Note to readers: This post has been revised, I hope for the better. When I published it April 5, 2019, Internet gremlins duplicated, deleted, and rearranged elements until they the content was unrecognizable.
Although short literary nonfiction has its place in the academic curriculum, if we are going to attempt to encourage students to become lifelong learners we must have them read some book-length literary nonfiction each year.
The first quarter of 2019 I made a conscious effort to read literary nonfiction that some students might find worth reading. I looked for:
- tie-ins to courses, current events, and/or students’ experiences
- good writing that wasn’t stuffy
- books with at least some images in them
- books that are widely available through libraries
- books that are available new at under $10
Harry Truman’s Excellent Adventure
Harry Truman’s Excellent Adventure: The True Story of a Great American Road Trip is lighthearted history, fun to read, packed with bits and pieces of historical fact, and illustrated with 1950s photos and cleverly drawn maps.
On Jan. 20, 1953, after Dwight D. Eisenhower was sworn in as the 34th president of the United States, Harry S. Truman, the 33rd president, when back home to Independence, Missouri, as an ordinary citizen.
A few months later Truman got a letter inviting him to speak to the Reserve Officers Association on June 26 in Philadelphia. It seemed the ideal opportunity for Truman and his wife, Bess, to go East to see their daughter, visit old friends, and enjoy the open road.
Truman put the suitcases in the car and the couple took off by themselves, Truman at the wheel, Bess riding shotgun, keeping track of every fill-up, and telling her husband not to drive so fast.
Matthew Algeo uses his pleasant, often funny, nonfiction narrative as a lens through which to examine not just 1950s America, but the way the United States has changed since then.
The book could be used for literary nonfiction reading in social studies, English, art, and graphic design classes.
Harry Truman’s Excellent Adventure: The True Story of a Great American Road Trip by Matthew Algeo. (Chicago Review Press, ©2009. 264 p.)
The Fever of 1721
The Fever of 1721 ties together famous names from American history—Cotton Mather, Benjamin Franklin, Samuel Adams—using the story of a Bostonian merchant seaman whose crew had developed smallpox on the trip from England.
By the time John Gore’s brig reached Boston Harbor, one sailor had died, six others were nearly recovered, and Gore had begun showing smallpox symptoms.Gore was dead and buried within 10 days.
The government concealed Gore’s death for fear of creating a panic and for fear of an embargo that would ruin Boston’s economy.
From that beginning, Stephen Coss goes on to discuss the history and politics of vaccination, American-British relations, the history of American newspapers, religion in the colonies, and how the political ramifications of the epidemic laid the groundwork for the American Revolution.
The Fever of 1721 could be used as literary nonfiction reading in English, journalism, history/social studies, science, and health classes. The 1721 controversy surrounding vaccination for smallpox could be compared with the 2019 controversy around measles vaccination.
The Fever of 1721: The Epidemic That Revolutionized Medicine and American Politics by Stephen Coss (Simon & Schuster Paperbacks. ©2016. 350 p.)
Passages to America
Between 1892 and 1954, two million child immigrants entered the United States through Ellis Island. Another one million child immigrants were processed through the Angel Island Immigration Station in San Francisco Bay between 1910 and 1940.
In Passages to America, developmental psychologist Emmy E. Werner presents the recollections of some of those people about their immigrant experience as children between the ages of ages four and 16.
Werner organizes the histories by population groups including those from the British Isles, Italians, Scandinavians, Armenians, and escapees from Nazi Germany.
Werner’s book is literary nonfiction for a general audience. Although Werner was an academic, her prose is clean, clear, and easy to understand.
Passages to America could be literary nonfiction reading in social studies and English classes. Virtually every American student would find some personal connection to some immigrant group mentioned in the text. The pre-1955 immigrant experience offers opportunities for comparisons to the experiences of 21st century immigrants.
Passages to America: Oral Histories of Child Immigrants from Ellis Island and Angel Island by Emmy E. Werner (Potomac Books. ©2009. 177 p.)
In case you’re curious
I bought all three of the books mentioned here at hamiltonbook.com. I got Passages to America in hardback, Harry Truman’s Excellent Adventure and The Fever of 1721 in paperback.
I have a couple more volumes of literary nonfiction to tell you about next week.