Friday, January 11, 2013

Nonfiction Review - They Called Themselves the KKK by Susan Campbell Bartoletti

This past semester I was fortunate to take a class on teen literature. We read some amazing stuff over the course of the 16 weeks in the class, and my professor really made every attempt to introduce us to a diverse cross-section of books for teens. One unfortunate side effect, however, was that my already formidable TBR list grew by leaps and bounds (sadly, my available reading time did not grow with it, so who knows when I'll get to all these wonderful books, but that's another problem).

One of the titles we read that really blew me away was Susan Campbell Bartoletti's nonfiction selection  Hitler Youth: Growing Up in Hitler's Shadow. Not only was the subject matter fascinating -- the effect of Nazism on tweens and teens who became part of the movement -- but Bartoletti's writing is top-notch. While never sensationalizing events, she has the ability to pull you into the story and absolutely compel you to keep reading, to find out how life turned out for the young men and women Bartoletti focuses on. The book was recognized with a number of awards, including a Newbery Honor and a Sibert Honor, and for good reason, because it's simply incredible.

Reading Hitler Youth left me wanting more from this talented author, so I turned to her more recent book They Called Themselves the KKK, published in 2010. This is another fascinating historical account, this time centering on the formation of the Ku Klux Klan in the period of post-Civil War Reconstruction. I knew little to nothing about the KKK's history, so I went into this one entirely fresh, and was amazed at the depth of historical detail Bartoletti was able to uncover.

Her story takes up right after the Civil War concludes, when the Southern states were still reeling from their devastation and defeat at the hands of the Union soldiers. Tennessee was particularly hard hit, and the residents of Pulaski, TN worried about their future in a country that intended to see the South punished for their rebellion. Six Pulaski men took up meeting in the evenings to reminsce about "the good old days" before war ravaged their region; it was at one of these meetings that the Ku Klux Klan was formed, as a club for men who shared the six friends' ethos.

To say the Klan took off like wildfire is an understatement. Bartoletti traces the rapid spread of the KKK through the South and also the tactics that caused its membership to swell, even if many of the new recruits joined against their will. To oppose the Klan was to risk reprisal, and few young men were willing to risk it. And very soon the Klan began to take steps to protect its members and other white Southerners from what it felt were overly punitive and biased laws and mandates.

Of course, we all know of the violence and bloodshed that was left in the wake of the KKK, but it is here that Bartoletti's book becomes most moving. She traces first-hand accounts from former slaves and others who stood up to the Klan and were severely punished for their trouble. Stories like that of disabled preacher Elias Hill, whose sermons caused the Klan to target him for inciting black-on-white violence, provide an essentially personal element to this period of history. Throughout the book, reproductions of photographs, illustrations and historical documents add depth and bring out the poignant moments of human suffering described in Bartoletti's text. Much of it is horrifying, and yet critical to understand events that followed, most notably the Civil Rights Movement.

With excellent resources like this well-researched and riveting book, history truly comes alive for students, in a way no dry textbook can do. It's easy to condemn the actions that were carried out by the KKK -- far harder to analyze what events brought the Klan to power and how its effects lingered for years afterward, even to this day. I so admire the balance, sensitivity and accuracy Bartoletti employs in this account, which should be required reading for every student of American history.

They Called Themselves the KKK by Susan Campbell Bartoletti, published by Houghton Mifflin
Ages 13+
Source: Library
Sample: "Despite the Klan's terror tactics, freedmen turned out to vote in extraordinary numbers. In Spartanburgh County, South Carolina, for instance, freedmen swam rivers, waded streams, and walked miles to reach the polls. 'A man can kill me,' explained Henry Lipscomb, 'but he can't scare me.'"

Bonus: Susan Campbell Bartoletti's visit to a KKK rally as background research

1 comment:

Michelle Cusolito said...

I saw Bartoletti speak last April. He attention to detailed research is amazing. She goes back to the primary source as much as possible and cross checks everything. She even sewed her own hood and pulled it over her head so she could personally have that experience.

A wonderful edition of The Horn Book came out about a year ago that focused on non-fiction. You should try to get it. You can learn more about Bartoletti's process along with other wonderful non-fiction writers.