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  • Writer's pictureOld Bone

David McCullough's Latest ~ "The Pioneers"

Updated: May 21, 2020

Barely out two weeks, and Pulitzer Prize–winning historian David McCullough's latest book, The Pioneers is already being trashed by moral reformer historians. My guess is they probably went off the rails as soon as they read the subtitle: The Heroic Story of the Settlers Who Brought the American Ideal West. "Heroic"? Europeans who settled the West simply are not allowed to be referred to as "heroic" by the very virtuous and perpetually puckered moral reformer class. While I'm sure the book (like any) has its faults and some readers would like to see more emphasis here rather than there, the book is still receiving some good reviews from those who aren't in constant search mode looking for something in American life and history for which to be offended:

The region and its occupants truly come alive in the hands of McCullough. It is a history that unfamiliar to most, and brushes with the famous and infamous add to the surprises. He also includes the viewpoint of Native Americans, and does not gloss over the uncomfortable reality that westward expansion had devastating consequences for existing populations. Not everybody who journeyed to Ohio was virtuous, and he includes stories from a diverse cast of characters. The book covers the movement to the area in 1787 up to 1853, when the State of Ohio had over 1.5 million people.
Lovers of history told well know that McCullough is one of the best writers of our past, and his latest will only add to his acclaim. ~ From the Norfolk Daily News

Even the NPR folks gave McCullough's book a positive review:

Like McCullough's other books, The Pioneers succeeds because of the author's strength as a storyteller. The book reads like a novel, with a cast of fascinating characters that the average reader isn't likely to know about; while history textbooks use broad strokes to paint the picture of the early settlers to the Northwest Territory, McCullough takes a deep dive, and does so with assured, unshowy prose.
The result is an excellent book that's likely to appeal to anyone with an abiding interest in early American history. Both readable and packed with information drawn from painstaking research, The Pioneers is a worthy addition to McCullough's impressive body of work.

Not all reviewers believe the book "reads like a novel" though:

I’m always leery of nonfiction books that proclaim to read like novels. “The Pioneers” does not read like a novel — but it isn’t meant to. History is far too twisted and complex and long-ranged for the kind of narrative arc that “novel-like” would suggest. But “The Pioneers” is stirring, engaging and moves along as steadily as the Ohio River at its heart, revealing a chapter of American heritage that shouldn’t be forgotten.

One negative reviewer lamented the fact that most Americans prefer popular history titles like The Pioneers, over academic "critical history". Sounds like sour grapes to me. The fact that I'm seeing a lot of negative reviews and criticisms by those who find little to admire in America's past is likely evidence that the book is a good read. I'll be adding it to my ever growing "must read" list.

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