Ah, summertime, when thoughts turn to road trips and new explorations – or at least they do if you’re a teacher who has usually had to cram their travels into that traditional June-August window! I just finished Here Is Where: Discovering America’s Great Forgotten History, by Andrew Carroll (Three Rivers Press, 2013), and feel like I’ve taken a fascinating jaunt across America and through history.
First the legal FTC disclaimer: “I received this book for free from Blogging for Books for this review.” In fact, this Crown Publishing Group program was the impetus for starting my blog to begin with! But even if I hadn’t received a complimentary copy of the book, I would have bought it, it’s that good! And right up my alley…
When I was growing up in Colorado, my teacher parents didn’t have the resources for elaborate trips or cruises or European vacations. We camped and road-tripped our way across the country, primarily the Midwest and West. My music teacher dad was also a history buff, so we sought out and explored abandoned mining camps in the Rockies, stopped at and read every roadside “historic marker” we encountered, and wandered through every obscure museum that presented itself. From this childhood, I developed a deep interest in history, a passion for any sort of travel at all, and an imagination that impels me to seek out the “here is where” in even the most ordinary of places. Macchu Picchu is awe-inspiring, but so is Independence Rock in Wyoming, where emigrants carved their names as they moved west on the Oregon Trail and where the wind-swept landscape inspires reflection on their courage and resourcefulness.
The premise of Andrew Carroll’s book is that every day we move past places where interesting, important, or little known events occurred. He takes as his starting point the platform where the brother of John Wilkes Booth saved the son of Abraham Lincoln from being crushed by an incoming train. He is inspired here to, in his own words, “…search for unmarked sites across America that have been forgotten over time.” What follows is a delightful, insightful, and compelling hopscotch from New Jersey to Hawaii to Alaska to Colorado’s own Pikes Peak – and pretty much every point in between. Carroll writes with a friendly, personable style that makes the reader feel like they are next to him in the car or plane or boat or hike. And as he follows one story into another, it becomes striking how interconnected events and people can be.
If I were teaching an American history course, I would make this book required reading. It may not be the most academic of tomes (though the research and notes seem quite sound and extensive to this trained historian), but through crisscrossing America in search of WWII plane crashes, missing (or duplicate) corpses, or the site of important scientific discoveries, the reader gets a glimpse of “real” American history. When my high school Spanish students would complain about history, I think it was because so often in our schools it is boiled down to a series of dates, names, and issues that have to be memorized and regurgitated (after they’ve passed through the political lenses of various school boards and textbook adoption committees, of course.) Andrew Carroll invites us to experience history in a different, more engaging, and ultimately more revealing way. As he states in his conclusion, “…nothing has surprised me more than discovering how personal and intimate history can can be, that it’s not just some distant, abstract idea we study from afar.”
My best friend from high school and I share this passion for history. One summer we met in her now-home state of Oregon for a week at the beach with our kids and on our return to Portland, we drove through Astoria. As it happened, we were both reading a series of historical novels about Marie Dorion, a little known contemporary of Sacagawea who was the only woman to accompany the Astor Expedition of 1811-1812. Looking at each other after consulting the maps in the books, we decided to search out the site where the expedition had wintered, eliciting groans from our children. (Though now, my daughter has a history degree herself and volunteers for History Colorado when not working at the Denver Art Museum!) Why this fascination with seeing the actual spot where an event occurred? Andrew Carroll says it best:
…even if ‘nothing’ remains, there is value still in visiting the general area, I think. The stories, not the physical sites, are what’s paramount, and they become more indelibly impressed in our minds when we travel to where they occurred. The journey alone inspires thoughtful contemplation, and inevitably we chat with others about our endeavor along the way…At the destination itself all of our senses are engaged…
This is more than just a book about history, it is also a travelogue. Even if you’re not a history buff, I would encourage you to give it a try. The narrative style makes it read a lot like fiction, except that the stories are true! And it will cause you to reflect, which is the hallmark of truly great writing. In his excellent prose, Andrew Carroll sums up what I’ve always known intuitively about my fascination with history and never articulated:
If learning about the past only infused our lives with a sense of passion and wonder by enriching our perception of the world around us, that alone would make it worthwhile…At its best, history nurtures within us humility and gratitude. It encourages respect and empathy. It fosters creativity and stimulates the imagination. It inspires resilience. And it does so by illuminating the simple truth that, whether due to some cosmic fluke or divine providence, it’s an absolute miracle that any of us is alive today, walking around on this tiny sphere surrounded by an ocean of space, and that we are, above everything else, all in this together.
Thanks, Dad (and Mom) for guiding me towards embracing this valuable lesson! It has served me well and enriched my life immeasurably over the years!