Jennifer Armstrong and illustrator Roger Roth‘s new book (Random House, 8/06) makes me feel dang near obsolete. Since I got hold of a copy a few weeks back, it has ignited in my seven-year-old a history-loving fire much stronger than anything I’ve managed to spark in the past couple of years of trying.
The premise of The American Story is simple: 400-odd years of U.S. history told through 100 stories (starting with the founding of what became St. Augustine, Florida) spread out over 358 pages. Armstrong mostly sticks to the “true tales” promised on the cover, though she does include the legend of John Henry as well as the commonly told story of the creation of the potato chip, only to dismiss that telling as hooey.
What she doesn’t do is stick to the stories readers might expect. There’s no Christopher Columbus and no 9/11, as she ends her narrative with an optimistic take on the 2000 election. In between, there’s no Gettysburg Address, Black Tuesday, Pearl Harbor, D-Day, March on Washington, Lee Harvey Oswald, or Space Shuttle disaster.
Instead, Armstrong offers a magnificent mish-mash of stories both familiar and obscure. (Nobody in this house had ever heard of Boston’s Great Molasses Flood of 1919, but we’re glad we have now.) She connects them throughout with often surprising post-story notes glancing backwards or ahead, such as the one tying Jonas Salk’s polio vaccine back to Pocahontas’ death from smallpox. The ethnic and cultural balance she brings to the proceedings is eye-opening as well.
As big an undertaking as this was for Armstrong (she gets bonus points for writing the first children’s book — as far as I know — to identify Mark Felt as Deep Throat), Roth had his work cut out for him, too. His illustrations grace every story, and his style manages to be at once sober enough for the serious tales (such as the one about the Johnstown flood) and cartoonish enough for the lighthearted ones (e.g. Ben Franklin’s failed attempt to electrocute a turkey).
There’s no better taste of what you’ll find in this book than the adjacent stories from 1981 and 1982: “Pac-Man Fever” and “The Wall.” The former delights in how a nation went bonkers over so simple a game and ushered in a new era of popular entertainment. In the latter, Armstrong offers a breathtaking description of the Vietnam memorial while Roth reflects the text with an equally powerful image spread over two full pages. Like the Wall itself, The American Story is a monumental work.
Other blog posts on The American Story:
Jennifer Armstrong publicity etc’s Spluttering indignation
Redneck Mother’s School’s out
Susan VanHecke’s It’s Alive! Bringing History To Life With Jennifer Armstrong And Jonah Winter
Big A little a’s Jennifer Armstrong interview