Off the Charts – a Muster of 3 Reviews of American History Non-Fiction with ranting

Ahoy there me mateys!  For those of ye who are new to me log, a word: though this log’s focus is on sci-fi, fantasy, and young adult, this Captain does have broader reading tastes.  Occasionally I will share some novels that I enjoyed that are off the charts (a non sci-fi, fantasy, or young adult novel), as it were.  So today I bring ye a muster of american history non-fiction reviews.  What be a muster?

Well the Oxford English Dictionary defines it as:

  1. assemble (troops) especially for inspection or for battle;
  2. collect or assemble (a number or amount); or
  3. a group of peacocks.

I have been reading a lot of non-fiction books and don’t have enough information to give full reviews because many of the facts fail to muster and fall out of me noggin.  Yet they be enjoyable and so methinks it be good to spread the word.  Here be three such recent reads.

Side note: the book covers come from Goodreads and ye can click on them to add the books to yer Goodreads’ Ports for Plunder List.


never caught: the washingtons’ relentless pursuit of their runaway slave, Ona Judge (Erica Armstrong Dunbar)

Me prior idea of Washington was basically a line of a Jonathan Coulton song about presidents which states, “Washington came first and he was perfect.”  And truly that is what I thought about him.  He didn’t seem to have a stain on him and people talked about him like they wished he could live forever and be president forever.  When I first saw this title years ago, I was immediately interested.  Who in the world was Ona Judge?

Ona Judge was a slave who escaped slavery to live life on her own terms.  And the Washingtons were pissed.  When Washington had to live in Philadelphia, then the nation’s capitol, he was warned that the law stated that if a slave lived in the state for more than six months, they had to be set free.  So Washington and his wife made a plot to make sure none of their slaves were freed.  They purposely sent their slaves back down south right before the six month expiration period to prevent freedom.  They put a rotation system in place to achieve this.  Ona Judge was Martha’s personal servant and had “privileges” that were expected to make her happy.  Instead, at the age of 22 she ran away to New England to freedom.

Of course that freedom came at a cost.  She was always poor and always in danger of being taken back into slavery.  The Washingtons found out about her whereabouts pretty quickly.  Washington severely abused his position of power trying to get her back.  It was disgusting to read about.

Just be aware that unfortunately the author does repeat herself frequently and rehash facts over and over again.  Not much is known about Ona’s life, so those looking for an in-depth portrayal won’t find it here.  There just aren’t that many primary sources about her.  Additionally the author likes to give feelings and motives to Ona and other figures where there are no historical facts to back them up.  I didn’t care to know what Ona might have thought.  I wish all of that nonsense would have been removed.  But still, Ona deserves to have her story remembered and the less-than-positive portrayal of the esteemed Washingtons is important and worthy in its own right.

Afraid of being returned to her owners, Judge lived a shadowy life that was isolated and clandestine. For almost fifty years, the fugitive slave woman kept to herself, building a family and a new life upon the quicksand of her legal enslavement. She lived most of her time as a fugitive in Greenland, New Hampshire, a tiny community just outside the city of Portsmouth.”
― Erica Armstrong Dunbar, Never Caught: The Washingtons’ Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge

the hemingses of monticello: an american family (Annette Gordon-Reed)

This was another fantastic audiobook.  This is the story of the Hemings family from their 1700s beginnings in Virginia to what happened to them when Jefferson died in 1826.  Sally Hemings was Jefferson’s mistress.  She was first mentioned in a newspaper in 1802.  And yet, the Hemingses were systematically erased out of history because of the problems that arose with the glorious Thomas Jefferson having fathered children with her.

I actually remember readin’ a book for young adults back in the day where it hinted that Jefferson had a young mixed daughter who passed for white and escaped Monticello.  I had visited Monticello and had fallen in love with the history and architecture and mystique of the place.  And yet the Hemings were not mentioned in this tour at all.  It wasn’t until much later in 1998 when DNA evidence linked Jefferson’s male line to the Hemings male line that I first heard the name of Sally Hemings.  After that I always wanted to know more.  So when I saw that this book had come out and that the focus was on the Hemingses as people in their own right and on their family as a whole, I knew I had to read it.

It is a very powerful and frustrating portrayal.  Sally Hemings was 14 and Jefferson was 44 when their relationship likely started in France.  She was free under French law but chose to come back to the US with Jefferson.  This book goes through the generations of Hemings and how the relationship with the Jeffersons began.  In addition, it paints a stark and alarming picture of race relations in the United States and how convoluted and insane it has been since the beginning.

In fact, one of the highlights of this book was the insight into the changes in Southern law, and Virginia in particular concerning slavery.  The author is a black professor of law at New York Law School.  She knows her stuff.  I found the law discussing riveting.  It is full of contradictions that show how ridiculous the viewpoints on slavery were and how self-serving white men were.  This book makes it clear that for all of his brilliance, Jefferson was actually narrow-minded and selfish and ran Monticello like a king in his little fiefdom.  Seriously, this book should be required reading for all Americans.

“Laws are sometimes put on the books not for purposes of strict enforcement but as statements about the community’s values.”
― Annette Gordon-Reed, The Hemingses of Monticello

thomas jefferson and the tripoli pirates: the forgotten war that changed american history (Brian Kilmeade and Don Taeger)

This is going to be an unpopular viewpoint to some of the crew and if ye feel ye cannot be on me crew any longer after it then we shall part ways.  This book made me angry and I feel the need to explain why.  Part of this arises from the fact that before readin’ this book, I read the other two books listed above.  Part of this was the narration which was odd and will be explained further in a moment.  Part of it was the lack of details in the narration.  This anger made sense once I learned a single fact after readin’ the book.

Now this book was recommended to be by my maman who knows me fascination with both history and pirates.  She has not read it but had it recommended to her and thus me.  Despite me crappy American history class, I knew nothing about the Tripolitanian War or the pirates of same.  So I approached this book with more than a little interest.  I borrowed the audiobook from the library and began listening to it with excitement.  This started out odd from the beginning.

Perhaps some will laugh but I had no idea who the authors were.  Others who do know them will already guess the punchline.  When the book began, I was informed that one of the authors was the narrator though I didn’t know which one.  This usually makes me wary and I prefer it doesn’t happen except for a few exceptions.  So already I was nervous.  Then the book began.  I usually listen to books on 2x the speed but he talked so fast that had to restart the book four times in order to find the correct speed for me (1.4x).  And while he was readin’ the narrator had an odd cadence of almost shouting while emphasizing strange words.  In fact, it seemed to be that any word with racial connotations or Muslim hatred or American superiority were the focal point of the sentence no matter what the rest of the sentence structure.  The overall tone was strange.  But I did eventually get used to enough that the curiosity of the history took over me attention.

The story itself seemed not only skewed but also distorted.  I did think it was odd that the book was so short.  And this lack of detail was apparent throughout.  One part that irked was the discussions on how barbaric the Barbary States were.  The author talks about how awful it was that good [white] Americans were being enslaved by the Muslims.  No mention of slavery of blacks in worse conditions back home.  Most of the emphasis seemed to be that the Quran lets Christians be slaves and how that is a horrible justification.  Of course Christians keeping slaves is fine because they are Christians.  Ugh.

For a book on the formative of the American navy, there was no real discussion of ship design or naval tactics.  I thought I was going to get a lot of specifics.  Plus the book seemed happy to suggest the Barbary States particular focus was on harassing Americans.  No substantial mention was made of the fact that these pirates were the scourge of anyone and everyone who sailed on the Mediterranean.  One fact I read elsewhere stated “between between 1 and 1.25 million Europeans were captured by Barbary pirates and sold as slaves between the 16th and 19th centuries.”  This piracy was a substantial part of those nations wealth and power.  Practically everyone paid tribute for safe ship passage.

During the same time frame of this book, Sweden had already declared war on the pirates.  The whole cause of the American war was not because the pirates had enslaved American men, many of whom were slaves for 5 years or more.  The war was because Jefferson no longer wanted to pay the vast sums of tribute to the pirates that the new nation couldn’t afford.  Jefferson wanted open trade routes and money not morals led to his decisions.  One only has to look at his policy on slavery in American to see that.  This book claims to make this a war about American ideals and morality.  It was about money and disruption of trade.  It was about looking powerful in the eyes of the rest of the world.

Which brings me to me last point.  The narrator turned out to be Brian Kilmeade,  a Fox News personality.  Me idea of listening to a bad news story actually turned out to be true!  I have never seen him before or watched his show.  But suddenly the oddness of the whole readin’ experience made sense.  I was getting a white-washed version of this war where the Muslim people were psychos who continue to be a major problem for poor little America.  Weird quotes like the one below suddenly made sense:

“Tired of Americans being captured and held for ransom, our third president decided to take on the Barbary powers in a war that is barely remembered today but is one that, in many ways, we are still fighting.”
― Brian Kilmeade, Thomas Jefferson and the Tripoli Pirates: The Forgotten War That Changed American History

So while I enjoyed some of the new facts of the story, I cannot in good conscience recommend this book due to the racist, elitist manner in which it was told.  And in fact, I cannot in good conscience even say that this history happened in this fashion due to the lack of depth of the narration itself.  This War does not seem to have been “forgotten” as there are many works previously written on the topic.  In looking at other reviews of this book, I did come across an excellent review on Amazon which I will put here in its entirety for me own later recollection and for those who may want to read books on this interesting but maligned topic.  Here be MWRNR’s review

Thomas Jefferson wrote hundreds of letters each year. So, with his name in the title, you would expect an in-depth study of the wars from his perspective and letters. However, that is not the case. Instead, this book appears to be a general history of the wars written for Middle School students that need a quick read for a book report.

For a much better history of the squadron, ship, and Marine actions during the US wars with Barbary Pirates, I recommend “Dawn Like Thunder” by Glenn Tucker.

To put the wars in context and a correct history of the creation of the navy by President John Adams and the Federalist Party with its opposition by Thomas Jefferson and the Republican Party, I recommend “Six Frigates” by Ian W. Toll.

For a very good discussion in the context of religious and political beliefs of the Americans at the time, I recommend “The Barbary Wars” by Frank Lambert.

For shorter versions of the wars (that are still more informative and superior to Thomas Jefferson and the Tripoli Pirates) included in a broader context I also recommend “The Forgotten Wars” by Howard P. Nash and “Edward Prebble” by Christopher McKee.

I wasn’t going to read more on this war but now I feel like I should give this historical period another look from another perspective.

So there ye have it.  Two excellent non-fiction reads that I highly recommend anyone read.  And one that I command be quarantined never to be praised or visited by me crew again.  Arrrr!!

19 thoughts on “Off the Charts – a Muster of 3 Reviews of American History Non-Fiction with ranting

  1. Fascinating crop of mini-reviews, Cap. That last one sounds particularly unpleasant… for what its worth, Barbary pirates regularly raided the English south coast, particularly Cornwall and snatched young men and women into slavery until the mid-1800s, from the 1400s onwards. But London squashed all reports to stop the population from panicking.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Aye, matey! That silly book tried to make it into an American/Muslim problem. I dislike shoddy historical work. I mean I know the author’s viewpoint can spin it differently. I read a story about the Medici family and poison in two different books and the authors came up with the opposite reasoning. Both valid. Religion did play a part in the Barbary pirate history. But greed was the biggest factor. Thanks for the fun fact. Arrr!
      x The Captain

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes… like you, I loathe people making these sorts of spurious conclusions under the guise of historical research – especially as my specialist subject for my teaching degree was History.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I didn’t know that. I love history and reading history. I am just one of those people that cannot memorize facts to save me life. Essays were always better than multiple choice. That said I am not a good writer either really. Organizing people and things is where most of me talent lay. Arrr!
        x The Captain

        Liked by 1 person

      3. History is so vital – the first things conquerers do to a subjegated people is expunge their past. They wouldn’t bother if it wasn’t so important…

        And you sell yourself short. You are a good writer – I wouldn’t enjoy reading your blog if you weren’t:)

        Liked by 1 person

      4. Thanks for the complement matey! I was writing like a fiend today trying to catch up on me reviews. I have one left. I can’t help but compare me writing style to those of the First Mate who can really put thoughts into words. I only express a fraction of what I think because expression through words is tough!
        x The Captain

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Too bad we don’t have enough info on Ona Judge to have a fully fleshed out story. 😞

    Sorry about the third book. It sounds like a mediocre book for such an interesting topic. Let us know how the other books work out if you get to them! 😁

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Great reviews! It really is a shame that we whitewash our own history to so blatant a degree. Since our schools don’t (yet) teach an accurate picture, though, it’s up to us to do our own research.

    I’ll be looking into one (or more) of those books about the Barbary Pirates, because it’s not something I remember ever being hinted at in my history classes. I knew that Washington wasn’t perfect (but we want to remember him as such) and that Jefferson had at least the one mistress among his slaves, but there’s so much history that isn’t taught for one reason or another. Time to remedy that.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I was told by me ma about an interesting project where the Library of Congress is crowd sourcing digitization of its sources in the archives. I am going to be joining it in the new year and working on anything about women’s history since it is woefully unrepresented. And I am going to continue the foray into better American history sources too. Thank ye kindly for the comment. The link to the Library of Congress thing be below if ye be interested (and so I can find it again). Arrr!
      x The Captain

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Awesome reviews, Captain. Did you read all these books in quick succession, or has this combined review been a long time coming? I ask as I am a bit surprised with the uniformity of the theme! Is there something in particular which speaks to you about learning the truth behind American history?

    I never would have picked up Thomas Jefferson and the Tripoli Pirates for the same reason you later discovered. I understand that it’s hard to write a completely unbiased book which isn’t academic. But, I feel like being a highly-visible-and-self-proclaimed-politically-leaning-news-personality means that your book will be politically leaning. I’m sorry you had to learn after the fact, but I’m glad this will inspire you to read more about this event! Have you found other books about the Tripolitan War?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I did not read these in quick succession but did want to read all three because of the similar thoughline. I thought it would help me have a fuller picture with all three being read around the same time.

      I think part of why American history is so important to me is how little we really learned about it in school. I was endlessly learning European history and yet know relatively little about the country I was born it. The major problem with what I do know is that I feel like I was lied to about it. What I learned in school seemed geared towards establishing patriotism. I am glad I live in the US for the many freedoms that I am given. But there are many problems too.

      As I get older, I am amazed at how much about racial inequality was hidden from me even though Baltimore has a large black population. it was through black classmates challenging the status-quo that I learned to question the viewpoint I was given.

      Also I have many friends and family who are racist and bigoted. I thought it was stupid as a kid and only found it more so as an adult. A family friend who is younger than me has grown to hate gays, became a white supremist, and denies the Holocaust happened! I mean seriously that sickens me. I can’t be friends with her anymore because all I do is spend me time challenging her.

      I mean I know that the younger set is becoming more tolerant and open-minded overall. But those wrong opinions of those people I grew up with are so narrow and I think so much of it can be found in how white-washed and narrow American history has been chosen to be written.

      I read these sorts of books because I hate how my own upbringing and family colors my perceptions even though my entire family thinks I am the crazy liberal one. I feel that to become a better person, I have to read accounts that enrich me understanding. I also feel that I owe it to those who suffered to remember them but readin’ about the horrible things that happened to them. To say that they mattered. It is hard to explain but American slavery and the Holocaust are two areas that speak to me personally.

      People lose sight of the fact that slavery still exists and holocausts are still happening. Because they are hidden and smaller in scope people chose to ignore it. And with the current president, hatred is being shown as a good thing.

      I digress and this is too long so I will stop here. I hope some of that made sense.
      x The Captain

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Hahaha. Evelina’s @ Avalinah’s Books and I have written much longer comments. 😉 I appreciate how dedicated you are to this response! ❤

        Yes, I agree. U.S. history classes gloss over all the terrible atrocities committed and focus on the amazing things people have done to make American great. As a former school teacher, however, it's challenging to really get into the minutia which matters in these sorts of situations. There just isn't the time in school to dig into many details. But I would have loved to learn more about the terrible stuff.

        Ugh. I'm so sorry that you have so many ignorant, self-centered friends and family members. I can relate to that. When it comes to people, I just cut those out who offend me. Ain't nobody got time for that. But family? The worst is my uncle, the racist immigration lawyer. What?

        It scares me to think that America is shockingly forward-thinking when it comes to race relations. I have family living in Japan and it's… bad. I mean, no one is denying the Holocaust, but no one even acknowledges Jews there. O_o Keep reading, writing, and protesting, America! WE CAN DO IT.

        Yes!! I agree with you. We need to read more about the other sides of things. For every war hero there is someone on our side who did something terrible. There is no white without black. No good without evil. Everything is shades of grey.

        Keep learning. Keep sharing what you're learning. Keep fighting the good fight. I'm with you. ❤


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