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American Colonies by Alan Taylor [Sep. 14th, 2011|10:29 pm]

I bought this book for the usual reasons: good reviews, good blurb, and a decent design. But apparently I should have been looking more closely, because what I didn’t see were the words “The Penguin History of the United States”, or “Volume 1”. Had I known that, this book would probably still be on the shelf at the bookstore. I didn’t really want what
was supposed to be the first volume of a general history, I wanted a self-contained work.

This isn’t to say that it was all bad, or that I didn’t learn anything. But the book has another big problem, and that was that a lot of the material was familiar. I hate sounding like a broken record, but the big stuff that would shock those brought up on jingoistic history was already covered by Lies My Teacher Told Me, but in a more condensed and gut-wrenching fashion. The first few chapters of this book, when the brushstrokes on the author’s narrative are particularly broad, are really, really dull if you’ve read Loewen.

The first chapters also introduced something of a quandary that lasted throughout the book: the author frequently would gloss over or not go into much detail on a topic where I knew there was more to the story. This was just annoying at first, because I could reference other sources (not just LMTTM, but also The Oxford History of the British Empire) to fill in the bits that I knew were missing. But it became more of a problem when I got into material that I didn’t really know (for example, about the French colonial efforts in Canada). It wasn’t that there was obviously something missing, the story did make sense as presented. But just as I had discovered earlier that the book hadn’t told the whole truth about some things, I wondered if I was only getting part of the story about the topics being covered. The end of the book wasn’t much help: there are no notes, only a bibliographic list organized by chapter, and by topic within the chapter. Besides specifically frustrating, that just strikes me as a little sloppy.

As far as readability goes, the book gets an “ok”. Not gripping, not usually exciting, I am skeptical the book will hold much appeal to those who aren’t already interested in history…though, if this is the first time someone is reading about the dark underside of the history they think they know, maybe they’ll have a different reaction. The chapter sections are generally well divided: its broken up by area and also time period, which does keep you refreshed about the various interconnected areas of North American colonization as the book progresses. The book also has frequent section breaks within the chapters, which I found very convenient since I still do a lot of my reading at work.

So, where I wind up after reading it is that I have certainly learned things, and the book might turn out to be handy for reference in the future. But I also have some doubts that the book is truly definitive about any of the history it covered, and because of that doubt I can’t recommend it. It gets a wary “ok”, and neither more nor less than that.