13 Compelling Books That Offer Fresh Perspectives on American History

You may have learned about U.S. history in school, but that doesn't mean you have the full story. Many important events and perspectives are glanced over or ignored altogether in the classroom. If you want to be more informed about these lesser-known aspects of America's past, check out the thirteen works listed here. This video was made with Ezvid Wikimaker.

American History Books: Our 13 Picks

Title Author
1. Birdmen Lawrence Goldstone
2. Slavery by Another Name Douglas A. Blackmon
3. The Caning Stephen Puleo
4. The Island at the Center of the World Russell Shorto
5. A World on Fire Amanda Foreman
6. Coolidge Amity Shlaes
7. A Fierce Glory Justin Martin
8. The Factory Girls Christine Seifert
9. American Legend Buddy Levy
10. Harvey Milk Lillian Faderman
11. The Warmth of Other Suns Isabel Wilkerson
12. In the Shadow of Liberty Kenneth C. Davis
13. The Children's Blizzard David Laskin

5 Americans Who Changed History

  1. Claudette Colvin: Teenage civil rights activist
  2. Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Led the country out of the Great Depression
  3. Jane Addams: Nobel Peace Prize winner & suffragette
  4. Sojourner Truth: Abolitionist and women's rights activist
  5. Alexander Hamilton: Profoundly shaped America's financial system

Historical Films Set in the US

The History of the American Revolution

In Depth

Much of American history tends to get reduced to the same overly familiar narratives, so it's always useful to take in different perspectives that shed new light on the nation's past. For those looking for more challenging and provocative historical accounts, here are, in no particular order, thirteen fascinating books that reveal sides of the U.S. you didn't learn about in school.

For #1 we have "Birdmen" by Lawrence Goldstone. Chronicling the chaotic origins of human flight, Goldstone's book illuminates how the professional rivalry between aviation pioneers Glenn Curtiss and the Wright brothers shaped the future of flying. Focusing on their ego-driven feud both on land and in the air, especially their many fierce legal battles, the author paints a picture of innovation informed not by genius, but by uncompromising personalities. Goldstone also highlights other integral early aviators, engineers, and barnstormers who laid the foundation for what aeronautics was to become.

Coming in at #2 is "Slavery by Another Name" by Douglas A. Blackmon. A searing look at America's post-abolition legacy of racism, this Pulitzer Prize-winning book illustrates how the black population continued to be terrorized by systems of racial oppression long after the end of the Civil War. Dubbing this era the "Age of Neoslavery," Blackmon reveals the policies put in place that effectively forced African Americans into lives of servitude and imprisonment. Using documents and personal accounts, he justifies his view that slavery in the U.S. didn't truly end with the Emancipation Proclamation.

A searing look at America's post-abolition legacy of racism, this Pulitzer Prize-winning book illustrates how the black population continued to be terrorized by systems of racial oppression long after the end of the Civil War.

For #3 we find "The Caning" by Stephen Puleo. When discussing factors that precipitated the Civil War, one major turning point that often gets overlooked is the brutal caning of anti-slavery Senator Charles Sumner by pro-slavery Congressman Preston Brooks. The incident, which occurred in 1856 in the Senate, was a moment that irrevocably ruptured the relationship between North and South. Puleo restores eminence to this pivotal event, demonstrating its role in fomenting a divisive and turbulent political climate that inevitably led to war.

At #4 is "The Island at the Center of the World" by Russell Shorto. Before it was seized by the British, and long before it became New York City, New Amsterdam was the flourishing, multiethnic capital of a Dutch colony. Informed by thousands of pages of translated historical records, Shorto resurrects this pre-Manhattan colonial world, positing that its remarkable culture of religious and economic freedoms has greatly influenced modern-day New York and America at large.

For #5 we come to "A World on Fire" by Amanda Foreman. In her lauded work of historical analysis, Foreman explores the extent and the consequences of British involvement in the American Civil War. Beginning by outlining the tensions caused by Great Britain's trade relations with the Confederacy, Foreman goes on to examine the myriad, complicated diplomatic factors between the countries that impacted the course of the bloody conflict. Drawing from the letters and journals of British service members on both sides of the struggle, she dispels any notion that the Civil War was an exclusively American event.

In her lauded work of historical analysis, Foreman explores the extent and the consequences of British involvement in the American Civil War.

Landing at #6 is "Coolidge" by Amity Shlaes. Arguing that Calvin Coolidge was in fact a trailblazing president and not the stodgy, ineffective leader he's been remembered as, Shlaes illuminates the triumphs of the thirtieth president of the United States. Throughout, she reveals a biography of Coolidge as a disciplined, savvy commander-in-chief who presided over one of the country's most prosperous eras of invention. Detailing his numerous achievements, from cutting back federal spending to keeping special interest groups from getting too big, she finally posits that this oft-dismissed figure provided the leadership America needed.

For #7 we have "A Fierce Glory" by Justin Martin. This lurid, gripping account of the Battle of Antietam takes readers into the military strategies, technological advancements, and political repercussions of the deadliest day of battle ever held on American soil. Narrating the events from multiple points of view, including those of Lincoln and generals Lee and McClellan, Martin creates a character-driven portrait of the fateful day that eventually led to a narrow Union victory and the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. In the process, he makes a case for Antietam as one of the defining moments in the nation's evolution.

Showing up at #8 is "The Factory Girls" by Christine Seifert. One of the most fatal industrial disasters in the nation's history, the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City killed 146 workers, most of them young immigrant women. Situating the tragedy within the context of America's burgeoning consumer capitalist culture, Seifert examines the materialistic greed and exploitation of labor that created the conditions for the fire. To make her account more intimate, Seifert frames the event through the perspectives of six female survivors, bringing empathetic visibility to their experiences.

Situating the tragedy within the context of America's burgeoning consumer capitalist culture, Seifert examines the materialistic greed and exploitation of labor that created the conditions for the fire.

For #9 we find "American Legend" by Buddy Levy. Frontiersman and politician David Crockett was among America's original celebrities, an icon of early popular culture whose adventures would become the stuff of legend. Peeling away the layers of myth that have turned the coonskin cap-wearing pioneer into a sensationalized folk hero, Levy shines a light on the real Crockett, including his destitute upbringing and his various travails on the way to becoming the most unlikely of congressmen. Even as Levy deflates the most romantic ideas of Crockett, he also pays tribute to his intrepid spirit, making clear why he remains such a renowned and beloved national figure.

Arriving at #10 is "Harvey Milk: His Lives and Death" by Lillian Faderman. A comprehensive portrait of Harvey Milk, California's first openly gay elected official, Faderman's insightful biography conveys the many facets of the L.G.B.T. icon's life and career. Starting with the formative experiences that preceded his 1977 election to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, Faderman continues by examining his short-lived but emphatic political service, and the long legacy it left after his assassination in 1978. The author also discusses the influence of Judaism on Milk's activism, a dimension often overlooked in accounts of the man.

For #11 we come to "The Warmth of Other Suns" by Isabel Wilkerson. Through rigorous research involving interviews and government records, Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Wilkerson details the mass migration of African Americans from the South to other parts of the country between 1915 and 1970. In terms simultaneously intimate and expansive, she focuses on a few individuals who successfully made the move, using their journeys to flesh out a panoramic picture of a changing American society. As a result, Wilkerson demonstrates how millions of domestic migrants helped shape the cities and nation we live in today.

In terms simultaneously intimate and expansive, she focuses on a few individuals who successfully made the move, using their journeys to flesh out a panoramic picture of a changing American society.

At #12 is "In the Shadow of Liberty" by Kenneth C. Davis. The United States is a country supposedly founded on liberty and justice, but it's also one built on the backs of slaves. Making visible the horrific realities that are diminished or effaced in dominant narratives of the nation's birth, Davis tells the harrowing stories of the black Americans who were enslaved by the Founding Fathers. Among the accounts are those of Ona Judge, who worked on Washington's Mount Vernon plantation, and Isaac Granger, a blacksmith under Thomas Jefferson. By showcasing their lives, Davis grants dignity and importance to people excluded from most history textbooks.

Finally, for #13 we get "The Children's Blizzard" by David Laskin. In this heart-stopping chronicle of a meteorological disaster, Laskin recounts the historic blizzard of 1888, which was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of newly-emigrated settlers to the prairie states. Among the fatalities were people from Norway, Germany, and Denmark, many of them children walking home from school. Pulling from interviews as well as memoirs, Laskin weaves an unflinching but poignantly human portrait of pioneers challenged by the ruthless climate of their chosen land.