By June Sawyers

March 31, 2016

Author Brent D. Glass, director emeritus of the National Museum of American History at the Smithsonian Institution, is a public historian who believes that history should be made accessible to all.

In this excellent book, Glass travels across the geographical breadth of the United States in his search for "essential" historic sites. His curated collection also makes great chronological strides, from the nearly 1,000-year-old Cahokia Mounds in western Illinois to the more recent St. Louis Gateway Arch, built in the 1960s.

Glass doesn't just describe the physical location of each site. He connects them through overarching themes, such as the role of innovation, the struggle to sustain democratic ideals, the impact of military conflicts, the achievements of diverse cultures and the influence of the land itself. While he delves into the possible reasons behind the Salem witch trials, he also tries to find contemporary relevance. Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, for example, spoke at the dedication of the Witch Trials Memorial in 1992.

Some of the historical details he notes are surprising. We learn that Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of the phenomenally successful "Uncle Tom's Cabin," lived next door to Mark Twain for nearly two decades in an area of Hartford, Conn., known as Nook Farm.

Glass explores the Indian wars at Little Bighorn in Montana and Wounded Knee in South Dakota and visits Nashville's Ryman Auditorium, known as The Mother Church of Country Music. He depicts the history behind the Salk Institute in La Jolla, Calif., a working laboratory that "represents the healing promise of medical research and the healing power of architecture."

Other entries include such well-known sites as the Freedom Trail in Boston; the Alamo in San Antonio; and the country's first national park, Yellowstone. Less obvious choices are also celebrated, like the birthplace of jazz in New Orleans; the 110-acre Warner Bros. Studio in Burbank, Calif.; various Martin Luther King Jr. sites in the Sweet Auburn neighborhood of Atlanta; and the 40-mile corridor south of San Francisco better known as Silicon Valley.

It's a wonderful contribution to historical literacy, with a foreword by Pulitzer Prize-winning author David McCullough.