I wanted to end the year by posting some of the wonderful books I've read this year. I've linked to Amazon for ease of reference, but I can't encourage you enough to support your local independent bookseller. If your hometown bookstore doesn't already have these in stock, they will be more than happy to order a copy for you. There are some great historians out there who aren't great writers, and some great writers who aren't great historians. Then there are the rare few who have an eye for detail and the prosaic skill to turn history into page turner.
Do you have a list of authors who are automatic buys—that is, authors whose books you will buy sight unseen, assured that whatever they publish is bound to be readable, informative, and entertaining? I do, and right there next to Bill Bryson, Tony Horowitz, Simon Winchester, and Erik Larson is Julia Bricklin. The first book I read by Julia was America's Best Female Sharpshooter. I was immediately taken by the title, a reference not to Annie Oakley as one might expect, but to her rival in Buffalo Bill Cody's Wild West Lillian Frances Smith. I'm a sucker for a subverted expectation, and from the first page I was engaged by this story of a forgotten associate of Buffalo Bill, overshadowed by a more beloved figure but with a fascinating story and enduring legacy. Bricklin's followup book, Polly Pry: The Woman Who Wrote the West, about the first female journalist for the Denver Post—a woman who not only reported the news, but made the news—was equally engrossing.
So I snatched Julia's new book, Blonde Rattlesnake: Burmah Adams, Tom White, and the 1933 Crime Spree that Terrorized Los Angeles as soon as it came out. Concerning a teenaged beauty, her ex-con husband, and their 1933 crime spree, this book has elements of true-crime and a bit of a film noir appeal because of the setting. Meticulously researched and incredibly well-written, the thing I most enjoy about this, and Bricklin's other books, is the way they paint a picture of a historically relevant woman to pose questions about the way women are viewed by their contemporary peers and press, as well as the ways that those views reverberate into the present. More than simply a story of how a 19-year-old beauty was involved in a horrific series of crimes, this is the story of the ways that the 1930s legal system and media machine viewed Burmah Adams White, with Burmah portrayed as victim or demon, depending on the source. Throughout, author Bricklin treads carefully, painting the people involved as fully human without absolving them of their crimes. Julia Bricklin's next book, The Notorious Life of Ned Buntline: A Tale of Murder, Betrayal, and the Creation of Buffalo Bill, a biography of dime novelist Ned Buntline, the man that thrust Buffalo Bill and Texas Jack into the popular American imagination, is my single most anxiously anticipated book of 2020.
Robert Aquinas McNally's book The Modoc War: A Story of Genocide at the Dawn of America’s Gilded Age was actually released in late 2017, but I was late coming to it so I'm including it here. Though there are several well-written accounts of the conflict between the United States Army and the Modoc people in 1872 and 1873, McNally's stands above the rest. It places the conflict in context, drawing the reader into a deeply engrossing series of events in the history of the nation, the State of California, and the deliberate genocide of Native American peoples.
The Modoc War was the backdrop for Texas Jack and Buffalo Bill's first dramatic tour. The two became prominent while fighting Sioux on the Nebraska prairies, but conflict between the United States and the Modoc in California spelled good business for famous Indian fighters, and may be one of the largest contributors to their initial success. Texas Jack later toured with Donald McKay, who was a Warm Springs native and scout for the Army during the conflict. I came to this book interested mostly in the context, but came away impressed by one of the most even-handed, well-researched, and page-turning pieces of history writing I've consumed in quite some time.
This book struck me as almost cinematic in both scope and atmosphere. I found myself compelled by McNally's pace and attention to detail, pulling for long-dead people as their struggle lead inevitably towards its conclusion. They didn't teach us about the Modoc War in our history classes here in Tennessee. I doubt they taught about it in California, where these events happened. In 1851, California’s first governor, Peter Burnett, told the state's Legislature to expect war “until the Indian race becomes extinct.” In 2019, Governor Gavin Newsom issued a formal apology to California’s Native American people for this campaign of deliberate genocide. The Modoc War recounts one of the darkest chapters in that campaign with a rare sensitivity and deft prosaic skill.
My last nonfiction review/recommendation was released in November, and is Encounters in Yellowstone: The Nez Perce Summer of 1877 by M. Mark Miller. Miller has written a number of books about early travels into the Yellowstone National Park, and having read Encounters in Yellowstone, I am planning on going back and reading those previous efforts soon.
In 1877 those Nez Perce who had not settled onto their reservation fled towards Montana, crossing through Yellowstone National Park. In the park were explorers, tourists, and hunters, and the juxtaposition lead inevitably towards conflict. Texas Jack Omohundro was in the park at the time with a pair of British visitors, and his part in the conflict is mentioned by Miller in his book. Because my own research into this incident is based around Texas Jack's part and his reports in various newspapers afterwards, I have drawn different conclusions than Miller regarding Omohundro's actions during the conflict—but I find the narrative, drawn largely from first-hand accounts of those who were in the park at the time, incredibly compelling. Unlike the previous two books I've mentioned, I knew when I started this book the conclusion of the events that were unfolding, but I still found myself unable to put this book down.
The narrative flow of this book reminded me of Michael Wallis' The Best Land Under Heaven about the ill-fated Donner party. With so many moving parts and disparate individuals, it would be easy to lose track of who was where and what they were doing, but Miller's writing is so clear that it avoids these problems altogether. I am happy to have this ready source of information about such an important piece of history. It stands in stark contrast with the over 4 million visitors the park has received the last few years.
Though most of my reading in 2019 was comprised of historical non-fiction, one fictional book stood out.
I started to write a review of Howard Rodman's The Great Eastern five or six times, and every time have deleted it because it came across as more maudlin gushing than actual review. But you know what, some books deserve a good maudlin gushing.
This book is fabulous. The characters, the story, and especially the language. There were passages that were near Nabakovian, in the sense that you wanted to immediately reread a passage because of its prosaic beauty as much as its impact on the story. And what a story! The combination of one of the most fascinating real-life men of all time in engineer and ship-designer Isambard Kingdom Brunel with two giants of maritime literature in Melville's Ahab and Verne's Nemo is positively delightful—the kind of superstar crossover that only happens when Iron Man and Spider-Man appear in the same movie or David Bowie sits in with Queen. Here, the three heavyweights make for a whole greater than the sum of its parts.
Don't make the mistake of thinking this is simply a character study. The plot advances in a way that builds steam like the titular ship, speeding to the point where it seems unstoppable. It isn't just a good book, it is a particularly readable one. Not all great literature is fun to read, but Rodman takes a page along with a character from Misters Melville and Verne, gifting his readers with something that I found myself thinking of as Moby Dick or 20,000 Leagues Under the Seas for adults who read Moby Dick and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea as children.
I really can't strongly enough suggest that you read this book. You deserve a great read, don't you?