Rebels through the ages

4th October 1996 at 01:00
Revolution Series

The American Revolution, By R G Grant. The French Revolution, By Adrian Gilbert. 1848: Year of Revolution, By R G Grant. The Easter Rising, By Richard Killeen. The Russian Revolution, By Adrian Gilbert. Revolution in Europe 1989, By Patrick Burke Wayland Pounds 9.99 each

An ambitious series on revolution impresses Sean Lang.

What would Lenin have made of the anti-communist revolution that swept eastern Europe in 1989, itself the bicentenary year of the French Revolution? How would the rebels of 1916 have regarded the modern IRA? What, indeed, do such disparate characters as the aristocratic George Washington, the ruthless but fastidious Robespierre, the romantic idealist Garibaldi or the determined electrician Lech Walesa have in common that they should all feature in a series on revolutions for lower secondary schools?

Clearly, this is an ambitious project. Each book deals with a particular example of revolution, starting with a rare thing indeed: a balanced and accurate account of the American War of Independence. It was a civil war as much as anything, and the book shows that the question of whether or not it constituted a revolution depended largely on whether or not you were black.

Adrian Gilbert's clear guide to the French Revolution matches this for balance and objectivity. He explains clearly the ideals of the Rights of Man that the French were trying to establish, but he points clearly to the dreadful price they were required to pay.

Parisians faced the guillotine, but in the provinces methods were clumsier and more brutal: at Lyon suspects were blown apart by cannon fire, at Nantes they were packed and chained into barges and drowned.

Just as brutal, for all their idealism and optimism, were the European revolutions of 1848. In the street fighting in Paris people were put up against a wall and shot if their ears smelt of gunpowder - it was taken as proof that they had fired a gun. These events are complex enough for A-level candidates, so this clear presentation for younger children is something of a tour de force.

Equally vivid is Richard Killeen's account of the 1916 Easter Rising, though with a smaller-scale event to recount than the others in the series, he might have given a bit more space to the backgound to the conflict. This is done well in the volume on the Russian Revolution, which also takes the story forward to the Civil War, the New Economic Policy and the death of Lenin.

Patrick Burke's volume on the revolutions of 1989 in a way finishes that story, and he points out that these revolutions were unusual in that they sought to overturn a "new" system in favour of one already established. Or, as one Polish worker put it, "40 years of socialism, and there's still no toilet paper!"

The overall quality of production is extremely high. The books are well laid out, with a clear typeface and with useful glossaries and indexes at the back.

Well-chosen documentary extracts are presented in separate boxes to underline their importance, and illustrations are colourful, beautifully reproduced and frequently unfamiliar.

Perhaps inevitably for the topics they deal with, the language level is occasionally demanding, but each book carries practical suggestions for follow-up work for both children and adults. Since, as the books themselves point out, we are all living with the consequences of these revolutions, this is a valuable series that school libraries can hardly afford to ignore.

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