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Another Review: King George–What was his Problem?

Writer Steve Sheinkin used to write textbooks until he got fed up with the way his bosses took what he thought was a lot of fascinating stories about interesting people and turned them into the bland stuff that most people think of as “history.”

His book, King George: What was his Problem? is meant to be something of an apology for the insomnia-curing textbooks as well as a clever way to get kids interested in early American history. I think it’ll work. The book takes a very informal, conversational tone, as if Sheinkin is speaking directly to a fifth-grader. This is not to say that the subject matter is in any way “dumbed-down” or sanitized for young audiences. Quite the opposite; his own words are straightforward and simple, but he pulls no punches. He explicitly describes the fate of royal tax collector John Malcolm:

What was the worst part about getting tarred and feathered? Malcolm said the most painful part was trying to rip the tar off his burned body. He mailed a box of his tar and feathers, with bits of his skin still attached, to the British government in London. They sympathized. They sent him money.

The strength of this book comes not only from Sheinkin’s straight-talking style, but also from his extensive use of quotes from primary sources. The best way to understand an era is to read the writings of the people who lived in it. Sheinkin shows us their words, puts them in context, and turns the people of the founding era into folks modern students can relate to. They made mistakes. They argued amongst themselves. They worried about lunch. They nursed grudges. And they founded (or lost) a nation.

The extensive annotated bibliography will be useful for students of any age who want to follow up on anything touched on in this book. There is also a list of quotation notes showing where all of the “daring, clever, foolish, amazing, surprising, funny, and gross” quotes can be found.

If this book has any faults, they are that no mention is made of the fate of American loyalists, Native Americans are only mentioned once, and the paradox of slave-owning freedom-fighters is given less space than one might like (one page). On the other hand, if you’re going to cover the whole Revolution in just 177 pages (not including notes and index), you have to make some tough choices.

King George–What was his Problem? (ISBN-13:978-1-59643-319-9) retails for $19.95 in hardcover (somewhat less on Amazon), or try your local library.


I keep meaning to post these reviews and I keep not doing it. This is unfortunate, because these webcomics are well-written, well-drawn, and definitely worth a look for anyone who’s even remotely interested in the American Revolution.

The Dreamer  tells the story of Bea Whaley, a modern student who visits the Revolutionary era in her dreams. She dreams of actual events and real historical figures in spite of never having seriously studied the Revolution. Her limited real-world knowledge of history causes problems for her in the 1770s dream-world, while her experiences in the dream make her second-guess her modern life.

The story so far has Dream-Bea in the middle of an important battle. Students of history will know the general outcome of the battle, but what happens to the individuals involved is not predictable.

This comic might be useful to get students interested in RevWar history, and will appeal (I imagine) to middle-school students, girls especially, though I’m enjoying the story and I’m an adult man, so take that for what it’s worth.

My brief review doesn’t do justice to The Dreamer. Click the link, and read the comic from the beginning.

Loyalty and Liberty is an interesting look at the Revolution. It’s historical fiction with fewer real-world historical figures as speaking characters, but all of them have been drawn as anthropomorphic cats. The story so far has brought us to just before the confrontation on Lexington Green.

Initially, you might think that upper elementary students will be drawn to this comic while middle-schoolers and high-schoolers won’t enjoy it, but don’t be misled by the cats-in-coats. The art, writing, and so far, historical accuracy are all excellent and will appeal to older students as well. There are, however, a few issues with punctuation and word choice. If one forgives the style and mechanics issues, though, it’s a well-told story and worth a look.

There are a few other works (web comics, podcasts, books) I’ll be calling your attention to. Watch this space.

Upcoming Appearance

Hands-on History will be presenting at the Orion Township Public Library on Saturday, May 3rd, at 10:30 am.

If you’re a teacher, scout leader, or member of a homeschool group, this would be a great time to see Hands-on History in action before you book us to visit your classroom or meeting.

Movie Review

I was with my son in the video store the other day and I noticed something intriguing on the shelves in the Family section. It was Felicity: an American Girl Story.

If you’re not familiar with the American Girl phenomenon, you’re probably not a librarian, teacher, or parent. The series of books (and expensive dolls, outfits and accessories for both doll and owner) examines notable eras in American history through the eyes of a fictional girl of the time. Felicity is set in Williamsburg, Virginia in the year 1775.

For whatever reason, most fiction set during the Revolutionary era is meant to be appealing to boys (think Johnny Tremain, The Patriot). This is the first film about the era with a female protagonist that I’d seen, and I thought, “Hey, this is wonderful! Something about the Revolution that might make the period interesting for the girls! I wonder if it’s any good?” So I added it to the stack of videos we were renting and brought it home in case any teachers out there might want the benefit of my opinion. Here’s what I think.

Museum Program Cancelled!

Friends of Hands-on History and other interested parties,

I am sorry to tell you that the Holland Museum’s Revolutionary Kids program has been canceled due to low enrollment.

The museum staff sent me an email yesterday to let me know. I am of course disappointed by the cancellation, but there are plans for a similar program in the future, and we hope that Hands-on History will be a part of it.

Please accept my apologies for any inconvenience this may have caused you.

Revoultionary Kids at the Holland Museum

On December 15th, Hands-on History will be presenting at the Holland Museum, in Holland, Michigan as part of their Revolutionary Kids program. If you’re a teacher, youth group leader, or part of a home-school group, this would be a super time to check out Hands-on History in action before booking us. Here are the details, from the Calendar page of the Holland Museum’s website:

Dec 15
* REVOLUTIONARY KIDS, 10 am – 2 pm (Sat)
In connection with the Thomas Jefferson exhibit at the Holland Museum, this program for children aged 7 – 12 yrs. is designed to give a glimpse into the life and activities of a child during revolutionary war times. Participants meet up with a “redcoat” and a “continental” soldier and hear their stories. They will also listen to period music, learn crafts, dances and games from that time of history and sample foods during lunch that would have been served in the late 1700s. Space is limited and prior registration required. Call 616/392-9084 for information and registration. Cost: $30, includes lunch and craft materials. Holland Museum; 31 W 10th St, 616/392-9084 or toll free 888/200-9123

Great Lakes, Great Stories

On October 10th, Hands-on History gave a talk at the Macomb Cultural Center as part of their Great Lakes Great Stories program. If you haven’t visited the MCC, please do. They’ve got it all set up with exhibits on Great Lakes history, and every weekend they have a speaker or two coming in to share what they know about their particular era. Hands-on History, of course, presented on the life of a British Soldier in Colonial Detroit.

Doing the presentation for a group of mixed ages was an interesting experience. Usually our audience is made up of elementary school students, usually all fifth graders, all fourth graders, or a mix of the two. This audience had a few elementary-age kids and adults from their twenties into probably their seventies (just a guess) and from many different backgrounds. The main difference between talking to fifth graders and this group was that we’ve never had fifth graders ask questions with a political slant to them.

We had one audience member ask rather pointedly about the British breaking treaties with the Native Americans in Michigan. This question sparked a digression on Pontiac’s Rebellion, a native uprising in the Great Lakes that occurred between the French and Indian War and the American War for Independence.

Basically (and this is a gross oversimplification) after the F&I war, the British treated the natives as though they were a conquered people. But the natives didn’t really see it that way. The French had been conquered and driven away, but the native tribes were still here, and were still a force to be reckoned with. Certain British officers realized that they should be doing as the French had done in giving gifts to the native chiefs, but the government back in England didn’t want to spend the money and resources giving stuff away to a bunch of “savages” that they’d just “beaten” in a war.

Well, after a while of the British treating the natives with contempt, this fellow Pontiac decided that it was time to oust the British. He coordinated a revolt across the Great Lakes. Every British fort on the lakes was attacked by their native neighbors on or about the same day. This is in an age without long-distance communication, remember, and in an area that stretches from Chicago to the Straits of Mackinac to the mouth of the Niagara River. Get a map and you’ll see how impressive this was. Every British fort on the lakes fell to the natives, with the notable exceptions of Ft. Niagara, and Detroit.

After a long time besieging Detroit, eventually Pontiac’s men decided to go home and tend to their crops and their families, and the siege was lifted. But Pontiac’s effort did make the British government realize that the Native Americans were a force to be reckoned with, and funds for gifts to the native chiefs were soon approved. By the time the Revolutionary war rolled around, most of the Native population, especially those to the west of the Appalachian Mountains, sided with Great Britian.

Michilimackinac Photos

Red Ensign Dawn

Here are a few of the photos I took in the early morning at the fort, before the modern world was able to intrude too much.

Langlade House Colonial Home
The dwellings are quite small by modern standards, with very little in the way of privacy. Three different families actually lived in the building labeled “Langlade House.” The family of merchant Charles Langlade occupied the middle section.

Wall Detail

In the detail image, you can see how the walls were made: thin branches were woven between sapling-thick uprights held up by a timber frame, and the whole thing was covered over with mud. Imagine having to maintain such a home.

Most of the Europeans who lived in and around the fort only did so during the summer months, when trading was active. In the Fall, the civilians would leave to spend the winter in places like Detroit, Montreal, or Quebec, returning in the spring with trade goods to exchange for furs. The soldiers, however, were stuck at the fort all winter.

Equine Neighbors Living Larder

Living In the Past

I spent the weekend of September 14-16th with some friends volunteering at Fort Michilimackinac in Mackinaw City, Michigan. It’s a very different experience from just visiting. One perk is that I had access to the fort before it opened to the public. In the morning, before the tourists come into the fort, there’s a quiet that’s hard to describe. The sun’s coming up, the wind off of the Straits of Mackinac drowns out the sound of traffic, the Red Ensign snaps in the breeze, and you can almost feel like you’re at the end of the Empire.
Joseph Conrad once had one of his characters say, as he sat in a boat on the Thames, “This too was one of the dark places of the earth.” Or something like that, anyway. Well, that’s what I’m talking about. This country where we live was once the end of the world (at least as far as Europeans were concerned). There were places that you could go and be the first non-native to see them. The world was a wonderful and sometimes terrifying place, and wild creatures lurked beyond the firelight.
In this lovely early-morning time, I managed to get some photos of the buildings in and around the fort. This is useful because some of them are close to what a typical dwelling in 1770s Detroit probably looked like.

I’ll post those photos very soon, I promise.

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