The World of Captain John Smith // by Genevieve Foster

//published 1959//

I grew up in a house stuffed with books.  Both of my parents are readers, and I think that an excuse to buy lots more books may have been part of the reason Mom decided to home school us.  I mean, the public-school neighbor kids used to come to our house to borrow  books when they had to write reports.  I distinctly remember my best friend, who lived several houses down, telling Mom that she had more books about Abraham Lincoln than the school library did.  :-D

My family especially loves used books.  All of us are quick to rummage through boxes of books at yard sales and flea markets.  You just never know when you’re going to find a treasure for a quarter.  All of us are drawn, like moth to flame, to those booths in antique stores that are filled with books.  We’re the kind of people who find a box of books on the doorstep when we come home  because someone left them.  “I know you like books…” they say.

All this to say that when my great-grandma passed away (I was around 11), it was natural that we ended up with most of her books.  Grandma had been a teacher in her younger days, and still had several shelves of books with CEDAR HEIGHTS ELEMENTARY stamped in the front.  Two of these books were rather raggedy, over-sized hardcovers by Genevieve Foster.  And I quite distinctly remember picking up George Washington’s World and falling a bit in love.

Foster wrote several history books in the middle of the century, and her passion was for what she called “parallel history” – fitting various historical events into their world-wide context.  As a kid, so often you study history in narrow chunks.  Ancient history.  American history.  Ohio history.  European history.  Reading George Washington’s World was the first time that I ever remember realizing – really realizing, not just knowing – that the American Revolution didn’t occur in a void.  Instead, it was just one part of a rich tapestry of important events taking place all around the world.  What was happening in France and Prussia was actually  just as important to our revolution as what was happening in Britain and America.  Events occurring in China were impacting people in Spain.  What was happening in Russia was changing what was happening in Italy.  Everything was connected, and Foster opened my young brain to that concept.

Basically, her history books focus on a random important historical figure, divide his life into 10-20 year chunks, and then discuss what was going on around the world during that time.  This was actually my first time reading The World of Captain John Smith, and despite the fact that Foster’s writing is aimed for middle school readers, I was surprised at how swiftly I was caught up in the drama of kings and queens and commoners.  I didn’t even remember that much about John Smith himself, beyond the Disney-fied Pocahontas episode (here’s a spoiler – Disney got it so wrong), so just reading about  his life alone would have been interesting enough.  But throw in drama over the throne of France, religious wars, fleeing pilgrims, treacherous explorers, angry samurai, a murdered queen, and some shipwrecks, and you have a serious recipe for some engaging reading.  Apparently, a lot of history happened between 1580 and 1631!

Throughout, the book is illustrated with Foster’s own drawings – and they are perfect.  They add so much to the story and do a great job of breaking up the text.

There was a lot to glean from this book.  I was very intrigued by the reminder of how big of a player religion was in various wars and royal takeovers during this time period.  It was a good reminder that when our forefathers founded a country that would separate religion from government, this is what they meant – no more slaughtering people because they were Catholic (or not Catholic); no more fighting wars because people didn’t agree with the ruler’s religious edicts.  When people start fighting about whether or not it’s okay to have a moment of prayer before a football game at a public high school… I just really don’t think that’s what our founding fathers were concerned about!

One caveat is that Foster was writing mostly in the 1940’s and 50’s, so if you are they type of person who is offended when Native Americans are referred to as “Indians” or black people are referred to as “negroes,” this isn’t the book for you.  Foster never does so in a condescending or offensive manner – they are simply the words that were used at the time, and she uses them.

I actually had a high appreciation for Foster’s balanced writing.  She doesn’t really present us with good guys and  bad guys, as so many history books are prone to do.  Instead, on the whole, she tries to show us people and their context, so while you may not agree with someone’s actions, you can at least begin to get your head around why they did what they did.  She also doesn’t particularly favor one religion over another.  She writes about Catholics, protestants, Muslims, Buddhists, and probably others that I’m not remembering right now all with the same respect – not afraid to discuss the inconsistencies of many of their followers, but without attacking or belittling the beliefs themselves.

All in all, if you are like me, and just looking for a very basic overview of world history as a sort of refresher course, or if you have a younger reader in your life who needs a bit of history heading their way, I highly recommend Foster’s books.  I’m delighted to say that they’ve been reprinted as paperbacks, with all of their original text and illustrations.  Six of her “parallel history” books are available in these reprints by Beautiful Feet Books (plus several of her other titles) – Augustus Caesar’s World, The World of Columbus and Sons, The World of Captain John Smith, The World of William Penn, George Washington’s World, and Abraham Lincoln’s World.  I have no idea if these are available as ebooks, but I would think that they would lose a great deal of charm that way.  They are big and bulky, but honestly I found this to be a great bathroom book – who doesn’t want a few chapters of world history every morning??  :-D

4.5/5 for The World of Captain John Smith, and highly recommended.