The Top History Books of 2016
Here are some of the best titles to hit shelves this past year
The past year has been a banner one for advocates of the importance of public history. In a year where so many have been left wanting for more, seeking clarity among the confusion wrought by an ever-complicated world, the past may help provide a guide to the future. From the presidential campaign to the Syrian refugee crisis to cracks in the foundations of post-war Western democracy, the role of the historian has taken on a new prominence, a trend that has included museums.
Many of this year’s best books were about museums, from Samuel Redman’s Bone Rooms, which provides much-needed foundation of the relationship between museums and Native Americans, to Richard Conniff’s House of Lost Worlds, which offers a wonderful history of paleontology. From the Smithsonian itself, the American History Museum’s Jon Grinspan wrote an illuminating glimpse into American electoral history with The Virgin Vote, and for those who have (and haven’t) had the opportunity to tour the Institution’s newest museum, the accompanying book Begin With the Past: Building the National Museum of African American History and Culture, comes as close as possible to replicating the experience.
Here are some other great history reads to add to your list that were published this past year.
Hitler: Ascent, 1889-1939 by Volker UllrichIt’s rare for a book review to go viral, but The New York Times’ review (by Michiko Kakutani) of Ullrich’s first volume of a planned two-part biography of Adolf Hitler managed to do just that. Without ever explicitly drawing a connection to modern-day politics, Kakutani highlights how the rise of the fascist leader came to pass. Ullrich’s history presents a critical stripping of the myths behind Hitler’s ascension to power.
- Valiant Ambition by Nathaniel Philbrick
Few characters in American history are as poorly understood as Revolutionary War figure Benedict Arnold. In Philbrick’s latest, the man whose name is synonomous with traitor gets a much more developed portrait. “Although it later became convenient to portray Arnold as a conniving Satan from the start, the truth is more complex and, ultimately, more disturbing,” wrote Philbrick in this excerpt published in Smithsonian magazine. “Without the discovery of his treason in the fall of 1780, the American people might never have been forced to realize that the real threat to their liberties came not from without, but from within.”
- Blood at the Root: A Racial Cleansing in America by Patrick Phillips
This finalist for the National Book Award chronicles the history of Forsyth County, Georgia, where Jim Crow laws were taken to their utter extreme. By practically banishing all non-White residents from its borders, the county sought to institutionalize not just white supremacy, but white purity. Phillips, who grew up in Forsyth, tells a story that brings together many of the threads of racial violence of post-Civil War America.
- The Earth Is Weeping: The Epic Story of the Indian Wars for the American West by Peter Cozzens
This detailed account of the battles for control over the great expanse of the American plains brings nuance and new details to a moment that needs both. Without diminishing the devastating impact of these wars on Native American populations, Cozzens reveals the motivations of U.S. generals and officials fresh from their experiences of the Civil War. Read this exclusive excerpt from the book about President Grant’s covert plot to wage against the Plains Indians.
- A Square Meal: A Culinary History of the Great Depression by Jane Ziegelman and Andrew Coe
How does a nation of plenty face down starvation on a national scale? Food historians Jane Ziegelman and Andrew Coe look at the Great Depression with a dinner plate as their lens. It's a fascinating way to explore one of America's darkest hours—and the authors’ descriptions of bread lines, weird food combinations and the new science of nutrition just might change the way you see your next meal.
- Countdown to Pearl Harbor by Steve Twomey
Some histories are groundbreaking for their new research and analysis, shedding much-needed light to an undercovered topic. Others, like this crackerjack read on the lead-up to the devastating attack on Pearl Harbor, leverage great writing and storytelling to bring a well-told story to life. Without placing blame on any one particular person, Twomey’s captivating words leave the reader wondering what could have been, had military officials anticipated the “day of infamy” events. Read this exclusive excerpt of the hours before the attack.
- Hero of the Empire: The Boer War, a Daring Escape and the Making of Winston Churchill by Candice Millard
Does the uniform make the man, or does the man make the uniform? For Winston Churchill, it’s clear that he was destined for greatness even in his earliest years. As she did in her best-selling books about Theodore Roosevelt and James A. Garfield, Millard uses a formative experience to describe a larger-than-life figure in history. With Churchill, she looks at the future prime minister’s foray into South Africa, where he was held in a military prison during the Boer War. His escape and subsequent journey to freedom made him a national hero. Read our coverage of Hero of the Empire here.
- Louisa: The Extraordinary Life of Mrs. Adams by Louisa Thomas
Until January 20, 2017, when Melania Trump watches her husband take the oath of office as President, the United States will have had only one foreign-born first lady: Louisa Adams, the wife of John Quincy Adams and daughter-in-law to John and Abigail Adams. Louisa was London-born, but used her skills taught to her as an upper-class Englishwomen to her benefit in charming Washington society. Read about her integral role in her husband’s political successes here.
- Truevine: Two Brothers, a Kidnapping, and a Mother’s Quest: A True Story of the Jim Crow South by Beth Macy
A spellbinding story of twists and turns, placed in the 1920s of the American South where the Klan was resurgent and racism was rampant, Truevine tells the story of the Muse brothers, two albino African-Americans who became famous as part of a circus freak show. Macy expertly separates family lore from truth, discovering both intrigue and shameful exploitation along the way as she allows the brothers the space to tell an unheard of side to their story.
- The Invisibles: The Untold Story of African American Slaves in the White House by Jesse J. Holland
On the first night of this year’s Democratic National Convention, first lady Michelle Obama made headlines when she said, “I wake up every morning in a house built by slaves.” The truth behind the matter, covered here by Danny Lewis, is also touched on in this fascinating biography of the enslaved people who resided alongside 10 of the first 12 presidents in the White House. Holland’s yeoman’s work here accomplishes what many other stories have not, which is telling the stories of those whose names have long been forgotten, yet were critical to understanding the lives of the Founding Fathers. Read an interview with Holland here.