Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Tim McCarthy on Histories Personal and Literary

I’m Tim. I’ve been a Boswell bookseller for four years, but my personal history includes more than 30 years of loving Schwartz Bookshops and Boswell. I’m clearly an autographed book hound, dating all the way back to my first Schwartz author event with Mickey Mantle at the store on Water Street and Wisconsin Avenue. The waiting line wrapped around an entire city block, and gentleman Mickey stayed to sign every last person’s copy of his memoir All My Octobers!

My previous life included 30 years of teaching in Waukesha public elementary schools, with more than 20 years of teaching 5th graders American history. I’ve always been fascinated by our past and have always said that history, despite what we sometimes hear from kids and adults, is never boring if we’re learning true stories about incredible, complicated people. My students seemed to agree. We were committed to studying American cultures from a variety of perspectives, at a level appropriate for ten-year-old kids. We learned together about the First Nations on this continent, and about the growing acceptance at Monticello that the man who wrote the assertion “all men are created equal” had children with Sally Hemings, a woman he owned.

Today, the books being published about our nation’s history, both fiction and nonfiction, are incredibly powerful. We’ve never had greater access to the truth, being written by very smart people with a commitment to sharing it in all its glory and sometimes terrifying reality. With that spirit in mind, here are just a few of the books that have recently broadened my understanding of us.

A former teacher, I can't help but love great histories written for young readers. One of my recent favorites include Child of the Dream: A Memoir of 1963, Sharon Robinson’s account of the year she turned 13 in January of 1963, a world-changing, heartbreaking year for the civil rights movement, and she lived at its center with her father, the baseball legend and lifelong activist Jackie Robinson. This is an enlightening story of the pivotal year in American history, but it's equally a tender story about the loving family of an American hero and the story of a girl becoming a young woman and being involved with the social change happening all around her.

Newbery Medal winner Linda Sue Park has written a gem of American historical fiction for middle grade readers called Prairie Lotus. To reconcile the attitudes of Laura Ingalls Wilder's characters toward people of color while honoring the books, Park gives us 14-year-old Hanna, the half Asian daughter of a white father and a mother who was both Chinese and Korean. After her mother's tragic illness and death, Hanna and her father leave California in 1880 for the Dakota Territory, where four Little House books were also set. Hanna is a strong, determined girl who will search for ways to treat everyone justly, and to find just treatment for herself. This is richly developed Americana, and I am deeply grateful!

Jacqueline Woodson was named our National Ambassador for Young People's Literature, and she's a perfect choice. I am amazed by the power of her simple, direct, graceful style in Harbor Me. Her characters have experiences and conversations that suddenly trigger in me the deep emotions which they feel. This novel was a profound experience; Woodson tore my heart out and then gave me most of it back.

And a few of my recent books of history and historical fiction for adults include 
Overground Railroad: The Green Book and the Roots of Black Travel in America, by Candacy Taylor, who has done America a great service by documenting the history of The Green Book, a guide for black travelers, published from 1936 to 1967. A smart and deeply affecting look at black people's long and agonizing struggle to get basic respect and justice, Overground Railroad made me understand the endless obstacles put in the way of basic living, solely because of skin color. It's a powerful book. I'm already eager to read it again.

My sense is that this first novel by Ta-Nehisi Coates, The Water Dancer, will immediately add "great American novelist" to his resume. Coates shows us with intricate and haunting detail the human cost of slavery to everyone involved, and his writing is rock steady but bold. At once magical and profoundly real, this novel has a rare feeling of both completeness and greatness.

Finally, let me tell you about This Tender Land, by William Kent Krueger. 
Four children run from the Lincoln Indian Training School in Minnesota, which trains children to give up their culture. This is a classic American novel of the Great Depression (1932). The beauty of this novel is in the deeply developed children characters, who got into my heart and have stayed there. Krueger is the type of writer who reaches for wisdom and truth. In this book, he often finds them.

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