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1919 The Year That Changed America

Book review by
Lucinda Dyer, Common Sense Media
1919 The Year That Changed America Book Poster Image
Riveting tale of racial, labor protests, women's vote, more.

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

The historical information and details that fill every page to overflowing are most often sobering, but there are some surprising and less serious facts to be discovered, too. For example, by the 1770s, the average American consumed three quarts of molasses each year, and during Prohibition, the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives owned and operated a still. Each chapter ends with a "One Hundred Years Later" section that offers a brief overview of how the social issues of that chapter (racial injustice, workers' rights, favoring native-born Americans over immigrants) are still being played out today. There are also timelines of significant past events specific to each chapter.

Positive Messages

While U.S. history is filled with violent episodes of social injustice, it's also filled with Americans who risked everything to fight for their rights and the rights of others.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Readers will encounter some familiar names (Elizabeth Cady Stanton and W.E.B. Dubois), but most of the heroes and heroines who find themselves briefly mentioned in the story are ordinary men and women who bravely marched, stood up against mob violence, or risked their lives to save others.

Violence

Violence in 1919 was directed toward almost anyone (women, African Americans, immigrants, workers) wanting to upset the status quo. Hundreds of African Americans were lynched, some for "offenses" as small as accidentally bumping into a White girl. African American homes and churches were fire bombed and race riots erupted in cities across the United Sates. White mobs rampaged throughout Washington, D.C., with beatings even taking place in front of the White House. Mobs of African Americans and Whites engaged in pitched battles in Chicago. The police, military, and state guardsmen were often called in to put down labor strikes violently. Suffragists were beaten in jail and threatened by mobs.

 

Sex
Language
Consumerism
Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Readers may be surprised by just how much drinking went on in American history. The ship that brought the Puritans to Massachusetts carried three times more beer than water. By 1820, there was so much liquor available in New England that it was cheaper than tea. There are estimates that during Prohibition, more than 100,000 speakeasys (secret, illegal drinking establishments) operated across America.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Martin W. Sandler's 1919 The Year That Changed America won the 2019 National Book Award for Young People's Literature. The year 1919 was unlike almost any other in American history. Women had finally won the right to vote, Prohibition was about to take effect, and a fear of Communists and anarchists swept the nation. Throughout the year, there would be often unimaginable acts of violence against African Americans and workers protesting low wages and terrible working conditions. The six chapters cover social issues and events many students may already have studied in class (women's suffrage) and others that may be surprising to both readers and their parents (a deadly molasses flood that destroyed parts of Boston's North End). Violence is a thread that runs throughout the book, with lynchings, fire bombings, and rampaging mobs becoming a new normal across America. This is history that's surprising, vividly told and thought-provoking.

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What's the story?

The first of six chapters in 1919 THE YEAR THAT CHANGED AMERICA, under the heading "An Amazing Event," recount the Great Molasses Flood. A tank storing 2.3 million gallons of molasses exploded and sent deadly waves of the thick liquid into Boston's North End, destroying everything in its path. While the company blamed anarchists and Communists, a court would, for the first time, find a company liable for its negligence. The "Women Got the Vote" section looks at suffragists, the women who fought for 70 years for the passage of the 19th Amendment, and the people and groups who opposed it. "The Red Summer" chronicles not only waves of violence against African Americans, but also how, for the first time, African Americans mounted armed resistance against mobs of Whites. The fall of Russia to the Communists in 1917, sent a wave of fear across America and created "The Red Scare." Communists were thought to be behind labor strikes, suspected Communists were rounded up and deported, and the Department of Justice created a Communist-hunting division headed by a young J. Edgar Hoover. Soldiers returning from World War I expected to find better wages and working conditions. When they didn't, 1919 saw "Strikes and More Strikes," with 36,000 work stoppages (including a strike by the Boston Police Department) that were met with violent responses from companies who blamed the troubles on Communists and  "foreigners." The final chapter, "A Noble Experiment," looks at the history behind the movement to ban the production and sale of alcohol and the crime wave (think Al Capone) created by Prohibition.

Is it any good?

Even reluctant readers should be captivated by the wealth of personal stories and archival photos that bring this pivotal year in U.S. history vividly alive. While 1919 The Year That Changed America looks at the nation's past, it also presents provocative questions about the present and how some of the most complex and divisive social issues in American life are still to be resolved.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about how some of the events in 1919 The Year That Changed America mirror what's happening today. Do you think the United States has made progress on social justice issues, or is the country  we just as divided and fearful as in 1919?

  • In 1919, Americans got their news mainly from newspapers. Do you think the events in the book would  have had a different outcome if social media and 24-hour cable news had existed then?

  • The author uses lots of personal stories to help readers learn about the events of 1919. Do you think this makes history come alive?

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