Southern Illinois: An Illustrated History. By Bill Nunes. (Glen Carbon, Illinois: Bill Nunes, 2001. Pp. 286. Illustrations, maps. Paper, $20.95).
This book defies the old adage that claims you can't judge a book by its cover. Given its 8 x 12 inch size and eye-catching photo display, the cover suggests a book more appropriate for the coffee table than the dusty shelf. A photo of Charlie Birger and his gang decorates the front, along with a list of enticing contents that includes hangings, gangsters, Klan wars, massacres, and other hair-raising matter. The back cover presents colored photos of majestic natural sites and a flimsier fast-food spot. Thus even before opening the book, one expects a fun and informative rather than a laborious read, and the expectation is met from first page to last.
Nunes reinforces these expectations in the Foreword when he says that the book is "not a scholarly tome." He goes on to describe the work as "a loose collection of materials, mostly from secondary sources ... a history scrapbook, not a serious study." The scrapbook approach makes the book encyclopedic, and thus best read casually by dipping in here and there. The reader will find a balance between discussions of the sensational aspects of Southern Illinois history and those about ordinary people engaging in daily life routines. Photos, adverts, drawings, maps, or cartoons illustrate every page, helping to make the text come alive. Taken together, the information and images presented here are designed to depict Southern Illinois as a "unique region," though Nunes leaves the reader to decide what the components of that uniqueness might be.
To those accustomed to thinking of Northern Illinois as the bustling, headline-making part of the state, this book will be not only delightful but also surprising. For they will discover that what is now the relatively quiet part of the state was once home to the Illinois capital, the state's financial center, and the fastest growing city in America. In the early 19th century, the old town of Kaskaskia that is now under water was Illinois's first capital. On the Eastern-most side of Southern Illinois, merchant and trader John Marshall chartered Illinois's first bank in Shawneetown in 1816. This now nearly deserted town was known then as the financial center of Illinois. When developers from Chicago tried to obtain a loan from this bank, they were refused, because Chicago was thought of as a distant, risky place that would not be worth an investment. From 1890 to 1920, East St. Louis was America's fastest growing city and the second largest railway center in the country. These facts and many others will be eye opening to those unfamiliar with Illinois history, and will undoubtedly make readers want to know more about why the state's history has unfolded as it has.
Although described as a "loose collection," there is some logic to the book's organization, in that it starts with a section on geology and minerals, the most enduring part of a region. …