Book Review: ‘A New History of Iowa’ by Jeff Bremer
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Book Review: ‘A New History of Iowa’ by Jeff Bremer 1

“History doesn’t repeat itself,” the saying goes, “Historians repeat each other.” There’s some truth in that, but the bigger truth is that most people just repeat whatever version of history they learn in school, seldom venturing far beyond what they learned in a general survey course. (Many LV readers may be exceptions to that rule, but the rule remains valid.) Specific details fade as time passes, exact dates drop away, but the general shape of the story that was told remains and goes on to shape how a person views the world and their place in it. That’s why a text like Jeff Bremer’s A

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New History of Iowa is so important.

Published in September by the University of Kansas Press, it’s the first comprehensive general history of the state published in almost 30 years, and it greatly expands the story of the state. Not just in the extra decades it covers — the text goes through from the peoples in what became Iowa prior to European contact to the end of 2020 — but also in the stories and perspectives it includes.

Bremer, an assistant professor of history at Iowa State University, follows the path taken by Dorothy Schwieder, the author of the previous general history, Iowa: The Middle Land. That book, published in 1996, greatly expanded the range of stories it told to give the reader some understanding of Iowa as a state with diversity well beyond any American Gothic-tinted stereotype of Iowa being a land of nothing but white farmers. (Although Iowa: The Middle Land doesn’t mention it, Schwieder played a part in that history herself. She was the first woman to become a professor of history at ISU.)

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In part because so much work has been done by other scholars in the intervening decade and in part because he is a careful and thorough historian, Bremer offers an even fuller picture of varieties of people and events in the more than 300 years his book covers.

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“Many familiar topics and people appear — such as the Black Hawk War, the Amana Colonies, Annie Wittenmyer, the Cow War, and the Farm Crisis of the 1980s,” Bremer said in a Q&A with ISU’s Center for Excellence in the Arts and Humanities. “A New History of Iowa also includes less well-known topics, such as the Anti-Monopoly Party, Meskwaki code talkers, Iowa’s CCC camps, Des Moines’ branch of the Black Panther Party, and 19th-century Chinese immigration.”

Sitting down to read a wide-ranging history that covers centuries may sound like a daunting prospect, but it’s not. Bremer is an engaging writer, and is admirably clear when dealing with both the big picture and with details. He can even make clear such potentially complicated stories as the various military outposts known as Fort Des Moines, and how the one that gave state’s largest city it’s name was almost called Fort Raccoon (which possibly could have lead to Iowa having Raccoon City as its capital).

A New History of Iowa provides an excellent opportunity to update the story you tell yourself and others about the state and its people.

This article was originally published in Little Village’s January 2024 issue.

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