The Plot in Five Sentences Or Less: In the 1940’s, America was at war, but its military was still segregated. Against this backdrop, fresh recruits arrive at Port Chicago outside of San Francisco. They are black men and, because of this, they are given the highly dangerous job of loading ammunition onto the ships with little to no safety training. On the evening of July 17, 1944 a huge explosion rips through the port, killing over 300 people. In the weeks following, 50 of the men refuse to load any more ammunition and are therefore put on trial for mutiny.
My Take: The Port Chicago 50 is not Steve Sheinkin’s most exciting book, but it is his most poignant. I found that the narrative slows down some during the trial portion of the story, but the final chapters more than make up for this. By the end of the book, I found that I had a knot in my throat as I considered the sacrifice that these black sailors made, really until the ends of their lives. The Port Chicago 50 is another example of Sheinkin’s gift of making history interesting and relevant. Highly recommended for ages 12+ looking for a non-fiction read concerning civil rights.
One Interesting Note About the Author: Steve’s brother-in-law Eric Person was the first to bring the story of the Port Chicago 50 to his attention. Eric mentioned the theory that the first atomic bomb was exploded not in the New Mexico desert in 1945, but rather a year earlier at Port Chicago. Intrigued, Steve dug deeper and unearthed the story of the Port Chicago 50.
The Plot In Five Sentences Or Less: Jack Hughes and Terrence Mullen are low level crooks in the late nineteenth century who make their living pushing counterfeit money a.k.a. “coney.” With the capture of their engraver, Hughes and Mullen devise a crazy scheme to raid Abraham Lincoln’s grave and hold his remains for ransom. On their trail is Secret Service Agent Patrick Tyrell, who plants a ‘roper’ or turncoat in their midst to keep an eye on the grave robbing gang. The action climaxes at Lincoln’s tomb one night when Hughes and Mullen attempt to pull off their heist.
My Take: Sheinkin successfully bottles lightning in a jar again. In Lincoln’s Grave Robbers, he recreates the fast pace and interesting narrative of his previous book “Bomb” (please see my review of that book here). I would recommend this book to any teenager interested in a little known episode of history. This book will hold their interest.
One Interesting Note About the Author: When he was doing research for this book, the curators of the Lincoln Monument showed Steve around the grounds and let him see places that most tourists never get to see– “like the old dirt floor labyrinth under the monument where Tyrell waited, gun in hand, for the robbery to begin.”
The Plot (in 5 sentences or less): This nonfiction book follows the journey of two young men, Marshall Bond and Stanley Pearce, as they journey into the Klondike during the gold rush. Starting in the summer of 1897, they make the decision to head for British Columbia only a few hours after gold rumors began flying. Sailing to Skaguay, Alaska by ship, the men put together an outfit and journey over the White Horse Trail, over several lakes, and into the waters of the Yukon River. They arrive in Dawson City in the fall, build a cabin, make connections and begin doing the hard work of staking and working a mining claim.
My Take: I was impressed by the use of primary source material, the letters of Bond and Pierce, throughout the book. Selected passages from the letters are interesting and understandable to modern younger readers. The authors’ own writings that are interspersed between the letters adds a fuller picture of the arduous Klondike journey. The generous amount of photographs and maps also add to the appeal. I would absolutely recommend this book to younger readers interested in the gold rush of the late 1890’s. Ages 12+
One Interesting Note About the Author(s): Kim Richardson is the great-great-grand nephew of Stanley Pearce. In the summer of 2010, David Meissner retraced some of the journey of Bond and Pearce into the Klondike. He stated that “every step of the trail made me appreciate the toughness of these stampeders.”
The Plot (in 5 sentences or less): Tipped off by European physicists in 1939 that it was possible to create an extraordinarily dangerous bomb, FDR signs the order which sets off the race to create this powerful weapon before the Nazis do. Brilliant physics professor Robert Oppenheimer puts together a team of world class talent and brings them to Los Alamos, New Mexico. Meanwhile, Russian agents scramble to cultivate spy connections to penetrate the military base and steal the secrets behind the atomic bomb design. Concerned that Nazis are ahead in the race to build the bomb, partisans attack a heavy water producing plant in Norway to to inhibit German efforts. The final chapters of the book cover the story of the dropping of the two atomic bombs on Japan and the devastating effects.
My Take: I was lucky enough to hear Steve Sheinkin speak at the Virginia Library Association’s Conference in Williamsburg, VA on September 27 when he accepted an award for this book. It is definitely well deserved. Bomb is tightly written and reads like a fiction thriller. I read it in probably two sittings and simply did not want it to end. My one critique of the book is its use of conversational dialogue throughout. I always question when historical non-fiction books use quotes: how do they know that they said exactly that? Still, this is a mild criticism for a wonderful book.
One Interesting Note About the Author: Steve Sheinkin started his career by editing and writing textbooks. Disenchanted with how many interesting stories that he had to leave out of the history books, he began writing history books for kids in which he could keep all of the fascinating odds and ends.