Capital Dames: The Civil War and the Women of Washington, 1848-1868 (HarperCollins, $27.99), by long-time NPR correspondent and news analyst Cokie Roberts, is the newest of her books exploring the influential but often obscured experiences of women during crucial moments in American history. Having written before about the Colonial experience and the American Revolution, Roberts here turns her attention to women of the Civil War era. Relying on letters, journals, and other first-hand accounts by and about women, she unearths previously untold stories about figures from Mary Todd Lincoln to Jefferson Davis’s wife, Varina, to abolitionist Josephine Griffing. There is also a wonderful portrait of Mrs. Lincoln’s seamstress, Elizabeth Keckley. Roberts leaves readers with a much deeper appreciation of how a diverse group of women in Washington operated in a perilous time, at once changing the capital and being changed by the war as well.
Sarah Vowell is like the hilarious, sarcastic, know-it-all in the back of the high-school history class who can’t help editorializing on the proceedings. For her latest trip through America’s strange history, Vowell follows the footsteps of the Marquis de Lafayette, a man tailor-made for our country’s ideals and landscape and thoroughly alien to his own. Lafayette in the Somewhat United States (Riverhead, $27.95) tells us that the future general was a ridiculously rich country boy who stepped on Marie Antoinette’s feet while dancing, that he insulted a prince, and abandoned his wife and child in order to ship off to America for glory in the cause of Liberty. And that was before he got shot in the leg. Still, Lafayette remained determined to support his father-figure, George Washington, with boundless enthusiasm in spite of the near-constant infighting between the military and congress. Indeed, Lafayette was part of the influx of foreign military and economic assistance that helped the American patriots achieve independence. Today, so many of this country’s towns, streets, and statues are dedicated to Lafayette that, Vowell argues, he remains an enduring example for us in times of crisis. Far and away our favorite Frenchman!
A Pulitzer Prize-winner for her biography Véra, the story of Nabokov’s wife, Stacy Schiff also wrote a bestselling life of Cleopatra and the Pulitzer-nominated Saint-Exupéry. Her study of Franklin and the early years of the nation made her a respected American historian, and in her new book she unravels the madness of The Witches: Salem 1692 (Little, Brown, $32). Schiff’s fastidious research into the notorious witch trials animates the motivations and actions of all involved, making what happened seem simultaneously bizarre and believable. Schiff’s description of how a few young women could start a movement that spread throughout the Massachusetts colony and that eventually led to the execution of twenty people is part history lesson, part thriller, and part Kafka. The Witches shows how blind faith, fear, jealousy, power, and repression combined to create a pathological environment in which no one’s life was safe from the subversive power of a fainting girl.