Book Reviews (History)

History is my favorite topic when selecting a book with which to spend some quality time. I’m not so interested in the intricacies of cause & effect as I am the ability of a well-written story to transport me back to an event and allow me to feel what it must have been like to experience it.

History does not exist as an abstraction; it exists as a personal perspective, as actual people lived and experienced it and I seek out books that make this rendering of past events possible for the reader with an imagination.

By far my favorite genre within the category are first-hand accounts; events described by the actual participants of memorable events. In no particular order, these are a few I’ve lent, recommended and have enjoyed immensely:

(Numerous 1st-person accounts of historical events are freely downloadable from here.)

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The Conquest of New Spain by Bernal Diaz  (First-hand account, written in 1570)

In addition to being a lieutenant under Cortes in 1520, Bernal Diaz was a prodigious note-taker with a keen sense of observation and detail. His description of the Spanish encounter with the Aztecs and Montezuma’s eventual overthrow is both fascinating and vivid. Aztec customs and battle tactics are related through the eyes of a 28-year old young man who is fully aware, even in his own time, that he is living an extraordinary life.

Despite the stoicism normally associated with men of that time, Diaz is not jaded and feels no compulsion to conceal his amazement as events unfold in the way of human sacrifices, bloody battles and Montezuma’s own reaction to being usurped as King. Cortes’ thought process in various scenarios is also described – a look into a long-ago time from someone who was there as both eye-witness and participant.

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The Great Mortality by John Kelly

In the 1340’s, the bubonic plaque decimated 1/3 of Europe’s population. Central Asia was also ravaged with a staggering death toll. Different societies had differing reactions to the annihilation of their family, friends and townsfolk: some reacted responsibly while others fell apart in catastrophic panic. God was blamed, Jews were blamed; crops stood stagnant in fields as farmers died by the thousands. Parents abandoned dying children for fear of their own contamination, mass murders occurred, self-flagellation was common. “Vaccinations” were devised; effects were described and immortalized in song.

First-person accounts come from Catholic priests who not only gave what care they could but took notes as well. Notes from various doctors of this medieval time were also preserved by the church, all translated into contemporary English, edited and crafted into an amazingly descriptive book that takes you there.

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Nine Years Among the Indians, 1870-1879: The Story of the Captivity and Life of a Texan Among the Indians by Herman Lehman (First-hand account)

Kidnapped as a young boy by Apache Indians, Lehman quickly adapted to his host’s lifestyle in all its barbarity. I was taken aback at the description of events described in these pages and at the ease with which cultural mores could so easily be placed aside as Lehman went from a typical son of German-American immigrants to what can only be described as conscience-free murderer who took joy in his misdeeds.

As the title indicates, Lehman was rescued after 9 years by Texas Rangers and reunited (against his will) with his family. For the rest of his life, he was a psychological and emotional misfit.

Two other books flesh out the psychology of Indian captivity and examine the varying results of reintroduction into white society by former captives. They are

The Captured: A True Story of Abduction by Indians on the Texas Frontier by Scott Zesch and

Captured By The Indians: 15 Firsthand Accounts, 1750-1870 by Fred Drimmer.

The range of humanity is contained within the pages of these two books, from brutal gore to humor and heroism on both sides of the cultural divide. Political correctness, thankfully and refreshingly, is not an issue. Facts are facts, and the Indians were downright barbaric, not only to whites but to each other long before whites came on the scene. If that offends, better to read nursery rhymes or something similarly less toxic than the truth of events related by these haunting narratives.

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Skeletons on the Zahara: A True Story of Survival by Dean King

From 2 first-person accounts and a 19th century book of the ordeal, Dean King tells the story of the crew of the Connecticut cargo ship Commerce’s shipwreck on the North African coast in 1815. This is the classic desert survival tale of starvation, violence, extreme thirst, enslavement, murder and torture by their muslim captors who initially seek to convert them or behead them for the crime of having shipwrecked on their shores.

Various members of the crew are split up into three different groups, each with its own captor. Some die, some are killed and others are eventually ransomed back to a western society and make it back home to tell their story in a prior book which reportedly was one of Abraham Lincoln’s favorites. This version is one of mine.

More than a mere survival story, this is really a book encompassing humanity’s most profound themes: the will to survive, the will for revenge and the ability to forgive. It is also a commentary on the values of islamic versus western societies; something we can relate to today.

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A Land So Strange: The Epic Journey of Cabeza de Vaca by Andre Resendez

Another Spanish conquistador from 1528, but with a difference – this expedition went horribly wrong for the Spaniards and in so doing transformed De Vaca from the stereotypical conqueror to humanitarian, at least in the standards of the time.

Having left Cuba with a poor choice of navigator, their ship landed on the gulf coast of Florida rather than Mexico. Here, they divided, with some men staying on the ship and others, including De Vaca, going ashore to try their luck overland, not yet being fully aware of just how lost they were. The two groups never saw each other again.

Indian assaults, starvation and drownings reduced the size of the group as they trudged north looking for gold, civilization or rescue. Finally, in despair, they settled in one location for a month in northern Florida and ate the last of their horses while building three rafts to take them to sea with no particular destination in mind. Just escape. Their sea journey took those who survived it to what is now Galveston, Texas where they washed ashore and were enslaved by the cannibalistic Karankawa. Several years of slavery reduced their number from 300 down to four who eventually made a plan to escape together and walk toward Mexico City and Spanish civilization.

It is here is where things become surreal.

Along the way they encounter other Indian tribes, including one with a sick individual. De Vaca makes the sign of the cross and says a few words over the poor Indian and lo & behold, he recovers. De Vaca and Team are now untouchable and remain so for 2 years as they continue their walk southwest, encountering more tribes along the way, healing them, having sex with their women and generally being regaled as gods. They are followed on their journey by hundreds of Indians who see to their every need.

Upon finally reaching Spanish outposts north of Mexico City, De Vaca was unrecognized as a Spaniard by his countrymen even though he spoke to them in perfect Spanish. “They remained looking at me for a long time”-De Vaca would later recall – “so astonished that they neither talked to me nor managed to ask me anything”.

After reintegration into Spanish society in the New World, De Vaca’s ideas toward the Indian population won him the ire of his contemporaries who sought only to exploit. De Vaca preferred a more lenient approach and had come to think of Indians as near-equals.

What De Vaca saw along his 9 year journey as the first European to see the interior of the American continent constitutes our first and only window into the lives of an indigenous population uninfluenced by previous foreign incursions into their world. These were pre-Columbian tribes; distant forbears of what would evolve into the familiar names we now know as Apache, Cherokee, Sioux, etc – those tribes in De Vaca’s time did not yet exist.

Resendez does a marvelous job of not only the telling of De Vaca’s journey but also of the amazingly interesting details of Indian tribal politics, trading and warfare habits. An excellent book of an incredible event in North American history.

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