Monday, December 15, 2014

Nonfiction Monday: Famous Phonies by Brianna Dumont

It's always a little difficult for me to judge "things about history you never knew" types of books because I've read so many of them - I'm no longer sure what is or isn't commonly known! Judging by my conversations with middle schoolers though, pretty much any history is news to them. Anyways.

The author's note and introduction explains that this isn't about debunking history; it's about looking at the real people and events behind the legends. Each chapter focuses on a different historical character, first introducing their legendary significance and then explaining the reality behind the legend.

The historical figures covered are Confucius, George Washington, Pythagoras, Hiawatha, Gilgamesh, Major William Martin, William Shakespeare, Pope Joan, Homer, Prester John, Huangdi, and The Turk.

Confucius really existed, but he was far from the wise sage his followers portrayed him as. George Washington was a more complex and human figure than his legend suggests. Pythagoras, like Confucius, has his legend built by followers long after his death. Hiawatha (not the one you're thinking of) may not have existed at all. Gilgamesh may or may not have existed at all but his legend is certainly larger than life. Major William Martin, a corpse that played a large part in WWII was a complete fabrication from beginning to end. William Shakespeare, well, you know the controversy about him. To Bacon or not to Bacon, that is the question...Pope Joan was a legend that grew out of all proportion - or did it? Homer never existed except in the imagination. Prester John may have been based on a real king, but quickly became a mythical figure with surprising staying power in the medieval world. Huangdi, the Chinese emperor reputed to have invented, well, pretty much everything, never existed. The Turk was a famous automaton, capable of independent thought and action....and also a complete fake.

Asides defining language or adding humor are sprinkled throughout the book as well as additional facts. Back matter includes sources and notes from the author.

This was interesting and the writing definitely caught and held my attention. I think kids would enjoy the snarky tone and humor and would be interested to learn about the different historical figures. However, there were some major flaws in the book that would keep it from being a library purchase for me. The people selected seem really random until you look back at the subtitle, "Legends, Fakes, and Frauds who Changed History." The problem is that the historical context is really not emphasized throughout the book and the chapters don't tie together well. The majority of the historical figures are from ancient history and didn't exist at all, but then you throw in George Washington, William Martin who wasn't really a person but a military maneuver, and The Turk, a machine. They aren't presented in chronological or geographical order either. Only in the last chapter on The Turk did I feel like the historical impact of the figures was really explained, but then the book ended abruptly without drawing conclusions from the figures presented.

The asides, which at first seemed to be an in-text glossary, but then turned out to be something else, really distracted me from the text. Some of them define things already defined in the text, some of them add additional facts, some of them just seem to be humor footnotes to the story. While I enjoyed the humorous tone of the text, I think it went too far and it was difficult to tell the difference between the historical fact and legend. In the section on Pope Joan, a brief sentence is all the clue you get that she's a legend and then the story hops into how and why her legend persisted, leaving me confused at the end as to whether or not she really did exist.

Verdict: I found the writing interesting and the concept had promise, but (and I say this knowing nothing of the publishing industry besides they magically produce books) I think the book would have benefited from a better editor and layout. I wouldn't purchase this to promote as a book about history, but as a book of interesting stories about people it would be a perfectly acceptable additional purchase.

ISBN: 9781629146454; Published October 2014 by Sky Pony Press; ARC provided by author

No comments: