The Best Book of Biographies: Great Lives, Great Deeds

“We were knowledgeable enough to verify our information, reverent enough to respect the deeds of a hero without trying to deconstruct his every molecule, and still innocent enough to believe in heroic, altruistic, moral duty. We don’t live there anymore as a society and it would benefit us to look back at some of what was good about that era.” — Amanda Stiver

hat and artifacts on map

Image: Amanda Stiver

HAVING taken a break from talking history for a while, I come back in the midst of missing Malaysian airliners, war in the Crimea, tensions in the Israeli corridor, tragic shootings on a U.S. military base, ongoing economic sticky-messes, inept political leadership, earthquakes in California and Chile, and buffalo running a-muck in Yellowstone National Park… so more of the same, only different.

As always, or this site wouldn’t be called “HistoryGal,” I tend to look back to get a little perspective on the future. One of my favorite sources (parents and home-based teachers, this one’s a great resource) is a chubby collection of biographies by that superb purveyor of condensed books of old, Reader’s Digest. Titled Great Lives, Great Deeds it contains over 80 short biographies of famous individuals.

True enough, modern scholarship may make some of the information outdated, but generally the basics are accurate. Remember that all history rises and falls on the bias of those writing it, even current authors.

WHAT I love most of all about this book is the stirring way in which history was written. I consider it the golden age of American historiography (mid-20th century). We were knowledgeable enough to verify our information, reverent enough to respect the deeds of a hero without trying to deconstruct his every molecule, and still innocent enough to believe in heroic, altruistic, moral duty. We don’t live there anymore as a society and it would benefit us to look back at some of what was good about that era.

Of particular note in Great Lives, Great Deeds are the biographies of American revolutionary heroes. The account of Paul Revere, “The Midnight Rider,” by Esther Forbes is stunning. An excerpt, like much of Reader’s Digest material, it is from a larger work I have not yet read, but plan to. A very short sample:

“They who had so recently seen the stocky, benevolent old gentleman walking the streets of Boston could hardly have guessed that he was destined forever to ride a foaming charger, his face enveloped in the blackness of a famous night, to become in time hardly a man at all–only a hurry of hoofs in a village street, a voice in the dark, a knock on a door, a disembodied spirit crying the alarm–an American patriot who, on a moonlit night in 1775, started out on a ride which, in a way, has never ended,” (Great Lives, Great Deeds, Reader’s Digest Association, 1964, pg. 272).

THIS kind of history moves, the writing has electricity and it stirs us to greater devotions of our own, whatever the cause is to which we are devoted (we all need one by the way, preferably a good one). This kind of stirring writing is not unlike the Bible accounts of the great heroes, and sometimes anti-heroes, of the Israelite world and environs. When most people think of the Bible, they think of stories (hopefully not films like the recent non-version of Noah) and characters. This one did this deed, that one fought that war, this one stood up to this dictator, etc…

I like to talk about gateways to history. Interesting ways in which we can pique our curiosity and gain an appreciation for and desire to learn from history. Biographies are a fantastic gateway. They give you enough of a story flow to sink your teeth into, while still filling in historical details of one era or another that by the end of a biography you will find that you are somewhat of a burgeoning expert on a small section of the historical timeline!

SO if you can find a used copy of Great Lives, Great Deeds to add to  your shelf (it is out of print) then do so (it also makes a great bathroom reader). There are many other historical characters of note to get acquainted with like Winston Churchill, Simon Bolivar, Edith Cavell, Booker T. Washington, Theodore Roosevelt, Patrick Henry, George Washington… and many more.

Find a copy and make an exploration of history, person by person.

And as always–keep thinking history!

– Amanda Stiver

The Window of History

window

Image: morguefile.com/hamper

Sitting in my office I have a great view of the woods. I can see birds, cats, deer, my neighbors, lush deciduous trees, the change of seasons and the occasional fox or raccoon. My view out the window is never the same twice. It can be similar, but never an exact copy. A leaf moves, the clouds are different, the dappling of sunshine through leaves changes, and different creatures troll the yard.

I never get tired of peering out that window to see what’s below. Such variety is refreshing and I often turn to look out when I get filled to saturation with staring at the computer.

Window of history

In the same way I never get tired of peering through the window of history. Okay, sometimes I do get tired of the same historical subject. So I solve the problem, I rotate subjects. On the whole, though, I don’t get tired of history. I find that a trip back in time via a well written history book helps me to see the present more clearly.

According to the StrengthsFinder program this is a particular trait called “Context.” StrengthsFinder is a workplace personality testing program that helps users find out how to use their strengths in connection with others.

Context is the use of a knowledge of history to see how that past shapes people and events. The ultimate goal being to anticipate what may happen in the future. According to StrengthsFinder it is also a way of relating to other people by empathizing with how they came to be the way they are.

Thus history becomes a window into not only the past, but also the future.

Back to the future!

I have been on a recent stroll through the boulevard of history, peering into various centuries and cultures as I go. It’s really a form of historical tourism, only you learn stuff and don’t pay as much as you would for a third-rate hotel room assigned to you because of over-booking.

Since the beginning of the year I’ve been to ancient Greece, the American Civil War era, the Revolutionary War era, and I’m just beginning a look into the history of the City of Jerusalem. Each book is a window, allowing me to see into the past with an eye open to the potential of what may come in the future.

What have I learned?

People haven’t really changed much despite centuries and millennia of existence. The window dressing may be different, but human motivation, greed, lust, anger, jealousy… are still the same and they still are at the crux of what turns the tide of world events.

So what window of history will you peer through today? What will you see and how will it affect your understanding of the present and the future?

Keep thinking history!

– Amanda Stiver

Book Review: “The Silver Branch”

Sometimes historical curiosity comes from reading historical fiction. Specifically, in this case a Rosemary Sutcliff book.

“The Silver Branch,” a book by Rosemary Sutcliff (Image: Amanda Stiver)

I recently read The Silver Branch by Sutcliff (a great read, originally aimed at a teen/young adult audience, but good for all ages). The Eagle of the Ninth, its better known companion, precedes The Silver Branch, but the former was checked out of my local library so I had to jump into the middle of the series. Thankfully each part of the trilogy can stand on its own.

I was thrown back to the Roman Empire, in the 3rd century AD in the province of Britannia. As the characters, Roman, British, Irish, Dalriad, and Saxon, among others, coursed through the story from skirmishes, to escapes, from espionage, to battle the story of a rift in the Roman Empire unfolds. Three Emperors claimed three parts of the empire and the book concerns the subordinates who either undermine or support the man, Carausius, who ruled Britannia. The emperors are historical figures, but the main characters of the story, Justin and Flavius, though woven into the historical events, are fiction.

Improbable?

As fiction goes, this is reasonably legitimate. There are some flaws, as many others have noted before, particularly the eagle standard (which appears again in this book after its introduction in The Eagle of the Ninth) not being a legionary standard in actuality. An eagle was found in the ancient city of Calleva (Silchester), but it wasn’t the eagle of the ninth. Still, it’s probable.  Some historical fiction is so outlandish that the story becomes completely ridiculous. Sutcliff’s writing is believable, albeit, a number of crucial events and actions are undertaken by one fictional family, but a clear thread is necessary to make a story readable.

The Silver Branch piqued my curiosity about Roman Britain, a part of history, which was, unfortunately, the Swiss Cheese of my historical knowledge – full of holes. In high school and college the Ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Israelites as well as the Scythians, Chinese, and then English, European and American history from the time of Elizabeth I up to World War II was my focus, partly because those were the classes on offer, but also because the late Roman Empire seemed to be rather gasp-y and sad, so I tended to skip it, but now I find myself filling in my knowledge of this era. Rome had such an impact on so many cultures as friend or as foe that it really is essential knowledge of the world.

Finding your gateway to history

A nice piece of historical fiction like The Silver Branch is a good stepping-stone to delving into a new section of history. I’m interested enough now to crack my textbooks and get the slightly dryer, though still important details about Roman history clear in my mind.

Sutcliff is a fine writer and this book makes for a great literary-historical adventure!

– Amanda Stiver

Invigorate Your History (And Your Family’s) Life!

Following on the heels of my historical consideration of Thanksgiving I’m back tracking to the topic of how to make history a part of daily family life (“I Beg of You… Don’t Hate History”– continued).

(Image: Amanda Stiver)

For those with a pre-existing love of history, this isn’t a problem, people like us discuss history all the time; family history, world history, military history, ancient history, etc.,… we have endless arguments about fairly trivial points of history. We (animatedly) discuss the number of soldiers under the command of a centurion in Ancient Rome – 100 or 60? (60 to 80 actually, opposed to the commonly assumed 100.) We argue about the way people dressed or the historically inaccurate firearms used in movies… and on… and on.

But what about the way people lived a mere two or three generations ago, how do you make that live?

(Image: Amanda Stiver)

I’ll cut to the chase… If you want to learn domestic history for the past 70 to 80 years you can read a few good books on various subjects, or a few dry textbooks that cover all of it… or… you can get a subscription to Reminisce magazine, Looking Back, Good Old Days or one of the other nostalgia periodicals and read compelling, quaint, realistic, snippets of life from the turn of the century to the present day.

I’m not shilling any of these publications I simply like them. They remind me of the stories my parents and grandparents told me about life in past decades. Reading about these people is far from the skewed social messages of neo-socialist-Marxist education materials, you get a sense of how real, ordinary people lived… and they have pictures!

The fundamental commonality of the stories in these publications is usually expressed in this way, “We were so poor, but we really didn’t know it, we had food from the farm, a home, and a loving family.” People worked hard and enjoyed the little they had. They had a sense of hard work, and hope for the future. They were individuals, but they had compassion for their fellow man and a duty to their community that can’t be legislated by a government.

(Image: Amanda Stiver)

I can’t recommend these resources enough. Some of the above publishers also produce compilations of articles based on various subjects, for example the Great Depression. They include photographs and short article stories that are a great read to share with young ones (did I mention the pictures?). Getting them interested in these very human stories is an effective gateway to a lifelong love of history. True history.

– Amanda Stiver

I Beg of You… Don’t Hate History

Let the following numbers sink in and then I’ll explain why they’re horrifying…

(Image: Morguefile.com)

— A mere 20% of American fourth-graders (~10-11 years old) passed a National Assessment of Educational Progress U.S. history test with a “proficient” knowledge of their country’s history.

— Only 17% of eighth-graders (~14-15 years old) tested proficient.

— Worst of all, twelfth-graders, seniors in high school ready to go to college and become registered voters at 18 years old, scored a horrendous 12% proficiency (Stephanie Banchero, “Students Stumble Again on the Basics of History,” Online.WSJ.com, June 15, 2011).

I cannot number the times I’ve heard the now familiar statement, “Well, I hated history when I was a kid, but now I’m that I’m older, I’d really like to learn about it.” Followed by, “It’s probably because I didn’t have very good history teachers in school.”

I can’t fix the latter, which is the quagmire of our educational system dictated by politics. I can address the former; indeed I feel I must, so dangerous is this crisis.

I have but one life to give…

(Image: Morguefile.com)

Theoretically, 88% of American seniors know next to nothing about the country that gave birth to them, prospered their parents, allows their freedoms of dissent, and finally freedom to vote (or not to vote, as they wish).

88 per cent devoid of basic U.S. history knowledge! This is abysmal!

To me, as a historian, it is tragic because I love history, and my knowledge of the past lets me see into the future. Yet more fundamentally, I am appalled that our nation knows so little of its glorious, storied, sometimes dark, but often bright history.

It is tragic, too, because history is the fulcrum upon which our freedoms balance. Educationally speaking, math, science, and written word studies give us the means to improve our lot and style of life, but history hovers above, around, and beyond all that. History was passed on by word of mouth long before it was written down; it pre-existed and sustained those other disciplines. You can’t learn math if it is illegal for you to do so. History teaches us what is legal and what is not.

Most importantly, however, history preserves our knowledge of what freedom is. Without that, any dictator can come in and trounce us into submission. Without understanding the history of their struggle for freedom, any people can and will become the servant rather than the master. They no longer value what generations before fought and died to give them. They no longer value the representative government, the checks and balances, the useful traditions that give us identity, freedom of expression, freedom to meet together in peace, and freedom to transact government of the people, by the people, and for the people.

(Image: Amanda Stiver)

The Scottish Declaration of Arbroath says it this way:

“It is in truth not for glory, nor riches, nor honours that we are fighting, but for freedom—for that alone, which no honest man gives up but with life itself.”

Give me your tired, your poor…

To know history is also to learn compassion for those who suffer because so much of human history is suffering. It is to hear the cries of hungry children during the Great Depression, waiting for food that would not come because no food could be bought because no one had money and no jobs were to be found.

It is to hear the weeping of mothers whose sons died at Lexington and Concord, and at Gettysburg and Antietam. It is to see the fire fall from the sky as American soldiers invaded the coast of Normandy and made bombing runs deep into enemy territory over Germany to defeat the Nazis during World War II.

It is the struggle of pioneer families who made the hard, unrelenting trek across the American West to find a better life, full of greater promise and a more abundant future for their children and generations to come.

Learn to love history…

These low scores are simply one of the signs of a greater malaise in America right now. It will take us some doing to get out from under its apathetic and dreary spell.

(Image: Morguefile.com)

I’m prescriptive by nature, and every problem has a solution. I can’t think of a better way to illustrate how history should be taught, and how to find the stories hidden amongst the dates, battles, and personalities than to recommend the following clip of Andy Griffith teaching a history lesson. It is classic and unparalleled. It is how I see history when I read it – full of life, full of great causes, full of heritage.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aGXCH7zBdc4

In my next post…

I will concentrate on ways to re-invigorate a personal and family love of history with book and magazine recommendations and other ways to make history approachable. Man or woman, parent or child, young or old it is essential to find a way to learn U.S. and World History, and to learn to love it… stay tuned.

– Amanda Stiver

WWII: Fed Up on Feeble Rations

Limited food rations in Britain during World War II meant a lot of creativity in the kitchen. If you didn’t have eggs, which are essential in baking, you had to learn to use dehydrated powdered egg in your recipes. If you didn’t have milk, you have to make do with powdered milk – called household milk then.

Fortunately flour wasn’t rationed during the war, but being wasteful just wasn’t an option, so you were careful with the amounts you did have.

By the book

(Image: Amanda Stiver)

Victory Cookbook: Nostalgic Food and Facts From 1940-1954, by Marguerite Patten, is a compilation of three separate books about the Kitchen Front in WWII Britain. Each contains menus, cooking tips, and recipes from those years as provided by the British government to help cooks be more inventive with their meager rations.

I find these kind of historic resources fascinating because they provide a trip back in time, but also because they are still immediately applicable. Most all of the recipes in Marguerite Patten’s book are doable today. They may not be to our modern day taste, a taste, however, that is often sullied by overindulgence.

Having great material resources is good, but it can lead to wastefulness. Economics being what they are means that we are in for some particularly nasty inflation in the US, so looking back at a time when people carefully eked out meals with what they had on hand is as relevant as can be!

What did they eat?

Tooling through the recipes I find great emphasis on vegetables. They were mostly home grown, thus cheap, and un-rationed, thus available. The government didn’t ration these foods because of their immense nutritional value and so they encouraged people to eat them daily, in large portions.

Expectant mothers and children were given special supplies of oranges for Vitamin-C and cod-live-oil for Vitamin-D and essential oils. However, everyone else had to scrounge for vitamins via their vegetables.

Green, leafy vegetables were encouraged daily as well as a serving of raw vegetables. Sound familiar? This same type of advice is encouraged by current nutritional experts. More so because those raw vegetables contain enzymes that are essential for proper digestion.

Spuds

(Image: Morguefile.com)

Potatoes play a prominent role in the cook book. As the government material of the time said, they could be grown in England, preferably at home, and thus needed no transportation or importation – freeing up ships to transport supplies to the military forces overseas. They provided glucose and rounded out meals of small portions of meat (which was heavily rationed) and servings of vegetables.

Even pastry for desserts came to be made partially of potato mash. There was no job too big for the humble potato to complete!

Technique

For vegetables, so highly encouraged, cooks were instructed to prepare them by steam boiling. Not with the fancy steamer contraptions we have today, but with a small amount of water in the base of the kettle, just enough to boil into steam when the lid was added and thus cook the veggies.

This technique had the effect of keeping the cooked vegetables appetizing, avoiding the heavily boiled mush that was common. Also it required less cooking time and conserved fuels such as coal that were in short supply. Stoves at that time were wood, coal or oil powered, not electric or gas fed like we have today. Infrastructure wasn’t yet that advanced.

Steam boiling also kept some of the vitamin content intact. Certain vitamins are sensitive to heat and are diluted by water, thus over-cooking leads to depleted nutrient value. Minimal cooking preserved the water-soluble vitamins. Likewise, cooks were encouraged to save the cooking water for soups and other dishes – thereby consuming the rest of the precious vitamins and minerals.

This, by the way, is a fantastic tip for our lives today. Saving vegetable water doesn’t take much time and provides better nutrition. Likewise, pasta water can be used as a soup base because it contains starch and acts as a thickener.

So, go ahead, cook a little history today and standby for more on this topic soon…

– Amanda Stiver

Eating Up World War II

(Image: Morguefile.com)

Could you live on 1 fresh egg every two weeks?

Could you live on 2 oz. of tea every week? How about 4 oz. of meat per week (that’s the size of 1 small steak, by the way), 2 oz. of butter (half a stick), 2 oz. of cheese, and 8 oz. of sugar (yep, just one cup A WEEK!).

These are merely a sample of the ration measurements for a single individual’s food for one week during World War Two in Great Britain. This, combined with the rations of other family members in a household, were the raw ingredients for breakfast and dinner. Lunch was often taken at school or a work cafeteria in order to stretch those portions.

Bread wasn’t rationed and neither were vegetables. To take advantage of fresh produce, many wartime Britons grew stupendous gardens – Victory Gardens. Likewise their American cousins dug in and planted – though rationing in the States was not nearly as severe. Vegetables made up a large part of the diet and were the main supply of vitamins and minerals.

The Ministry of Food was the government office in the UK that directed rationing and also provided creative recipes for using limited foods. Taking a turn through a cookbook from that era is a lesson in thinking outside the box. Replacements and substitutions were the order of the day.

Next up… how and what kind of meals did they create on such meager portions? Stay tuned!

(Ration facts courtesy of Victory Cookbook: Nostalgic Food and Facts From 1940-1954, Marguerite Patten OBE, Chancellor Press, 2002.)

The Book: History or Religion?

Today at sunset begins Yom Kippur or the Day of Atonement for the Jews, followers of Judaism, and for a few Christians who recognize the call to convene on certain feast days found in the Old Testament scriptures – texts multiple millennia old.

(Image: Amanda Stiver)

In this increasingly digitized world where daily billions of bits of information are finding their way to the computerized version of a warehouse we tend to lose sight of our old friend the Book. Kindles, iPads, and eReaders of various brands are marching onto the print battlefield and squaring off against the age old codex. The convenience of downloading your library instead of driving to it seems ready to overwhelm the more basic, tactile experience of opening a book.

The old fashioned way…

Yet codexes, and their scrolled predecessors, are the life blood not only of history but also of religions.

Many religions have specific holy books and texts. Buddism, Islam, etc., but the one most famous to the English tongue is the Bible and its King James translation. A work that not only influenced Protestant Britain and later America, but the very fiber of the English language.

Holy or secular?

When does a book become holy, and at what point is it too holy or too religious to be considered an accurate source of history? Evolutionary anthropological theory would have us dispense with such sources as nothing more than a stage of development in which human origins are gussied up in mythical explanations.

Yet religionists demand that a text like the Bible be accepted as the very word of God. So, where do we start? Do we deny the existence or use of these resources, some thousands of years old, as off limits to the study of history? Do we take only these printed words as truth?

It’s basic really. If you want to know the plot of a mystery, do you stare at the cover and try to summarize what you think the author might have written? Or do you crack the cover and do the simple, intelligent thing and read it?

Read it, of course…

“And the LORD spoke to Moses, saying:

Also the tenth day of this seventh month shall be the Day of Atonement. It shall be a holy convocation for you; you shall afflict your souls, and offer an offering made by fire to the LORD. And you shall do no work on that same day, for it is the Day of Atonement, to make atonement for you before the LORD your God. For any person who is not afflicted in soul on that same day shall be cut off from his people. And any person who does any work on that same day, that person I will destroy from among his people. You shall do no manner of work; it shall be a statue forever throughout your generations in all your dwellings. It shall be to you a sabbath of solemn rest, and you shall afflict your souls; on the ninth day of the month at evening, from evening to evening, you shall celebrate your sabbath.” – Leviticus 23:26-32, New King James Version, The Holy Bible

If you celebrate the Day of Atonement may your observance of this historic day be filled with meaning and purpose.

Amanda Stiver

English is Two Languages

You can learn a lot about a person from the way they speak. You can learn a lot about a country by the language they use. In this case, by the language that is shared by two countries.

The English language is named for its country of origin, but it is shared with in use by England’s rebellious former colonies, The United States of America. That said, we really don’t speak the same language. Particularly our idioms and slang. We may spell a word the same, but that doesn’t mean we grant it the same meaning.

Perusing my copy of British English A to Zed by Norman W. Schur and Eugene Ehrlich proves elucidating.

I have heard of kerfuffles before, but didn’t realize it was a British word for a fuss, commotion or dither. Fascinating, although I rarely hear Americans use the words commotion or dither, perhaps fuss.

Girl Scouts are Girl Guides in Britain and oddly enough if you get in a kerfuffle in your troop you might get up someone’s nose! Or in America, get in someone’s hair 0r on their nerves.

A publican sounds vaguely Roman, but it really just means saloon keeper. A puncture isn’t a medical state; it is a flat tire on your car after you’ve been motoring on rough ground.

A spate is a flood of something or other. And a shout isn’t something you do after you’ve had too much alcohol, but is instead the word used for treating others to a round of drinks.

So here’s to speaking a foreign language that you already know!

Cheers!

– Amanda Stiver

Roamin’ with the Romans

I recently acquired a thin volume called The Romans and their Empire, book two of the “Cambridge Introduction to the History of Mankind” edited by Trevor Cairns.

I have lamented my lack of detailed knowledge of the Classical world and I started to remedy that by reading a volume on the Athenian Navy. Rome was also in my sights, not unlike the Visigoths of old, and now, thanks to this little jewel of a book, I’ve begun to put Roman history in its place.

Little book, big info

What I like about this volume is its short length and the breezy way history is presented. I’m guessing the target audience is a 13-15 year old or an adult history novice. It doesn’t mire itself in boring analysis, but it does demand at least a working knowledge of past events. Expectation is a good thing, it makes us strive to achieve more, in this case filling our minds with the outline of human history.

The book is illustrated with photographs of ruins, reconstructed models of Roman life, maps, and some great little cartoonish illustrations of various events in Rome’s history. It goes by quickly, but is a rather nice outline of the Roman past from Republic to Dictators.

Wherever you Rome…

What I’ve learned so far is that Rome was founded back in the 700’s B.C. and developed its form of representative government around 510 B.C. Gradually it conquered and collected the various tribes around the Italian peninsula into a relatively cohesive smallish empire.

Apparently the Romans treated their subjugated peoples better than the Greeks had done. If you lost to Greece they could, on a bad day, kill your entire population, or maybe just the adult males, and on a good day simply sell you into slavery. The Romans were nicer, they didn’t kill you as they knew the value of positive relations and the wealth that functioning subjugated peoples could bring them.

The Romans even tolerated a certain amount of religious freedom, as long as you weren’t a troublesome Christian, Jew or a Celtic Druid. But alas, their republic couldn’t last forever, as it seems, can any modern republic of which we see evidence each day in the United States. As the empire expanded the power of the people shrank.

Et tu Rome?

In 46 B.C. Julius Caesar became Emperor of Rome, principal citizen, and dictator. The republic survived in form if not in deed. The senate could not thwart the will of the Emperor (more pity that) and for a while the arrangement worked as long as there was a series of good Emperors, but then they wound up with a whole slew of rotters and things got bad.

That’s the jist of the story. Good book, good resource, unfortunately out of print, but Amazon.com, BarnesandNoble.com or other booksellers probably have a used copy or two. If you want to develop a working outline of ancient Roman history without bogging down in excess information, this is your gateway. You can add the details later!

– Amanda Stiver