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Joy Hakim completes her juvenile American history series A History of US by looking at over a half-century’s worth of events from the end of the World War II to the aftermath of September 11th. The title of this particular volume, “All the People 1945-2001” underscores her guiding question: “Does our land of promise, at last, have the will to become a nation for ALL the people?” Instead of dealing with this period as the “post-war” era Hakim sees it as featuring battles of another kind, from Cold War combat in foreign lands to the struggle for equality at home, and including now the threat of terrorism on American soil. By looking at the Supreme Court decision outlawing school segregation, American youth in the streets protesting the war in Vietnam, and the campaign for equal rights for women, Hakim clearly sees the U.S. beginning to become in practice what it had always claimed to be in theory, a nation for all of its people.
The complex tapestry of American history has never seemed clearer than in this particular volume. For all of the rest I have been able to find a sense of narrative structure, but it is hard to find a clear sense of division amongst the chapters of “All the People” by the end of the volume. After a preface covering the struggles of democracies and a look at the lives of the accidental president Harry Truman and Jackie Robinson, who broke the color line in baseball, there is an initial unit (Chapters 11) looking primarily at the Cold War but also touching on the Marshall Plan, Joseph McCarthy, Ike, and mass consumerism. The second unit (Chapters 12-26) focuses primarily on the Civil Rights struggle, but also the presidencies of Kennedy and Johnson. But once we get to the Vietnam War the mixture becomes a whole lot cloudier. The third unit could simply end with the double impact of Vietnam and Watergate (Chapters 27-36), which leaves the post-Nixon presidents from Jimmy Carter to Bill Clinton (Chapters 37-45) along with the significant events of the 21st century and Hakim’s epilogue (Chapters 46-52), which reinforces her firm conviction that knowing about American history is the most important civics lesson of a young student’s life.
Part of the problem, if that is how you choose to see it, is that current events constantly get in the way of the historian’s perspective. I have always thought of Richard Nixon as being the most important president of my life because of not only Watergate, which has colored all domestic politics since it forced Nixon out of office, but also because of Vietnam and détente (only Nixon could go to China). But when we get another couple of generations down the road and historians look back at the last half of the 20th century (with September 11th now being recognized as the start of a new era that will get its volume), who will they decide was the most important politicians after Nixon? Ronald Reagan was the most popular but will history judge him as having a bigger impact than Bill Clinton? Or did Federal Reserve Board chairman Alan Greenspan (profiled on page 231) have the biggest impact of anyone on the lives of the American people in this period?
The fact that history continues to unfold faster than she can put together the next edition of A History of US (as the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have more than amply evidenced) does not dissuade Hakim from arguing that she sees pattern and meaning in the nation’s recent history. Hakim uses the events of September 11, 2001 to consider how many aspects of the terrorist attacks have brought the qualities that keep American strong to the forefront (e.g., representative democracy, freedom of speech, religious tolerance). As always, this serves to underscore the way in which Hakim is not merely writing about American history, she is teaching it. All of the volumes in this series have parenthetical comments and questions Hakim includes to involve her young readers in learning about their nation’s history.
Hakim makes reading about American history a personal experience. For example, while telling all about the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education case, Hakim has a sidebar that tells about the integration of a Southern school as related by two students, one black and one white, who lived through the times. The margins of these books are filled with not only interesting facts but address obvious questions that young students would ask their students. The main reason that this series is such a hit with parents home schooling their children is that Hakim’s presence as a teacher is clearly felt throughout every volume in this series. Her readers might be paying attention to all of the period illustrations that are crammed into these books, but virtually every one of those illustrations and its caption is making a point. Hopefully this will allow young students to realize what some of us have known for years: that learning American history can be fun (as well as important).
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