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Book review: America The Story of Us: An Illustrated History

America The Story of Us: An Illustrated History is a new book that supplements the very popular History Channel mini-series that received so much praise earlier this year with its sweeping overview of the American story. The TV series and resultant book follows the development of the United States from the earliest colonial settlements and exploration through the traumatic 19th century that saw the fledgling country grow dramatically in size, scope, and international prestige, while also surviving a catastrophic Civil War that threatened to undo all of the gains of the early part of the century. Coverage of the 20th century is superb, with outstanding photography and descriptions of many of the key events that molded and shaped America into the country she is today.
The book is a worthy addition to the pantheon of literature on American history. Unlike most commentaries, this one mixes excellent, crisp verbiage with a wide plethora of photographs, paintings, illustrations, maps, and drawings to convey the sense of the American journey. There are hundreds of such visuals, with at least one appearing on each of the nearly 400 pages in this impressive volume penned by author Kevin Baker.

Soldiers in the Second Battle of Bull Run during the American Civil War.
Image courtesy of A&E Television Networks.


The book follows the TV series in its format and content, and is divided into twelve chapters each reflecting a two-hour segment of the original mini-series. These are in chronological order and are entitled Rebels, Revolution, Westward, Division, Civil War, Heartland, Cities, Boom, Bust, WWII, Boomers, and Millennium. An extended reading list, index, and photo credits round out this fascinating new book.
The Civil War section, like the rest of the book, gives a very brief snapshot of some of the key people and events of the era, with sidebars and text that offer a little more depth for selected topics. One interesting sidebar examines the differences between Union and Confederate soldiers — 45% of the Union troops were native-born Americans versus 91% of the Southern soldiers. The Yankees boasted a 90% literacy rate; the Rebels 80%. 45% of the Federals were farmers, while 75% of the Rebels listed that occupation, reflecting the agrarian nature of the South versus the more industrialized North. Interestingly, the death rate for both sides was nearly identical, according to the author Kevin Baker, with 23% of Union soldiers dying and 24% of Southern men in arms, with 622,000 total between the warring factions.
The book features an introduction by President Barack Obama. The publisher, A&E Television Networks, lists America The Story of Us: An Illustrated History as an “exuberant, insightful look at the creation of America from pre-Colonial times to today.” The book certainly succeeds in presenting a sweeping general overview of U.S. history, one that will prove interesting for the history novice. It would also make a fabulous gift for foreign guests and relations, and would be well worth taking as a gift when traveling overseas, although the heft (more than 400 pages) might present an issue. However, it may very well be the best generic overview of the American story on the market today.
Useful for teenagers through senior adults, Kevin Baker’s new book makes a nice addition to the family library and can be used to develop plans to explore in more depth sites and events associated with U.S. history that the book and TV series brushes upon.
The book is available on-line at amazon.com and other leading Internet retailers, as well as at Barnes & Noble, Borders, and many other bookstores and department stores. The book uses coated-two-side glossy supercalendered premium book paper for optimum color reproduction and image fidelity. It was printed and bound in the United States, appropriate given the content.
Author Kevin Baker serves on the board of the Society of American Historians, and has written five novels, including the “City of Fire” collection of historical novels. The New York City resident was the chief historical researcher for Harold Evan’s book The American Century, and was a long-time columnist for American Heritage magazine. He is currently working on a social history of New York baseball.
America The Story of Us: An Illustrated History
Kevin Baker
A&E Television Networks, September 2010
$29.95 MSRP
416 pages, softbound, fully illustrated
ISBN 978-1-4229-8343-0