Literary nonfiction for high school/college

Books about deaths that shouldn’t have happened

three book covers
These literary nonfiction works can be used by high school and college ELA classes.

Despite their grim topics, any of the three literary nonfiction works discussed here is suitable English course reading for teens and college students. The books’ subjects are different enough that most students will find one of them interesting at least in a gruesome way.

The Lost Eleven

The men who became the “lost eleven” are black men from Southern states who find themselves in January 1943 in Camp Gruber, Oklahoma, being taught to operate the 155mm howitzer. Their commanding officer is sure blacks can’t be taught, but their white battalion commander, Captain McLeod, is determined to show blacks can learn to perform as well as white soldiers. McLeod’s patience and willingness to try unorthodox teaching methods, such as letting the men sing “Roll, Jordan Roll” to help them synchronize their movements, prove the CO wrong.

The men perform well in training and on the battlefields of Europe. As the war draws to a close, however, the artillerymen have been left in France when Adolf Hitler launches his last attempt to defeat the allies on Dec. 16, 1944. A few of McLeod’s soldiers escape the Germans and trudge north through deep snow, still wearing their summer uniforms, until they reach the Belgian village of Wereth. There they find shelter with a local family for a few hours until the SS troops find them and brutally murder them.

If you can read The Lost Eleven without shedding a tear, you’re stronger than I am.

Artillerymen with their weapon
Black gunners operate the 155mm howitzer.

Short chapters with helpful date-place notes at their heads and a list of characters help readers keep their mental place. Large, well-leaded print makes the text accessible to individuals who find many nonfiction books’ text is too dense for comfortable reading. Photographs show military scenes and post-war scenes of Wereth.

For English teachers who collaborate with teachers in other disciplines, The Lost Eleven would be a wonderful accompaniment to student’s history class study of World War II. Students would come away with a far more detailed knowledge of both the foreign war and race relations in the U.S and Europe  than most would get from their history class texts. Students could also be led to discover how they can distinguish historical facts from plausible inventions. In that regard, it’s worth nothing that nearly all the authors’ sources are available online.

The Lost Eleven: The Forgotten Story of Black American Soldiers Brutally Murdered in World War II. By Denise George and Robert Child. © 2017. Caliber. 398 p.

The Education of a Coroner

Drawings of bodies
A coroners’ education includes math and medicine.

Despite its subtitle, The Education of a Coroner is not a textbook. Instead, John Bateson has written what might have been Marin County, California’s Coroner Ken Holmes’s memoirs had Holmes written them himself.

Holmes grew up in California with a keen interest in anatomy and in what happened to animals he shot while hunting. He was intensely interested in how bodies worked. As a teen, he considered medicine as a career, but decided to be a coroner or funeral director because those occupations required less college. They also required good people skills, which Holmes definitely had.

Marin County is both affluent and notorious. It’s home to San Quentin, has high rates of alcoholism and drug overdoses, and it’s Golden Gate Bridge is a magnet for people contemplating suicide. In his 36-year career, Holmes meets all sorts of people. He also acquires extensive information about firearms, medicine, crime scene investigation, drugs, and how to talk to a deceased person’s family with sensitivity and practicality. The book is neither salacious or gruesome.

Although The Education of a Coroner might not be every student’s idea of great reading, the book does suggest a great many topics that high school and first year college students could explore in a writing class, beginning with how to find a career that’s not obvious.

The Education of a Coroner: Lessons in Investigating Death. By John Bateson. © 2017 Scribner. 358 pages.

Ruthless Tide

front of Ruthless Tide
A 40 mph flood destroyed Johnstown, NY, in minutes.

The prologue to Ruthless Tide introduces  6-year-old Gertrude Quinn, who would be caught in and swept away by, the Johnstown Flood. Her father, James Quinn, was a prosperous store owner and a worrier. One of the things he worries about was the possibility that the dam 14 miles and 500 feet above Johnstown, PA, would give way. In the prologue, Al Roker sketches traces the causes of the May 31, 1899, flood back to rich captains of industry like Andrew Carnegie who couldn’t have cared less about the people downstream.

The damage from the Johnstown Flood was not just from water, but also from what it carried with it: flammable liquids which burned as the water carried them downstream. Instead of putting fire out, water amplifies it by pouring onto its base, causing it to leap up and away from the water.

Clara Barton arrived June 4, said the Red Cross would take charge, and it did, making the Red Cross a national institution. Johnstown rebuilt, but the industrialists who built the dam to create their private lake above the town, never accepted any responsibility for the damage they caused. The flood led to an “anti-monopoly, anti-big corporations” movement in America, but that didn’t repair the damage or prevent future catastrophes.

You might want to ask if any colleague in the history department is interested in pairing up with you to require Ruthless Tide for both your courses. It is compelling story written for general readers that would be great English class reading when students are studying 19th century American history. Chapters average about 18 pages.

Ruthless Tide: The Heroes and Villains of the Johnstown Flood, America’s Astonishing Gilded Age Disaster. By Al Roker. © 2018. William Morrow. 305 pages.

© 2022 Linda Gorton Aragoni

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