The Suburbanite
  • Rep readers’ picks for summer reading about the past

  • Today we’re sharing some of your favorite books — novels and non-fiction — that are set in the past. Some of the books are based on real people but contain fictional elements, so they’re included with the novels.

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  • Stumbling can be a good thing. Ask Sharon Cole of Tuscarawas Township. She sent The Rep a mini-review of a novel she “stumbled upon” at the Massillon Public Library.
    She wasn’t looking for a historical novel because as far as she’s concerned, “reading about history is boring,” she wrote. But “Beyond All Price” by Carolyn Poling Schriber — a Massillon native — was “compelling” and an “easy read.”
    Such happy accidents convert a lot of us to the kinds of books we wouldn’t have thought to read otherwise. It’s how I became a Civil War buff. Today we’re sharing some of your favorite books — novels and non-fiction — that are set in the past. Some of the books are based on real people but contain fictional elements, so they’re included with the novels.
    “Uncommon Friends: Life with Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, Harvey Firestone, Alexis Carrel, and Charles Lindbergh,” by James Newton
    This is a lovely memoir about friendships, starting with Edison, Ford and Firestone. Newton was a younger friend and eventually worked for Firestone.
    Newton also became a close friend and associate of Lindbergh and of Carrel, a scientist and inventor with whom Lindbergh worked.
    Part of the story deals with Lindbergh’s efforts to avoid World War II. He was criticized for accepting a medal from the Germans, but people didn’t know the Germans loved to show their factories to him and Lindbergh channeled what he learned back to this country. He was anti-war, but his patriotism was never compromised.
    “Ordeal by Hunger: The Story of the Donner Party,” by George R. Stewart
    In the brutal winter of 1846-47, 87 members of the Donner Party became trapped in the Sierra Nevada as they tried to reach California; about 40 died. Their nightmare became part of American lore, mostly for reports of cannibalism among the starving pioneers.
    However, Stewart’s revealing book shows that the settlers did not simply hunker down to wait out the winter or death. He describes successful, and failed, escapes and rescues. Stewart pays particular attention to familial devotion and sacrifice among the stranded. The book was originally published in 1936, when history was written quite differently than it is now.
    “The Guns at Last Light: The War in Western Europe, 1944-1945,” by Rick Atkinson
    This is Volume 3 of Atkinson’s Liberation Trilogy, which includes Volume 1, “An Army at Dawn” and Volume 2, “The Day of Battle.” This book is exceptionally well-written and well-documented.
    Published in May, this is considered the newest classic narrative history of World War II. It is readable and thick with description and character portraits. Praise for Atkinson, a Pulitzer Prize winner, is of the highest order. Great reading for all World War II veterans and history buffs of all ages.
    “A History of the World in 6 Glasses,” by Tom Standage
    One of my favorite books, this is a fun read for any history buff. Mr. Standage takes six common beverages and tells how they helped to shape the world of mankind. They are beer, wine, distilled spirits, coffee, tea and yes, Coca-Cola. He goes on to suggest that we are in the age of a seventh glass — bottled water.
    Mr. Standage also has written a sequel of sorts, “An Edible History of Humanity.”
    “Simple Justice: A History of Brown v. Board of Education and Black America’s Struggle for Equality,” by Richard Kluger
    This is a comprehensive history of the five separate cases that wound up in the 1954 Supreme Court decision that wiped out the “separate but equal” concept of segregated schools.
    This is the best history book I have ever read. It is an amazing chronicle of the inequality, and of the courage and dedication by the lawyers who fought their way into history.
    It should be required reading for all history classes, high school and college. It is not an easy, light read but is detailed and thought-provoking.
    “In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin,” by Erik Larson
    This book documents the lives of the American ambassador to Germany and his family in the late 1930s. It is a fascinating look at life in Germany under the Nazis. The book makes you feel as if you are there during that turbulent time.
    The research that the author did is truly amazing and spins a story that is seen through the eyes of the American family that lived there. This book answers many questions about how the United States dealt with Adolf Hitler and the attitude of the German people in that era.
    “What on Earth Happened? The Complete Story of the Planet, Life, and People from The Big Bang to the Present Day,” by Christopher Lloyd
    This book tells the history of the planet, life in general and human societies. It discusses what happened 13.7 billion years ago and all that happened between then and the last five years. It is well-documented with footnotes from respected scientific journals and offers fact, not opinions. It’s a scholarly study that is well worth reading and rereading.
    “Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President,” by Candice Millard
    This well-researched book is about James Garfield, 20th U.S. president, and the circumstances surrounding his assassination, including an interesting biography of assassin Charles Guiteau.
    Page 3 of 7 - It describes the discovery of antisepsis promoted by Joseph Lister. Prior to that, although sterilizing instruments and hands was practiced in Europe, American doctors felt it was not necessary when operating. A medical device for locating bullets in a body, invented by Alexander Graham Bell, is still in use today.
    Although the assassination was very unfortunate, many future lives were saved as surgery became much safer due to the new ideas and inventions of the period.
    “Lucky to be a Yankee,” by Joe DiMaggio
    Anyone over 40 knows that we are living in a completely different world from the one wherein we spent our youth. This short (200-page) memoir may be a bit difficult to locate but is worth the hunt.
    The “Yankee Clipper’s” first love had been tennis, but his natural ability to sail a baseball over any fence landed him an early contract with the San Francisco Seals. Loaded with anecdotes about the big names of the past, DiMaggio’s book is a time machine to the pre-World War II United States and a more sensible era of professional sports.
    “The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Greatest Migration,” by Isabel Wilkerson
    This thoroughly researched book, which reads as easily as a novel, documents the huge migration of African Americans from the Jim Crow south to the east, north and west in the early and mid-1900s.
    The author follows the life stories of three individuals who are from different places, were born in different decades and moved to different areas. We come to know them very personally through their marriages, jobs, beliefs, ambitions, frustrations and joys. The book also gives a wider social commentary on this movement.
    It is my favorite partly because much of it takes place during my lifetime.
    “Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters’ First 100 Years,” by Sarah “Sadie” L. Delany and A. Elizabeth “Bessie” Delany
    The Delany sisters’ father was a slave born in Georgia in 1858. He became an Episcopal priest and vice president of a school. God was the center of their Christian home, and education was important.
    Rev. and Mrs. Delany had 10 children: Henry Jr. and Bessie, who became dentists; Lucius, an attorney; Hubert, a judge; Julia, a Juilliard School graduate and piano teacher; Laura and Sadie, teachers; William, a career Army man and businessman; Samuel, a funeral parlor owner; and Lemuel, a doctor.
    Sadie and Bessie lived to be 109 and 104, respectively. I really enjoyed this book.
    “Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West,” by Stephen E. Ambrose
    Page 4 of 7 - Most everyone has heard of this book. If you missed it, it’s worth going back to enjoy the great adventures of Lewis and Clark. This book is the complete opposite of any dry history you might have read.
    After a bit of biographical background, Meriwether Lewis prepares for the epic journey into uncharted territory. As progress is made westward, the dangers of exploring the unknown keep you riveted to the book. The expedition demands Lewis’ resourcefulness and courage to cross the vastness of the continent where the perils of weather, food and shelter constantly challenge.
    “Crow Killer: The Saga of Liver-Eating Johnson,” by Raymond W. Thorp Jr. and Robert Bunker
    This book tells the story of John Johnson, who was portrayed by Robert Redford in the movie “Jeremiah Johnson.” The real Johnson was one of the toughest characters to ever live on the American frontier. When he discovered his wife and son murdered by Crow Indians in 1847, he tracked, killed, scalped and ate the livers of more than 300 Crow warriors.
    This wonderful book takes you back to the American West as it was when the great Indian nations ruled the forests of the Northwest. It is not for the squeamish. One comes away with a unique, lasting perspective.
    “Upstairs at The White House: My Life with the First Ladies,” by J.B. West
    This was a thoroughly enjoyable look at the daily running of the White House during the administrations of FDR, Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy and a few weeks with Nixon. It is not the president’s schedule but that of the head usher (manager) of the White House, under the direction of the first lady, showing the family’s everyday living.
    Keeping track of all the houseguests, parties, dinners and the ongoing redecorating and restorations kept the staff very busy! The glimpses of the private lives of the families were not only fascinating but also at times quite amusing.
    “War and Peace,” by Leo Tolstoy
    During the early 1970s, I was in my late teens, my college plans stalled, and I worked in Timken’s melt shop. PBS’s “Masterpiece Theater” premiered “War and Peace” with a young Anthony Hopkins in the role of Pierre Bezúkhov. I purchased the book to read during the series, and although I loved the series, I loved the book even more.
    The novel follows the lives, deaths and romances between several aristocratic Russian families — the Rostóvs, Bezúkhovs, Kurágins and Bolkónskys — through Napoleon’s 1812 invasion of Russia.
    So this was great literature; I was never the same.
    “The Diary of Mattie Spenser,” by Sandra Dallas
    In the late 1800s, a young man goes to Colorado to homestead. He returns to Iowa to ask the girl he loves to marry him. She refuses. He marries a girl he doesn’t love, and they return to his home.
    Their life together, their struggles and the rich characters make this a “can’t put it down” story.
    Then Mattie must face a betrayal that threatens their life and future.
    I love the stories Sandra Dallas weaves. This story almost moves you to tears.
    “Beyond All Price,” by Carolyn Poling Schriber
    This novel is based on the life and adventures of Nellie M. Chase, a young, self-taught nurse who, though headstrong and battling personal demons of the past, was revered and often misunderstood by those in her care and those she worked with.
    Based in the Civil War, Nellie aids soldiers through life and death. The book by Massillon native Carolyn Poling Schriber draws the reader in with scenes of the war and the freedom awarded black slaves.
    “Follow the River,” by James Alexander Thom
    Mary Ingles was captured by the Shawnee in western Virginia, taken to their village on the Scioto and, after refusing to be a wife, became a slave. Taking the opportunity at a camp near Cincinnati, she started walking home with only one companion and no supplies. Starvation was a real possibility.
    “The Killer Angels,” by Michael Shaara
    OK, we are just days away from the sesquicentennial observance of the most important battle of our country’s most important internal conflict — the Civil War. In author Shaara’s own opening words: “This is the story of the battle of Gettysburg, told from the viewpoints of Robert E. Lee and James Longstreet and some of the other men who fought there. ... You may find it a different story from the one you learned in school.”
    A terrific read and full of maps showing how the forces before and during the three-day engagement.
    “Oh, Promised Land,” by James Street
    This book is based on the true adventures and romances of Mississippi frontiersman Sam Dale. It tells the story of intrepid pioneer Sam Dabney from 1790 through the War of 1812 and of Sam’s beautiful but vicious sister Honoria, who will do anything for money and power and will take any man she wants, except one, the handsome Mohawk warrior Tishimingo.
    A sequel, “Tap Roots,” follows the family on through the Civil War.
    “Fall of Giants,” by Ken Follett
    Author Mary Balogh writes about having a “novel hangover,” when you can’t get the characters in your last novel out of your thoughts and can’t bring yourself to start a new novel. “Fall of Giants” and the second book, “Winter of the World,” in Follett’s Century Trilogy leave one in this predicament; you can’t get yourself out of the novels. We eagerly await the third installment.
    The trilogy follows five interrelated families — American, British, German, Russian and Welsh — as they experience historically accurate lives from World War I to the Cold War. This is an intense but enjoyable summer reading experience!
    “Winter of the World,” by Ken Follett
    This book, recently published, is the second in Follett’s Century Trilogy. The first was “Fall of Giants”; the third, “Edge of Eternity,” is to be published in 2014.
    This book interweaves historical facts with the lives of five families representing different countries. Beginning in 1933, “Winter of the World” engulfs its characters in the dramatic and horrifying experiences of a world racing toward war. The book is lively and entertaining fiction, always intertwined with emotions that families were dealing with throughout this time period. This is historical fiction at its best.
    “To Kill a Mockingbird,” by Harper Lee
    I first read this historical novel 53 years ago. I borrowed the DVD from the Stark County District Library to compare the movie, which I had never seen, with the book. The movie is good in spite of some changes; however, I like the book better, since it is more complete in the descriptions of the events in a short period in the life of the Finch family.
    It also gives us a quick view of the prejudice against Negroes that was typical at that time. It is written through the eyes of a very observant 8-year-old.
    “Sentence of Marriage: Promises to Keep,” by Shayne Parkinson
    This book is set in New Zealand with the main character a young girl and how her life evolves between 1918 and 1923. Women and girls were expected to work from dawn to dusk without complaining and were sometimes punished if they didn’t do as the man of the house directed. The girl’s life takes a turn that no one could expect, and she finds herself in a marriage of great stress.
    At times, this book is almost depressing, but I kept turning the pages, waiting for the next chapter in her life. Though fiction, it is very believable.
    Page 7 of 7 - “The Hangman’s Daughter,” by Oliver Potzsch
    This is a great summer read. The story takes place in 1624 in the Schongau (Bavaria) region of Germany. The story centers on Jakob Kuisl and his family. Jakob is the town’s hangman and is responsible for all the jobs that everyone else looks down upon. There is a little bit of everything in the story: murder, a lot of history, romance and plenty of intrigue.
    Once you read this one, you’ll rush to get the sequels, which are just as good.
    “Little Big Man,” by Thomas Berger
    The best work of historical fiction about the American West ever written, this is the story of Jack Crabb, a wagon-train boy taken in by the Cheyenne after the massacre of his parents by Indians. He is adopted by the chief, Old Lodge Skins, and is taught the Indian way.
    This brilliant novel carries you along to encounters with Wild Bill Hickok, Gen. George Armstrong Custer and the Battle of the Little Bighorn in a hilarious way. It is fun to read, and I promise you will laugh out loud, and feel great sadness at the end of the Indian Way.
    “The Wettest County in the World,” by Matt Bondurant
    A remarkable, gritty story about the history of moonshine making in Virginia. Beautifully told. Brutal events elegantly described. You get to know these resilient, industrious people and learn their perspective in unusual times. Events so detailed in their telling, you can feel it.
    Tells the ever-interesting story of Prohibition from a different take. A great, memorable read.

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