Summer, when I was a kid, meant weekend road-trips in our family Rambler to sites of historical interest. We'd pack up deviled-ham sandwiches and Cokes and make pilgrimages from our apartment in Queens to Teddy Roosevelt's house on Long Island or Washington Irving's house in Westchester. Sometimes there were longer expeditions to Valley Forge and, once, Williamsburg. I'm not sure how much history I absorbed; I mostly remember a lot of candle-making demonstrations. But, forever after, summer, to me, has been the season for traveling back in time, either by hitting the road or, happily, hitting the books.
The Greater Journey: Americans In Paris
By David McCullough, hardcover, 576 pages, Simon & Schuster, list price: $37.50
David McCullough is about as dependable as they come if you're in the mood for a narrative history that sweeps you, through luscious detail and anecdote, into a bygone age. His beguiling new book is called The Greater Journey and it departs from works like 1776 and John Adams in that it digs deep, not into a historical event or personage, but, rather, into a cultural trend. Between 1830 and 1900, scores of young Americans with ambitions to be painters, architects, doctors and scientists sailed to the Old World to soak up the education the New World couldn't offer.
Or, as McCullough puts it: "Not all pioneers went west." Specifically they traveled to Paris. Some, like Mary Cassatt and Oliver Wendell Holmes, are familiar names; others, like the educator Emma Willard and Mary Putnam — the first American woman to graduate from a French medical school — are revelations. McCullough evokes a vision of early 19th-century Paris crowded with restaurants and gambling houses, but his greatest achievement is the realization he gives readers of how new America still was back then, sans medical schools and serious art academies. He writes of American travelers in the 1830s seeing their first glimpse of the medieval cathedral at Rouen. The Americans were agog, McCullough notes, because:
The largest building in the United States at the time was the Capitol in Washington. ... Even the most venerable houses and churches at home ... dated back only to the mid-17th century. So historic a landmark as Philadelphia's Independence Hall was not yet a hundred years old.
The Final Storm: A Novel Of The War In The Pacific
By Jeff Shaara, paperback, 480 pages, Ballantine Books, list price: $28
McCullough's book is essentially about building civilization; Jeff Shaara's novel, The Final Storm, is about destruction on an almost unfathomable scale. The Final Storm chronicles the Pacific campaign during World War II; it's the fourth in Shaara's series about the war and works both as a standalone novel and as the conclusion to that series. There are no post-modern literary tricks here; instead, Shaara is a master — in the Herman Wouk, Kenneth Roberts mode — of the kind of character-driven, plot-heavy page-turner that most of us think of when we think "historical novel."
In his introduction, Shaara reminds us of some of the staggering numbers of the Pacific Campaign: the two-week assault on Saipan resulted in 14,000 American deaths; Iwo Jima, 26,000 American casualties and only 300 Japanese prisoners taken alive out of the 20,000 defending the island. The Final Storm is a vivid literary addition to films like Letters from Iwo Jima and Flags of Our Fathers — all of which underscore the peculiar brutalities and sometimes under-recognized sacrifices of the War in the Pacific.
Nothing Daunted: The Unexpected Education Of Two Society Girls In The West
By Dorothy Wickenden, hardcover, 304 pages, Simon & Schuster Adult, list price: $26, pub. date: June 21
My last recommendation is a potentially annoying one because readers will have to sit tight for a couple of weeks before they get their hands on Dorothy Wickenden's "alternative Western" called Nothing Daunted. But, I promise you, it's worth the wait. Wickenden, who is the executive editor of The New Yorker magazine, has written a superb biography that charts the adventures of her grandmother and her grandmother's best friend — society girls and Smith College graduates — who, in the summer of 1916, set out to become schoolteachers in the isolated settlement of Elkhead, Colo. Relying on photographs and letters that the women sent back to their anxious parents in Auburn, N.Y., Wickenden summons up the last moments of frontier life, where books were a luxury and, when blizzards hit, homesteader's children would ski miles to school on curved barrel staves. David McCullough may tell us that "Not all pioneers went west," but some unlikely ones sure did, and Nothing Daunted also reminds us that different strains of courage can be found, not just on the battlefield, but on the home front, too.