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The Glorious Cause: A Novel of the American Revolution (2002) by Jeff Shaara. New York: Ballantine Books.

Shaara tells the intriguing story of the major battles and military strategies of the American Revolution. He uses the historical fiction genre to describe personalities during this period who were officers on either the American or British sides. The opening battles in and around Long Island and New York City were not very encouraging for the American cause; the author gives a picture of one defeat after another during the first 125 pages, which causes the reader to wonder how the Continental Army under General George Washington ever won the war. Then the decisive Battle of Trenton turned inevitable defeat into eventual victory. The beauty of the book is the author's use of fascinating descriptions of events and personalities to involve the reader in this dramatic story. The descriptions are of individuals such as George Washington, Nathanael Greene, Benjamin Franklin and the Marquis de Layfayette on the American side, and William Howe and Charles Cornwallis of the British army.

"By definition, this is a novel. The story is told by the characters themselves, from their perspective, through their actions, dialogue, and thoughts. However, the events, and each character's contributions to those events are as historically accurate as I could present them. Through research that includes memoirs, written accounts, diaries, and collections of letters and documents, I have attempted to reach into the minds of each character, to show you their world as they saw it." (Shaara, p. vii)

The military leaders came to the Revolutionary War with certain strategies that were either flexible or lacking in innovation and responsiveness to rapidly changing circumstances. General Washington and his staff quickly realized they could not defeat the British by using conventional 18th century military strategies. Washington was handicapped by poorly trained state militias that were drafted or volunteered for short periods of time. There was no consistent pay for these troops and they lacked strong support from congress. State governments and congress were suspicious of a centralized federal army although they eventually understood this army was absolutely necessary for defeating the British.

The turning point was the Battle of Trenton (December 26, 1776) where Washington engineered the defeat of Hessian troops in a surprise attack. As a result of this victory, Americans gained confidence in their ability to win the war by using unconventional tactics involving guerilla warfare, knowledge of local terrain, and determined leadership. Washington made many decisions that led to victory over the best European army of the 1700s, as follows: (1) Appointed the Prussian soldier, Baron von Steuben, to organize and train troops at Valley Forge. He successfully changed a ragtag mob into an organized fighting force; (2) Appointed Nathanael Greene as quartermaster. He achieved miracles in supplying food, clothes, ammunition and weapons; (3) Nurtured the military skills of the French soldier, the Marquis de Lafayette. Washington's support of his military aspirations helped to influence the French government to provide military assistance to the Americans. Of course, as ambassador to France, Benjamin Franklin accomplished a great deal through his diplomatic skills and contacts; (4) Supported talented officers who were able to achieve important military victories. For example, in 1781 General Daniel Morgan's troops defeated the "butcher" of South Carolina, Colonel Banastre Tarleton, at the Battle of Cowpens. Morgan was victorious because of his thorough understanding of his troops' abilities and weaknesses, and his brilliant military tactics; and (5) entrapped and defeated the most talented British general, Charles Cornwallis, at the Battle of Yorktown where American and French armies united into an effective siege force.

When gifted students read this book, they will learn about the precarious state of the Continental army, and how Washington and his officers attained final victory after many serious defeats. They will also learn that the nation has been blessed with talented military and political leadership in times of crisis. The atmosphere of American democracy creates opportunities for our most talented citizens to effectively respond in times of need. Gifted students will learn considerably more about the origins of the United States by reading The Glorious Cause than from most standard American history textbooks. In addition, they should read Shaara's Rise to Rebellion (2001, Ballantine Books) to study the origins of the American Revolution - this historical fiction novel explores the social and political history of the colonies prior to 1776.

The Great Influenza: The Epic Story of the Deadliest Plague in History (2004) by John M. Barry. New York: Viking Penguin.

What can be learned from a book that discusses the deaths of approximately 675,000 in the United States and 50-100 million worldwide? Barry has written an interesting book that provides a comprehensive view of the medical and political situation (mainly in the United States) prior to and during the influenza pandemic of 1918. The condition of American medicine at the beginning of the 20th century was, in comparison to European nations, primitive and unscientific. William Henry Welch was one of the key individuals who brought American medical practice out of the dark ages by establishing the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in 1893. His goal was to standardize medical education in the United States and to base the training of doctors on rigorous scientific research. His influence nationally was so great that most of the emerging medical centers relied on his former students to develop their education and research programs. In 1901 the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research was founded under the direction of Simon Flexner, one of Welch's proteges. By the time of World War I when the influenza pandemic began, American medical education and research had improved considerably and even surpassed European counterparts, particularly German research centers. Unfortunately, these improvements did little to stop the advance of the most deadly pandemic in world history.

The story becomes fascinating when Barry explains why this disease spread so fast and widely. He states that it probably began in Haskell County, Kansas during the winter of 1918. It started there when some citizens became ill with a mild case of the flu. Then it spread to the army encampment at Camp Funston, Kansas. During the spring the disease subsided. But all hell exploded during the summer and fall. A vicious attack of influenza affected Camp Devens near Boston and it rapidly spread to surrounding areas. Then it attacked the Philadelphia area where it caused a complete breakdown of the medical and social systems in this city.

In describing the progression of the disease to various parts of the United States (particularly military camps and bases), Barry also explains how federal, state and local governments initially denied there was an epidemic, and finally summoned help from doctors, nurses and social services. By then it was too late. Philadelphia was governed by corrupt politicians, and had an incompetent medical director who refused to acknowledge the seriousness of the epidemic. After it was obvious that thousands of citizens were sick or had died, the city government enforced quarantine regulations and enlisted doctors and nurses to help patients. "On the single day of October 10, the epidemic alone killed 759 people in Philadelphia. Prior to the outbreak, deaths from all causes-all illnesses, all accidents, all suicides, and all murders-averaged 485 a week." (Barry, p. 329)

Medical science made little progress in combating the virus although researchers at Hopkins, the Rockefeller Institute and other medical research centers were diligently working on vaccines for influenza and various pneumonias. This work eventually produced improved understanding of the immune system and established the foundation for later important medical discoveries.

Barry emphasizes that the 1918 influenza attack was primarily a killer of young and strong people between twenty and forty years. Why? He says they were the healthiest of any age group. However, their immune systems overreacted by mass producing excessive biological materials which destroyed their lungs. Ironically, youth had a biological disadvantage in combating this disease.

By reading The Great Influenza, gifted students will learn a great deal about the talented and dedicated individuals who conducted medical research, the nature of viruses, how national (under the leadership of Woodrow Wilson) and international politics affected the epidemic, and how worldwide epidemics occur. In this time of biological threats from international terrorists, it is important that they study diseases such as the one so thoroughly analyzed by John M. Barry. The lessons learned from this pandemic might help to stop future outbreaks of similar mutated viruses. H H H H H H H H

H. L. Mencken (1880-1956): An Exemplar of Authentic Literacy

by Michael E. Walters           Center for the Study of the Humanities in the Schools.

There was a recent controversy among educators in New York City who debated how to achieve literacy as defined by standardized tests. One of the more controversial mechanisms for test preparation was for students to learn about (what is labeled), authentic literature - e.g., reading so-called literary materials rather than textbooks. This article will examine the life of a writer of truly authentic literature, H. L. Mencken. He represents the link between this concept, sensibility and giftedness.

H. L. Mencken is considered one of the masters of the American language. His essays were among the most highly respected expository writing of the 20th century. As an editor of cultural journals, The Smart Set and the American Mercury, he was responsible for introducing Americans to most of the important writers of his time. It is especially significant that his literary criticism was inclusive. He brought to the forefront writers such as Theodore Dreiser (Sister Carrie, 1900, and An American Tragedy, 1925) who wrote about the realistic experiences of the average American and the condition of working class women. Mencken was the leading journalist of his time. He worked as a writer and journalist for the Baltimore Sun when journalism was the most important media. He was also a great linguist; his epochal study of the American vernacular, The American Language (1919, 1945, 1948, Knopf), is a classic. Additionally, he translated writings by the German philosopher, Frederick Nietzsche, and plays by the Norwegian dramatist, Henrik Ibsen.

Mencken was able to achieve his range and depth of authentic literacy despite not having an academic background. His college was the "school of hard knocks" experienced through reporting and journalism. Among other major American writers who also received this type of schooling were Mark Twain and Walt Whitman. His major writings were concerned with politics, literature and American culture.

It was Mencken's sensibility that drove his giftedness. He was an avaricious reader. His personal friends were individuals in publishing and the arts, e.g., Alfred Knopf and Fritz Kreisler. He thrived on the battle of ideas: "Esthetic problems interest me only mildly, I am predominantly a reviewer of ideas. . . ." (from The Skeptic by Terry Teachout, p. 13). Music also inspired his giftedness: "Nothing moves me so profoundly as the symphonies of Beethoven and Brahms. . . ." (p. 14, op. cit.).

Two biographies will help educators and gifted students understand H. L. Mencken's sensibility. One was written by his protege, William Manchester, H. L. Mencken: Disturber of the Peace (1950, Collier Books). The recent one is, The Skeptic: A Life of H. L. Mencken by Terry Teachout (2002, HarperCollins).

Maurice D. Fisher, Publisher, Copyright © by Gifted Education Press, June-July 2004