As frequent readers of this blog know, I have been thinking about biography a lot for over a year now. As I am preparing to write a chapter on Coming of Age Biography for my book, it has occurred to me that my first experience with biography that I remember was with a book in the Childhood of Famous Americans series. It was a summer day in 1964, and my mom had taken my sister and me to the Reagan County Public Library in Big Lake, Texas. There I found John Audubon, Boy Naturalist by Miriam Evangeline Mason (Bobbs-Merrill, 1962). I started reading while still in the library. I continued on the ride in the station wagon back out to the ranch and took the book to my bedroom. I was captivated by the story of Audubon's coming to America and traveling around its woods and prairies drawing and painting its birds. I did not put the book down until I had finished. It may have been the only time in my life that I read a regular-size book cover to cover in one session.
I know that I read a bunch of books from the Childhood of Famous Americans series in my fourth to sixth grade years. I remember titles on George Washington, Sacagawea, Robert Fulton, and Eli Whitney. As I reached college age, I heard a professor putting them down as sanitized and idealized. He said this as part of his "do not trust what your high school football coach told you about history" speech. Since then I have seen them in libraries, but I had not thought to read one again until now.
Wanting to refresh my knowledge and reassess these books, I found Herbert Hoover, Boy Engineer by Mildred H. Comfort in the 1965 book jacket still in my library. There are three copies in the SWAN Catalog of the Metropolitan Library System, and 244 more entries for books in the series, which is still being published and republished in more modern jackets. I prefer the 1960s jackets, which have two-color printing over the older covers with silhouettes or the newer versions with red, white, and blue framing.
I chose the book about Hoover because Bonnie and I recently visited the Hoover historical site in West Branch, Iowa. Reading the book, I thought about what I had read at the visitor center and museum and had seen in the historical buildings. Like when I was ten, I found that I was enjoying the story and was reminded of Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder. The book is about Hoover's childhood but it is also about any childhood in rural America in the later part of the nineteenth century, as there is wealth of cultural information. The books in the American Girl series follow right along with this same formula that Wilder created.
The professor was right about the sanitizing of the story but it did not veer away from what I learned in West Branch. As a young Quaker, Hoover probably was a very well-behaved youth, which is what most of this book is about. He graduates from Stanford University as an engineer on page 168. The rest of his life gets 24 pages.
The story is somewhat fictionalized, as it is told as a series of incidents with setting descriptions and conversation. I thought Comfort did a good job of describing the places of Hoover's youth. I saw again the small family home, the blacksmith shop, and the Quaker meeting house, as well as the hills and the stream. I think a few lines of dialog are suspect, especially line of page 53 in which his father says, "I hope, Bert, that thee'll live to see fifty stars in that flag." Why would anyone in the 1880s pick out fifty? There were only thirty-eight on the flag in the Fourth of July scene in the book.
It is hard to judge a series by a single book, but the Hoover book does encourage me to try a few more. It is fun to be ten again.
Comfort, Mildred H. Herbert Hoover, Boy Engineer. Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1965. There is no ISBN.