‘Duel with the Devil’ is about so much more — and less

Duel with the Devil: The True Story of How Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr Teamed Up to Take on America’s First Sensational Murder Mystery is a headline that is nearly longer than the story it has to tell. For all its length, the title is a bit misleading as to the overall subject of this historical nonfiction, as the actual murder trial is but a small fraction of Paul Collins’ otherwise well-researched and interesting work.

Collins does a very good job of giving the reader a sense of time and place — in this case, New York City at the close of the 18th century. He explains the ways in which the legal system of the day was so heavily weighted toward the prosecution that to be accused of a crime was virtually to be convicted. The concept of “beyond a reasonable doubt” had yet to become part of the foundation of criminal justice. All of which means that once Levi Weeks, a carpenter who living in the same boardinghouse as the murder victim, becomes the target of public accusation, he is all but fitted for the gallows. Enter Hamilton and Burr to save the day.

The problem is that the trial itself takes just two days and the jury deliberates for less than 30 minutes before returning its verdict, leaving little for Collins to gin up into a legal thriller. And that’s just one of the anticlimactic episodes I found, which included the rather prosaic reason that such sworn political enemies as Hamilton (staunch Federalist) and Burr (equally rabid Republican) found themselves on the same side of a case (the common ground being their complete inability to pay their debts, leaving them obliged to Mr. Weeks’ uncle). Further, following Weeks’ acquittal no one else was ever charged, though Collins attempts to “solve” the crime by unearthing some apparently little-known facts about another of the boardinghouse’s roomers.

Of course, with a title like Duel with the Devil, you had to figure that the famous duel between Hamilton and Burr would get some attention and it does — and again, while this section is well-researched, well-written and interesting, it has zippo to do with the putative subject of the book.

In short, then, I recommend Duel with the Devil for anyone interested in the early years of the United States, or the history of the legal system. Just be aware that the crime and trial of the title are the least of this book’s most interesting aspects.

Kent State still resonates in ‘Thirteen Seconds’

ImageI always find it interesting to read contemporaneous accounts of pivotal historical events. What the reader loses in perspective and analysis is gained in the sense of intimacy that books written in the immediate aftermath provide. That is certainly the case with this book, co-written by Joe Eszterhas and Michael D. Roberts, who were reporters at the Cleveland Plain Dealer at the time of the Kent State shootings. Both reporters happened to be on campus on May 4, 1970, doing research into the ongoing unrest on campus when the shootings happened.

Thirteen Seconds: Confrontation at Kent State was published just six months after the shootings, and it shows. The attempts to figure out exactly what happened in the days and moments immediately preceding the incident were just beginning, and this book does not have any definitive answers about why or how the National Guard opened fire on unarmed student protesters. It does offer a tantalizing glimpse into how a year or more of student unrest on the Kent State campus, coupled with administration and law enforcement over-reactions to that unrest and the general public’s alarm over the ongoing war in Vietnam and the “hippies” who seemed to sprout overnight on college campuses across the country, contributed to the feelings of tension on the fateful day. Roberts and Eszterhas do not shrink from reporting misbehavior by students, but it is clear that their sympathies lie with the younger generation — not surprising considering they were both in their mid-20s at the time.

Overall, this is a worthy read for anyone interested in learning more about Kent State. It is not the definitive history, but it’s an important piece of the puzzle.

‘A World on Fire: Britain’s Crucial Role in the American Civil War’

Amanda Foreman has written a magnificent history of the role played by Britain (and less intensely, other European countries such as France) in the American Civil War. It’s an aspect of American history not often touched on in more general histories of the Civil War era, making Foreman’s book an essential addition to any Civil War or American history library.

It is only a small exaggeration to say that Britain’s crucial role was to play no role at all. The British government, both in London and in the consulate in Washington, D.C., worked very hard indeed to maintain its neutrality. It had to work so hard because both North and South were desperate to claim the support of the former mother country. Confederate leaders were sure that the Union blockade keeping Southern cotton from reaching British textile mills would create an economic crisis that would force Britain to declare its support for the Confederacy.

On the other side, President Lincoln and his cabinet were sure that Britain’s abhorrence of slavery would lead it to declare its support for the Union cause. Such confidence was shaken when they realized that few in Britain believed that the war was being fought to abolish slavery — a belief upheld by the reluctance of Lincoln first to enact and then to enforce the Emancipation Proclamation. An overzealous naval blockade that repeatedly entangled British merchant ships in its web did little to garner Union support either in the halls of Parliament or the streets of Britain.

Although the official British position remained studiously neutral throughout the conflict, Foreman also undertakes to explore the lives of a number of British citizens who took it upon themselves to come to the United States to fight, some for the Union but many more for the Confederacy. Many of these individual soldiers found themselves taking on rather more than they bargained for in their “grand adventure”, and British diplomats were often helpless to extract them from their misadventures.

A World on Fire is painstakingly researched and well written in a style accessible to more than an academic audience. Make no mistake, it is a tome of epic proportions — more than 1,000 pages. In reading, I couldn’t help feeling that the book could have been significantly shortened without detriment to its main thesis by abbreviating or eliminating some of the detailed shot-by-shot battle recreations. There is a plethora of Civil War books that delve exhaustively into military strategy; the extent to which Foreman does the same seems superfluous to the main thread of the story.

Despite that minor quibble, I would highly recommend this book to anyone with an interest in either the Civil War era or the history of British-American relations. Foreman’s scholarship seems impeccable, and her narrative is engaging and thoughtful.

REVIEW: Unbroken

What an astonishing book Laura Hillenbrand has written, about the experiences of a world-class American runner who winds up in a Japanese POW camp during World War II. Louie Zamperini was a wild boy growing up in early 20th-century California until he discovered his talent for running. He channeled his energies into reaching ever-higher athletic goals, including competing (though not winning) at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. Louie is training for the 1940 Olympics when World War II breaks out; he joins the Army Air Corps and eventually is sent to the Pacific theater after Pearl Harbor. He survives a number of harrowing close calls, but when his bomber crashes into the Pacific with only himself and two other men surviving on a life raft, it seems his luck has finally run out. What follows is an unbelievable story of survival — survival for weeks at sea, survival in a series of Japanese POW camps, and survival over the demons that haunt him even after he returns home. An unforgettable story about an unforgettable man.

REVIEW: Blizzard: The Storm That Changed America

book cover of Blizzard: The Storm That Changed America
This is a nonfiction account of the blizzard of March 1888, which affected pretty much the entire East Coast from North Carolina to Maine. Murphy chooses several individuals in a variety of locations (but most in New York City) to illustrate the ways in which the storm affected people’s lives. I enjoyed the book, although I would have liked a bit more development of the “storm that changed America” bit. It’s there, but sort of tucked in at the end like an afterthought.

LibraryThing review: The Union of Their Dreams

Heroes are funny things. We choose to put someone on a pedestal for any number of reasons, from the way they look to the way they sing to the causes they champion. But beneath the façade of every hero beats the heart of a human being, with all the quirks and foibles that make up all of our complex personalities.

César Chávez was a hero to many people in the 1960s and 1970s. He was the driving force behind making the plight of migrant farmworkers visible to the rest of America through boycotts of grapes and lettuce. With the founding of the United Farm Workers union, he and his dedicated staff fought for what most of us recognize as basic human rights: a safe workplace, a fair wage, decent housing, education for our children. Under his leadership, the UFW boycotts captured the attention of the nation and won major concessions from field owners to improve the lives of the workers. His accomplishments have been enshrined in American life: schools, parks, libraries and streets have been named after him, and the state of California officially celebrates his birthday as César Chávez Day.

As Miriam Pawel illustrates in The Union of Their Dreams: Power, hope, and struggle in Cesar Chavez’s farm worker movement, Chávez’s considerable accomplishments were not without setbacks. Over the years, his initial dedication to the cause of farm workers shifted to a determination to preserve his control over the organization he created. After farm workers at many farms and ranches in California won the right to hold union elections and chose the UFW to represent them, the union found it difficult to actually deliver on the promises it had made. Chávez could be capricious, transferring staff members out of communities in which they were working hard to win the trust of and organize workers. As the union grew, Chávez became preoccupied with fighting off what he perceived to be challenges to his authority from board members, resulting in midnight purges of staffers who had lived in poverty and dedicated their lives for years to the farm workers’ cause.

Pawel creates her complicated portrait of Chávez indirectly, by telling the stories of several of the UFW’s most dedicated workers in alternating vignettes. The style allows us to get to know each of the workers well, but muddies the reader’s sense of a coherent timeline of events, and sometimes leads to incidents being told twice and out of order.[The Union of Their Dreams] is not a hatchet job in any sense; Pawel does not try to demonize Chávez nor lay the UFW’s failures solely at his feet. The most grievous flaw of the book, however, is the lack of representation from UFW officials who remained loyal to Chávez throughout the 1970s turmoil. But Pawel, a journalist by trade, has a very accessible writing style, and her informality creates an intimacy that makes the reader feel part of the story.

This book is a worthy read not only for for those interested in progressive politics, but also readers looking for insight into how organization are formed, grow, and are stifled by their success. It’s a familiar story for anyone who has volunteered or worked for a nonprofit organization, but it seems especially poignant in this case, because the stakes were so high for so many people, and even more significant victories were so close. I came away from this book deeply impressed by the incredible accomplishments of a group of idealistic, committed men and women, and saddened by thoughts of the opportunities lost to power struggles, disorganization and petty quarrels.

REVIEW: Firehouse

book cover of FirehouseI just finished reading Firehouse, a book by David Halberstam about a New York City firehouse where 12 of the 13 men who responded to the Sept. 11, 2001 attack on the World Trade Center died. The book is beautifully written, and manages to draw a vivid picture of the powerful bonds that unite firefighters with their comrades. It’s almost unbearably sad, especially when I stopped to think that for all the impact of the stories of these 13 men, they are but a tiny fraction of the lives that were lost that day.

I would strongly recommend Firehouse to anyone who is interested in a glimpse at the impact of that day on the NYFD. There is little detail about the scene at Ground Zero because little is known about what, exactly, the men of Engine 40/Ladder 35 experienced there. The one member of the firehouse who survived did so with severe injuries, including a concussion, and his memories of the day are incomplete. Most of the book examines both the individual lives of the firefighters who died and the culture of brotherhood that is the modern firehouse.

As good as the book is, though, one thing did trouble me. Although Halberstam tries to portray the firefighters realistically there is still an element of sanctification about their individual lives and stories. There are hints, mere wisps of suggestions, that some of the men may have been less than perfect (in the ways that all of us are less than perfect), but the tone quickly reverts to unstinted admiration. The book was published less than a year after the attacks, so it’s understandable that Halberstam did not have the luxury of distance to more objectively draw his portraits. It would be interesting to read an updated version of the book to see where the families and comrades of the firefighters are now, but that won’t ever happen given that the author Halberstam was killed a couple of years ago in a traffic accident.

So why does Halberstam’s idealization of the firefighters of Engine 35/Ladder 40 bother me? Because none of us are perfect, and by writing as if these men were, Halberstam diminishes their lives. There’s no question that it takes a special kind of person to be a firefighter anywhere, let alone New York City, but to pretend they were perfect is as if to say that what they were — strong,tough, proud, brave, sure, but also impatient, angry, intolerant — was not good enough. But all of us deserve to be remembered for who we are, warts and all. Anything less is like watching only half of a movie, or reading random chapters out of a book. We are the sum of our thoughts and actions and emotions, and it’s in the experiencing of the full spectrum of life that we are truly alive.