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Virginia History: Still more beneath the surface?

Fox took a correspondence course in writing to prepare for his chronicle, and while his narrative is straightforward, it functions best as the framework from which the personalities of soldiers, wives and historic notables like Robert E. Lee emerge. His writing is the stage on which the characters of the war tell their own stories, through letters made poignant by the writers' struggles with everything from faith to concern for their faraway homes to the language itself. While the technical detail on life in the trenches sometimes slows the narrative, the dramas that emerge from the men's own pens pull the reader forward through four years of conflict that shape the individuals and the landscape around them. — Brandon Reynolds

In her new book, "Pocahontas, Powhatan, Opechancanough: Three Lives Changed by Jamestown" (University of Virginia Press, $29.95), Helen C. Rountree sets out to counterbalance one of the great habitual limitations of history: that it is the conqueror, and not the conquered, who gets to tell the story. England's early forays to colonize Virginia at the beginning of the 17th century are no exception to this rule, as the story we've heard is almost exclusively told from the European perspective. In Rountree's book, however, she shifts this point of view on its axis, telling the same story of forts, trades, treaties, wars and the clash of cultures with fundamentally different language. The brave colonists become needy intruders; the bands of hostile savages become an organized and culturally sound nation of people; and so forth.

Rountree, professor emerita at Old Dominion University, manages to flesh out and portray more fully the normally caricatured figures of Chief Powhatan and his favorite daughter, Pocahontas. She also illuminates the slightly lesser-known Chief Opechancanough, one of Powhatan's successors, who led his people through decades of warring with the English, and after whose death the native people of the region were finally subjugated to British rule.

The book is exceptionally thorough, and by combining the more traditional approach of scouring through historical documents with her anthropological eye, the result is a history that is impressionistic in its accuracy and concludes with a resounding sense of completeness. — Hutch Hill

In his latest biography, "Strength and Honor: The Life of Dolley Madison" (Corinthian Books, $29.95), author Richard N. C“té follows first lady Dolley Madison from her Quaker childhood through her marriage to fellow Quaker John Todd and details her eventual transformation after his death into the glamorous, socially deft helpmate of the fourth president, James Madison. While C“té admits to a fascination with his subject, the effusive praise he lavishes on her at every turn suggests a complete bewitchment.

Rich in detail and thoroughly researched, "Strength and Honor" delivers a vivid picture of American society and politics in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. C“té aptly describes Quaker society, plantation life in Virginia and early Washington intrigue. Dolley's loyalty and affection for the president, her ability to welcome and interact graciously with people from many countries and stations in life, and her demonstrated courage in the face of danger earn her a place of honor among early first ladies. However, C“té's compulsion to glorify everything about Dolley, including her decision to save her red velvet drapes over other White House treasures when she fled the British during the War of 1812, only serves to spotlight her questionable choices and actions, few though they might be, and muddies an otherwise readable book. — Mary Mullins

Carol Berkin zooms in on pivotal and everyday heroics in "Revolutionary Mothers: Women in the Struggle for America's Independence" (Knopf, $24). In a detached but scrupulous voice, Berkin shines a spotlight on the role of women in colonial America while setting the stage for the women's suffrage movement that rode in on the skirt tails of the Revolutionary War.

Berkin begins her careful history into the heretofore underdeveloped side of the Revolution by debunking the few tales that we have heard again and again. She unmasks the true story of Molly Pitcher and reveals that Betsy Ross was never the humble seamstress we were led to believe. While downplaying these mostly make-believe characters, Berkin gives center stage to the African-American, Native American, Loyalist and Revolutionary women who affected the outcome of the war and the lives of all those around them.

Told through anecdotes and excerpted letters and diaries, "Revolutionary Mothers" fills in gaps for half of the American population while tempering and augmenting the annals of the Revolutionary War. — Valley Haggard

Newly published for the nationwide series "Images of America," (Arcadia Publishing, $19.99 each) are two Virginia history books by author Dale Paige Talley, "Hanover County" and "Ashland." Packed with more than 200 vintage photographs, quick captions and diary entries, Talley explores Virginia's regional history in a manner that is never intimidating and is easily digestible. — V.H.

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