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Dave Wood's Book Report, Sept. 9, 2009

What is "Alternate History"?

It's not reinterpretation of historical facts as we have come to understand them. That's been around for a long time.

Critics who say that the world would have been better off without Churchill, that Franklin D. Roosevelt goofed in his support of Chiang Kai-Shek. There's plenty of that stuff around and has been for years.

Alternate History, however, is something relatively new. I well recall the first alternate history I ever read. It was a novel. Fiction. And it opened with the appearance of U.S. President Kennedy.

This President Kennedy turned out not to be John F. but his father Joseph Kennedy, the bootlegger and former Ambassador to the Court of St. James. He was U.S. president because Hitler had won World War II. A perfect match.

That's what alternate history is. Fictionalized accounts of what would have happened if something that didn't occur in history had actually occurred in history.

One of the masters of this kinky genre is Harry Turtledove, winner of the Sidewise Award, the "Pulitzer" of alternative history.

In his new outing "Hitler's War" (Ballantine/DelRay, $27), Turtledove posits another "what if" question.

What if Neville Chamberlain had refused to sign the 1938 Munich Accord, ceding the Sudetenland to Germany? Would Hitler have gone right to war with an unprepared army? Or would he have succeeded even more brilliantly in the first year --or the last -- of World War II?

Turtledove employs techniques of the popular historian (William Manchester, books like "The Longest Day") to tell his story. Vignettes of Spanish Civil War participants on both sides, the big shots, the guys in the trenches.

This is a fascinating look at history from its hidden underbelly.

The books reminded me of a recent talk show program in which the moderator said he thought it was ridiculous to say that the most important thing that happened 40 years ago was our trip into space.

He said that in the same year, Ted Kennedy drove his car and Mary Jo Kopechne off the bridge into the Chappaquidick River.

His reasoning? Had Kennedy not had that tragedy, he may very well have been elected president, we would have stayed out of Iraq and we would have had a viable national health care system by now.

The University of Minnesota Press is out with a book of a type they seldom do. It's a reprint of "The Wily Woodchucks," by Georgia Travers, Flavia Gag, illustrator ($14.95 cloth).

"Woodchucks" is a children's book originally published in 1949.

So why publish it again? Part of it has to do with the author and illustrator. Georgia Travers was a prominent children's author and also the author of the biography of Wanda Gag, the famous New Ulm illustrator.

And the illustrator was Gag's younger sister. This reprint is part of the Fesler-Lampert Minnesota Heritage Book Series, devoted to reprinting books that enhance understanding and appreciation of Minnesota and the Upper Midwest.

The topic of the book strikes home as my neighbor Howie and I battle the squirrels and rabbits who ravage our gardens.

The characters in Travers' book are two New Jersey woodchucks Pudgy and Charles who have their way with a New Jersey family's beautiful garden. The family puts up barriers, Pudgy and Charles find ways to get around them and grow fatter and fatter. What is the family, made up of four characters, Wanda and her husband Earle, Flavia and her husband Howard, to do?

I know what I would have done, but the Gag girls are much more civilized and humane than that. In a surprise ending, the problem gets worse, rather than better and maybe that's why this is judged an important book because it it gives added meaning to the term "Minnesota Nice."

Dave would like to hear from you. Phone him at (715) 426-9554.