History made entertaining
April 03, 2012
by Susan Branch

So you don't remember much of the history you learned in school? Or you don't remember the details, just a general idea of what happened? Or you remember only the major things--1776, Pearl Harbor--but not what caused them, or what happened afterwards?

Several authors have made it their business to claim that Americans are all too ignorant of history (as well as other things), but they don't necessarily teach us anything about our country's past. An author who takes a rather different approach is Bruce G. Kauffmann, whose newspaper column, "Bruce's History Lessons," is published weekly in papers around the country.

Just the size for before bedtime reading, or for sampling a few essays at lunchtime, Bruce's History Lessons: The First Five Years (2001-2006) is his first collection. Each brief essay is under 500 words, and explores an aspect of (usually) American history, with a little English and European history thrown in for good measure.

Kauffmann interprets "history" broadly, to include sports and popular culture, but his favorite topics are the Founding Fathers, from the Revolutionary War to the Federal period, and the Civil War presidency of Abraham Lincoln.

Since the individual topics are covered so briefly, Kauffmann doesn't deal in nuance, but to his credit he also doesn't just look for unusual snippets to produce an historic Ripley's Believe It or Not. He discusses different aspects of the life and works of James Madison, his hero among the Founders, in a number of essays, and George Washington, whom he also reveres. But Lincoln is his pick as the best president. There's less repetition of detail than one might imagine, and almost no repetition of topics.

Kauffmann isn't shy of expressing his disapproval of certain historical incidents, but generally tries to give an objective treatment to the people and events he discusses, no matter how controversial. He often considers the downside of people or events that are generally considered heroic, and vice versa. One may differ with him on his appraisal of certain figures, but it is difficult to fault him on historical accuracy (as opposed to opinion). He's not numbered among those who idolize John F. Kennedy, and he sees Lyndon Johnson as a flawed giant, but who can argue with that?

Kauffmann takes care to make sure that he discusses famous women and African American progress in his essays, though there's little about Africa itself, Asia or South America included. Of course, the book ends with his 2006 columns, and there may be material on those continents, the people thereof, or their American descendents, in his later, as yet uncollected columns.

Title - Bruce's History Lessons: The First Five Years (2001-2006)
Author: Bruce G. Kauffmann
Publisher: iUniverse (Nov. 24, 2008), 522 pp./686 KB
$12.95 (paperback), $3.99 (Kindle) at amazon.com
ISBN-13: 978-3-4401-0642-2/ASIN: B007ODV884

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