Nonfiction styles

Mark,

So a couple of weeks ago we talked about Steve Sheinkin’s book Bomb. And from the other reviews I’m reading, I think it’s pretty clear that we and a lot of other people see Bomb as an example of really terrific nonfiction writing for kids and teens. Sheinkin tells an important story, uses a combination of primary and secondary sources, peppers the text liberally with quotations from the participants, documents his sources fully, and wraps it all up in great writing that makes us care about the people and events and gives us something to think about (that last line!).

Then I read Marc Aronson’s new book, Master of Deceit: J. Edgar Hoover and America in the Age of Lies. Important story: check. Combination of primary and secondary sources: check. Liberal quoting of participants: check. Documentation: check. Great writing: check. Gives us something to think about: check.

But. But I can’t love this book the way I love Bomb. In fact, there are several things that really, really bother me about Master of Deceit. I’ve been thinking about why they bother me, and I’ve been sharing some of this with your dad, who has given me some different perspectives, but let me lay out my problems and see what you think. I know you gave it 5 stars on Goodreads, so maybe you have a different take.

First, I was taken aback–but only slightly–on the two-page spread that begins Part One. It’s a background image of Lenin, with the words, “Nothing in this book matters until you care about Communism.” Really? (I thought) I have to care about Communism in order to understand J. Edgar Hoover’s assault on American freedoms? Sure, I have to understand the times and why Communism was seen as such a threat, but I have to care about it?

But, okay, whatever, he’s being dramatic, and drawing the audience in. Let’s go on. To page 4, where we learn “The Truth of American History.”  There are two paragraphs here, which begin with the sentence, “There are two ways to tell the story of America.” Again I was pulled to an abrupt halt. Really? (I thought) There are two ways to tell the story of America? Two? Not three or six or twenty? Two? I read the two paragraphs aloud to Dad, and he said, “Wow, he really did a good job of describing those two visions of America!” So I read them again, and I thought, well, yes, again with the drama, but he does do a good job. I think maybe I wouldn’t have had a problem if he had started the section by saying “Here are two ways to tell the story of America” instead of “There are.”

So, onward. I know a bit about Marc Aronson’s philosophy of writing history for young people, having read his 2011 Horn Book article, “New Knowledge” and his follow-up blog post on the same subject. I understand that he believes that it is important to show young readers how we do history, and how we can speculate about it: as he says, “many of us see speculation as part of the fun of nonfiction for younger readers. We invite our readers to think with us, to join in the game.” And I absolutely agree with him there. As someone with an academic background in history myself, I know–more than most, probably–that history is more about story than about facts, and that who writes the history makes a difference. I agree that it is worthwhile to show kids and teens where the information came from and why we draw the conclusions we draw.

And I really liked the way Aronson showed, for example, the ways in which Hoover controlled the history of the FBI–courting the media, telling the story his own way, leaving out certain things and emphasizing others. But I kept being pulled up short in this book, feeling that Aronson was injecting too much of himself into the story, and speculating in ways that were not really quite fair.

Here’s an example: on page 70, in discussing Hoover’s reaction to black people and the Civil Rights movement, Aronson says, “Why did Hoover react so strongly to the issue of black rights? He was hardly alone in his views, and it may be that his upbringing in segregated Washington explains enough. Yet rumors, family legends, and intriguing-but-inconclusive genealogical records suggest that Hoover’s family was partially African American but ‘passing’ as white.” He then talks about photos of Hoover that hint at this, and gives us three full pages of photos to see for ourselves.

Okay, fine, so he’s doing the speculation thing here, and giving the reader the opportunity to speculate along with him. But then, if you read his footnote for this page, he basically says that it’s not too likely to be true. He tells us who the source is, but then says that she was “relying not only on family oral history–which may well be true but needs confirmation–but also on memories of her own that she claims to have blocked and then recovered through therapy. This is very treacherous territory where fantasy, mythology, and fact can easily blur. Ackerman cites a genealogist who does not think her case is convincing.”

I would have felt better about this if he had included the information from the footnote in the text. It just seems a little sneaky to me, especially since he basically relies on the speculation to make his next point.

First, he says, “And even if there were a secret African-American root in his family tree, we have no evidence that he was aware of it.” But, the very next sentence is “The one thing we can say about Hoover’s possible secrets–the tension in his childhood home, the question of his sexuality, and the rumors about his mixed ancestry–is that something was so close to boiling over inside him that he needed to maintain total control.”

Well, wow. Just–wow. So we don’t even know if he–or anyone else–was aware of “rumors” about his mixed ancestry, but the one thing we can say about his possible secrets is that they were what made him a control freak? Um, okay.

There were a few other things that bothered me about the book, notably some of the captions on the illustrations. In these cases, I think Aronson pushes speculation over the line into personal opinion. Page 12, picture of Hoover as a teenaged cadet, “displaying his knife-edged precision and unwavering moral severity.” Really? I would say that the picture is of a teenager who wants to look grown-up and official, so he has put on his “stern” face.

Or page 132, a photo of Hoover with Senator McCarthy, Clyde Tolson, and Royal Miller. This description is not a caption, but in the text on page 136: “When you realize the power Hoover held at just this moment, the photo is chilling. The emotion it conveys is a control so total, it is smug and ugly. In this insulated space there is total safety, complete authority.” It’s a picture of four middle-aged guys, squinting into the sun, all with fairly pleasant looks on their faces. I do realize the power Hoover held at this moment (1953), but it doesn’t give me the chills. Even when Aronson tells us something about the locale (the Hotel del Charro) and Hoover’s influence there, I still don’t see it.

But maybe I just need to accept that Aronson sees it, and that is the point.

There was a lot I liked about this book. Hoover died when I was in college, so I basically grew up with him as The Director. I can confirm that we all had a view of the FBI that, as Aronson shows, was controlled by Hoover. In fact, despite various things I’ve learned in the intervening years, there was plenty of stuff here that was new to me and that shocked me a bit. I thought he did a great job of the piece on McCarthy and HUAC and the whole “naming names” thing.

But, to go back to my opening comments, it’s just a very different style of book than Bomb, and I think it’s a less successful style. Cecilia, over on the Printz blog, commented, “Bomb was excellent, even more so when you read it back to back with Master of Deceit.” I agree.

Reading back over this post, I see that part of what I object to is Aronson’s over-dramatization. Now, there’s plenty of drama and excitement in Bomb, but the drama comes from the events themselves, not from Sheinkin inserting himself into the events and telling us what to think. When it comes right down to it, that’s why I can’t love Master of Deceit  the way I can love Bomb.

Thoughts?

- Mom

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5 Comments

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5 responses to “Nonfiction styles

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