboats, and railroads hauled people to the river’s banks in droves. Property battles, poverty, greed, murders and graft ensued.

The Army Corps of Engineers built the longest levee in the world along the lower Mississippi—the second largest human-made structure on Earth, only after the Great Wall of China. Local and federal commissions, boards and agencies would attend to the political wants and economic needs of those invested in the river (especially the powerful and wealthy) ever since. Climate change heightens the river’s many challenges. In 2005, Hurricane Katrina “woke the world,” Upholt writes, as it “ripped through the marshland and put much of New Orleans underwater.” But the life of the river goes on. Mud is dredged here and moved there. Industrial pollutants irrevocably change ecosystems. Engineers continue to construct, deconstruct, rearrange, recreate, divert and revert the waterway. Our attempts to control the wild Mississippi are an endless pursuit.

Upholt manages to wrestle a staggering amount of details into a narrative that is at times a challenge to read. But thanks to his concise yet lively writing style, The Great River is worth the effort. It compellingly pays homage to a waterway worthy of its moniker.

Boyce Upholt wrangles the geological, political and cultural history of the wild Mississippi River in a compelling, lively narrative.
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Adam Higginbotham’s international bestseller, Midnight in Chernobyl, chronicled the disastrous 1986 nuclear reactor explosion in Ukraine that was caused by a Soviet program plagued with a toxic combination of unrealistic timelines and dangerous cost cutting. His new book, Challenger: A True Story of Heroism and Disaster on the Edge of Space, describes a surprisingly similar catastrophe that very same year, this time at the hands of NASA: the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger that killed all seven people aboard. Hefty, compelling and propulsive, Challenger overflows with revelatory details.

Reading this book is like watching a train wreck unfold in slow motion. One can’t help but hear a drumbeat of dread while getting to know the astronauts—Christa McAuliffe, Gregory Jarvis, Ron McNair, Ellison Onizuka, Judith Resnik, Dick Scobee and Michael Smith—and their families. Details will stay with readers long after they close the book: McAuliffe’s appearance on The Tonight Show, her husband’s increasing anxiety at launch time, the horror and disbelief of the families as they watch their loved ones die, the grim details of the recovery efforts and the attempts of professionals both to warn against the mission and to bring to light why it failed.

Among the latter is engineer Roger Boisjoly, who, over a year before the explosion, wrote a memo voicing fears to senior management, stating, “It is my honest and very real fear that if we do not take immediate action . . . we stand in jeopardy of losing a flight along with all the launch facilities.” Unbelievably, in the hours just before the mission commenced, Boisjoly and a team of 13 other engineers unanimously advised against the launch, yet their concerns were not even voiced up the command chain. After the explosion, physicist Richard Feynman sought to bring clarity to the commission tasked with investigating the tragedy. The scientist noted that “the management of NASA exaggerates the reliability of its product to the point of fantasy.”

Higginbotham excels at delineating not only the science, technology and history of NASA’s Space Shuttle program, but also the bureaucratic snafus and mismanagement that led to the catastrophe, including economic pressures and a nonstop race to get people into space. As with Midnight in Chernobyl, Challenger proves Higginbotham is a master chronicler of disasters, demonstrating an unflinching ability to pierce through politics, power and bureaucracies with laser-sharp focus.

Challenger proves Adam Higginbotham is a master chronicler of disasters, piercing through politics, power and bureaucracies with laser-sharp focus.
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There’s no such thing as a spoiler alert when a story’s subject is taught in most every American history class across the country. Injecting hold-your-breath suspense into a narrative history, particularly one in which we already know the story’s ending, is a task that Erik Larson has mastered. In the Garden of the Beasts took on Nazi Germany on the cusp of war; The Splendid and the Vile explored Winston Churchill’s stewardship of under-siege England. In his new book, The Demon of Unrest: A Saga of Hubris, Heartbreak, and Heroism at the Dawn of the Civil War, Larson turns his attention to the immediate aftermath of the election of Abraham Lincoln and the unlanced boil where the war began: Fort Sumter.

Larson covers just a few months of American history—but perhaps the most consequential few months. Lincoln, Jefferson Davis and other well-known figures from the period play key roles, but so too do a British journalist on assignment, a young private stuck in the besieged fort and a Southern society woman watching the events unfold. They aren’t key characters in the grand arc of the Civil War or the country’s history, but they did write a lot down. Their accounts help Larson propel the narrative without relying entirely on the stories of people who have already been the subject of hundreds or thousands of other books.

There are obvious parallels to the current moment: a refusal to accept the results of a presidential election, threats to march on the Capitol, a tendency toward civility and appeasement in the face of existential threat and other more subtle links to the present. Some of the connections are unavoidable and necessary; others, Larson perhaps injects as a result of recency bias.

Even after a century and a half of books about the subject, it remains remarkably unclear what course of action key figures should or could have taken to avoid America’s bloodiest war. Maybe we’ll never figure that out, but The Demon of Unrest is a damn good read.

In The Demon of Unrest, Erik Larson crafts a tale of hold-your-breath suspense about the crucial three months leading up to the Civil War.
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Hell Put to Shame: The 1921 Murder Farm Massacre and the Horror of America’s Second Slavery is the type of history that can be hard to pick up because it forces the reader to confront a tragic injustice. How can something so horrible have been forgotten to history? Like David Grann’s Killers of the Flower Moon, this book tells the story of a century-old series of murders, committed by or at the behest of white power brokers seeking a dollar—a tale as old as time.

Journalist and author Earl Swift’s book is set in rural Georgia in the 1910s and ’20s, where wealthy plantation owner John S. Williams entrapped and kept Black people against their will and forced them to work his plantation. The murders in this story were highly publicized at the time, dubbed the Murder Farm case in newspapers across the country. But this narrative transcends the true crime genre. In telling the story of the killings, Hell Put to Shame offers a look at the unkept promises of the Civil War and Reconstruction, a preview of the Civil Rights battles to come, a Southern courtroom drama akin to John Grisham and a character study of complicated people like Georgia Gov. Hugh Dorsey and crusading NAACP investigator Walter White. It reminds the reader of a cruel system of near-slavery that persisted for decades after the Emancipation Proclamation, unchecked by various white power centers.

Several key figures in the story died or had scattered to the wind soon after the murders were exposed. Swift tracks down descendants who had little or flawed information about their relatives’ roles in the crimes. But limited records and eyewitness accounts can at times limit the storytelling, as, for example, the reader gets to know the prominent Dorsey and White better than the central figures, who left a daintier paper trail.

Swift’s frustrated search for the paupers cemetery where some of the victims were allegedly buried is representative both of the challenge of telling a 100-year-old story and our culture’s willingness to actively forget events that make us uncomfortable. There is no monument or plaque to recognize the victims’ lives or deaths. Though incomplete, Hell Put to Shame provides a vital look at a neglected history.

Hell Put to Shame is a courtroom drama, a true crime tale and a finger in the eye of those who sweep our ancestors’ shame under the rug.
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Jonna Mendez sums up her extraordinary 25 years at the CIA thusly: “It was a career I loved. I was doing work that mattered, work that made a difference—making history in some small way. It wasn’t a path I’d ever imagined for myself. I was, after all, just a girl from Wichita, Kansas, seeking adventure, never dreaming that would translate into a life that was both covert and trailblazing.”

But it was not easy. She tells her engaging and enlightening story of service, primarily during the Cold War years, in In True Face: A Woman’s Life in the CIA, Unmasked. The challenges of the work itself were great. And although against official policy, misogyny was the way of life in the agency, and Mendez’s experience with gender discrimination provides a look into that environment. CIA historian and journalist Tim Weiner wrote that “apart from the Marines, there is no branch of service in the United States government as hostile to women as the clandestine services of the CIA.” Despite the efforts of some men who went out of their way to undermine Mendez, she showed courage and fortitude, and, in time, she found male allies who were helpful and supportive.

Beginning as a secretary for her CIA agent husband, Mendez rose through the ranks of the organization. Her skills with photography and disguise eventually led to extremely important roles, including Chief of Disguise, in operations around the world. In True Face includes fascinating accounts of the wide range of her activities. She trained couples, usually married, for work as agents in Moscow; disguised a prime minister; and “match[ed] wits” with Russia’s KGB, East Germany’s Stasi, and Chinese and Cuban intelligence. Mendez, in disguise, even visited the White House to meet with President George H.W. Bush.

This consistently absorbing book is a wonderful memoir that offers more than simply a compelling life story. Mendez says discussions with other women in the early stages of the project convinced her that her experiences should be understood “in the larger context of women in the CIA and indeed, women in the American workplace.” So we have “two stories—one in the world of espionage, the other in the world of women.” And both of them are very well told.

In True Face recounts Jonna Mendez’s experience rising through the ranks of the CIA, from disguising spies and planning special operations to grappling with gender discrimination.
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As a 19-year-old undergraduate, Antonia Hylton read an academic paper that mentioned Crownsville State Hospital, known at its founding as the Hospital for the Negro Insane. That reference triggered an obsession with the hospital’s bleak history that has carried her through the 10 years it took to produce Madness: Race and Insanity in a Jim Crow Asylum. Hylton brings both her journalistic talent and a deep, personal engagement to something she unabashedly describes as a “passion project.” In it, she recounts the 93-year life of Crownsville, tying that painful history to the story of the treatment of mental illness in the United States, especially in communities of color, and to her own family’s experiences with mental health.

Speaking via video from a conference room at NBC headquarters in New York City, Hylton brims with energy and enthusiasm. “If I could understand everything there was to know about Crownsville,” she says, “I would understand my family and my country better.” In her mind, “doing this would be cathartic; it would help me have conversations or fill in blanks that I was struggling to fill in otherwise.”

Hylton calls her book a “tribute to oral history,” and the more than 40 interviews she conducted with former staff and patients—some of them in their 80s or older—and her own family members deeply enrich the story. “This book came to life because of the stories people shared with me,” she says.

One of the greatest challenges in collecting those stories was gaining access to the patients, many of them deeply traumatized by their experiences at Crownsville. “To find patients who were ready to go on the record comfortably was an incredible challenge,” Hylton says, “and it took a lot of trust-building and community outreach. I really had to accept that it was going to be a one-person-at-a-time kind of thing.”

“In addition to putting years of reporting on the page, I put my heart out there.”

Thankfully, there are few people better prepared for this specific kind of work than Hylton. In less than a decade following her graduation from Harvard University, Hylton has already accumulated an impressive set of professional credentials and honors, including Emmy and Peabody awards. After several years as a correspondent and producer for VICE Media, she joined NBC News and MSNBC, where she works as a correspondent on stories at the intersection of politics, education and civil rights.

Book jacket image for Madness by Antonia HyltonBeginning in 2014, she spent long hours in the Maryland State Archives combing through Crownsville’s files, woefully incomplete thanks to shoddy record keeping and the destruction of decades of documents by the state. The paucity of documents would have been far worse had it not been for the efforts of Paul Lurz, a longtime Crownsville staff member who served as an unofficial preservationist. Hylton acknowledges feeling “really angry” that “no one had thought to dignify or track this information in the first place.”

Hylton follows the history of the hospital from its inception in 1911, when 12 Black men were transported to rural Maryland to begin constructing the facility that eventually would house them as its patients, to its closure in 2004. It’s a story of an institution where treatment was often crude and callous, though there were, at times, some who tried to treat their patients with humanity. Most notable among the latter was Jacob Morgenstern, a Holocaust survivor who became Crownsville’s superintendent in 1947, and who recruited a group of fellow survivors to serve as staff.

It’s hard not to read Madness without a mingled sense of anger and sadness, as Hylton patiently chronicles the decades when Black patients received substandard care in an overcrowded, understaffed hospital that deemed them less worthy of quality treatment than Maryland’s white mentally ill, even using some patients as subjects in scientific studies without their consent. The hospital was not desegregated until 1963, but in the ’60s and ’70s, as the approach to treating mental illness focused on shifting patients from large institutions like Crownsville to community mental health centers, its former patients were released into the population without access to the resources they needed to make that transition successfully.

Hylton says that what kept driving her to tell Crownsville’s anguished history was the door it opened into her own family’s painful past. She twines an institutional story with a deeply personal one, unearthing the stories of her cousin Maynard and great-grandfather Clarence, whose lives were tragically impacted by mental illness and then largely written out of her family’s history. “I’m going to resurrect Maynard and Clarence,” she says. “I’m going to give their lives some dignity. I’m going to give their struggles some context that wasn’t there decades ago.” Indeed, Hylton reveals, excavating these stories encouraged some family members to seek therapy to heal their own psychological wounds.

Read our starred review of Madness by Antonia Hylton.

The Maryland legislature has appropriated an initial $30 million for Anne Arundel County to turn the hospital grounds into a memorial, park and museum. Local historian and community organizer Janice Hayes-Williams has created an annual service she calls “Say My Name” at the site, to recall the some 1,700 patients buried there.

Hylton brings Madness to a moving climax with a scene she says “just poured out of me,” describing the 2022 commemoration at the onsite cemetery. On an April morning, she followed in the steps of community elders, clutching multicolored rose petals and a piece of paper bearing the name of Frances Clayton, a woman from Baltimore who died at Crownsville in 1924 at age 41. Kneeling down to place the petals on the ground, Hylton pressed her palm to the ground “to feel the pulse of the earth.” She writes that at that moment, she thought, “They’ve been waiting for us.”

“If I can inspire even just one family to have some of the conversations my family has been able to have as a result of this reporting, that’s what I want,” she says. The responses of some of her early readers “have already made me feel very whole, even with a story that is heartbreaking. In addition to putting years of reporting on the page, I put my heart out there.”

Photo of Antonia Hylton by Mark Clennon.

The Emmy Award-winning journalist chronicles the decades-long history of Crownsville State Hospital, where patients lived in prisonlike conditions.
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Beloved and buzzy authors such as Tia Williams, Francis Spufford and Katherine Arden took new and exciting directions in February!
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Almost from the moment it docked in Mobile Bay, Alabama, much has been written about the Clotilda, the schooner that brought 110 captive Africans to the U.S. in 1860, more than five decades after the slave trade had been outlawed. The illegal voyage was conducted with stealth, but the arrival of the ship was an open secret that drew international headlines, though no punishment for the wealthy enslavers responsible. Interest in “the last slave ship” gradually waned until the late 2010s, when the search for (and eventual discovery of) the ship’s wreckage spurred a new cycle of research and media interest, including the first publication of Zora Neale Hurston’s 1920s interviews with survivor Kossula Lewis.

Historian Hannah Durkin’s considerable scholarship draws on these sources and others in The Survivors of the Clotilda: The Lost Stories of the Last Captives of the American Slave Trade. She cuts through the myths around this notorious story while keeping a tight focus on the 103 surviving young adults and children, whose lives were forever changed by displacement, family separation and enslavement.  

Durkin has a Ph.D. in American Studies from the University of Nottingham and has long focused on the history of transatlantic slavery. In 2020, her research revealed that the last living survivor was not Lewis, as previously thought, but Matilda McCrear, who was just 2 years old when she, her mother and five siblings were kidnapped from their West African village. Matilda, her mother and sisters ended up on the Clotilda; she never saw her two brothers again. 

That is just one of many painful moments for the survivors, who endured five years of enslavement. After the Civil War, they requested repatriation to Benin, to no avail. Though they mourned their homeland, they found ways to carry on their language and traditions. Some founded Africatown, a community on the outskirts of Mobile that became a thriving all-Black enclave. Others ended up elsewhere in the Black Belt, including Gee’s Bend, a famous wellspring of quilting art that draws heavily from West African influences. 

Because it tells the stories of so many people in so much detail, The Survivors of the Clotilda is dense and can lack a clear narrative thread. Yet this multitude of stories allows readers to see a variety of reactions to and experiences of enslavement, turning the Clotilda survivors into a microcosm of the nearly 13 million Africans who were kidnapped during the transatlantic slave trade. This authoritative work will be appreciated by anyone looking for a comprehensive account of one of history’s most infamous moments.

Hannah Durkin’s authoritative The Survivors of the Clotilda cuts through the myths around the notorious last slave ship to dock in the United States.

Like his mentor Martin Luther King Jr., John Lewis had a dream. Amid the turmoil and violence of a segregated South and a nation embroiled in the struggle for racial reconciliation, Lewis envisioned and championed what he called a “Beloved Community” in America, “a society based on simple justice that values the dignity and the worth of every human being.” In his captivating John Lewis: In Search of Beloved Community, Raymond Arsenault narrates the mesmerizing story of Lewis’ evolution from a Civil Rights activist to an eminent congressman who never lost sight of his vision for a just and equitable society.

Drawing on archival materials and interviews with Lewis and his friends, family and associates, Arsenault traces Lewis from his childhood in Troy, Alabama, where he daily witnessed the indignities and violence of racial segregation. Steeled and inspired by the Montgomery Bus Boycott, he entered American Baptist Theological Seminary in Nashville, Tennessee, and began his storied activism in earnest. Lewis and his contemporaries incorporated the principles of rightness and righteousness—what their teacher James Lawson called “soul force”—with methods of nonviolent resistance. Arsenault documents Lewis’ participation in the Freedom Rides, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the Selma to Montgomery marches and his advocacy for the Voting Rights Act. After King’s 1968 assassination, Lewis’ optimism turned to despair; he had a feeling, Arsenault writes, that “maybe, just maybe, we would not overcome.”

But that didn’t last. Elected to Congress in 1986, Lewis went to Washington with a legacy to uphold and a commitment to carry on the spirit, goals and principles of nonviolence and social action. He was always disillusioned by self-serving politicians and their infighting, and he devoted his career to building coalitions among opponents. In a 2020 speech, Lewis uttered the remarks that cemented his legacy: “We cannot give up now. We cannot give in. . . . Go out there, speak up, speak out, get in the way. Get in good trouble, necessary trouble.”

With John Lewis Arsenault offers the first comprehensive biography of the icon and serves as a fitting bookend to Lewis’ own autobiography, Walking With the Wind. The work provides an inspiring portrait of a man whose vision and moral courage propelled him to share his belief in the Beloved Community and inspire generations.

Raymond Arsenault’s mesmerizing biography of John Lewis chronicles the life of the Civil Rights icon and congressman whose vision of a just and equitable society has inspired generations.

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