Betsy Ross and the Making of America
By Marla R. Miller
(Henry Holt, $30)
WHETHER BETSY ROSS actually fashioned the first stars-and-stripes American flag for George Washington in 1776 a fact that has never been fully proved is beside the point in this skillfully woven narrative. According to historian and author Marla R. Miller, Ross herself is a far better emblem of life in the fledgling United States than the legendary flag credited to her name.
Ross fortunes as a respected seamstress and her large familys well-being ebbed and flowed with the tide of events in Philadelphia. The city was a revolutionary hotbed before the war, an occupied city during it and the capital of the United States from 1790 to 1800 (a fact often forgotten today). Colonial issues like taxation without representation and international trade werent just rhetoric there. Miller personalizes them, showing how higher tariffs threatened Ross livelihood and how her parents lives were lost to a yellow-fever outbreak caused by stowaway mosquitoes on trading ships in Phillys bustling port.
When the nation returned to war in 1812 and subsequently added more and more states, Ross life and handiwork mirrored the state of the union one stitch, one star and one flag at a time.
Tocquevilles Discovery of America
By Leo Damrosch
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $27)
YOU CAN IMAGINE THE potential movie adaptation: A buddy-road-trip film about two 20-something aristocratic Frenchmen and the high jinks they encounter on a nine-month trek across America in 1831. But Harvard literature professor Leo Damrosch gives his subjects historian Alexis de Tocqueville and fellow magistrate Gustave de Beaumont the tremendous respect theyre due, given that their journey resulted in Tocquevilles Democracy in America, considered among the greatest books ever written about the United States.
Damrosch takes readers along on the Frenchmens fascinating ride by stagecoach, horseback and steamboat from Boston west to Cincinnati, downriver to New Orleans, and back east again. This is no boring Tocqueville slept here travelogue. We meet the colorful characters Tocqueville encounters: a backwoods Michigan hermit with a bear for a pet; a band of Choctaw Indians removed from their land; even President Andrew Jackson, the very man responsible for the Choctaws eviction. Tocquevilles prescient observations enable him to see the then-vast American forests for the trees and to not only comprehend the American experiment in democracy but also to explain it to the world including to Americans themselves, then as well as now.
Get Capone: The Secret Plot that Captured Americas Most Wanted Gangster
By Jonathan Eig
(Simon & Schuster, $28)
BOOTLEGGING, TAX EVASION AND ALCATRAZ thats the shorthand version most people know of Al Capones life story. Best-selling author Jonathan Eig does far more than just fill in the blanks with Get Capone. Using newly discovered documents from the IRS, the U.S. attorney in Chicago and Capone family members, Eig dispenses with the myths and reveals the far more riveting real investigation that brought Chicagos larger-than-life crime boss to justice.
At first, far too many people enjoyed an illicit cocktail or two from Capones bootlegging business to press for his prosecution. But as escalating violence jeopardized Chicagos reputation and its residents lives, President Herbert Hoover himself insisted the gangster be brought down.
Eig creates a memorable rogues gallery of a supporting cast including florist mobster Charles Dean OBanion and William Three- Fingered Jack White, a cop killer whom Eig fingers as a suspect in a notorious Capone-era crime. And Eigs deft incorporation of Capones widespread media coverage helps create a clear picture of the height of the gangsters power and popularity, as well as the significance of his monumental downfall.