Tuesday, November 10, 2020

Book Reports

 No, I'm not going to talk about the recent election and unfinished election business.  Too much has been written already.  Instead, I'm going to talk about two books that I just read.  Both are about the Civil War period, and both are very applicable to the country today.

The first is Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin.  This is a long (750 pages text plus another 130 in tiny-font references) biography of Abraham Lincoln.  It covers his whole life, with particular attention to his candidacy for President and his handling of the office during the worst of the Civil War.  While we're often told that Lincoln was one of the two greatest Presidents ever, we aren't told that much about what he did.  We read the Emancipation Proclamation, his Gettysburg Address, maybe his second Inaugural Address, and then he was assassinated.  Goodwin goes into tremendous detail about the divisions of the 1850's and who Lincoln was.  He was extremely honest, especially for a politician.  He had an unmatched feeling for what the people of the country were feeling, what they would accept, how far he could or could not push things, and when to make a move.  He was against slavery, but even more, he was for holding the country together.  He knew how to take complex ideas and put them into the language that regular people could understand.  He cared incredibly deeply.  And he was a genius at keeping his Cabinet, his "team of rivals", together.  Many of them had actively run for President and been defeated by Lincoln, and some were actively angling to replace him.  And many of them were at each other's throats.  Yet Lincoln saw the value that they could bring to the country.  He was able to assuage their egos enough to keep them in their jobs and working together.  It was a truly masterful performance.

Compare that situation to today, where our country is again deeply divided.  We're not on the cusp of another civil war, but we need a President to bring us back together.  Instead, we have the most selfish, ego-driven, irrational, and dishonest President ever.  Instead of bringing us together, he's driving us apart for personal political and monetary gain.  He's the anti-Lincoln.  It will take several successors many years to undo the damage inflicted in the past four years, on top of the damage inflicted by partisan press in the decades before.  Do we have a leader of the caliber of Lincoln?  Anywhere?  I don't see it.  But I'll certainly give the Biden/Harris team a chance.

The other book is And the Crows Took Their Eyes, by Vicki Lane.  This is an historical novel based on  events that took place right here in Madison County, North Carolina, in January 1863.  Madison County was split between Unionists and Secessionists.  Many of the Unionists lived in a remote area called Shelton Laurel, while the Secessionists lived in the county seat of Marshall.  After North Carolina seceded, the two sides ratcheted up tensions and attacks, culminating in what is known as the Shelton Laurel Massacre, in which a local Confederate force murdered 13 men and boys.  The book follows five people on both sides of the divide.  Four were based on real people while one was created to tie the narrative together.  Ms. Lane's people speak in the way they would have at the time, whether they were uneducated farmers from the valleys or educated people from town.  She shows how the same event is seen from polar opposite viewpoints, how resentments can fester, how some people can rise above the situation and others fall to their basest instincts.  It's incredibly well-written. 

This book resonated with me for two reasons.  One, it's absolutely applicable to today, when we're so divided and unwilling to reach across to those who believe differently.  Are those on the other side absolutely wrong in their beliefs?  No, they're not.  But we behave as if they are, and if we follow those beliefs to their conclusion, the consequences will be terrible.  A second reason is that some of my great-great-grandparents lived in McNairy County, Tennessee, before, during, and after the Civil War.  McNairy County, like Madison County, was deeply divided.  My family members were very poor farmers on the Confederate side, living on farms outside a small town.  A wealthy Unionist landowner in the town raised a militia that committed a number of atrocities against Confederate sympathizers.  These acts, like the Shelton Laurel Massacre, were so out of bounds that they were condemned by both the Union and Confederate sides.  So this book brings to life the type of situation that my ancestors had to live.

So: here are two books that I strongly recommend.  They're pretty heavin reading.  I think I'm going to pick up a murder mystery next just so I can relax.

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