History lessons for little readers
A photograph serves as the frontispiece for James M. McPherson's Fields of Fury: The American Civil War (Atheneum, $22.95, 96 pages, ISBN 0689848331, ages 9-12). A farm boy in overalls and straw hat holds up two handfuls of what appear to be pebbles. In reality, they're bullets, some from the guns of Confederate soldiers, some from Union weapons. The viewer can't tell which is which, and therein lies a lesson breathtaking in its simplicity.
McPherson, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Battle Cry of Freedom, has crafted a history book for children that stays with this principle throughout. Simple, straightforward prose details the cascade of events that led to the Civil War. The conflict and its aftermath are recounted with the author's trademark authority and illustrated with a vivid collection of photographs, maps and paintings. Written in a linear fashion with an accompanying timeline on the inside cover, McPherson's book devotes a page or two to each important event in the war. In addition, there is a "Quick Facts" box with each event, detailing interesting and curious data on the subject.
Certain events deserve more than a page, of course, and McPherson obliges. The topic of slavery, for instance, gets more space, as do critical battles like Gettysburg and postwar Reconstruction. The author also tackles subjects not often covered, such as women who served in the conflict, and the ways in which the wounded were cared for. In addition to the expected glossary, bibliography and index, McPherson also provides a list of internet sites that today's computer-savvy kids will appreciate.
Did you know that Abraham Lincoln was not the featured speaker at the dedication of the cemetery at Gettysburg? That job fell instead to Edward Everett, a 70-year-old orator and former vice-presidential candidate (he ran against Lincoln in 1860). Everett spoke for nearly two hours, and the press preferred his speech to Lincoln's, which they reported as "dull and commonplace." But Everett was not so dimhe remarked later that he wished that he could have come "as near the central idea of the occasion" in the few minutes it took Lincoln to deliver his message.
It is this kind of knowledge that readers will find in Normon Bolotin's Civil War A to Z: A Young Reader's Guide to Over 100 People, Places, and Points of Importance, which approaches the subject from a completely different angle than McPherson's book. This is a wonderfully comprehensive reference volume for kids. People, events and places are listed alphabetically. Each item succinctly communicates facts and figures, and there are appropriate illustrations. While Bolotin covers every major event and person in the conflict, it is in the minutiae of the war that he really excels. Curious children will be fascinated by subjects such as the origin of the Minié ball, the thrilling and largely unknown saga of Robert Smalls, an African-American ship's pilot, and the diaries of Mary Chesnut.
This is a book that can simply be read from front to back, although it's more fun to flip through looking for items of interest. Want to know why Union and Confederate names for battles are different? What a "Sanitary Fair" might be? Or what a "Sherman's Necktie" is? Just look in the glossary, which is brief but full of unusual facts. Bolotin's book, the latest of several he has written on the Civil War for young people, will help history students round out their understanding of the war and perhaps inspire ideas for a term paper or two.
While each of these books approaches the subject in a different way, both Fields of Fury and Civil War A to Z serve as admirable introductions to an event that was pivotal to our nation's history. Fields of Fury is visually rich, while Civil War A to Z contains hundreds of essential facts. Both are excellent jumping-off points for young minds wishing to learn more about the war.
James Neal Webb does copyright research at Vanderbilt University.