Books
12:42 pm
Thu September 4, 2008

Pocketful of History: Four Hundred Years of America?One State Quarter at a Time

James Noles is a West Point graduate and a Birmingham attorney who has created a second career for himself, not as a novelist in the now overcrowded tradition of John Grisham, but as an independent historian.

James Noles is a West Point graduate and a Birmingham attorney who has created a second career for himself, not as a novelist in the now overcrowded tradition of John Grisham, but as an independent historian. Twenty-three Minutes to Eternity, his 2004 account of the sinking of the escort carrier Liscome Bay, torpedoed by the Japanese on November 24, 1943, was thoroughly researched and very readable.

Later that year, Noles published Hearts of Dixie, short portraits of fifty Alabamians including the hugely famous like Paul Bryant and Helen Keller and the not-so-famous like Erskine Hawkins and Carrie Tuggle.

This book, A Pocketful of History, is organized very much like Hearts of Dixie. In fact there are fifty short chapters telling the story behind each of the images on the new U.S. state quarters.

The quarters have been a great success. People not only like to use them, which is more than you can say for the Sacajawea or Susan B. Anthony dollars, they keep and collect them. This is good, because unlike the penny, which costs more than a penny to make, the quarter costs only 20.2 cents to produce, so the government makes a profit on the quarters Americans keep in jars in their bedrooms. Also, there was a fortune made from the sale of silver proof coins of these state quarters to collectors. Imagine, a government project that is an unqualified financial success!

The project was carefully thought out. There were rules. State flags and seals were not allowed. No bust or head and shoulders portrait of any person, living or dead. No depiction of particular religious or other non-universal symbols.

The emphasis would be to "promote the diffusion of knowledge among the youth of the United States about the individual states, their history, geography, and the rich diversity of the national heritage." These quarters are educational!

This worked out pretty well. Designs were solicited and thousands submitted in every state. These were winnowed and, finally, usually by the governor or a committee, a winner chosen. Winning images included buffalo, mustangs, fish, mountains, flowers, the space shuttle, you name it.

Noles reports that Maine's quarter, with a rendering of the Pemaquid Point lighthouse and the three-masted schooner Victory Chimes, is thought most aesthetic. Michigan, with an outline map of the state and lakes, "most boring."

Here in Alabama, we have put Helen Keller on the state quarter. Noles tells his readers that not only was Miss Keller a genius, blind and deaf, but able to learn to read and write not only English and Braille but also French, German, Latin, and Greek. This some Alabamians knew, but Noles reminds his readers that Miss Keller was a socialist, supported Eugene Debs, fought for safer conditions in factories, favored women's suffrage, and was in support of the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War. Noles omits commentary of Keller's "private" life, but interested readers may consult the same source Noles did, Dorothy Herrmann's Helen Keller: A Life. In fact, any of these brief entries might spur a reader to more extensive exploration of the topic.

The pattern in each entry is essentially the same. The story of the Statue of Liberty on the New York coin is briefly told. For South Dakota it is the carving of the faces on Mt. Rushmore. Sometimes the reader will know this story already, sometimes not. The very first entry, Delaware, was one of my favorites. It's the story of Cesar Rodney, who, having lost the left side of his face to skin cancer, got up out of a sick bed and traveled 80 miles in the rain to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia to vote for independence. This entry, like many, was educational and inspirational.

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