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To Be Young in America: Growing up with the Country, 1776-1940    by Sheila Cole order for
To Be Young in America
by Sheila Cole
Order:  USA  Can
Little, Brown & Co., 2005 (2005)

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* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

Sheila Cole recalls wondering about an old photo on her parents' bedroom wall in her youth. Most of us have similar memories of pictures that intrigued us, whether displayed in frames, or tucked into old photo albums. Who were those folk, what were their disappointments and dreams, what were their stories? In To Be Young in America, Cole focuses on 1776-1940, a period of major changes in the United States, showing 'what it was like to be young and how the process of growing up has changed' over the centuries. Details of history are seen through the eyes of eight young people - of both sexes, from diverse backgrounds, and living in different times. After a biographical vignette on each, the author explores their context in more detail, focusing on a particular issue. The sepia photographs interspersed through the text make it all real to the reader, and brief commentaries on topics like 'Corporal Punishment' and 'What's in a Name?' add to the interest.

Daniel Drake (1785-1852) grew up on the Kentucky frontier, where despite (or perhaps because of) a tough, disciplined childhood, he grew up to become a professor of medicine. Her mother left Julie Silverman (1929-) in an orphanage in Depression era San Francisco, a common practice in those hard times. Ida Barnett Wells (1862-1931) cared for her siblings after a yellow fever epidemic killed their parents. Rose Gollup (1880-1925) worked in a NY sweatshop to help her Russian immigrant family long before the passing of Child Labor Laws. Salvador Guerrero (1919-) belonged to a family of migrant laborers in Texas, with minimal opportunities for schooling. William Dean Howells (1837-1920) enjoyed his childhood play time outdoors in Ohio before the development of the toy industry. Eddie Guerin (1860-1940) began his criminal career at the age of thirteen in Chicago, before reform schools existed. And Joseph Plumb Martin (1760-1850) fought in the Revolutionary War, when teen soldiers acted as spies and scouts.

The discussion of how farming families worked together, and how children were involved in all aspects of family life in the early 1800s reminded me of points made in Alvin Toffler's Third Wave. It also struck me how so many of the childhood horrors discussed here (abuse in orphanages, sweatshop slavery, fighting in wars, no access to education) are still common in many parts of the world. And I felt sad that kids today lack the freedom to roam outdoors and to apply their imaginations in play, as used to be the norm. In her Afterword, Sheila Cole reminds us how the experience of growing up continues to change in the 21st century. Enjoy her fascinating book. You'll understand those changes better, and you'll look at old sepia-tinged photos in family albums with a clearer, more informed eye.

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