Wednesday, June 1, 2011

The Story of Liberty by Charles C Coffin

The library at Deakin University was recently remodelled, with a new staircase to the wonderful second floor. This staircase had walls on each side of it, made of old books which had been soaked in some sort of glue and built into the wall!

When I first saw this feature, I was absolutely shocked. How could anyone do that to old books? On closer inspection, it appeared that these books were mainly old textbooks—1970s manuals on electronics, 1960s medical textbooks, and some books that looked completely useless, like the collected works of Sigmund Freud...or that might have been my wishful thinking.

I still don't like it. I suppose the human race has pumped out a huge number of textbooks over the years, most of them worthless. But this one, The Story of Liberty, is well worth the time.

It was originally published in 1879 and I met it in a 1987 paperback reprinting from Maranatha Publications. It was to be my history textbook for a year, and as I began to read it, I was completely gripped. Aimed at children, with friendly big print and absolutely hundreds of intriguing pictures—reproductions of famous paintings of historical figures, items, and events—The Story of Liberty is immediately engaging. But probably the best thing I liked about it was how it was written.

The author traces his story—the story of liberty—from the Magna Carta and the earliest British reformer John Wycliffe all the way through the Reformation to the Pilgrim settlement in the New World. Because he realises that history is actually a thrilling story, full of Providential plot turns, desperate last stands, heroes and villains, the book is extremely easy to read. It's written vividly, in the present tense. I read it for school once and many times for pleasure.

This is an excellent framework history book for studying the Reformation. You can supplement it with all the Henty, Scott, or Haggard books you like. With chapter titles like “The Man Who Preached After He Was Dead,” “The Boy Who Sang For His Breakfast,” “The Man Who Split The Church In Twain,” “How the 'Beggars' Fought For Their Rights,” and best of all “The Retribution That Followed Crime” you could be forgiven for wanting to read ahead! Here you will find the thrilling stories of the Reformation in England, in France, and in Holland. You'll hear about the great explorers, including Vasco Nunez de Balboa, who escaped in a cask from his debtors in Haiti. In tense, gripping sentences you'll hear about the wildly wicked Pope Alexander VI, father of Cesar and Lucrezia Borgia and the even more wildly wicked Catherine de Medici, who poisoned Jeanne D'Albret with scented gloves and then had all the Huguenots in Paris murdered, including the grand old General Coligny:

“God is calling us. I am ready. Please leave me, and save yourselves.”

The minister and the doctor seek safety in flight—up-stairs, out upon the roof, reaching another house. The door of the admiral's room bursts open, and ruffians, with spears and swords, rush in.

“Are you the admiral?”

“Young man, I am. You come against a wounded old man. You cannot much shorten my life.”

The spear goes into his bosom.

“Oh, if it were only a man! but it is only a horse-boy.”

The ruffian beats him over the head. Others enter and plunge their swords into the prostrate form.

“Have you done it?” It is the Duke of Guise calling from the street.


“Throw him down.”

The ruffians drag the lifeless body to the window, raise the sash, and throw it out. It falls with a thud upon the ground. The Duke of Guise looks at it. The face is smeared with blood. He wipes it away with a corner of the dressing-gown. “'Tis he, sure enough;” and stamps his heel into the face.

Ah! Duke of Guise, gloating over the form of the noble foe who was ever your equal in the field or in the cabinet, there will come another day. God never forgets!

One of my favourite chapters is on the brave Dutch, the Silent Man and the beggars of the sea. The siege of Leyden is perhaps the greatest story of hardship and triumph in history.

Infants starve in the arms of their mothers, and mothers drop dead in the streets, or creep away to die in some lonely place. The watchmen, as they go their rounds, find corpses everywhere. Eight thousand have died of starvation. The air is reeking with malaria, but still the people of Leyden hold out.

Pieter Ven der Werff is burgomaster. He stands in the market-place tall, haggard with hunger, worn out with watching.

There are a few faint-hearted ones. “Give up the city,” they cry.

“Would you have me surrender? I have taken my oath to hold the city. May God give me strength to keep it! Here, take my sword; plunge it into my body; divide my flesh to appease your hunger, if you will; but, God helping me, I will never surrender.”

One of the most memorable parts of the book comes near the end, where the tale of John Smith's life is told. You probably know of John Smith as a tall, sensitive blonde man from the tall, sensitive Disney film Pocahontas. John Smith was in fact a small, contumacious man with red whiskers and the kind of past GA Henty would have found unealistically thrilling. Smith resolved at an early age to be a general and adventurer, and cast down at the fact that King James had no enemies for him to fight, decided instead to travel to help Germans fight the Turks. He did not reach Germany without various thrilling adventures, then covered himself in glory as the captain of the Fiery Legion, slaying three Turkish champions in single combat. A little later, they captured him, but he escaped from slavery and, after fighting pirates on the way, managed to get home to England just in time to set out for Virginia.

The Story of Liberty is one history book without a dull moment. It can probably still be bought new—which is just as well, for I've been unable to find it in etext format.


Radagast said...

A great post! I'm with you on the instinctive shudder at books glued shut.

The Story of Liberty can be found here and elsewhere.

Jamie said...

This is the post that introduced me to your blog, so this is where I'll leave my comment!

PLEASE keep doing what you're doing! I have been searching the blog-o-sphere for months trying to find in-depth reviews of the kinds of books that I want to introduce to my children (both for school reading and for free reading), and from what I've read so far, your blog is exactly what I've wanted! Not only am I finding out more about the books already on my list, but I'm finding new ones to add. Thank you!

I am also finding books that I want to add to my personal reading list, which is already unbearably long...but how can that be a bad thing? :)

Suzannah said...

Jamie, I am so pleased that you find my blog helpful! Thank you for your very kind comment and happy reading...I hope you find my book recommendations trustworthy :). You might be especially interested in the following posts:

Should Girls Read Boys' Books?:

Books for Boys:

Books for Girls:


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