Author: Shane White
Links: Amazon|Indiebound |Goodreads
Summary: My best nonfiction read so far this year, this author won me over with his enthusiasm and ability to share uncertainty in an honest and engaging way.
Jeremiah G. Hamilton was, as the subtitle says, the first black millionaire in America. He was also one of the first millionaires in America without qualification, despite incredible racial prejudice at the time. Living in NYC during the abolition of slavery, followed by a period with Jim Crow-style codified discrimination, he still managed to survive and even thrive in the cutthroat world of Wall Street. His involvement in business, trade, real estate, and newspapers makes his life story a fascinating look at a turbulent time in American history.
I’ve read several engaging nonfiction books recently that have left me wanting better citations, such as Devil in the White City, and books like The Witches that haven’t managed to handle uncertainty in an engaging way. This book was an incredible contrast, because the author handled these things perfectly. Every section, from his intro note describing his research process to the sections where he discussed unknowns in Hamilton’s life, were infused with his enthusiasm for the topic. This kept things exciting even when he had to go into the gritty details of what was known and what was conjecture. It made me feel excited to be part of his research process. I’ve never wanted to write a nonfiction book before, but reading about his experience made me want to.
I think the author made some other very wise decisions. The first was that he didn’t try to portray Hamilton as a saint (which may have been hard to do!), but he did make it clear that his shadier business dealings were very much in keeping with the the times. I felt as though the story was a fair portrayal of a complex individual.
The second important decision the author made was to not tie himself too tightly to Hamilton’s story. Although the chapters were generally chronological in Hamilton’s life, the author wandered far afield, tackling a bigger topic connected to Hamilton’s life in each chapter. This could have been an organizational nightmare, but the author kept me interested in every chapter, gave me a greater understanding of the time period, and stayed firmly anchored in Hamilton’s story. I never felt lost and loved learning about everything from fires set by slaves to how the stock market and newspapers operated in the 1800’s. I’d highly recommend it, so I’m very excited to be able to offer a giveaway (US only) from the publisher today 🙂