Betsy's Reviews > The Many Faces of George Washington: Remaking a Presidential Icon

The Many Faces of George Washington by Carla Killough McClafferty
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Mar 19, 11

Read from March 17 to 18, 2011

Forensic anthropology meets the guy on the one dollar bill. That's one way of putting it anyway. Walk into many a classroom and tell the kids "Look! I've a book here on George Washington! Who wants it?" and prepare to be buried in groans. An alternative take: Walk into many a classroom and show the kids pages 8 and 9 of Carla Killough McClafferty's The Many Faces of George Washington. There they will see an array of Washington portraits so diverse that you might as well be looking at five different men. Now ask the kids, "How do you figure out what a dead person really looked like?" The cannier amongst them might reply that you need only locate the person's skull and a forensic artist. Nod sagely. Then ask, "And what if you don't have a skull to work from?" That right there is the premise behind McClafferty's newest, and it's a fascinating point of discussion. The question is, can you reproduce a man as he was at three different points in his life without photographs or bones? The result is one of the more enjoyable points of nonfiction out this season. One of the more creative too.

Recently The Mount Vernon Ladies' Association had a problem. Thirty years ago your average American knew more about President George Washington than folks today. What to do? In an interesting twist, the Association placed much of the blame on the image of George found on the dollar bill. I mean seriously, who can relate to that guy? It would be great if you could find a way to discover what the man actually looked like. So Jeffrey H. Schwartz, a forensic anthropologist from the University of Pittsburgh, and a whole team of experts were brought in to try to create life-sized reproductions of Washington at ages nineteen (young surveyor), forty-five (General), and fifty-seven (President). As we watch the reconstruction of a man long dead, the text is interspersed with information about Washington at each of these ages, telling the story of the man as well as the body. A Timeline, Source Notes, Index, Bibliography, and section for Further Reading (including websites) are all included at the end.

The book packs a two-fisted whammy of a punch. For the history buffs you've the history of Washington himself. But for the forensic scientists (a.k.a. C.S.I. fans) you've the fascinating story of how a person goes about reconstructing someone's body without having something as essential as a skeleton to work with. The solutions found here (getting measurements from death masks, clothing, eye-witness accounts, locks of hair, etc.) are as inventive as they are fascinating. One cannot help but marvel at the meticulousness of the professionals at work. Their attention to detail is so precise that you find yourself poring over details that explain the red lines in Washington's eyeballs or how they recreated his horse. Best of all, McClafferty avoids a problem I've detected in other nonfiction forensic works for kids. I think there's a temptation amongst authors to cram in as much information about instruments like 3-D scans and their technical ramifications as possible. McClafferty, however, recognizes that if you give just enough info about the instruments to allow students who are into that stuff to look them upon their own (hence the recommended reading at the back of the book), that's fine. But if you put too much of this info in, you may well lose your audience. That McClafferty doesn't lose her audience is a wonder. Consistently she keeps the story moving and interesting without sacrificing science.

Part of the impetus behind this project came when The Mount Vernon Ladies' Association (which owns the Mount Vernon Estate and Gardens) tried to assess what folks feel about Mr. Washington. The results? Well, if you're going by his appearance on the dollar bill then folks feel like they're dealing with a stiff, old, grumpy, boring guy. In a sense, both the facial project and the book itself work to change this perception. By natural extension the book has received a lot of help and assistance from that same Mount Vernon group. This is a good thing, as it led to a lot of information, primary documents, and portraits that might otherwise have been difficult to attain. The tradeoff, of course, is that this is not a particularly nuanced portrait of our first president. It does a stellar job of highlighting his best traits. No one can walk away from the book without a clear understanding of how remarkable the fellow was. However, while we read many an account of praise in favor of Washington, criticism is utterly left out. I would have loved a little more information about some of Washington's less than stellar qualities, I think. McClafferty is good about mentioning that he was a slaveholder, yet does so only in passing. It's an important detail, worthy of some attention, and in this day and age a topic that necessitates some discussion. The father of our country owned people. What do we think about that?

The book actually has some similarities to a very different biography out this year by Candace Fleming. Like Amelia Lost: The Life and Disappearance of Amelia Earhart this title does a good job at breaking up one narrative (in this case, the challenge to bring George Washington to three-dimensional life) alongside his life lived at three important points. Best of all, the historical sections are very good at referencing one another. It would be easy to feel a bit lost if you left Washington at nineteen in one section and then suddenly found him to be forty-five the next. McClafferty offers a smooth and consistent transition between the man's ages. You never have to worry that you're getting only part of the story then.

As an average consumer, I admit that prior to this biography my interest in Washington was relegated primarily to children's history accounts like Steve Sheinkin's King George: What Was His Problem or George Washington: Spymaster and the man's appearance in the recent (and very adult) John Adams HBO series. McClafferty's book is noteworthy then because it not only brings to life the reconstruction of a dead man's face, but also the life and times of our very first president. The term "making history come alive" is used too often these days, but I can think of no better way of describing was the author has done here. And though I would have preferred a little more three-dimensionality of the man alongside the three-dimensionality of his body, I can think of few books for kids that bring him to life better than this. Really fun. Really smart. Really informative.

For ages 10 and up.
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