Thursday, December 22, 2011

Day 22: So Much Fascinating History to Explore

Welcome to Day 22 in our 24 Days of Books. For some people, the ideal holiday gift is a big chewy novel in which to get totally lost. For others, however, the ultimate giddy-inducing event is unwrapping a giant meaty book of history to dive into. An ideal candidate for the history lover in your life this year is A World on Fire: Britain's Crucial Role in the American Civil War, by Amanda Foreman -- just named one of the top five nonfiction books of 2011 by The New York Times.

Twelve years in the making and coming in at about three pounds and just under a thousand pages, A World on Fire is a sprawling drama of British engagement with the American Civil War, a bloody, four-year battle that tore apart the nation and resulted in the deaths of more than 600,000 soldiers. But Foreman calls attention to the tens of thousands of Britons who served as soldiers, doctors, nurses, reporters, and more. Foreman builds her narrative, which she describes as “a biography of the many relationships that together formed the British-American experience during the Civil War,” around a huge cast of politicians, diplomats, soldiers and civilians in Great Britain, the United States and the Confederacy.

When the war first broke out, both the North and the South expected England to be on its side. Slavery had long since been abolished in the British Empire -- in fact, the British edition of Uncle Tom’s Cabin had sold an astonishing million copies, three times its American sales. But Southern politicians threatened that if London did not recognize the sovereignty of the Confederate States, the cotton trade would be cut off, potentially driving England to economic collapse and revolution. And many in England thought the South had the moral advantage in the battle. Of the tens of thousands of Brits who joined up in the war in some capacity, some fought for the North and others for the South. Just as with American families, individual British families were sometimes divided in their loyalties.

English sympathy for the South lingered up until Lee surrendered at Appomattox in April 1865. Then, within days, came news that Lincoln had been assassinated. All at once, “newspapers that had routinely criticized the president during his lifetime,” Foreman writes, “rushed to praise him.”

Foreman's narrative concentrates on the four chief diplomatists: the Britons Lord John Russell and Lord Lyons and the Americans William Seward and Charles Adams. But it covers almost 200 individual characters -- the listing of the cast of characters in the book goes on for almost fifteen pages -- including Henry Morton Stanley (later of the "Livingston, I presume" fame), Elizabeth Blackwell (the British-born doctor who was the first woman to get a medical degree in the US), Rose O'Neal Greenhow (a Washington society leader and Confederate spy), and even the author Charles Dickens (who expressed his disenchantment with the US after his visit in 1842, writing that if American democracy was simply a vehicle for majority rule, then "I infinitely prefer a liberal monarchy."). The author excels at deft biographical portraits -- librarian and reviewer Nancy Pearl said she made lists of people she wanted to learn even more about as she was reading this book.

Despite the large cast of characters and the depth of detail (and accompanying research), the book is accessible to non-historians. According to the Christian Science Monitor: "Once again, Foreman displays her exceptional gift for storytelling and for making history both fascinating and relevant." Other reviewers called the book "a shimmering tapestry," "a real-life Gone with the Wind," "riveting," "a completely fresh persective," and "an achievement as enjoyable as it is impressive."

Foreman was born in London to an English mother and American father, brought up in Los Angeles, and educated in England. She attended Sarah Lawrence College and Columbia University in New York. She received her doctorate in Eighteenth-Century British History from Oxford University in 1998. She has dual citizenship and maintains homes in New York City and London, writing regularly for newspapers and magazines in both countries. She and her husband have five young children.

Her previous book, Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, was nominated for several awards and won the Whitbread Prize for Best Biography in 1999. It has inspired a television documentary, a radio play starring Dame Judi Dench, and a movie titled The Duchess, starring Keira Knightley and Ralph Fiennes. She is the daughter of Carl Foreman, the Oscar-winning screen writer of many film classics including, The Bridge on the River Kwai, High Noon, and The Guns of Navarone.

Other good bets for the history lover on your gift list this year include Swerve: How the World Became Modern, by Stephen Greenblatt; Pacific Crucible: War at Sea in the Pacific, 1941-1942, by Ian W. Toll; Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President, by Candice Millard; In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin, by Erik Larson; Lions of the West, by Robert Morgan; Jerusalem: The Biography, by Simon Sebag Monteflore; Rome: A Cultural, Visual, and Personal History, by Robert Hughes; and Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America, by Richard White -- and that's just a handful of the many great history tomes from which to choose. Of course we can't forget my personal favorite narrative nonfiction of the past year: The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration, by Isabel Wilkerson, a book I have written about so much already I'm sure you're all tired of hearing me going on and on about it -- which doesn't negate that you should read it!!

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