Monday, November 07, 2005

Book Review: Destination America

Destination America: The People and Cultures that Created America is a coffee-table book you might actually read. A companion volume to the PBS series, it meets DK Publishing's usual high standards, and includes so many photographs and artworks you can almost smell the immigrants climbing out of steerage.

Author Chuck Wills (who earned my utter devotion by co-writing Grateful Dead: The Illustrated Trip) arranges the material under six headings—an initial survey of immigration called "Settling America," followed by five sections titled "Freedom of Worship," "Freedom from Oppression," "Freedom from Want," "Freedom from Fear," "Freedom to Create." Apparently FDR's Four Freedoms proved insufficient to contain all the reasons people chose to come to America.

Even these five freedoms are insufficient to account for the forced migration of African slaves to the Americas, and black genealogists will notice the short shrift given their ancestors in this book. Nevertheless, every major ethnic and cultural group, and most minor groups—including more recent arrivals from Africa—are treated in one or another of the sections.

One advantage of the arrangement is the attention it draws to unlikely bedfellows. Descendants of the Acadians expelled from Canada's Maritime Provinces in the 18th century will find upon turning the page a discussion of Armenians fleeing Turkish persecution. Both groups found "Freedom from Fear" in America, just as both Quakers and Fulan Gong followers found the "Freedom to Worship." They came in different ships, but were all in the same boat.

The last section, on the "Freedom to Create," will be least useful to family historians because of its focus on individuals, rather than cultural and ethnic groups.

Destination America features several original maps, the most interesting of which may be that showing "Biological exchanges in the age of expansion, from c. 1500." The routes of the European explorers are depicted, but also the migration of plant and animal species from the Americas to Europe, and the spread of diseases like bubonic plague, smallpox, and syphilis—the descendants of which you do not want to meet.

Readers are encouraged to submit their own stories of immigration on the PBS website, and to browse the stories submitted by others.

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