November 29, 2012


Faces from the Past: Forgotten People of North America. By James M. Deem. Houghton Mifflin. $18.99.

My First Day: What Animals Do on Day One. By Steve Jenkins & Robin Page. Houghton Mifflin. $16.99.

      An engrossing mixture of history, detective work and art, Faces from the Past is packed with information on people who lived many thousands of years ago – or, in some cases, a little more than a century ago – and who died unknown, vanished for many, many years, then were resurrected through the work of people with titles such as “archeological-crimes investigator,” the wonders of modern technology, and the old-fashioned skill of sculptors.  It is a book about lives and deaths distant in time, of people far from famous, and of the clues to their lives that scientists painstakingly assemble when old bones are uncovered by excavations, grave robbery or natural forces. A man who sailed with the French explorer La Salle in the 1680s seems to live again after a CT scan and some excellent sculpting work by Amanda Danning show what he looked like when alive. Replica skulls of Monacan Indians from the early 17th century are fleshed out by sculptor Sharon Long until they seem to look around and contemplate the new era into which they have emerged. The stories of these and other people from long ago are fascinating, the ways their remains were discovered are highly intriguing, the excavations and other methods by which the bones came into modern times are amazing to read about and to see (the book’s photos are uniformly excellent), and the pictures of modern archeologists carefully exhuming bits of the past provide tremendous insight into the way history is rediscovered and brought back to life.  James M. Deem’s prose makes this factual book read much of the time like a story: “They were the poorest people in town when they were buried in the almshouse cemetery. The oldest of them died in the almshouse hospital or dormitory, the youngest in the nursery at birth.” “Sometimes, though, even when written information was available in diaries or journals, church records, court documents, and newspaper accounts, certain people were not respected enough or considered important enough to have their stories told. And sometimes people were simply erased from history altogether.” Deem takes readers to “the forgotten burying ground at Schuyler Flatts” (1750-1790), to the ruins of Fort Craig in New Mexico (deactivated 1885), to Spirit Cave in Nevada (where the remains of a man who lived more than 9,000 years ago were found), and to many other sites where archeologists, anthropologists and other explorers of the past – amateur and professional – delve into mysteries left behind by long-ago deaths, long-ago battles, and long-ago lives of all kinds.  Faces from the Past brings history vividly to life while telling and showing readers the remarkable work that goes into reconstructing the remains of people who died so many ages ago.

      My First Day starts at the opposite end of life, with brief descriptions of what happens to animals when they are first born. This proves to be quite amazing: even though the book is written in simple language, parents as well as children are likely to learn quite a bit from it.  In text by Steve Jenkins and Robin Page, with collage illustrations by Jenkins, readers learn the first-day experiences of some well-known animals (tiger, zebra, giraffe) and some little-known ones (kiwi, sifaka, megapode). A baby Darwin’s frog says, “On my first day, I hopped out of my father’s mouth.” A tiny parent bug says that “my mother did something most insect parents don’t. She stayed close and protected me – and my brothers and sisters.” A baby Mexican free-tailed bat comments that “my cry and scent led [my mother] right to me.” A baby capybara says, “On my first day, I made a splash! I could swim and dive when I was just a few hours old.” The charm of the illustrations and the simple-but-accurate recounting of what happens to baby animals right after birth are complemented at the back of the book by three pages giving more detail on each of the 22 animals shown, including, for example, the fact that a wildebeest calf weighs 35 pounds at birth and grows to 600 pounds, while a hatchling leatherback sea turtle is only two inches long but grows to a length of seven feet and a weight of 1,500 pounds.  As in Faces from the Past, the information in My First Day is scientifically accurate, carefully researched and highly interesting in its own right – and is presented so well and with such élan that readers, young and old alike, will absorb it without even thinking about how much they are learning.

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