The editors, close friends, compiled the book as a result of insights acquired on a long train trip when they told anecdotes of their own experiences growing up. As they learned how different their youths had been, they began to understand the range of attitudes and differences in character and outlook that they had noted in one another. Finding the experience fascinating, the editors decided to compile a book that would be “not a studious collection” but “a sampler” of youthful experiences recounted in autobiographies of a wide range of Americans.
Deliberately choosing selections on the basis of the emotional impact and action level of the accounts, rather than on the fame of the subject, the editors succeeded in producing a collection that is very readable and entertaining. They have avoided frequently anthologized autobiographies such as Benjamin Franklin’s in favor of more obscure, but compelling accounts from some lesser-known lives. (Helen Keller and Mark Twain are represented, however; the book does not exclude more well known subjects.)
American history comes to life in these vividly written first-person accounts. The young fur trader, lost in the Michigan woods, gives a powerful and concrete sense of the conditions of life on the frontier and of the mutual respect between Native Americans and whites in his situation. Douglass’ account of his brutal treatment as a slave and writer Opie Read’s account of the divided...
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On Our Way should appeal to contemporary young readers in two ways: It presents the American past in unusually vivid and concrete terms, as it was actually lived, and it shows the universality of certain themes and concerns in everyone’s life. The young Gurdon Saltonstall Hubbard facing death in the frontier wilderness, Eddie Foy stumbling through the smoke and flames of the Great Chicago Fire clutching his screaming infant brother, Frederick Douglass desperately trying to survive efforts to “break” him—all these accounts and others like them make periods in United States history that might have seemed abstract suddenly quite immediate. The na-tion’s past is full of real people dealing with their own particular sets of challenges and disasters. On Our Way makes history come alive.
The book is interesting not only as history but also as psychology. Its accounts should interest students as they read of these young people having the same doubts and the same dreams of success that they experience themselves. The book also invites comparison with contemporary life. Family patterns, for example, have changed in some ways, yet in others they remain the same. One could also ask whether African Americans continue to face the stereotypes and prejudices that Hughes describes, or whether a farm boy could still move into major league baseball with the remarkable speed that Feller did in the 1930’s. The book might lead young readers to look more closely at their own experiences and could even be a springboard to their writing short autobiographies of their own, finding and describing similarly “defining experiences” from their own lives.