Book Review: Land of Hope

McClay, Wilfred. Land of Hope: An Invitation to the Great American Story (New York: Encounter Books, 2019)

First, this book is a breath of fresh air among US history survey titles. It is well written, engaging, and positive. McClay’s goal was to show that American history is a story of hope, even when people fell short of our ideals. He frames the story in the ideals of the Founders – providing the opportunity for the quest for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, treating all people as equals under the law. McClay opens with a quotation from Dr. John Dos Passos about the importance of the past and of remembering out continuity of story, especially in times of stress and trouble. McClay does a very good job of that.

I first read about the book in a review in the Wall Street Journal just before it came out. The reviewer was delighted by the title and the book, although if I recall, they wanted more footnotes. (The book has an excellent bibliography.) Other reviews popped up saying that this was a really good book, as well as a good textbook for high school/college survey courses. So I bought a hardback copy.

McClay begins at the beginning, with an overview of the Precolumbian peoples of North America, then to the Spanish and other explorers. He keeps some of the sense of wonder and awe I remember from older accounts of the discovery of the Americas, as well as acknowledging that some of the Conquistadors were less than charitable to their fellow men. One thing I really like about McClay is that he goes back a little, to give readers the “why” behind the actions of cultures and colonists. It fits his theme of continuity, and helps keep his characters within their own times and cultures. You will find very, very little “present-ism” in the book. People are in their own times and cultures. The author is quite up-front about some of their failings, and the nation’s failings, but also about the successes, triumphs, and great things the US and her people have done.

The book is not a name-date sort of history, but a narrative. This really puts it into an odd niche as far as classroom use. You need to have a basic idea about US history in order to get the most out of this book. I would supplement it with maps and lecture, and I’d probably give out a sort of time-line of who-what-when for students to hang the story onto. (Note, I’m used to bright 12-15 year olds. Older students won’t need as much, and college students that are not in remedial classes should be able to sort that out on their own, with some professorial nudging.)

McClay takes the story through to the early 2010s. I wouldn’t go that far, since anything more recent than thirty years is considered current events, or was when I was trained. He also includes an essay about patriotism and nationalism, which I found well worth thinking through and chewing on. I don’t entirely agree with some of his arguments [*dry tone* I know. You’re shocked by this.] but that has to do with my thinking of nationalism in the European context of “blood and soil” nationalism, which does NOT fit 95% of the US.

Overall, this is an excellent book for an adult or older high-school student. It has very, very few illustrations for a textbook, something that might be a stumbling block for some. Hillsdale College is currently using it for their on-line open course about US history, and I look forward to seeing how their faculty work with the book. I really appreciate McClay’s approach, and his use of the themes of hope and continuity in the book.

Physically, the book is heavy, so the e-version might be better for people with weak wrists and grip strength.

FTC Notice: I purchased this book for my own use and received no remuneration from either the publisher or the author.


4 thoughts on “Book Review: Land of Hope

  1. Hadn’t heard of that one, but I’ll see if I can find one. Might be a good research tool!

  2. Since most textbooks today have an excessive number of illustrations, usually ill-chosen and ill-organized, and sometimes making it difficult to read the book… I could live with having very few illustrations.

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