The best history books to evoke “who knew?”

The Books I Picked & Why

The Real All Americans: The Team That Changed a Game, a People, a Nation

By Sally Jenkins

Book cover of The Real All Americans: The Team That Changed a Game, a People, a Nation

Why this book?

In 1907, at the Carlisle Indian School (Carlisle, PA), a scrappy Native American football team coached by Pop Warner invented the passing game and revolutionized the game of football as it was being played by the Ivy League schools with deadly results. (So many players were dying from injuries, President Teddy Roosevelt almost banned the game in 1905.) Sally Jenkins’ book is eye-opening history that throws open the doors to the Carlisle Indian School and grippingly tells the story of how the “Carlisle Redmen,” as they were called, became the darling of the nation, and eventually took on Harvard in a legendary 1912 game pitting two young running backs against each other: Jim Thorpe and Dwight Eisenhower.

If you’re a football fan and/or have an interest in Native American history, this book entertains with Pop Warner’s famous trick plays (e.g., the “hidden ball trick”) and the Harvard boys performing the first “endzone dance,” and illuminates as Jenkins presents the historical milieu and racism Native Americans faced while the Carlisle Indians were winning fans and changing hearts.

I found this non-fiction jewel so riveting, it inspired me to write my first historical fiction novel.

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In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex

By Nathaniel Philbrick

Book cover of In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex

Why this book?

For me, the “Who knew?” of this true tale of the sea cuts through the mists of the past three ways. 1) How the island of Nantucket in the 1800s became an enclave of pacifist Quakers practicing the bloody art of whaling is a story by itself. 2) The whale always swimming under the surface—should you have read Herman Melville’s great novel, Moby Dick—is of Melville being inspired by the story of the Essex taking on the wrong whale. 3) The book also reads like a non-fiction sequel to Moby Dick as it details the desperate ordeal the surviving crew members of the Essex faced—and what they eventually ate—during their epic journey across the Pacific in search of land.

No “fish story,” In the Heart of the Sea gets to the heart of human perseverance.

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Fifty-Nine in '84: Old Hoss Radbourn, Barehanded Baseball, and the Greatest Season a Pitcher Ever Had

By Edward Achorn

Book cover of Fifty-Nine in '84: Old Hoss Radbourn, Barehanded Baseball, and the Greatest Season a Pitcher Ever Had

Why this book?

Are you a baseball fan who grumbles about modern players being overpaid and coddled? If so, this book will transport you to baseball’s roughest epoch, and reward you with a ballbag of “Who knew?”s as to how the game was played and fought in the late 1800s. Back then, a different species of men took the field, men who would not recognize our 21st-century diamond dancers, who slip on gloves for every occasion: catching, batting, even sliding.

A quick sampler of Who Knew?s. In 1884, an ump commanded, “Striker-up!” A pitcher could hit a batter as many times as he wanted, and the batter had to take it. The pitcher could be fined for such abuse, but the only way a batter got to first was by hitting the ball. A pitcher could “twirl the sphere” and baffle the hitter until the pitches “twisted his mental trolley.” A twisted mental trolley could lead to a player having “a case of the sulks.“ The “dudes and dudines” in the stands called offending players “white-livered boobies!” The team that won the pennant “captured the rag.”

The hero of this story of yore is Hoss Radbourn, a ballplayer who pitched a season like no other, and whose exploits off the field were just as jaw-dropping when baseball was played, managed, and owned by a league of sinners. It would take another seventy-five years of cleaning up the game before baseball was sanctified: “As American as baseball, Mom, and apple pie.”

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Benjamin Franklin: An American Life

By Walter Isaacson

Book cover of Benjamin Franklin: An American Life

Why this book?

The Benjamin Franklin most of us know—from the bullet points of our schooling to the placid face on the one-hundred-dollar bill—is a stick figure compared to the flesh-and-blood Ben Franklin who leaps from the pages of this book like a Tasmania devil. Yes, Franklin is one of the more famous of our founding fathers, but he’s lesser known for being the father of a bastard, William Franklin, who fathered his own bastard, William Temple Franklin, who went on to become his grandfather’s secretary in the decades Ben Franklin spent in England and France as America’s diplomat before and during the War of Independence.

Isaac’s biography constantly reveals truths behind the legend. Who knew 16-year-old Franklin became a prodigal son when he fled his brother’s Boston printshop (where he was bound as an apprentice) and ran away to Philadelphia? Who knew young Franklin was such an excellent swimmer that a swimming buddy almost convinced him to go on tour to do aquatic exhibitions and teach? Who knew that Franklin, the scientist who liked to play with lightning, discovered the Gulf Stream, Nor’easters, and as the colonies’ deputy postmaster initiated the first home delivery of mail? Franklin’s list of firsts is just one of the many threads in this beautifully woven Persian carpet of a book.

What’s most impressive is how the Ben Franklin of the 18th century Age of Enlightenment comes across as so utterly modern that if he walked out of the book into the 21st century, he would fit right in. Part of his modernity is that the life he lived created a particularly American concept: the full-on celebrity. As well as a polymath, Ben Franklin was America’s first superstar. Who knew?

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PrairyErth: A Deep Map

By William Least Heat-Moon

Book cover of PrairyErth: A Deep Map

Why this book?

The “deep map” that Least Heat-Moon unfolds for us in this revelatory book is the history of Chase County, Kansas, home of the largest and least corrupted stand of tallgrass in America. He takes us with him—by car, on foot, and in mind—as he explores this story-rich land, its plants, animals, and the homespun people who have struggled to occupy this forbidding landscape.

In one breath, he reminds us it was the tall grasses of the African savannah that first made humankind stand up. In another, he tells us that the humans who peer across America’s tall grasses have “prairie eyes.” In “a place where you see twenty miles sitting down,” you have prairie eyes if you take in the horizon with stoic calm, knowing it can bring the deliverance of rain or the destruction of a tornado, dust storm, prairie fire (the “red buffalo”), or locusts. 

Least Heat-Moon reports affectionately of the people who refused to let the elements evict them from the windswept prairie. Some neighbors—which may be miles away—are considered “a half bubble off plumb.” But neighborly they are. My favorite anecdote is about a woman who lost her husband to a tornado, along with her dentures. A couple of years later, a neighbor riding his horse found some dentures on a rock. Remembering the widow’s loss, he mailed the dentures to her in Oklahoma where she had moved. She wrote back, thanked him, and told him they still fit just fine.

The author writes, “Indians widely believe that the past belongs to everyone, but only the proper storyteller can open it.” Least Heat-Moon is such a storyteller. He “walks in the stories of this place” and regales us with a deep narrative of a travel writer achieving the ultimate goal: he makes us want to go there.

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