Review: The Plantagenets

The Plantagenets: The Warrior Kings and Queens Who Made England by Dan Jones. Viking. 2013. Reviewed from ARC from publisher. Vacation reads (aka, when I talk about books for grownups and post them before holidays.)

It’s About: The designated heir of England dies in a shipwreck; England is plunged into civil war as descendants of William the Conqueror fight for the right to the throne; and the winning family is the Plantagenets.

Starting with Henry II, son of Geoffrey Plantagenet and Empress Matilda, wife of Eleanor of Aquitaine, and father of Richard the Lionheart and King John, and ending over two hundred years later with his many times great grandson Richard II, The Plantagenets tells of the men, the women, the battles, the politics, the murders, the laws and even the finances that created and shaped both England and its relationship with its kings.

The Good: Didn’t you see the title? THE PLANTAGENETS! Henry and Eleanor and Richard, and, well, another Henry and some Edwards tossed in, also. And of course JOHN. We can’t forget him.

For those who aren’t captivated at The Plantagenets, I give you this: It starts with a mega disaster of epic proportions. The heir to the English throne is on his way home, along with friends and relations, and of course when you’re seventeen and the world is yours what do you do? You party like a rock star. The fatal flaw in that plan is when the crew of your ship parties with you, crashing the ship before it leaves the harbor, and the heir, his family and friends, and the ships crew, all drown.

No, really. The heir’s death results in a “who gets to rule” game; and any game for a throne is a game played out in blood, and death, and battles, and treachery, and loyalty. And that’s just the start of it.

The Plantagenets covers a lot of kings: Henry II, Richard I, John, Henry III, Edward I, Edward II, Edward III, and Richard II, and their wives, children, cousins; those loyal to them, those who turned against them. It ends on a cliffhanger of a sort: the defeat of Richard II by Henry IV, resulting in the end of the Plantagenet reign and the start of the House of Lancaster.

All these people in one volume is pretty amazing; it’s almost impressive that it’s “only” 500-odd pages. And let me add: it’s an intense 500 pages. Each of these men and women would warrant a book of their own (and yes, there is a “Further Reading” section for those who want to know more). Heck, specific events within the reign of any particular king would warrant an individual book. Jones does the impossible: providing a lot of information about people with the same or similar names in a way that is both clear and concise and at the same time explains the complexity of a situation. And he does that for an incredible time span. An ally is not just an ally: it’s the grandson of someone significant.

The amount of information in The Plantagenets means a careful reading is needed. I found The Plantagenets best read in chunks: I’d read about one ruler, then put it down for a couple of days. A family tree is included, showing the important people mentioned, as well as maps to help explain the battles being fought, especially those on the Continent as the Plantagenets repeatedly clash with the kings of France. Despite the length, sometimes I did want “more” and got a quick fix going over to Wikipedia to find out more about a particular person. I don’t think this is a bad thing: there’s a limited number of pages, and Jones made me care so much about the people he mentioned that I wondered about them and wanted “more.” Wanting “more” is a good thing in a history book, because it means the book has achieved its goal of getting the reader excited about the topic and hungry for information. (Also, I cannot be the only reader who wonders, have any of these families survived to modern times? Or did battles for property and titles result in the death of these powerful families?)

An example of something that gets mentioned that I want to know more about: money. Kings needed money to wage war. Tax too much, and subjects get unhappy, especially if they feel uninvested in the war. So, what do you do when you need money? Borrow. Don’t ask me why, but the idea of the kings of England borrowing money from Italian banking families stunned me. I had no idea. And that defaulting ruined those banks, which led to the rise of the Medici family. Seriously, I did not know this!

I knew this was a violent time, and I knew that it was a time when kings still fought in battles. That is why they were kings, after all. What The Plantagenets does is make those battles and that violence real. When people were fighting for power, it was actual fighting. It wasn’t through political manipulations or game playing at court. Or, rather, it wasn’t just that. A ruler couldn’t just talk, he had to actually go out and make stuff happen.

I’m only half-kidding about the book ending on a cliffhanger. This covers just the Plantagenets; Jones plans a book about the War of the Roses and the Tudors. I cannot wait for his next book, even though the more I read about the Tudors the less I like them. Henry VIII just seems like a bit of a poser next to all the Plantagenets, even the weaker kings.

In the meanwhile, I’ll be content with this one and with calling it a Favorite Book Read in 2013.

My only disappointment with reading the electronic ARC of this book is that it doesn’t have the eight pages of pictures that are in the hardcover. I know, I know — I’m not that silly person asking for a photograph of Alexander the Great. But, there are castles or ruins of castles; stained glass and tapestries; objects that have survived the centuries. I want to see these, so will be pursuing finished copy! (Note: I made an error about the lack of illustrations, and corrected this sentence to reflect that pictures appear in the final version. Sorry about that!)

Other reviews and interviews: Author interview at Library Journal; Open Letters Monthly.

Long time readers of this blog may remember that one of my favorite books from childhood is as A Proud Taste for Scarlett and Miniver by E. L. Konigsburg; it started a lifelong love of English history, helped along by films like The Lion In Winter. In my teenage years I read a lot of Jean Plaidy, loving the historic details that brought the time periods alive as well as the attention paid to the women in history. Another book I read in my late teens was Susan Howatch’s The Wheel of Fortune. I didn’t realize it when I began reading, but it takes the story of Edward III and sets it in the early part of the twentieth century, leading up to the 1960s.

So, here’s my question to you: what are some of your favorite books set during the Plantagenet period, from 1154 to 1399?

Review: Written In Bone

Written in Bone: Buried Lives of Jamestown and Colonial Maryland by Sally M. Walker. Carolrhoda Books. 2009. Personal copy.

It’s About: Skeletons from the colonial era reveal details of the past; not just how people died, but how they lived. Walker follows the excavation of several graves, along with the study and research that accompanies each discovery. “Who were these people? What were their lives like?”

The Good: Non fiction books like this are so easy to booktalk — dead bodies! Photographs of skeletons! Mysterious deaths! I love the mystery, the exploration, and the answers that come from science, study, research.

Walker uses a handful of bodies to not just show the science but also to explore the history and lives of those Europeans and Africans who lived in the Virginia and Maryland region in the 1600s and 1700s. The book is full of photographs of the bodies, at all stages of study. How the bones and remains are studied and tested are explained, often with photographs or illustrations. Walker explains in a note that she limited the subject of this book to Europeans and Africans, “not to diminish the importance of Native Americans in the history of the Chesapeake region, but rather to respect the desire of their descendants to see their remains treated in a manner that respects their cultural customs.”

I adore this type of history and scientific study. For example, as a result of variations in diet, the carbon-13 found in bones can be measured and analyzed to determine where a person was born, raised, and how long that person had lived in North America. Often these graves are so old that there are no headstones or markers, so there is no direct way to know who the person was or when they died. Walker shows the process of how the historical record is used to try to pinpoint a person’s identity. Sometimes, a name is attached to a body; other times, not so much.

One section examined three lead coffins found in what would have been the area under St. Mary’s Chapel. Walker used this find to explain that the colony of Maryland was founded in 1634 as a safe haven for English Catholics. This is something that is often found in history books; Walker provides the “rest of the story” that isn’t often included, that religious freedom in Maryland ended in 1689. The lead coffins are a sign that those individuals were wealthy Catholics. Important people to get such an internment; yet, with the passage of time, the building disappeared and people forgot that bodies were even buried there. 

The second grave that fascinates me was a body found in the basement of a house, a hasty burial without coffin or respect. Did you know that sometimes people used their cellars not to store food but as a trash dump? An archaeologist explains, “people lived upstairs and dumped fish parts and pig parts and chamber pot contents and goodness knows what else down there.”

Imagine that. Imagine dumping that refuse in your cellar. Wouldn’t it smell? How healthy would that be? Why would you do that? And then I thought about Laura Ingalls Wilder and the books where the Ingalls were snowed in for days and days and days. As a grown up rereading the series, I’d wondered, where did they put the trash? Go to the bathroom? Is that why a basement was used as a trash pit? And then… as the chapter reveals… a body was buried in the basement. Treated like garbage. Hidden. Unknown. For hundreds of years, until the secret was revealed. What was it like, to live in that house? To know that body was there?

Written in Bone was also an exhibit at the Smithsonian. Kelly at Stacked also geeks out over the science and history. Also check out fellow history lover Melissa Rabey’s review.

Review: They Called Themselves The K.K.K.

They Called Themselves the K.K.K.: The Birth of an American Terrorist Group by Susan Campbell Bartoletti,  Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (2010).  Copy from a friend. Nominated for the YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction for Young Adults.

It’s About: “Boys, let us get up a club.” In May, 1866, six Confederate soldiers started a “social club.” Bartoletti explores how and why the K.K.K. originated, how and why it spread, and the steps taken to stop it. 

The Good: Putting actions within a context, giving an explanation for why and how something happens, can help us understand and, perhaps, help us prevent future actions and inactions.

It does not excuse.

Bartoletti explores the reason why the post Civil War South became the breeding ground for the hate and violence of the Ku Klux Klan. As the title says, the K.K.K. was a terrorist group, nothing more, nothing less, though at times those involved did believe that what they were doing was indeed “more.” One of the founders (who insisted it began as just a club) says that “the Klan gradually realized the most powerful devices ever constructed for controlling the ignorant and superstitious were in their hands.” The Klan was “transformed [from a] social club into a group of bogeyman who controlled the behaviour of the former slaves.” Bartoletti makes clear that “most freed people, however, weren’t fooled. They knew that the disguised Kukluxers weren’t dead masters or Confederate soldiers arisen from the grave. What frightened them were the well-armed, disguised white men who burst into their cabins, outnumbering their victims.”

They Called Themselves the K.K.K. proceeds to examine the multiple factors influencing the development of the Klan, from religious to education, from fear to power. It also related the stories of  those who stood up against fear and violence. Bartoletti expertly weaves together original sources, testimony, newspaper accounts, with plenty of photographs and illustrations. to paint a portrait of terrorism. It’s a nice mix of primary sources to tell a story, but also of judgment. For example, Bartoletti notes that the Klan founders insisted it began as just a social club, but then goes on to paint the climate of the times in such a way to make a convincing case that it wasn’t just grown men who liked to wear costumes, use passwords and codes, and play practical jokes that somehow became something more.

Bartoletti includes plenty of references at the end of the book, including a “bibliography and source notes” that delves into Bartoletti’s research process, including attending a Klan Congress.