Wouldn’t it be great if for just one day, we could put aside politics, and the enmity that goes with it, to just enjoy Independence Day together? It’s fine to have strong opinions about how the country should be run, but let’s stop vilifying “the other side.” I have a very good friend whose political opinions are much different than mine. We will definitely not be voting for the same ticket in November, but I think it’s great that she drives as many people as she can to vote. Here are some books I think we all can appreciate for the July 4th holiday.
One of the very best patriotic books on the market has nothing to do with red states and blue states. Michelle Obama has been instrumental in trying to stem the childhood obesity epidemic in this country. By getting children involved in AMERICAN GROWN food, they develop a keener appreciation of where fruits and vegetables come from. This is especially important with inner city families, who often live in neighborhoods where fresh produce isn’t offered in neighborhood stores. TV chef Richard Irvine, working with the First Lady to improve a facility for underprivileged children in Washington, D.C., asked if anybody could name something that grows on trees. “Chocolate milk!” was the answer given by one little boy. Not only is Mrs. Obama working to make sure kids are better informed, she’s also used the White House garden as an example of what can be done when a team works together.
The book is studded with beautiful photos, and there are also some interesting facts thrown in. For example, what’s more American than apple pie? Nothing, until we learn that apples aren’t indigenous to North America; they’re originally from Asia. As a matter of fact, except for blueberries, pecans, grapes, pawpaws and Jerusalem artichokes, nearly all the fruits and vegetables we take for granted are “immigrants.” Mrs. Obama goes on to explain, “Corn and beans came from South America, lettuces and cabbages came largely from Europe. Potatoes were actually first grown in the Andean Mountains of South America.” Thomas Jefferson, a dedicated gardener himself, made potatoes popular in America by serving them at the White House. Tomatoes were thought unhealthy by many, and were only considered acceptable food after the Civil War. Today, Americans eat more than twelve million tons of tomatoes every year.
I especially like the section on how the White House Garden paid tribute to Native Americans, and the fact that they were invited to participate. Last year, American Indian and Alaskan Native youth got together in June for a ceremony celebrating the planting of the “Three Sisters,” corn, beans, and squash. The seeds were donated by The National Museum of the American Indian. As Mrs. Obama notes, the natives helped European settlers grow crops in the New World. It’s doubtful the newcomers would have survived otherwise.
Great respect is shown for previous First Ladies, especially Lady Bird Johnson. She was dedicated to preserving and protecting native plants not only in her home state of Texas, but also across the country. I love the poignant story about her last days. Mrs. Johnson chose to live in a home in West Austin largely because she loved the view of the flowering evergreen madrone tree in the front yard. Strangely, as Mrs. Johnson’s health declined, so did the health of the tree. When she passed away, the tree died not long after. Are we connected to the growing things around us? Absolutely. I’m recommending this book for all of us who love to eat, and for everyone who enjoys learning about our world. Throw in the fact that there are some tasty recipes included, and eating better for good health is very appealing, indeed.
While the First Lady’s book is perfect to read with kids, there are two other children’s books I’d also like to recommend. HANGING OFF JEFFERSON’S NOSE is written by Tina Nichols Coury, who has been fascinated by the Mount Rushmore story her whole life. The Sally Wern Comport illustrations enhance the tale. Few people know that while sculptor Gutzon Borglum first proposed carving the presidents into the side of a South Dakota mountain, it was his son Lincoln who actually completed the task. The fourteen year project presented many challenges. Lincoln was able to meet them because he had learned every job himself, starting literally from the ground up. The four hundred workmen grew to respect him, and when the project was finished on October 31, 1941, Lincoln personally shook everyone’s hand, and then placed a wreath in honor of his dad.
Verla Kay’s CIVIL WAR DRUMMER BOY tells of a young boy who joined up with the Confederate army, not knowing anything about the realities of war. Boys as young as nine volunteered to fight, and the youngest learned to drum out rhythms which conveyed orders to the soldiers. The book is written in verse; illustrations by Larry Day are equally lyrical. When the war is over, the boy goes home and farms his cotton near the now freed former slaves.
THE PRESIDENTS CLUB is the masterpiece work which is currently on the New York Times Bestsellers List. It’s a great tribute to authors Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy that readers are finding the tome, which is over five hundred pages long, to be more fascinating than daunting. The subtitle “Inside the World’s Most Exclusive Fraternity” refers to the political and personal relationships among the country’s modern presidents. The club was organized by Harry Truman and Herbert Hoover, at the inauguration of Dwight Eisenhower. The purpose was altruistic, and the guidance provided by the men who became members has been immeasurable. The research involved in the writing of the book is staggering, encompassing hundreds of interviews, and bringing to light previously secret documents. Readers are taken into the oval office as Eisenhower writes out in longhand what Johnson should say to the Congress after Kennedy’s assassination; we’re present for the battle between Nixon and LBJ; and we learn how Obama quizzed Reagan’s team about how to stay focused. This isn’t your typical summer book, and if you plan to read it on the beach, bring plenty of sunblock; you’ll be there a long time. But it’s well worth the time required; what a treasure trove of information for any history buff!
Truly something for everyone this Independence Day. Happy July 4th and happy reading.
Michall Jeffers is an accomplished Cultural Journalist and an avowed bibliophile. She writes extensively, both in print and online. Her eponymous cable TV show is syndicated throughout the tri-state area, and features celebrity interviews, reviews, and commentary. Michall is a voting member of National Book Critics Circle.