April 13, 2014

Secrets Underground: North America's Buried Past

by Elizabeth MacLeod
Annick Press
88 pp.
Ages 9+
February, 2014

I love a good mystery.  So when multiple mysteries are presented in a single tome, even if it is non-fiction (something I tend to review less), then I'm a happy reader.  Elizabeth MacLeod is an accomplished author of non-fiction for young people but she excels at historical mysteries, as demonstrated by the success of her Royal Murder: The Deadly Intrigue of Ten Sovereigns (Annick, 2008) and Bones Never Lie: How Forensics Help Solve History's Mysteries (Annick, 2013).  Secrets Underground: North America's Buried Past can easily be added to that collection of intriguing historical secrets.

Secrets Underground: North America's Buried Past delves underground (literally) to explore caves, tunnels, accidentally and deliberately buried treasures and terrors, and other spaces that hide a history of who we are as people and what we have done.  The stories take us from Mexico, to California, West Virginia, and New York, to Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, spanning from the 1500's to the 1900's.  (I suspect a second volume could easily extend both the time period and the locations, perhaps even focusing exclusively on Canada, if so chosen.)

The first section, "Hidden Temples", examines the Aztec city of Tenochtitlán which was established in the 1300's and was led by Moctezuma at the time of Cortés and the Spanish conquistadors arrival in the 1500's.  With the massacres of the Aztecs and the destruction of their temples and other buildings, Cortés proceeded to cover the ruins with the new, Mexico City.  It wasn't until 1978 that an electrical worker revealed an artifact that lead to the unearthing of Tenochtitlán.  "Buried Sailing Ships" reveals the grand sailing ships abandoned and buried beneath landfill in San Francisco, while "The War Beneath" tells of massive power converters and a president's possible train car hidden during WWII.  The two secrets from West Virginia reveal a cave of great value to the Confederate side during the American Civil War (1861-1865) and extensive fall-out shelters ready for any eventuality during the Cold War.  The single Canadian story, "Gangsters Belowground" demonstrates that underground tunnels, initially used for warm travel-ways, found multiple uses as a refuge for Chinese workers and the means to smuggle prohibited alcohol and evade capture by authorities during Prohibition in 1918-1933.

These six exposés are enhanced by further information in the form of a timeline, resources for further reading, and recommendations for visits to relevant sites.  Rounding out this well-organized book of non-fiction are countless well-captioned photographs, intriguing tidbits in sidebars and information boxes, and an inviting and informative graphic design. 

As any book of history, Secret Underground: North American's Buried Past has the compelling nature of secrets uncovered.  But, beyond the curiosity factor, these "secrets" have shaped our present and will perhaps shape our future, especially if we look at these Secrets Underground as potential for learning. It also brings into question the ethical dilemma of choosing between the past and the present: should contemporary structures be dismantled or even destroyed to allow excavation of historical treasures, or should secrets underground remain underground?  Elizabeth MacLeod puts forth these questions, as well as the answers others may have chosen, but she never judges the choices made, just puts them out there for discussion, as a true objective storyteller of non-fiction should.

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