MixedThe Wall Street Journal... replete with derring-do, suffering and failure ... Mr. Castner is an engrossing writer, which is apparent in set pieces like those featuring Dietz and the Berrys, but perhaps above all in narrating a thrilling episode in which Jack London pilots his flat-bottomed boat, the Yukon Belle, through the treacherous White Horse Rapids. He is just as skillful in conjuring the social world of the Klondike, especially in his indelible descriptions of the many boomtown settlements—Dyea, Dawson City, Skagway—that sprang up to outfit the stampeders. In these sections the author reveals an unmistakable sympathy for the few female characters who populate the book ... Given the grace of Mr. Castner’s writing, it is all the more disappointing when he occasionally lapses into folksiness ... And Mr. Castner’s insistence on using a variety of then-common racial terms like \'squaw\' and \'Negro\' is perplexing ... his deployment of such terms seems unnecessary, even gratuitous. Moreover, readers may wish that Mr. Castner had pulled back occasionally from his propulsive storytelling to help his audience discern some meaning in this cavalcade of immiseration, which had played itself out by the middle of 1899. He offers historical perspective only in a brief but provocative afterword, focusing especially on the roles of greed and irrationality in luring so many ... Mr. Castner’s larger point—that the romantic myth of the frontier continues to obscure the human costs of its absorption and exploitation—shines as brightly as a gold nugget in a mountain stream.
Alice L. Baumgartner
RaveThe Wall Street JournalGripping and poignant stories ... There is much to admire in South to Freedom, starting with Ms. Baumgartner’s dogged and extensive binational research ... Ms. Baumgartner is a fluid writer, with a natural gift for structure and pacing as well as the nicely turned phrase ... South to Freedom is at its best when Ms. Baumgartner describes, with skill and great sensitivity, the experiences of those enslaved men and women who, in resisting their oppression, bravely quit the United States altogether. Their stories challenge the glib assumption held by many Americans—those of the 19th century as well as the 21st—who have long taken for granted the idea of Mexican national inferiority. Most of all, their accounts serve as a stark reminder of the severely circumscribed nature of liberty in the antebellum United States and its tragic costs not only for the enslaved but also the republic itself.
Doug J. Swanson
PositiveThe Wall Street Journal... will thus surely discomfit some of those who pick it up, even as it confirms for others their sense that the Rangers frequently served as anything but impartial arbiters of justice.
MixedThe Wall Street JournalMr. Leerhsen himself drinks deeply from the watering hole of myth ... Mr. Leerhsen asserts that, contrary to the less-flattering portraits offered by scholarly \'sourpusses,\' Cassidy was \'a good guy, a curiously good guy, a friend to you and the bane of your oppressors—a kind of hero, really, at a time when something like war was brewing between the haves and the have-nots of the intermountain West.\' Alas, little in Butch Cassidy supports such a generous assessment ... Mr. Leerhsen is a dogged researcher, having pored over the voluminous published material about Cassidy’s life, and he tracks his subject like a Pinkerton ... Some in his audience will no doubt revel in these you-are-there set pieces. But one suspects that Mr. Leerhsen included them at least as much to establish his bona fides with fellow Cassidistas (a group that appears supremely welcoming of those who share their fixation) ... Other readers, by contrast, may be put off by the author’s folksy narrative style, which conjures Waylon Jennings’s role as the balladeer in the Dukes of Hazzard television show. Like Jennings, whose cheesy voiceovers introduced each episode and eased viewers into and out of commercial breaks, Mr. Leerhsen peppers the text with cringeworthy asides ... Mr. Leerhsen’s approach to his subject is overly intimate, leading to unsubstantiated claims on matters such as Cassidy’s populist streak, which the author raises occasionally but largely ignores. In the end, it seems that Cassidy—like most outlaws—was interested in the redistribution of wealth to the extent that it wound up in his own saddlebags ... The pre-eminent banditologist Eric Hobsbawm argued that the fascination with outlaws often says less about the brigands themselves than the societies that lionize them. Hence the legend of (the possibly fictional) Joaquín Murrieta illuminates the dispossession of California Mexicans during the Gold Rush, just as the stories about Jesse James open a window onto lingering partisan resentments in the aftermath of the Civil War. Mr. Leerhsen offers no such direction in understanding the enduring appeal of Butch Cassidy, who—one is left to conclude—is famous mostly for being famous, rescued by Hollywood from creeping oblivion. While that might offer little insight into the social conditions of the turn-of-the-century West, it speaks volumes about the peculiar American obsession with celebrity.
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalThere is no better guide to this world than Mr. Feinstein ... Mr. Feinstein’s gaze rarely crosses the Appalachians, which will no doubt distress fans of West Coast schools ... For all its appeal, The Back Roads to March misfires here and there. Sports reporting, admittedly, is a genre prone to cliché, but Mr. Feinstein is far too good a writer to describe a UMBC player having a great game as \'unconscious\'...More distracting are those moments when Mr. Feinstein makes himself the story ... Additionally, Mr. Feinstein largely avoids criticism of any kind, save for repeated (and merited) swipes at the hypocrisy of the NCAA. Given the national conversation about the astronomical cost of a college education, one might expect Mr. Feinstein to offer even brief commentary on the vast sums spent by colleges and universities on Division I basketball, where—as of 2017—hoops coaches were the highest paid public employees in eight U.S. states ... Even for a relentlessly uplifting book like this one, surely there is room for a little more clear-eyed skepticism ... On the other hand, love letters rarely traffic in doubt or other unpleasantries, and The Back Roads to March is nothing if not a long, meandering, heartfelt missive to college basketball.
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalMr. Inskeep treads little ground unfamiliar to popular and professional historians. But his absorbing tale of the Frémonts and their marriage will fascinate readers, many of whom know John only as the namesake of a local school or street or even their hometown itself ... In addition to his riveting accounts of Frémont’s peregrinations, Mr. Inskeep is especially effective in bringing to life the challenges posed by mid-19th-century communication, which depended to a great extent on letters that could arrive months after their dispatch, like rays of light emitted from stars that might have burned out long ago.
RaveThe Wall Street Journal...[a] fierce and poignant account ... On the Plain of Snakes...reveals how attentively Mr. Theroux listened to the people he met, grasping their plight and admiring their perseverance ... it should shame those among us who would revile people like María, who risk everything in the hope of securing what so many Americans take for granted: comfort, safety and, above all, a better life for their children.
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalReaders may sometimes feel overwhelmed by the scope of Mr. Taliaferro’s coverage, but few will dispute that he does justice to his subject ... While Mr. Taliaferro’s admiration for his subject is unmistakable, Grinnell is no hagiography. The man was not ahead of his time but embedded within it, acting with the lofty confidence typical of the patrician WASP milieu in which he lived and operated ... Mr. Taliaferro sums up Grinnell as \'the prototype of the city-dwelling environmentalist whose conscience and money today fuel organizations such as the Sierra Club.\'
Kristin L. Hoganson
RaveThe Wall Street JournalWhile the borders of the region may seem a bit fuzzy, Ms. Hoganson delineates the myth of the heartland ... But, as with many of our most cherished fables, the real story is more complex, and Ms. Hoganson lays it out in fascinating and convincing detail ... Ms. Hoganson’s book will surely appeal to her fellow scholars. For one thing, she stitches together insights from a slew of fields that are rarely in dialogue, including environmental and settler colonial history, as well as the study of borderlands and U.S. foreign policy, the last of which is her particular area of expertise, established by two previous books on the global roots of American consumerism and the Spanish-American War. For another, more than merely recovering the connections that have always bound the heartland to the rest of the world, Ms. Hoganson demonstrates that these linkages—seen and unseen—were essential to the growth of an incipient American empire. Lay people, by contrast, may be put off by the sprinkling of academic jargon or the digressions into works by other, less accessible historians. And while Ms. Hoganson is a marvelous writer, all but the most enthusiastic readers will skim impatiently over detailed passages about seeds, plants and weather, however important they are to her story. None of this is to detract from Ms. Hoganson’s considerable achievement.
Monica Muñoz Martinez
MixedBookforumMonica Muñoz Martinez, has published The Injustice Never Leaves You, an account that explores the contested ground between history, memory, and reckoning ... The book finally stirs to life when the author shifts from describing incidents of violence to probing how they have been forgotten or, worse, absorbed into a triumphal story about the state’s supposed progress from savagery to civilization.
RaveThe Wall Street JournalMr. Anderson writes about Oklahoma City with zeal and devotion, his rollicking prose perfectly suited to Oklahoma City’s boom mentality. He expertly deploys singular characters to illustrate the city’s strangeness, from meteorologist Gary England, who became a household name by reporting on the tornadoes that regularly menace the city, to Wayne Coyne, the lead singer of the Flaming Lips, who, as his hometown’s merry prankster, drags Mr. Anderson into various hijinks. But there are poignant and deeply compassionate sections in the book, too. Among them is a frank assessment of Oklahoma City’s tortured racial history ... Mr. Anderson certainly doesn’t seem inclined to decamp from his perch in New York. But the city demands attention. Take that, Indianapolis.
MixedThe Wall Street Journal...a condensed history of the Wild West show, homing in on the unlikely bond between Buffalo Bill and Sitting Bull … Blood Brothers offers a brisk and compassionate retelling of a familiar story, but falters at times under the weight of its author’s dogged optimism about the redemptive power of this ‘strange friendship.’