Book Review: The Overstory by Richard Powers

‘The Overstory’ by Richard Powers, winner of the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, is a novel of conflict, both quiet and deafeningly loud. Everything in it, including a large cast of main characters, is linked by interactions with trees. At times, the book reads like a work of scientific study, with countless species of trees described in tireless detail by the author. However, there is an artistry in the natural world, something not everyone sees. Many look at a forest and see the countless resources that can come from it on a surface level: the houses that will be built from lumber; the crops that will be grown on the cleared land; and minerals underneath the ground that will be refined. Others, like several of the characters in this book, see deeper meaning in the towering trees and the forest’s undergrowth teeming with unnoticed life. Powers uses these competing visions to create an intricate and philosophical, albeit sometimes uneven, look at the relationships we develop with each other and the greater world.

The strength of this novel is its examination of the characters and their relationships to nature. For some, it is the only way they can feel part of something bigger than themselves. All of the characters Powers follows are loners in some sense. Nicholas Hoel survives, totally by chance, an accident that kills his remaining family members. Mimi Ma is devastated by the suicide of her father and the illness of her mother. Douglas Pavlicek serves in Vietnam and comes home forever damaged, a wanderer by choice with no roots. And the list goes on. The potential challenge of a book like this one is that some of the characters flourish and feel more part of the central story, while others fade to the periphery. One of the latter seems to be Neelay Mehta, who falls from a tree as a child and is confined to a wheelchair. However, his lifelong obsession with computers, fostered by his father, becomes intertwined with a fascination towards a stand of exotic trees on his California college campus, leading him to create a virtual world that people around the world can inhabit and build within. In ways, the creation becomes more important than character, serving as a mirror to the real world and the people that inhabit it, a debate between wonton consumption and the creativity that can come from working around limitations that prove necessary to extend the life and complexity of ‘the game.’

The relationship of human society to the natural world is an ongoing tension in our own society that drives the action of the novel. Many readers bring their own personal viewpoint to what they are reading, and this book certainly bets that will add richness to this particular experience. The main characters find themselves in constant conflict with the rest of the world concerning their relationships to the trees and forests they come to love. And these passions teach them to become more human, to form bonds that some of them no longer thought possible after experiencing soul-wrenching tragedy. The most touching of these links proves to be between Nicholas Hoel and Olivia Vandergriff. Both wayward souls, they meet under the most random of consequences and form a bond that seems mystical in nature. From his home in the Midwest, they head to the Pacific Coast, where they become part of a guerilla ecological group attempting to halt the overlogging of old growth forests. This is the point where most of the characters converge and become a part of the overarching plot Powers creates. Some of them go so far as to engage in ecoterrorism, as the cause of protecting the trees, and essentially the natural world, they feel at home in becomes increasingly desperate. At this point, the question must be asked: what price are they willing to pay to protect what they believe in?

There are larger philosophical and societal explorations at work in ‘The Overstory,’ and this fact makes it a heavy work in more ways than one. It is a bit of a doorstop, so if you like long sweeping epics that cover massive amounts of time and involve a wide cast of characters, pick this one up. One of these characters, Patricia Westerford, provides the spiritual compass of this tale, even though her life is dedicated to science. She feels more at home in the woods than anywhere. She is unfairly ostracized by the academic world while theorizing that trees communicate with each other, to warn each other of danger that could affect the entire ecosystem. These beliefs are eventually proven and vindicated; Patricia then writes a book that becomes a kind of linking guide for characters such as Nicholas and Olivia, struggling on the frontlines to keep the fight alive. Ultimately, the Powers’s novel explores, at least partially, the battle over who gets to determine the future of this world and how people will live in it. There are multiple scenes where characters are confronted by loggers, police officers, and other authority figures, all arguing that the cutting of the trees they are protecting creates jobs and puts food on the table for their families. However, Nicholas, after the group of characters that become ecowarriors breaks apart following tragedy, experiences a landslide that devastates several homes. Thus, what is the price you are willing to pay, or watch other people pay, for your definition of progress?

It is a question that is wrestled with in every section of this novel, the last of which is labelled as ‘Seeds.’ The plot stretches roughly to the early years of our current century and covers a time period now famous for intense environmental battles, in forests and courtrooms alike. Today, in the news, we see diatribes from multiple points of view concerning climate change, urban sprawl, deforestation, and other topics predicting a potentially dire future if human society does not take drastic action. Perhaps those seeds planted by an earlier generation, on all sides of this battle, are beginning to take root and flourish. It will be interesting to see, just like in the forests frequented throughout ‘The Overstory,’ what will grow and be created moving forward.

‘The Overstory’ by Richard Powers is currently available for checkout at the McWherter Library. It is located on the first floor as part of the rotating book display in the Rotunda, near the entrance to Government Publications, which contains popular releases (if you are looking for a fun read to take a break from your studies) and themed temporary collections based on the month. If you want to learn more, please check out this fun LibGuide covering the items currently available in this display.

This Day in History: Lewis and Clark Head West

Written by Benjamin Clanton, Government Publications

On May 14, 1804, Meriwether Lewis, William Clark, and the members of the Corps of Discovery set out to explore the lands west of the Mississippi River newly acquired by the fledgling United States from France, a journey that would last over two years. Thomas Jefferson, who had negotiated the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, hoped to use the expedition to explore and map these territories and to ideally find a practical water route all the way to the Pacific Ocean. Thankfully, there are a number of easily accessible resources that allow research into the story and the findings of the Corps of Discovery. Perhaps first and foremost, you can read the voluminous journals of the expedition through the University of Memphis Library’s website from the comfort of your own home. Secondly, there are a number of government resources online that allow patrons to learn more about this significant chapter in our nation’s growth and history.

One of the lasting legacies of the Lewis and Clark expedition comes in the field of science. The Corps of Discovery encountered countless species of flora and fauna unique to the Western lands they traversed, some of which were no longer found east of the Mississippi River due to human encroachment. Some of the animals encountered included grizzly bears, bison herds, and numerous species of snakes, encounters which were written about at length in the expedition’s journals. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has produced a fun website that allows us to explore the plant and animal species studied by Lewis, Clark, and their men. After returning from the expedition, Clark, a talented cartographer, produced a new map in 1810 of what would become the American West that shed a new light on the lands of the Louisiana Purchase. Even though the expedition failed to find a water route directly to the Pacific Ocean, something Thomas Jefferson desired greatly, the map still serves as an invaluable historic resource, as shown here in this resource courtesy of the United States Geological Survey.

A wonderful aspect of modern life is that people interested in both history and the natural world can retrace the path taken by the Corps of Discovery without taking the extreme risks of traveling into an unforgiving wilderness in the early 19th century. Thanks in large part to the National Park Service, a number of sites stretching all across the United States can be visited that help us better understand the journey of Lewis and Clark and the lands that they experienced on their trek to the Pacific and back home. The website for the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail allows one to virtually explore, state by state, some of the significant landmarks of the expedition and to plan a future trip to see them in person. Another place of note in the tale of Lewis and Clark is actually right here in Tennessee, on the stretch of the Natchez Trace near Nashville. A monument there marks the burial site of Meriwether Lewis; Lewis, who was prone to bouts of depression, died of gunshot wounds, possibly self-inflicted. Historians have long debated the nature of his death, but nonetheless, it was a strange and mysterious ending to an intriguing life.

Here are some more links to further your personal explorations in this topic:

Written by Meghan Campbell, Government Publications

Sacagawea was a young Shoshone woman most famously known for her contributions to Lewis and Clark’s expedition West. She was all at once a translator, guide, and symbol of peace for the Corps of Discovery as they traveled through unknown lands. As someone intimately familiar with the land that Lewis and Clark were seeking passage through, Sacagawea helped them forage for food and speak with other Native American tribes they encountered along the way. A time or two, she also helped save precious documents that would have been otherwise lost to history.

Sacagawea was not only a valuable team member to the Corps of Discovery, she contributed to the overall success of their journey West and their return home. She also did so while pregnant, and consequently gave birth and cared for her infant son alongside her husband Toussaint Charbonneau, who served as a translator for the group. Not only this, but it is believed that Sacagawea was only around 16 or 17 when she and her husband joined the expedition.

Because of all that she contributed to Lewis and Clark’s journey, Sacagawea is highly regarded in history as a vital member of their team. She has been immortalized in various statues around the country, and there is even a one dollar coin bearing her and her baby’s faces.

In addition to Sacagawea, there is another, lesser known crew member who joined and survived Lewis and Clark’s journey to the Pacific. His name was believed to be Seaman, and he was Meriwether Lewis’ Newfoundland dog. He was known to be a constant companion, alarm system, and even a hunter from time to time. Seaman survived the entire journey with the Corps of Discovery, and even though not much is known about his fate, it is known that Lewis cared for him. It has been noted that even though the group purchased many dogs to eat throughout their travels, Seaman was never considered a meal prospect. He too has been forever remembered by having his image cast in statues around the country.

Some interesting government and library-wide resources regarding Sacagawea and Seaman both as well as general history of the Corps of Discovery can be found here:

Happy browsing!

 

 

 

A Look at the United States Poet Laureate

Joy Harjo

Written by Benjamin Clanton, Government Publications

Today marks the last day of April, bringing an end to National Poetry Month. Most people would likely not associate the world of poetry with the United States government, but in actuality, the Library of Congress, a government agency within the legislative branch, houses a highly prestigious cultural position in the literary world: the United States Poet Laureate.

What exactly does a United States Poet Laureate do? Well, even the definition provided by the Library of Congress, whose Librarian appoints the position on a yearly basis, is fairly broad, declaring that the chosen poet “seeks to raise the national consciousness to a greater appreciation of the reading and writing of poetry.” Each Poet Laureate is given freedom to bring their own themes to the job, with past awardees concentrating on a myriad of projects close to the passions reflected in their own work and interests. In timely fashion, the current Poet Laureate, Joy Harjo, has just received a second year at the post this week. When she was appointed in 2019, she became the first Native American to be named to the official title of Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress.

One of the projects Harjo is currently working on under her purview as Poet Laureate is a digital interactive map of contemporary Native poets titled “Living Nations, Living Words: A Map of First Peoples Poetry.” Throughout her career, Harjo has tirelessly highlighted the cultural richness of Native literary work. In her own writings, she explores the cultural history of her tribe, the Muscogee Creek Nation of Oklahoma, and her personal struggles with a tumultuous past. These haunting poems are filled with examinations of the natural world and humanity’s place in it. Harjo never shies away from digging into lasting pain, whether it be that of her culture or that of herself, and how the present is a struggle to reconcile this pain with the necessity of moving forward and creating new beauty.

Another goal of Harjo’s as Poet Laureate has been to foster discourse through art between people she feels “normally would not sit with each other.” In a 2019 NPR article, she expanded on this hope: “I really believe if people sit together and hear their deepest feelings and thoughts beyond political divisiveness, it makes connections. There’s connections made that can’t be made with politicized language.” If you are interested in reading some of Harjo’s poetry from home, one of her collections, “In Mad Love and War,” is available as an e-book resource through the University of Memphis Libraries. I would also recommend checking out her page at the excellent website of the Poetry Foundation to learn more about her life and work.

Thomas Jefferson Building, Library of Congress

Interested in exploring the duties and history of the Poet Laureate a bit more? Here are some useful links from the Library of Congress’s website!

Earth Day 2020: Celebrating 50 Years

Written by Benjamin Clanton, Government Publications

Every year on April 22, people around the world celebrate what is known as Earth Day, a recognition of the ceaseless work it takes to protect the natural environment around us. The brainchild of peace activist John McConnell, Earth Day became a nationally recognized event in the United States thanks to the efforts of Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin. Nelson had become increasingly worried about protection of the environment in the years leading up to 1970, the first Earth Day. This became further solidified by an oil spill off the coast of Santa Barbara, California, in 1969. Thus, on April 22, 1970, students at colleges and schools around the country participated in a massive educational effort to increase awareness concerning humanity’s role in environmental stewardship.

What have been some of the key moments concerning the United States government’s role in promoting environmental protection since that first Earth Day? Let’s take a look.

  • The Clean Air Act of 1970 and the Clean Water Act of 1972 worked together to put stricter limits on the amount of pollutants that could be emitted into the environment from both industry and, in the case of the Clean Air Act, vehicles. They were in response to greater calls to protect the atmosphere and our waterways from unfettered pollution by companies and private citizens alike.
  • Though more famous for controversy, President Richard Nixon is actually remembered in certain circles as an important proponent of environmental issues. In 1970, he both proposed and created, through executive order, the Environmental Protection Agency, an independent executive agency within the federal government that declares its mission as being to “protect human health and the environment.”
  • It is important to remember that wildlife is a vital part of our environment. The Endangered Species Act of 1973 worked to protect plants and animals from extinction by protecting them and their habitat from encroachment, with the ultimate goal being to replenish those species to where they no longer need government intervention to survive. A year earlier, the Marine Mammal Act placed similar protections on aquatic mammals by preventing “the act of hunting, killing, capture, and/or harassment of any marine mammal; or, the attempt at such.”

If you want to see what the federal government is doing today to promote Earth Day and environmental protection issues in general, here are a few helpful links.

Earth Day

Environmental Protection Agency

U.S. Fish & Wildlife Services

Conservation & Sustainable Agriculture

U.S. Forest Service

National Agricultural Library

Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy

U.S. Department of Energy

National Renewable Energy Laboratory

Family Fun and Education!

The Happy Earth Day Activities Book

Everyday is Earth Day on the Farm or Ranch

Written by Meghan Campbell, Government Publications

Even though this Earth Day has most of us indoors, there are plenty of ways to enjoy and appreciate the planet we call home. Don’t worry, Gov Pubs has you covered with some creative and fun ways to experience Earth Day from the comfort of home.

If you’re feeling like you want a different perspective on your home, look no further than the United States Geological Survey (USGS). Their Landsat program provides us Earth-dwellers with a consistent and beautiful look at the variety of ecosystems the world nurtures. Their publication “Earth as Art: 4” displays some of the captures from Landsat, chosen for their sheer beauty.

Alternatively, NASA also has a wonderful selection of photographs of “The Blue Marble”. Apollo 17 is responsible for the classic image of Earth that we more than likely reference mentally when we think of our planet’s appearance. NASA provides the stories of those astronauts and their journeys as well as providing great access to collections of photographs all taken by astronauts. It’s nothing short of a fabulous way to appreciate what we as humans get to uniquely enjoy.

Last, but certainly not least, this week is also National Park Service Week! Since it’s Earth Day’s 50th year, the NPS is celebrating by making sure you can take a virtual tour through their parks and resources. They have an almost endless list of online resources for you to pour over and learn about how the NPS preserves and promotes our country’s natural parks for generations to come. In addition to this, they have a great variety of webcams at a large range of parks so it’s almost like you’re there.

If you’re wanting a mental getaway, we can recommend “Wild” by Cheryl Strayed as a great outdoors memoir that is available for checkout at the McWherter Library. Ask our Circulation Staff to pull it for you today!

A (Very) Brief History of the U.S. Census

Census Enumerator in Hawaii, 1960

Written by Benjamin Clanton, Government Publications

As you may know, 2020 is a Census year! It is a distinct possibility that many of you have already filled out your Census forms, either through mail or online. In fact, 2020 will be the first time the Census Bureau will ask most people to respond online. But why exactly do we answer these questions sent to us by the federal government? Having an accurate Census is extremely important: it determines representation within Congress for individual states, affects the makeup of the Electoral College, and determines federal funding for countless programs and organizations. The history of the U.S. Census is actually quite complicated and reflects the story of our nation’s progress. The Census has even balanced on the cutting edge of data collection and tabulation for most of its existence, something that we experience every day in all parts of life.

Beginnings

The simple counting of people that live within the United States, along with the gathering of more detailed information on the population and the country itself, has been a mandate of the federal government since its inception. Article I, Section 2, Clause 3 of the U.S. Constitution outlined how representation in Congress would be determined and called for the ‘enumeration’ of the nation’s people every 10 years. Thus, in 1790, the first Census was held, asking only six questions, which have grown in number and variety during the two centuries since. It was handled by the State Department under the guidance of then Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson. The actual gathering of data was overseen by U.S. Marshals, who hired 650 assistants to cover their respective districts; Marshals continued with this duty until 1879, when the responsibility was handed over to professional enumerators due to concerns over accuracy.

Changes Over Time

The Census has certainly never been a static part of American governance. In 1849, the Department of the Interior took responsibility for holding the 1850 Census, which would be the first to count the population of California as part of the United States. Further changes came over the next 75 years; in 1902, the U.S. Census Bureau became a permanent agency within the Department of Commerce and Labor, ultimately remaining as part of Commerce when it became an independent department in 1913.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the Census has been how the collection of data progressed over the years. As mentioned earlier, U.S. assistant Marshals went door-to-door asking questions, often in rugged rural areas. The tabulation of this information was a painstaking operation that often took years. In the late nineteenth century, Herman Hollerith, a former Census employee, created an electric tabulation machine that used punch cards to quickly process data. In the mid-twentieth century, the Census Bureau received UNIVAC I, the first nonmilitary computer, to further help tabulate data covering the exploding American population. As the Census begins to move online, new ways of gathering and storing information are certainly on the horizon for 2030 and beyond.

Census Fun Facts!

  • New York City has always been listed as the most populous city in the nation. In 1790, the first Census, its population was just over 33,000. In 2010, it was at almost 8.2 million
  • The most populous State at the time of the first Census was Virginia, with just over 747 thousand people. The winner in 2010: California, which did not gain statehood until 1850, tallying in at just over 37 million.
  • Worried about your data becoming public? By law, Census records aren’t released to the public by the National Archives until 72 years after Census Day, which was on April 1. If you are counting, that will be in the distant future of 2092 for the 2020 edition.

Kanopy Review: Captain Fantastic

Viggo Mortensen, Star of Captain Fantastic

One of my favorite actors working today is Viggo Mortensen, who has starred in movies ranging from Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy to numerous independent films that you may or may not have heard of. One that probably falls in the latter is ‘Captain Fanteastic,’ currently available on Kanopy through the University of Memphis Libraries. Mortenson plays Ben Cash (this last name is a nice tongue-in-cheek touch), father of six children, who along with his wife Leslie (largely unseen in the film) decide to raise their family in the Washington wilderness, with limited contact to the outside world. Early on, the viewer learns that Leslie has been hospitalized with severe bipolar disorder, leaving Ben and the children on their own in the rugged landscape.

These early scenes of the family’s structure and day to day life are some of the most poignant of the movie. Ben essentially home schools the children in every conceivable way, using the surrounding forest and mountains to teach them survival skills and keep them in peak physical health. Beyond this, he also assigns them books that most American youth would run screaming from: two of the books spotted while the family collectively sits reading by the of a campfire are ‘Blood, Germs, and Steel’ by Jared Diamond and ‘The Brothers Karamazov’ by Dostoevsky, tomes that most people don’t even pick up in college (I haven’t read either, but they are on my TBR pile, I swear!).

SPOILERS AHEAD!

The family, however, is shaken from their idyllic lifestyle by the news of Leslie’s suicide. Ben reluctantly loads the children onto their large green school bus to head to Leslie’s funeral and attempt to convince her father that she had willingly rejected traditional beliefs on life and death. Discussing much more would spoil the entire plot, but this is truly a film that defies genre limitations. The concepts here are ones that are relevant to what a number of parents and children contemplate in our modern world.  It is a family drama that includes aspects of survival and road trip movies.

Ben clearly loathes the materialistic mecca which he believes most of America to be. His children are more highly educated than some people with advanced degrees. However, the best scenes of the final act of Captain Fantastic deal with the kids, as they are exposed to the outside world, forming their own thoughts on whether this is enough. The oldest, Bodevan, secretly applies to a number of Ivy League schools, and is accepted to them all. He eventually fights with his father concerning a simple fact: what is the point of all the knowledge he possesses if he has no clue how to relate to other people on the most basic levels? Another one of the sons, Rellian, wonders why the family celebrates the intellectual Noam Chomsky instead of being “normal” and observing Christmas. Thus, the movie is at its best when it is examining different ideas on who knows what is best, particularly for the children. What exactly is the best way to live? And is there a middle ground that can be found without wanting to rip each other to shreds?

Who will like this one: The strength of ‘Captain Fantastic’ lies in the fantastic performances from the ensemble cast. Mortensen is at the top of his game, and there is not a weak link among the actors portraying the Cash children. It will also appeal to those who enjoy a good culture clash, as there are no real bad guys in the movie, though I find myself rooting for Ben and his lifestyle, despite his epic stubbornness.

Kanopy Review: Robert Pattinson Double Feature!

Many of us currently find ourselves in our homes most of the day, if not all of it, working and attending class from home in the midst of the ongoing Covid-19 crisis. It can be difficult to find things to do for entertainment without spending money on rental or subscription fees. However, if you are currently a student, staff, or faculty member at the University of Memphis, the streaming service Kanopy is offered without charge through our library’s databases. And it has some truly excellent choices on tap. So, if you are in need of a movie night, I aim to post several movie recommendations in the coming days that I hope you enjoy. (Also, if you are new to the blog, scroll back through some of my earlier Kanopy suggestions; I particularly enjoyed writing the Halloween Spooky Scary post!)

First up in this series is a Robert Pattinson double feature. Yes, the same Robert Pattinson that became famous because of that one Harry Potter movie and, more notably, the Twilight saga. If you haven’t watched a film starring him in a while, you are likely in for a surprise. He has developed from a teenage heart throb into one of the most interesting young actors working today. Pattinson has specialized in making under the radar independent films in recent years. Both of these features are on offer from the outstanding A24 movie studio, which specializes in making daring films outside of your typical blockbuster fare.

High Life

What could possibly go wrong with launching a group of death row inmates into deep space on a mysterious mission to find alternative energy sources by exploring a distant black hole? Answer: Everything. The film starts with Pattinson’s character taking care of a toddler on his own while struggling to keep a destitute spacecraft from falling apart. Things only get more bizarre from here, as the plot jumps around in time, a theme of the movie. One of the ‘crew’ holds strange fertility experiments with both the male and female prisoners on board. As the group hurtles further and further from Earth, it becomes an impossible struggle to maintain purpose and sanity. This film tackles a lot of deep philosophical issues, such as the value of life, what it means to be human in the worst of circumstances, and the morality of doing questionable things to further advance society. Not everything works here: some of my favorite scenes involve a central garden in the spacecraft that the crew tends to, but it is unclear if there is an environmental message that perhaps fell by the wayside. Either way, there are some beautiful visuals in this film, and the performances from Pattinson, Juliette Binoche, and Andre Benjamin (notable for being half of the music group Outkast) make this a thought-provoking watch.

Who will like this one: Fans of weird sci-fi in the vein of Annihilation that feature slow burn character studies and nonlinear timelines.

Good Time

Second up in the Robert Pattinson double feature is this high-octane New York City crime thriller, a film that is essentially nonstop chaos. Pattinson plays Connie Nikas, a narcissistic petty criminal that convinces his brother Nick, who is developmentally disabled, to help him rob a bank. The caper, predictably, goes horribly wrong, with Nick being arrested, badly beaten in jail, and sent to a hospital under police guard. Connie spends the night that most of the plot covers desperately trying to scrounge up enough money to bail his brother out of jail, an attempt which morphs into trying fruitlessly to break him out of custody. It is easy to guess from the synopsis that this is a wild ride from start to finish. It seems intentionally left unclear what Connie’s motivations are throughout besides vague mentions of family strife involving the two brothers’ grandmother. However, the movie felt extremely real, with a constantly building tension as one thing after another descends into pandemonium. Late in the movie, Connie describes another character as being a drain on society, a burden to others; however, it is either the least or most self-aware moment his character displays, as he was essentially describing himself perfectly. His list of dirty deeds in the movie include: trying to manipulate his girlfriend into paying his brother’s bail; getting a teenager arrested who he had earlier tried to seduce; and sending a security guard at an amusement park to the hospital while trying to find a hidden stash of drug money. At one point, I thought, ‘At least he hasn’t gotten anyone killed yet.’ But, there was twenty minutes left in the movie, and I will just leave it at that.

Who will like this one: Fans of nonstop action and of gritty films that focus on realistic characters instead of caricatures of the classic movie criminal.

Viewer warning: Both of these movies are rated ‘R’ and contain adult themes that may be offensive to some, including violence and sexual content.

Celebrating Black History Month!

Benjamin Clanton and Meghan Campbell, Government Publications

There is no doubting that African Americans have played an integral role in the armed forces of the United States, from our nation’s inception up to the present day. They have served this country and put themselves in harm’s way to help preserve the ideals of freedom and liberty that have often been denied to them over the past two and a half centuries. Whether it be during the Revolutionary War to found the nation, the American Civil War to save the Union and end slavery, World War II to defeat fascism, or in the modern struggles to find equality and recognition for their contributions, African Americans have given everything possible, including the highest sacrifice, in the American armed forces. For example, recent decades have seen the rise of Colin Powell, the son of Jamaican immigrants, to the greatest heights of the United States military, which propelled him to becoming Secretary of State during the George W. Bush administration. We here in Government Publications would like to use this opportunity during Black History Month to highlight some of the resources in our collection that honor and examine the sterling history of African American military service.

Bonus link!

Frederick Douglass is truly one of the great historical figures of the United States. After escaping slavery, Douglass became one of the greatest champions of abolition and social justice in 19th century America. His autobiography is still considered one of the greatest works of American literature ever produced, invaluable in its condemnation of slavery as an institution. Here is a link exploring the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site in Washington, D.C., preserved by the National Park Service. Please enjoy!

 

 

Happy Presidents’ Day!

The third Monday in February is traditionally known as Presidents’ Day here in the United States. It has morphed over the years since 1885, when the holiday became nationally recognized and was coined simply as Washington’s Birthday (George Washington’s birthday is on February 22, if you are curious). A movement in the 1960s successfully combined this observance with that of Abraham Lincoln’s birthday (February 12), and today the nation generally uses this holiday to celebrate the accomplishments of all U.S. presidents over the years. We here in the Government Publications department at the McWherter Library wanted to take a look at some of the resources available in our collections and online that will help you explore this historically relevant day!

Written by Meghan Campbell, Government Publications

February 17th is Presidents’ Day! What better way to celebrate this holiday than to share government resources about your favorite American leaders? Government Publications would like to share with you some local and online resources that are free and supremely easy to access to satisfy your curiosity!

Starting with our first president, the man, the myth, the legend: George Washington. Library of Congress has provided unique and quality access to a collection of papers that were written by Washington himself.  Unfortunately, you can’t read about how he chopped down a cherry tree, but you can read his personal correspondence, journals, and even take a peek at his school assignments.  If you’re seeking even more Washington related documents, you can always swing by Government Publications and browse our National Park Service documents and pamphlets about the Washington Monument, George Washington’s Birthplace, and many more!

If you’re really into popular presidents, you can dive deep into the life of Abraham Lincoln. Most famous as our leader during the Civil War, Lincoln has some interesting government documents of his own. Like George Washington, Lincoln has his own set of papers and manuscripts digitized by the Library of Congress; available to for free access online. Lincoln’s boyhood home, the Lincoln Memorial, and even where he was assassinated (Ford’s Theatre) are all sites that were prevalent in his lifetime and have been preserved by the National Park Service (NPS)! Some of the most notable work done by the NPS, is a collaboration with Google Arts and Culture, bringing the public an in-person view of other Lincoln-adjacent sites; such as Ford’s Theatre, Lincoln’s home, and his memorial in Washington D.C.

While there are plenty of resources on Presidents past, there are just as many on presidents of the (sort of recent) present.

Written by Benjamin Clanton, Government Publications

Have you ever wondered what the leader of the free world actually does during their Presidency? If this is the case, a rich resource is the multivolume sets of the Public Papers of the Presidents. Published by the Office of the Federal Register, these sets contain remarks and papers of the sitting President released by the Office of the Press Secretary during that particular time period. The Government Publications department has physical copies of these important documents available to be viewed by the public, stretching from the administration of Barack Obama back to the administration of Herbert Hoover. (We also have The Public Papers and Addresses of Franklin D. Roosevelt for that time period, but those were privately printed and not produced by the Office of the Federal Register.)

It is an invaluable resource to be able to view the remarks of American Presidents concerning events and trends during their administrations, along with other papers such as meetings with foreign leaders and remarks covering a myriad of appearances and events. It is also beneficial that the website of the Government Publishing Office (GPO) has made digitized copies of the Public Papers available to peruse at the click of a button. A wonderful compliment to this resource is a volume produced yearly in the Code of Federal Regulations titled “The President.” It contains copies of both proclamations and executive orders of the President over the course of the year covered. Being able to view all of these in one place allows a researcher or curiosity seeker the opportunity to truly see the many roles an American President must assume within our government.

Beyond the Government Publications department, McWherter Library also has a variety of Presidential biographies in the stacks available to history buffs. Here are a few to get you started:

If you want to learn more about American Presidents on this day or any other day, the resources are right at your fingertips here at the Ned.

 

Book Review: There There by Tommy Orange

Tommy Orange

Though a work of fiction, Tommy Orange’s debut novel, There There, is steeped in history. And not just one kind. Entire chapters deal directly with the history of Native peoples in the Americas and their largely tragic encounters with European colonizers. It can be argued that the entire book, set in modern day, permeates with the centuries old theme of searching for identity in the face of cultural destruction. On a different level, it also explores the private histories that shape the everyday actions of all people. Orange expertly weaves together numerous personal stories into one greater tale, one where the individuals he follows, all with at least some Native lineage, make their way towards a sprawling powwow event in Oakland, California. And like much of the history that Orange touches upon throughout the novel, this book turns into a tragedy by the final pages. However, like in all tales, there are moments of beauty and sadness and humor that give the novel its soul. Individuals are the driving force of being human, and that is no different here. Eventually, these vignettes all come crashing together to create a complex story where multiple strands eventually connect into a heartbreaking tapestry.

Orange’s technique of highlighting a wide variety of characters proves to be both the strength and weakness of There There. The ones that hit truly hit. They make you feel both the huge theme of the Native American experience in the United States, particularly the one born in urban areas, while also exploring the pain that is both common and unique to all of us.  A young man named Edwin Black was one of my favorites. In his first featured vignette, he is awkward, overweight, and self-isolated, totally unsure of where he fits in the world. Which brings up a question: what is it like to feel ostracized within a larger group that is already largely excluded from the society it exists in? Eventually, though, his arc transforms into one of cautious hopefulness. He becomes deeply involved in the planning of the powwow and contacts the man he believes to be his father through his mom’s Facebook account. Another character that helps bring true emotional depth to the book is that of a woman named Jacquie Red Feather. Her devastating story of family strife, abandonment, and alcoholism is perhaps the most powerful among several worthy contenders. A speech she gives at an AA meeting led by the long-disappeared father of her first child perfectly encapsulates the struggles felt throughout the novel, those of regret and tenuous optimism for the future. Continue reading