Nonfiction exemplar with wide appeal

Martin Doyle’s The Source

Photo of river is front cover of The Source.

After reading just the introduction to The Source, I wrote in my notebook that it “dramatically summarizes the role of rivers in language that’s very accessible and vivid. This guy writes incredibly well.”  

I’ve since read Martin Doyle’s entire book twice and my initial enthusiasm hasn’t diminished. I recommend you grab a copy to read and use in your writing courses.  Students interested in the environment, history, law, government, agriculture, and business would find value in The Source. If you’re so lucky as to have a budding journalist among your students, that person can also learn a great deal from The Source.

Why rivers matter to America

Doyle opens The Source with an explanation of why its rivers were so important to America in its first 50 years as a nation. He says “rivers are the defining feature of America” and  history played out on a landscape defined by rivers.” Doyle says although its rivers “shaped the very ideas of what America should be,” but “Americans changed their rivers.”

In the first section of The Source, Doyle shows how Federalism came to control such activities as river navigation and flood control. In the first chapter, Doyle points out the obvious fact (which I hope I’m not the only person never to have noticed) that there are no North-South rivers east of the Appalachians. Because of that, he says in the 18th and 19th centuries all east coast commerce was along rivers running West to East and thus was “conducted within single political ideologies.” Doyle also shows how the Erie Canal positioned New York to become the nation’s commercial hub and tied the northern states to the states West of the Appalachians instead of to Southern states.

From those river-bound facts, it was only a step to the War Between the States.

River-related decisions are controversial

In the first section of The Source, before they’ve read much more than 100 pages, readers have all the concepts they need to understand how its rivers were instrumental in shaping America’s history. They should certainly understand that having the federal government in charge of managing rivers—a decision that harks back to Thomas Jefferson’s basing the Army Corps of Engineers permanently at West Point to protect American commerce and to oversee “America’s river-related decisions”—means that sometimes flood control is managed or mismanaged by people who lack local knowledge of either threats or resources.

In the remaining four sections of The Source, Doyle looks at controversies that have arisen in the U.S. over use of its rivers and the different ways individuals, communities, and government bodies have chosen to use their rivers for everything from recreation to sewage disposal. What makes Doyle’s book unusual among the stacks of nonfiction books published each year is the way he brings his story down to the level at which ordinary readers—including your students—live.

Doyle puts technical topics into everyday language. He writes for interested non-experts, people who saw a story on TV or read a news article, but didn’t understand why a particular set of events happened. Even when Doyle is discussing technical topics, readers don’t need to stop on every page to look up some unfamiliar term that’s essential to understanding his message. Your students will appreciate that.

And Doyle clearly likes the people he writes about. He has a sense of humor that stops well short of ridiculing people whose opinions readers (and perhaps Doyle himself) might find a trifle wacky. Doyle directs the Water Policy Program at the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy solutions and is a professor of river science and policy at Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment. The jacket notes for The Source don’t mention that Doyle also teaches writing, but you should mention it if you use The Source in a writing course or even if you just make it available for students to borrow.

The Source: How Rivers Made America and America Remade Its Rivers. Martin Doyle. W.W. Norton, 2018. 349 pp. including notes.  

I bought hardback copies of The Source from www.hamiltonbook.com for less than the cost of a Danielle Steele paperback. Copies were available 2022-03-17.

©2022 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Nonfiction that’s not for everyone

Every quarter I recommend nonfiction books that a substantial number of high school and first-year college students would find intriguing enough to pick up and informative enough to read. In the process of selecting those books,  I end up with a stack of books I’ve bought  that aren’t a good fit for the majority students, but which are nonetheless good reading.

Here’s are three books I read this academic year that are not on-target for most students, but which some teachers and/or their students may find compelling reading.

3 literary nonfiction books

In My Hands

In My Hands: Compelling Stories from a Surgeon and His Patients Fighting Cancer by Stephen A. Curley, MD, FACS. Center Street, ©2018. 285 p.

In My Hands might be a good choice for student eying medical careers. Dr. Curley comes across as a personable, caring individual. He makes his patients real, too. Curley writes well but his subject matter involves many long and unfamiliar medical terms. Some chapters appear to have been edited to reduce the number of such terms; others bristle with them. Chapters  run about 10 pages.

Go Back Where You Came From

Go Back Where You Came From: The Backlash Against Immigration and the Fate of Western Democracy. Sasha Polakow-Suransky. Nation Books, ©2017. 358 p.

In Go Back Where You Came From, Sasha Polakow-Suransky traces how America, whose history is the history of immigrant groups, has become anti-immigrant. Polakow-Suransky is a very good writer, but his subject is both complicated and emotionally charged. This isn’t a book for people who get their news in sound-bites or Tweets. A few students—particularly those who are either immigrants or children of immigrants of the last quarter century—will find this book insightful.

Mill Town

Mill Town: Reckoning with What Remains. Kerri Arsenault. St. Martin’s Press. ©2020. 354 p.

Mill Town is a book that should have sold better than Unsafe at Any Speed, but which few readers will even wade through. It’s a prime example of why reporters are trained to lead with their most significant information.

Author Kerri Arsenault grew up in Mexico, Maine, a town dominated by a paper mill that provided jobs for most people in the area for over a century. Arsenault discovers in chapter 16—long after readers have been bore by irrelevant information—that the Environmental Protection Agency shelved cancer risk reports that showed the dioxin produced by paper mills and washed downstream appears in meat, fish, butter, and milk at levels that so far exceed government standards “even one simple hamburger could do a person harm.”

I still have a stack of books that some teachers and students will find good reading. Those can wait for another day.

©2022 Linda Gorton Aragoni        

Teach writing in 1 hour via military tactics

When I started teaching writing a half century ago, I could teach students all I knew about writing in an hour. When the hour was up, they knew as little about writing nonfiction as I did. Together we stumbled through figuring out how to write.

It took me three decades to figure out what actually worked for me (newspaper reporting taught me that).  But it was another decade before I learned how to explain to students how I wrote nonfiction.

I learned the explanation from a magazine article about military strategy.

I can almost hear you thinking, “Huh? Military strategy? What’s that got to do with writing?” It turns out, the two have a lot in common.

The article explained that military strategies must be phrased as a short series of  simple sentences presented in the order in which they must be accomplished if the goal is to be met. Each sentence specifies the outcome which its strategy will accomplish.

Strategies must use the simplest words and the shortest sentences that will convey the goal because every strategy has be understood by everyone from the private to the three-star general. Combat situations are like the College Board exams: there’s no one to consult if the strategy isn’t clear.

To understand strategies, think about films about World War II soldiers who have to accomplish some objective without the equipment they had been trained to use to accomplish that objective. The soldiers have to figure out what they need, how to make it or steal it, and how to keep their activities from being discovered. They are able to improvise because they were drilled to be able to know what they must make happen to achieve a specific outcome.

That military “do this to accomplish that” approach is what I found worked for teaching high school and college students how to write nonfiction texts. Here is my eight-step strategy:

Notice that the word write does not appear in the directions. That is not an oversight. I find students are much more comfortable making things and doing things than they are writing. They are much less stressed by producing a text than they are by having to write. (I suspect that military training doesn’t start by telling recruits, “today, we’re going to learn to kill people” for the same reason.)

A woman who had taught 40 high school English for 40 years before retiring and taking a job teaching college English, used my material in her 20th year of college teaching. At the end of the term (and of her 60-year teaching career),  she wrote me to say the strategies worked like magic. She presented the strategies and at the end of that period every student understood how to write nonfiction. They still had to practice to master the skill, but they understood how to write.

Once students understand how to write, you just need to have them practice every class period until they all can write. That’s not hard. You just walk around looking over shoulders, asking questions, and suggesting options. Do that enough times a week and you won’t need to go to the gym.

©2022 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Murder, mail, & math tables

3 literary nonfiction reading options

A murder case, the post office, and computer experts offer insights into history.

For the first quarter of 2022, I have chosen three literary nonfiction titles suitable for high school or first-year college students to read as part of an English class. Where a book might also be used for as reading for another subject, I’ve noted that.  

Conan Doyle for the Defense

The creator of Sherlock Holmes, Conan Doyle, once did some sleuthing to solve a murder. In Conan Doyle for the Defense, Margaret Fox tells what happened after an old lady nobody liked was murdered in Glasgow, Scotland, in 1909 and a man who ticked off all the top prejudices of his day was charged with her murder.

Conan Doyle once played Sherlock Homes.

Based on what he read in the newspapers, Doyle believed Oscar Slater was wrongly accused. Doyle did his own investigation—he believed the police had botched it—and published a book in 1912 alleging a miscarriage of justice. Slater languished in prison until after WWI, when journalists took up Slater’s cause. Slater was released—but not exonerated—in 1927 after 18 years in prison. Doyle subsequently sued Slater for reimbursement of his expenses. The case was settled out of court.

Fox’s book will have most appeal to students interested in criminal investigations, forensics, policing, and law. The story requires readers to do their own investigation to put facts in time-order and determine which information should be treated as clues.

Conan Doyle for the Defense: The True Story of a Sensational British Murder, a Quest for Justice, and the World’s Most Famous Detective Writer. Margaret Fox. ©2018. Random House. 220 p.

How the Post Office Created America

Winifred Gallagher says “the history of the Post Office is nothing less than the history of America.” She goes on to prove her thesis, starting before the Revolution when Benjamin Franklin was one of British Crown’s two postmaster generals in North America.

Horsepower delivered early America’s mail.

The postal service and publishing were closely linked from earliest days. Distributing newspapers was one of the services for which the postal service was established after the Revolutionary War. Shared information was seen as the way to create united states.

The postal service subsidized the transportation industry that spurred the development of roads and encouraged westward expansion. Until post WWI, mail delivery was viewed as a public service rather than as a business. Gallagher discusses how the postal service got into its current predicament and explored proposed options.

How the Post Office Created America lets readers learn about U.S. history by showing how the post office affected people’s actual lives. Sixteen pages of photos help make Gallagher’s text spring to life. The book would be a good English course accompaniment to a course in U.S. history.

How the Post Office Created America: A History. Winifred Gallagher.©2016. Penguin Press. 326 p.

The Rise of the Rocket Girls

As early as the 1700s, people called computers did complex mathematical calculations. In the early 20th century, computers worked for the government where, among other things, they developed the Mathematical Tables Project that would later be critical to the first steps into space.

Women behind the space program.

Just four months before the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, the U.S. Jet Propulsion Laboratory made a propeller-less, rocket-powered airplane flight using calculations by a woman, Barby Canright. The U.S. quickly recruited more female computers who worked throughout World War II. Post-war, female computers were again in demand by U.S. military and they began to get more senior positions.

In the 1960s, when digital computers began to take over human computers’ jobs, the women learned to program computing machines to direct America’s space exploration; they became known as “the Rocket Girls.” Author Nathalia Holt takes readers up through 2001, noting the work done by women and their representation among the top brass of the space program.

The Rise of the Rocket Girls shouldn’t be chosen as all-class reading, but offered as an option for students interested science, math, and computers. Holt’s work is interesting but splintered. There are plenty of facts, but readers close the covers feeling they don’t really know any of these women. 

The Rise of the Rocket Girls: The Women Who Propelled Us From Missiles to the Moon to Mars. Nathalia Holt. ©2016. Little, Brown.  337p.

A note about book sources

 I bought all these books from HamiltonBook.com. They offer deep discounts on books that have been in print a few years. All items are new, and all the books are hardbound unless marked otherwise. Hamilton Book has a flat postage and handling fee of $4 for an order of up to 18 books.

© 2022 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Spot the misspelling

Two informal writing prompts using found messages

Today I have two informal writing prompts to show you that use messages posted in public places. The errors are easy for students to spot, which is not only good for their morale, but also shows them the importance of carefully rereading their messages for errors.

Begin by displaying one of the photos and reading aloud the message captured in it. (It doesn’t matter which you use first.) Then tell students to write one sentence in which they identify one error they noticed in the message and tell how to correct that error. Give students a half minute to do that.

sign has the word touch misspelled
What’s wrong with the note on this plant pot?

Follow the same procedure with the second photo, displaying it and reading what’s written. Again have students identify and correct the error in a single sentence. A half minute should be time enough for students to do that.

grocery store bags make dumpster mess
Is this an effective message?

If you keep your eyes open and a cell phone with a camera handy, you can grab items like these regularly. They take very little class time, but they make students aware of the importance of re-reading their work to eliminate silly mistakes.

(Another day could make the “shute” message into an assignment aimed at getting students to write a message that accomplishes a single objective.)

©2021 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Historical fact, grammatical error:

An informal writing prompt

This newsletter item can be a writing prompt.

One important and often-broken rule of grammar is that a pronoun should refer to the last preceding noun. By following that rule, writers help readers grasp the meaning of a sentence without rereading it. Following the rule also keeps readers from snickering over an absurd idea created when a writer ignores the rule.

Today’s writing prompt, which uses an historical fact prominently printed on the front of a rural chamber of commerce’s newsletter, would help your students learn why that rule is a rule.

Begin the mini-lesson with a statement of the rule. To make sure students pay attention, write the rule on the board or display just the rule using whatever technology you have for projecting information. To make sure students understand the rule, restate it at least once using some alternative to last preceding noun. You could say, “In other words, a pronoun should refer to the person, place or thing named at the left of the pronoun.” Or you could say. “A pronoun is a substitute for an already-identified person, place, or thing.”

Then say something like this:

“I’m going to show you what appears to be a three-sentence historical fact that was published in a small town chamber of commerce’s newsletter. Then I’m going asks you for some observations about the item.”

Ideally, you should show students the item in context, so that even if the picture is fuzzy, students get the idea that a photograph accompanying the written item shows a building with a windmill on its roof. Here’s the historical fact:

Mt. Pleasant Drive, showing part of the water system, circa 1890. This was the Roberts Waterworks. The huge windmills pumped water from two deep wells into a reservoir, which was then pumped into the village.

Watch students’ faces. You’ll be able to tell which ones see the grammatical (and engineering) problem of pumping a reservoir into the village.

Now say something like this: “Write one sentence in which you identify all the pronouns in that historical fact. You have 30 seconds to write.” Time students as they write. Then go on to a second, third, fourth, and final task.

“Next, I’d like you to write one sentence in which you tell me what the nearest preceding noun is for each of the pronouns you identified in your previous sentence. You have 30 seconds to write.”

“Now pretend you’re the writer of the item about the waterworks. Rewrite the sentence or sentences in which you found a pronoun that didn’t refer to the noun at its left, fixing the sentence or sentences so they won’t make anyone snicker. You have 60 seconds to write.”

“Finally, aside from any problems you found with pronouns that the writer dropped too far from their preceding nouns, is there anything else about this historical fact that you think sounds funny?  Tell me in one or two sentences what other problem you find in that historical fact. You have 90 seconds to write.”

If you wish and have enough time, you may want to have students share their ideas about the other parts of the item that sounded funny to them. You’ll have some students who recognize that the first of the three sentences isn’t a sentence at all. I suspect it probably was the caption for the photo in the book Stones from the Walls of Jericho. Captions are not always full sentences.

Collect the informal writing to scan to see who struggled with the assignment. Informal writing prompts should prompt you to take precautionary measures to keep students who didn’t get material the first 14 times it was presented from missing it again in your classes.

© Linda G. Aragoni

Literary nonfiction about unhappy endings

scene of earthquake damage
These three books are about destructive forces, both natural and human.

Below are my reviews of three literary nonfiction books suited for high school English classes, with notes about other subjects with which the books correlate. Also included is information about the lengths of chapters, which is always a concern of the least fluent readers.

The Great Quake

The biggest earthquake in America changed our understanding of the earth.

The Great Quake: How the Biggest Earthquake in America Changed Our Understanding of the Planet. Henry Fountain. ©2017. Crown. 277 pp.

Geologist George Plafker arrived in Anchorage, Alaska, the day after the March 27, 1964, Good Friday earthquake devastated the southern half of the state, causing over 130 deaths, and unleashing massive tsunamis. Plafker had been in Alaska before, so he noted after a few hours flying that there was no disruption of the landscape to show the earth had moved. That bothered him. It suggested there was something different about the Good Friday earthquake.    

Plafker would spend the rest of his life trying to figure out how and why, besides its huge strength—9.2 magnitude—the Good Friday earthquake was different. In the process, Plafker would confirm the then-controversial theory of plate tectonics.

Henry Fountain was a reporter and science writer for The New York Times. His journalistic training shows in the way he explains science for people with minimal background. For example, he describes a glacier “is like a giant milling machine moving across the landscape” and says at Valdez “the sediments the dock sat on turned to jelly and slumped during the quake.”

Fountain writes carefully and respectfully about the people who lost loved ones, their belongings, their livelihood in the quake and flooding it caused. For example, he reports on the difficulties small villages face in trying to rebuild: the costs of materials, the need to work quickly, and the emotional issues connected to the villages’ loss and fear.

The Great Quake would be a good complement to students’ studies in science and to students interested in emergency preparedness and crisis management. 

The 15 chapters in The Great Quake average 17 pages long, but they are visually divided into sections by horizontal rules, so students’ reading could be conveniently split into smaller tasks.

The Day the World Went Nuclear

photo of book cover
Photo of cloud arising from bombing of Hiroshima.

The Day the World Went Nuclear: Dropping the Atom Bomb and the End of World War II in the Pacific. Bill O’Reilly. ©2017. Henry Holt. 300 pp.

The format of Bill O’Reilly’s The Day the World Went Nuclear might make students think the book is childish, but it’s not. It is an adult book designed to lay out facts in a readily understandable, straightforward way. O’Reilly leaves the speculation about would have happened if America had not chosen to use atomic bombs to other writers.

O’Reilly puts a multifaceted story in a very accessible format with short chapters, well-leaded type, and lots of pictures. The chapters are dated so it is easy for readers to keep the timeline of events in mind.

One interesting feature of the book is a list of key figures in the development and dropping of “Little Boy” on Hiroshima August 6, 1945, along with photographs of them.

A series of short articles after the text proper present related topics such as the decision to use the bomb, the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and America’s incarceration of her Japanese citizens. The book also contains President Roosevelt’s “Day of Infamy” speech, Emperor Hirohito’s surrender speech, and chapter devoted to the later lives of individuals associated with the A-bomb drop.

The Day the World Went Nuclear is obviously appropriate in connection with students’ study of American history or world history.  O’Reilly’s book fills in gaps that students’ history texts omit. 

Reading O’Reilly’s text should not be challenging for students eighth grade and above. Chapters are typically only five or six pages long, probably under 1,000 words.

Shooting Lincoln

Cover photo is of the execution of the plotters.

Shooting Lincoln: Matthew Brady, Alexander Gardner and the Race to Photograph the Story of the Century.  Nicholas J. C. Pistor. ©2017. Da Capo Press. 223 pp.

Let me tell you how good Nicholas J. C. Pistor’s Shooting Lincoln is: I stopped taking notes after the first 100 pages because I couldn’t wait to see how the story ended. I knew photographed story of the century wasn’t the assassination; there are no photos of that. So, what was the big story and who got it first?

The professional competition was between Matthew Brady, who considered himself an artist, and Alexander Gardner, who called himself a photographer.

Brady’s photographs of Lincoln are works of art. His photo of Lincoln standing, taken in New York City before the Republican Convention, may have been responsible for Lincoln’s nomination.

Gardner, an editor from Scotland, learned the basics of photography from Brady, doing grunt work while Brady got the fees and the acclaim. Gardner’s famous battlefield photos from Antietam, which Brady displayed in his studio, revolutionized battlefield photography.

Gardner became convinced that journalism’s future was tied to photography. He proved that in the summer of 1865 by taking the first live-news photograph of the story of the century. (Read the book to learn what that news event was.) Gardner also invented mug shots. They were first used to aid in the search for John Wilkes Booth and his accomplices. 

Shooting Lincoln would complement study in American history, communications, journalism, and business.

Pistor’s book is 16 chapters averaging about 14 pages each, plus a prologue dated Feb. 5, 1865 that begins “The President looked like he was already dead” and an epilogue dated 1875, that’s about motion pictures.

A note about book sources

I bought all these books from HamiltonBook.com. You won’t get the latest bestsellers there, but you can get deep discounts on books that have been in print a few years. All items are new, and all the books are hardbound unless marked otherwise. Postage and handling for up to 18 books is just $4. https://www.hamiltonbook.com/books

©2021 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Can students see the goal?

When I took my MS at Syracuse University, I was awarded an assistantship at the Newhouse School of Public Communications. My first term, I was assigned to work for a faculty member in the Advertising Department.

A few weeks into the fall term, the Dean of the Newhouse School told me that the professor had protested being given an assistant with no advertising experience. The Dean said he told her there are usually a couple assistants who need to be reassigned and if she’d wait a couple weeks, he could arrange a swap. The professor had come back that week and told him I was the best assistant she’d ever had.

She said she had given me a stack of papers to grade and was astonished that I knew exactly what to look for and had graded the papers overnight. I had accomplished the task that so astonished the professor by grading students’ papers according to how well they did what the directions told them to do.

At the time, I couldn’t believe that no other graduate assistants had reached that startling conclusion. Now, that that I’m older and more disillusioned, I realize that being able to discover the goal of an assignment from the directions for an assignment is not a common skill.

That’s why I was pleasantly surprised this week by an email I received from a graduate of a area college expressing interest in doing illustrations for books I’m writing about how to visit in nursing homes. (If you’re interested in getting updates on what I’m doing, use this link: https://dropping-by-books.ck.page/signup)

The artist said was interested in the project because she had done some visiting in a nursing home and her grandmother was reaching a point at which it is likely that she will have to be in a nursing home. Those two facts from her personal experience tell me she understands the goal of my books.

As writing teachers, you and I need to regularly spend a few minutes forcing students to think about what the goals of specific writing prompts are. If students see writing prompts as just busy work, even if they respond well to the prompts, we’ve not done a good job of teaching writing.

© 2021 Linda G. Aragoni

Reaching the audience can be tough

For most of the last 20 years, I’ve written primarily about teaching writing to teens and adults for an audience of teachers of teens and adults. For about the last 18 months, however, I’ve been writing about nursing home visiting for an audience of people who wanted or needed visit in a nursing home.

Although I had some experience in visiting in nursing homes to draw on, the project has become a challenge. The challenge hasn’t been coming up with things to write about. I had enough experiences in doing nursing home visiting to be able to identify the information I needed.

The problem is identifying how to reach my audience.

icon representing audience
These are just placeholders. They aren’t real people.

I know from research and observation that most friendly visitors are women, typically age 30 to 60. Other than that broad age range, there isn’t much that they have in common. They aren’t defined by any of the usual categories of race, religion, political affiliation, social class, education, hobbies, etc. (A snide smirk: friendly visitor is what nursing homes typically call someone who doesn’t come to visit family members, which always makes me wonder if people who come to visit family are unfriendly visitors. But I digress.)

Before I can sell books, I must (1) find what people who are likely to be interested in becoming a nursing home visitor have in common and (2) determine who do the majority of them rely on to guide their choice of free-time activities.

What does this have to do with teaching writing?

If you’ve gotten this far, you’re probably wondering what this has to do with teaching writing. If you’re teaching high schoolers who just want to scratch something down and get out to soccer practice, it has nothing to do with teaching writing.

On the other hand, if you teach college students heading into careers, audience identification is a big deal. Students who have a skill or product to sell—even if the product is themselves—must be able to find the audience that wants what they have to sell.

The student’s first task is to identify that audience. If a student is an artist who wants to sell his art work, he has to find people who buy original art. If the student wants to work as an accountant, he has to find people who hire accountants.

The second task of anyone with a skill or product to sell is to figure out where their audience congregates and to go there. Sellers can’t can show potential buyers why they need their products unless they are in the place where their audience hangs out. That place need not be a physical place; it can be a virtual space online. Your students may need to figure out what online platform employers in their field use and learn to use that platform well.

Coming back to my problem, my buyers will probably be found on Facebook. What I need to know is which people on Facebook women between the ages of 30 and 60 will rely on to guide their choice of what to do in their free time. I’m looking for people with enough Facebook followers that their recommendation can sell 101 to 500 books about how to visit in a nursing home.

I think I have more research to do.

© 2021 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Explosive literary nonfiction for English classes

photos of covers of three books
Three literary nonfiction books about events that changed communities.

Eruption

photo of the eruption of Mount St. Helens.
Red, white, and blue suggest the national effects of the Mount St. Helens volcano.

Eruption: The Untold Story of Mount St. Helens.  Steve Olson. ©2016. Norton. 299 p.

The untold story of the Mount St. Helens eruption that Steve Olson tells is not about volcanology. Olson’s book is about the choices people made before, during, and after the May 1980 eruption, and, by extension, about the choices they are making today that will influence what happens—who dies—the next time Mount St. Helens erupts.

Olson grew up in the Pacific Northwest, and although he’d gone East before the mountain blew up, he always wondered if he might have been one of the 57 people killed the morning St. Helens erupted. In Eruption, he looks at the stories of those who died and why they died.

Olson sketches the development of the timber industry in the Pacific Northwest which gave the region its prosperity. Weyerhaeuser, America’s biggest lumber company, was determined to keep logging old-growth timber in the Mount St. Helens area despite the rumblings of the volcano or conservationists trying to get protected status for the old-growth timber.

When the volcano began to rumble, outsiders came in to watch: gawkers, volcanologists, pilots, radio operators, and news people. Some of them were among the 57 killed (including former President Harry S Truman) when the mountain erupted. The descriptions of how people died are necessarily horrific; most people fortunately didn’t live long enough to suffer.

Eruption explores topics in science and history classes and in current events.Volcanoes, conservation, disaster preparedness, and the health of America’s lumber industry are all timely topics. Mount Nyiragongo in Congo erupted in June and is still disrupting life there.The US is due to hear from Mount St. Helens again soon: Volcanic eruptions in the Cascade Range occur on average every 25 years, according to Olson..

Olson divides his book into seven parts (plus a prologue and epilogue). Each part is subdivided into topics which function as chapters, although some of them are under three pages long. The longest subdivisions are between 11 and 17 pages; most are much shorter.

Killing the Poormaster

Accused man in handcuffs

Killing the Poormaster: A Saga of Poverty, Corruption, and Murder in the Great Depression. Holly Metz. ©2012. Lawrence Hill Books. 308 p.

Killing the Poormaster is history that reads like a novel, keeping readers engaged and rooting for the underdog hero to triumph. Holly Metz opens the book with a three-paragraph description of the death February 25, 1938 of Harry Barck, Hoboken, New Jersey’s poormaster. The poormaster job gave him power to determine who got financial help duing the Great Depression and how much they got.

That morning in Barck’s office Joe Scutellaro asked for money to feed his family. When Barck refused, there was a scuffle. Scutellaro said Barck fell forward onto a spike used for holding papers, which was on the desk. Police said Scutellaro picked up the spike and stabbed Barck with it.

Scutellaro’s trial for Barck’s murder threw a spotlight on Hoboken’s corrupt government and the nation’s inadequate response to the needs of the jobless. Scutellaro was defended by a celebrity attorney, who turned the trial into an indictment of the American system of public welfare.

Killing the Poormaster is a literary nonfiction text with relevance to courses in the social sciences: history, social psychology, and economics. It also has connections and/or analogies to current political events.

Metz divides her book into 14 chapters plus a brief prologue and chapter-length epilogue about what happened to the main characters after the trial. Three of the 14 chapters are between 20 and 30 pages, but they are broken into sections by dingbats, so they wouldn’t be hard for students to read in two or three sittings.

The Great Halifax Explosion

Blood red sky and ocean

The Great Halifax Explosion: A World War I Story of Treachery, Tragedy, and Extraordinary Heroism. John U. Bacon. ©2017. William Morrow. 418 p.

At a cost of about $180,000, every year the citizens of Halifax, Canada, send Boston, Mass., a 50-foot Christmas tree, John U. Bacon says in his opening chapter of The Great Halifax Explosion. The tree is Halifax’s way of thanking Bostonians for coming to the Canadians’ aid when a ship loaded with six million pounds of explosives—one-fifth of the force of the A-bomb dropped on Hiroshima—blew up in Halifax Harbor on Dec. 6, 1917.

In subsequent chapters, Bacon relates the often-frosty relations between the US and Canada before World War I. He tells about Halifax Harbor’s response when the Titanic sank April 15, 1912, and describes the effects the world war being fought in Europe was already having on the Halifax population.

Using local people as his lens, Bacon shows the series of misjudgments that led to the explosion and other misjudgments that resulted in needless tragedies afterward. He also relates tales of heroism and many more tales of dumb luck.

In telling his story, Bacon dips into topics such as diverse as forensic science, munitions, right-of-way rules for seaways, contingency planning, and experiential learning.  Every student ought to find something interesting in Bacon’s text. What’s more, teachers should have no trouble coming up with a set of writing prompts based on the text. 

Bacon “writes tight.” His chapters average eight pages. There are plenty of direct quotations. Readers can’t just skim the text, but it’s rare to find three consecutive paragraphs that require slowing down to understand some technical information.

A note about book sources

I bought all these books from HamiltonBook.com. You won’t get the latest bestsellers there, but you get deep discounts on books that have been in print a few years. All items are new, and all the books are hardbound unless marked otherwise. Hamilton Book has a flat shipping and handling fee of $4 for an order of up to 18 books.  

©2021 Linda Gorton Aragoni