Incomparable sources make for an unusually intimate American portrait.



The lives and fortunes of ambitious 19th-century brothers.

Jesse Fletcher (1762-1831) raised 15 children in Ludlow, Vermont, struggling to eke out a living from his farm and fighting recurring depression. In a vividly detailed history, Smith (An American Betrayal: Cherokee Patriots and the Trail of Tears, 2011, etc.) focuses on two of those children to tell both a story of the family and of America from the early 19th century through Abraham Lincoln’s assassination and the end of the Civil War. Those 50 years saw vast political, social, and technological changes as urban centers burgeoned and “canals, turnpikes, steamboats, railroads, and the telegraph” linked east and west—and America to Europe. All those transformations had an impact on the Fletchers. Elijah (1789-1858) was a favored son who saw education as the path to escape his father’s hard life. After graduating from college, he took a teaching job in Virginia, where he was at first horrified by slavery. But he married into a wealthy family and soon owned a plantation, along with slaves. Calvin (1798-1866) was rebellious, leaving home at 17, bouncing around the country from one meager job to another until he finally settled down to become a lawyer, banker, and landholder in Indianapolis. He also was a punctilious diary keeper, leaving almost 5,000 pages of material from which Smith constructs a seamless, detailed narrative. Because Calvin left such a rich paper trail, he and his children become the main focus of the family’s story. As a father, one of his sons remembered, Calvin “was stern and demanding, relentless in case of lapse from duty and behavior.” Diary entries reveal his constant worry over his sons’ educations, career prospects, and morality. But he also turned to public life, taking strong and vocal positions on the abolition of slavery, intemperance, and school reform, all major issues of the day.

Incomparable sources make for an unusually intimate American portrait.

Pub Date: Aug. 2, 2016

ISBN: 978-1-137-27981-1

Page Count: 288

Publisher: St. Martin's

Review Posted Online: May 4, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15, 2016

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The author's youthfulness helps to assure the inevitable comparison with the Anne Frank diary although over and above the...


Elie Wiesel spent his early years in a small Transylvanian town as one of four children. 

He was the only one of the family to survive what Francois Maurois, in his introduction, calls the "human holocaust" of the persecution of the Jews, which began with the restrictions, the singularization of the yellow star, the enclosure within the ghetto, and went on to the mass deportations to the ovens of Auschwitz and Buchenwald. There are unforgettable and horrifying scenes here in this spare and sombre memoir of this experience of the hanging of a child, of his first farewell with his father who leaves him an inheritance of a knife and a spoon, and of his last goodbye at Buchenwald his father's corpse is already cold let alone the long months of survival under unconscionable conditions. 

The author's youthfulness helps to assure the inevitable comparison with the Anne Frank diary although over and above the sphere of suffering shared, and in this case extended to the death march itself, there is no spiritual or emotional legacy here to offset any reader reluctance.

Pub Date: Jan. 16, 2006

ISBN: 0374500010

Page Count: 120

Publisher: Hill & Wang

Review Posted Online: Oct. 7, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2006

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This moving, potent testament might have been titled “Black Lives Matter.” Or: “An American Tragedy.”

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The powerful story of a father’s past and a son’s future.

Atlantic senior writer Coates (The Beautiful Struggle: A Father, Two Sons, and an Unlikely Road to Manhood, 2008) offers this eloquent memoir as a letter to his teenage son, bearing witness to his own experiences and conveying passionate hopes for his son’s life. “I am wounded,” he writes. “I am marked by old codes, which shielded me in one world and then chained me in the next.” Coates grew up in the tough neighborhood of West Baltimore, beaten into obedience by his father. “I was a capable boy, intelligent and well-liked,” he remembers, “but powerfully afraid.” His life changed dramatically at Howard University, where his father taught and from which several siblings graduated. Howard, he writes, “had always been one of the most critical gathering posts for black people.” He calls it The Mecca, and its faculty and his fellow students expanded his horizons, helping him to understand “that the black world was its own thing, more than a photo-negative of the people who believe they are white.” Coates refers repeatedly to whites’ insistence on their exclusive racial identity; he realizes now “that nothing so essentialist as race” divides people, but rather “the actual injury done by people intent on naming us, intent on believing that what they have named matters more than anything we could ever actually do.” After he married, the author’s world widened again in New York, and later in Paris, where he finally felt extricated from white America’s exploitative, consumerist dreams. He came to understand that “race” does not fully explain “the breach between the world and me,” yet race exerts a crucial force, and young blacks like his son are vulnerable and endangered by “majoritarian bandits.” Coates desperately wants his son to be able to live “apart from fear—even apart from me.”

This moving, potent testament might have been titled “Black Lives Matter.” Or: “An American Tragedy.”

Pub Date: July 8, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-8129-9354-7

Page Count: 176

Publisher: Spiegel & Grau

Review Posted Online: May 6, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2015

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