Sunday, November 25, 2007

Who Was First?


Freedman, Russell. 2007. Who Was First? Discovering the Americas.

Few authors are more respected in the field of nonfiction than Russell Freedman. He's the best of the best. His books are readable (aka accessible) and thoroughly researched and documented. He is perhaps best known for his biographies, but he's written many other types of nonfiction as well.

Who Was First is his newest book. The topic is an interesting one. Who discovered America "first"? When was it "discovered"? Is there any way to know when the first people arrived and settled in the Americas? While there are a few things that are documented--Columbus being one of the established facts--many things are speculations or hypotheses. Freedman starts with Columbus and works backwards. He is looking for evidence of the 'first' discovery. We are certain that Columbus was not it. Obviously. The various Native American tribes of both continents and islands are proof that others were there first. But his quest is a global one. It examines the sailing and exploration history of many countries--many peoples. Including the Vikings and the Chinese.

While a lot of this is guess work, the book never fails to fascinate. Freedman clearly distinguishes between fact and speculation. When it comes to speculations, he explains both the theory and the theorists. The historians and archaeologists are sometimes as intriguing as their theories.

Overall, I enjoyed this one because of the fact that there are so many unknowns. I think sometimes things are presented in history class are presented in such a way that they seem absolute and unquestionable. I think it is difficult to teach the concept of Columbus in general. There are too many complexities involved. Columbus certainly wasn't the "first" to discover America. And he wasn't even the first European to discover America. And his arrival and the introduction of Spanish explorers to native shores is naturally complex. Their treatment of the natives as savages is hard to sugarcoat. There's no polite way to excuse their behavior--slavery, disease, war--all side effects of Columbus' "discovery." But this book goes beyond Columbus. I think it is nice for kids to be exposed to this side of history--the unknowns, the conjectures. To learn to think of history as a mystery waiting to be solved instead of a bunch of boring facts to be memorized.

This book is appropriate for middle readers on up.

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