Most biographies start with their subject’s ancestry, but Laura Dassow Walls introduces Henry David Thoreau (Chicago, $35) by way of a survey of New England’s geography. She explains the region’s kettle ponds, drumlins, and rocky promontories, and describes the ways of its indigenous peoples. These were Thoreau’s early fascinations, and they shaped his entire life. As she traces how his ideas about nature, social justice, and transcendentalism grew from and supported each other, Walls brilliantly puts Thoreau’s thinking about ecology, equality, and a “higher law” into the context of his time and shows how very much ahead of his time he was—to the point that editors censored his essays. Much of her remarkable portrait revises common assumptions about Thoreau. He was neither a recluse nor a misanthrope. He joined many groups, lectured frequently, and made lifelong, devoted friends, including Emerson and Horace Greeley, who acted as his literary agent. Living “deliberately” at Walden Pond did not mean living alone. Thoreau had constant visitors there and became part of an overlooked community of freed slaves, Irish immigrants, and the impoverished. He aligned himself with the marginalized ever after. Walls has done prodigious research for this deeply affecting book. She explains why good pencils were so hard to make in the nineteenth century, shows us step-by-step how Thoreau built his Walden house, takes us on his hiking and boating trips, and traces his evolving ideas. The result is a Thoreau you don’t just know more about, but a living, breathing, thinking person you feel you really know.
Amy Goldstein, a longtime Washington Post reporter, takes a deep dive into the community of Janesville, Wisconsin, describing in gripping and revealing detail what happens when economic disaster strikes a town. In the case of Janesville, it was the closing in late 2008 of what had been the oldest operating General Motors plant in the country. While Janesville: An American Story (Simon & Schuster, $27) is set in a single community, it also explores the larger realities of how Americans are trying to cope with job losses and financial hardships. It examines the shortfalls of re-training programs, the limitations of social services, and the political divisions and partisan rancor that can pull even the most established communities apart. These damaging effects aren’t always simple to trace or explain. But the power and disturbing impact of Goldstein’s book comes in its refusal to be satisfied with simplifications
A finalist for the National Book Award, Killers of The Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and The Birth of The FBI (Doubleday, $28.95), by David Grann, chronicles the mysterious deaths by gunshot and poison of members of the Osage Nation in Oklahoma during the 1920s. As Grann tries to put the pieces of this mystery together, he uncovers a forgotten history. Though we are first led to believe that just one person, acting out of greed, is responsible for the entire rash of killings, Grann soon wonders if more people were behind these heinous acts. Because the details of these crimes were so peculiar, the case prompted a need for a federal agency, and the FBI was born. Did that help the Osage at all? Grann’s presentation of the evidence, the investigation, and the court proceedings is riveting. But it’s his account of the ongoing repercussions of the killings, his interviews with members of the impoverished Osage, and his depiction of Indigenous life in this country today, that reveal the truly shocking crime.