Last summer, while staying in a friend's apartment, I happened upon this book. Since I didn't finish it while there, I purchased my own copy of this fun and fascinating read. Okay, I can see you already searching for the phone number of the man with the net to come get me. A history book? Is she mad? Didn't we suffer enough in school? Believe me, I know, but before you make that call, hear me out, because this book has everything your 7th-grade history class lacked: accessibility; fun, bite-sized morsels of info; and nary a pop quiz in sight.
By accessibility, I mean this history of England is nowhere near your hated textbooks of yore. There are no long, drawn-out, boring chapters filled with endless drivel about this battle or that, an endless array of rulers and military men, the signing of yet another great document, or dates up the wazoo. Instead, each 2- to 3-page mini-chapter is a colorful snapshot of a historical person or moment, some well-known and some obscure, but all helping to shape the England of today. For instance, author Robert Lacey begins with a 1-1/2 page vignette about the Cheddar Man, England's oldest complete skeleton found in a cave near Bristol and dating back to 7000 B.C., still the time of hunter-gatherers. Naturally, not much is known about Cheddar Man's life, but one is fascinated by the clues Cheddar Man has left behind -- including the possibility that ancient Brits were cannibals. The next chapter fast forwards to 325 B. C., so while the stories are chronological, this is not your normal, comprehensive, boring history book.
Additionally, the stories Lacey chooses to highlight are tasty little tidbits you've most likely never heard. Do you know who we have to thank for those darned math word problems that have plagued school children for centuries? Any idea who is responsible for modern British spelling conventions? Did you ever learn Florence Nightingale had a Jamaica-born, mixed-race counterpart in Crimea? From what untutored girl did geology and paleontology experts steal knowledge and claim it as their own? All this and SO much more is contained in the pages of this unique take on British history, and it is almost impossible not to be fascinated with these little known historical gems of not only kings and queens, but of the common man, who contributed just as much to history as those whose names we all learned.
The other aspect I admire in this book is that there is no need to read it all at once. In fact, I put it down for months (not because I was bored). Happily, when I picked it back up, it was easy to continue because each chapter is a discrete story which doesn't depend on its predecessors. It is also a book that one can simply pick up, open to any page, and read a quick tale about something interesting. Meaning, this is a keeper in one's library.
And, the English teacher in me knows that Lacey's English composition teacher would be supremely proud of where he ended his history. Where? Exactly where he began -- with Cheddar Man -- but I won't tell you how.
As I read, I had only one moment of disappointment.When describing Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee celebrations, Lacey lists where all the attendees from around the Empire came from -- From Canada they came, from Australia, Africa, India, Borneo, Fiji, Hong Kong. Excuse me, but when are people going to get that Africa is not a country, but a continent of many countries with many diverse cultures that should not be carelessly lumped together?
Okay, enough for that little rant, because otherwise I simply loved this book.