Reading historical fiction and histories in 2011

With the help of a new Kindle last winter, I’ve finished more books in 2011 than I have in years and I thought I might share a few recommendations and highlights. I’ve been especially excited to discover my own love of historical fiction. In the past year I read the first three novels in the Flashman series by George MacDonald Fraser, the three Baroque Cycle novels by Neal Stephenson, and both The Anubis Gates and Declare by Tim Powers. Although Neal Stephenson and Tim Powers freely mix historical with fantastical details and characters, I was thrilled by how both authors managed to pull me into a version of the past and create a rich sense of place through their writing.

While fiction peaked my interest in European history over the summer, I found my way back to U.S. history with The Whites of Their Eyes by Jill Lepore, followed by 1491 and 1493 by Charles Mann. All three are accessible histories without abandoning any rigor or credibility — the footnotes are excellent — and offer inspiring departures from the structural constraints of more traditional narrative histories. Jill Lepore’s work does this particularly well as she weaves together the threads of contemporary Tea Party politics, the public memorialization of the Revolutionary War during the 1970s, and unique insights into the lives of Revolutionary period men and women from Thomas Paine to Ben Franklin’s sister Jane Mecom (a topic the author highlighted in a New York Times opinion piece Poor Jane’s Almanac). The concluding passage from the book’s prologue (available for download as a PDF) took my breath away with its evocative and visceral expression of the connections between the past and the present:

Standing on the Beaver watching sea-weedy waves slap the ship’s hull, I thought about how sailors on ocean-faring vessels once measured depth. They would drop a rope weighted with lead into the water and let it plummet till it reached bottom. I like to sink lines, too, to get to the bottom of things. This book is an argument against historical fundamentalism. It makes that argument by measuring the distance between the past and the present. It measures that distance by taking soundings in the ocean of time. Here, now, we float on a surface of yesterdays. Below swirls the blue-green of childhood. Deeper still is the obscurity of long ago. But the eighteenth century, oh, the eighteenth century lies fathoms down.

Charles Mann, unlike Jill Lepore, is not an academic historian but does a tremendous job allowing the work of dozens of scholars to lead the way in 1491 as he tells stories about the presence of American Indians in the Americas before (and after) contact with Europe. These stories of agricultural practices, disease epidemics, and more of the past are placed in a context of debates and discussion between archaeologists, anthropologists, historians, activists and others over the last 50 years or more. In his introduction he suggested a partial inspiration for the book came in response to the woeful failure of school textbooks to capture any of these recent debates and discoveries:

The 1987 edition of American History: A Survey, a standard high school textbook by three well-known historians, summed up Indian history thusly: “For thousands of centuries—centuries in which human races were evolving, forming communities, and building the beginnings of national civilizations in Africa, Asia, and Europe—the continents we know as the Americas stood empty of mankind and itsworks.” The story of Europeans in the NewWorld, the book informed students, “is the story of the creation of a civilization where none existed.”

Meanwhile, new disciplines and new technologies were creating new ways to examine the past. Demography, climatology, epidemiology, economics, botany, and palynology (pollen analysis); molecular and evolutionary biology; carbon-14 dating, ice-core sampling, satellite photography, and soil assays; genetic microsatellite analysis and virtual 3-D fly-throughs—a torrent of novel perspectives and techniques cascaded into use. And when these were employed, the idea that the only human occupants of one-third of the earth’s surface had changed little for thousands of years began to seem implausible. To be sure, some researchers have vigorously attacked the new findings as wild exaggerations. (“We have simply replaced the old myth [of untouched wilderness] with a new one,” scoffed geographer Thomas Vale, “the myth of the humanized landscape.”) But after several decades of discovery and debate, a new picture of the Americas and their original inhabitants is emerging.

Not convinced you must read 1491 yet? Check out this March 2002 piece in The Atlantic for a tight introduction to the book’s themes. While a bit less revelatory for me, 1493 is still packed with fascinating details on quilombos, better known in the U.S. as maroon communities, like Palmares, the appalling conditions for Chinese workers guano mining in Peru, the fiscal implications of the Spanish galleon trade in Europe and Asia and much more. NPR offers a good excerpt of the book to get you started.

I’m currently reading Battle Cry of Freedom by James McPherson so I hope to share another review of sorts in the next few weeks. For a bit of inspiration closer to home, check out READTHATCITY for a few local history recommendation and a new community of neighbors (The Greatest Book Club in America) who’ll be reading along with you in 2012.

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