American Nations–A Useful and Sobering View of the History of the USA

American Nations:  A History of the Eleven Regional Cultures of North America

By Colin Woodard

Published 2011

Read May 2022

May 2022 is when this reader finished reading this enlightening and sobering book.  This reader has been working on reading this book for about a year.  Why so long?  The book is very approachable but simultaneously packed with historical information that takes time to digest.

Woodard starts with an Introduction that is very valuable to the reader.  Woodard explains his use of the term “nation”: “a group of people who share—or believe they share—a common culture, ethnic origin, language, historical experience, artifacts, and symbols”.  This differs from a “state” which he describes as “a sovereign political entity”.   He introduces the eleven nations with a brief summary of their characteristics and founding.    Having this initial snippet of each nation prepares the reader for what follows.

Part 1:  Origins 1590 to 1769 gives details of the founding of each of the following nations in order of their founding:  El Norte, New France, Tidewater, Yankeedom, New Netherland, The Deep South, the Midlands, and Greater Appalachia.  It’s sobering to note that between Jamestown and the Declaration of Independence there were about 160 years of waves of people arriving and settling in the New World with very different intentions for coming to the New World and with very different sets of values.  Those different intentions and values and intentions continue to permeate the values and aspirations of the people that live in those different areas—nations– of the country today.   

Part 2:  Unlikely Allies 1770 to 1815 is extremely interesting and helps dispute a concept we tend to have that the thirteen colonies were well unified in fighting for independence from King George.  It seems that is very far from the truth.  This account shows the waves of fighting for independence by the various nations, sometimes even their initial reluctance to do so, and sometimes actually warring against each other.  This section also covers the writing of the Constitution which is considered an amazing achievement.  It was amazing considering the very divergent views of the various nations.  In fact, some of the nations considered seceding from the union because of essentially anti-democratic aspects pushed by many we consider the Founding Fathers (who were from Tidewater).  In fact, these Founding Fathers did have an intention to suppress democracy and retain power for those like them—the elite.  It’s becoming more common knowledge that the Constitution not only allowed for slavery but prevented its abolishment for twenty years.  This was clearly a period of substantial conflict between the nations. 

Part 3:  Wars for the West 1816-1877 covers yet the continuing turbulent time, this section lasting over fifty years.  Yankeedom, the Midlands, The Deep South all spread westward with different intentions consistent with the values held by each of the nations.  Yankeedom needed more land for farming so communities of families headed west, just as communities of families had first come to the New World.  They established new towns, taxed themselves to build needed infrastructure, especially schools.  Overtime the religious orthodoxy of Yankeedom was eroded but the values of serving community remained well entrenched.    The Midlands moved west as well and recreated the towns and communities from which they migrated.  They were accompanied by a large immigration from Germany.  Although they shared the community-focused trait of Yankeedom, The Midlands were more heterogeneous in religious practices and were untroubled by diversity although “skeptical of slave labor, warfare, and the cult of the individual”.  The Borderlanders of Appalachia travelled west largely to live beyond the effective reach of government.  They left not in communities but rather as individuals or very small groups.  An interesting comparison of Yankeedom and the Borderlanders is given. Only a small part of it is recited here:  Yankeedom Midwesterners put their homes on the road, used written contracts, and buried their dead in town graveyards. Appalachian Midwesterners built their homes in the middle of their plots, negotiated verbal, honor-bound agreements, and put their relatives to rest in family plots or isolated graves.  The Borderlanders also preferred candidates who advocated for ordinary people and perceived Yankee neighbors as meddlesome and threatening to their individual freedom.  The slave culture of Tidewater was mainly hemmed in by Appalachia and lost some of its power over time.  It and the second/third-born sons of English gentry that founded it had been a dominant force when the Constitution was written.  The slave culture of The Deep South spread westward expanding its cotton economy which required a substantial slave population and which fed the demands of textile mills in both  New England and Old England.  “What others regard as an authoritarian society built on an immoral institution that concentrated wealth and power in the hands of a small elite, Deep Southern oligarchs viewed as the pinnacle of human achievement.  Theirs was a democracy modeled on the slave states of ancient Greece and Rome, whose elites had been free to pursue the finer things in life after delegating all drudgery to slaves and a disenfranchised underclass.”

An extremely interesting chapter in this section “War for the West” details the build up to the Civil War and describes it not as a struggle between “the North” and “the South” but rather a conflict between two coalitions.  One side was the Deep South and Tidewater.  The other side was Yankeedom.  The other nations considered breaking off and forming their own confederations “freed from slave lords and Yankees alike.”  The United States nearly broke into four pieces.  But for the attack on Fort Sumter which coalesced the coalitions, history might be very different.

Part four:   Culture Wars:  1878 to 2010 covers the topics of the Founding of the Far West, Immigration and Identity, Gods and Missions, Culture Clash, War/Empire/Military, and two chapters on the Struggle for Power—the Blue, Red, and Purple Nations.  Viewing these topics through the lens of American Nations gave this reader a new perspective on this part of our (always turbulent!) history as well.

The Epilogue chastens us to recognize that the United States is actually fairly fragile.  “A time might come that the only issue on which the nations find common ground is the need to free themselves from one another’s veto power.  Perhaps they’d join together on Capitol Hill to pass laws and constitutional amendments granting more powers to the states or liquidating may of the functions of the central government.”  (The author doesn’t suggest the Supreme Court might expedite this but over the last few days it seems that’s its intention.)  The author indicates a few paths that might be followed as the country splits into parts, consistent with the “respective national heritages”.   To remain the United States, “The United States needs its central government to function cleanly, openly, and efficiently because it’s one of the few things binding us together.”  

While we may think the current state of our government is unusual and that we’ve had stability for two hundred plus years, this book actually highlights how turbulent the history of the United States of American has actually always been and continues to be.  The path forward is not easy to predict but the author’s call to “respect the fundamental tents of our unlikely union” is very relevant. 

This reader is recommending this book to friends and family—it should be read by all those wishing to understand the current state of the USA.

Leadership in Turbulent Times—Relevant Lessons for Today

Leadership in Turbulent Times

By Doris Kearns Goodwin

Published 2018

Read Aug 2020

Doris Kearns Goodwin served in Lyndon Johnson’s White House and helped him write his memoirs after he left office, the latter while she was a professor at Harvard University.  Her experiences with him and extensive research led to publication of “Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream”.  She later wrote “No Ordinary Time:  Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt:  The Home Front in World War II”“Team of Rivals”, a book about Abraham Lincoln’s cabinet and presidency, and “The Bully Pulpit” about Theodore Roosevelt friendship with William Howard Taft.  Thus she had spent countless hours with the men highlighted in this book long before she began writing it.  She remarks in the foreword to this volume that she found much to learn about them through the “elusive theme of leadership”.   She also points out in the foreword that Lincoln’s model leader was George Washington, Theodore Roosevelt’s great hero was Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt molded his career on Theodore Roosevelt’s, and Lyndon Johnson considered Franklin Roosevelt his “political daddy”.  So these men become a “leadership family tree” of sorts.

Goodwin discusses each man in chronological order, Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, Theodore Roosevelt, and Lyndon Johnson, in three sections:  Ambition and the Recognition of Leadership; Adversity and Growth; The Leader and the Time:  How they Led.  She uses a story-telling approach to her work and engages the reader deeply into the topic at hand for each person.  She shows how each man’s beginning and adversity shaped his leadership approach and his view of himself.  Each man’s leadership was shaped by the needs of the country at the time and the needs of the country impacted his particular leadership approach. This reader was particularly interested in how Johnson engaged Congress which enabled him to get the Civil Rights Act of 1964 passed as well as the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and a number of other sweeping bills.  He knew that without involving stakeholders early and often and without close interaction with Congress he wouldn’t get things done.   These approaches haven’t been very visible in recent years.

Goodwin switches the order in the Epilogue:  Of Death and Remembrance starting with Lyndon Johnson, with whom she had a deep relationship forged during his administration and especially while writing his memoirs.  She appropriately calls out the failings of his leadership with respect to the Vietnam War and recounts Johnson’s ruminations of these during his post-presidency period.  She recounts his last public appearance.   “The plight of being “Black in a White society,” he argued, remained the chief unaddressed problem of our nation.   “Until we address unequal history, we cannot overcome unequal opportunity. “ Until blacks “stand on level and equal group,” we cannot rest.  It must be our goal “to assure that all Americans play by the same rules and all Americans play against the same odds.”  Unfortunately the gains in civil rights he personally drove through Congress from the White House, while enabling enormous progress, have stalled and the goal he delineates remains incomplete.

Goodwin does not provide a formula for leadership.  However, her final statements in the book sheds light on the essence of what the nation needs in these current extremely turbulent times:  “ Kindness, empathy, humor, humility, passion, and ambition all marked him [Lincoln] from the start.  But he [Lincoln] grew, and continued to grow, into a leader who became so powerfully fused with the problems tearing his country apart that his desire to lead and his need to serve coalesced into a single indomitable force.  [Italics added by this writer] That force has not only enriched subsequent leaders but has provided our people with a moral compass to guide us.  Such leadership offers us humanity, purpose, and wisdom, not in turbulent times alone, but also in our everyday lives.”

This is a useful book for learning how four presidential leaders developed into leaders and provides models for leaders moving forward.  This reader hopes those seeking political office read these words and incorporate these lessons into their own work to serve.

We Are Our Mothers’ Daughters–a Slim Powerful volume from Cokie Roberts

We Are Our Mother’s Daughters

By Cokie Roberts

Published 1998

Read Sept 2020

This reader found a copy of the 1998 edition of this small book in a Little Library—a great place to find reading treasures.  Apparently there is a second edition published in 2009 that my comments can’t cover.

This reader has listened to NPR for about 30 years so Cokie’s contributions to radio news and those of the other “Founding Mothers” of NPR are well known to this reader.  This reader is also familiar with Cokie’s participation on This Week with David Brinkley and her turn at the helm of that vehicle with Sam Donaldson.  It is somewhat sobering to this reader that this generation of news reporters in these vehicles, whom this reader has followed for 30+ years, is leaving us to retirement or beyond.   We lost Cokie to complications of cancer in 2019.

Cokie’s book is a highly personal one—chapters on her personal experiences as Sister, Aunt, Friend, Reporter, Wife, and Mother/Daughter give us an insight on her personal life.  She was a daughter of politician parents—Congressman Hale Boggs and Congresswoman Lindy Boggs;  a sister of a Princeton, NJ mayor (Barbara)  and of a successful lawyer/lobbyist (Tommy).  She was wife and eventual column co-author of journalist Steve Roberts and mother of two children.  She describes her pursuit of Steve Roberts during and following graduation from Wellesley College in 1964 when she had a goal of marriage and motherhood before she was too old (they married when she was 22 and he 23).  She describes her decisions over the years to follow Steve to New York, Greece, LA, and then Washington, D.C.  Through it all she realized she too must work to be complete and did so with gusto so that she become a the well-known and well-respected journalist.

Cokie also chose to include chapters or chapter portions about famous and not-so-famous women and how they made inroads into “men’s world jobs” of mechanic, activist, journalist, enterpriser, and politician.  She indicates she does not provide any original research about women in history.

This book is Cokie’s take on that age-old question “What is woman’s place” and how she sees it.  She offers no answers to how can women have ‘balance” (she in fact suggests that’s really never going to happen).  She offers observations on how she has experienced life during the “great social movement” that propelled women more completely into life outside the home.  She chastens women with choices in their life-role for judging other women’s choices — especially when those judged really have very limited choices.

The best paragraph in the book quotes Margaret Chase Smith as she wrote in the introduction to the book “Outstanding Women Members of Congress” in answer to “Where is the proper place of women?”:  “My answer is short and simple—woman’s proper place is everywhere.  Individually it is where the particular woman is happiest and best fitted—in the home as wives and mothers; in organized civic, business, and professional groups; in industry and business, both management and labor; and in government and politics. Generally, if there is any proper place for women today it is that of alert and responsible citizens in the fullest sense of the word.”

If you were a fan of Cokie Roberts, you will enjoy this small volume, hearing Cokie’s voice again as she covers topics important to the hearts of women of all ages.  If Cokie Roberts is less known to you, read this book to get a sense of a memorable woman who brought much to the world of political journalism and to all those who knew her.


Provocative Mothers and their Precocius Daughters: 19th Century Women’s Rights Leaders

Provocative Mothers and Their Precocious Daughters

By Suzanne Schnittman

Published 2020

Read Aug 2020

This reader devoured this thoughtful and thought provoking book.  The author’s scholarship is remarkable.  She has reviewed countless pages of primary source documents—personal letters, diaries, and the writings of these remarkable women, as well as countless pages of secondary sources—biographies, histories, etc.  The author then concisely presents the reader with clear pictures of these reform mothers and their daughters—how the reform mothers managed motherhood and their activism, for several of the mothers on very limited incomes; how their activism translates to their parenting of their daughters; how the daughters responded to this parenting and the kind of adult they became as a result; and how the relationship between mother and daughter evolved over time.  This reader appreciated the extensive footnotes—it gave this reader confidence that the pictures presented of events and personal feelings reflect the data available about them and appreciation that the heavy lifting had been thoughtfully and thoroughly done by the author. 

The book gave this reader much to consider about both mother/daughter relationships and how new access to rights or advantages of one generation impacts both the parent/child relationship and the person/society relationship.  Some aspects of the mother/daughter relationship are likely universal and not impacted by time or place.  This likely includes hoping for the life of the daughter to be even easier/better than experienced by the mother and hoping that the daughter will support the mother in times of need.  How this translates in particular, however, is likely dependent on the constraints present in society, laws, and religious/tribal/family culture at the time.   When these constraints change substantially from one generation to the next, the relationships between parent/child and person/society might be different for one generation of children compared with another which can be both liberating for the child and troubling for the parent and society. 

This book is one you won’t forget soon and it will likely incite further exploration of the history of struggles for rights in this society that have needed amendments to the Constitution and/or federal laws to make them possible and how society has evolved as a result. 

Hidden Figures: So Much More than the Movie

Hidden Figures

By Margot Lee Shetterly

Published 2016

Read July 2020

This reader had seen the movie “Hidden Figures” which was based on this book.  When this reader’s discussion group decided to read it as part of our upcoming season, this reader was prepared for the book to cover the same ground in words vs live action.  This reader was absolutely delighted to learn that although the movie was loosely based on the book (various liberties were taken to convey major themes of the book which were supported by the author and the three main characters), the book offers much more. The movie adaptation was well done and received critical acclaim and many awards including nomination for Best Picture at the 89th annual Academy Awards.  It’s possible that the Congressional Gold Medals awarded the three women in 2019 (post-humorously for Mary Jackson and Dorothy Vaughan), the awarding of the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Katherine Johnson in 2015, and naming of NASA facilities for Katherine Johnson and Mary Jackson in 2019 and 2020 were influenced by Shetterly’s book and movie which made the major contributions of these Hidden Figures visible. 

Shetterly gives us three histories in her book:  a history of the Langley aeronautical research facility, a look at gender and race barriers faced by black mathematicians, scientists, and engineers, and  a history of segregation in schools.  She does this via the stories of three amazing mathematicians who gently but powerfully broke gender and race barriers during their tenures at Langley.  She comments early in the book that she discovered that there were hundreds of women at what is now known as Langley Research Center both black and white that made major contributions to the war efforts of WWI and WWII and to the space program that launched men into space and landed them on the moon.  In addition, these women broke race and gender barriers regarding the appropriateness and usefulness of women, black and white, in science and engineering.   By telling the stories of these remarkable women, Dorothy Vaughan, Katherine Johnson, and Mary Jackson, Shetterly engages the reader in real stories that illuminate the histories she reveals. 

Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory was established in 1917 by the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), a US government agency created in 1915 to promote industry, government, and academic coordination of war projects.  As a civilian facility, its initial mission was to conduct research to enable successful fighter planes for WWI.  Over the years the focus of the laboratory evolved as needs of the nation evolved during WWII and during the cold war, leading to launch of manned space craft and manned landings on the moon.  The number of engineers, mathematicians, and technical support required to accomplish its missions was huge.  Unlike some aspects of the “military industrial complex”, employment levels at Langley did not waver substantially between wars.  Until the 1960s, most calculations were done manually with the support of mechanical calculators and the volume of this work was staggering—both theoretical and experimental work created large reams of data that had to be processed and analyzed.   Langley recruited hundreds of women as “human calculators” (steps below “mathematician”).  In parallel, it recruited hundreds of men into mathematician, scientist, and engineering positions. 

The gender barrier was significant regardless of race.  While all the women recruited as “computers” had BA/BS degrees in mathematics, and often physical sciences as well, they were relegated to a role and job title beneath men hired with similar credentials as “mathematician” or “scientist” or “engineer”.  This barrier eventually fell (over decades…) as the “computers” became more incorporated directly into research groups (like Katherine Johnson and Mary Jackson), their male team members began to include their names on technical papers, and their value was recognized by their supervisors.  Mary Jackson’s supervisor recognized her talent and encouraged her to take the required courses to be promoted to engineer.   Katherine Johnson’s on-going request to be included in technical group meetings including her continuing questioning of the “well women are not invited” eventually was successful and she was included in these discussions.  When a collaborator was about to leave Langley to relocate to Houston, where the new space team would be centered in the new NASA organization, he told his boss to have Katherine write up their work as it was mostly hers anyway.  Thus Katherine’s paper became the first technical report solely authored by a woman. 

The race barrier was also very significant.  There were segregated “computer” groups—the West Computing Group being all black, supervised by a white woman while the East Computing Group was all white.  Restrooms and lunch tables allowed the West Computing Group were based on their race.  Only after eight years of a “temporary” assignment as Supervisor of the West Computing Group was Dorothy Vaughan, a talented mathematician regularly requested by research groups for her computing prowess and understanding of the work, actually promoted to this position, making her the first black person promoted to a supervisory position.  A quiet protest was fought for several years by a black computer who kept removing the “black table” sign from the cafeteria table they were assigned.  Eventually the sign was no longer replaced.  Katherine Johnson simply ignored the “white only” restroom restrictions as there weren’t “black” restrooms in her building.  Mary Jackson was promoted to the engineer title after a lengthy struggle to get special dispensation from the local school board to attend required courses offered on behalf of Langley at the local (white) high school. 

Shetterly also discusses the degree and impact of segregation in schools during this period and the journey towards integration.  Education at all levels was completely segregated by race.  Graduate programs were generally not available to blacks.  Johnson and Vaughan were both encouraged to attend graduate school but neither fully pursued graduate programs for various reasons.  Johnson benefited from an undergraduate professor who designed graduate level courses for the mathematical prodigy (she graduated from college at age 18) which eventually led her to become a primary player in the determination of flight trajectories for various space missions.  Her black professor, despite tremendous capabilities demonstrated while pursuing his PhD in mathematics, only the third ever granted to a black person, could only find employment at West Virginia College, a historically black college.  After the Brown v Board of Education ruling by the Supreme Court, some Virginia public schools were actually closed to all during the period 1956-1958 to prevent integration.    

Heaven’s Ditch: God, Gold and Murder on the Erie Canal

Heaven’s Ditch:  God, Gold, and Murder on the Erie Canal

By Jack Kelly

Published 2016

Read May 2020

This reader has spent 30+ years living in western New York and has biked and walked along the Erie canal on a regular so anticipated this book would be an interesting read to learn more about the canal’s history.  It certainly fulfilled that promise and much more. 

Pursuing a vision to connect the Hudson and Mohawk Rivers near Albany, NY with Lake Erie, 360 miles away making it the longest canal in the world was remarkable.   Knowing that the canal would have major impact on the land between the two waters, but as importantly anticipating that the canal would have major impact on the new nation itself was enough to fuel DeWitt Clinton’s drive to build the canal, even if the US government wasn’t willing to do so.  What wasn’t known well then was that the 360 mile canal would also have to enable lifting boats 600 feet along their journey and that technologies required to allow the canal to survive winters weren’t even available in the country much less the region.  Engineers didn’t have the ready knowledge or experience to accomplish this huge task but an amazing can-do spirit meant the project was funded by the state after being refused federal funds and neatly accomplished in 8 years (1817-1825).  A course was plotted through the wilds of central and western New York, water sources were found to power the huge number of locks, and the backs of locals and Irish immigrants hand-dug the canal, later supported by tools devised by self-taught engineers.  Another self-taught engineer, Canvass White, leveraged a technology he saw in the UK to use a hydraulic cement, impermeable to water, as mortar for stones vs the original plan of using timbers (with an expected short life) to build the 83 locks.  His discovery of a source of the required limestone near Syracuse, NY, and his experiments in how to make the cement allowed the locks and arches to survive decades longer than timbers could have.  Many of these structures are still visible and/or in use.    

Kelly’s telling of the building of the canal covers the “Heaven’s Ditch” part of the title.  His parallel documentation of the cultural changes in the area covers the other parts.  Another extraordinary piece of history occurred during this same period and in this same part of the country—“The Second Great Awakening”.  In many respects this aspect of the book is larger in depth and scope than the telling of the building of the canal, covering a larger time period and geographical setting.   Kelly gives the story of three people who had huge impact on the area and beyond:  Charles Finney—“The Great Evangelist”, William Miller—who predicted (incorrectly) the date of the second coming, and Joseph Smith, Jr—who founded the religion that becomes the Church of Latter Day Saints.  Each of these men provided their followers something beyond what was available in the traditional church settings of the day. 

Kelly recounts Finney’s story.  After various jobs and approaches to education, he becomes a successful revivalist.  His revivals were often held when farmers weren’t toiling in their fields allowing entire families to trek to the revival site.  The events provided stimulating, actionable words vs the dry oratory participants heard in their traditional churches.  Kelly details major revivals held in Rochester, NY. Finney stirred abolitionist fervor that spread in the area and was carried west on the canal. 

Kelly also discusses William Miller, another influential religious leader at that time.  After various struggles with his faith, wavering between the Baptist Church and Deism, he returned with vigor to the Baptist Church.  After substantial consideration of the scriptures, he calculated the date of the second coming of Christ.  He eventually revealed this and preached about this date which would be sometime in 1843 or 1844.     Although “The Great Disappointment” arrived when expectations were not met, some of his followers reconsidered his teachings and begat the Seventh Day Adventist church that continues today. 

The impact of Joseph Smith, Jr. is more widely known.  His family left financial ruin in Vermont to settle in an area of western New York that would become Palmyra, NY and that was near the coming canal. He and family members worked on the canal as it was being dug there.  Kelly provides substantial detail regarding Smith’s humble beginning, his considerations of various religious practices, how the he engaged others to believe he had received the golden plates (although no one else ever saw them) in a clearing in a nearby woods, and how he alone was able to translate and record the history of the world that was revealed to him via these plates and later via direct revelation.  Heaven’s Ditch follows his history west to Illinois and Missouri to his eventual death and describes the others he commissions as elders, including Brigham Young.  Interesting to this reader is a review about Kelly’s book in the blog of the Association for Mormon Letters, a non-profit focused on production and criticism of Mormon literature.  The reviewer has this to say: “Every Seventh-day Adventist and Mormon certainly should read this fine book, as it will inform and illuminate.”  (1)  This reader also found very interesting that as Joseph’s power over his community rose, he followed a path common to some other men rising in power in religion, business, or government—the need to fulfill a growing sexual appetite.  His approach to reconcile this passion with his church eventually led to the acceptability of having multiple “spiritual wives”.  The author lays interesting ground for consideration for readers regarding how other religions a initiate and grow. 

The fourth person he discusses in some detail is William Morgan, who wrote an exposé of the Freemason fraternal organization that played a large role in society of that time.  He is the “murder” part of the title—-he went missing shortly before his book was published and his fate was never learned although many theories were lightly considered by various investigations. 

Although Kelly’s book title likely will capture readership of those interested in the engineering feat of the Erie Canal, readers will learn at least as much about the “Second Awakening” in the United States and the role some prominent western New Yorkers played in this important aspect of US history.  Kelly’s mission-free style informs and keeps the reader well engaged.


Rosemary: The Hidden Kennedy Daughter

Rosemary:  The Hidden Kennedy Daughter

By Kate Clifford Larson

Published 2015

Read June 2019

Kate Clifford Larson is a historian and writer who offers her readers a unique view of Rosemary Kennedy, the eldest daughter of Joe and Rose Kennedy.  Many, including this reader, have some awareness that Rosemary was mentally disabled/challenged and suffered an unsuccessful treatment for her condition—which this reader understood to be a lobotomy.  That the public eventually learned this means that Rosemary was not the “forgotten” daughter of the Kennedys but the term “hidden” certainly applies well.  Larson’s careful choice of words even for the title emphasizes her careful handling of this topic.

Larson’s book provides useful background on Rosemary’s parents, especially the upbringing of Rose Fitzgerald who eventually becomes the wife of Joseph Kennedy.  Rose was raised in an educated family and Rose fully expected to attend Wellesley College but was denied this opportunity by her father, then mayor of Boston, when the local archbishop strongly discouraged it, implying negative political ramifications if she completed her plans.  Rose instead attended the Manhattanville College of the Sacred Heart where her well embedded Catholic faith was further crystallized.  She married Joseph Kennedy, son of a business and politician, who was a rival of her father’s, after a seven year courtship. 

Rosemary was the third of nine children.  The opening section of Larson’s book explains her condition:  she was held in the birth canal too long, awaiting the doctor for delivery.  He was detained due to treating others for the 1918 Spanish flu raging through the area.  This limitation of oxygen for too long impacted Rosemary’s cognitive abilities which allowed her to reach approximately fourth grade reading, writing, and math levels but not beyond.  

In 1918, support systems for families of children with various physical and cognitive challenges didn’t exist outside asylums.  Especially since Rosemary was as beautiful as the rest of the Kennedy children, and had no substantial physical limitations, Joe and Rose frankly didn’t acknowledge  her challenges until she was in grade school and wasn’t keeping up with the other students nor with her bright and active siblings.  Rather, they reprimanded Rosemary for not trying hard enough. 

Eventually Rosemary was in enrolled in the first of a long series of boarding schools that promised to address her problems.  Unfortunately incomplete communication by Rose regarding the extent of the problem and the frankly callous (this reader’s opinion) dismissal that being moved abruptly from her family to a boarding school (and on to the next and the next) would be emotionally challenging for any child, especially one with some cognitive challenges, resulted in boarding school X’s expulsion of Rosemary from their student body.  Only when the Kennedys were in Great Britain, when Joe was sent there as US Ambassador to the UK, did Rosemary find a school that provided her a sense of belonging and purpose.  She came to view her position there as assistant teacher as her day included reading to and caring for the younger children.  Unfortunately she was pulled from that school when the UK came under grave threat from Germany.

Although Rosemary had cognitive challenges, she grew into a beautiful young woman with similar feelings about her appearance, social engagements, and boys shared by her sisters and other young women.  Rose included Rosemary in presentation of her daughters to the Queen early in Joe’s tenure as Ambassador. Of course there were concerns that Rosemary might not fully understand how to behave so she was always closely monitored by her siblings and her brothers Joe and Jack provided the majority of her dance partnerships.  Sister Kit (Katherine) (2 years younger than Rosemary) initially provided Rosemary much support and guidance.  Eunice (3 years younger than Rosemary) took those reins and provided Rosemary much sisterly support throughout her life. 

Although Rose indicated in her autobiography, Times to Remember (1974) “I looked on child rearing not only as a work of love and a duty, but as a profession that was fully as interesting and challenging as any honorable profession in the world and one that demanded the best I could bring to it.”, she certainly benefited from the growing wealth provided by Joe’s businesses.  She took many long vacations by herself, leaving her children in the care of the household staff.  She certainly spent time and substantial money on finding schools and later nursing care for Rosemary as attested by the letters and detailed invoices she saved and that were given to the Kennedy Presidential library.  However she seemed to remain distant from Rosemary.  Late in Rose’s life, after Joe’s death and after Rosemary was put into care at a nursing home in Wisconsin, Rose requested her children provide Rosemary nice gifts for her birthday.  It’s not clear she actually visited Rosemary at this home, although the Kennedy wealth did build a small home for Rosemary on the facility’s ground and provided her the full-time caregivers she needed.

Larson provides the reader a very thorough look at Rosemary’s life.  This reader was impressed by and appreciated the lack of judgement of any of the Kennedys regarding their care of and interactions with Rosemary.  She fully leaves that type of conclusion to be drawn by the reader if they so choose. She leaves to the reader how to digest the information that Joe Kennedy was drawn to recent articles about the success of a type of brain surgery to cure many ails, including those Rosemary suffered.  We learn, through written correspondence, that he was cautioned by his daughter against this procedure for Rosemary.  But in his desperation to protect the family and, hopefully, to help Rosemary, the procedure is applied.  Unfortunately this left Rosemary further cognitively damaged and physically disabled as well.  She regains some of the physical capabilities lost by the cutting of her brain, but she needs full time care for the rest of her life.

 Larson acknowledges the extraordinary amount of information she found in the Kennedy Presidential Library where all of Rose’s correspondence and many invoices regarding Rosemary’s care landed following Rose’s death.  This reader is struck (again) that such information will likely not be so readily available for future historians researching subjects born and raised in the electronic era.  This reader is grateful to Larson for reviewing and using this information to provide such a detailed and view of Rosemary Kennedy and for the context of her life against the historical era in which she was born and raised.   Without that context, it would be impossible for current readers to understand how and why she was treated as she was.

Fortunately there is a positive part of this story.  Sister Eunice (Shriver) became a strong advocate for cognitively and physically challenged people.  As Executive Vice President of the Joseph P Kennedy, Jr Foundation, she shifted the organization’s focus from Catholic charities to research on the causes of mental retardation and humane treatments of it.  She was instrumental in initiating the President’s Panel on Mental Retardation in 1961 during her brother, John’s presidency.  A result of this panel was the establishment, in 1962, of the National Institute of Child Health and Development, as part of the National Institutes of Health.  In 1963 she disclosed information that Rosemary was developmentally disabled.  Her brother, the President, also spoke about this.  Eunice’s numerous efforts included establishing the Special Olympics in 1968.   Thus Rosemary Kennedy’s legacy includes prompting a radical change in how the cognitively impaired are viewed and treated.  Eunice applied her family’s prestige and wealth, and her brothers’ political positions to ensure that not only would Rosemary no longer be hidden, but that the world’s view of cognitive and physical challenges would be forever changed.

While this reader has provided much information she learned as a result of reading this book, this reader strongly recommends you read this book yourself to benefit fully from Larson’s research and writing. This reader benefitted from discussing the book with others, including a retired “special education” teacher.  These discussions helped this reader more thoroughly appreciate the wealth of information and perspective that Larson provides and the vast shift in society’s views of persons with these challenges—that are, in part due, to Rosemary Kennedy and her family.

She Has Her Mother’s Laugh

She Has Her Mother’s Laugh:  The Powers, Perversions, and Potential of Heredity

By Carl Zimmer

Published 2018

Read:  July 2019

This large (672 pages) book is quite a treasure.  Zimmer, a Yale graduate with a BA in English, has been writing about science since 1989.  He’s written 13 books including two text books:  The Tangled Bank: An Introduction to Evolution (first edition 2009, second edition 2013), the first textbook on evolution written for non-science majors, and Evolution: Making Sense of Life (coauthored with evolutionary biologist Douglas Emlen) (first edition 2012; second edition 2015; third edition to be published in 2019), a textbook for science majors.  He’s written countless articles about a range of science topics and is author of a weekly column Matter for the New York Times.    This particular book has received a large number of awards and honors from various literary organizations and this reader understands why. 

Carl Zimmer manages to help us understand how vast the concept of heredity really is and he then makes this huge field interesting and approachable.  He starts with a historical perspective about why we originally cared about heredity (who is the father, who gets the inheritance), proceeds through the concepts of bloodlines and genetics, confronts the messy eugenics movements over the ages, explores the power and problems associated purchasing your genetic information with products like, and confronts us with significant concepts regarding babies’ DNA becoming part of mom and perhaps her future offspring.  This is just a small sampling the huge number of concepts that are part of the concept of heredity.  He teaches about basic biology,  miosis, genetics, and the new gene-editing technology, CRISPR, among many other biological, evolutionary, human developmental concepts in understandable, digestible,  and engaging ways.  He uses real-life stories—his own and others—to enable understanding of the concepts and challenge the reader to understand the complexity of heredity. 

My sole criticism of the book is that the chapter titles are meaningful to Carl Zimmer, and the phrase does eventually comes up during the chapter, but the Table of Contents and chapter titles are completely useless if you’re interesting in efficiently trying to re-explore concepts in them. The index provides some help in this regard. 

While a major volume to digest, it’s well worth the effort.  This reader was fortunate to be introduced to the book through a book discussion group at a local library.  Certainly having a deadline for the conversation provided some motivation to continue reading, but the book is very extraordinary so it was easy to meet that book discussion preparation goal.  Discussing this book with others was highly useful as each reader latched onto different concepts differently and sharing the experience of reading this book and what was learned was frankly quite thrilling. 

White Rage

White Rage:  the Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide

By Carol Anderson

Published 2015

Read July 2019

Carol Anderson is Charles Howard Candler Professor of African American Studies at Emory University.  Her academic prowess as a historian is exemplified in this concise but thorough review of the continuous barrage of barriers white Americans have placed in the path of progress of their brethren black Americans.  This was a difficult book for this (white) reader to read, not because of her exceptionally clear writing, but rather because her work makes clear how much this reader didn’t know about the history of the United States.  She starts her work during the Civil War and continues through the Obanna administration.  While this reader had some familiarity with Jim Crow laws, methods to prevent blacks from voting (various techniques utilized over the decades), red-lining, unstated Jim Crow in the north, using the “drug wars” to incarcerate blacks at an unimaginable, Anderson describes the systematic aspects of these attacks clearly and concisely.  Among new learnings for this reader include the meeting Abraham Lincoln had with leaders in which it was proposed that all black Americans agree to leave the United States and make a homeland in Panama and the liberty his successor, Johnson, gave southern leaders to trod upon blacks in order to keep them happy.    These learnings are the tips of the iceberg of what Anderson has to teach. 

This book is one that should be widely read so that our understanding of the history of the United States is more accurate and so that our understanding of the on-going struggle for equality has been horribly difficult and still is

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

By Rebecca Skloot

Published 2010

Read Jan 2019

Rebecca Skloot first heard about Henrietta Lacks when taking a community college biology course.  Her professor encouraged his students to– step back and view the amazing complexity that happens in each and every cell in our body, realize that the activity is directed by the DNA in our chromosomes, and understand that an exact copy of this DNA is made during each cell division.  He explained that a small mistake in that division process can cause cells to divide uncontrollably, manifesting in what we recognize as cancer.  He explained that we know this by studying cancer cells in culture in the laboratory and that cancer cells from Henrietta Lacks were the basis of much of this study.  Skloot’s curiosity in learning more about Lacks was initiated in this class.  Her interest continued to grow and about 10 years after taking this class she initiated a focused 10 years of research about the woman Henrietta Lacks, the HeLa cell samples taken from Henrietta Lack during her treatment for aggressive cervical cancer, the history of cell culture, the revolution that HeLa cells allowed in conducting human biological research, and the ethical questions that have arisen about the use of human samples in biological research.  The eventual product was this book.

In the initial section of the book entitled “A Few Words About This Book” Skloot indicates that this book is a work of nonfiction, that the words attributed to people in the book were theirs, either recorded or written, that she maintained the dialogue they used, and that she used extensive interviews, records both public and private, peer-reviewed journal articles, and published books on relevant topics  to piece together the history of Henrietta Lacks, the history of HeLa cells that were samples of her tumor, and to describe the worlds of Henrietta and the various researchers she describes.   

This book seems to be the first to provide a full picture of Henrietta’s short thirty-one years of life.  Skloot’s reporting requires the reader to face the challenges of obtaining adequate medical care as a poor black woman and the approach of medicine in dealing with cancer at this time. 

Two ongoing themes in the book are 1)  the depersonalization that can occur when a sample is taken from a patient and it’s turned into a specimen for biological study  and 2) the financial implications of human samples that enable biological knowledge that beget life-saving commercial diagnostics and medical treatments.   Skloot pulls no punches when she describes the focus of the scientific community on the science that could be accomplished as a result of George Guy’s discovery of the immortality of the HeLa cell line and the cell culture techniques he perfects to allow its study by, eventually, myriads of laboratories world-wide.  Interestingly, Guy willingly shared the HeLa cell line and his culture techniques very broadly before devoting any energy to publishing his findings thus nearly losing any credit for his role in establishing this valuable tool set.  Although Henrietta’s cells enabled substantial biological discoveries, life-saving treatments for many diseases, and profits for cell line services, pharmaceutical companies, and royalties for inventors, the Lack family received no compensation and remained unable to afford medical treatment for themselves.  Skloot discusses the very slow recognition by the medical research community and its governing bodies that a patient should play some sort of role in determining how his/her clinical specimens be used aside from the diagnostic studies planned to directly support their medical treatment.  In the last section of the book she finally devotes attention to this particular aspect and shows that regulations actually remain somewhat murky and many questions remain unresolved, especially those regarding the millions of samples in various sample banks that were acquired before any sort of informed consent was involved or privacy concerns considered. She discusses the case of John Moore who unsuccessfully sued for ownership of the cell line created from his cancer.  Not discussed in this book are the intellectual property cases regarding patentability of DNA as the Supreme Court hadn’t ruled on these cases before publication of the book.  This situation remains murky as well.  

A substantial section of the book is devoted to the journeys she took with Deborah Lacks, Henrietta’s daughter, as they together work to learn about Henrietta’s life.  Skloot describes their road trips to places her mother and family lived, the institutions that studied Henrietta’s cells and later samples from her family members, and record holders of pertinent information.  At times this reader was uncomfortable with the detailed picture Skloot provides of Deborah, a woman then in her seventies, as almost manic on this desperate journey to learn about her mother and what happened to her and her cells.  Near the end of this section Skloot indicates that she learns late in their journey that Deborah is suffering from very high blood pressure and uncontrolled diabetes, medical issues that may explain some of her behaviors.  Did she cross the line of confidentiality?  

Unlike other works of nonfiction, Skloot does not use footnotes in the text to specify individual sources, but rather choses to describe the various types and some specific sources in a section at the end of the book.  Similarly, there is no index to contents.  Despite these “non-academic” attributes, I did not detect a clear Skloot “stand” on the ethical issues raised generally or particularly about this particular case.  Similarly, Skloot’s intentions to factually document Henrietta’s family members’ struggles to understand the situation seem to be authentic and delivered.   Sklott indicates her objectives and methods clearly in the opening of the book and the Notes sections at the end.  She has certainly delivered a piece of work that fills a big void in our understanding of the HeLa cell line, the woman from which it was derived, and the unanswered ethical questions of using human samples to understand our world.