In this breakneck survey of American history, Davidson (co-author: Great Heart: The History of a Labrador Adventure, 2006, etc.) condenses 500 years of war, exploration, and social change into a 300-page crash course.
Starting with Christopher Columbus, the author follows the usual grade school timeline, from the conquistadors to Vietnam. He quickly summarizes major movements like the Industrial Revolution and the Cold War, distilling entire decades into a few paragraphs. Davidson takes familiar stories from America’s past and adds novelistic flair—e.g., “In 1620 five or six Nauset Indians were trotting down the Cape Cod beach one November day, their dog in the lead, when they saw sixteen strangers coming toward them. The Indians didn’t wait for an introduction; they turned and ran, whistling for their dog to follow.” From the first pages, the author shows enthusiasm for his project, describing the difference between people who “make” history and people who “write” it, and he refers to this theme several times throughout. However, Davidson breezes through major national events, sewing anecdotes and trivia together without much direction or purpose. We revisit well-worn yarns, like Abraham Lincoln’s assassination and the Cuban missile crisis, which are told in the traditional way. Davidson introduces some recent scholarship—e.g., the Chinese arrival in the Americas in 1421 and the exploits of Osama bin Laden—but the expected chunks are missing: women are absent until they eventually make cameos as suffragettes. African-American history barely exists between Reconstruction and Martin Luther King. Davidson tries to liven up his story with nuggets of wisdom, but most of it is boilerplate: “Sometimes the tiniest events have immense consequences”; “Sometimes it seems as if all American history has been a scramble for more and more.” In the end, Davidson glosses over his topics and adds little to the broader conversation.
An admirable attempt to get readers excited about history, but the approach is too hurried and shallow.