March 01, 2018
(++++) HA-HA HISTORY
Action Presidents, Book 1: George Washington! By Fred Van Lente. Illustrated by Ryan Dunlavey. Harper. $9.99.
Action Presidents, Book 2: Abraham Lincoln! By Fred Van Lente. Illustrated by Ryan Dunlavey. Harper. $9.99.
Hamilton and Peggy! A Revolutionary Friendship. By L.M. Elliott. Katherine Tegen/HarperCollins. $17.99.
You already know a good deal about a history or sort-of-history book when you see that its title ends with an exclamation point. This means that the author and/or publisher has decided that readers WILL find the material exciting and WILL get involved in it and WILL NOT find it a dull recitation of dates and events and, you know, actual history. So it is somewhat surprising when exclamation-point books actually do a pretty good job of presenting historical information, at least on a basic level. And that is what the Action Presidents series does. These are graphic novels packed with ridiculousness: the British using chainsaws against the rebellious colonists, Britain’s Admiral Howe sticking out his tongue at George Washington, Washington emerging Superman-like from a crashed rocket ship “to save you all,” Mexican and American eagles yelling at each other about the border of Texas in the Lincoln book, bird narrator Noah the Historkey (“history + turkey [duh]”) arguing with cartoonist Ryan Dunlavey about the difference between wigs (hair) and Whigs (a political party), James Buchanan handing over the presidency to Lincoln with a cry of “kiss my grits,” and so on. On the other hand, the Action Presidents books do a good job of including not only real facts but also the real words of various people. So the book on Washington, for example, shows his activity in the French and Indian War, explains the British contempt for the “peasants” fighting them, shows that Washington cried after being driven from New York City, provides details of the Battle of Trenton, and eventually gives Washington’s own famous words to the angry, unpaid Continental Army, to the effect that he had “not only grown gray but almost blind in the service of my country.” The Lincoln book offers the part of his first inaugural address referring to “the better angels of our nature” (admittedly with a drawing of a rock band with halos and wings), and includes the entirety of the Gettysburg Address. There is nothing unusual, unexpected or surprising in the Action Presidents books, but the slam-bang presentation – both Washington and Lincoln have that granite-like chiseled comic-book-hero look – coupled with the inclusion of historically accurate information, makes this series a good entry point for preteen readers who are comfortable and familiar with graphic novels and have not yet learned much about the presidents of the United States through other means. It remains to be seen how far the series will go: the third volume will be about Theodore Roosevelt, but it somehow seems unlikely that there will eventually be books about Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce and Rutherford B. Hayes.
Far more serious, far more ambitious, but ultimately far less successful and a good deal more superficial than it pretends to be is L.M. Elliott’s historical novel, Hamilton and Peggy! Here the exclamatory title seems to be a tribute to the titling of old-fashioned Broadway shows, because this book is in large part inspired by and a tribute to the musical Hamilton (which, however, does not use an exclamation point). Elliott makes the connection to the musical explicit in her “Author Gratitudes” material at the back of the book, and it would probably help readers to have seen the Broadway show to get the full flavor of this novel; but that is scarcely possible for all potential readers, and the (+++) book does stand on its own if you give it enough space to do so. This is the perky-young-women approach to history, complete with readily understandable (because thoroughly modern) language, and sensibilities that are far ahead of the characters’ time. It is the sort of book in which the central character just happens to be conveniently present at, or able to overhear, all sorts of absolutely crucial events affecting, wow, just about everybody. That central character is Peggy Schuyler – Alexander Hamilton himself is far less central than the book’s title indicates. The novel is a modern entry in the well-worn historical-romance genre, focusing on balls, marriages and family issues to as great an extent as on matters of the Revolutionary War. War troubles certainly appear here, but the book is not at its best when they do: the dialogue becomes more strained and unrealistic, flowing less well, and the way Peggy is again and again on hand and listening in when significant discussions and events occur strains credulity to the breaking point. The book is at its best in portraying the relationship among the three Schuyler sisters – Peggy, Eliza and Angelica – with Hamilton’s wooing of Eliza being the explanation for the novel’s title and some of the events in it. The book is essentially a comedy of manners, meaning not that it is funny (there is precious little humor here) but that it partakes of a kind of old-fashioned sibling-not-quite-rivalry ethos, with Peggy feeling as if she is always not really at the level of her sisters. Indeed, late in the book, when Elliott writes of Peggy, “No longer did she feel so overshadowed by her sisters,” this is a significant bit of progress. But on the same page, Elliott shows, scarcely for the first time, just what Peggy is up against: “Two weeks later, Angelica sat in the dining room, a mound of luxurious petticoats and pregnant stomach – voluptuous, rosy, exuding life. An Aphrodite of motherhood, gorgeous as ever, even eight months pregnant and holding her own baby Catharine, a china-doll-pretty toddler, and clambered over by her three-year-old Philip. As always, her vivacious chatter was a scintillating mix of political commentary and gossip, and had everyone riveted.” This is a fair sample of Elliott’s style, and young readers who find it riveting are the logical target audience for Hamilton and Peggy! Peggy herself is an appealing protagonist, shows some genuine bravery, does her bit to help the Continental cause, and comes across as being best described by using the old-fashioned adjective “plucky.” Interestingly, readers who want more of the history and less of the drawing room may find themselves more attracted to the Afterword, which is Elliott’s vivid description of her research and her approach to writing the book, than to the novel itself.