Harry Truman’s Excellent Adventure by Matthew Algeo

My claim to fame is being the first student at my high school to earn a score of 1 on the AP History test. Before you congratulate me, you should know that the scale is 1-5: 5 being the best. I’m pretty sure my 1 was cemented by the grader when I completely invented my own war to write about for the second essay…

Social studies has always been a challenging subject for me. The thing is: I’m interested in the subject. I really am! I would listen to my AP History teacher (in my opinion the best teacher at my high school) and become completely enraptured by the story. I listened, participated, and nodded in agreement, copying down every inch of his flowcharts. I’d host study parties where we’d pour over our notes, and summarize Mr. Richards’ lectures day by day. But sitting down to take the test, it was like a completely different subject. I just couldn’t remember the ins and outs of each act, who passed it, and in what year. I couldn’t explain the ramifications of a particular war on a particular population; the terms and details just slipped my mind.

I used to talk online with this guy from London (don’t ask… we somehow played a game of online Pictionary together late at night once, and an e-friendship began). It was just plain embarrassing how much more American history he knew than I did. Then, when he asked what year of high school Americans took British history, I felt like such a doofus…

My sophomore year of college, I took another history class. This one also featured essay tests, and I pulled many late nights studying pile after pile of flashcards. I managed a B in that class (one of three B’s I got in college).

I think the issue is that I just have no retention for this stuff. I swear, every time I hear about a historical event, it’s like the first time. But, I’ve realized in my adult life, that one of the best ways for me to learn about history is through literature. When I read a historical novel, and tie the events to characters and plotlines, it makes the story more real to me. In college, after reading Snowflower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See, I ended up researching and writing a whole paper on the Chinese traditions of foot-binding. My Faith Club just finished reading A Lineage of Grace by Francine Rivers, which was PERFECT for me, because it told the stories of the five women in the lineage of Christ in five novellas.

For this reason, I’m making more of an effort to read about history. I think it’s important, and I look forward to learning more about becoming a more educated American citizen. And, all of this brings me to my review of the title:

This past month, for my book group, we read Harry Truman’s Excellent Adventure: The True Story of a Great American Road Trip by Matthew Algeo. This is really Algeo’s memoir of his re-creation of Harry and Bess Truman’s cross-country trip from Independence, MO to Washington, D.C. and New York the year after Harry’s presidency culminated. Harry thought that he and Bess could travel, by car, with zero security, and achieve anonymity. Well, he was wrong. But Algeo tells the story of how the Trumans tried. Algeo has received some flack for this text; people saying it wasn’t necessary to stay in every hotel, eat every meal, and drive every road identical to Harry’s trip.

However, I thought it was kinda cute. Here’s Matt Algeo, total history geek–I’ll bet he did well on the AP test–following in the footsteps of one of his historical icons, Harry Truman. (I picture Algeo being like the tour guide I had in London, who seemed to be so interested in Jack the Ripper, that maybe he thought he really was Jack the Ripper.)

Algeo intersperses a triad of details from his own trip, from the Trumans’ trip, and historical context of the 1950s. The three facets keep the story moving, and kept me interested. (Of course, it didn’t hurt that I was like: “McCarthyism?? That happened at the same time as Truman, what????” I told you. It’s pathetic.)

As a Midwesterner, I enjoyed hearing about Algeo and Truman’s experiences driving across Highway 36, a journey I know well from traveling back and forth from Kirksville to KC for many years. I also identified with Truman’s Midwestern values, and enjoyed the details about the Truman home and library that I’ve visited many (oh, so many) times over the years.

Harry Truman’s Excellent Adventure is a worthy read, and Algeo has convinced me to read a second of his books: The President is a Sick Man: Wherein the Supposedly Virtuous Grover Cleveland Survives a Secret Surgery at Sea and Villifies the Courageous Newspaperman who Dared Expose the Truth.