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Saturday, January 2, 2016

Most Dangerous: Daniel Ellsberg and The Secret History of the Vietnam War, by Steve Sheinkin. Roaring Brook Press, Macmillan. Raincoast. 2015. $22.99 ages 12 and up

"They came to California to ruin
a man. Not to kill him, not literally.
But the next best thing.
On a summer day in 1971, two men
in wigs and glasses strolled along a
sunny sidewalk in Los Angeles. One
had a black mustache and walked with
a limp. The other carried a camera on a
strap over his shoulder.
They stopped in front of a three-story
building of brick and glass ... "

As he has done so brilliantly in previous books, Steve Sheinkin takes a complex political story and has it read like an adventure - just the kind of book he wanted to read when he was a kid. His research is exemplary and his interpretation of all that he has learned makes for the best kind of nonfiction. It is a book worth sharing, believe me!

Every scene is fraught with intrigue, information and insight. I started reading it on the plane on my way to Victoria and finished it that evening, once I had spent time with family and returned to my suite. As soon as I got home, I passed it to my son who had enjoyed reading Bomb: The Race to Steal the World's Most Dangerous Weapon (2012). Our response was the same to both: admiration, awe and renewed awareness. Pretty amazing stuff!

Daniel Ellsberg worked as a government analyst during the Vietnam War era, spent two years in Vietnam, and came back a changed man. He no longer believed that the Americans had a place there. He became an antiwar activist, after learning the truth about what was truly happening there and not being shared with the American people. Finally, in an act that many called treason (whistle-blowing), he released a copy of the Pentagon Papers, a secret government document detailing the truth about the war and the lies that had been perpetuated through the tenure of four presidents and over a period of twenty-three years. It was explosive, leading to the Watergate Scandal, the resignation of Richard Nixon, and the end of the war in Vietnam. Heady, indeed!

Even yet, it begs questions of government that need to be asked. Can we trust our elected officials? How do we know what is really happening behind closed doors? How much should be kept secret? It is a timely topic.

The strength of his writing comes from compiling the tremendous amount of research done (thirty-six pages of bibliography and source notes, and excellence in choosing the archival photos to include) into a highly emotional and eminently readable story that makes history come alive for his readers. It is divided into three sections, includes a list of almost 100 people who played a central role, is told chronologically to full effect, and ends with an epilogue suggesting that Ellsberg's 'treason' is in direct relation to security leaks made by Edward Snowden. Hopefully, it will elicit discussion in classrooms and at home. 

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