Monday, March 26, 2018

Wonder

Bullying, as the word is used today, wasn’t a thing when I was a kid.  Kids got made fun of or teased, but bullying, as we knew it, was when some kids, usually physically larger and more developed, used their unusual size to threaten smaller or younger kids into doing their will, usually involving lunch money, milk money, or desserts.  They were also to be feared in gym, which seemed to involve a lot of dodgeball, where bullies could unleash their physical prowess by slamming balls into the heads of other kids.  Nowadays, a lot that would’ve been overlooked in my day or engendered a lesson about ignoring or walking away gets put into the category of bullying.  The one area where things are the same is the area of kids who look different or who are mentally handicapped.  That was a problem before and is a problem now.

Book cover.Wonder by R. J. Palacio (ISBN: 978-0-375-86902-0), explores this latter form of bullying, but also the ability of some people to rise above it, in a short novel about a kids born with a number of physical birth defects who has decided it’s time to go to school with other kids.  He chooses to go to a private school, where he is confronted with all the problems one might expect for a kid facing the trouble of being both the new kid and the kid with some unusual facial features.  There are a few kids who are genuine in their interactions with him from day one, but for others, it takes some time.  Everything in the book is narrated from a first-person point of view, although the first person sometimes changes, as the reader hears from Auggie ’s sister and friends on occasion.  They have their own unique takes on the situation and show that there is some internal struggle involved in doing the right thing.  By the end of the book, most of kids have come around to accepting Auggie, and even come to his defense when some kids from another school decide to pick on him at an overnight outing (a very real phenomenon, as most people feel free to pick on their own friends, families, hometowns, schools, etc., but won’t put up with a single negative word by an outsider).  The main character himself has also done some maturing, learning that despite his differences and the hardship they have caused him, there is much he can and even should do on his own.

The book was an enjoyable and easy read that seemed very realistic.  I like to think that my elementary and junior high classmates would not have voted me most likely to shoot up the school, but I was also at the butt end of a lot of jokes and usually picked near the end when it came time to make teams on the playground.  That’s not to say I was friendless, though, and so much of the storyline seemed very realistic to me, based on what I saw and what I experienced during my early school years.  I thought the lessons learned by the hero, his family, his friends, and maybe even his enemies, were positive ones that were general, universal values that people of all persuasions could get behind.  The kids, who were cast as fifth-graders, seemed a little mature for their supposed years, and I thought that distracted slightly from the overall reading experience, as did the sadly standard profane language (this might just be me, but I have a lot less of a problem with vulgar language than with profane language, which is an automatic downer every time).  Overall, the book presented a good message and had some fun along the way, and has been enjoyed by friends and family of all different ages, so there’s a wide appeal.

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Saturday, March 17, 2018

Band of Brothers

Defeat must be brought into Germany itself before this mess can come to a proper end; a quick victory now, a sudden collapse, will leave the countryside relatively intact and the people thirsty for revenge. I want the war to end as quickly as anybody wishes, but I don’t want the nucleus of another war left whole.
— David Webster


. . . Americans as conquerors . . . They took what they wanted, but by no means did they rape, loot, pillage, and burn their way through Germany.
. . . Of course there were some rapes, some mistreatment of individual Germans, and some looting, but it is simple fact to state that other conquering armies in WWII, perhaps most of all the Russian, but including the Japanese and German, acted differently.
— Stephen E. Ambrose


World War II has always been fascinating to me.  As a kid it was because of the aircraft.  I loved looking at pictures of the famous bombers and fighters that plied the skies over Europe.  I loved drawing (or, probably more accurately, trying to draw) those same airplanes.  One of my favorite books as a kid was one that had also been a favorite of my dad’s, The Winged Watchman, about a Dutch family and their experiences in the war, including some resistance activity.  I read it multiple times and often had the vivid pictures it brought to mind in my head.  Later in life, I came to appreciate the amazing lives of so many ordinary Americans who answered the call of their country during the war.  Later, they would come to be known as the “greatest generation” because of their amazing accomplishments, usually from very humble beginnings.

Book cover.Band of Brothers: E Company, 506th Regiment, 101st Airborne from Normandy to Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest by Stephen E. Ambrose (ISBN: 978-1-5011-7940-2) tells the story of a few of the soldiers from that greatest generation.  It traces the story of one company from the company’s formation through their intense training, through their roles in some of the most decisive battles of World War II, and then through their march across Europe right to Hitler’s famed headquarters, where they secured and watched over the allied territory.  Like the based-on-a-true-story movies that always have a few words about the movie’s heroes before the credits roll, the book had a final chapter about how America’s heroes went through life after the war; with very few exceptions, they lived up to their well-deserved moniker as America ’s greatest.  The stories detailed training and then the adrenaline rush of first combat as part of the invasion of Normandy.  The men had little use for the French, but a much higher respect for the Dutch.  After the initial surges and excitement, they spent months in trenches on the front, and more than a few lost their lives.  There was a lot of pain and suffering, but a few light moments were had, too.  Throughout it all, the stories weave together a solid narrative of unity and support for each other that comes only through bearing great tribulation together.  That unity was one of the men’s greatest assets as they faced their enemy on the battlefields of Europe.

I enjoyed the book.  It was a pretty good read that told an overall story, but had some individual focus in many places that often gave it a personal feel.  I found myself overwhelmed at times by the constant use of so many organizational names and numbers, but realize that such a layout serves the true military history fans out there well.  There was a lot of that at times, which I tended to just gloss over because it meant so little to me.  I found the stories, both the personal ones and the larger overviews of battles and operations, to be well done and very interesting to read.  It was easy to picture oneself hiding behind a hedge in rural France or slogging through the mud of western Germany.  The vivid experiences also included commentary from the author’s extensive interviews with the men from the band of brothers, a lot of which struck me because of its wisdom and because of it’s tone, which was often, as evidenced by the two quotations at the top of this post, contrary to the conventional wisdom of the world today.  While universally declared to be the greatest generation, their ideas are roundly criticized today, and I wonder if there isn’t something to be learned that could be applied today, a time when no one will be accused of being part of a great generation.  The men that went and fought for America saw America as exceptional, and it was — in part because of them.  They also knew that war, waged properly, could be a deterrent to future.  Not just those quotes can be learned from, though.  The book was full of examples of hard work, dedication, patriotism, unity, solidarity, and unity that would serve us well if we would choose to imitate them.  Maybe, just maybe, in that case, we would have a chance of becoming at least part of the brave people who were members of the resistance in Europe or members of that greatest generation.

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Sunday, February 18, 2018

Unbroken

World War II has always fascinated me.  This is likely related to two things.  One is familial involvement.  One grandpa was a soldier in the war.  The other set of grandparents were children in Germany.  The other thing is that I loved drawing aircraft as a kid, and the bombers of World War II figured prominently in my usual repertoire.  What I didn’t necessarily understand as a kid is the large part that prison camps played in the war.  From the little reading that I have done and the little that I know, there are atrocious things that happened in the war’s prison camps, but I have heard more than a few stories of people rising above the horror and rising above the temptation to give up or to forever hate those who have treated them so evilly.  These stories are an interesting and often inspiring piece of history.

Book cover.Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand (ISBN: 978-0-679-60375-7) is just such a story about overcoming trials.  Like so many stories of resilience in the face of overwhelming odds, the story starts with humble origins.  Louis Zamperini was the son of Italian immigrants struggling to make ends meet along with most other Depression-era Americans.  A caring older brother discovered the track and invited Louie along, later serving as an unofficial coach, and Louie became as star, eventually qualifying for the Olympics, running a race (5,000 meters) he didn’t usually do.  He competed admirably in Berlin, finishing eighth against some of the world’s greatest runners.  His running career, though, was cut short by the onset of war, and he served as a bombardier.  That, too, was cut short because his plane went down during a rescue mission, and he was captured by the Japanese after some time floating in a raft at sea.  Floating around for weeks was already an amazing act of survival and resilience, but the worst was yet to come.  Zamperini then spent more than two years in various Japanese prison camps undergoing brutal treatment.  He and others kept their wits about them by resolving to beat the system and not give in to their captors and abusers.  Some made it, some did not.  There were some funny stories along the way, but most of it was monotony, drudgery, and pain.  Eventually, Zamperini and the others that survived were done with the horrors of the camps because the war ended.  Unfortunately, for many, that was not the concrete ending they would’ve preferred.  The horrors lived on in many of the former POWs’ minds, causing more than one to turn to alcohol, destructive behaviors, and even suicide to end the pain.  Zamperini’s story included a lot of post-war alcoholism, but he eventually quit that thanks to a conversion to evangelical Christianity, in part because of him remembering some promises he made to God while floating aimlessly on the Pacific Ocean in the first few days after his plane went down.  Zamperini used this redeeming experience in his life to later inspire and help others as well as come to terms with and even forgive his war-time tormentors.

I thought the book was good.  It was an inspiring story and it included some interesting information on the war.  It is best classified as a biography of Zamperini, not a history book.  There are many aspects of the book that were worth remembering, including the hard work and dedication the subject put into his running, his service in the military, and then his life after the war.  There were so many times he could’ve given up and probably justifiably so, but he didn’t.  He used the overwhelmingly negative experiences to make himself better, which is something worth emulation.  As noted above, this was a trait that was fairly common in his generation and one that is definitely missing in many today.  I was intrigued to read that faith and religion played such a large role in his post-war healing.  Such an aspect to story was not surprising, though, since a trust in the atonement of Christ is the surest way to redemption.  Finally, I would be lying if I didn’t note that I liked the stories about the running, which included some thoughts about Zamperini being one of the contenders for breaking the 4-minute mile barrier, and the Olympics in pre-war Germany, which are a subject of interest in and of themselves.

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Wednesday, December 20, 2017

The Boys in the Boat

I’ve been a bit of an Olympics junkie, as it were, for really as long as I can clearly remember the Olympics.  It was probably the summer games in Seoul, South Korea, in 1988, that really got me started.  It helped that I was somewhat incapacitated during a significant period of those games by a nasty injury to my knee after deciding that a car ramp would make a real fine bike jump.  It didn ’t, and when the sidewalk and my joints met, my skin disintegrated.  The resultant scab made it difficult to bend my knee, so I sat, luge-style, in the recliner in the living room and watched hours upon hours of Olympics.  I was a fan only a few hours in.  The pageantry was attractive, the glamor was fascinating, but the athletes striving for excellence, along with a little nationalism, is what really intrigued me.  I’ve always enjoyed participating in sports, in large part because of the drive for excellence that they embody and teach.

Book cover.The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans ad Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics (ISBN: 978-1-101-62274-2) by Daniel James Brown tells a story in which sports and life worked together to teach just such lessons as young men who made up some of the Greatest Generation strove for excellence in their athletic endeavors and in life, garnering a gold medal along the way.  The story follows the life of Joe Rantz the closest, but the reader also gets fairly well acquainted with his rowing teammates, some of his family, his girlfriend, and his coaches along the way.  They all were the kind of people that made America great — hard workers who were responsible and self-reliant, expecting nothing from others but the best from themselves.  Rantz had an interesting childhood in which his mother died, he spent some time living in a mining camp, his step-mother was the stuff of fairy tales, brutally controlling toward his dad and eventually kicking Rantz out of the house when he was still a young teenager.  Joe fended for himself, living in the house the rest of his family abandoned, working his way through high school and college.  It bordered, in a way, on a tale of survival during his early years.  In college, he tried out for and made the rowing team, showing immense potential as a freshman.  Hard work over the next three years eventually landed him and his teammates in the Olympics in Berlin, Germany, where Hitler was in his heyday.  Rantz and his fellow oarsman from Washington had overcome a lot throughout their lives, many from similar backgrounds to Joe’s, to make it to the Olympics in a sport historically dominated by elites and other from the moneyed class.  In Berlin, they overcame more challenges and the home team to capture gold literally right from underneath Hitler’s nose.

Like most history books, the outcome was never in doubt, yet the book was an engrossing read.  The title describes the quest for gold as epic, but it was, in reality, a small subtext to the story.  The characters themselves were epic.  Joe’s story is unbelievable and beyond worthy of being recorded for a wider audience (in rowing circles it was long the stuff of legend).  Some of what he went through seems superhuman.  It, most definitely, is worthy of emulation.  His willingness to work hard was inspiring throughout the story.  He showed that, if one’s willing to put in the work, there is no situation that cannot be improved upon.  Growing up in mining camps and working at logging jobs in high school without any parents around could’ve served as excuses to not succeed in life, but they didn’t.  Neither did the Great Depression.  Neither did any number of other difficulties that presented themselves in Joe’s life.  There were similar stories all around him.  This made digging deep while competing the nation’s and then the world’s most competitive races that much easier.  The level of hard work, commitment, and self-reliance, along with a large amount of common sense, decency, patriotism, and loyalty are a rare combination these days, but were par for the course coming out of the Great Depression and into World War II.  There was an even greater reserve in these special rowers, one that we would be wise to emulate and that made the book, refreshing in its lack of vulgarities, an excellent read.

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Monday, September 25, 2017

The Oligarchs

This was a critical decision for the insurgent democrats — they decided
to go local and make Moscow, not the national government, an engine for real change.

When I arrived in Russia as a young missionary, my first month was full of the other, more experienced missionaries telling me of the infamous ruble crash of 1998.  I honestly couldn’t fathom what it meant.  By summer of 1999, things seemed somewhat stable to a 19-year-old missionary from Utah who had never traveled outside the United States before.  I remember that the first time I heard about the crash was as I looked out over a sea of high-rise apartment buildings — the Russians refer to them as “anthills” — from the balcony window of a missionary apartment, also in a high-rise building, in the Vesyoly Posyolok area of St. Petersburg.  It was sunny, warm, and a bit of a sleepy afternoon with a streetcar rumbling by down below.  I was regaled with stories of runs on ATMs, stores, and bakeries.  It all seemed so foreign and so far away.

Book cover.The Oligarchs: Wealth and Power in the New Russia (ISBN: 1-58648-001-4) by David E. Hoffman starts long before the ruble crash and financial crisis, telling the story of how Russia came to that point after the fall of Communism.  The story is told in a very personal way, relying heavily on the author’s many personal interviews with the major players in industry and politics, as well as his and other journalists’ first-hand experiences during the “wild ’90s” in Russia.  The book provides short biographies of the major players, household names in Russia and sometimes beyond well into the early 2000s: Aleksandr Smolensky, Yuri Luzhkov, Anatoly Chubais, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Boris Berezovsky, and Vladimir Gusinsky.  The book chronicles these men’s rise to power.  They were entrepreneurs, opportunists, risk takers, visionaries, and criminals all rolled into one.  The book also provides a lot of information on Boris Yeltsin since the story of the oligarchs is inseparably woven into Yeltsin’s story.  From the dying throes of Communism to the dawn of Putinism, the book tracks the actions of the oligarchs and politicians they worked closely with and what the consequences were for Russia, Russians, and the West.  The oligarchs were an interesting group because of the they were at the forefront of a entrepreneurial movement that helped move the country forward, but they were wholly unprepared to play by rules foreign to them.  They cut a lot of back-room deals during Soviet times and continued using that same playbook the farther in the rear-view mirror the Soviet Union got.  To compensate for the changing financial and economic landscape, the oligarchs joined up with Yeltsin, going against he sentiment they had in the quotation above and helping him win a second term in the presidency because it kept the oligarchs in power.  A case is made for the necessity of that maneuver.  Finally, the book presents a few notes about how that move, keeping Yeltsin in power, ended up hurting the oligarchs because Yeltsin’s hand-picked successor, Vladimir Putin, has worked hard against them.

The book is rather old, written in 2001.  It is still relevant today, though.  It ends with a discussion of Putin and his rise to power and the early signs that his time in power was going to be different.  The book provides some warnings to the West (mega-rich bazillionaire George Soros is quoted in the book saying that some of his early investments in Russia were his worst investments ever) should Russia ever recover from Putinism and thaw like it did after the Cold War.  Hoffman spared no punches, and Western darling Khodorkovsky was shown to be a bit of a slimy rat.  (In fairness, all the other Russian oligarchs were portrayed that way, too, but Khodorkovsky seemed to be the leader of the pack.)  Khodorkovsky took it on the chin from Putin, but he was no angel and likely doesn’t deserve quite the level of adulation he gets from the Western press.  I enjoyed reading the stories from the ’90s and thinking back on the crazy Russia that I knew as a missionary and wishing it could’ve worked out a little better for Russia after the Cold War.  The oligarchs were likely a help and a hindrance.

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Thursday, August 17, 2017

The Travels of Marco Polo

I was never a big fan of water as a kid.  I took swimming lessons a couple times and knew how to keep myself above water (more or less: treading water was always difficult for me), but I really didn’t enjoy being in the pool too much.  As a teenager and in college, I had fun playing water basketball, which was always understood to be a no-holds-barred version of water polo with a basketball hoop hanging over the water.  No matter if it was a young men’s activity or a get-together with friends (even in a co-ed setting), it was a brutal, but fun, game.  Since I was so adverse to the water as a kid, I never played the childhood pool favorite, Marco Polo, ostensibly named for the XIII-century explorer (Wikipedia claims the game is not connected, but that honestly seems a bit daft).  I never read his famous and influential book as a kid, either, but as I’ve come to be more interested in the world’s classics, I thought I’d give it a try.

Book cover.The Travels of Marco Polo translated by Ronald Latham (ISBN: 978-0-14-044057-7) is the famous and influential (Columbus was inspired by reading Polo’s account of his travels) tale of travel and adventure that is really quite ethnographic in nature.  There is no authoritative version of the book since there are over 150 extant manuscripts, and there are many significant differences.  Latham, a Polo scholar, did this translation in 1958 and worked to meld the major manuscripts together, giving the reader a very complete view of Polo’s travels.  The focus of Polo’s account is his time in the court of the Mongolian khans, but he discusses his time in what is now Turkey, Iran, Burma, China, Sumatra, India, and Arabia.  The descriptions of the people and places are often quite detailed, especially when it comes to court life.  Commoners’ lives aren’t given the same level of detail, but the major industries and agricultural pursuits of each region are listed, along with general religious customs, and usually a note or two about interesting flora, fauna, and cultural customs (for instance, sharing wives seems to have been a thing in more than one Asian culture 700 years ago).  Polo talked about the spread of Christianity.  He talked about various technologies, shipping methods, and Oriental warfare.  He always took time to describe the local take on alcohol.  He also relayed tales of the supernatural and used interesting words, like “unicorn” (argued by some scholars to mean “rhinoceros”) that renders some of the description of the travels rather hard to believe.

Although tough at times because of archaic language and downright lies in some places (i.e., men with tails or people who look like dogs or the ability of some of the natives to conjure up storms to defeat their enemies), the book is an enjoyable read and the general idea of the work is considered by most scholars to be true.  A lot of what is written in the book is true, and more of it is based on truth, leaving only the really crazy stuff to be outright lies.  It was interesting to read the accounts of ancient peoples, places, customs, and religions.  It reminded me of my time in Russia as a missionary and my first visit to the Czech Republic, both instances of my own travel where I kept a journal, often detailing the things I saw around me that were new to me.  Polo likely did the same, and it’s quite important that he and others did, since such records provided knowledge and inspiration for others.

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Wednesday, August 16, 2017

The Original Argument

Politics and history seem to have always interested me.  I’m not sure when or how that interest began.  My guess is that it has something to do with reading the newspaper as a kid.  To be honest, the comics were the main draw, back when they had two full pages and each strip was printed at a size that didn’t require a magnifying glass to read the print.  Classics like Calvin and Hobbes and the Far Side are what I cut my teeth on.  To get there, though, since they were in the C section of the Deseret News, one had to work one’s way through the national, state, and local news, including the editorial pages.  I read a lot of the stories.  I am sure that I also heard my parents discussing elections and politics.  We had this Dodge minivan as a kid, and I usually sat on the middle seat behind the driver.  Back in the day when rear seats only had a lap belt, though, I would often extend it pretty much as far as it would go so I could sit on the edge of the seat, thereby having my head right up with the front seats, where I could hear my parents’ discussions.  I learned a lot and probably said plenty of dumb things (and now think that those conversations and my parents’ willingness to let me be a fly on the wall are something I could learn from as my own kids get to those same ages).  As for history, it has really just been inherently interesting, but things like war, exploration, and rebellion capture the mind of a young boy.  It was always easy to put myself in the place of the famous patriots fighting the British or as a Union supporter and an abolitionist.  Reading the news and wanting to understand politics showed me early on how history is necessary to understanding the situations we face today.

Book cover.In The Original Argument: The Federalists’ Case for the Constitution, Adapted for the 21st Century by Glenn Beck with Joshua Charles (ISBN: 978-1-4516-5061-7), an attempt is made at making history more accessible to the modern reader.  The book is essentially a translation of the majority of the famous Federalist Papers from the archaic language of the XVIII century to more en vogue English.  It’s still very high-level stuff, but it is simplified.  A good comparison might be a King James Bible and a New English Bible.  Glenn Beck has inserted some explanatory material at the beginning of each section (the papers are not presented chronologically, but in groups based on their major theme(s)) and in an infobox-like page for each paper.  The Federalist Papers were written, mostly by Alexander Hamilton, but also by James Madison and John Jay, in an effort to support the ratification of the U.S. Constitution, which provided for a stronger central (federal) government than what the Articles of Confederation had.  They are considered to be invaluable because of the insight they provide into just what the Founding Fathers thought when they wrote the Constitution. 

The book was a great read, although not something that was necessarily easy to get through.  The reader’s brain really must be fully engaged to get through the argumentation of the concepts that were so basic to America’s beginnings.  It’s really a book that one studies more than simply reads.  The commentary was interesting, but, for me, quite secondary to actual text of the papers.  I checked on a few occasions how closely what I was reading aligned with the originals, and it seemed to be good, but there is no way I can guarantee that for the entire, rather thick, book.  I thought the principles behind the Constitution were brilliantly argued.  As I read, there were a couple instances where I didn’t think I agreed, but there were plenty of those for the people in the U.S. at the time, so I am really no different.  Many of those who were in favor of the Constitution had reservations, but they recognized that it was as close as it was going to get to being perfect and did provide a solid, inspired foundation for our country.  In the vast majority of cases, I agreed with the arguments.  It was interesting to note, though, how different the Founding Fathers’ vision of government was from what we have now.  The federal government’s roles and powers were severely limited.  National-level bureaucracies like the Department of Education, the Social Security Administration, and the Environmental Protection Agency were not part of the plan.  The Founders abhorred taxes.  They recognized them as a necessary evil to pay for the recognized powers of the government, but otherwise they hated taxes.  They were religious men, who recognized the hand of God in our affairs (and those few who weren’t had no problem with those who were expressing those views and living according to their consciouses, even in the public arena).  They valued the rights of local governments.  Most people at that time saw themselves as citizens of their states first and citizens of America second.  That local government was perceived, rightfully so, as more responsive to the voters, so the Founders saw that as where more governmental powers should be.  It was all written in plain English, and even though these kinds of updated-language books really just make me want to go back to the originals, I thought the book provided a very clear idea of the way the writers of the Constitution thought.  Were people in better tune with these ideas from history, I think, some of today’s political questions might not be so big and today’s politically driven contention might not be so intense.

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Visions of Freedom

Growing up as a Mormon in Utah, especially back before the advent of what are often called in Mormon culture “small temples,” the Salt Lake Temple reigns supreme.  It is photographed endlessly.  It is the crown jewel of Temple Square even though most visitors cannot enter it.  It is the subject of both the state’s and the Church’s history and the stories that involve the Salt Lake Temple intertwine the two.  As a result of that situation, some of the state’s other temples are a bit lesser known to the general populace, myself included.  The fact that I always have to stop and think and remind myself that the St. George Temple was the Church’s third temple, not the Salt Lake Temple, proves that point.  I first heard, from my parents during a visit to Southern Utah as a kid, that the Founding Fathers appeared to President Wilford Woodruff in the St. George Temple.  The story was amazing and one I always remembered.

Book cover.Visions of Freedom: Wilford Woodruff and the Signers of the Declaration of Independence by Michael de Groote and Ronald L. Fox (ISBN: 978-1-60861-227-7) is a book about Wilford Woodruff’s visions (he had two of them on this subject) and the men that appeared to him.  The first part of the book discusses the history behind modern vicarious ordinances in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (anciently, the Bible contains one passage discussing baptism for the dead, and scholarly literature discusses a few others).  The next major theme of the book is how Wilford Woodruff’s preaching about his visions and the work he did in the St. George Temple for the men who appeared to him, as well as for some other famous people throughout history, changed, to a significant degree, the Mormon outlook on work for the dead in the temple.  Before President Woodruff’s visions, the vast majority of temple work was done only for ancestors or very close friends.  What that meant was that once a person had traced his genealogy as far as he could, he didn’t have much of a reason to attend the temple.  President Woodruff’s work for the Founding Fathers and others taught that temple work was necessary for all who had ever lived, which also gave faithful saints a reason to come to the temple again and again.  The majority of the book, though, consists of short biographies of the signers of the Declaration of Independence.  Each signer gets at least one page, although most have more than that.  There are some appendices that discuss the actual temple work and various accounts of President Woodruff’s visions.

I am not normally attracted to reading about Church history.  The history of the United States fascinates me.  I’m sure this overlap helped this book be of interest, but I think it had more to do with the fact that the story was one that was of interest to me as a kid.  I found the discussion of baptisms for the dead in the early Church quite intriguing.  What I missed in the discussion of Wilford Woodruff’s dream was the actual sermons in which he talked about it.  I found them, later, in the appendices.  I thought that was an unnatural place for them.  They should’ve been front and center.  Finally, the biographies were interesting.  They were just snippets and, usually, not very long, providing highlights of government service and the thoughts of other Founding Fathers on the person in question.  I enjoyed learning about how they came to be involved in the signing of the Declaration of Independence.  Many of them were what would be called “flip-floppers” in today’s toxic political environment (although maybe not necessarily since that term, at its purest, refers to those who change positions for political expediency, not because of any deeply held personal belief).  Many were British supporters until things just got too out of hand (it was almost always taxes that bothered them, but property rights and religion played a role, too).  The wide cross section of society was interesting, too.  Most of the signers were from the upper or upper middle class.  Not all, though.  There were guys who had worked their way up from being the apprentices of tradesmen to being judges.  There were merchants, clergymen, lawyers, and others.  What they had in common was a desire for themselves and their fellow countrymen to be free.  The book typically pointed out when one of the signers owned slaves or not.  This is a fascination that modern history has, but I thought it was dealt with admirably by the authors, who noted, at the end, that, unfortunately, many of our Founding Fathers were slave owners, but that was a burning issue then, and most of those who owned slaves struggled with it, later freeing some or all of their slaves or helping to write laws that hampered the slave trade in the U.S., but the important thing was that the founding documents (many signed not just the Declaration, but the Constitution as well) made it possible to later eliminate slavery in America.  Ultimately, that’s why they came to President Woodruff: they wanted to be free, free from spiritual prison in the afterlife.  It was an interesting historical and theological read that made me think about my amazing national heritage as well as my testimony in a loving God that has provided a way for all men to return to him and experience salvation.

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