The gift of history
Last updated 12/15/2021 at Noon
From the time I was very young, most of the presents under the Christmas tree with my name on them were flat, rectangular, and easy to wrap. Santa had no trouble figuring out the right stuff for me — at least in the years I managed to stay off the naughty list. Books. History, specifically.
As far back as I can remember, I have reveled in historical storytelling. History is the lens through which I view the world, my main tool for understanding the world in which I live. It’s been a great gift, and one I love to share with others.
My friend Rick Schwertfeger down in Austin, Texas, recently read “The Bush Runner,” a new Canadian biography of Pierre Esprit Radisson, a 17th-century explorer and fur trader — and one of history’s great rogues.
The book is a cracking yarn, first and foremost.
The life of Radisson was one of unrelenting adventure.
Teenage captive of the Mohawks, explorer, fur trader, point man of the massive commercial empire that was the Hudson’s Bay Company, turncoat, and rogue, Radisson is one of the most colorful of the legendary coureurs du bois (bush runners).
More than simply enjoying a rousing adventure tale, though, Rick found himself strangely comforted recognizing that the greed, chicanery and self-dealing that trouble him as he looks out over the current cultural and political landscape are nothing new.
History is replete with rogues, many of whom have stalked the halls of power or sat in corporate boardrooms dicing with the economic fate of nations.
History can do that for you. It’s a strange kind of comfort to recognize that our current state is not especially dire, that the human endeavor has always been beset by greed and folly — and also with unexpected nobility and achievement. Immersing ourselves in historical storytelling allows us to experience many lives, and to truly grasp the paradox that much that is good in our world was born in base motives and dog-eat-dog struggle. And, conversely, that many great evils have been perpetrated in the name of creating a better world.
Nothing makes me happier than seeing others discover the joys and satisfactions I have found in history. My buddy Jack McGowan recently regaled me with his discovery of the Pulitzer Prize-winning work of Rick Atkinson. Atkinson’s “Liberation Trilogy” chronicles the arc of the World War II U.S. Army, from a mediocre force to the crack army that stormed the beaches of Normandy and pushed forward to liberate Western Europe. I asked Jack to write down his thoughts to share with readers of The Nugget:
“Truthfully, I’ve never had been a devoted reader of history.
Seeing books of this genre on the shelf of Paulina Springs Bookstore, for the most part, I gave them a pass.
For me, my early ‘dipping of the toe’ found their narrative too dry and heavy on the facts, forgetting the story.
That is until about 2016, when I came across Erik Larson’s recounting of the sinking of the Lusitania, in his exceptional book, ‘Dead Wake.’ I found a page-turner that informed at the same time.
Since then, I’ve read all of his continuing delving into moments of history, and I’ve never been disappointed.
Now comes to my bedside table Rick Atkinson’s trilogy on World War II. In short, this is a top-shelf, monumental adventure story that happens to describe in detail one of the most pivotal times in modern history.
These three big volumes (about 500 pages each) take you through the rabbit hole and lock the door behind you.
Each night, I look forward to ending my day with a bedroom date called ‘History.’”
Coincidently, I am about two-thirds of the way through Atkinson’s most recent work, the first volume of another trilogy, this time on the American Revolution. “The British Are Coming: The War for America, Lexington to Princeton, 1775-1777” is, just as Jack describes the Liberation Trilogy, a monumental adventure story that happens to chronicle a pivotal event in our history.
Atkinson writes with the flair of a novelist, on a foundation of research that is, itself monumental.
The American Revolution can seem very remote and abstract to modern Americans.
Atkinson brings the era to life as no other historian I’ve read.
Here we have flawed and very human men and women, sometimes acting with profound bravery and great principle, sometimes with petty self-interest.
The incredible logistical complexities and hardships of 18th-century campaigning — always operating under the looming catastrophe of a smallpox epidemic — are painted so vividly that you can feel the bite of the wind, the snow, and the mud sucking at your shoes as fatigue and hunger threaten your resolve.
Atkinson never shies away from the hard stuff, including the role of slavery in the conduct of the war, particularly in the southern colonies. But he never succumbs to the affliction that dogs the current historical discourse on these matters: He is not grinding a contemporary ideological ax. He recognizes that historical phenomena, like the men and women who spin fortune’s wheel, are complex, contradictory, and contingent.
Right now, with our Republic lurching and stumbling from one crisis to the next, it’s good to be reminded that it was born in crisis, and has never been either innocent or perfect — and yet is remarkable all the same. The story is one cracking good yarn, too.
So, maybe — if you haven’t been too naughty — you might discover a nice, thick, rectangular present wrapped up under the tree and find yourself with an evening date called “History.”