Thursday, March 15, 2007

Poetry Book Review 8 - American History, Fresh Squeezed

Carol Diggory Shields. 2002. American history, fresh squeezed! Illus. by Richard Thompson. Brooklyn: Handprint Books.

The purpose of this book, according to the poet, is to tell the stories in history that she wished she’d paid attention to in 6th-grade history class, but to condense them. “Why can’t you learn about the Boston Tea Party in 17 lines? Or the Louisiana Purchase in 10?” she asks.

What follows are 45 poems about American history arranged chronologically. Some are funny (see “The Pilgrims” on page 9), some are just silly (see “The Purchase” on page 17), and others are more serious and reflective of the sadder events of our nation’s past (see “Trail of Tears” on pages 22-25), while some clearly have a mnemonic purpose (see “Presidents on Parade: Part I” on pages 26-27). All reinforce the purpose of the book to tell stories about the people who make up our history and to do it in a way that covers the major details and doesn’t get lost in the minor ones.

The book is made more enjoyable by the pen-and-ink drawings of Richard Thompson, which appear either on the page opposite each poem, or below them. I enjoyed, for example, the sketch of a tourist-trap kiosk set up in the middle of the woods and owned by the Carnarsie Indians that accompanies the poem “Manhattan,” about how the Dutch paid these Indians for Manahttan Island, but it turned out that they didn’t own it.

At the top of each two-page spread runs a timeline with generally accurate (though sometimes humorously written) events shown in the years in which they occur. For example, on pages 8 and 9, it shows “1607: First permanent English colony is founded at Jamestown, called ‘Jimtown’; 1609: English colonists prepare to leave Jimtown; 1611: Colonists decide to stay following first tobacco harvest; 1620: Before going ashore, Pilgrims check to see who they look, using the Mayflower Compact.” After this point in the book, though, most of the events actually did happen.

In addition to being arranged in chronological order, the poems are also listed in an index by title at the back of the book. Next to each title is a parenthetical explanation of what it is about. This would make it easier to find a poem about a specific event, instead of having to search through all the poems in the era in which it occurred.

This was a very enjoyable book, but no poetry book review would be complete without a sample of the work contained therein. The following poem from pages 44-45 is entitled “Poor You” about child labor in at the turn of the last century:

“Poor You”

Oh poor, poor you!
All that homework you must do,
And then there are the chores—
Feed the dog, sweep the floors.
Don’t you wish that you
Lived in nineteen-oh-two?

Only three short months in school!
(Now that sounds really cool),
And throughout the other nine,
You’d be working in a mine,
Thirteen hours every day
(No summers off
or time for play).

Or maybe you’d rather chill
By working in a mill,
Tending a huge machine
That spits dirt and grease and steam.
Dawn to dark, rain or shine,
Each day you’d earn one thin dime!

Don’t you wish that you
Lived in nineteen-oh-two?

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