May’s Best New History Books

May has seen some monumental events over the years. Scotland and England were combined into Great Britain in May. The Haymarket Riot happened in May. The New York Stock Exchange was founded in May. It’s no surprise that this May offers an impressive list of new history books, illuminating the horrors of war, exploring a harrowing survival story, investigating the family life of one of our Founding Fathers, and more.

Legends and Lies: The Civil War, by David Fisher
A companion book to the same-titled TV special, Legends and Lies: The Civil War offers up little-known or misunderstood stories from what remains America’s bloodiest war, mining a familiar subject for intriguing tales that won’t appear in most history books, Famous figures like Harriet Tubman, Abraham Lincoln, John Singleton Mosby, Ulysses S. Grant, and William Tecumseh Sherman are featured., and the approach guarantees even your local Civil War expert will find plenty that’s new and interesting, as the stories serving to humanize the conflict and give personality to the men and women who lived through it.

Never Call Me a Hero: A Legendary American Dive-Bomber Pilot Remembers the Battle of Midway, by N. Jack Kleiss with Timothy Orr and Laura Orr
In many ways, World War II in the Pacific Theater ended on June 7, 1942, six months after the attack on Pearl Harbor that brought the United States into the conflict. At the Battle of Midway, the United States delivered a crushing defeat to the Japanese fleet, one Japan never recovered from. It’s hard to remember that armies and navies aren’t just tanks and battleships and the celebrated officers who direct them, but are composed of millions of individuals who sometimes have an outsize effect on history. One such individual was N. Jack “Dusty” Kleiss, piloting an SBD Dauntless during the battle. Kleiss dive-bombed and destroyed two key Japanese aircraft carriers, and was instrumental in sinking a third ship the next day. Convinced he was no hero, Kleiss never sought fame or fortune for his accomplishments, and his story is only told now in this remarkable book. Kleiss passed away at age 100, the last surviving dive-bomber from Midway. His legacy will live forever, and anyone seeking to understand what’s asked of the men and women fighting in a modern war would do well to read this fascinating account.

Chuck Klosterman X: A Highly Specific, Defiantly Incomplete History of the Early 21st Century, by Chuck Klosterman
Klosterman’s 10th book is chock full of on-brand contrarian pop culture criticism, taking on artists, athletes, and entertainers who are somewhat thoughtlessly reviled. Klosterman often champions bands and writers who are easily turned into jokes, viewing them as unappreciated instead of untalented. While that tendency is on full display here as he discusses the band KISS, Taylor Swift, and Jonathan Franzen, there’s also a depth and thoughtfulness to his critiques that makes reading these previously-published articles both illuminating and entertaining. He just might change your mind these about famous figures—which, in our Hot Take era, is no small feat.

The Jersey Brothers: A Missing Naval Officer in the Pacific and His Family’s Quest to Bring Him Home, by Sally Mott Freeman
Stories of World War II tend to focus on the vicious battles, the acts of heroism, and the world-changing economic changes it inspired. Freeman turns her attention to the less-discussed occupation of the Philippines by the Japanese, shortly after Pearl Harbor. In the chaos of General MacArthur’s evacuation of the island, a small number of wounded soldiers were more or less abandoned to the Japanese. One, Barton Cross (Freeman’s uncle), spent the next few years in a misery of increasingly horrifying POW camps as his family worked tirelessly to find news of him and the war in the Pacific raged on. These tales of soldiers left behind are compelling and often overlooked, and serve as a stark reminder that war is hell, and there are different kinds of courage at work in any conflict.

The Killing School: Inside the World’s Deadliest Sniper Program, by Brandon Webb with John David Mann
Brandon Webb is the man tapped by to modernize the U.S. Naval Special Warfare (SEAL) Scout/Sniper School, the training program that produced some of the most incredible snipers in U.S. military history, including the American Sniper himself, Chris Kyle. Using his own combat experience and a plethora of advanced technologies, Webb crafted a training program that not only teaches snipers to take advantage of every scrap of information their gear can offer them, but also tests their physical and mental limits in an effort to prepare them for the hardships of active duty. Our modern armed forces are an awe-inspiring combination of boots on the ground and incredible technology, and Webb’s insightful book shows how the two work in tandem to make ours the most powerful military in the world.

Churchill and Orwell: The Fight for Freedom, by Thomas E. Ricks
Context is everything. Although they lived at the same time, were born in the same country, and fought many of the same enemies, Winston Churchill and George Orwell never met, and there’s no evidence they ever even read each other’s work. Ricks places these two remarkable men side-by-side, however, and finds common ground in their shared philosophies and hatred of tyranny. A study of the lives of two men who never interacted might seem like a strange approach to history, but the result is a deeper look at the larger picture of culture and society that shaped their views, and the impact each had on the world around them.

The Best Land Under Heaven: The Donner Party in the Age of Manifest Destiny, by Michael Wallis
One of the most exciting aspects of history books are their power to clarify, reclaim, and change common perceptions of the past. The Donner Party is a horrific event most often associated with cannibalism—usually in a superficially repugnant way; it’s painted as a horror story, a lesson on human frailty, or both. Wallis takes a sober look at the incident and instead finds acts of unlikely heroism, recasting it as the story of an ill-fated wagon train populated by families determined to protect their children. This fresh look encourages us to ask ourselves what we might do if we were trapped in a wintry hell with our families, without supplies and led astray by inexperienced leaders.

The Loyal Son: The War in Ben Franklin’s House, by Daniel Mark Epstein
We’ve all learned about the ways the Civil War tore the country apart—but the Revolutionary War did much the same, as large portions of the colonies remained loyal to Britain throughout the struggle. One such loyalist was Benjamin Franklin’s own son, William, who was governor of New Jersey and sided with the British to the end. The rift between father and son was never healed, and Epstein explores their relationship before, during, and after the war in detail. The end result balances the scales somewhat, reducing Ben’s reputation as his pettiness and competitiveness with his son are analyzed, and burnishing William’s, a talented, thoughtful man whose main failing was choosing the wrong side and angering his famous father.

 

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