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The Wednesday Five: Fourth of July Reading List

July_4,_1939_0Observing the Fourth in 1939 in St. Helena Island, South Carolina. (Credit: NARA)

In this week’s Wednesday Five, we gear up for the Fourth of July with five incredible works of fiction and non-fiction that speak to the complexities and brilliance of our American communities and its citizens. These works on the page are a sobering meditation on the state of our union—its triumphs, its flaws, and its current realities. As we head into this year’s Independence Day celebrations, many of us do so with a heavy heart as we think about the loss of life in Charleston, South Carolina. Let us continue to ask the difficult questions, to trouble the waters, to (as President Obama so gracefully urged us in his eulogy for the  parishioners of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston) understand each others histories, not just our own, to continue the work to push and elevate our country to be—truly—the land of and for the free.

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In Fourth of July Creek, a shattering and iconic American novel, PEN prize-winning writer Smith Henderson explores the complexities of freedom, community, grace, suspicion, and anarchy, brilliantly depicting our nation’s disquieting and violent contradictions.  After trying to help Benjamin Pearl, an undernourished, nearly feral eleven-year-old boy living in the Montana wilderness, social worker Pete Snow comes face-to-face with the boy’s profoundly disturbed father, Jeremiah. With courage and caution, Pete slowly earns a measure of trust from this paranoid survivalist itching for a final conflict that will signal the coming End Times. But as Pete’s own family spins out of control, Pearl’s activities spark the full-blown interest of the FBI, putting Pete at the center of a massive manhunt from which no one will emerge unscathed.



Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee is Dee Brown’s classic, eloquent, meticulously documented account of the systematic destruction of the American Indian during the second half of the nineteenth century. Immediately recognized as a revelatory and enormously controversial book since its first publication in 1971, it is universally recognized as one of those rare books that forever changes the way its subject is perceived. Using council records, autobiographies, and firsthand descriptions, Brown allows great chiefs and warriors of the Dakota, Ute, Sioux, Cheyenne, and other tribes to tell us in their own words of the series of battles, massacres, and broken treaties that finally left them and their people demoralized and decimated. 



Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for History, No Ordinary Time by Doris Kearns Goodwin is a monumental work, a brilliantly conceived chronicle of one of the most vibrant and revolutionary periods in the history of the United States. With an extraordinary collection of details, Goodwin masterfully weaves together a striking number of story lines—Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt’s marriage and remarkable partnership, Eleanor’s life as First Lady, and FDR’s White House and its impact on America as well as on a world at war. Goodwin effectively melds these details and stories into an unforgettable and intimate portrait of Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt and of the time during which a new, modern America was born. 



The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson is a story of hope and longing. Three young people set out from the American South during different decades of the 20th century en route to the North and West in search of the warmth of other suns. They were forced out by the limits of the caste into which they had been born. Ida Mae Brandon Gladney, George Swanson Starling and Robert Joseph Pershing Foster are among the six million African-Americans who fled the South during what would become known as the Great Migration. Wilkerson interweaves their stories and those of others who made the journey with the larger forces and inner motivations that compelled them to flee, and with the challenges they confronted upon arrival in the New World.



Blending psychology, politics, spirituality, and confessional, The Road to Character by The New York Times columnist David Brooks provides an opportunity for us to rethink our priorities, and strive to build rich inner lives marked by humility and moral depth. Responding to what he calls the culture of the Big Me, which emphasizes external success, Brooks challenges us, and himself, to rebalance the scales between our “résumé virtues”—achieving wealth, fame, and status—and our “eulogy virtues,” those that exist at the core of our being: kindness, bravery, honesty, or faithfulness, focusing on what kind of relationships we have formed. Looking to some of the world’s greatest thinkers and inspiring leaders, Brooks explores how, through internal struggle and a sense of their own limitations, they have built a strong inner character.

(Excerpts taken from the publisher.)

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