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 dim—he 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. Copyright 2003 BookPage Reviews
Kirkus Reviews 2000 December #1
Marrin's biography of our first president is packed with information, but is problematic in its presentation. In his characteristically epic style, he portrays an intriguing George Washington: militarily inexperienced, socially retreating, but with a hard edge that helped him to gain wisdom through his mistakes and earn respect as a commander. Copiously documented, the narrative should inspire readers to learn more about Washington. But Marrin undercuts his own authority with several stylistic problems. He regularly uses sweeping statements that, without clarification or context, are debatable ("Great Britain ruled the mightiest empire in all of human history"), or illogical, e.g., "Had it not been for Charles Lee, Washington might have won the war that day. Because of Lee, it would drag on for another five years." (Lee may well have kept the war from ending that day, but he himself did not have anything to do with its ultimate length.) In an unusual comparison he suggests that "a war dance was like a â€˜pep rally' before a college football game." He relies on the present tense to lend drama to his scenes, in a way that can only be considered fiction ("At once, a plan formed in the British General's mind"), or that makes an interpretation but presents it as fact ("Someone, undoubtedly without his [Washington's] permission, had driven a pole into the ground amid the corpses"). Marrin's style makes for dramatic reading here and there, but his narrative is long and often bogged down in details, and he eventually undermines any dramatic tension by overusing his tricks. The book is well illustrated on nearly every page with black-and-white reproductions of etchings, drawings, and maps; notes, a bibliography, and index (not seen) complete it. Marrin's book may be useful to young readers for its extent of documented information, but they may find better reading elsewhere. (Nonfiction. 12+) Copyright 2000 Kirkus Reviews
Kirkus Reviews 2002 June #1
This alphabetically arranged reference work on the Civil War is a handy guide. Readers can open up anywhere and find interesting bits of information on many of the major people, places, and events of the Civil War. The 130 topics, from Abolitionists to Zouaves, include Lincoln and his mission of keeping the country united, the political ferment represented by the Missouri Compromise and the Kansas-Nebraska Act, and the soldiers, generals, prisons, and literature of the time. The format invites flipping through the pages, studying maps, reading captions, and reading the entries. Not just an encyclopedia of battles, generals, and politicians, the guide includes people as various as Louisa May Alcott, Mary Chesnut, Dorothea Dix, Sojourner Truth, and Frederick Douglass, and objects such as lucifers, minie balls, and Civil War tokens. The Gettysburg Address and excerpts from the Emancipation Proclamation, letters, and speeches are also provided. The entries are competently written and interesting. Browsing through this guide may well lead young readers to studying topics more fully, which is the author's hope. Useful for young readers beginning research on Civil War topics. (glossary, author's note, bibliography, maps, archival photographs, illustration and photo credits) (Nonfiction. 9+) Copyright Kirkus 2002 Kirkus/BPI Communications.All rights reserved
School Library Journal Reviews 2002 July
Gr 5-8 This well-written resource contains biographies of key people, information on major battles, and a general introduction to the era. The alphabetically arranged entries are easy to understand, covering all the important issues, and the black-and-white photos and reproductions add immensely to the text. Even readers familiar with the era will find fresh facts here. The personal profiles use small anecdotes to illustrate the individual's character. For example, the entry on George Pickett talks about the depression that plagued him for the rest of his life after the Battle of Gettysburg. One small flaw is that the "see" references are often not circular. The article on John Ericsson leads readers to one on the Monitor and Merrimack; however, that article is not linked back to the one on Ericsson. The same is true of the articles on Stephen Douglas and the Lincoln-Douglas Debates. Nevertheless, this is a wonderful introduction for readers unfamiliar with the subject, and will be especially useful for reports. -Elizabeth M. Reardon, McCallie School, Chattanooga, TN Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
VOYA Reviews 2001 April
This book is as much a history of the forming of the United States as it is a biography of Washington. Marrin provides a balanced portrait of Washington, documenting the life of a man who wanted only to be at home caring for his land and family but ended up spending years away from home, fighting one battle after another. Although he often seemed aloof, Washington really cared for his men and his country, putting their needs before his own. Much of the book is filled with descriptions of the battles Washington had to fight and of the people fighting at his side and against him. Some material is taken from diaries and letters. Marrin also highlights Washington's changing views about slavery and how the need for slaves impacted the way southern states reacted during the forming of the Republic. This rendering is a more complete picture of the man and the times than many history books offer. The illustrations from paintings and drawings of the period give a feel for the era. This complete resource will be used mostly for assignments, but those teens who like biography or are interested in American history will enjoy it. After finishing Marrin's account, readers will feel that they have actually met the man. This book is a fine addition to both public and school library collections.-Deborah L. Dubois. Index. Illus. Maps. Source Notes. Further Reading. 4Q 2P J S Copyright 2001 Voya Reviews
VOYA Reviews 2003 February
The last book in Bolotin's seven-volume Young Readers' History of the Civil War series provides an excellent and astute reference source for middle school and junior high readers. Starting with Abolitionists and ending with Zouaves (regiments in both the Union and Confederacy known for their "brilliantly colored uniforms"), Bolotin hits all the major points and personalities of the Civil War with concise, clear, and informative entries. Many firsthand accounts are included along with statistical information, meeting the author's goal to "share the personal stories [of the war], not just the facts and figures and the important dates." The result is a reference work more accessible than many others available. As a research tool, this volume is first-rate, although reading the book cover to cover would likely produce confusion for those not already familiar with the Civil War. The brevity of most entries provides an excellent introduction to many aspects of the war. Bolotin successfully addresses a variety of topics in a reader-friendly manner. For instance, when discussing the 600,000 people who died in battle during the war, Bolotin includes a sidebar that reveals that "the Union and Confederate dead would fill 2,000 theaters, 13 major league baseball stadiums . . . or more than 1,000 elementary schools." Surely this book will fulfill Bolotin's stated hope that his work "becomes the impetus for studying" more about the era.-Sarah Dornbeck. Glossary. Illus. Photos. Maps. Source Notes. Biblio. Chronology. Copyright 2003 Voya Reviews