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The American Story: 100 True Tales from American History    by Jennifer Armstrong & Roger Roth order for
American Story
by Jennifer Armstrong
Order:  USA  Can
Knopf, 2006 (2006)
* * *   Reviewed by J. A. Kaszuba Locke

Open the cover to this hefty oversized hardcover (over 350 pages) to the face page starring the Statue of Liberty with the torch of light in the right hand, and in her left hand an open book, as she leans her head forward to read! It is just the first of Roger Roth's wonderful, colorful portrait-like illustrations accompanying Jennifer Armstrong's The American Story: 100 True Tales from American History. On the jacket, Uncle Sam beats a bass drum while leading a parade of characters traveling on foot, on horseback, and by covered wagon. They include an astronaut in a space uniform; Benjamin Franklin carrying a kite; and a boy pulling his full wagon of newspapers to make deliveries (can you hear him calling out the day's headline?)

Contents cover five major categories. Jennifer Armstrong begins with Settlement Colonies, from year 1565 First City continued through Brave New World, year 2000 The Election. In her Introduction, she writes, 'This is a book of stories. They're all true stories - each one a portrait of an event or person in our history. Together, these stories tell a much larger one: the story of our country ... not a comprehensive or traditional time line: after all, there are only one hundred stories in a book that covers more than four hundred years.'

The following are highlights (at the end of each story, the author adds pertinent follow-up to the historical events). Let's look at 1607 Pocahontas of Virginia. English ships headed for Virginia to establish a new settlement in the New World. They reached Roanoke Colony to build an 'outpost called Jamestown', not knowing they were in the midst of the 'great Powhatan empire'. Pocahontas was the daughter of the Powhatan tribal leader. When John Smith went out in search of corn, he was captured. Pocahontas saved his life and 'she was the key to the success of the Jamestown settlement'.

Next, 1778 Forging an Army unhappy with the British king's laws, shopkeepers, farmers, and tradesmen formed the Continental army. A winter camp was established at Valley Forge along the Schuylkill River. General George Washington agreed to lead efforts for independence, while countries across the ocean sent leaders to assist: from France, Marquis de Lafayette; from Poland, national patriot Casimir Pulaski; and from Prussia, Baron Friedrich von Steuben. Washington asked them to 'Teach my men how to fight'.

Moving on to 1812 Uncle Sam, American ships at sea were captured by the English, who forced sailors into the British navy. The United States government declared war on Britain. From Troy, New York, Sam Wilson, owner of a slaughterhouse, was given the government contract to provide 'cured beef in barrels to ship off to the army'. The stamp on the barrels (U.S. for United States) became Uncle Sam, since Wilson was known by townsfolk by that name!

On to 1892 Welcome to America immigrants came on ships crossing the Atlantic. The United States 'built immigration centers at major ports, where the newcomers would be inspected, examined, question, and either passed or rejected'. The first, Castle Garden in New York City, was 'replaced in 1891 with the massive complex of Ellis Island'. Here's an unusual title that piqued my interest - 1898 Edison's Conquest of Mars. Thomas Alva Edison had his invention factory in New Jersey. Edison's Conquest of Mars was the name assigned to daily installments by science writer Garrett P. Serviss for Hearst's New York Journal.

In 1939 Mrs. Roosevelt's Revenge, a First Lady with a lot of caring and spunk, campaigned for social issues and took a strong stand against the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR). Harvard University invited famed opera singer Marian Anderson to give a concert at its Washington, D.C. campus. Washington was a segregated city, and Marian Anderson was black, leading the DAR to take a distasteful action. And we all know of 1973 A Break-in at the Watergate. In the Watergate office complex in Washington, D.C., a guard noticed that the catch on a door to the stairwell was taped open. Upon investigation he found more taped doors up and down the staircase. The police entered the offices of the Democratic National Committee, 'where five men were jimmying filing cabinets, setting up cameras and bugging equipment'. The break-in story cost a president's reputation.

Jennifer Armstrong has won numerous awards for nonfiction and historical fiction. From her first novel Steal Away, to The Dreams of Mairhe Mehan: A Novel of the Civil War, and as co-author of In My Hands: Memories of a Holocaust Rescuer, Armstrong has brought attention to many heroes and heroines. The American Story includes an extensive bibliography, Internet website addresses, plus a great section entitled Story Arcs, which provides connections for readers to follow 'a particular idea through time and across the country'. I fully concur with Tom Brokaw's endorsement of Armstrong's book as 'A wonderful gift to the children of this country.'

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