The Beauty and the Sorrow

Over the course of the year, I read a lot of history. Some books I mine for facts. Some grab me with the story. And now and then a work of history simply blows me away. The Beauty and the Sorrow: An Intimate History of the First World War by Swedish historian and war correspondent Peter Englund is a blow-me-away book.

Englund writes his narrative in the present tense, giving it an unusual immediacy, and relies heavily on the letters and journals of his characters.  (They are all remarkably articulate and thoughtful, even the twelve-year-old.)  Much of what he presents lies outside the scope of other works on the war.  Even familiar facts are presented with new twists.

Halfway between memoir and history, The Beauty and the Sorrow is both fast-paced and thought-provoking.  It deserves a place beside such classics as Barbara Tuchman's The Guns of August, Paul Fussell's The Great War and Modern Memory, and Robert Grave's Good-bye to All That.

Give The Beauty and the Sorrow a try, and let me know what you think.

A version of this review was previously published in Shelf Awareness for Readers.

Road Trip Through History: Colonial Williamsburg

On Tuesday, My Own True Love and I visited Jamestown Settlement.  Wednesday, we moved on to Colonial Williamsburg.

I considered not even writing about our day in Williamsburg.  I'm willing to bet that most of you have a picture of it in your head, even if you haven’t been then.  Besides, Two Nerdy History Girls do a better job of talking about the Williamsburg experience than I ever could.

So what changed my mind?  The contrast.  It's amazing what a difference twenty-four hours and 165 years can make.

In 1610, Jamestown was a three-sided fort, designed to protect a handful of men against attack by Native Americans from land or the Spanish from the sea.  The settlers were still trying to figure out how to make their new colony profitable for the investors back home.  (They tried to grow silkworms and mine copper before they hit on tobacco.)  Their houses were built like village cottages, with wattle and daub walls, thatch roofs, and open hearths.  When the imported beer ran out, they drank water, with deadly results.

By comparison, colonial Williamsburg, flash frozen in 1775, looks almost modern.  There were shop-lined streets, with an ancestor of Starbucks where Patrick Henry preached revolution.**  It was possible to post a letter, buy a newspaper, and get a cup of coffee.  There were a couple of taverns where a man could have a meal. (Order the Old Stitch if you like dark beer.)  The city was not walled, though a substantial armory stood near its center.

Some of that modernity is an illusion.  (As one costumed interpreter told us, they can't reproduce the smell.)  But the amount of change between Jamestown and Williamsburg was, if anything, greater than the amount of change between the American Civil War and today.  It's easy to forget.

**He still does, every morning at ten o'clock.

Road Trip Through History: Jamestown Settlement

For reasons too complicated to go into here and now, I‘ve been yearning to walk the deck of a late sixteenth-century sailing ship.    No late sixteenth-century vessels were available, so My Own True Love and I headed for the next best thing:  the replica ships at Jamestown Settlement, located ten miles away from colonial Williamsburg.

Once there, I headed straight for the working replicas of the Susan Constant, the Godspeed and the Discovery:  the ships that brought English settlers to Jamestown in 1607.  Let me tell you, those ships are very small. (For those of you who are sailing types, they are 120 tons, 40 tons, and 20 tons respectively.  For those of you who aren’t sailing types, they are really small, really-really small, and frighteningly small.) They sailed from London* just before Christmas and arrived on the coast of Virginia in April:  they spent three weeks of the journey stuck in the English Channel due to bad weather. Passengers slept in the hold on top of the cargo and weren’t allowed on deck without the captain’s permission.    The smell!  The claustrophobia!  The impossibility of getting away from other people for an hour or two! (Talk about introvert hell.)

Jamestown Settlement has more than just reproduction seventeenth century sailing ships. **  Once we’d learned everything about the ships that we could think to ask, we moved on to reproductions of James Fort  ca. 1614and a seventeenth century Powhatan Indian village, both of them manned by yet more patient and well-informed costumed interpreters.  We ended the day with a couple of hours in the site’s exhibition galleries, leaving no for time for the archaeological site at Historic Jamestown, just down the road.

Tomorrow?  Colonial Williamsburg.


*According to a costumed interpreter dressed as Sir Walter Raleigh, the ships didn’t actually sail down the Thames, they were pulled by men on shore.

**Though really, how much more do you need for a day of history geek entertainment?