Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Book Review: American Colonies by Alan Taylor


Disclaimer #1: This post is not the most flattering portrayal of myself that I've ever written. At best it could be considered naïve or uninformed, at worst arrogant and full of anglophile-ism (if that's even a word). In an attempt to keep my blog and the image I give to the online community honest, I'm doing my best not to smooth over any rough edges or cover up unflattering details. Why? First, no one likes an insufferable know-it-all. Second, I believe flaws are what make us unique, interesting and human. Besides, by admitting my shortcomings, I believe I am doing more to improve them, than sweeping them under the proverbial rug. Read to the end for #2.

Ok, so now that I've gotten that long-winded rant off my chest, I'll explain what I mean. The title of this book is "American Colonies: the Settling of North America". I will admit, there were two reasons I was reading this book. 1) one of my undergraduate professors recommended it as an overview book I should finish before beginning my PhD studies. 2) read disclaimer #2. So after finding it at the local library, I didn't even bother to read the subtitle or the description on the back. Me reading it was a done deal. I confess, I thought it was going to be about the British Colonies in North America, or what later became the original thirteen United States. I recognize that this misconception comes from my focus on United States history as a U.S. citizen and as a future scholar of United States history. It's what I know and what I like, can't really say it any other way. I hear "American Colonies" and I immediately think of the 13 colonies that fought in the Revolutionary War. This thought process of course belittles the millions of people that came before the 13 colonies and the countless other cultures that existed at the time (not my intention at the time, but I am aware that I did it and I'm working on it).

Well, had I paused to read the subtitle, the inside cover, or the back jacket, I would have quickly realized I was wrong. The book was really a history of the relations between Europeans and Natives in Northern America. Now, that's not to say that had I realized my mistake earlier, I wouldn't have read it. I would have for the two reasons listed above. I also think that this history is an integral part of where we came from as Americans and is often under studied, under appreciated, and even ignored. It has implications for our culture that we can't even begin to recognize or appreciate. I also think it's really important not to gloss over past indecencies, to put it lightly, or mistreatment, abuse, and massacres, to put it bluntly.

That being said, it's really not my area of interest. I appreciate its value, but really have no desire to devote my professional career to its study. But, (and here is where disclaimer #2 comes in), I still enjoyed the book. Not as much as I thought I would, but I did like it. The writing is unbelievable. Even just the introduction blew me away. Each sentence appears to be crafted with the utmost care and the word choice is precise and exact. Rather than reading like a list of facts, each story is woven and shared, not recited. For an overview of history, the book is detailed and thorough. I particularly liked the organization of the chapters. Instead of explaining the history based solely on chronology, Taylor, broke the book up into regions or empires (French, Spanish, English and Russian). Of course time does play a certain role, but I didn't feel like I was marching along to dates on a calendar.

I also think Taylor does a remarkable job of not demonizing or saint-izing (I know that's not a word but I don't really know what the equivalent would be) any group or peoples. Of course, colonies are bound to deserve a particularly tough rap for the diseases and destruction they unleashed on the environment and the native peoples they encountered. But, Taylor does a really good job of explaining where so many of the misconceptions and misunderstandings came from. Additionally, the native peoples weren't entirely faultless, as many groups, tribes and cultures embraced and encouraged violence and warfare. There really isn't an easy way to describe or explain the conflicts without pissing someone off, but I think Taylor does as good of a job as anyone possible could.

To sum up: if you are interested in the history of the natives of North America and their interactions with the European colonists, this book is a must read. For everyone else, it's also worth reading, but isn't exactly summer beach reading material.

Disclaimer #2: The author of this book is my future mentor in my PhD program, so I believe I am probably more than a little biased in my review. Feel free to take my words with a grain, or many, of salt.

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