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Book Reviews

Spring 2011 Books

May 2024
6min read

The Floor of Heaven: A True Tale of the Last Frontier and the Yukon Gold Rush

By Howard Blum

This quintessentially American story is packed with larger-than-life characters straight out of a John Ford western: Soapy Smith, a scoundrel and con man, whose great goal is to become rich; the former cowboy Charlie Siringo, who hates the range and yearns to become a famous writer; prospector George Carmack, who seeks to follow in his father’s footsteps and find gold. All three share outlandish ambitions; quite improbably, all three come to share other things as well in the Yukon. With its focus on the Old West of the American imagination—replete with shoot-outs, marauding Indians, and a frontier portrayed as “unruly and untamed”—the book veers dangerously close to cliché. But Blum manages just barely to stay out of that worn territory, weaving a rich tale that follows these three men who ended up in Alaska in the 1890s. Floor of Heaven’s opening section sets the stage, depicting the restless trio in their unhappy, pre-Alaskan days. Part two carries the story into Alaska and describes Carmack’s discovery of gold, which set off the Yukon gold rush. The concluding section brings the three stories together. Along this entertaining journey, the reader will revisit the final years of the Old West and a frontier that had moved north to Alaska. (Crown, 432 pages, $26)

Theodore Roosevelt in the Badlands: A Young Politician’s Quest for Recovery in the American West

By Roger L. Di Silvestro

A contender among the bantamweights of history’s colossi, TR was justly the subject of a great biography in Edmund Morris’s magisterial, definitive, and superbly readable trilogy. But the bibliography continues to grow with smaller volumes that fruitfully focus on facets of this dynamo’s life. So be it with Theodore Roosevelt in the Badlands, whose author, a senior editor at National Wildlife, worked as a lad on a ranch in Nebraska’s Sand Hills, a realm kindred to the vast barrens of the Dakota Territory, and knew a life that resonated with the once-dwindling frontier.

Roosevelt, a wealthy New York Knickerbocker (descendant of the founding Dutch settlers), Harvard swell, and gentleman adventurer, first visited the untamed Badlands in 1883, several years after his sublimely happy marriage to lovely Alice Lee, for a little fresh air, exercise, and some blood sport. Shortly after his return home, his mother died of typhoid. Alice died of kidney failure only hours later, having just delivered a daughter, and TR nearly lost his mind in grief. Seeking solace—the “quest for recovery” of the subtitle—he returned to the Badlands for an indefinite escape.

Roosevelt eventually owned and worked three Dakota ranches, outriding, outworking, and outtalking the tough hombres of the Badlands. He could live off the land for days, riding about and finding game to kill. He went to the Badlands to kill bison while there were still some to kill, and he would gladly have been the man to shoot the last of the species and hang its head in his trophy hall at Sagamore Hill. But those were the mores of the day. TR was a man of his times, and his time in the Badlands was a moment of wild resurrection. (Walker & Company, 352 pages, $27)

Lincoln on War: Our Greatest Commander-in-Chief Speaks to America

Edited by Harold Holzer

Having led a company of militia (which saw no combat) in the Black Hawk War of 1832, Abraham Lincoln famously opposed the Mexican War as an arbitrary folly fomented by President Polk in a grab for power. “Allow the President to invade a neighboring nation, whenever he shall deem it necessary to repel an invasion, and you allow him to do so, whenever he may choose to say he deems it necessary for such purpose—and you allow him to make war at pleasure.” Holzer writes persuasively that the future president in 1848 confronted “issues that are still resonating in American political discourse 150 years later: the legitimacy of preemptive war, executive authority in wartime.”

Lincoln approved, in his own words, “the Constitution giving the war-making power to Congress” clearly and exclusively. Yet upon his election to the presidency, he seized various executive powers to lead the country through the crises of secession and war and to restore the Union.

Elsewhere Lincoln’s thinking evolved dramatically. This volume of excerpts shows him growing more sophisticated and persuasive as a communicator and more competent as a military man, perhaps the most able strategist ever to serve as commander in chief. Lincoln did not like war, but he willingly engaged in it—waged it, prosecuted it—to avoid a more evil possibility, the loss of the nation.

Lacing his selections with superb capsule commentaries, Holzer has included many of Lincoln’s great pronouncements on war and his peerless orations about the contexts and effects of the great conflict that defined his presidency and redefined America.

Holzer’s worthy and appropriate purpose—he has, after all, written nearly 40 books on Lincoln and the Civil War—is to offer a portrait of the Great Emancipator’s changing mind and mindset about war. Without beating the drum about it, he also celebrates champion composition from a time when great leaders wrote their own stuff. (Algonquin Books, 320 pages, $24.95)

Marshalling Justice: The Early Civil Rights Letters of Thurgood Marshall

Edited by Michael G. Long

This fascinating volume, edited by religion and politics scholar Michael G. Long, brings to life a forgotten chapter of the civil rights movement through the letters of a man known for having served as the lead attorney on the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case, as well as his 24 years as a liberal lion on the Supreme Court. This compilation of approximately 200 letters ends in 1957, when Marshall left the NAACP, and focuses on his work as a young attorney and as the NAACP’s chief counsel during the World War II era. The correspondence reveals the wide-ranging activities of a relentless reformer who took on Jim Crow and all the ugly manifestations of a system that relegated African Americans to second-class citizenship.

Marshall was no Don Quixote tilting at windmills; a foreword by Derrick Bell and an introduction by Long convincingly show just how successful he was in the courtroom and in laying the groundwork for the modern civil rights movement that emerged under the leadership of Martin Luther King Jr. in the 1950s. Beginning in the mid-1930s, Marshall won case after case. He was especially interested

in attacking segregated education, a crusade that culminated in 1954 with his famous Supreme Court victory. These letters tell that story, and more. (Amistad, 448 pages, $27.99)

Mightier Than the Sword: Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the Battle for America

By David S. Reynolds

While President Lincoln’s alleged quip to Harriett Beecher Stowe—“Is this the little woman who made this great war?”—may or may not be apocryphal, David S. Reynolds calls it “the most famous statement ever made about Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” He promises “a thoroughgoing reassessment that gives [the novel] the full measure of its rich cultural background and its enormous impact.”

Thus his book is a mix of literary criticism and social history, with some apt biography thrown in. Intriguingly and respectfully, he probes Stowe’s psyche to reveal a woman who was at once a writer, housewife, breadwinner, hypochondriac, serial mother (at least eight pregnancies), spiritualist, zealot, devout Christian, and religious reformer. In his telling, she seems a figure of uncommonly broad acquaintance, deep sensitivity, and grit.

Reynolds argues that what made the diminutive writer unique was the combination of qualities that plaited her character and seized the reading public’s imagination. This fabric of personality and popularity created a book that was praised and damned, respectively, by many influential abolitionists and slavers alike for fanning the embers that ignited in the Civil War.

What is perhaps more surprising is the novel’s reach in terms of time, media, and geography. While its influence was felt as far away as Russia, where the serfs were freed the same year as America’s slaves, withal, Uncle Tom’s Cabin is still being read—and written about—today. (W. W. Norton, 352 pages, $34.50)

The Idea of America: Reflections on the Birth of the United States

By Gordon S. Wood

Many voices in our national debates habitually shout that “the Founding Fathers believed” X or Y or Z. Well, they did and they didn’t, as Gordon S. Wood demonstrates in this collection of nuanced, elegant essays. The one big takeaway from these pieces (some new, some dating back half a century) is that the founding of the Republic was no simple event. Nor were the founders simpletons.

While Wood acknowledges that “no single historian can know everything; thus the debates over our various historical explanations for the Founding or any other great event in our past will never cease,” it’s hard to imagine a historian better trained to write on this subject. The Alva O. Way University Professor and Professor of History Emeritus at Brown University, he is author of The Radicalism of the American Revolution and The Creation of the American Republic, 1776–1787.

Wood’s own simplest statement is his belief that the American Revolution “is the most important event in American history, bar none. . . . The Revolution, in short, gave birth to whatever sense of nationhood and national purpose we Americans have had.” Amen to that, although be advised that many of his arguments must be wrestled with like Jacob’s angel, and rest assured that it’s worth the intellectual struggle. Take his notion that “all in all, colonial Americans did not have much to revolt against; their revolution seemed to be essentially a mental shift, an intellectual adjustment to what had already taken place over the previous century or more. . . . The Americans were born free and equal and thus, as Tocqueville had written, did not have to become so. The American Revolution therefore became a peculiarly conservative affair, an endorsement and realization, not a transformation of the society.”

Or consider his statement that “once a new idea is expressed and becomes reasonably acceptable to many people, it can spawn new and sometime unexpected behavior.” Example: in The Federalist No. 78, when Alexander Hamilton argued that judges are as much the people’s agents as legislators are, he was only making a case for judicial review of laws. The idea took on a life on its own, however, morphing into an argument for the election of judges in Andrew Jackson’s time; today 39 states elect judges. “This was a development that Hamilton could never have imagined and would have been appalled by,” write Woods, “yet he helped produce it.”

In fact, continues Woods, “There was not in 1787–1788 one ‘correct’ or ‘true’ meaning of the Constitution. The Constitution meant whatever the Federalists or the Anti-Federalists could convince the country to accept. That is why the debate over the Constitution was so important.”

So let us hold the Founding Fathers in high regard, but let us try not to mimic them with feigned reverence and knee-jerk piety. Study them enough—as Woods has—and you’ll find astonishing ranges in intellectual muscle, philosophical position, and personal character, including abundant biases and blind spots. (Penguin Press, 373 pages, $29.95)

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