WEST OF THE REVOLUTION: An Uncommon History of 1776
By Claudio Saunt
Norton, 288 pp., $27.95
Most of us grew up learning about the birth of our country through stories of the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, or the battles at Lexington and Concord. But thousands of miles away, events were unfolding throughout 1776 that would profoundly shape the places and peoples we think of as central to the American story. Along Alaska's Aleutian Islands, Russians trapped and traded for furs to supply a booming global market that spread as far east as China; a thousand miles south, the leaders of New Spain sent missionaries to claim California for their own church and crown. In both cases European interests collided with the people who were already there.
A history professor, Cladio Saunt spins a tale as compelling and awful as a ghost story. Time and again, encounters that begin with transactions — in furs, crops, or religion — end in exploitation, violence, genocide. The vast, unwieldy continent, in Saunt's masterful portrait, seems itself to be a symbol of ungovernable resistance. "You would not quite believe the brigandage, the insubordination, and the libertinage that reigns here," noted one colonial administrator of his post in the much-contested territory of the middle Mississippi. The 1763 Treaty of Paris had dictated the twisting river as the national boundary between Spanish and English colonial interests; one example, Saunt points out, of how "the lives of North Americans were upended by events that originated half a world way," mostly by people who had never set eyes on the continent. One persistent undercurrent to Saunt's narrative is how much history hinges on misunderstanding and ignorance, along with greed and fear — not a pretty picture, but a necessary and timely addition to the heroic creation story we celebrate on July 4.
NORTH OF NORMAL: A Memoir of My Wilderness Childhood, My Unusual Family, and How I Survived Both
By Cea Sunrise Person
Harper, 352 pages, $25.99
Cea Person's grandparents met as teenagers, bonding over their shared loved of nature and the outdoors. The family they raised eschewed convention, for good and ill: Cea's grandfather, Papa Dick, railed against the government and conventionality while his wife and daughters embraced marijuana. Everyone went in for nudity and a free attitude toward sexuality. When Cea was a toddler, the clan went completely off the grid, living in a teepee in Canada, a daylong trip away from the nearest town. "We slept beneath layers of bearskins with heated rocks in our beds," Person writes, "but even then, we woke up with icy ears and snot frozen to the tips of our noses."
Accounts of early childhood are tricky — too many details and it's impossible to trust the writer's memory — but Person navigates the challenge with real grace. Her clear-eyed memoir captures her family's quest and its collapse without bitterness. Despite her family's many (many!) instances of lousy judgment, Person writes lovingly that, "if nothing else, they were good at seeing the humor in their predicaments."
MOONSHINE: A Cultural History of America’s Infamous Liquor
By Jaime Joyce
Zenith, 208 pages, $25
Moonshine stems from the most American of roots — tax evasion. Appalachian farmers who distilled their own grain into homemade whiskey took the whole production underground (or at least well hidden in the region's forested hollers) to avoid the tax bill. More than once, moonshiners rose up against government agents attempting to collect, most notably in the 1794 Whiskey Rebellion, put down by President Washington, himself a home distiller (though in his case a legal one: He paid his taxes). Illegal stills proliferated, especially during Prohibition, when one unlikely moonshiner, an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School, was caught making his own booze for "dances and other social affairs." Moonshine went into decline, but not before spawning another American classic: NASCAR, born of booze runners in the American southland.
In this, her first book, journalist Jaime Joyce writes with a fizzy vigor, clearly savoring the stories of old-time moonshiners and their world. Yet one wishes she’d followed some of the uglier paths her topic suggests — when one distiller attacks a suspected government informant, she notes that he “dressed in a Ku Klux Klan costume” but fails to follow the thread. These days, moonshine is back, no longer “an underground endeavor,” but a celebration of “folk art,” and the book peters out as it turns to the artisanal Brooklyn distillers who lovingly craft it.
ZOOM: How Everything Moves, From Atoms and Galaxies to Blizzards and Bees
By Bob Berman
Little, Brown, 336 pp., $27
This vastly entertaining book provides a nifty set of physics lessons by looking at motion: how things move and why. This is invaluable for everyone who once knew Newton's three laws and would like a refresher, but it is much more fun than that. Bob Berman, a veteran astronomy writer, knows how to make science accessible — gossipy even, as one of the book's more persistent threads is a cataloging of the nastiness of many famous scientists (Hubble, of telescope fame, was "haughty and unpleasant").
Berman's goal is slightly loftier than just to amuse us, though. We are hard-wired to notice things that move quickly, Berman points out; but even the slowest and steadiest of processes — our constantly expanding universe, to name the largest example — deserve our attention.
Kate Tuttle, a writer and editor, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.