September 14, 2006


The American Story: 100 True Tales from American History. By Jennifer Armstrong. Illustrated by Roger Roth. Knopf. $34.95.

Porch Lies: Tales of Slicksters, Tricksters, and Other Wily Characters. By Patricia C. McKissack. Illustrated by André Carrilho. Schwartz & Wade. $18.95.

     The stories that a nation tells about itself provide one of the surest insights into its national character.  Many countries have stories that run far, far back, that tell of old triumphs in war, of great civilizations built, of conquest and heroism and grand deeds of the dim past.  The United States in its current form has a much shorter history, and while we have our own sets of tales of heroism and national struggle, our country seems to place unusual emphasis on smaller stories – tales of individuals who made a difference, of small groups of people overcoming great odds.  Our large-scale policies may go awry – they often have! – but the underlying national character, of individualism and an often-naïve optimism, seems to remain.  Certainly it is reflected in both these outstanding books.

     The American Story picks up small tales, and some larger ones, from 1565 (“First City”) to 2000 (“The Election”).  The tales are tremendously varied, told in only a few pages apiece, written in an appealingly straightforward style, and absolutely wonderful.  Many readers will already know at least some part of at least some of the stories here, such as those from 1775 (“The Midnight Ride” – Paul Revere’s) and 1871 (“The Great Chicago Fire”).  Other tales have become part of national lore, although not always accurately: 1892 (“Lizzie Borden”) and 1929 (“St. Valentine’s Day” – the infamous Chicago gangster massacre).  But as well as Jennifer Armstrong tells these stories, she is even better with tales that are less than common knowledge.  “New Friends” (1895) is a wonderful story about Helen Keller meeting Mark Twain.  “Going Bananas” (1804) explains the first, disastrous attempt to import a fruit that Americans had never seen and had no idea how, or whether, to eat.  “The Flying Cloud” (1851) is about what was at that time the fastest-ever sailing journey from New York to San Francisco – 89 days.  “Murder by Moonlight” (1858) shows how Abraham Lincoln behaved as a lawyer.  “The Fall of Man” (1743) is about the collapse of a church balcony, and the way it increased attendance.  “The Woeful Plight of Mary Mallon” (1907) tells the story of the woman who would become known as Typhoid Mary.  Some of these are tales of triumph; others tell of distress, difficulty and failure (how many nations’ stories highlight those outcomes?).  Taken together, they offer a remarkable portrait of a country that, for all its many shortcomings, remains unique in the world.

     One element of that uniqueness comes from the slaves brought to the United States from Africa – and their descendants.  Patricia C. McKissack does a superb job of retelling tales of those unwilling Americans, or creating new stories that sound as authentic as the originals.  Porch Lies is a romp filled with underlying seriousness.  The 10 stories here are about con men, wastrels and ne’er-do-wells – most of whom are more than they seem to be.  “The Earth Bone and the King of Ghosts” is about a man who successfully fools the most frightening specters imaginable.  “The Devil’s Guitar” is about a case of musical mistaken identity, through which a would-be superstar learns it is better to go back to being himself.  “The Best Lie Ever Told” shows how one short sentence can overcome stories spun out at great length.  “By the Weight of a Feather” is a version of the Biblical pronouncement of being weighed in the balance and found wanting – but told without preachiness and with a strong affirmation of life.  “Aunt Gran and the Outlaws” is a marvelous story of an old woman who welcomes two notorious criminals into her home and gets them to do good deeds, at least for a time.  McKissack’s introduction neatly sets the scene by describing her own youth and the settings in which she heard stories like these.  These are not factual tales like those in The American Story, but they are an equal part of what has given the United States its distinctive character.

1 comment:

  1. So glad you've enjoyed The American Story and are sharing it with others.