November 14, 2013


The Family: Three Journeys into the Heart of the Twentieth Century. By David Laskin. Viking. $32.

“Mr. President”: George Washington and the Makings of the Nation’s Highest Office. By Harlow Giles Unger. Da Capo. $25.99.

27: A History of the 27 Club through the Lives of Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain, and Amy Winehouse. By Howard Sounes. Da Capo. $26.99.

The Great Trouble: A Mystery of London, the Blue Death, and a Boy Called Eel. By Deborah Hopkinson. Knopf. $16.99.

     The lessons of the past, great and small, distant and more-recent, inform all of these books, three written for adults and one for younger readers. In The Family, journalist David Laskin traces the three branches of his own Russian Jewish forebears, their lives collectively touching on and being touched by major currents of the 20th century. The book starts with the six children of a Torah scribe on the western fringe of the Russian empire and leads readers through the branching of family members and through multiple upheavals. One group comes to the United States and prospers as founders of Maindenform, the lingerie company. A second works to form a new nation – Israel – in the land known as Palestine. And a third stays true to its roots in Europe, thus getting caught up in the Holocaust. The Horatio Alger story of hard-working immigrants making good in the New World (focusing on Itel, the woman whose drive made Maidenform a success) contrasts dramatically with the disillusionment of Chaim in Palestine, where disappointment rather than the biblical land of milk and honey is the order of the day. And both those tales contrast sharply with that of the family members in Nazi-controlled Europe. There is no new insight into the Holocaust here, but seeing its impact through the individual stories of those who experienced it gives it more immediacy than one finds in more-sweeping accounts. There is new insight into the Russian Revolution, the Great Depression and other seminal events of the 20th century, as Laskin manages to mingle grand historical occurrences with the small matters of everyday life that bring history alive. The Family is written novelistically and reads like a work of fiction, despite its factual basis and meticulous research. Its only significant flaw lies in leaving some questions unanswered, and perhaps unasked – such as why the prosperous Americans apparently did little or nothing to help family members trapped in Nazi-dominated Europe. Still, Laskin does not whitewash most of his family history, and his book is all the better for showing that his ancestors had their share of good and bad, as well as their share of success and failure.

     Harlow Giles Unger reaches back much farther and in a much less personal way for “Mr. President”: George Washington and the Makings of the Nation’s Highest Office. But the story he tells is no less fascinating. Unger’s book is essentially a tracing of the roots of what we now call the “imperial presidency,” which most people believe to be a purely modern phenomenon – attributed by many to Franklin D. Roosevelt, for example. But Unger convincingly argues that this is not so: the seizing and exercise of powers not given to the president by the Constitution dates back all the way to the nation’s first chief executive. The Constitution, Unger explains, carefully enumerates presidential powers and just as carefully limits them: the Founders wanted more of a figurehead leader than someone who might abuse power as they saw King George III abusing it. But Washington – accurately described by Unger as “probably the most selfless, self-sacrificing president in American history” – again and again went beyond his enumerated powers to solve crises that Congress could not or would not handle. Sometimes he worked with others in government who wanted a strengthened federal presence: he had Alexander Hamilton borrow funds from the Bank of New York to keep the government running after Congress adjourned without approving a funding bill, thus taking over congressional power to appropriate funds and approve spending. At other times, he acted entirely on his own: he personally ordered General “Mad Anthony” Wayne to raise an army to fight Indians who were attacking farmers – even though the Constitution clearly makes Congress, not the president, responsible for raising armies and declaring war. Readers may get extra insight from Unger’s book by first reading its appendix, which encapsulates the seven areas in which Washington cemented a strong, even imperial presidency: foreign policy, executive appointments, government finances, military affairs, legislation by proclamation and presidential order, federal law enforcement, and the still-thorny area of executive privilege. It is genuinely fascinating to follow Unger’s tracing of so many supposedly modern “presidential excesses” to the nation’s first president: this book really does shine a new light on social and political conflicts that continue to this day.

     More modern and of far more limited interest and importance, Howard Sounes’ 27: A History of the 27 Club through the Lives of Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain, and Amy Winehouse is plainly aimed at readers fascinated by specific pop-music artists whose careers burned both brightly and briefly. The self-destructive behavior of the six artists mentioned in the book’s title is self-evident and not  really of major historical or social significance, but of course it is meaningful to people who celebrate, even idolize these performers. There is nothing special and certainly nothing admirable about dying at the age of 27; and Sounes does not ever provide powerful evidence connecting the artists’ lives and deaths in any meaningful way beyond their age at death. Yes, he shows how five of the six (Winehouse being the exception) had troubled childhoods and significant mental-health issues, but so do many, many other people – whether they are celebrities or not – and nothing in the explanations of family background here shows why these particular circumstances led these particular people down the particular road they took to an early death. Nor does Sounes manage to show why or how the artists rose above their troubled backgrounds, however briefly, to attain success and temporary artistic prominence; again, many other performers overcome childhood adversity, and so do many non-celebrities – and just as many are dragged down by it and accomplish little of significance. The treatment of Winehouse’s death as an inexplicable tragedy in light of her more-supportive upbringing begs the whole question of what these performers’ backgrounds have to do with the way they lived and died. And the five-page “long list” of others who died at age 27 confuses matters even more, since it includes not only people who lived “a dissipated life” (ragtime jazz pianist Louis Chauvin) but also ones whose early death had nothing whatsoever to do with dissipation (Wally Yohn of the band Chase, who died in a plane crash). Sounes’ book is a (+++) production for those fascinated by the artists he profiles, but it is more a work of celebrity-worship-exploitation than any sort of serious historical, much less psychological, document.

     The Great Trouble, on the other hand, is a (++++) book and something special. A piece of historical fiction for younger readers, it focuses on an enormously important advance in science and medicine of which most of those readers – and most contemporary adults, for that matter – have little awareness. This is the work of Dr. John Snow, creator of the modern medical science of epidemiology, who was born 200 years ago. In medical circles, Snow is famous for figuring out how cholera spreads – and saving countless lives in the process. And that is the basis of Deborah Hopkinson’s well-written, well-paced book, which is part adventure, part detective story and part a portrait of the gritty realities of 19th-century London and the poor children scraping out a meager living within it. Cholera, known as “the blue death,” is spread, everyone believes in the year 1854, through “bad air,” but Snow does not think so – he is convinced it is spread through contaminated water. And so he embarks on a program of map making when the latest epidemic hits, eventually creating a map – reproduced in the book – that pinpoints a pump on Broad Street as the source of the water that is causing people to sicken and die. This story alone is fascinating enough, but Hopkinson, with a sure hand and a sure sense of how to appeal to readers as young as age 10, mingles it with the fictional tale of a “mudlark” named Eel – an orphan who spends his days scrounging in the filthy water of the Thames for bits of this and that to sell. Eel has a secret that he must pay to preserve, and he has an enemy in the person of a particularly nasty piece of work called Fisheye Bill Taylor, and on top of that, Eel has to contend with the spread of the blue death in the area where he lives. Hopkinson mingles the factual material with the fictional skillfully, making the already-fascinating story of Snow’s tracking of the cholera epidemic into one element of a larger tapestry of London life in the 1800s – in which Eel’s adventures help bring the city and its people alive. Snow is a major figure in medical history, but not one particularly well-known outside modern medical and epidemiological circles. Showing the importance of his seminal work within the tale of a “street kid” of the Dickensian variety is a highly effective way to make Snow come alive for today’s young readers, while giving them a page-turner of a book at the same time.

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