Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Alexander Hamilton

Alexander Hamilton: Revolutionary by Martha Brockenbrough (2017)

Nope, not the 800-page doorstop by Ron Chernow that inspired the musical we all know and love (ok, I haven't seen it but I'm sure I would love it) but the shorter and more manageable version written for teens. In her book, Brockenbrough tells us the story of Alexander's whole life, from his birth in the Caribbean through his remarkable military and political career to his untimely death. Her book contains illustrations and some background material on the time period to round things out a bit.

I knew very little about Hamilton going on this book, so it was very educational for me. The style was generally pretty easy, but I got a bit bogged down during the Revolutionary War. I think I just find it difficult to read about war because I don't know what some of the military activity looks like, and I always try to envision things as they're happening. But when you just describe a particular maneuver or battle in a few words it's hard for me to picture. But afterward, when we moved into the era in which Hamilton was instrumental in authoring the Federalist Papers, drafting the Constitution, and basically creating a government from scratch it got much more interesting to me.

I was also a bit fascinated by how quick to duel everyone was. This was also a big theme in War and Peace, but apparently it was a universal phenomenon. Any little insult - like calling someone a rascal - was grounds for a duel to defend one's honor. Please. (And we think people are easy offended these days.) It's such a waste too - Hamilton survived a frigging war but allowed himself to get killed over honor? I realize from reading this book that honor was the most important thing to him ever, but I have a hard time understanding that, especially when he left behind a wife and about a bazillion kids. (Seriously, every time his wife was mentioned in this book, she was pregnant again.)

Another part that struck me was the passage about the election of 1800. I always think about current elections being especially dirty and smarmy, what with everyone dragging out every bit of dirty laundry they can find - or fabricate - on candidates they don't like, but that's apparently not new at all. In 1800, Adams was called "hermaphroditical" and it was claimed that if he won adultery and incest would be taught and encouraged throughout the country. (It reminded me a bit of the 2016 "threat" that if Clinton won there would be a taco truck on every corner which, to me, sounds like paradise.) Furthermore, the reason that Alexander Hamilton didn't ever run for President was because he was afraid that his adulterous affair would be made public. I don't know if it was heartening or depressing to learn that things really haven't changed very much in the last few hundred years.

At times, I wished there was a little more explanation. For instance, as a child Hamilton's father went away on a trip and never came back, abandoning Hamilton and his brother and mother. Later when he was about to get married, there was mention that he wanted his father to come, but he was unable to. Had they been in touch this whole time? How did they get in touch after he abandoned the family? There were a couple of others parts where I had similar questions. Of course, if all the details were fleshed out, we would have ended up with an 800-page book like Chernow's. Overall, I think Brockenbrough did a great job of giving us as complete a story as possible while keeping it short enough for those of us who are daunted by lengthy, detailed works of nonfiction.

I read this book for the Not-So-Young Adult Book Group at work, and we discussed it at my penultimate meeting. I hired someone new in my department and she's going to take over this group starting in June, which will absolve me of my monthly required reading. I've loved a lot of the books I read for this group, but I'm also very happy to read whatever the hell I want all the time. Plus I'm sure she'll bring new life and ideas to this group that I've been running since 2012. But I'm going to keep reading teen books so you'll still see me posting about them here!

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