Nonfiction History Arc: Defining Times

We began a three-part arc in Historical Non-Fiction and begin with Defining Times.  On March 28, 2017 we will discussed Microhistories, and in May 23, 2017, Specific Settings.

Resources:  Cords, Sarah Statz. The Real Story. 2006 Libraries Unlimited. P.149-153, 161, 164.

Benchmark: Everyone reads Steven Johnson’s The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Deadliest Epidemic—and How It Changed the Way We Think about Disease, Cities, Science, and the Modern World.

Read a second title in the genre (See Suggested list below.)


The NE RART delved into three nonfiction historical subgenres—Defining Times, Microhistories, and Specific Settings. In addition, over the summer we read an historical fiction and an historical nonfiction pairing on the same subject/topic.

Here is the list of appeal that we found most important to readers Historical Nonfiction.

SETTING—must evoke time, place, social aspects; details should reflect the author’s research

STYLE–Narrative Flow—reads like fiction in that it has a storyline where the author’s use of language, setting, and focus all come together with an artful integration of salient details

SUBJECT—Reader’s interest drives choices

CHARACTER—closely related to setting.  Seeing history through one or more characters gives the narrative a hook that allows readers to relate. Anachronistic characters are not tolerated.

PACE—closely related to style. Some readers want a slower approach with obvious researched detail; others want more integrated novel with the story line for a faster pace.

Thank you to Diane Giarusso, Tatjana Saccio, Beth Safford, Jessica Atherton, Jerusha Maurer, and Eileen Barrett for their contributions.

Leane Ellis December 6, 2017


 This list is representative – not exhaustive.

 Danziger, Danny and John Gillingham. 1215: The Year of Magna Carta. (2003)

 Diamond, Jared M. Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. (2005)

 Dower, John W.  Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II. (1999)

 Kelly, John. The Great Mortality: An Intimate History of the Black Death, the Most    Devastating Plague of All Time. (2005)

 King, Ross. Brunelleschi’s Dome: How a Renaissance Genius Reinvented Architecture. (2000)

 Lacey, Robert.  The Year 1000: What Life Was Like at the Turn of the First Millennium: An Englishman’s World. (1999)

 Larson, Erik. Isaac’s Storm: A Man, A Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in History. (1999)

 Manchester, William. A World Lit Only By Fire: the Medieval Mind and the Renaissance: Portrait of an Age. (1992)

 Most, Doug. The Race Underground: Boston, New York, and the Incredible Rivalry that Built America’s First Subway. (2014)

 Remnick, David. Lenin’s Tomb: The Last Days of the Soviet Empire. (1994)

 Tuchman, Barbara. The Calamitous 14th Century. (1987)   

 —.The Proud Tower: A Portrait of the World Before the War, 1890-1914. (1966)

 Von Drehle, David. Triangle: The Fire That Changed America. (2003)

 Wills, John E. 1688: A Global History. (2001)

Elective Titles

Jim Riordan

America’s Great Debate: Henry Clay, Stephen A. Douglas and the Compromise That Preserved the Union – Fergus M. Bordewich
Appeal Factors: Narrative history, Strong development of characters, looks beyond politics at the effects on everyday individuals.

America’s Great Debate is the story of the Compromise of 1850 that simultaneously prevented a civil war and eventually lead to the Civil War ten years later

In 1849 the United States is on the verge of civil war. The war with Mexico had just ended and the United States conquered thousands of square miles of new territory. The problem? Will this new territory be organized as free states or slave states? Northerners want it to be free. Southerners want it to be slave and say they are willing to go to war over the issue.

Into this maelstrom steps Senator Henry Clay. Known as the “Great Compromise,” Clay sets out to craft a compromise that will win over all parties. He offers up to the north: California will be admitted as a free state, New Mexico and Utah will be created as territories with the right to settle the slavery issue for themselves, the slave trade will be abolished in Washington DC. He offers the south: Texas western border is set, Texas’s debts from its war for independence from Mexico will be payed off, and a stronger and more strictly enforced fugitive slave law will be imposed on the north.

After months and months of paralyzing debate, Clay’s plan fails miserably. Texas is threatening in invade New Mexico and US forces are preparing for battle. Then, rather anticlimactically, in the midst of this defeat, Steven A. Douglas, the senator from Illinois, steps in and breaks up Clay’s plan into its component parts and passes them over the heads of the opposition to give the nation the Compromise of 1850

The overall effect of the Compromise of 1850 was that everyone hated it. The south felt it got rooked out of being able to expand slavery and began to move even further towards secession. The new fugitive slave law essentially turns northerners into slave catchers horrifies the north and drives more people into the Abolitionist camp.

Bordewich does a great job of taking a ridiculously complex political debate and makes it understandable to a non-historian audience. He captures the soaring and often poetic speeches and the backroom haggling. He delves into the lives of the congressmen fighting for and against the bill. He doesn’t shy away from the often nasty side of American history, acknowledged quite frankly that most white American’s north or south were blatantly racist, just in different ways. Southerners wanted to expand slavery over the whole nation or leave the Union. Northerners, for their part didn’t want slavery to spread but only because they saw it as a threat to white laborers. There are very very few people calling for freedom and equality for African Americans.

In spite of all these very good points, the book doesn’t really live up to its argument: Northerners and Southerners came together and compromised. That’s not what happened. They actually refused to compromise and then Stephen Douglas used all kinds of procedural chicanery to get the compromise passed. Bordewich also weakly implies that our own political paralysis could benefit from understanding how they worked together but if it wasn’t really a compromise that doesn’t work either.

Anyone who is interested in the 19th century and the lead up to the Civil War will like this book. People interested in politics will like it was well. One warning I would give is it’s not a book for people who don’t like reading openly racist quotes because there are a lot of those.

Leane Ellis

The Race Underground: Boston, New York, and the Incredible Rivalry that Built America’s First Subway – Doug Most
Appeal Factors: Local subject matter—Boston’s subway; Accessible science and historical detail; engaging writing; pace

Listening to this tale was surprisingly compelling as the author, a deputy editor at The Boston Globe describes the late-19th-century story of the dramatic and sometimes deadly competition between New York and Boston to build the first American subway, including the rivalry between two brother subway engineers and their famous supporters against a backdrop of period economics and politics. It is a remarkably well-told story filled with villains, heroes, and events of the Gilded Age. Adding more heat to this intercity rivalry were brothers Henry Melville Whitney of Boston and William Collins Whitney of New York, who managed to push their own cities into successfully modernizing their transportation systems. I had never known that Boston won. It’s a story of blizzards and fires, accidental gas explosions and dynamite blasts, of trench digging, of sewer and water pipes, and excavated cemeteries , of political infighting, of turnstiles and ticket-taking, and of ingenious solutions to staggering problems. Also sprinkled through the narrative are guest appearances of Boss Tweed, Thomas Edison, Edwin Arlington Robinson, piano manufacturer William Steinway and Andrew Carnegie. Most also gives overviews of Frank Sprague, who perfected the electric motor, financier August Belmont, crusading New York Mayor Abram Hewitt and engineer William Barclay Parsons in this colorful saga.

Library Journal wrote: “This felicitous tale of American ingenuity and perseverance serves as a useful reminder today of our past commitment to improving our infrastructures as we now face the challenge of stopping their deterioration.”

Beth Safford

The Great Mortality: An Intimate History of the Black Death, The Most Devasting Plague of All Time – John Kelly
Appeal Factors: Dense Writing, Focus on Many Individuals, Detailed background

This book details “The Great Mortality,” also known as the Black Death, which struck Europe and Asia in the 14th century and claimed 25 million lives (one-third of the population in Europe). It is a broad topic but Kelly keeps it readable by focusing on specific individuals and using eyewitness accounts. As he says in his introduction, “The plague generation wrote their experiences with a directness and urgency that, seven hundred years after the fact, retains the power to move, astonish, and haunt.”
One reviewer said put it well: “Kelly approaches the story of the greatest tragedy in history like a forensic detective who must first re-create the lives of the victims before examining their deaths.”

Somewhat surprisingly, it ends on a hopeful note: people were forced to develop new technologies to cope with the labor shortage.

It will appeal to readers concerned about the resurgence of infectious disease as well as to those who enjoy epic histories in the tradition of Barbara Tuchman.

Michelle Deschene

The Glass Universe: How the Ladies of the Harvard Observatory Took Measure of the Stars – Dava Sobel
Appeal Factors: Local subject – Harvard; specialized scientific focus

The full title of Sobel’s latest is The Glass Universe: How the Ladies of the Harvard Observatory Took the Measure of the Stars. What the book contains is what it says on the tin, mostly. I would add emphasis to one word in the subtitle: How. I would de-emphasize another: Ladies.

Based on the title and publisher provided summary, I carried a certain expectation into the book, primarily that it would offer an introduction to the women employed by the Harvard Observatory at the end of the nineteenth century, and then extend an invitation to step deeper into the spaces of their lives, both at work and at home. I imagined this book would be their stories told, these women who made impactful astronomical discoveries and worked as tireless computers and observers of the stars, in a narrative manner similar to Nathalia Holt’s in Rise of the Rocket Girls, an excellent and tightly focused look at the women who helped make the JPL what it is today.

My expectation was not met. Roughly seventy pages in I wondered where the ladies were. And then I wondered if Edward Pickering, Director of the Harvard Observatory, in whose company I had spent many (many) paragraphs, was in actuality the book’s first and foremost priority. Don’t get me wrong: Pickering seemed a nice enough guy, he bucked the trend that would see women denied employment in esteemed institutions such as Harvard. He gave credit where it was due, regardless of gender. In general terms, Pickering challenged the ethos of the era. According to the subtitle (and summary) this book is not about him.

Neither is it about William Pickering, nor Solon Bailey, nor Simon Newcomb, nor George Ellery Hale, nor Percival Lowell, nor nor nor.

A great number of men in the field are mentioned or expounded upon; was their inclusion necessary to put the work in context? A case could be made for it, yes. Do they need to intrude upon the women’s achievements so often and to such an extent? If the answer to that question is also yes than perhaps the marketing of the book should have taken a different tack. The LADIES of the subtitle could very well be there for the sole purpose of hooking readers already caught up in the fever for books with a similar spotlight on women in STEM fields: Holt’s book, Shetterly’s Hidden Figures, Morgan’s Rocket Girl, and even to some extent, Jahren’s Lab Girl.

There is a considerable amount of interesting information to be found here. Topics covered include spectroscopy, photometry and the early use of photographic plates to document star position, and the systems put in place to determine the brightness of the stars and their composition. Other noteworthy mentions include the pursuit of Mars and the first sighting of Pluto. The way the information was presented grew tedious, I thought, but that might have been my unrealized expectation getting in the way.

Whether or not a reader will enjoy this book really depends on what they want from it. If what they’re after is the science of the stars or a general history of the Harvard Observatory, they’ll likely have few qualms with what you find here. But if they want to know more about the ladies who were instrumental in making the Harvard Observatory’s reputation a stellar one at the end of the nineteenth century, perhaps be prepared to be letdown.

 Jessica Atherton

Brunelleschi’s Dome – Ross King
Appeal Factors: Academic, Accessible, Short

Accessible and academic, this short nonfiction title dramatizes the characters behind the architectural inventions that led to the creation of Florence’s Il Duomo. The book includes various historic asides, from quarrying (fresh cut stone smells of rotten eggs) to the actions of influential individuals like Cosimo de’ Medici. All of these additions provide texture, but do not detract from the main character of this story, the irascible architect and inventor, Brunelleschi.

At less than 200 pages, this book provides a huge amount of content in perfectly bite sized chapters. The short size and high quality information make this an ideal selection for book groups and an excellent recommendation for anyone interested in history and architecture.

Tatjana Saccio

The Winter Fortress: the epic mission to sabotage Hitler’s atomic bomb – Neal Bascomb
Appeal Factors: Tone (suspense!), Characterization, Setting, Well-Researched/Sense of Accuracy

Both the Allies and the Axis powers were involved in building an atomic weapon during World War II. Bascomb, a historian and journalist, describes the commando effort to destroy the hydroelectric plant where heavy water, a requirement for Nazi Germany’s atomic program, was produced.

Bascomb recounts the story of the resistance fighters and British-trained commandoes who braved the dire Nazi threat. He highlights the the winter wilderness skills that helped them survive and operate in arctic conditions.

This is a really well-told, suspenseful account of an aspect of WWII that is not commonly known.

Four appeal factors that really stand out are:

TONE — The book is steeped in suspense: the race for the atomic bomb between the Allies and the Germans; whether the missions to destroy the plant will be successful or not; and the safety of the individual men involved, as they battle the elements in a very harsh environment – all while trying to stay one step ahead of the enemy in occupied territory.

CHARACTERIZATION — Bascomb fleshes out the men involved in this heroic effort, starting with a physical description of each man and then delving into his character and skills throughout the rest of the narrative. This was made possible by Bascomb’s use of interviews, diaries, and other primary research sources.

SETTING — Vemork, the plant and target, is in a geographically precarious position, making it very difficult to reach without being detected or falling to your death. The saboteurs “live” beyond the plant in an even greater hinterland of Norway, and these missions take place in the very bleak winters there. Lots of storms, skiing, and reindeer eaten (when available and with relish) from ears to hooves.

WELL-RESEARCHED/SENSE OF ACCURACY — You really get a sense of Bascomb’s meticulous research (which draws from US, British, German, and Norwegian archives, as well as interviews with surviving veterans) without getting bogged down in the details. There is a good, even flow to the narrative and Bascomb uses natural language and contextualizes the more complicated parts to understand, like the concepts of heavy water and nuclear reactions.

Thoroughly recommended for those interested in history, WWII, Norwegian history, survival stories, and for new non-fiction readers looking for an engaging intro into the genre.

Eileen Barrett

Dark Tide: The Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919 – Stephen Puleo
Appeal Factors: well-written and well-researched, keeps your attention, gripping, and fascinating piece of local history that had a nationwide effect on construction safety standards, attitudes toward big business, and a growing awareness of the importance of political involvement.

This is a story that to this today continues to repeat itself, big business/corporation emits or dumps toxins or builds dangerous tank/pipe/reactor in a neighborhood where they know there will be little resistance due to lack of cohesiveness and political involvement, or political power. In this case, United States Industrial Alcohol Company builds a huge tank for molasses storage in the immigrant Italian North End neighborhood. The project is rushed, the wrong steel is used, and shortcuts are taken in the safety testing of the tank. Then on January 15, 1919, four years after the tank was first filled with Caribbean molasses, millions of gallons of the sticky, thick stuff oozed, then flooded, exploding out of the tank with a force that author Puleo describes as, “like a black tidal wave, 25 feet high and 160 feet wide at the outset.” It destroyed and swept away all in its path travelling “thirty-five miles per hour initially… the tank itself disintegrated into deadly steel missiles… thousands of fastening rivets turned into lethal steel bullets.” Aside from the destruction of buildings, horses and 21 people were killed, injuring another 150. There had been plenty of warnings – there was the molasses dripping out along the seams which neighborhood children would collect in pails and bring home to their families, there was Isaac Gonzales who worked at the tank and repeatedly warned management about the leaks and the potential for disaster. These warnings, though, fell on deaf, greedy ears. In Dark Tide, author Stephen Puleo pieces together the circumstances leading up to this disaster, the horrifying event, and the aftermath and the trial that lasted five years.