I thought I would kick off the Thanksgiving holiday week with two nonfiction titles that are garnering both critical praise and a great deal of publicity. They will likely end up in many a Christmas stocking this year.
How do they stack up for young adult readers?
First, Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand, the much anticipated new book by the author of Seabiscuit (Ballantine, 2003). If teens are willing to read the World War II history involved, they will be rewarded with a thrilling survival story. Hillenbrand first heard about her subject, Louis Zamperini, while working on Seabiscuit. She carefully unearthed and meticulously researched his story, including conversations with the man himself.
Second, Cleopatra by Stacy Schiff. Cleopatra is traditionally a popular choice for students required to read a biography. This one has a glorious cover, and although longer than what students in it purely for an assignment might read, Schiff does the great service of righting the wrongs of history and seeking the real woman within the legend. This is an important piece of scholarship about a fascinating subject.
These books belong in every high school library, and can be recommended to young readers for appealing storytelling, narrative excellence, and (dare I say it) as models of original research and clear documentation.
Adult/High School–It is difficult to imagine a life more epic than that lived by Louis Zamperini, who saw his dream of becoming the first athlete to run a mile in less than four minutes pre-empted by a nightmare of improbable survival through WW II. Against all odds, Zamperini lived through the crash of his B-24 and a 47-day ordeal adrift in the Pacific with his two surviving crew members, only to be captured by the Japanese and held for more than two years. In the hands of gifted story-teller Hillenbrand, the details of Zamperini’s life fall together like tumblers in a lock to reveal the source of strength, ingenuity, and resilience that he needed to survive exposure, shark attack, a typhoon, being shot at by fighter planes (one riddling his plane, another his life raft), disease, and extreme physical and psychological abuse. Hillenbrand deftly weaves stories of Zamperini, his friends and family, as well as tormentors, to transcend the facts of his war experience by exposing the scope of human nature–from depraved torture and hatred to reconciliation and absolute forgiveness. Teens may not be drawn to tales of World War II, but Unbroken will be irresistible to those who appreciate a well-told tale of survival. Teachers of 20th-century history and WWII will find this book a complement to their classes. Such is the nature of Zamperini’s heroism and perseverance that it could also accompany a reading of The Odyssey.–John Sexton, Westchester Library System, NY
Adult/High School–When we consider that Sony Pictures has already cast Angelina Jolie to star in a film based on Schiff’s biography, and that a new Cleopatra exhibition will be traveling to five U.S. cities, we can begin to envision the coming fervor. What makes Schiff’s book such a winner is her combination of rigorous scholarship; bold, lively prose; and fully developed themes that go far to lift the historical person out of two millennia of myth, legend, and slander. The author addresses such questions as : Was Cleopatra beautiful? Did she sacrifice everything for love? Was she the original bad girl/material girl/femme fatale? But Schiff is more interested in how Cleopatra held her own as a woman in a man’s world. In addition to being the wealthiest person of her times and the ruler of most of the eastern Mediterranean, Cleopatra was a clever strategist, a tenacious negotiator, a brilliant administrator, and, by numerous accounts, the most elegant, most charming, most savvy, most beguiling female or male at any social function. Schiff thoroughly explores how Octavian, Cleopatra’s chief nemesis, and his fellow Roman “historians” manipulated the life and character of the Egyptian queen to suit their ambitious needs. The victors always get the first crack at telling it how it was, and Cleopatra’s early biographers made the most of it. Others in years to come fed on the theme of the wanton seductress. Now it is time, as Schiff suggests, to move beyond Cleopatra’s romantic/sexual effect on two men (and vicariously on a world of others) and to recognize her extraordinary ability to amass political power and to rule with finesse and authority.–Robert Saunderson, formerly at Berkeley Public Library, CA