Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow
Two years ago I had this wild hair (hare?) and decided I would read a biography of every president of the United States before I die. Probably because I'd found such great books on John Adams (McCullough), Theodore Roosevelt (Millard), and Harry Truman (also McCullough). Then I read an autobiography of Ulysses S. Grant and thought I would die. In the words of Homer Simpson, "Booo! You're boring everyone! Stop boring everyone!"
But! I'd never read anything about George Washington. How can that be?! This is a very long book, y'all. I didn't think I'd be able to finish it this month. Bridget often asks me what I'm reading on my Kindle and when I told her it was a book about George Washington she said, "I already learned about him in school." Done and done. Anyway, there is way too much to cover and I underlined enough stuff to fill a regular size book. I came away from this reading experience with a different perspective of the American Revolution (honestly - I can't believe it worked out the way it did) and great admiration for our first president. He was a complicated person - brave, vain, fair, unfair, smart, elegant, trusting, loyal... One of a kind.
George Washington was six feet tall and very athletic. His first job was surveying land in Virginia and the Ohio River Valley - an occupation that took him over territory that few white men knew at the time. Every moment of his life leading up to the Revolutionary War seemed like a step toward his destiny of becoming the first president of the United States. Even getting a mild case of smallpox in his youth, thereby inoculating him, was a huge advantage when he was the Commander of the Revolutionary Army. Throughout his military career he was exposed to many outbreaks of smallpox that killed a great number of his men. Washington insisted on inoculating as many members of his army as he could. When the Revolutionary Army entered Boston after taking it back from the British, he only allowed men who had already survived small pox to go in.
Almost from the beginning of his political career he played his part perfectly. "Washington believed that ambitious men should hide their true selves, retreat into silence, and not tip people off to their ambition. To sound out people, you had to feign indifference and proceed only when convinced that they were sympathetic and like-minded. The objective was to learn the maximum about other people's thoughts while revealing the minimum about your own." What worked for a politician did not always work for the Commander in Chief of the Revolutionary Army. Washington didn't think on his feet very well and his battle plans were always complicated. If a part of the plan didn't work, he couldn't see another way out. Yet, he was known as The General in his lifetime more so than The President. Even his wife, Martha, referred to him as The General when she wrote of him to friends and relatives.
The Washingtons never had any biological children, but Martha and her first husband (she was a widow when she met George) had two children that she and George raised. They also raised two grandchildren and housed several nieces. In fact, their house, Mount Vernon, was more like a hotel. Back in the 18th century, it was fine to just stop by any ol' person's house and expect a meal and a bed for the night. One of the many circumstances that made me feel kind of sorry for George Washington. Another was his terrible teeth issues. Can you even imagine dentures in the 1790s?! Think about it! It would be the worst thing ever and he told very few people how much pain he was always in. I look at later portraits of him much differently now - he kept his mouth closed because if he talked too much or laughed too hard, his teeth would fall right out. When he was sworn in as president he had only one of his own teeth left. (By the way, he never had wooden dentures. It's much worse than that, black slaves would pull out teeth and sell them to dentists for dentures.)
Speaking of slavery... that's the thing I wish George Washington could have had more courage about. He had five farms to run and he had dowry slaves (the ones Martha got when her rich first husband died) in addition to slaves that he purchased. From his volumes of correspondence (all of which he made copies of and had bound), it's clear that Washington wanted to get out of the business of owning slaves. At the same time, he did not treat them with much humanity. He didn't break up families, but that's it. He expected his slaves to feel the same urgency with regard to productivity on the farm as he felt. Why would they? It was all very troubling. I wasn't there and I can't know how hard it would be for him to just set them free or give them a paying job. There were definitely times in his life when he did the hard thing, but for some reason he couldn't see his way out of being a Virginia planter with slaves.
There is way too much to report on this book! I enjoyed it very much. It has changed my perspective - especially regarding modern politics. I loved how much of the first inauguration was improvised and we still do all of that stuff today. (Hey! What if he put one hand on a bible? Does anyone know where we could get a bible?) Washington kept James Madison and Alexander Hamilton close during his first term because The Constitution was so vague about many of the things that came up almost immediately. All fascinating stuff. The United States of America is still so young!
The Trees by Conrad Richter
One of the essays in Brave Companions was David McCullough waxing nostalgic about his interviews and friendship with Conrad Richter. McCullough gushed about Richter's trilogy, The Awakening Land, which consists of The Trees, The Fields, and The Town. I was curious to see what David McCullough thought was the best of the best in American literature. I bought a paperback copy of The Trees because it wasn't available in any other form. I also bought The Fields after reading a few chapters of The Trees and loving it. Now I'm obsessed with these books and the only copy of The Town I can find online is $50. For a paperback. It won the Pulitzer Prize, for crying out loud! What the heck?! It's out of print, mostly. I should have bought the trilogy in one book, which is less money than a copy of The Town. Sorry about that digression.
The Trees is easily one of my top five favorite books I've ever read. Richter was living in New Mexico when a neighbor gave him a 1600 page history (journals and stories) of the pioneers of the Ohio River Valley. He took his characters, the way they speak, their way of life, from actual living people. That is what made this book for me - every moment rang true. In the beginning, the Luckett family is making their way west from Pennsylvania because the husband/father, Worth, thinks Pennsylvania is getting too crowded. The animals are heading west, and so is he. Worth was a soldier in the Revolutionary War and heading into the Ohio River Valley - a nice segue from reading Washington's biography. Worth's wife, Jary, and their five children are traveling through this rough country with him. Jary has serious doubts about this move, but she is a dutiful wife and goes along with her husband. They travel in a forest so dense they can't see the sun in the middle of the day. Worth decides to settle down right in the middle of the trees with no one else around for miles.
After a while the area starts getting more and more settlers. The focus of the book shifts to the oldest daughter, Sayward (these are real names from the history Richter read). She has tea with a "settlement lady" in a scene that made me ache for Sayward. She hasn't seen another woman besides her own siblings in years. "For the first time since that door had been swung, knuckles rapped on the heavy puncheons. You could tell this company wasn't a woodsy, for no woodsy would think themselves fine enough to knock on a door." For real! People didn't knock on the door of a cabin - they just walked in. And the host/hostess was supposed to feed whoever came in and let them sleep on the bed! NEVER. Not ever.
There are so many folk tales and superstitions woven into this story. My favorite was when Sayward and her sister Achsa (how would you say that?) eat a spoonful of salt before they go to bed. In their dreams, the person who brings them a drink of water is the man they will marry. And it works. Love it. Really, I can't say enough good about this book. I don't want to give away any more of the story because I think everyone I know should read it.
The Children's Blizzard by David Laskin
On January 12, 1888, a blizzard hit the Dakota Territory at about 11:00 in the morning. The day had started out so warm that children had gone to school without their heavy overcoats and other winter gear. Teenage country school teachers were forced to make life and death decisions - stay in the school with no food or water and little coal to burn, or venture out in the snow to the closest shelter a quarter of a mile away. That sounds like a no brainer except that leaving meant venturing out into a storm that blinded people with shards of tiny pieces of ice and wind blowing hard enough to knock over a grown man. Some people died within 100 feet from their front door because they couldn't see it or because they couldn't make their bodies move anymore. Farmers out in their fields and ranchers out with their animals didn't have time to get themselves or their livestock to safety. "Many wrote that the onset of the storm was preceded by a loud roar, like an approaching train. It was a roar they not only heard but felt vibrating in their gut. That sound was the wind at the knife edge of the cold front smashing the snow to powder."
Laskin included great details of individuals who were caught in the storm and what they did to survive. He also wrote about what happens to the body in extreme cold; how shivering is the way the body keeps itself warm, people freezing to death sometimes feel unaccountably happy and relaxed, the blood makes its way to the heart to keep the body alive but the extremities often die in the process, freezing victims often feel they are smothered in heat and take off their clothes, in cases of profound hypothermia the brain is so cold it remains intact far longer than at normal body temperature when the heart stops. The human stories (the song and artwork above are Minnie Freeman and her little class who survived because one of the older boys made them a cave in a haystack - the newspapers took up her story and a song was written for Minnie) were my favorite part of this book. The meteorology and bureaucracy of the Signal Corp and whether or not anyone was to blame for not getting the word out about the cold front... Yawn.
This book was kind of all over the place. I think Laskin tried to cover too much. He started out with the genealogy of most of the principle characters in his story and how they came to be on the plains. Whew! Too much information. And the chapters explaining the language of meteorology with digressions into random famous people who lived in the Dakota Territory before or after 1888 - not so much. Laskin needed to focus. He could have written at least two books about this subject and that would have made both avenues of the story more enjoyable.