Drinking in America

posted in: Good Reads: Nonfiction | 0

Susan Cheever’s Drinking in America is a strange book. It is interesting, entertaining, and informative, but it is also a bit odd. Deciding between it and Lender and Martin’s 1987 book of the same title, I opted with Cheever’s for being more up-to-date and promising greater readability. I expected it to be sociological as well as historical. It wasn’t. Cheever takes a single–very useful–lens through which to view her subject: the tension between temperance/prohibition and alcoholism/overindulgence. In her breezy history, she shows how the pendulum swings between these two poles throughout American history.

 

Her narrative is not comprehensive but episodic. Each mini-narrative of a historical figure or event or era illustrates how American attitudes and behaviors were shifting at that time. Each stand-alone chapter is meant to be representative–and also eye-opening. Cheever asks us to consider how alcohol and drinking habits affected some of our most hallowed events–the Mayflower landing, Paul Revere’s ride, the Civil War, even the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Hers is not so much the Great Man view of history; call it the Drunk Man view of history.

 

Some noted drinkers were groups: Pilgrims, the tavern-denizens of the Revolutionary era, twentieth century writers. Alcoholism has run in families: to wit, the Adamses and the author’s own, the Cheevers. More than a few presidents and politicians were affected by their drinking habits: Ulysses Grant, Joe McCarthy, Richard Nixon.

 

It was interesting to learn how beer–or, rather, its shortage–may have affected the Pilgrim’s decision to settle in Cape Cod rather than continue on to Virginia colony. Wrote Cheever: “The decision to land illegally in a hostile place, partially caused by a shortage of beer, was not an auspicious beginning.” [22] The operative word is “partially.” Cheever knows she can’t hang the full weight of history on that one limb. Beer may be the raison d’ȇtre for her chapter on the Mayflower, but it is hardly the sole focus of the chapter. Cheever writes a lot of backstory and a lot of the story which involves no alcohol at all into her chapter on the Pilgrims. (This was the odd part for me.) I skimmed these parts. She ends the chapter with a series of unanswerable questions. Was the Pilgrims’–along with their fellow travelers,’ the Strangers’–“inauspicious” start based on erratic decision-making which itself was the result of near-constant inebriation? This feels like a stretch.

 

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If the Pilgrims were pro-drink, the much more numerous Puritans who followed were anti- (mostly). Yet, the pendulum swung toward indulgence over the course of the next two centuries. By 1776 the average American was drinking on average twice as much as the average drinker today. Cheever doesn’t provide a footnote on this statistic, but her narrative of revolutionary fervor fomented by drink is convincing. She shows us patriots and Sons of Liberty and Green Mountain Boys discussing tactics in the tavern. Tactics which get overtaken by the influence of alcohol in favor of more impulsive, flamboyant action. Think: the Boston Tea Party and the Gaspé Affair. As John Adams himself observed, “I know not why I should blush to confess that molasses [rum] was an essential ingredient in American independence.” [73] This is the center of the story Cheever tells and the reward for the reader who has picked up her book.

 

By 1820, we read, our forebears are imbibing triple our average 2015 daily consumption. And it is daily. Even children, Cheever would have us believe: before, during, and after school. And so we learn that that great American icon of wholesomeness, Johnny Appleseed, has a hidden side, like that of the Pilgrims’ beer, conveniently missing from the standard telling of his story. The undersized, sour apples known as “spitters” were for making cider, as in hard cider. Cheever quotes from Michael Pollan to make her point: “Johnny Appleseed was bringing the gift of alcohol to the frontier.” [90] Whisky and corn liquor, too, became ubiquitous for being an easy way to get surplus crop to market–and to allow for daily consumption on the farm

 

This peak in alcoholic indulgence brought its own reaction in the form of the temperance movement. By 1834, we learn, five thousand local temperance societies with an estimated total membership of eleven million. The movement would build through the decades before culminating in Prohibition, complicating the picture entirely. The pendulum would swing toward excess in the middle decades of the twentieth century, until the start of another temperate era circa 1980. Cheever’s words to describe that final transition were evocative for me:

 

The kind of drinking and wild behavior that seemed so glamorous and extreme in the mid-twentieth century is no longer tolerated. People no longer get falling-down drunk at dinner parties, grope the hostess, take swipes at the chandelier, and weave their way down the driveway to drive home squinting in order to keep the road’s central line in sight. What was normal in the 1950s and even the 1970s is now not done. What changed? [168]

 

The Movie Bucket List

Yes, I do equate the 1970s (and early 1980s) with wild drinking because that was when I, age 16-20, experienced my own wild, alcohol-fueled nights. (Alcohol aided my sociability, lessened my inhibition, and offered the possibility that something–I knew not what–might happen.) Yet there were ugly scenes from real life, too. I had witnessed my share of inebriated adults in line with Cheever’s description above. These images would have been reinforced by many more that entered my consciousness through movies and television. In any case, it is one of the rewards of living long that you never know when you might read a discussion of something historical that you can place your own story within.

 

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Perhaps my favorite chapter was the one on Richard Nixon. He was not an alcoholic, Cheever insists, but he had an unusually low tolerance for alcohol. When he did drink, he quickly and invariably became a drunk. We learn that Henry Kissinger’s title, National Security Advisor, had a double entendre, the second being “nanny” to the president when he became too drunk to function. [198] During the opening days of the Yom Kippur War Nixon was AWOL–passed out or otherwise non-functional. Two weeks later, when the war reached its climax and Soviet intervention threatened a nuclear conflict, Nixon was again “asleep” and unwakeable. Kissinger was calling the shots. [205]

 

Wikipedia

“In presuming to write history,” Cheever says in her acknowledgements, “I anchored my story to as many excellent books as I could find.” Cheever’s book was not what I expected as a history of drinking in America perhaps because Cheever is not a historian. She is, according to her Wikipedia page, a biographer, novelist, and memoirist. She is also a recovered/recovering alcoholic, in a family of alcoholics. In her conclusion, she makes clear that she was not interested in telling a dispassionate history that would be “as far away from memoir as it can get.” [218] She wanted to show how a mundane behavior like the consumption of alcohol can influence even the grand sweep of history–and it certainly has ours.

 

I’ll give the last word to Puritan minister Increase Mather whom Cheever wisely quotes early in her book: “Drink is in itself a good Creature of God, and to be received with thankfulness, but the abuse of drink is from Satan; the wine is from God, but the Drunkard is from the Devil.” [32] Does anything more need to be said?

 

Cheever, Susan. Drinking in America: Our Secret History. New York: Twelve, 2015.

No Coincidence: McWhorter/Loury Meet Menakem/DiAngelo

posted in: Race and Gender | 0

The seventieth puzzle in my Wait, Wait…Don’t Tell Me! crossword puzzle book had me a little stumped. The actress in The Unbearable Lightness of Being? “This shouldn’t be looked at on the job” letters? Popular baijiu brand? I chiseled away until just a few boxes remained in the upper left and bottom right corners. It was getting past time to start our Saturday movie so I called on S.to help me fill them in, which she did.

We didn’t find our first choice movie. (“This movie is no longer available in your area.”) After a brief back-and-forth, we settled on The Farewell. I had heard the story on This American Life, and it caught my interest. I didn’t need to see it, but I thought it might be fun to see dramatized on the screen. Besides, I wanted a rest from our usual fare of British crime dramas or art films. China would be a welcome antidote. Midway through the movie, the Wang family calls for the bottle of spirits. I could have sworn I saw (and heard!) “Maotai.” I quickly rewound the film and saw that indeed they had broken out the baijiu, Maotai brand. Something of which I knew nothing, had never heard of before, I saw twice in two different  contexts in the space of less than an hour. Quelle coincidence!

Yesterday, before dinner and a crosswords and a feature film, I also listened to The Glenn Show on my walk around the park. Glenn Loury and his co-host John McWhorter took on the concept of structural racism. Does it exist? How valuable is it as a construct? Loury’s initial parry was not all that convincing. (“Did I take both sides of that question, John?”) McWhorter’s initial stab was more incisive. (“Beyond a certain point, I don’t care whether white people know it [black people’s lack of achievement, acceptance, etc.] wasn’t our fault. I’m not sure how exquisitely educated a society we’re expecting.”) The middle part of the show used the conceit of “Malcolm,” a fictional middle-class black student from McWhorter’s days at Berkeley in the 1990s. (As the show progressed, the two imagined later incarnations of Malcolm in the 2000s and 2010s.) Loury took Malcolm’s role and did a creditable job voicing his concerns, though as the stakes inflated he finally admitted his heart wasn’t in it.

Talking about white people, DiAngelo’s book, White Fragility was invoked (She now has a second one). Loury admitted he had not read it, and McWhorter told him not to bother.

Cut scene to next morning in the car, switching the radio to podcast format to listen to the next Glenn Show installment. But the words emanating from my speakers, brief as they were, caught my attention. I switched back. A man, apparently and later acknowledged to be black, was addressing much the same issue in a very different tone than the “Two Black Guys” from the day before. As I oriented myself to the man’s theme, I heard these words: “When white folks and allies say that they’re allies, and what can we do, and you think you’re being helpful; or what should I do now?, and you think you’re being helpful, there is such a brutality to your words that, many times, I can’t fool with white folks. I can’t be around you. I need you to leave me alone. I need you to not ask me what my opinion is of a Black man getting murdered with no regard.” Whoa.

A woman’s voice came on, apparently and then acknowledged to be white, and said, “I just want to offer to white listeners, if you’re feeling frustrated, just watch what’s coming up for you as you hear Resmaa’s hopelessness and you start to have feelings. And some of them may be anger — like, why are you not giving me hope? Why are you not making me feel better? What am I supposed to do? — just notice all of that. It’s a different way of breaking through the apathy of whiteness.” Throughout her speech the black man could be heard affirming with ‘uh-huh’s and other verbal nods. I was surprised that he found her words agreeable when the words of other well-meaning white folks are filled with “brutality.” The woman was Robin DiAngelo, of course. The man was Resmaa Menakem.

When I reached the grocery store, I didn’t turn off the car and go inside. I stayed in the car and kept listening. Later I went back to the podcast’s transcript an read the initial segment that I had missed, as well as review the final segment that I had heard. How to sum up my response?

  1. Let’s get this one out of the way first: I am in no way fragile. I accept DiAngelo’s main premise that I benefit from white privilege and that I have a racist–is “racialist” a better word?–outlook. This inoculates me against fragility because I am aware that everyone else has biased views, too; some more privileged, others less; some from positions of more power and others from less. Call me a racist. I will not quake. I don’t even aspire to be non-racist, as DiAngelo doesn’t. (She says: “And let me just be really clear. As a result of being raised in this society as a white person, I’m racist. I have a racist worldview.”
  2. Menakem and DiAngelo talk about white people to the exclusion of black people. They make a good point that we white folks, most of us, don’t need to think much about race. We don’t even think we have a race. (Remember: science tells us there is no such thing as race. I assume we are talking about race as a sociological construct.) I have gained by the repeated invocation of “white people” during the last few years. There, I admit to having had some discomfort, resistance, not a bad thing to come to terms with. But the progressive argument has been pushing itself beyond the limits of sound reason.  Listen to Menakem admonish white people: “If you’re not going to be with other white bodies for three to ten years, grinding on specifically about race and specifically about the things that show up when white bodies get together to build culture, then I can’t fool with you.”  But what are black people doing during this time? Surely, there is more for them to do than to sit in judgment on white Americans’ (too often feeble) attempts to be non-racist, which DiAngelo tells us is impossible, anyway. (See below.)
  3. Their message is too religious to appeal to me. McWhorter called contemporary discourse around race “medieval.”  I might call it “cultish.” Everything Di Angelo and Menakem say implies a higher understanding inaccessible to the rest of us mortals, acolytes and devotees. Their pronouncements (many of them) demand to be taken on faith. I am sinful and must trust that if I do the work (the penance(?), the years of undefined “grinding”) I might see the light and be “saved.” (Or will the society be saved? I have lost track of the goal.) As it stands, I can either be damned as a “devout” racist, an Archie Bunker, or as a “complicit” racist, a well-meaning progressive:
DiAngelo: And let me just ask Resmaa, would you rather have a Richard Spencer in your face or a white progressive?
Menakem: None of them.
DiAngelo:[laughs] Thank you. I shouldn’t have said “in your face,” but “deal with.”
Menakem: I don’t have a space for either one of them fools. [laughs]

Menakem has convinced me. I choose not to be his fool. I don’t have any space for him either. (Which is not, in fact, true because much of what he says is valuable.)

Their interlocutor, Krista Tippett, heard their words and underlined their religious bent: “No, I’m talking about confession coupled with repentance, which literally means you stop in your tracks and walk in a different  direction.”

Though I share their premises–race has and continues to have a pernicious affect on American society and on individual American lives–I am forced to draw different conclusions. Why would I grind away at unspecified work for an indefinite period of time toward undefined ends, all the while being scorned for my whiteness which is as much an accident of birth as anyone else’s. I am not being invited to “join the work.” At least, it doesn’t feel that way.

One might call these the protestations of a “fragile” white person insisting on being “untouched by the water we’re swimming in,” white privilege. I would say they are the response of a human confined in the larger fishbowl known as human nature. No one wants to be told what to do or say, think or feel. To relinquish one’s power of self-assessment to others seems a recipe for bad mental health. I dare not expose myself to the possibility of such psychological and intellectual manipulation.

Surely, there are particulars in the DiAngelo/Menakem worldview that are of value to me and to others. But the whole of it is too circular, too all-inclusive for me to accept. It globalizes racial issues beyond the average human’s ability to cope. It denies white and black people both of agency and individuality. Let’s not accept the assertions of DiAngelo/Menakem as revealed truth but as provocations to hash out in ongoing dialogue.

It was no coincidence when the next podcast I listened to–The Glenn Show with Loury, McWhorter, and Thomas Sowell biographer Jason Riley–touched on some of the same issues. Near the end, Riley asked rhetorically but with evident passion, “Why aren’t there more left-wing critiques of the progressives” on race? By all means, bring them on. And perhaps this will be a subject for a later post.

Japanese Americans Uprooted in WWII

Uprooted by Albert Marrin breaks many of the “rules” that I have, correctly or not, picked up from other nonfiction writers–or perhaps mostly from my critique group. I have been discouraged from shifting out of the historical narrative to refer to current events and from using first person to bring myself into the narrative. (That one goes back at least to my high school English teacher—and yours, too, I’m sure!) I have learned to avoid getting bogged down in backstory and to get right to the narrative. Yet Marrin, National Book Award finalist, does all three of these. His book doesn’t suffer. Indeed, he clearly has used them with intention and to good effect.

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Backstory: The title of Marrin’s book is Uprooted, and, indeed, it serves as a refrain through much of the book. Japanese Americans were uprooted and suffered greatly as a result. The subtitle is also apt: The Japanese American Experience During World War II. Yet there are no Japanese Americans in the narrative (other than a single sentence reference in the prologue) in the first fifty pages of his dense text. The book begins appropriately enough with the attack at Pearl Harbor. But chapter 1 is titled “The Pacific Age,” in which Marrin examines Old Japan, late imperial China, and the conflicts between the two East Asian countries. The next chapter, “Dreams of Fortune,” examines immigration to the United States, first generally, then with a focus on Chinese and Japanese immigration. Japanese emigrants begin entering the United States on page 51.

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My critique group would have had a cow with me if I had submitted to them, in monthly installments, ten 5-page drafts to critique with before beginning the main narrative of my book. (Marrin, more of a professional than I would have had weekly critique group meetings to get through his lengthy text.) Their critique is irrelevant for me as a reader. I loved the extensive backstory. His book was exactly what I needed to take in the full scope of the subject–a scope whose extent I understood but of which my knowledge and understanding was incomplete and not well connected. I agree with Marrin that understanding the removal and internment of Japanese Americans can only be understood in the context of the Pacific Age which had been taking shape for decades. (I imagine a reader who is primarily interested in the uprooting would use the table of contents and begin reading at page 67 or 92.)

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Anachronism: When writing about a historical concept that may be new to readers, I am tempted to make analogy with something in the present. But someone in the business–I don’t recall who–told me to avoid such anachronisms. So I took note of the few times when Marrin did the same. He compared Japanese geta to “today’s flip-flops.” He explained the concept of euphemism, used perniciously by the War Relocation Authority, to more benign uses of today: “passed away,” “senior citizens,” “put to sleep.” When General DeWitt banned the use of the term “concentration camp” for being offensive, Marrin explained that it was “not ‘politically correct,’ as we might say today.”

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First Person: I can fairly say that it startled me the first time Marrin inserted himself in the narrative:  “When I was a boy, my parents and their friends could read English perfectly. But after six decades in America, they still had Polish and Russian accents.” Where did he come from? I know the author has been telling the story, but I didn’t think he was part of the story. Did Marrin (or his editor) think the inclusion of this personal connection to Issei and Nisei experience would give him the necessary bona fides to write about an ethnic group to which he did not belong? I suspect it was rather to make the case more effectively that immigrant accents are natural and not a reason for making pejorative judgments. As in: I, the author of this book, your tour guide through this chapter of history whom you have come to trust, has had a similar experience. You wouldn’t judge my parents, would you?

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A few pages later, Marrin enters the drama again the day after Pearl Harbor: “I was nearly six years old when he [Roosevelt] addressed Congress and the nation.” Again, it was startling and more than a little disconcerting. But then: “Besides the rich tone of his voice as it came over the radio, I remember the sound of breaking glass.” His parents and his neighbors were throwing their glassware, all cheap Japanese imports, into the street in protest. What a powerful image. What better way to show the state of mind of average Americans following the Date that Will Live in Infamy. Could he have referred to the event in the third person? Yes. There would have been newspaper accounts to use. But how much more effective to describe his own sensory memory of the event and to implicate himself, through his parents, in the event.

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Other things need to be praised about Marrin’s book. First, of all the research. As stated above, he covers the entire topic which required readings in all its many corners. The extent and depth, too, of his research are impressive. (I was surprised that he did not include mention of the Harry Ueno incident and demonstrations at Manzanar and disappointed he did not refer to Santo Tomas when recounting the liberation Philippines—but, hey, this book is very complete.) The best part of his book is the many first person quotations he includes to tell the story from different points of view, especially the Japanese Americans’. Even when they come from secondary sources, the quotations are superbly chosen: telling in their detail, often moving or surprising in their content.

Utah Humanities

For all the content and detail, Marrin is a master of providing convincing expressions of the big picture, as well. His exploration of the Nisei experience: “Nisei faced questions we all must answer in growing up: What path should I take in life? How shall I earn a living?” On the need for wartime propaganda: “Just as a chain is only as strong as its weakest link, a nation’s strength depends upon its people’s willingness to sacrifice for victory. Doubts about a war’s conduct and morality can weaken national unity and the will to fight.” His rationale for the injustice of the uprooting: “The American ideal of justice is based on individual rights and equality before the law. It rejects any notion of group guilt.”

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(It is interesting to note that when the racial generalizing goes the other way, it is allowed to pass unquestioned. A Nisei GI happened to be the one to free Yanina Cywinska from Dachau even as she stood blindfolded, awaiting her own execution for aiding a Jew. A Californian in 1991, Cywinska told a reporter, “To this day, if anyone says the word ‘Jap,’ I become a vicious woman. I adore Japanese people for giving me the chance to live.” Of course, it wasn’t the Japanese people who liberated her but one individual Japanese man (or, perhaps, his unit). We humans are prone to generalization, affinities and prejudices, that are primarily not rational. I write this after having watched the Olympics and found myself rooting for certain countries and their athletes and not others. Japan and France: yes. R.O.C. and Germany: not so much. I can identify my reasons easily enough, yet the bulk of sports fandom resides in the gut, as does nationalism more generally. Sportsmanship, though, means rooting for a team, not against the other. Positive generalizations are much preferred over negative ones. Nevertheless, we should be aware whenever we make them.)

I appreciated Marrin’s explanation for inaptness of the term “internment camp.” Internment during wartime, he explains, “is part of American and international law. …Except for the community leaders arrested in the days after Pearl Harbor, no other Issei had their cases heard by a special panel and thus were not interned.” They were, more accurately, imprisoned.

Newsweek

Marrin convinced me that the internment camp is not a legally accurate description of Manzanar et al., but I do not agree that it is (or even was) a euphemism. My online dictionary gives as its definitions: “1. a prison camp for the confinement of prisoners of war, enemy aliens, political prisoners, etc.; 2. a concentration camp for civilian citizens, especially those with ties to an enemy during wartime, as the camps established by the United States government to detain Japanese Americans after the Pearl Harbor attacks.” Apparently, the meaning of the term has changed to more accurately describe its use of 75 years ago; “concentration camp” has been co-opted into its definition. Today, “internment camp,” used to describe Topaz et al., has a shade of meaning on the softer, euphemistic end of the continuum, but is still accurate. “Prison camp” is apt when a stronger shade of meaning is required or desired. “Concentration camp” is stronger yet, but no less accurate for being so.

Marrin points out that FDR, perhaps ironically, called the “relocation centers” (The WRA term and clearly a euphemism) by their “correct name”: concentration camps. As did, allegedly Harold Ickes who said, “We gave the fancy name of ‘relocation centers’ to these dust bowls, but they were concentration camps, nonetheless.” [131] Yet Ickes words come to us only after the fact, when the crisis had been resolved and the political situation had shifted. He may have held those very thoughts at the time, but he did not leave a record of them, at least that Marrin was able to include.

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Marrin shows his readers clearly how the actions of individuals can have powerful and lasting impacts on entire nations. Navy Secretary Knox‘s imputation of fifth columnists at work on Oahu threw sparks on the tinder of Americans’ fears in December 1941. Ditto Earl Warren, California’s governor, and any number of columnists for Hearst‘s San Francisco Examiner. But the number one bigot, whose words and actions had the most power for good or bad was Franklin Roosevelt himself. Marrin shows how the president’s Delano family business in China pre-disposed him to anti-Japanese views. Combined with contemporary racialist thinking that he seems to have imbibed in full (See Madison Grant, The Passing of the Great Race, et al.) his Nippon-ophobia turned outspokenly racist, at least as far back as the 1920s. The Rape of Nanking would only have confirmed his prejudice of the “baboons” and “damned Japs” (words he used in private). In public, Roosevelt spoke more high-mindedly in the weeks prior to Order 9066: asking Americans to be “particularly vigilant against racial discrimination in any of its ugly forms.” [84-86] Marrin lets us see hypocrisy—or just plain politics–in action.

Individuals can change, too, so Marrin shows a repentant Earl Warren at the end of the book. After becoming Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, he apologized for his actions during the war. “It was wrong to react so impulsively, without positive evidence of disloyalty.” The confession goes a long way toward accounting for his and the nation’s illegal and dishonorable actions on 1942-1944.

Perhaps surprisingly, from the vantage point of our current jaundiced view of government, the Congressional Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians convincingly explained the travesty in a few cogent sentences of its 1982 report, Personal Justice Denied: “The broad historical causes which shape these decisions were race prejudice, war hysteria and a failure of political leadership. Widespread ignorance of Japanese Americans contributed to a policy conceived in haste and executed in an atmosphere of fear and anger at Japan.” Marrin has shown us in 200-odd pages that this was exactly so.

Discover Nikkei

For the reader of Uprooted, the explanation of Hoichi “Bob” Kubo of the Allied Translator and Interpretation Section of the army to officers in the Japanese Imperial Army as they contemplated mass suicide of themselves and civilians in a cave on Saipan, seemed equally essential to the book. Kubo told the men who looked like him (as we might say today) but wore a different uniform: “You are the sons of Japanese parents. You were born in Japan and fight for your country, Japan. I am also the son of Japanese parents, but I was born in the United States. The United States is my country and I fight for it. The United States has honored me by making me a sergeant.” Kubo’s is not the final word, either literally in the book or figuratively in our understanding of how this global catastrophe divided loyalties of family, nation, “race,” and humanity. It does not answer every question we might ask. But it is a start. And it feels like the right place to end this post.

Source: Marrin, Albert. Uprooted: The Japanese American Experience During WWII. New York: Alfred Knopf, 2016.

How We Got to the Moon

I read John Rocco’s How We Got to the Moon this summer, 10-12 pages a day until I had read all 250. David McCauley calls it “Nothing short of stunning!” on the cover. He’s right. The book has a lot in common with McCauley’s books, but the color illustrations set his apart. Many are full two-page spreads. He includes many insets and assorted small illustrations. The book also benefits from having a single over-arching narrative thread: getting to the moon.

McCauley has focused mainly on technology. Rocco’s subtitle advertises a wider interest: “The People, Technology, and Daring Feats of Science Behind Humanity’s Greatest Adventure.” He provides many, many personal profiles, including those of otherwise unsung heroes, from the seamstresses of suits and parachutes to the nutritionists who devised the space menu. Behind the third part of the subtitle–the daring feats–is the teamwork of “400,000 people” employed in the effort toward a single goal, as well as “the wives, husbands, partners, and families of everyone who participated in the Apollo program.” Rocco’s main interest, he says in the epilogue, is “the grit, determination, and hard work it took to achieve the goal–also the problem-solving, the organization, the science, and the sheer cleverness of it all.”

 

The main text is written as narrative in the present tense. Insets are written as long captions of a paragraph or two. Throughout are insets labeled Problem!, which describe a technical or organizational problem the Apollo program faced. These are followed by Solution! headings and explanations of how the problem was solved. The format is very effective.

 

Rocco has done impressive research, but it should be understood that the book is the result of a lifetime passion. (From the jacket About the Author: “If he wasn’t able to make books, he would like to work as an engineer for NASA.”) Much Apollo archive material was available to him online, but he also traveled widely and spoke to many of the men and women who were there. The personal interviews, he says in the acknowledgments, allowed him to get clarification on technical matters that otherwise eluded him. He explains in clear, effective prose. On only two or three pages did I truly get lost (on the pages, no surprise, about the rocket science). Everything was easily understandable for me and, I suspect, will be for children. His ability to illustrate his ideas in pictures as well as words is what sets his book apart. He was able to use photos of actual people and events as the basis for many of his illustrations.

 

I might add: I have no special interest in space exploration, never have. But this book is everything Rocco says it is in his epilogue: a tribute to the most ambitious group problem-solving endeavor in human history.

 

Rocco, John. How We Got to the Moon: The People, Technology, and Daring Feats of Science Behind Humanity’s Greatest Adventure. New York: Crown Books for Young Readers, 2020.