Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Brave Companions


While camping this weekend with my family, I finished reading a book by one of my favorite authors, David McCullough, called Brave Companions. This short book is a eclectic collection of contemporary character sketches, ranging from the likes of Harriet Beecher Stowe to David Plowden.


I read this book as the result of a tradition that my mother and I have enjoyed over the last two years. It has just so happened that she was in town both years near Mothers Day, so we carved out some time to peruse the local bookstore together, discussing our favorite hobby, books. Last year we (or I should say she) purchased three books: Manhunt (reviewed here), Team of Rivals, and A World Lit Only by Fire. Our plan was to read the three and share what we learned with one another. Mom made it through all three, but because of seminary constraints, I only read the last, which was an outstanding book by another one of my favorite authors, William Manchester. This year, after much deliberation, we settled on Brave Companions as one that we were both most likely to read in the coming months.

There are a number of things I enjoyed about this book, many which reflect almost any McCullough book I have read. He is a masterful writer, so much so that some have said he is ‘incapable of making a literary mistake.’ It was intriguing to see the way he linked certain topics, his writing about Remington following the chapter on Teddy Roosevelt because of their shared love for the dwindling ‘open range west.’

Some of the following obscure facts of interest and irony were worth in themselves worth the price of the book:

  • Charles Lindbergh, a man who became famous because of the airplane, would later fully renounce the idea of progress through technology.

  • McCullough debunks the myth that the Pacific ocean is higher than the Atlantic in his chapter on the Panama Canal. (Incidentally, McCullough has written an entire book on the building of the Canal, one of great interest, which helped retain my sanity in my next to last semester of seminary).

  • The tragic fact that Remington, the great American painter and sculptor, near the end of his career, became so disgusted with his earlier work that he burned over 75 of his paintings outside of his studio door.

  • Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a one time pacifist, supported the Civil War because it was “better, a thousand times better, open, manly, energetic war, than cowardly and treacherous peace.”

  • He tells Agassiz’s practice of introducing new students, one that has become immortalized in the Bible study world, by having them study a fish for hours on end.

  • A chapter on Henry Caudill and the plight of strip mining in Eastern Kentucky, which he tells in a way that should garner the sympathy of even the most established city-dwelling hillbilly hater.

  • The Vietnam war lasted seven years with total American casualties numbering 57,000. By comparison, during just one day of the Battle of Antietam, 23,000 were lost.

The climax of the book occurs with two chapters displaying McCullough’s abounding patriotism. In one of these he gives a brief history of America since 1936, emphasizing the astounding amount of progress and growth this nation has endured. The entire book is worth the chapter that follows these, one that appears to be a public address or commencement speech, inspiring his listeners to dedicate much energy to reading history.

The most inspiring part of this book for me was the way he painted the boundless energy of each of his portraits, people who seemed wholly dedicated to a task even against whatever impossible odds they faced.

1 comment:

John and Pam said...

I got the book today and I am going to take a coffee break and read a bit of it. I really liked your review.