Dan Rather has seen some stuff. If current events and recent history get you down, Rather’s autobiographical examination of American history and its lessons offers an opportunity to zoom out to consider the long arc of justice as well as zoom in to see help and progress on the ground. He opens the book reminiscing about his family vacation in their ‘38 Oldsmobile back in the ‘40s, waxing nostalgic about a time in his life and a bygone era before offering this statement that is also a crux of the book:
“I know now that the country I was growing to love had its flaws. I already knew the pain of the Great Depression and would soon live through the crisis of world war. I would then go on to a career that forced me to confront the often simmering and sometimes explosive injustices of the United States; its bigotry, exploitation, callousness, and corruption. It may seem counterintuitive, but these flaws made me love my country even more.”
Artist Tim Foley uses imagery that directly ties Rather’s words to the flow of history and spirit of citizenship. Examples include protesting, helping others in a crisis, draping oneself in the American flag to feel superior, Native Americans standing in the shadow of the American flag, and a crowd drenched in red and blue stripes. While the colors red, white, and blue are used throughout, they are also signifiers of when a given issue has permeated one person or group of people and not another. Juxtaposition is also important, as when Rather discusses America’s poor decisions following the attacks of 9/11. As the text descends next to the wreckage of the World Trade Center, the words become white on black and describe progressively worse decisions America made in response. As with all thoughtful graphic novels, simply reading the words will not convey the full meaning of each page.
Each chapter of the book focuses on a general trait that, ideally, unites the American people. Each trait is viewed through the lens of Rather’s personal experience, whether from his youth or assignments as a professional reporter. The general narrative for each chapter follows a similar arc of describing a problem in America that used to be a lot worse or virtue that used to be a lot more evident, followed by describing some historical and recent examples that give Rather hope for the future. What is commendable in this rather even-keeled approach to American history, with its shame and achievement, is Rather’s humility regarding his place in it all. He acknowledges his own blind spots and lapses in judgment over the decades. He presents himself as a growing, learning person, not a finished, perfect standard everyone else must strive toward.
There’s plenty to learn from Rather, whether it’s about meeting Martin Luther King, Jr. and Medgar Evers in the ‘60s, examining how books and literacy connect Thomas Jefferson, Frederick Douglass, and Dolly Parton, or how the spirit of civic duty manifested in Rather’s day compared to now. He also covers McCarthyism, electoral populism, science deniers, artistic movements, America’s immigration policies and treatment of immigrants, and lessons in community and empathy from his modest childhood among neighbors so poor their houses didn’t have floors.
If there’s a weakness to the book, it’s repetition from Rather. True to its title, the book is always looking to make connections and speak to people’s better nature and shared principles, but that also leads to hearing non-specific calls to action with each chapter. We should all band together, look out for each other, do our best, look at the big picture, and… do something! Respect your neighbors, education, journalism, and voting rights, at the least. Vague advice, but it seems to come from the heart. There’s a lengthy afterword where Rather reiterates in text everything the graphic novel just said.
This is a wholesome accounting of American history, including anecdotes from Rather’s life and career, whether as a passive observer or active participant/reporter. The visual elements do a lot to avoid boredom or potential eyerolling at the “stories from grandpa” effect. This book is recommended for teens and older who are looking for stories of America’s promise, whether unfulfilled, under fire, or still in progress. This is a great title for personal enrichment as well as social studies collections.
What Unites Us: The Graphic Novel
By Dan Rather, Elliot Kirschner
Art by Tim Foley
First Second, 2021
NFNT Age Recommendation: Teen (13-16)