Here in the good ol’ US of A this is the day we celebrate or at least acknowledge our feelings of patriotism. There will be parades and fireworks and cookouts just as John Adams predicted. This is the day American men prove they can cook as long as it’s over an open fire and there’s meat involved. This a day for pool parties and baseball games and family reunions and baking on the beach (look out for those sharks).
Unfortunately there is one activity seldom associated with our Independence Day: reading; reading about how it all came about and the continuing struggle to maintain our independence during the past 239 years. That’s too bad because there have been some excellent books written on the subject.
The one that hit me like a sledgehammer when I was fourteen and my eyes had acquired the ability to see beyond the end of my nose was Howard Fast’s April Morning. Maybe it was because I strongly identified with the protagonist who was about my age and like me was struggling to put childhood behind and grasp what was expected of me as a man. Could I, would I measure up? My father and uncles who had fought in WWII were like monuments to me, strong, principled, unwavering in their concepts of right and wrong (with my dad it was either/or, no inbetween). Could I ever be like them? If I was confronted with the option of having to stand and fight for what I believed in at the risk of my life, would I?
Adam Cooper, the young protagonist of April Morning, faces these same questions. It’s April 19, 1775 in Lexington, MA and the redcoats are marching down a country lane ready to atack, their drums and boots heard long before they can be seen. The men of Lexington — farmers, shop owners, clergymen — gather in the village green, muskets in hand and wait, ready to stand their ground against the most powerful Army on the face of the earth.
So vividly did Fast describe this that when I read it I could see it, feel it, and my scalp tingled. The birds chirping in the trees as if it was just another day, the clatter of horses’ hooves, the grind of canon wheels on the dirt road, the rattle of sabers and bayonets, the pounding of Adam’s heart as he stood beside his father and wondered if his life was about to end. Thanks to Fast’s skillful writing I felt like I was there too, standing right beside Adam, struggling to catch my breath just as he was.
This was the book that did it for me, the one that made me want to be a storyteller. I wanted someday to be able to make readers (or viewers, since most of my work was for the screen) feel the way Howard Fast made me feel that hot summer day in south Georgia laying on the chenille bedspread of my grandmother’s bed, so absorbed in the book that Grandma actually had to call me to supper — and that had never happened before.
April Morning blew me away. A book is made up of white pages of course. So for me it was read, white and blew me away. Great patriotic experience.
I also highly recommend two books by master storyteller David McCullough: John Adams and 1776. Like April Morning these books are not just American history tomes, they sweep you up into the everyday sweat, blood and tears as a ragtag group of daring men and women stand against the ruthless tyranny of Great Britain. You see it, you feel it, you live it.
Last but certainly not least read His Excellency: George Washington by Joseph J. Ellis. Ellis shares Fast’s and McCullough’s ability to weave a spellbinding story filled with flesh-and-blood characters — not easy to do with a monument like our Founding Father. Ellis manages to make Washington human without ever knocking him off his well-deserved pedestal.
So after you’re stuffed with barbecue and you’ve put Noxzema on your sunburn and you’re ready for some quiet time, break open one of the above books and find out why we do this every 4th of July, what it really means. I promise you’ll be glad you did.
So what are your favorite patriotic reads? Doesn’t have to be about the Revolution, any period in American history where acts of patriotism were involved. A lot of that going on right this minute. I’d love to hear your thoughts.