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I'm author of The Snipesville Chronicles. I'm also a published academic historian, but don't hold that against me.Oh, and I'm a Brit. I just happen to live in Georgia.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Book Review: Learning to See The Land ***

Annette's note: This is not a book for kids, although kids may well like the pictures and some of the text. So this rating does NOT incorporate the opinion of Alec, my son/kid assistant. I review it because it is a book that can be used with and for kids.

Burton K. Kummerow, Christine H. O'Tooler, and R. Scott Stephenson, Pennsylvania's Forbes Trail: Gateways and Getaways Along the Legendary Route From Philadelphia to Pittsburgh (2008)

I first learned how to "see" rural western Pennsylvania in 1993, in the company of Pastor Weiser, an ordained Lutheran minister who used his many personal connections in the area to take visitors beyond the tourist trail. Our group, from throughout the University of California system, had been studying Early America in Colonial Williamsburg for three months. Now, we made contact with the colonial past's tenuous survival into the present, as we travelled among the German-Americans of Lancaster County. We visited a market staffed by Amish and Mennonite farmers in their otherworldly costumes, and pondered how deep the food roots of the amazingly artificial "traditional" Whoopie Pie could possibly go. We climbed the stairs of a rural house, and met an eighty-year-old Amish bookbinder at work. We descended to a church basement for a scrumptious lunch of Pennsylvania "Dutch" grub cooked by Pennsylvania "Dutch" ladies, while a cheesy but earnest local duo sang German-American folk songs. Pastor Weiser kept us grounded, as did all the Pennsylvanians we met: These locals not quaint relics, but real and complex people who inhabited the same world as us. This tour was worth a million boring roadside "historic landmarks."

It was the memory of this day in Pennsylvania, and my realization that I have so many vivid memories of it, that piqued my interest in Pennsylvania's Forbes Trail: Gateways and Getaways Along the Legendary Route From Philadelphia to Pittsburgh.

Published to commemorate this year's 250th anniversary of the French and Indian War, the book's timing is not altogether lucky: This is not so much a book for reading as it is a luxurious road trip guide. As I write, gas is pushing $4 a gallon, so it might actually work better as a guide for the armchair traveler.

That said, and assuming that the road trip has any future, this is an intriguing and creative approach to engaging visitors in the presence of the past.

Inviting the reader to retrace the route through western Pennsylvania taken by the British and Colonial joint forces during the French and Indian War, the book focuses on John Forbes , a Scottish officer who won military victory, brokered careful negotiations with Indian allies of the French and pacifist Quakers, and generally set about winning hearts and minds as well as battlefield victory. The creators are upfront in their hope that this story will serve as a model in an age when we have been more inclined to resort to saber-rattling and aggression than to diplomacy. Fair enough.

True, the muddy trail that Forbes, his men, and others followed has since mostly given way to asphalt. But despite dramatic changes in the landscape, the Pennsylvania of the 1750s has not vanished. Even the original unpaved road has been preserved in part, the authors tell us, and is open to the public. Some of the taverns on what is now called the Old Lancaster Road, such as the General Warren Inne in Malvern, already existed in the mid-eighteenth century. Looking for colonial survivals, and understanding that things aren't always as young (or old) as they seem is a great way for everyone to learn to think historically.

Recognizing that most vacationing families who might undertake the quest lack the obsessiveness of historians, however, the authors envision the trip as one that should be broken up with distractions. Capsule descriptions not only of historic sites and museums, but also of restaurants and even theme parks, offer plenty of advice for breaking up the journey.

While a journey through the area with this guide will encourage travelers to take a deeper interest in the environment—both built and natural—it would have been even better to have included a broader focus on the region's people, both past and present. Longer excerpts from letters and diaries (rather than indirect quotations with snippets of the original, more readable, language don't cut it) would have helped, as well would interviews with modern residents. The engaging and vivid illustrations help distract from the often ponderous text.

My question for the book's creators is whether they were interested in cultivating the broadest possible audience. Was it tested with families? If the intention was always to appeal to a niche audience of military history geeks, fair enough. But the theme and tone of the text may be offputting to anyone who doesn't fall in that group, and that's a shame.

Anyone considering writing future guides like this should think hard about producing a book that will actually have wide appeal. There is a great fear in America of dumbing down history by making it accessible, and we cut off too many people's interest in the past by limiting the scope and appeal of public history. It doesn't have to be military history to be history, nor does it have to rely on dense text. The sooner that we recognize this, the faster we can rescue historical literacy from the abyss.

Homeschoolers and teachers: Use with caution. Read through and think about this book before you hit the road, and be prepared to put in some work to use it effectively. Resist the temptation to read large portions of the dry narrative aloud to the family or your students. Instead, translate it into your own words. Plan your own narrative. This book doesn't teach kids well, but, with it as a guide, you can.

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