Thursday, January 10, 2013

Fiona Halloran

Fiona Deans Halloran teaches history at Rowland Hall-St. Mark's School in Salt Lake City, Utah. Her new book is Thomas Nast: The Father of Modern Political Cartoons.

Last year I asked the author about what she was reading. Halloran's reply:
My reading these days veers wildly between books that interest me for some reason and books I’ve assigned to students. One price of teaching such smart, thoughtful young people is that I have to keep up. I don’t mind – even with books I’ve read before my school-related reading introduces me to new ideas and reminds me of my favorite stories in American history.

One such book, which I finished for the third time last week, is John Mack Faragher’s Daniel Boone. Tracing Boone’s life from his origins in a Quaker-dominated village settled by his grandparents to his death in Missouri, Faragher encouraged me to watch the settlement of Kentucky from a variety of perspectives. For Boone, it was an adventure, a challenge, a business and a vocation. For many settlers from North Carolina and Virginia, Kentucky represented freedom from planter domination. Native people, especially the Shawnee, feared the aggression of white settlers and sought to protect hunting lands. Faragher’s greatest strength lies in his ability to celebrate cultural conflict as the result of cascading, interconnecting accidents. But for this, everything might have been different. But for that, Boone might not have found himself trapped inside a besieged fort, dodging bullets and sympathizing with his daughter Jemima (who had been shot in the rear end).

I love American history. I’ve loved it since I learned to read. But European history is like a guilty pleasure. It’s that secret slug of eggnog you grab when no one’s looking. Whenever I can steal some time from my work-related and research-related reading, I reach for something European.

Right now, I’m reading Douglas Smith’s Former People. Tracing the lives of aristocrats during the Russian Revolution, the book reveals a side of early Soviet history I’ve never encountered. He builds the book around two families – the Sheremetovs and the Golitzyns – but the cast of characters rivals The Forsyte Saga. They all suffer. Many die. Some sympathize with the Revolution, some resist it. Some escape, others remain in Russia for honor, stubbornness, or patriotism. Smith can explain complicated ideas (like the bizarre and unpredictable reconstruction of “class” by the Soviet government in the 20s) with admirable clarity. But his sensitive tone and obvious sympathy for his subjects helps bring them back to life.

It’s such a sad, terrible story that at times I have to put it down. And of course, like so much history, there ain’t no happy ending.
Learn more about Thomas Nast at The University of North Carolina Press website.

My Book, The Movie: Thomas Nast.

--Marshal Zeringue