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Suggestions for a Compelling Nonfiction Book on an Aspect of American History (1492-1816)?

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1InfectiousOptimist
Oct 2, 2012, 12:42pm Top

Hi everyone,

For a college history course that I'm taking (History of the U.S. to 1816), one of our assignments of the quarter is to choose a nonfiction book about an aspect of American history that took place before 1816. To be honest with you, this is not my forte so I don't even know where to begin my search for a book that won't put me to sleep.

I'm interested in women's history, specifically the Salem witch trials. I've also considered reading Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community and War by Nathanial Phillbrick though. I'm really looking for anything that gives a very human account of an experience, historical event, or time period, rather than a very dry factual account.

I'm open to any suggestions that you have! Thank you.

2BarkingMatt
Oct 2, 2012, 12:46pm Top

Not in any way expert on American history. But if you want fair info about the Salem witch scare: A delusion of Satan

3ABVR
Edited: Oct 2, 2012, 1:20pm Top

Carol Karlsen's The Devil in the Shape of a Woman is another good one on the Salem witch trials . . . and unlikely to put you to sleep. :-)

If you're interested in women's history generally, you might like A Midwife's Tale or Good Wives, both by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich. The first is a reconstruction of the life of one colonial-era (1785-1812) woman, Martha Ballard; the second is a collective biography of women in northern New England between 1650 and 1750. Ulrich is an immensely gifted social historian . . . and, as a bonus, writes beautifully.

Philbrick's Mayflower is well worth the read . . . as are two other books that intersect it at the chronological edges: A Voyage Long and Strange by Tony Horwitz (about early voyages to the New World) and The Name of War by Jill Lepore (about King Philip's War, the most brutal of the European-Native conflicts in Colonial America).

If you're interested, even a little, in biology, ecology, or the environment, The Columbian Exchange: The Biological and Cultural Consequences of 1492 by Alfred W. Crosby will likely fascinate you . . . it's 40 years old this year, and still the definitive introduction to what happened when the New World got pigs and horses and the Old World got potatoes and maize.

And then there's . . .

David McCullough, 1776

Patrick M. Malone, The Skulking Way of War

William Cronon, Changes in the Land

David Hackett Fischer, Washington's Crossing or Paul Revere's Ride

Joseph J. Ellis, Founding Brothers

Edward J. Larson, Magnificent Catastrophe

. . . all of which, IMHO, are fascinating treatments of interesting subjects by top-shelf writers (people whose books I'd read for fun).

Happy reading!

4InfectiousOptimist
Oct 2, 2012, 1:18pm Top

Thank you BarkingMatt! A Delusion of Satan was actually number one on my "prospective books" list. Have you read it?

I'm also looking at Damned Women, Good Wives: Image and Reality in the Lives of Women in Northern New England, Devil in The Shape of a Woman and In The Devil's Snare. Anyone read any of those?

5InfectiousOptimist
Oct 2, 2012, 1:21pm Top

ABVR you posted while I was typing my post, and you ended up mentioning a lot of the books I'm thinking of reading! Thank you, so very much. I'm highly considering Devil in The Shape of a Woman now. A Midwife's Tale is also a fantastic suggestion that I plan to check out. You've been a wealth of knowledge, thank you!

6ABVR
Edited: Oct 2, 2012, 1:23pm Top

> 4

We crossed in the ether! :-) To answer your question:

I haven't read Good Wives, but on the strength of her other work, I'd recommend it without hesitation . . . and a colleague who's worked extensively on Salem recommends In The Devil's Snare highly.

7BarkingMatt
Oct 2, 2012, 1:33pm Top

> 4: Yes, I've read it. It tries to be an even minded report of what actually happened there. In my mind it succeeds. It almost gives day to day reports, no lumping of either victims or persecutors into large groups. It's a good attempt at trying to reconstruct the dynamics of 1692.

Sorry, no, I haven't read the others you mention.

8lahochstetler
Oct 2, 2012, 6:03pm Top

For general reading many will probably find Damned Women and In the Devil's Snare to be a bit dry. Good Wives is a really interesting read. If this is for class, are you required to have an academic history, or can you read a popular history?

9InfectiousOptimist
Oct 2, 2012, 6:43pm Top

lahochstetler, thank you for your input. I was worried about that- I thought that Damned Women sounded a bit bland. We're actually allowed to read a "popular history", it doesn't have to be academic, so if you have any suggestions in that realm that would be great.

10Sandydog1
Oct 2, 2012, 8:12pm Top

I second Mccullough. I mean, what's better than a bunch of grubby lice-infected, brawling, opportunistically drunken, Patriots.

11aulsmith
Oct 2, 2012, 9:55pm Top

It's probably a dated now, but I enjoyed The Devil in Massachusetts when I was a teenager.

Based on the information here and in your other thread, I think you might enjoy The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin. I remember it being pretty lively.

12lahochstetler
Oct 2, 2012, 11:58pm Top

You might enjoy Escaping Salem. My students always like that one. Facing East from Indian Country is another engaging read.

132wonderY
Oct 3, 2012, 10:14am Top

I heartily second The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin just as a fun read. He was quite a hoot.

"Remember the Ladies" by Linda Grant de Pauw is a good look at womens' issues in colonial times.

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