“A Most Imperfect Union – A Contrarian History of the United States” by Ilan Stavans and Lalo Alcaraz

‘A Most Imperfect Union’, a graphic novel written by Ilan Stavans and illustrated by Lalo Alcaraz  (2014) – 252 pages

9780465036691

Here is a chronological pictorial history of the United States told by two Mexican immigrants.  It is a contrarian view as indicated by its author:

“I often criticize the United States for those aspects of its culture and national character that make me uncomfortable: its insatiable appetite for pleasure, its plastic-surgery aesthetics, its love of consumption, its frequent ignorance of history, its xenophobic disposition, its condescending political correctness, its arrogant foreign policy.” 

Despite his sometimes contrary views, Ilan Stavans is an American by choice, an immigrant.

As a child I received a very traditional view of American history in my one-room grade school in western Wisconsin.  First the history was United States-centric.  We were hardly taught anything about the rest of the world, even about our nearest neighbors Canada and Mexico.  Yet we were told every detail about George Washington, even the story ending in ‘I cannot tell a lie.  I chopped down the cherry tree.”  About the trials and tribulations of the Native-Americans, we were only told that the Pilgrims invited them to Thanksgiving dinner.  We were taught that Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves, and that act put an end to racial problems in the United States.  Even though we were only eight years old when we were taught this stuff, I can’t believe how naïve we were.

The first thing I did when I got to college was sign up for a course in European history, because the only things we were taught about Europe were the names of the explorers who first discovered America.

So first of all, ‘A Most Imperfect Union’ is a necessary corrective to the simple-minded view of history that was instilled in us at an early age.  I could even see this graphic novel being used in grade schools to give children another view of American history at an early age besides that of the history textbooks.  ‘A Most Imperfect Union’ deals with American history all the way up to 2014.

download (7)However I do have one objection to one page of the book.  This is the page that is pictured here, “Pilgrims vs. Indians” – The Jamestown Massacre”.  This was a massacre on March 22, 1622 in which the Powhatan Indians killed at least 347 Jamestown settlers.  Just about any grade school student in the United States could tell the authors that the settlers at Jamestown were not Pilgrims; they were English and other European settlers in search of economic opportunity.  The Pilgrims who left England to escape religious persecution settled up north in New England.  To any even casual student of United States history this mistake by the authors is near unforgivable.

Overall  ‘A Most Imperfect Union’ does raise important points on nearly every step along the way.  It is an especially fun book for those of us who have been taught a very traditional view of United States history.  The artwork by Lalo Alcaraz is also impressive.

 

Grade: B+   

 

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6 responses to this post.

  1. I wish I could remember where I read this so that I could refer you to it, but apparently the success of American unity (as distinct from places like France where there are immigrant riots every now and again) is ascribed to the way the school curriculum teaches what ‘being American’ is, including the somewhat naïve and uncritical view of history that you describe.
    I heard somewhere too that the US has airbrushed its convict history away. The Brits sent convicts to the US for over a century until independence, and then they sent them to Australia instead. They are an inescapable part of our history and every school kid knows about them because they are the founders of our nation who went on to prove that given a fresh start and opportunities to better themselves, people can do remarkable things whatever their past may be. We make films about our convicts, we write books about them and we have theme parks about them. But this is apparently not the case in the US? Do they get a mention in this book?

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    • Hi Lisa,
      Yes, I’ve read Richard Flanagan’s excellent novel ‘Gould’s Book if Fish’ which tells the story of early English prisoners in Australia. I don’t believe there is any mention of England sending prisoners to the US in ‘A Most Imperfect Union’.

      I did find the following in Wikipedia which backs up what you write:
      “The British used colonial North America as a penal colony through a system of indentured servitude. Merchants would transport the convicts and auctioned them off to (for example) plantation owners upon arrival in the colonies. It is estimated that some 50,000 British convicts were sent to colonial America, representing perhaps one-quarter of all British emigrants during the 18th century. The State of Georgia for example was first founded by James Edward Oglethorpe by using penal prisoners taken largely from debtors’ prison, creating a “Debtor’s Colony”. However, even though this largely failed, the idea that the state began as a penal has stayed both in popular history, and local lore.[1] The British also would often ship Irish and Scots to the Americas whenever rebellions took place in Ireland or Scotland, and they would be treated similar to the convicts, except that this also included women and children.”

      Unlike Australia, the United States is not proud of its early history as a place for prisoners.

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      • That might explain the harsh prison sentences given in the US. Here, where convicts (provided they behaved themselves) could rehabilitate themselves e.g. by taking up farming or going into business and even the professions, we perhaps have more of a culture of giving crooks a second chance. Though you will of course always find people who want to lock ’em up and throw away the key. But as one of our MPS said recently, it’s because victims feel justifiably emotional about criminal behaviour that we don’t let them make decisions about sentencing.

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        • Hi Lisa,
          Yeah, the US really got on the wrong track overloading our prisons with non-violent drug users. It will take a long time to fix that error. You really can’t brag much about freedom when you have millions locked up for no good reason.
          I do see your point that Australians are proud of their criminal past and thus don’t over-harshly punish their prisoners today.

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  2. Sounds interesting – I also had that ‘building a nation’ history syllabus at Middle School in Pennsylvania, which looking back was full of making mythical figures out of people like Benedict Arnold and John Revere (being a Brit, the whole ‘the British are coming’ tale didn’t have quite the same effect). We did learn about the trail of tears and the terrible oppression of the native Americas though, and that was in the 1980s.
    This book sounds iconoclastic, and one to read alongside the standard coursebooks.

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    • Hi Alastair,
      My grade schooling was mostly in the 1950s, and that was the time when people of the United States were fearful of questioning anything at all, what with the McCarthy hearings, etc. Also it was the time of the Cold War, so a lot of what we were taught was just propaganda.
      I’m sure in England the Revolutionary War is taught totally differently than in the United States, especially Benedict Arnold.

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