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Dave Wood's Book Report, Aug. 27, 2008

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Attention Civil War aficionados!

"Dixie Betrayed," by David J. Eicher (Little, Brown, $27.95) turns the tables on the old saws about the gallant men of the Confederacy, their patrician values, their bravery. The whole Ashley Wilkes syndrome, if you get my meaning.

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Eicher, a Milwaukeean says no. And he brings to bear meticulous research revealing that the North didn't best the South with superior strength and resources.

Eicher claims the South did much to undermine its own cause. He takes President Jefferson Davis for playing favorites with incapable generals, for being so unpopular with some Southern states that those states wanted to secede from the secession!

Many of the Confederate politicians, he says, were drunks or so idealistic they'd sacrifice success on the field for some outworn concept of bravery. While the war raged on and rebels went underfed and under armed, the politicians spent much of their time arguing about whether or not the Confederacy needed a supreme court. It all gives the lie to "Gone with the Wind" and other popular novels and histories about one of America's bloodiest wars.

Let's turn our attention to the north in the great conflict. "Copperheads," by Jennifer L. Weber (Oxford University Press, $16.95 paper) has just been re-issued. Weber, a University of Kansas historian tells the story of the faction in the North that was anti-war, Democrats history calls copperheads. They weren't all bad. Some were simply racists, but others were liberals who reviled Lincoln for suspending habeas corpus.

Not many people from my hometown of Whitehall, Wis., have become authors. The most famous -- and not too famous at that -- was Everett Long, the Civil War historian and colleague of Bruce Catton, who wrote a "Day to Day History of the Civil War," back in the 1960s, but he left town a year before I was born. The other author was Dan Camp, first publisher of the local newspaper, who Professor Merle Curti called "the Mark Twain of western Wisconsin."

So I was eager to read Whitehall's newest author, a young woman not far removed from Whitehall High School, who has managed to travel the world in search of wisdom.

She's now imparted it in a lovely little book, chockfull of quotes and color photography. (Don't worry! She's no relation to me.)

In "The Journey of Life" (Channel Trade Editions, $16.95 cloth), Sharon K. Sobotta, who is the Director of the Women's Resource Center at St. Mary's College of California, tells the story of her early life in Whitehall, where her father was the school janitor, her mother an elementary teacher.

Her home ec teacher, Mrs. Thorsbakken, encouraged Sobotta to enter the Kikkoman Soy Sauce Essay Contest. Guess what? She won a trip to Japan.

She has been traveling ever since and as she travels she picks up good advice, which accounts for the book's subtitle, "100 Lessons from Around the World."

Sobotta is nothing if not eclectic. On page 98, she quotes Anne Nelson, a Scot who married a fellow from Whitehall, who died and left her there. She's philosophical. Anne says "Bloom where you are planted. Vow to make the best of your life, no matter what geographical location you are in." I happen to know Anne Nelson and that's what she has done since her husband's death.

On page 154, Sobotta travels to Cuba and runs in to Fidel Castro. He gives her a thought-provoking quote, which in part says "I'm concerned about the overflow of advertisements in the U.S. teaching people to look for happiness in goods that they don't have the means to obtain.

We live in a world where 70 percent of the people do not know how to read or write, where four-fifths of the people are malnourished and where 5 percent of the people use 25 percent of the world's resources.

If everyone in China decided to consume resources at that rate, we'd have a global crisis."

Oh and there's more. A Roman Catholic nun from Whitehall, movie producer Michael Moore of Flint, Mich, Buddhists, insurance salespersons, a raft of people.

And it all began with Kikkoman's soy sauce.

Dave Wood is a past vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle and former book review editor of the Minneapolis Star Tribune. E-mail him at wood8722@sbcglobal.net.

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