Category Archives: Reading History

Reading History: “Starstruck in the Promised Land” (by Shalom Goldman)

Note: My thanks to NetGalley for providing me with a copy of this book for review.

From its founding, Israel has had a particularly strong relationship with the United States, and it has, throughout the latter half of the 20th Century, become increasingly critical to American foreign policy in the Middle East. While it was, at first, praised by those on the left, as the plight of the Palestinians became more of an issue in the international community, the stance of both American popular culture and (to a lesser extent) political culture changed, so that it was those on the right who championed Israel and those on the left who sharply criticized (and often condemned ) its actions.

While numerous books have been written about the relationship between the United States and Israel, less examined has been the ways in which various figures in popular culture–singers, actors, and writers–have played a key role in the formation of such attitudes. That’s where Shalom Goldman’s Starstruck in the Promised Land comes into play. Drawing on a wide variety of documents and evidence, Goldman convincingly demonstrates how key popular culture has been to the ways in which Americans think about Israel.

Even before the founding of Israel as a state, Americans were obsessed with the Holy Land. Throughout the 19th Century, American literary figures from Herman Melville to Mark Twain visited the region, and though they were hardly positive in their commentary, they nevertheless revealed how key the Middle East was to the American psyche. For Christians, especially those of a more apocalyptic bent, the region was a key part of their theology and their vision of the world.

As Goldman moves into the 20th Century, we see how more and more literary and artistic figures took up the cause of Israel. These ranged from composers such as Leonard Bernstein to authors such as James Baldwin. Bernstein in particular would become a key figure in Israel, often staging concerts for Israeli soldiers. As a scholar of film and popular media, I particularly enjoyed the ways in which Goldman interweaves the politics and history of the modern state of Israel with some of the key figures and texts of the era. Films like Exodus and singers like Johnny and June Cash were especially vital to the Israeli cause, the former by figuring the Israeli founders as freedom fighters not unlike those in many western films (the film’s leading man was Paul Newman) and the latter by continuing to highlight the integral relationship between Christianity (particularly of the evangelical variety) and Israel.

Goldman also demonstrates the extent to which American political stances on Israel–as well as those of our popular culture figures–have mapped quite neatly onto the cultural wars. Just as evangelical Christianity became a dominant political force in the latter half of the 20th Century, so they saw an embrace of Israel as key to their own cultural and social beliefs (hence the trips that the Cashes, devout Christians, made to the Holy Land). At the same time, as civil rights became a stronger current on the American left, it became more and more common for American entertainers to take up the cause of the Palestinians.

Just as importantly, Goldman discusses his own biography and how that has shaped his own stance on the subject. It is sometimes easy to forget that politics, for all of its ugliness, actually involves real people whose lives and identities shape how they think about and engage with the thorny questions associated with this troubled region.

Overall, this book is a strong contribution to our understanding of the deep history of the relationship between the United States and Israel. Goldman writes with erudition and nuance, recognizing that there are no simple solutions in the dilemma of Israel, and that the relationship between the United States and one of its key Middle Eastern allies has been and may always be complicated and messy.

This book is necessary reading for anyone who wishes to gain a nuanced and balanced understanding of this particular aspect of foreign policy. Given the extremes of emotion that Israel tends to arouse in both those on the left and the right, this book’s equanimity is a gift indeed.

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Reading History: “The Problem of Democracy: The Presidents Adams Confront the Cult of Personality” (by Nancy Isenberg and Andrew Burstein)

Ever since I read David McCullough’s magisterial biography of John Adams many years ago, I’ve always thought it was a shame that the second president and his son have never received the sort of approbation and celebration that their contemporaries have. Adams is almost always overshadowed by his frenemy Jefferson, and Adams is usually swept aside in favor of the towering might of Andrew Jackson (as well as, to a lesser extent, figures such as Henry Clay, John C. Calhoun, and Daniel Webster, who were also his contemporaries).

In large part, as Nancy Isenberg and Andrew Burstein claim in their dual biography, this is because the two of them largely eschewed the trappings of celebrity, not only because it would have ill-suited their temperaments but also, and just as importantly, because they saw those who did so as caving in to the worst sort of impulses. To them, the rise of men like Jefferson and Jackson–one the frenemy of the senior and the other the victor over the latter–revealed both the dangers of parties but also the unpredictability (and thus the inherent danger) of the tide of popular opinion. For both father and son, democracy was a good thing in moderation, but throughout their lives they both entertained a health skepticism about the passions of the people.

Throughout this dual biography, Isenberg and Burstein situate the two Adams presidents not only in their political milieu, but also amid the intellectual life of the age. Both John and John Quincy were heavily influenced by the ancients, in particularly the Romans, and especially Cicero. To them, the ancient Roman Republican thinkers were the paragon of intellectual and moral achievement, and both saw a little of themselves in the doomed orator, who was one of the sole voices that stood out against the rise of tyranny in the form of Julius Caesar and his successors.

Isenberg and Burstein also note some of the two presidents’ less attractive qualities. Both of the Adams men were prone to bouts of melancholy and to self-pity, and both were often inflexible when it came to matters of conscience. The elder Adams in particular could be very waspish with his tongue, and he could often come across as a little self-pitying when he felt that his own contributions to the founding of the country were overlooked. JQA, for his part, was a stern moralist and became something of the conscience of the House, particularly given his staunch opposition to slavery.

That being said, they also reveal that John Quincy was probably slightly savvier as a politician than his father. When he saw that the Federalists were doomed–thanks in no small part to the machinations and later death of Alexander Hamilton–he joined the enemy and served in the administrations of both James Madison and James Monroe. Some thought him a traitor to the principles that he supposedly espoused, but in reality he knew that he was called to serve, and he wasn’t one to let party affiliation get in the way of his duty.

Throughout the book, we get a strong sense of just how raucous and acrimonious politics could be, both during the Founding era and in the generation that followed. These were men (and they were exclusively men, though women like Abigail Adams were profoundly influential) were men of towering intellect, fiery ambition, and they could often be quite cruel to one another. Indeed, the book points out that it is precisely this volatility that was both the greatest strength and the greatest weakness of the emerging republic.

All in all, I very much enjoyed The Problem of Democracy. As with many other popular history books produced in the last several years, the authors implicitly draw connections between our own political moment and that of the Founding Fathers. Much as we might like to think that we have moved beyond some of the darker and less pleasant parts of our collective history, Isenberg and Burstein reveal that we must still contend with the shortcomings of the popular will and those who would manipulate it for their own advancement. As the rise of Trump and a particularly violent and dangerous strain of nationalism have made clear, there is still much we must do to keep this republic. Hopefully, we can solve this seemingly intractable problem before it’s too late, and the American experiment goes up in flames.

Reading History: “How to Hide an Empire: A History of the Greater United States (by Daniel Immerwahr)

It’s become commonplace in certain circles–particularly the academy–to point out that, throughout the 20th and 21st Centuries America has practiced a form of imperialism, exporting its ideas and way of life throughout the globe, often at the point of a sword (or, more accurately, the barrel of a gun). There is, of course, a great deal of truth to the idea that the United States exerts a substantial influence on the world via ideas and military intervention rather than traditional colonialism. However, as Daniel Immerwahr argues in his new book How to Hide and Empire: A History of the Greater United States, far too little attention has been paid to the territorial possessions that this country has accrued throughout its existence, and his book sets out to correct that.

I’ve long been a fan of popular history. Don’t get me wrong, as a scholar and aspiring academic I definitely still see the value of academic history written for and published by university presses. However, there’s a certain vitality about history intended for mainstream audiences that you don’t (often) find in books written by and for academic audiences and researchers. Fortunately for those of us who devour such things, Immerwahr (a trained history and associate professor of history at Northwestern) manages to combine scholarly rigour with an eye for engaging storytelling.

Thus, How to Hide an Empire is compulsively readable, not just because its subject matter is still so tremendously pertinent, but also because Immerwahr has a strong grasp of both narrative pacing and language. He moves at a breakneck speed through the history of American colonization, yet he also manages to drill down into the details of such far-flung territories as Guam, the Philippines, and Puerto Rico (as well as those territories, such as Oklahoma, Alaska, and Hawai’i that ultimately became states). It also details how, in the decades after the Second World War, the U.S. relied more on technology, transportation, and culture to exert its imperial influence on the world.

One of the book’s great strengths is its emphasis on the ways in which the United States, despite its protestations to the contrary, has from its very beginnings been a territorial empire. Indeed, this “greater United States” (as Immerwahr calls it) was often key to the national interest, whether that was militarily (both Alaska and Hawai’i were, after all, very close to Japan), cultural, or social. In doing so, he also points out how long-lasting these territorial acquisitions were, and he reveals some aspects of the colonial story that many Americans have forgotten. I daresay that, if I were to ask a dozen random strangers whether they knew that the Philippines had been a part of the United States for much of the 20th Century, they would say no. Indeed, as Immerwahr points out again and again, those living in the mainland remain startlingly (one might even say frighteningly) ignorant not just of the fact of U.S. empire, but also of the gruesome atrocities that were being committed on American soil.

How to Hide an Empire peels away the self-mythologizing that Americans so consistently engage in to convince themselves that the U.S. is unlike all of those other countries that conquered so much of the globe in the 19th Century. It forces us to confront the ugly realities of American territorial violence, while also paying attention to the ways in which those living in those territories have fought back against their oppression. Though they did not always succeed in their ambitions, they nevertheless reminded the powers that be on the mainland that they were not to be idly used and abused by their colonial overlords.

The book also points out the fundamental injustices that still characterize the mainland’s relationship with its territories. Those living in those places may (in most cases, except for American Samoa) be United States citizens, but they are denied the right to congressional representation or to vote for president. To my mind, the fact that these injustices continue to go on without people on the mainland taking to the streets in protest, tells you all you need to know about how terrible this system remains.

How to Hide an Empire is necessary reading for anyone who wants to learn about the ways in which the United States has always been an empire, even as it has so completely convinced its own citizens that it isn’t.

Reading History: “Anne of Kleve: The Princess in the Portrait” (by Alison Weir)

When it comes to the wives of Henry VIII, a few stand out in the popular consciousness: Anne Boleyn (obviously), Katherine of Aragon, perhaps Jane Seymour. Then maybe Catherine Howard and Katherine Parr. Rarely, I suspect, do many people give much of a thought to Anne of Cleves, Henry’s fourth wife whom, it was said, he found so physically disgusting that he had their marriage annulled. Indeed, it is often held that the failure of this marriage is what cost Thomas Cromwell the king’s love and eventually his life.

Poor Anne has not received much justice from popular culture. Joss Stone did a serviceable job portraying her in The Tudors, and Philippa Gregory brought her usual soapy approach to at least part of Anne’s life in her book The Boleyn Inheritance. But other than that, she has tended to hover in the background, eclipsed by her more glamorous peers.

Enter Alison Weir’s new book, Anne of Kleve: The Princess in the Portrait.

I’ll admit that when I first heard that acclaimed historian and historical novelist Alison Weir was writing a six-book series about these women, I was a little dubious that she’d be able to write anything new or exciting about them. To some extent, alas, I was proved correct. While the earlier entries in this series were enjoyable, they all seemed to lack a certain spark that would have made them really soar. Don’t get me wrong. They were enjoyable; they just weren’t thrilling.

With Anna of Kleve, I think she may have finally hit her stride. The novel doesn’t get bogged down in relentless recitations of detail (Weir is nothing if not rigorous in that regard), but it does give us a very rich, thorough portrait of Anna’s emotional state as she moves through the dangerous world of Renaissance politics, both in her own country and, later, in Henry VIII’s England.

The novel starts with Anna’s young adulthood in the Duchy of Kleve, during which she has an illicit affair with one of her cousins and gives birth to a bastard child, a secret she carries with her for the rest of her life. After interminable negotiations with the English, she eventually sets sail to be the next Queen of England. Unfortunately for her, King Henry takes an instant dislike to her, and she ultimately feels pressured to concede to an annulment, after which she is granted significant wealth and manages to stay out of the worst of the political troubles that afflict the kingdom.

The novel is quite a brisk read, and Weir manages to keep the pace going while also largely adhering to, and even correcting, the historical record. We learn, for example, that Anna was a devout Catholic, though her marriage was intended to solidify Henry’s relations with the Protestant German princes. Indeed, Weir does a fine job of conveying how integral Anna was to the politics of her day, and how astute she was in her own political calculations.

Admittedly, Weir does take some rather generous liberties with the established truth, most notably in the ongoing plot-line of Anna’s illegitimate son and her cousin Otho, who is truly the one love of her life. Her reasoning on this in the “Author’s Note” reads a little thin to me, but I will agree that it does give the book an emotional core and resonance that I think it might otherwise have lacked (the irony is not lost on me that the very thing that makes the novel really work is the one thing that is probably not true).

That quibble aside, the novel is a strong outing. Indeed, one of its greatest strengths is in its ability to portray Anna’s emotional attachment to Henry. Rather than fighting to hold onto a position that knows is rightfully hers, she quickly gives in to the king’s request and becomes, in effect, his sister, blessed with manors and incomes and wealth. She’s shrewd enough to realize that she has far more to gain as the king’s sister than as his wife, and her reasoning proves sound when it is revealed that Catherine Howard has been committing adultery with and is summarily executed. At the same time, however, Weir does show how it must have stung for Anna to accept what was, in many ways, a humiliation, even if a lucrative one.

In that sense, the novel is more emotionally textured than I found the other three entries in the series to be. There, I often felt at somewhat of a remove from the titular heroines (part of this may be due to the fact that Weir chose to narrate each of the books in third person limited, rather than the first person). Here, however, we really get a chance to live inside Anna’s head, to experience with her the trials and tribulations of the Tudor era. It also allows us to get a more sympathetic perspective on Henry, a man vainly fighting against encroaching age and infirmity.

Likewise, it answers the question: what exactly happened to Anna after Henry VIII died? Some, no doubt, remember that she was actually present at Mary’s coronation, but others will have assumed that she died in obscurity. In fact, she continued to fight for rights against all the odds. While she died in her early 40s (probably of breast cancer), she nevertheless managed to outlive all of Henry’s other wives. Needless to say, that is quite a feat!

Anna of Kleve is a fascinating portrait of a royal woman’s struggle to not only survive but thrive in a world haunted by the past. Confronted with challenge again and again, she nevertheless perseveres. And when, in the end, she finally succumbs to illness, she does so surrounded by the people that she loves, including her illegitimate son. Her story is one, then, of ultimate triumph over adversity. Finally, after all of these centuries, Anna gets to tell her own story, and Alison Weir deserves tremendous praise for doing it with such grace, beauty, and eloquence.

Reading History: The Tragic Daughters of Charles I (by Sarah-Beth Watkins)

My thanks to NetGalley for a copy of this book for review.

I have to confess that when it comes to English royalty, I’ve never been much of a fan of the Stuarts. Somehow they lacked the charismatic panache that characterized their successors the Tudors, or the operatic tragedy of the Plantagenets. They just seemed rather bland in comparison to all of this.

Recently, however, I’ve taken an interest in them. They embodied all of the contradictions of the era, drowning in opulent wealth and yearning for absolute power yet struggling with the financial and political limits imposed by Parliament. Given these contradictions, is it any wonder that one of them, Charles I, ended up losing his head to the executioner’s axe?

Sarah-Beth Watkins takes as her subject the doomed daughter of this doomed monarch. As the title of the book suggests, Charles’ daughters fared little better than their father. Several died before they reached the age of 20, and those that lived to be older, Mary and Henriette, died before they reached 30, the former from smallpox and the latter as the result of a stomach ailment (and possibly poison).

Throughout their young lives, both Mary and Henriette faced struggle and difficulty, particularly once they were married to foreign princes: Mary to William of the Netherlands and Henriette to Philippe, brother of Louis XIV. Both also found themselves at the center of politics, first as their brother attempted to regain his throne and then, after his restoration, in the feuds and jostling that inevitably arose between the powers of Europe. In a bitter twist, Mary survived to see her brother return to the throne but died shortly afterward.

Given that she lived the longest and was married to the brother of the King of France, Henrietta’s life takes up the latter half of the book. Though plagued by personal sadness–her husband was abusive and paid more attention to his male lover than he did to her–she was nevertheless a savvy political player and a valuable ally for her brother at the heart of the French court. Through her closeness to both her brother and her brother-in-law the king, she was able exert a formidable influence on politics, and one can’t help but wonder how much more she would have been able to accomplish had she but lived longer.

Unfortunately, I didn’t enjoy this book as much as I thought I would. The prose is, unfortunately, rather clunky, and it lacks a certain dynamism. One learns a lot from the book, but I found it very easy to get bored while reading it. I strongly suspect that this has to do with the fact that there just isn’t a whole lot of material due to the very young age at which these women died.

Relatedly, the author tends to use far too many long quotes from primary sources. One gets the sense that she felt pressed to fill out the book to a standard length. While, of course, it is customary to include at least some quotes from letters, diaries, etc., the sheer length of the ones in this book become distracting after a while, and they certainly break up the momentum of the narrative.

That being said, the book is a serviceable introduction to these tragic young women. While their own lives were cut tragically short, those of their descendants would go on to be rather illustrious. Mary’s son William would in fact go on to become King of England as William III, while Henrietta’s descendants would go on to sit on the thrones of several different countries. Through their children, the tragic daughters of King Charles found their own form of immortality.

Reading History: “Alexander the Great: His Life and Mysterious Death” (by Anthony Everitt)

By this point, I’ve read numerous biographies of Alexander the Great. Some, such as Mary Renault’s The Nature of Alexander are quite hagiographical, while more recent offerings from classicists such as Paul Cartledge and Robin Lane Fox take a more balanced view. Anthony Everitt’s new book, Alexander the Great: His Life and Mysterious death falls mostly into the latter camp. While on the whole he is fairly complimentary of the Macedonian king and conqueror, he doesn’t shy away from pointing out of some of his significant shortcomings.

Everitt documents Alexander’s life from beginning to end, from his youth in the unruly court of his father Philip to his final days in Babylon. We see him in battle (frequently), and in love (less frequently). We learn of his tempestuous relationships with both his mother Olympias and his father Philip, as well as the many men that surrounded him (and a few of the women).

As was the case with Everitt’s last book on the history of Athens, there were several times when I felt myself growing bored. Part of this is his style, which tends to be very unimaginative and dry, and part of this has to do with how he organizes his narrative. There are times when the book seems like little more than a recitation of the events of Alexander’s life, with only slight glimpses into the more personal aspects.

What he lacks in stylistic grace, Everitt makes up for in rigour and detail. He provides voluminous (some might say exhausting detail) of the various battles that Alexander waged in his attempts to bring the world under his dominion. Everitt argues that Alexander was driven by pothos, a desire to attain the unattainable, and that this was what accounted for his seemingly never-ending desire to embark on the next battle, the next voyage to the unknown.

On the whole, Everitt argues that Alexander deserves the appellation “the Great.” This was a man, after all, who radically reshaped the Mediterranean world, with consequences that would extend far into the future. At the same time, he doesn’t gloss over those instances when Alexander’s behavior was truly terrifying (and terrible), those times when he allowed his anger to get the better of him and committed acts of truly terrible barbarity and atrociousness.

My greatest complaints with the book are twofold. As I alluded to earlier, Everitt doesn’t really pay very much attention to Alexander’s personal life. While he is fairly upfront about the fact that Alexander almost certainly had a sexual relationship with Hephaistion and, later, with the eunuch Bagoas, there’s no real sense of what these men meant to Alexander emotionally. Everitt argues that his avoidance of this subject stems from the sources, and though that’s a fair point as far as it goes, it ensures that Alexander remains something of an enigma, forever hovering just beyond view.

My more significant complaint about this book is how little I felt I learned from it. There were very few revelations in Everitt’s biography that I hadn’t encountered before, and while this isn’t a deal-breaker as far as my enjoyment of the book goes, it does make me wonder why, exactly, we needed another biography of one of the world’s most famous figures. For that matter, I’m not exactly sure why the title makes such a point of mentioning his death, since Everitt clears up the “mystery” fairly quickly, positing (reasonably) that it was probably due to malaria rather than a sinister act of poisoning.

To my mind, one of the most poignant parts of the book comes at the very end. Everitt reminds us that, though we have a fairly copious amount of material from the ancient world dealing with Alexander’s life, there is very little about the Persians that he conquered. Almost the only direct access we have to the Achaemenid dynasty is from the Greek perspective, and Everitt forces us to wonder exactly how our perspective on Alexander might have been very different had we had more from the Persian point of view.

All in all, this is a very serviceable biography of one of the ancient world’s most famous conquerors. Those looking for a no-frills exploration of his life will find that here, while those looking for more original takes would probably do better to look elsewhere.

Reading History: “Circe” (by Madeline Miller)

Warning: Full spoilers for the novel follow.

When I had finished The Song of Achilles, I felt bereft. Here was this extraordinary author who managed to hit all the right notes I look for in historical fiction, and now I had nothing more to look forward to! Fortunately for me, Madeline Miller had just released a new book, Circe, and I devoured it even more quickly than I had her debut novel.

While Song had touched me because of its sensitive yet frank depiction of physical and emotional love between two men, Circe was something else, a tale of one woman’s desire to both understand and, ultimately, become the mortals whom she has spent so many hours and encounters, both good and bad. It is a novel about the nature of mortality and the burdens associated with being a child of the gods, at once a story of tremendous suffering and exquisite love.

Circe is the daughter of the sun god Helios, but from the beginning she feels that she is not like the other petty gods and Titans that surround her. When she discovers that she actually has magical abilities, the stage is set for a confrontation with her fellow immortals and, ultimately, her father. She is ultimately banished to  a distant island, where Circe encounters many of the famous figures of mythology, including Jason and Medea, the wily hero Odysseus and, eventually, his son Telemachus. As the years go by, she feels herself increasingly drawn to these mortals until, as the novel reaches its conclusion, she must decide whether she will become one of them or retain her immortality.

It’s always a challenge (I think) to write a convincing fictional account of the ancient pantheon that isn’t simply a parody or attempts to poke fun at the gods that we (in a world that still straddles the line between scientific rationalism and Christianity) see as little more than fairy tales. Fortunately, Miller has a knack for conveying the gods in a way that makes them both utterly realistic and yet fantastic at the same time. Her Olympians are, I think, very much in keeping with what the Greeks themselves imagined, full of spite and cruelty, yet also inescapably compelling.

As she did in The Song of Achilles, Miller manages to capture the beautiful yet brutal world that emerges from the words of the ancient Greeks. When Circe wanders through the halls of her father’s palace, or when she embraces the lonely bleakness of her isle, Miller allows us deep, piercing glimpses of these places as Circe herself would see them. In the process, we come to not only understand the woman herself, but also to appreciate the lushness of the prose through which that experience is conveyed.

Circe shares with Song a deep, rich awareness of the power of language to move us, to make us look at and think about the world in new, exciting and (sometimes) uncomfortable ways. Like Mary Renault–with whom she is often compared–Miller has the knack for conveying the foreignness of the ancient world that does not efface or detract from its ability to draw us into it.

Circe, however, is in many ways a very different novel than its predecessor, if only because it seems so focused (refreshingly) on a woman (even if she is a demigoddess). Circe is far from perfect, and Miller doesn’t try to idealize her. She is rebellious, prone to making foolish decisions,  and, despite her divine parentage, fundamentally curious about the mortals that the gods have in their thrall. Indeed, it is her desire to understand humans–in all of their beauty and ugliness, their loves and their hates, their kindness and their cruelty–that allows her to keep going despite all of the betrayals and heartbreak she faces.

And that, to me, is the novel’s fundamental purpose: to probe at what it is that makes us human. Because of her quasi-divine status, Circe has a perspective on the foibles of mortals that we lack, simply because we are imprisoned within our own perspectives. More than that: we are imprisoned in time. Circe recognizes that the one thing that humanity cannot escape is its mortality, and it is the one thing that will always structure (and doom) her relationships with her mortal lovers. While she is fated to continue marching through this world, she must contend with the inescapable fact of losing them.

Ultimately, it is this focus on mortality that gives Circe’s decision to abrogate her immortality and use her magic to become one of them. One can debate whether her choice to do so undercuts her power as a strong female character, but to me that rather misses the point. By the end of the novel, Circe has seen enough of the cruelties of the gods to know that she no longer wants to be one of their company, and she has at last found a man who will love her as she deserves to be loved. The fact that he is a mortal finally forces her to make the choice that seemed obvious from the very beginning. In the end, Circe becomes a mortal not just because she loves Telemachus, but because she finally recognizes that humans have an ability for compassion that the gods simply cannot. It is this recognition, even more than her love that ultimately drives her to give up her immortality.

And now that I’ve finished Miller’s sophomore effort, I think I feel even more devastated than I did when I finished, knowing that it was going to be quite a while before I saw something else from this very talented author of historical fiction. All I can say is that Circe is a must-read for anyone who loves the ancient world and its reception in the modern one. With this book, Madeline Miller shows that she truly deserves recognition as one of the finest historical novelists writing today.

I just hope that we don’t have to wait too long for Miller to offer us more of her inimitable vision.

Reading History: “Templar Silks” (by Elizabeth Chadwick)

Note: My thanks to NetGalley for providing me with an advance copy of this book to review.

When his lord Henry, the Young King, dies of dysentery William Marshall goes on pilgrimage to the Holy Land in order to atone for the sins he, and his young master, committed. Once in Jerusalem, William finds himself more and more ensnared in the politics of Outremer (the name used in medieval France to refer to those French territories, such as the Holy Land, that were beyond the sea).

Central to the novel is William’s affair with Pascia de Riveri, the concubine of the Patriarch of Jerusalem. The two of them feel an immediate attraction for one another, and Chadwick compellingly conveys the deep and powerful sexual bond they share. Sex scenes are notoriously easy to do badly, but the novel avoids this, straddling the fine line between the prurient and the genuinely sensual and erotic. What’s more, she makes it clear that William sees in Pascia not just an object of his desire, but a woman with whom he genuinely wants to build a future. For her part, Pascia emerges as a woman very conscious of the role that she plays in this world; for all of her seeming self-assurance, she knows that she remains beholden to the patriarch for what little worldly power she has.

Chadwick acknowledges that much of the novel’s narrative is fictional, since we do not really know what Marshall did during his sojourn in the Holy Land. That being said, she is adept at providing a compelling and richly layered portrait of the land and the key political players, ranging from the strutting but incompetent Guy de Lusignan, the noble but dying King Baldwin (known to many as the Leper King), the worldly and urbane Patriarchh Heraclius and, most importantly, Paschia de Riveri herself. These are men and women who are contradictory and rich as any to be found in historical fiction.

I was particularly drawn to Baldwin, the doomed king who nevertheless does everything in his power to do right by his people. I’ve always been fascinated by this figure, ever since I saw him portrayed (hauntingly) by Edward Norton in the 2005 Kingdom of Heaven. For William, he is one of the few people in the Holy Land who seems to possess both nobility and honour, though he is hampered by his physical ailments from being the king that his land needs. As a result, William can only watch helplessly as the matters careen out of control after the king’s death, until he at last takes the opportunity to go back to his home.

The novel is largely framed as a flashback as William lies dying in his home in England. Indeed, some of the most moving moments of the novel occur as he confronts the fact that he must soon leave behind his earthly responsibilities, and it is clear that William truly loves his wife, the woman with whom he has built a life. However, he holds a secret from her–one that has to do with the Templar silks of the title–that will stain their last hours together. Passionate, headstrong, and deeply honourable, Marshall emerges from the novel as a man that you can definitely cheer for. He’s not perfect by any means, but is still a man who does everything he possibly can to protect those that he loves.

Chadwick has a keen eye for physical and atmospheric detail, and I really felt myself immersed in the beautiful but deadly world of the Middle Ages. I was particularly impressed with her ability to draw out the small details that make a novel truly shine: the rich, loving relationship between Willim and his younger brother Ancel; the smells and tastes of a different world; the small dog (named Pilgrim) that joins William and his company on their journey to the Holy Land.

All in all, Templar Silk is a poignant and exquisite exploration of the power of one important man’s attempt to make sense of his life. This is highly recommended for anyone who loves the medieval period, as well as for those who love their historical fiction leavened with equal doses of politics and passion.

Reading History: “American Princess: A Novel of First Daughter Alice Roosevelt” (by Stephanie Marie Thornton)

Warning: Full spoilers for the novel follow.

We seem to be living in a golden age of women’s historical fiction. Authors such as Stephanie Dray, Kate Quinn, Michelle Moran, and Stephanie Marie have done a great deal to excavate the experiences of historical women. These include the subject of today’s blog post, Stephanie Marie Thornton’s new novel, American Princess: A Novel of First Daughter Alice Roosevelt.

The novel follows Alice as she negotiates her position as the daughter of President Theodore Roosevelt, particularly her tumultuous relationship with the Ohio Congressman Nicholas Longworth, her affair with Senator Bill Borah of Idaho, and her vexed relationship with her daughter Paulina.

Alice emerges from these pages as a woman determined to claim her own happiness, often in direct opposition to the wishes of the men in her life. Her thoughts crackle with intensity and verve, particularly as she chafes against the restrictions placed on her by society’s expectations. Indeed, one of the novel’s greatest strengths lies in its ability to convey the many ways in which women frequently faced restrictions that their male counterparts did not, particularly those women, like Alice, who occupied the upper echelons of society.

I particularly enjoyed seeing the interactions between and among the various members of the Roosevelt clan. Alice is particularly contemptuous of her distant cousin Franklin, and she is hardly more approving of first cousin Eleanor (the daughter of her father’s brother). Thornton reveals the extent to which the two halves of this American political family were frequently (and often vociferously) at odds and in doing so highlights the conflict between the political and the familial that was all too often a part of the American landscape.

Throughout the novel, Alice also struggles with her friendships with women. Whether that is the duplicitous daughter of the Russian ambassador, her best friend who ultimately has an affair with Nick, or her own cousin Eleanor (who sabotages her brother’s chances at election). she faces betrayal on multiple fronts. She also has trouble with her domestic arrangements, as Nick’s mother is a harridan of the worst type.

As for Nick himself, time and again, she must confront his infidelities, and the strange alchemy of their relationship–and it is clear that they truly love one another, despite all of the messiness of their relationship. Thornton does an excellent job exploring the strange ways in which the mind, and the heart, work when we are in relationships that we know are toxic but which are an essential part of who we are. Likewise, Thornton allows us to understand Alice’s desire for for true fulfillment that leads her to engage in an affair with Bill Borah. While we may not necessarily approve of this decision, we are allowed at least to understand it.

Much as she loved both Nick and Bill, it was undoubtedly her father Teddy (who hated that nickname) who exerted the strongest influence on her life. Throughout the novel, she yearns for his approval (he struggled with the fact that she reminded him so strongly of his first wife. The friction generated by their two competing (and larger-than-life) personalities persists, but eventually they find a way of embracing and expressing their deep, genuine love for one another.

The novel is compulsively readable, and I think it is not exaggeration to say that it is truly one of those books that it is impossible to put down. Thornton allows us to get a glimpse of early 20th Century America, an era of fierce politics, glittering society balls, and larger-than-life personalities. Through all of this, Thornton allows us to see Alice as a woman somewhat ahead of her time. Indeed, reading the book, it’s hard not to shake the feeling that Alice would have made a damned good politician had she turned her hand to actually running for office. As it was, she lived one of the most eventful lives of any woman of her era, beating breast cancer twice and living to the ripe old age of 96. Small wonder that many wits called her the other Washington Monument.

American Princess is my favourite Thornton novel so far (and I’ve loved them all), and I very much look forward to her next book, which will apparently be about Jackie Kennedy. I just know it will be great!

Reading History: “The Impeachers: The Trial of Andrew Johnson and the Dream of a Just Nation” (by Brenda Wineapple)

Note: My thanks to NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book for review.

Going in to this book, I didn’t know a great deal about the circumstances surrounding the impeachment of Andrew Johnson, and I knew even less about the reasons that drove the era’s legislators to this great length. Having read Brenda Wineapple’s The Impeachers, I’m happy to say that I now know a great deal more.

Wineapple populates her story with the giants of the era, men such as Thaddeus Steves, one of those who lead the charge for impeachment, Salmon Portland Chase, the cunning, Supreme Court justice who had ambitions of his own that coloured his perception of the case, and of course, Andrew Johnson himself. These were men of imposing personalities, and Wineapple does a magnificent job painting them in big, bold colors; they fairly leap off the page.

Ultimately, of course, the measure failed, but Wineapple makes the case that this had less to do with the merits of the impeachment articles (and the evidence for them) than with these personalities and their varied motivations and concerns. Essentially, it was felt that impeaching Johnson would cause irreparable damage to the Republican waiting in the wings to ascend to the presidency: none other than the hero of the Civil War, Ulysses S. Grant (who was also a prominent character in this unfolding drama). Rather than do so, they felt it was a safer bet to acquit Johnson and start over.

Given that the book is about impeachment, it’s hard not to draw comparisons between that time and our own and, especially, between the temperament of Andrew Johnson and our current president. Like Trump, Johnson was a blusterer and a bit of a megalomaniac, convinced that he was the victim of conspiracies and unwilling to acknowledge his own weaknesses and his part in his situation. The portrait that Wineapple paints is a very unflattering one indeed, and there are very good reasons for that. For, as Wineapple points out, Johnson was a a racist who built his appeal on stymying almost all measures that would have contributed to the betterment of people of color in the former slave states. Indeed, there were often times when he went out of his way to ensure that people of color understood that not only were they second-class citizens, but that their president had no interest in changing that.

The Impeachers does a fine job of providing the context that allows us to understand just why it is that this signature event in American history transpired in the way that it did. Despite the end of the Civil, many (including Johnson) felt that the United States was still a white man’s country, and that less effort should be spent in punishing the former Confederacy and more in ensuring that white citizens regained their former amity. The great tragedy of the whole affair is that it would be almost another hundred years before the desire for a better country for all would experience another great leap forward with the Civil Rights Movement on the 1950s and 1960s.

Though subsequent generations of historians painted the impeachment as a partisan affair, Wineapple argues that these arguments were themselves focused on a discrediting of the policies and mindset of the Radical Republicans. Her work allows us to see these men as visionaries committed to the idea that the United States could, in fact, be a more perfect union if only its leaders would have the will to do so.

Stylistically, Wineapple has a masterful command of both her materials and her language. While some books on history can be slow going even for those who love reading about the past, this is certainly not the case with The Impeachers. While reading it, I almost had the feeling that I was there in the moment, swept up in this epochal event, so adeptly does Wineapple capture the tenor of the times and the voices of her subjects.

By this point in 2019, it seems pretty clear that our own Andrew Johnson is not going to be impeached even though, as Yoni Applebaum compellingly argues in a recent issue of The Atlantic, there is very good reason to do so, the case of Andrew Johnson, as Wineapple presents it, serves as a warning of becoming too confident.

Le sigh.