History is not for the feint of heart. It’s contentious. It’s a constant struggle. One need look no further than the recent decision of the Texas State Board of Education to see just how contentious history is in America. William Faulkner once said, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
But that’s what makes it such interesting reading.
A Nation Rising by Kenneth C. Davis covers the early, often overlooked, period of American history from the presidency of Thomas Jefferson to that of James Polk. Mr. Davis looks closely at the trial of Aaron Burr, the Seminole and Creek Wars, the struggle against slave rebellions, the annexation of California and the 1844 Anti-Catholic riots in Philadephia.
Mr. Davis believes history is a story well told, and he tells his story well. A Nation Rising is, at heart, an entertaining read. It’s not a book that will awake a new path in historical research or bring about innovation in the field, but it’s not meant to. Mr. Davis’s interest lies in educating his readers in areas of American history they may have missed in school. He does an excellent job. In fact, A Nation Rising would make an good text for a high school level history class. Not in spite of its faults, but because of them.
Many people would find fault with A Nation Rising because it does not portray American history in a completely shining light. Mr. Davis himself addresses the need to present historical figures as heroes. Can one admire Andrew Jackson enough to feel a sense of pride when the ATM spits out six copies of his portrait knowing that he was an unapologetic slave owner and that he defied the Supreme Court to remove as many Native Americans from Georgia as he possibly could in clear violation of existing treaties, an act best described as ethnic cleansing. Can the children of California be proud of their heritage knowing that their states “independence” from Mexico began with the murder of two innocent teenage boys?
These are not easy questions to answer, but they are questions that might interest high school sophomores and juniors studying American history. They’d certainly interest them more than the ones typically found at the end of each chapter in their history books. As would the question of the main fault with A Nation Rising.
Throughout his book, Mr. Davis draws parallels with contemporary events. He compares an early presidents actions with those of Mr. Bush or Mr. Obama, for example. At times the connections Mr. Davis finds feel awkward, inserted without enough evidence to fully back them. The unfairly poor customer reviews A Nation Rising has received on Amazon.com cite this issue again and again, as though no historian should ever look to the past as a means to evaluate contemporary America. But, then why study the past at all? If history cannot provide some lesson, some knowledge about how the world works that we can apply today, it’s nothing more than an entertaining story. Whether or not Mr. Davis has drawn the correct lesson from the history he covers is a subject many high school students would be interested in.
Most book clubs never read non-fiction. My own has read over 125 titles over 10 years, and can count the non-fiction books on one hand if you exclude memoirs. This is too bad. A Nation Rising is readable, entertaining, and provides enough material for several hours of discussion. Just the sort of thing books clubs ought to seek out. And just the sort of thing the Texas State Board of Education wants to protect their young adults from. The question of how to present history to children is not entirely settled in my own mind, but 17-year-olds ought to be able to handle the truth in all its complexity and moral ambiguity. If they’re old enough to go to war to defend their country, we have a responsibility to tell them the truth about their country’s history. They should know. A Nation Rising is a good place to start.
In the years since 2010 when I first ran this review the question of how to teach history in high school, and what to teach, has probably grown even more contentious. The State of Texas is still at the forefront of this controversy. Even children’s books, like A Birthday Cake for George Washington by Ramin Ganeshram, are now part of the debate. As they should be. I am fortunate to teach in a middle school where I can freely discuss things like Daoism and Buddhism with my 7th graders when we study the history of China, (I do not teach American history; it’s an eighth grade topic in California.) I’ve a friend in a mid-western state who ran into public opposition once word got out she was reading a book about Buddhism with her middle-school-aged son. Faulkner was right, the past isn’t even past.
I do love how I commented on high school sophomores and juniors as though I know what I’m talking about. I may be right, I may be wrong, but I’ve no real knowledge of high school students. I chose to teach middle school over high school for a reason. I should leave comments about high school to high school teachers.