The Oregon Trail: A New American Journey by Rinker Buck
I thought this was a terrific book. Rinker and Nick Buck, two brothers from Maine, ages 60 and 54, buy three mules and set off to make the first unassisted crossing of the Oregon Trail by covered wagon in a century. A wagon trip with their father and siblings from New Jersey to Pennsylvania a half-century earlier is part of a parallel story about their father, who died young. Rinker, a journalist, gets fascinated by the history of the Oregon Trail, and reads over 100 books about it before they head west from Missouri to Oregon, sometimes following the original wheel ruts of some of the 400,000 pioneers of the mid-nineteenth century. Rinker originally thought of taking the trip alone, but it’s clear that would never have worked. Nick can fix anything, and is skilled at driving a team, and it really takes two people to catch and harness three mules every morning. The mules, Jake, Beck, and Bute have very distinct personalities. Wagon wheels, brakes, and axles need frequent repair, and the mules need regular care. The men, not so much. Rinker sleeps on a mattress in the wagon while Nick and his terrier, Olive Oyl, sleep on the ground or in sheds. Showers and laundry are infrequent and meals are very simple. A series of strangers greet them, help them navigate mountain and river crossings, and offer space in their corrals for the mules at night, and become their trail family. The kindness of those they encounter on their trip, with one notable exception, stunned them with their hospitality. I enjoyed the descriptions of the scenery, found the history of the trail quite interesting, and hoped the very different brothers would find a way over all the obstacles to reach the end of the trail. A very enjoyable journey, one that reminded me a bit of The Longest Road, by Philip Caputo.
John Chatterton, featured in Shadow Divers, has already teamed up with diver/treasure hunter/history buff John Mattera when they are approached by treasure hunter Tracy Bowden to find the wreck of the pirate ship The Golden Fleece. Bowden has the lease to salvage treasure in the waters off the Dominican Republic where he believes the ship lies, and offers Mattera and Chatterton information and part of the treasure. Staying in a fancy but remote villa owned by Mattera’s future father-in-law, they tow a magnetometer in a grid pattern, then dive to inspect each hit, a process both time consuming and very expensive. Bowden keeps insisting he knows where the ship is, and doesn’t want them to search elsewhere. Mattera goes on a research trip, visiting libraries in Spain and New York, and interviews older treasure hunters to piece together the story of 17th century English merchant ship captain Joseph Bannister, and what could make him turn pirate and steal his ship, The Golden Fleece, not once but twice. The treasure hunters also look for information on the final battle of The Golden Fleece with two navy frigates, the Falcon and the Drake. At only 275 pages, this real-life adventure story is a fast-paced, compelling read. Chatterton and Mattera are currently in a legal dispute with Bowden, so some things are left unsaid, and their next diving project seems to be on hold. I can’t say more about their search for The Golden Fleece without spoiling the plot, but I think readers will enjoy the adventure.
The Residence by Kate Andersen Brower
This impressively researched book about the residence staff of the White House is quite a page-turner. The White House is a home, an office, a museum, and an event site. While the first families come and go, the residence staff may remain for decades, sometimes for generations. Brower interviewed three former first ladies, six grown children of former presidents, fifty former residence staff, and more. From chief usher down to doormen and maids, 96 full-time and 250 part-time workers staff the White House. The first family pays for their own meals, toiletries, and dry cleaning, but the staff try to anticipate their every need, often working long hours. The magic of moving day would be well worth seeing; one family moves out and another moves in on Inauguration Day, complete to having their clothes unpacked and their choice of White House furniture installed, in only six hours. Some transitions, as after President Kennedy’s assassination and President Nixon’s resignation, are very abrupt, but I liked that Caroline Kennedy’s small in-house kindergarten continued for months after the Kennedys moved out. The quirks and eccentricities of the families are described, especially President Johnson’s continued demands for a custom shower, and the Clintons’ great need for privacy. While there is some gossip, the first families are described with fondness, understanding, and often sympathy by the loyal former staff.
The story of the Wright Brothers, as told by biographer and historian David McCullough, is so improbable that it seems like fiction. Their father was born in a log cabin and their mother died young. Wilbur and Orville grew up in Dayton, Ohio along with their older brothers and younger sister Katherine in a house with no running water. They had only high school educations. Yet, after spending less then one thousand dollars of their own money, the Wright brothers were the first men to really fly, and were later visited at flying demonstrations in Europe by three European kings. Katherine was the first woman to fly as a passenger three times; their father, a minister, was the first elderly passenger. I found McCullough’s thoroughly researched book to be fascinating, once I could tell Wilbur and Orville apart. Wilbur was brilliant, a fine writer and public speaker. Orville, the younger, was mechanically gifted and given to occasional moody spells. After much research and experimentation, including constructing a wind tunnel above the shop where they made, sold, and repaired bicycles, they were ready to fly. Picking the location for its constant winds and sandy terrain, they traveled to Kitty Hawk on the remote, unimproved Outer Banks to practice flying an unpowered glider in 1900. They returned each year, and in late 1903 made the first four powered flights in a single day, the last one, by Wilbur, lasted 59 seconds. The brothers credited a large family library with furthering their own education, and many others would mention their wide ranging interests and work ethic in their amazing success story. Thousands of family letters helped McCullough bring the brothers’ story to life. This book will be published May 5.
I knew that the Lusitania was torpedoed during World War I, and that some Americans died, but I knew none of the details of the tragedy. The inevitability of the torpedo heading for the side of the Lusitania drives the reader anxiously through Erik Larson’s book, in which events that took place in 1915 feel like they just happened. The passengers come to life through letters, diaries, and artifacts. I learned what they wore, who they dined with, why they were traveling, and could almost see the children jumping rope on the deck. Most remarkably, Walther Schwieger, the commander of submarine U-22, is a memorable character, with his daunting task of patrolling British waters, avoiding mines and destroyers, trying to see without being seen. Will there be enough power in the batteries to surface when it’s safe, or enough diesel fuel to return safely to Germany? Will the torpedoes even fire?
Larson did a tremendous amount of research on the Lusitania, but allows none of it to slow the intensifying pace of the story. Three years after the Titanic struck an iceberg, the world knows that passenger liners are not indestructible. Warnings that Germany would not hesitate to attack British passenger ships appeared in New York newspapers on May 1, 1915, but the Lusitania still left New York that day, although delayed to accept passengers from another ship commandeered by the British navy. Some of the passengers were surprised that the “Lucy” wasn’t traveling as fast as it could; the war dictated saving coal by running only 3 out of 4 boilers. Captain Turner did receive some telegrams during the voyage, but they had conflicting advice on what to expect when he reached the war zone of Irish and British waters. What did the British Admiralty, headed by Winston Churchill, know about the movements of the U-22, and how was the war going without the help of the still-neutral United States, led by President Woodrow Wilson, then courting Edith Galt? And what happened when the fog cleared as the Lusitania neared Ireland, and why was a fast British cruiser called back to port? Readers will turn the pages faster and faster to find out, and also to learn who lived and died, and what happened later because the Lusitania sank.
How to Be a Victorian: a Dawn-to-Dusk Guide to Victorian Life by Ruth Goodman
A very readable, often entertaining look at daily life in England in Victorian times. Ruth Goodman, a historian, has spent considerable time immersed in Victorian life for British television series, including Victorian Farm. Goodman’s experiences provide added interest, although there were things she didn’t experience, such as the London smog. Several families are described at different points in the Victorian era, which lasted 63 years, and the reader learns about their typical diets, working and living conditions, and even different modes of transportation. The hardest part to read is about the lives of children, including the lack of modern medicine and knowledge of nutrition, opium tonics for babies and long hours of work for children as young as six. Conditions and education for children did improve over time, and the section on education is quite interesting. The format, taking people through a typical day from dawn to bedtime, works well. On a chilly day like today, I’m happy to live with central heating and hot running water, the things Goodman missed most while re-enacting Victorian life, but she does succeed in making the idea of a visit to the Victorian era sound appealing.
Lives in Ruins : Archaeologists and the Seductive Lure of Human Rubble by Marilyn Johnson
This is an engaging look at the lives of archaeologists, a combination of armchair travel, popular science, and history. I enjoyed reading it very much, especially the author’s travels to visit archaeological sites and interview archaeologists in the Caribbean, Peru, a tiny island in the eastern Mediterranean, South Dakota, Fishkill and Fort Drum in New York, and the harbor of Newport, Rhode Island. The author audits classes, goes to field school before volunteering at a dig site, attends conferences, and visits museums. Other than the weather and working conditions, it sounds like fun. As a group, archaeologists are highly educated, passionate about their work, and grossly underpaid, if they’re even employed. They eat sandwiches, swat mosquitoes, work under hot sun or in the rain, often with a developer’s bulldozer looming, drive old vehicles, and tell great stories and drink beer at the end of a long day.
The reader learns about the discovery of an unknown Revolutionary War cemetery in New York, and how a civilian archaeologist working for the Department of Defense is helping soldiers learn to protect sites of cultural and historical importance with decks of playing cards. Many sites have been lost to development, while others are waiting for funding, such as the search for explorer James Cook’s Endeavour in the Newport harbor. This is a November Library Reads pick.