Henry and Clara by Thomas Mallon
Many people know that the night Abraham Lincoln was shot at Ford’s Theater, he and first lady Mary Todd Lincoln had been joined by another couple. Some will know that the other gentleman was injured by the infamous John Wilkes Booth when attempting to stop Booth from fleeing. However, very few people (myself included) know anything about the background of that other couple Henry Rathbone and Clara Harris, whose lives would be forever changed after that fateful night when they weren’t even Mrs. Lincoln’s first choice to accompany her and the president. Henry and Clara spent much of their childhood together as step-brother and sister, Henry’s widowed mother having married Clara’s widower father. As they grew older, Henry and Clara fell in love, much to their families’ extreme disapproval. After the assassination, Henry’s mental status drastically changed, becoming worse and worse with each passing year, stemming from the enormous burden of the country’s blaming him for not stopping Booth, even though he suffered a terrible injury when Booth stabbed him. Henry and Clara would go on to marry and start a family but nothing could ever change what took place on the evening of April 14, 1865. This book was a fascinating read, a look into the tragic life of the “other couple.”
Swimming in the Moon by Pamela Schoenewaldt
I always enjoy any historical fiction about the immigrant experience in the United States at the turn of the last century, but when I saw that the book was set in Cleveland, Ohio of all places I became instantly intrigued. Immigrant life in places like Boston, Chicago, and especially New York City are “overdone,” but Cleveland, a city that rarely enters the radar of anything on a national scale, well that was fresh and new. The story itself was nothing different-immigrant girl caught between two worlds-her birthplace and the place she so wants to be accepted into and be a part of, and the struggles that one suffered from being an immigrant and a female. The book prominently features the labor troubles that affected thousands of immigrants who fought to achieve better and more importantly, safer working conditions through the demand for unionization. I would definitely recommend this book to anyone interested in this historical period and it’s one that high school students could also enjoy and handle.
The Ghost Soldiers by Hampton Sides
Reading accounts of war is always hard, but reading one about Americans POWs imprisoned by the Japanese during World War II, would prove one of the most difficult. After American General Douglas MacArthur was forced to retreat from the Philippines after the Japanese invasion there, thousands of American soldiers were left behind. Those who survived the infamous “Bataan Death March” would ultimately be imprisoned in the most horrific conditions and subject to all-out brutal abuse by the Japanese Imperial Army. However, the tides of war had changed in late 1944, in favor of the Allies. It became known that the Imperial Army would do everything in its power to one, never surrender (the fact that the American soldiers had surrendered was a point of disgust to the Japanese who viewed this as weak and cowardly and inflicted much of their abuse on the Americans because of this) and two, hide the ghastly acts they had committed against the POWs by literally “destroying” any evidence of it (in one POW camp, internees were burned alive). Plans had been made by American forces in the Philippines to rescue the POWs from one camp to make up for the fact that these men had been abandoned when the American army had fled three years prior and had suffered a living hell. It became the most daring and successful military rescue mission of all time. Even if you don’t care a fig about military history, read this book for the POWs.
Mrs. Poe by Lynn Cullen
I’ll admit, I knew next to nothing about the great American writer, Edgar Allan Poe. So when I saw Mrs. Poe in my local bookstore, whose cover featured an old-style photograph of a woman, I was instantly intrigued. It’s a work of fiction and tells the story of the romance between Poe and Frances Sargent Osgood, as well as the unwanted friendship between Osgood and Mrs. Poe. In a way fitting to someone like Poe, who thrived in the world of the sinister and ghoulishness, Mrs. Poe has plenty of creepy and disturbing moments to keep the reader on his or her toes. The book is set in 1840s New York so the historical backdrop that Cullen provides is also interesting since this is a time in history that isn’t often recounted in fiction. It is one of those books that makes the reader wonder how much of the story is true. (Some historians speculate that there was never a genuine romance between Osgood and Poe, only flirting through the use of poetic works, while others even claim that Osgood’s third child was actually Poe’s.)