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Book Review


Bonnie G. Smith, Marc Van De Mieroop, Richard Von Glahn, and Kris Lane, Crossroads and Cultures: A History of the World's Peoples. Boston and New York: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2012. Pp. lxviii + 1184. $123.95 (hardcover); $100.95 (paperback 2 vols.); $81.95 (loose-leaf Budget Book); $68.95 (class e-book).


     World history textbooks have advanced in recent decades from early efforts that grafted histories of the rest of the world onto the standard Western Civilization narrative with predictable consequences. While enjoyable to teach from because they offered possibilities for creative course construction, they tended to confuse students and gave instructors an unreliable narrative of global events. Jerry Bentley, Herbert Ziegler, and William McNeill—among many others—subsequently introduced a genuinely global narrative to World history texts, providing integrated themes and sound comparisons across cultures. Their pioneering texts gave needed structure to the amorphous surveys and provided students and instructors with a coherent narrative of significant events and various common themes. More recent texts, including the volume under review, take the next step. Building upon the characteristics that have defined successful texts, these volumes offer richer, more nuanced insights into how to better present the world's history to students with varying levels of preparation and interest. These newer texts are more thoughtfully conceived, thematically and chronologically organized, and present a clearer, more connected narrative.

     Before commenting on the particular contents and interpretations found in this work, some thoughts about its approach, structure, and resources for students and teachers are necessary. Crossroads and Cultures explores the subject through a cultural history lens and presents an organized, well-written narrative that is informative on many levels and to many audiences. It is sufficiently sophisticated to appeal to university audiences; yet, its careful support apparatus also guides secondary students. Its pages blend the four prose styles of the authors and effectively . The text connects standard global patterns, commonly found in one form or another in most good works, with insights into the daily lives and livelihoods of the world's peoples. By emphasizing the crossroads or intersections where goods and ideas were exchanged, contacts were made and wars were waged, the chapters underscore commonalities and distinctions among different cultures.

     The authors do well in complementing the narrative with relevant images, maps, and guiding questions to assist students in better understanding the mass of material. Their collaboration succeeds in making the vastness of World history less forbidding. The brief "Backstory" paragraphs found on the first page of each chapter, for example, summarize the previous chapters and link the current one to them. The clean timelines and maps relate topics and peoples throughout. The sources direct students to specific evidence types and help them not only to understand their contents and significance, but also how they have been used by historians. In sum, the chapters direct readers carefully to the region, chronological period, topics, and some of the critical questions addressed. Each also includes a final section labeled "Counterpoint," highlighting a contrasting example to the main theme discussed in the chapter. This section calls attention to the complexity of the main topic and should lead to further student questions and discussions. The text packages two volumes of useful sources that guide students to the rich variety of historical evidence. The selections are well chosen, edited, and supplement the chapters in the main text effectively. The four authors of Crossroads and Cultures succeed admirably in offering a distinctive approach to learning and teaching World history.

     The volume includes thirty-one chapters divided into four approximately equal chronological sections: "The Ancient World, from Human Origins to 500 C.E".; "The Formation of Regional Societies, 500–1450 C.E".; "The Early Modern World, 1450–1750"; and "The World from 1750 to the Present."

     Two examples underscore the value of the cultural approach taken for students and their faculty. In the opening chapter, "Peopling the World to 4000 B.C.E.," the helpful "Backstory" draws the reader's attention to the vastness of the earth's history and the place of the humans in it. Three focal points, Origins, Food Gatherers, and Neolithic Farmers guide the chapter reading. Then, the counterpoint examines why Australian aborigines chose not to farm. The first maps detail the migrations of human ancestors out of Africa and direct the reader to a text, informative global timeline, and visual discussion of the development of hominids. The section constructs the discussion carefully from physical evidence, offering several types of each to help readers understand and evaluate their value over time. The remaining sections of the chapter follow a like pattern. The emphasis is on the peoples and their daily lives with information provided to encourage students to compare early communities globally. Questions are interspersed throughout the chapter. Even a cursory reading of the opening chapter offers good evidence of how positively the materials presented will work in the classroom.

     Chapter 16, "Empires and Alternatives in the Americas, 1430–1530," follows the volume's standard organizational scheme. It first draws attention to the diversity of the native populations of the Americas, then contrasts them with the Aztec and Inca empires. The counterpoint describes the tribes of the Eastern Woodlands of North America. Throughout, there are constant references to many other tribes and cultures on the two continents. One particularly rich section examines Aztec daily life in some depth and includes a useful study of the roles of women and children, as well as the significance of midwifery to the community. Like all other chapters, the descriptions are rooted in recent scholarship and challenge students to consider relationships and tensions. The accompanying sources to the chapter, for example, include passages about childrearing among the Aztecs and Jesuit views of Huron society.

     World historians will find Crossroads and Cultures a valuable text to support courses at many levels. New instructors will appreciate its structure and the guidance it offers. The more experienced will value its fresh approach and flexibility. It is a fine text worthy of close reading.

Michael J. Galgano is Professor of History at James Madison University. He can be reached at:


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