Steven Mintz - Huck's Raft: A History of American Childhood

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400 Years of American Childhood: "Huck's Raft" is Essential Reading

May 8, 2006
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Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:Debunks myths about "traditional" childhood; well-researched, wide-ranging topics; compelling reading, strong style...

Cons:Will lead you to further research--but there's not much out there on the topic!

The Bottom Line: Steven Mintz guides us through 400 years of the History of American Childhood.


Once again, NPR's interviews come through for me with a stellar book recommendation. Some of the the best books I've read over the last few years have come after hearing interviews with the authors on various NPR programs, and "Huck's Raft" is the latest. Steven Mintz's 2005 book about the history of childhood in America is the most comprehensive book I've read on the topic, and as an American history teacher and as a guy who probably thinks a little too much about his own childhood and that of his children, it was a real eye-opener.

We tend to assume that everyone had a childhood like we did. If you grew up in the 1970's, like me, you assume (wrongly) that your parents and grandparents had similar experiences. Sure, they didn't have the quality TV we had, but they would have been brought up the same way, right? Wrong. Mintz goes back to the very beginnings of the United States, and devotes roughly one chapter per generation to each generation between them and us.

The seventeen chapters provide insight into what it was like to be a child through primary sources: journals, letters, and diaries that have been left behind. From the Puritans, who usually viewed their children as miniature adults in need of strict discipline, to the children of the 1990's, who were given more "laissez faire" treatment, Mintz approaches childhood as a topic worthy of academic study, where most historians have neglected their stories as a part of history.

At times, Mintz splits his study--he separates the chapter about colonial life into the childhood of Native Americans, Europeans, and African American slaves, because childhood would have been very different for each group. As the march through time progresses, Mintz returns again to the subject of minorities, and how their life would be different from that of white Americans, who receive the bulk of the attention in the book. Chapter Five is all about slave children in the 19th Century from the 1830's through the 1860's.

The most interesting chapters for me were about the conditions from 1880 through about 1920, with increasing immigration and urbanization creating horrific conditions in the cities for children and their parents. One of the most interesting things I read was that most of the children on the streets at that time (or in the poorly regulated orphanages) weren't children without parents--they were children whose parents had to push them out of the home and onto the streets, because the parents couldn't take care of them. Such heartbreaking details crop up in nearly every chapter of "Huck's Raft"...and as readers we realize that no matter when we grow up, we have it easier than earlier generations, but also face new challenges.

Education is a topic that comes up again and again in "Huck's Raft," and it's interesting to read about the state of education before the 20th Century, and the changes in public schooling over the last hundred years. Segregation, testing, busing, and Title IX legislation are all relatively new developments, and as a teacher, I found that history of education interesting and enlightening.

I loved the final chapters of Mintz's book, both because it covered territory more familiar to my own life and because it didn't gloss over the problems confronting today's children. The spate of school shootings six years ago is discussed, as is the hyper-sexualization of today's "tweens." The isolation of today's children is introduced, with the causes (single-child families, "stranger-danger," technology as an interface for communication) and effects of this isolation being a major factor separating the 21st Century child from their predecessors.

If you're an educator, a historian, or someone interested in how your ancestors may have lived, "Huck's Raft" will make for interesting reading. You can read it chapter by chapter, use the index to look for interesting topics, or read it in time periods. It's a fascinating topic that's been virtually untouched by most historians--and yet it's one that has the ability to affect us all. "Huck's Raft" is essential reading. If you've ever been a child, have children, or have met children in passing, read it. It will open your eyes.


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