Master of Deceit by Marc Aronson

Cindy: Pair the subject of a secretive, powerful government figure with the skillful research, intriguing questions and suppositions of author and historian Marc Aronson and you are sure to have another book that will provide much to debate and discuss with high school students. Master of Deceit: J.Edgar Hoover and America in the Age of Lies (Candlewick 2012) uncovers some of Hoover’s personal secrets along with the secretive actions of the Federal Bureau of Investigation under his tenure.

In an effort to grab the attention of 20th century students who may not even recognize Hoover’s name, Aronson opens with a scenario uncovering a threat on Martin Luther King, Jr., presumably written by J. Edgar Hoover, strongly suggesting that King needs to kill himself. What? Who is this guy? But before we can understand that, the threat of communism in the 1950s needs some explication, for this guy’s story cannot be told out of context of the time in which he served. Considering that Hoover ran the FBI (under one agency name or another) from 1924 until his death in 1972, there’s significant background to weave into the text.

I won’t be joining the JEH fan club anytime soon, but Aronson does allow for an understanding of some of the problems that Hoover faced…real threats to our nation’s security. Reading about Hoover’s answer to those threats makes me think of Jack Nicholson’s line in A Few Good Men: “You want the truth? You can’t handle the truth.” And that brings us to truth. And lies. What is the truth about this enigmatic man? What influence did his mother have over his personality and career? What was Hoover’s relationship with close friend Clyde Tolson? Were Hoover’s dark complexion and features indicative of African American ancestry? Were his illegal activities warranted for the protection of our country?

Please trust me that Aronson’s book is structured better than my portion of the blog post. To say that the text is as powerful as J. Edgar Hoover himself would not be an overstatement. The connections between Hoover’s actions and our post 9/11 governmental responses are obvious and important to contemplate. As is customary in an Aronson text…he raises as many questions as he answers and he invites his respected young adult readers to research further and to puzzle out and defend their own suppositions. This is non-fiction that would hold up to some of Hoover’s toughest interrogation!

Lynn:  I am always fascinated by Marc Aronson’s writing but in Master of Deceit, he has done something particularly challenging.  First he writes about one of the most controversial figures in American history and secondly he writes about a political philosophy that is still regarded by many as an anathema to our way of life.  Bringing the light of impartial and accurate understanding to these subjects for young people today means also providing them with an understanding of the events, deep seated emotions and the climate of the time.  It is impossible to understand J. Edgar Hoover without understanding the fear that permeated the time – both the fear the prompted Hoover to think and act as he did and the fear that made his activities generally accepted.  As Aronson says in the first chapter:

But today Communism and anti-Communism are just terms that appear on tests like the Whig, Greenback or Know-Nothing parties.  Flattened out into a chronology of unfamiliar names and forgettable dates, the great dramas of the twentieth century are useless to us.  We can benefit from the story of Communism and anti-Communism only if we experience it as the people who lived it did – with passion.  Once you step inside the mind of that recent past, you will have a new tool for facing the challenges of our time.

That is what I admire most about this book.  Aronson gives young people this opportunity to step into not only the mind but the heart of the people of the time and to experience a taste of their passions and emotions.  He then allows them to examine the  relevant and deeply connected issues we are facing today with this new knowledge.  He does so with a judicious fairness that is clearly apparent.  It is not only teens who will gain from reading this outstanding book either.  I learned so much!  I do not remember the McCarthy period but I do remember the Cuban Missile Crisis and the palpable fear of Russia that we experienced at that time – and the shadowy figure of Hoover  – a figure of both fear and fascination.

The back matter for this book is extraordinary.  “How I Researched and Wrote this Book” includes so much of value to students on the research process but also a fascinating insight into the challenges of this book – especially the section on Aronson’s own fears about writing the book.  As always the documentation is exemplary and I have a whole new list of books I am eager to track down.

Anyone teaching 20th Century American history should make this required reading for their students and of course it will be outstanding for students needing biography or considering the issues of governmental control vs. individual rights in the face of  threator for someone who just wants to read an extraordinary and fascinating book.

Candlewick has a downloadable Teacher’s Guide and other resources available.

Common Core Connections

RI.9-10.1. Cite strong and thorough textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text.

Aronson asserts on page 173, “In his mad effort to protect his country, Hoover increasingly violated the most basic American rights, starting with Dr. King.”  Cite the textual evidence he provides to support this.  Can you draw additional inferences from the text.  Does he draw parallels with current events?

RH.11-12.7. Integrate and evaluate multiple sources of information presented in diverse formats and media (e.g., visually, quantitatively, as well as in words) in order to address a question or solve a problem.

In Section Two:  The War of Images, Aronson writes:  “Hoover understood that to protect himself and gain new power, he needed relentless public relations.”  Using the images provided in the book and other sources, describe how Hoover presented himself.  Would it be possible for a governmental official in today’s technology-driven world to exert similar control over public opinion through the media?  Provide examples from contemporary media to support your position.

Be sure to look at other Nonfiction Monday (at a new address) books at Check It Out.





About the Author:

Cindy Dobrez and Lynn Rutan are Booklist reviewers and middle-school librarians who have chaired both ALA’s Best Books for Young Adults and the Michael L. Printz Award for YA Literature committees. Follow Bookends on Twitter at @BookendsBlog. You can also find Cindy at @cdobrez and Lynn at @482april.

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