Four on the Fourth
The American story in fact and fiction
Short Nights of the Shadow Hunter: The Epic Life and Immortal Photographs of Edward Curtis
Absolutely not, said friends and experts alike. Everyone knew it couldn’t be done except for the man who proposed the undertaking: portrait photographer Edward Curtis, the charismatic, self-educated adventurer who planned to document every one of North America’s remaining Indian tribes. Too vast, they said; it would be too expensive and besides, the old ways were practically vanished. But an undaunted Curtis plunged forward with proposals to institutions, requests for funding and an incomparably grand vision.
The North American Indian, a 20-volume work of photography, ethnography and language preservation now recognized as a monumental and priceless contribution to Indian history, virtually destroyed the man responsible for its existence. Initially lauded by the press, befriended by Teddy Roosevelt and patronized by J.P. Morgan, Curtis nevertheless found himself penniless, divorced, disgraced and forgotten by the time the last volume emerged in 1930.
With Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher, National Book Award winner Timothy Egan brings Curtis alive as an energetic overachiever scrambling against the annihilating effects of time, government officials and Christian missionaries to capture and preserve cultures whose worth was little appreciated. The book documents the rising trajectory of his political outrage that, tragically, paralleled his declining influence. Egan eschews sentimentality, but in the end, your heart will break right alongside Edward Curtis’. (Lisa Barrow)
What does it mean to be an American? Once a person becomes an American, what changes? Writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie examines these and other questions in her sprawling narrative, Americanah. Part love story, part philosophical examination of political identity, part sociological interpretation of the American idea, Adichie has transformed personal experience into provocative fiction.
Like the novel's heroine, Ifemelu, Adichie grew up in Nigeria and emigrated to America to attend college. Adichie uses Ifemelu to sort through the differences between Nigeria and America, especially the significance of skin color in America. Ifemelu isn’t “black” until she lands on American soil. But what makes the book such a good read—despite an anticlimactic ending—is that it's not meant as a cultural criticism, but more as a series of rich observations. After seeing terrifying stories on the news, for example, Ifemelu grows afraid of going outside, to which her aunt (who's already been living in America for years) responds that these things happen everywhere. America just focuses on them more than everyone else.
From touching on the complexity of hair—you'll understand when you read the book—to dissecting how one becomes an Americanah moving back to Lagos, Adichie creates an international epic that is unafraid and uncompromising. (Mark Lopez)
Revolutionary Summer: The Birth of American Independence
You don’t need to buy a movie ticket to see this summer’s biggest blockbuster. Instead, fork over your cash for Revolutionary Summer: The Birth of American Independence by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Joseph J. Ellis (Founding Brothers). In this vividly drawn history of one significant season, the characters are compelling, the fight scenes tense and the political discussions both witty and fierce. In the summer of 1776, the 13 colonies chafed under British rule, demanding independence in an eloquent document penned by Thomas Jefferson. On the New York coast, General Washington unevenly commandeered thousands of green troops. Using a staggering amount of research, Ellis deftly brings together his actors (John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Jefferson, Washington and, most memorably, the British Howe brothers) in scenes of political and military consequence. Although we know how the story concludes, Ellis makes readers see the human, fallible hands behind the precipitous events, resulting in a nail-biting, revelatory tale. (Nora Hickey)
Gettysburg: The Last Invasion
I was half-ready to dismiss Gettysburg: The Last Invasion, the latest book from historian Allen C. Guelzo, before I’d even read it, simply because of a glowing quote on its back cover from politician/lizard person Newt Gingrich. But the book actually does an admirable job of showing how life during the Civil War must have felt, particularly during the Battle of Gettysburg, the deadliest battle of the entire Civil War. At times, reading this book felt like taking an interesting class with a professor I didn’t particularly care for—the author is prickly and seems to idealize war—but I learned a lot. For instance, I hadn’t known that the Civil War, for the Confederacy, was primarily fought defensively, so when the South crossed over into the North, when they attacked Gettysburg, Pennsylvania—that was significant. I’d also never realized how apathetic so many in the North were to emancipation—many were publicly annoyed that the cause was even part of it. Fans of Michael Shaara’s novel The Killer Angels will appreciate the background this provides, fans of history will leave it feeling more informed, and fans of Newt Gingrich will appreciate the pretty colors on its cover. (Mike Smith)