These Truths?

These Truths: A History of the United States
Jill Lepore
W.W. Norton & Company, 2018, 933 pp.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. – from The Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776

I’m a bit of a history buff and I’ve read a good number of history books over the decades. Histories of the United States tended toward heavily-varnished hagiography with men like Washington, Jefferson, Jackson, and Lincoln reverenced in almost-religious terms. Of course, those men were products of their times. Jefferson could write the above words with the widely-understood qualification that Native American “Indians,” Blacks, and women did not share in “these truths.” The hypocrisy and inconsistency are glaring from our vantage point today, but also consider that only eighty-years ago, millions of American G.I.s were sent to Europe to defend the world from Nazi tyranny and persecution at the same time that Black Americans in the South lived under the tyranny of Jim Crow.

Harvard professor, Jill Lepore, wrote “These Truths” partially from the perspective of the oppressed and disenfranchised and some might dismiss it as a “woke” version of U.S. history. However, the book is necessary because most hagiographical U.S. histories of the past neglected or skimmed over the stories of the oppressed, voiceless, marginalized groups. Lepore isn’t shrill and angry (as I recently encountered with Kristin Kobes Du Mez in her critique of American Christian Nationalism, “Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation,” see here), but presents the material in a “mostly” objective manner that’s worthy of consideration. Lepore’s last several chapters that examine the increasing polarization of American society along the Red vs. Blue divide are informative and very well done.

Because of its size, “These Truths” was a major effort to get through and it occupied much more of my reading time than I like to devote to a single book. It deserves a longer review, but my time is more limited these days. A couple of closing thoughts:

  • Washington, Jefferson, et al, were certainly fallible men and products of their times. I imagine that if Lepore had been brought up in the Antebellum South of the 1840s and 1850s there would have been an extremely good chance that she would have aligned with the societal mores of the region and times as well.
  • The conflation of faith and nationalism has been the predominant paradigm among Christians living in America since the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth in 1620. Deconstructionist examinations of U.S. history are not well-received by many. But great wrongs were done and deserve examination. Christians know from God’s Word that all men are sinners and there’s abundant evidence of that in America’s unvarnished history. Deist Thomas Jefferson’s “truths” were laudable, although certainly not applied fairly. However, Christians know of the infinitely greater Truths of Jesus Christ and the Gospel that are not restricted by national boundaries, times, or societal mores. Jefferson is memorialized in a manner that approaches idolatry, but he was a spiritually lost soul who aligned himself with humanistic “enlightenment” (including some glaring inconsistencies as a slaveowner) rather than with Jesus Christ and the Gospel.

An Unlikely Spy

A Woman of No Importance: The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win World War II
By Sonia Purnell
Viking, 2019, 352 pp.

Just about everybody loves a good spy story, right? What can be more dangerous and nerve-racking than someone going “incognito” behind enemy lines to obtain intelligence and/or wreak havoc? This book recounts the exploits of Virginia Hall, one of the most improbably effective Allied spies of World War II.

In 1931, at the age of twenty-five, Parkton, Maryland native, Virginia Hall, entered into service at the State Department, holding various lower-level positions, but desiring a post in the diplomatic corps. She lost a lower-leg from complications due to a hunting accident while on assignment in Turkey. When Nazi Germany invaded France in 1940, Virginia desired to assist in the war effort and volunteered with the United Kingdom’s Special Operations Executive (SOE), the clandestine organization created to gather intelligence and to assist and direct resistance groups within France and other occupied territories

In 1941, Virginia was assigned to the city of Lyons in the unoccupied Vichy zone, where she developed an effective resistance network. Virginia encountered much push-back from French resistance operatives because of her gender, but she overcame misgivings through her intelligence and steely resolve. With Virginia’s help, the Lyons-area underground constantly harassed the Vichy quislings and German forces. At one point, Virginia even orchestrated the bold escape of twelve Maquis/resistance fighters from a Vichy prison.

As a defensive response to the Allied invasion of Northern Africa in November, 1942, the German military forces flooded into previously-unoccupied Vichy, and the Gestapo and Abwehr (German military intelligence) were on the hunt for the female they were convinced coordinated the resistance forces in the region. Gestapo officer, Klaus Barbie, the infamous “Butcher of Lyons,” was hot on Virginia’s trail. She barely escaped by walking 50 miles on her artificial lower-leg prosthesis, dubbed “Cuthbert,” through the Pyrenees Mountains to “neutral” Spain.

Because the Germans had come so close to apprehending Virginia, the Brits were reluctant to send her back to France, despite her pleas, so she signed up with the newly-formed U.S. Office of Strategic Services (OSS). Her most notable assignment was in the mountainous Haute-Loire region in south-central France where she coordinated resistance/espionage efforts in 1944.

Following the war, Virginia joined the Central Intelligence Agency in 1947, but was largely relegated to mid-level desk jobs despite her impressive war-time resumé. She retired in 1966 and died in 1982. Virginia’s outstanding service was recognized posthumously by France, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

Where the tire meets the road: The spy game is highly romanticized in fictional books and films (e.g., James Bond, Agent 007), but the author reveals that Virginia and other agents battled the overwhelming and unrelenting anxiety involved with their duties with the regular use of sedatives and alcohol.

Postscript: In reading this book, I was struck by the dedication and sacrifice of Virginia Hall and others of that era to the cause of temporal political liberty. Are we believers as dedicated to the cause of Jesus Christ and His eternal Kingdom?

The Plot Against America

Today, we’re going to play hooky from house painting and head over to the shores of Lake Ontario, settle into our beach chair in the sand, and enjoy some breezy summer fiction. Okay, “breezy” isn’t the most appropriate adjective for…

The Plot Against America
By Philip Roth
Houghton Mifflin, 2004, 400 pp.

4 Stars


It’s 1940 and Nazi Germany is overrunning Europe and implementing its anti-Semitic policies throughout the continent. President Franklin D. Roosevelt desires to enter the United States into the war in support of the frazzled Brits, but there’s a growing isolationist movement led by aviation hero, Charles A. Lindbergh. In his speeches around the nation, Lindbergh is guardedly circumspect, but in private it’s clear he has pro-German and anti-Jewish sympathies. Lindbergh defeats Roosevelt in the 1940 election and begins to implement anti-Semitic reeducation and resettlement programs, which are defended by a few high-profile, opportunistic, quisling, pro-Lindbergh Jews as being ultimately beneficial.

The tire meets the road in Newark, New Jersey with the Jewish Roth family who watch in horror as the nation turns increasingly fascist and anti-Semitic. The parents are mortified when their teenage son is duped into voluntarily participating in a Jewish youth reeducation program. When the father’s employer selects him and his family for resettlement as part of a government initiative, he quits his job and contemplates moving his family to Canada, as several Jewish families in their neighborhood have already done. Pogroms ensue and Jews must increasingly take up arms to defend themselves. Just as circumstances reach critical mass, Lindbergh disappears while piloting an airplane. Conspiracy theories abound and the fascist administration uses the opportunity to further crack down on Jews and arrest dissenters. Lindbergh’s sensible wife makes a radio appeal to the nation and the fascist elements are successfully checked. Emergency elections are held in 1942 and Roosevelt is reelected to a third term. Japan attacks Pearl Harbor the following month and the United States declares war against the Axis alliance.


I enjoyed this alternative history. Few people today are aware of the extent of the popularity of the pro-German, isolationist, and anti-Semitic network in America prior to WWII (see Lindbergh, Henry Ford, radio-priest Charles Coughlin, Senator Burton Wheeler, German-American Bund, etc.). The pace at the conclusion of the novel, after Lindbergh’s disappearance, is a jarringly frantic roller coaster ride, as if Roth suddenly tired of the project and just wanted to get it over with.

Postscript: President Franklin Roosevelt is portrayed as the hero of this novel as the defender of the American Jews. An ironic historical twist is that FDR directed that between 110,000 to 120,000 people of Japanese ethnicity living mainly in the Western States be forcibly consigned to internment camps during most of WWII.

Code Girls

Code Girls: The Untold Story of the American Women Code Breakers of World War II
By Liza Mundy
Hachette Books, 2017, 416 pp.

4 Stars

As the United States’ entry into World War II appeared increasingly inevitable, the Army and Navy began recruiting at select women’s colleges to beef up their cryptology (code breaking) departments. The thinking was that women were better suited than men for this painstakingly detailed work. After war was declared, recruitment intensified and women joined the cryptology departments as WACs (Women’s Army Corps) or WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service). Over 11,000 women comprised more than 70% of all domestic code breakers during WWII.

These women made incredible contributions to the war effort by cracking the coded messages of the German and Japanese forces. Much of the initial work was manual, but electro-mechanical machines, called bombes (precursors to computers), were eventually created that helped sort through massive amounts of data in search of code-breaking patterns. The Axis forces regularly changed and complicated their codes, so the cryptographers’ work continued until the end of the war (and afterwards with the immediate onset of the Cold War with the Soviet Union).

This was an enjoyable book that adroitly intermixed history with the personal stories of individual WACs and WAVES. Because of the absolute secrecy of their work, both during and after the war, the women never received the recognition they deserved. I tip my hat to the author for helping the reader wade through the technical jargon and making cryptology halfway understandable.

The American Revolutionary War, as it’s never been told before

The British Are Coming: The War for America, Lexington to Princeton, 1775-1777
By Rick Atkinson
Henry Holt and Co., 2019, 800 pp.

5 Stars

My interest in the American Revolutionary War (1775-1783) was kindled by my parents. Our family excursions to Fort Niagara (Niagara Falls), Fort Ticonderoga (near Lake Placid), and the Freedom Trail in Boston sparked my curiosity and I read all of the books about the ARW I could get my hands on at our local library branch while in junior high and high school.

I’ve continued my interest in the ARW over the years with a book here and there and recently came upon Rick Atkinson’s “The British Are Coming.” It’s unique among the many books I’ve read in a couple of ways: 1) it tells the story from the British perspective as well as the American, and 2) the details are copious. All of the other books I’ve read about the ARW provided a history almost strictly from an American perspective so it was refreshing and informative to get the British view. As for the details, military and personal, they were both helpful and a distraction. In some cases, Atkinson’s persnickety slavishness to detail seems to detract from the overall sweep of a battle or campaign, while in other cases it seems to enhance it.

In this volume, Atkinson follows the ARW from its beginning on the roads to Lexington and Concord, Massachusetts, to the New Jersey campaign (late-1776-early-1777) and Washington’s famous crossing of the Delaware. Two more volumes are planned for the final six years of the war (the conflict was over for all intents and purposes following the Battle of Yorktown in 1781, excepting some minor and inconsequential skirmishes).

As I read this book on my Kindle, I also used the Google Earth app on my iPhone to get an eagle-eye view of the various locales and even some of the surviving structures that were mentioned. Using Google Earth greatly enhances reading a history book such as this one.

Postscript: I would like to research further how believers living in Colonial America (especially pastors), were able to justify their rebellion against the God-ordained British monarch, George III.

An afternoon at the “Oxbow” on the Erie Canal

Way back in the late-1970s, my wife and I lived in an apartment in Fairport, N.Y. near Rochester, and I used to enjoy running along the nearby Erie Canal in warmer weather and cross country skiing along the canal in the winter. One day, I was traversing the canal path between Fairport and Pittsford and came upon a section of the canal that was unusually wide and I was surprised to see a string of small cottages lining the opposite canal bank and a couple of islands in the water. Wow! As a lifelong Rochesterian, I thought I was pretty familiar with the Erie Canal, but I was completely unaware of this unique, little community. I put it out of my mind for decades, but lately, with the help of the internet and some hiking shoes, I’ve been able to do some investigating.

The Erie Canal originally had many twists and turns. This particular section was coined the “Oxbow” because of its “U” shape. Ensuing projects to straighten, deepen, and widen the canal resulted in a “lake” at the Oxbow, making it a prime spot for those seeking a recreation haven. By the late 1880s, a number of summer cottages had been erected along the southern bank of the canal at the Oxbow.

A relatively recent local newspaper article (see far below) states that by the end of the 19th-century, the Oxbow had become a “popular spot for local businesses and organizations to have picnics and baseball games. Early in the 20th century more cottages were built, and the trend accelerated with the Barge Canal construction project. By 1918, the Oxbow was a full-fledged vacation spot for people from Perinton, East Rochester, Penfield and beyond. Many of the simple cottages were constructed from the lumber of dismantled railroad box cars.”* The number of cottages on the Erie at the Oxbow eventually grew to sixty.

During the Great Depression of the 1930s, when people were forced to make do with less, the small and unpretentious cottages were converted to year-round dwellings, but the lack of sewers and other amenities made life on the canal bank difficult. Kids who lived on the Oxbow were looked down upon by their classmates at school. The Oxbow “lake” was also becoming smaller. In the 1940s, New York State began depositing the silt that had been dredged from the canal bottom into the lake, eventually creating two islands that can be seen today. In the 1960s, families began to leave the Oxbow and, one by one, the abandoned, derelict cottages either crumbled or were destroyed by suspicious fires. The last resident of the Oxbow, Florence Rutter, died in 2012. Her cottage, the last of the sixty, burnt to the ground in 2014.

Today, there’s only a few traces left of the Oxbow community. Remnants of the Oxbow Road still exist along with some of the old telephone and power lines (see photos below). The disappearance of this once-thriving community-within-a-community reminded me of how fleeting and impermanent this life is.

“Yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes.” – James 4:14


Capture 20
A modern map showing the Oxbow “lake” and islands, dubbed “Coyote Island” and “Snake Island” by the locals. Sixty cottages on Oxbow Road once lined the canal bank. I took the photos below as I walked the old Oxbow Road.

My wife and our dog, Gracie, stand on the remains of Oxbow Road near an old telephone/power line pole.

A couple of telephone/power line poles are some of the last remnants of the Oxbow community.

Taken from Oxbow Road looking south. Cottages would have been on the left and that’s Coyote Island on the right.

This piece of land jutting out perpendicularly into the canal is probably the foundation of a small former cottage

This carved out rock once served as a planter for an Oxbow resident.

Capture 21
Above: Florence Rutter’s residence at 27 Oxbow Road, the last cottage standing at the Oxbow, was destroyed by fire in 2014.

HISTORY: The Oxbow: From vacation spot to ashes

The First Conspiracy: The Secret Plot to Kill George Washington

The First Conspiracy: The Secret Plot to Kill Washington
By Brad Meltzer and Josh Mensch
Flatiron Books, 2018, 416 pp.

5 Stars

I became very interested in the history of the American Revolutionary War (1775-1783) back when I was in fifth grade and for the next three or four years I read many of the books at our local library branch on the topic. I then moved on to other interests, but my family still remembers my infatuation with the Am Rev War. One of my sisters recently gave me this book as a birthday present and it turned out to be better than I expected.

The American Revolutionary War started in 1775, with engagements between the rebel colonists and British troops at Lexington, Concord, and Bunker Hill (actually, Breeds Hill) outside of Boston. Virginian George Washington, one of the few members of the Continental Congress with military experience, was appointed Commander in Chief of the fledgling rebel army. By a stroke of military genius, Washington was able to drive the British from Boston without another shot being fired. Anticipating that the British would strike next at New York City, Washington assembled his rag-tag army there and dug in for the anticipated assault.

One of Washington’s problems was that many of the city’s residents were Loyalists and supported the crown. Most people are unaware that only one-third of the colonists supported the revolution. Another third remained loyal to the crown, and the remaining third claimed neutrality pending the outcome. The Loyalist governor of New York, William Tryon, took refuge from the continental forces in a ship anchored in New York harbor alongside an intimidating British man-o’-war and used his protected position to coordinate Loyalist opposition within the city. Aware of the strong anti-rebellion sentiment that surrounded him, Washington created a special detachment, the Life Guards, to ensure his personal safety. He also requested that the New York Provincial Congress create a special committee in order to streamline investigations into Loyalist subversion. That committee was headed by John Jay, the future first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.

With the help of the pro-Loyalist mayor of New York and others, Governor Tryon was able to persuade/bribe five members of Washington’s elite personal guards to join the Loyalist cause and the general’s safety was thenceforth in certain jeopardy. However, Jay’s special committee was made aware of the treachery, most of the conspirators were arrested, and one Life Guard, Thomas Hickey, was publicly executed by hanging as an example to all those with Loyalist sentiments.

The British expeditionary force of 34,000 troops under the command of General William Howe sailed into New York Harbor on June 29, 1776. In a series of subsequent battles, Washington’s troops were outmanned, outgunned and outmaneuvered and would be forced to retreat to New Jersey. However, the British forces would eventually be worn down over the next five years and would suffer a decisive, back-breaking defeat at Yorktown in 1781.

What would have happened if Tryon and his co-conspirators had been successful in murdering Washington in 1776? Would we all be drinking tea today instead of coffee?

I didn’t think I would enjoy this book, but I definitely did despite myself. Meltzer broke it all down into 84 bite-size chapters of around 4-pages each and the writing was pleasantly non-academic. General readers would enjoy this book as well as Am Rev enthusiasts. Most war histories dwell on campaign and battle tactics, but this one provided a lot of personal information about Washington and many unconventional details of the invasion of New York. I was not aware of this conspiracy against Washington’s life or even of the existence of his personal Life Guard, so this book was interesting eye opener.

Bonus question: The Bible clearly instructs believers to submit to all governmental authorities. How then were believers who supported the rebellion and even participated in the fight against the British able to justify their actions? Every July 4th we celebrate that the American colonists were able to throw off the yoke of Britain, but the deadlier yoke is the bondage to sin that enslaves all souls until they repent of sin and trust in Jesus Christ as Savior by faith alone.