*Land of Hope by Wilfred McClay

Land of Hope offers a balanced, positive, and often inspiring view of American history–now available in student workbook, teacher’s guide, and young-reader editions!

*Land of Hope: an Invitation to the Great American Story by Wilfred McClay.  Encounter Books, 2019, 429 pages +bibliography and index

Note: This review was originally posted July 4, 2021.

Reading Level: Teen, ages 16-up

Recommended for: teens and adults

The story of America begins long before the discovery of America.  Throughout history, “the west” has held a peculiar hold on cultured imaginations: a place for starting over or ending well, for building or recovering some lost ideal.  Atlantis, Utopia, and the Elysian Fields were hopeful myths that actually began to come true on that October day in 1492 when a Spanish sailor serving under an Italian captain first sighted land. 

Over the last 50 years the study of American history has become fragmented, highly politicized, and toxic, with Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the United States a well-known example.  Zinn’s bitter socialist take on America has become a standard text in many high schools and colleges, making the need for a balanced, positive history of our country all the more urgent.

“History always begins in the middle of things,” writes Professor Wilfred McClay in this new, wide-focus biography of the United States.  American history begins not only with the scattered native settlements dating back some 20-30,000 years.  More significantly, it begins with unsettling trends in Europe that bred disruption, invention, reformation, education, and exploration.  The quick overview of the unsettlement in Europe that led to settlement in America is an appropriate setup to the rest of the story.  The narrative approach employed by Prof. McClay is not merely a series of events but a series of ideas that drove the settling and eventual founding of a new nation. 

With so much ground to cover, details pass in a blur.  After a whole chapter of events leading up to the Revolutionary War, the war itself takes only six pages.  Ten pages describe the less dramatic but more significant evolution of our constitutional government, followed by four pages on the institution of slavery, our “original sin.”  Since all of American history, for some, has come to revolve around American injustices, the author provides some valuable perspective: “. . . it would be profoundly wrong to contend, as some do, that the United States was ‘founded on’ slavery . . .”

No, it was founded on other principles entirely, on principles of liberty and self-rule that had been discovered and defined and refined and enshrined through the tempering effects of several turbulent centuries of European and British and American history.  Those foundational principles would win out in the end, though not without much struggle and striving, and eventual bloodshed.  The United States enjoyed a miraculous birth, but it was not the product of an unstained conception and an untroubled delivery.  Few things are.

Prof. McClay writes with an elegant style and draws some breathtaking concept arcs.  That said, the pages and pages of text (no in-text pictures, except for maps) can be intimidating for the average high-schooler.   A moderate amount of illustration and charts would have provided some further illumination, but 24 pages of color portraits and photographs are bound into the middle.  Those who already love history will love this.  It may be more of a challenge for newbies, but if you’re looking for a standard American history that explores our faults as well as our “Great American Story,” Land of Hope is well worth the price. 

Cautions: None

Overall rating: 5 (out of 5)

  • Worldview/moral value: 5
  • Artistic value: 5

Note: Since this review was published, Land of Hope is now available as a student workbook, a teacher’s guide, and a Young-Reader edition.

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Janie Cheaney

Janie is the VERY senior staff writer for Redeemed Reader, as well as a long-time contributor to WORLD Magazine and an author of nine books for children. The rest of the time she's long-distance smooching on her four grandchildren (not an easy task). She lives with her equally senior husband of almost-fifty years in the Ozarks of Missouri.

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  1. Betsy Farquhar on July 8, 2019 at 12:35 pm

    Thanks, Janie! I ordered it and am thrilled with this book as a “history spine” for my own kids in their history studies (7th/8th grade this coming year). It will be a challenge for them, but the book is easy to break up into shorter readings and will complement some of the other books we’re reading nicely. We will only do half of the book in a school year; older students could do the entire book over a school year. Highly recommend it!

  2. Gina Shatney on August 6, 2019 at 5:36 pm

    I’m glad you shared this and I’m planning to use with my 9th grade homeschooler, reading along with him so we can discuss it. If anyone hears of someone coming up with assignments to go along with it, please share! Otherwise I’ll be designing my own as we go!

    • Ruth @ Great Book Study on January 20, 2021 at 9:24 am

      I know you asked this in 2019, but in case you return to this comment, know that Hillsdale College uses this book in conjunction with their free online history course called: The Great American Story: A Land of Hope.

  3. Kay on July 5, 2021 at 4:16 am

    There is a teachers guide and a student workbook both on Amazon. I highly recommend this book!

    • Janie Cheaney on July 5, 2021 at 4:51 am

      Thanks, Kay–I heard that student materials were coming, but they weren’t available at the time of this review. They are definitely welcome.

  4. Danielle on November 13, 2022 at 7:43 pm

    I am very interested in this book for next year’s history for my homeschool high school. I’m also looking at Thomas Kidd’s American History vol. 1. Would you suggest one over the other?

    • Betsy Farquhar on November 14, 2022 at 4:56 am

      Hi Danielle, That is a great question! (I’ll copy this to your comment on American History, too!) I’ll do my best since I’ve read both books, and both are excellent choices. I’ve only read/seen Kidd’s combined American History (one giant volume), but I think the same considerations apply since Land of Hope is “complete” and you’d need more than volume 1 of Kidd’s to make it complete: one consideration is price/availability. Land of Hope is cheaper. Another consideration is length: Land of Hope is much shorter than Kidd’s American History. That means that Kidd includes more details (lots more!). Neither is better than the other; it depends on whether you want an overview or want to drill down into the depths. Both have their merit. Another consideration is that Kidd intentionally looks at the role religion has played in American history, which means he covers more Christians than McClay does. McClay isn’t anti-Christian by any means, it’s just not a focus of his history. Both are pro-America, but McClay is a bit more overtly patriotic/hopeful in his tone. Kidd includes more people of color and looks more at the role race has played in American history, but neither book looks at history through a CRT lens. Kidd’s book is more textbook-y, both in layout and in tone: there are headings throughout the chapter and more visuals in general, but McClay’s is more literary in style and probably easier to read. In general, I’d say McClay’s is more accessible to the average high school student, but if you want a bit more heft and more details, than Kidd’s might be a better choice. If you’re planning to pair your history spine with additional titles (such as biographies), you may prefer McClay’s because it IS shorter and less comprehensive. I hope that helps! Both are expensive enough that it’s hard to justify buying both “just to see,” but I believe you can “look inside” the books on amazon; that will give you a feel for the style and level of writing. Both are excellent options, and I own both ;-).

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