Kirkus Reviews QR Code


A Contrarian History of the United States

by Ilan Stavans illustrated by Lalo Alcaraz

Pub Date: June 6th, 2014
ISBN: 978-0-465-03669-1
Publisher: Basic

Prolific intellectual Stavans and collaborative artist Alcaraz follow up and expand their first exploration of American culture (Latino USA: A Cartoon History, 2000, etc.) to examine the secret history of the United States of America.

Stavans and Alcaraz offer an opposing view to the sanitized history most of us were taught in elementary school classrooms. As a Mexican-born Jewish immigrant who moved to the United States in the 1980s, Stavans has a passionate response to the erroneousness of American history. “The past is elastic,” he writes. “Its parts shrink and expand depending on who is looking at them and when. Because of this, it’s important to take a contrarian’s viewpoint, to be wary of what the French call idées fixes—lazy unquestioned truths.” From this ambitious beginning, Stavans and Alcaraz track the arc of history, from Christopher Columbus’ unlikely enterprise to find the new world (he didn’t) to the acrimonious relationship between the pilgrims and Native peoples all the way through to our messy, dangerous post-9/11 world. Stavans and Alcaraz examine social movements, pop culture, politics, crime, war and economics, with pithy side comments from the aforementioned peanut gallery. Since it casts its net so wide, it can feel very out of tune from time to time, although Alcaraz’s amusing pen-and-ink style ably captures most of the book’s famous subjects. Stavans and Alcaraz also aren’t afraid to poke a little fun at themselves: “You interject too much out-of-place information! The readers are all confused now,” cracks Alcaraz. Nonetheless, well-read students are unlikely to find too many surprises here. While it makes for an entertaining afternoon, it’s still mostly a surface-level history lesson with a few iconoclastic opinions added in for spice.

A history book that wants to be Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of American Empire but comes off more like Larry Gonick’s The Cartoon History of the United States with more savvy jokes.