An unexpected, revealing look at an enduring and complex national symbol through the lives of those who knew it best.




A historian celebrates the lives of African-Americans who made George Washington’s home—their home and workplace, as well—into an American Mecca.

How is it that the name of a woman who lived longer at Mount Vernon than Martha Washington appears nowhere on those hallowed grounds? Although Washington’s will famously freed his slaves, that act did not end slavery at Mount Vernon—not all slaves there belonged to him—nor did it extinguish a continuing African-American presence at a private home destined to become a sacred, public place. Unprepared to handle the hordes of visitors expecting to see the key to the Bastille or the great man’s tomb, a succession of family heirs also continually sold off surrounding property to hang on to the increasingly unproductive plantation. In 1858, the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association (MVLA), leading the first nationwide historic preservation movement, purchased the grounds to prevent any further dilapidation and to restore Washington’s home to its former glory. The combined efforts of the slaves who worked the property—whose names are preserved and honored today at Mount Vernon—and the MVLA’s subsequent, celebrated fund-raising and supervision maintained Mount Vernon for posterity. Casper (History/Univ. of Nevada, Reno; Constructing American Lives: Biography and Culture in Nineteenth-Century America, 1999, etc.) supplies the details of Sarah Johnson’s life—the estate’s American flag flew at half-mast to commemorate her death in 1920—and those of her family, friends and contemporaries. He recalls their daily routines, explains how they handled a series of innovations—personal photography, steamboats, streetcars—that marked tourism through the years, demonstrates how they interpreted the shrine to generations of visitors and shows how they were misinterpreted by the crowds who visited the famous Potomac site. Casper refuses to dodge the problematic issues posed by Mount Vernon for African-Americans, addressing them squarely as he honors the service of those whom history has forgotten.

An unexpected, revealing look at an enduring and complex national symbol through the lives of those who knew it best.

Pub Date: Feb. 4, 2008

ISBN: 978-0-8090-8414-2

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Hill and Wang/Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 2007

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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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Bibliophiles will love this fact-filled, bookish journey.


An engaging, casual history of librarians and libraries and a famous one that burned down.

In her latest, New Yorker staff writer Orlean (Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend, 2011, etc.) seeks to “tell about a place I love that doesn’t belong to me but feels like it is mine.” It’s the story of the Los Angeles Public Library, poet Charles Bukowski’s “wondrous place,” and what happened to it on April 29, 1986: It burned down. The fire raged “for more than seven hours and reached temperatures of 2000 degrees…more than one million books were burned or damaged.” Though nobody was killed, 22 people were injured, and it took more than 3 million gallons of water to put it out. One of the firefighters on the scene said, “We thought we were looking at the bowels of hell….It was surreal.” Besides telling the story of the historic library and its destruction, the author recounts the intense arson investigation and provides an in-depth biography of the troubled young man who was arrested for starting it, actor Harry Peak. Orlean reminds us that library fires have been around since the Library of Alexandria; during World War II, “the Nazis alone destroyed an estimated hundred million books.” She continues, “destroying a culture’s books is sentencing it to something worse than death: It is sentencing it to seem as if it never happened.” The author also examines the library’s important role in the city since 1872 and the construction of the historic Goodhue Building in 1926. Orlean visited the current library and talked to many of the librarians, learning about their jobs and responsibilities, how libraries were a “solace in the Depression,” and the ongoing problems librarians face dealing with the homeless. The author speculates about Peak’s guilt but remains “confounded.” Maybe it was just an accident after all.

Bibliophiles will love this fact-filled, bookish journey.

Pub Date: Oct. 16, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-4767-4018-8

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: July 2, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2018

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