Monday, December 29, 2008

Book Review: "Savage Peace"

Ann Hagedorn's Savage Peace: Hope and Fear in America, 1919 (Simon & Schuster, 2007) is unlike any book I can recall ever having read. The story of a single year, told using many different characters and many different aspects of cultural, political, social and economic life. Hagedorn doesn't stop at chronicling the political turmoil surrounding the debate over Treaty of Versailles and the League of Nations, nor does she simply comment on the racial tensions of the time, or the fight over women's suffrage, or the Red Scare, or the flu pandemic, or the fixed World Series, or the effort to confirm Einstein's theory of relativity. No, she tackles all of these topics, and more.

With the pacing of a suspense novel (and the cliffhanger chapter endings of one, too), the narrative flair of a good journalistic essay, and the deep research of a classic historical tome, Savage Peace manages to bring together several disparate genres at once, and does so brilliantly. At first I was unnerved by the attempt to bring together so many different leading characters in such an unfamiliar way, but after a few chapters I was absolutely enthralled. The book is 450 pages long (exclusive of notes and index), but I read it in under two days, and it felt like much less than that.

My one concern is the notes, which, while perfectly fine, are unmarked in the text, making it burdensome to find them. Overall, though, a true pleasure to read. I suspect that any of the specific topics covered here may be covered in more depth elsewhere, but I don't think I'm going too far out on a limb in saying that you'll find no better overall treatment of the period than Hagedorn's. It's also possible that others with more knowledge of the era than I (my focus is generally much earlier) may have quibbles or concerns with Hagedorn's book that I missed entirely - but that's their point to make. I enjoyed the book very much, and am bound to look at Hagedorn's earlier works while I await her next.