One Read 2014
By Lauren Williams, Public Services Librarian
"If history were taught in the form of stories, it would never be forgotten." - Rudyard Kipling
One Read author Daniel James Brown skillfully employs a fiction-writer’s techniques to make a specific historical moment come alive for his readers. This year’s selection for the library’s community-wide reading program is Brown’s “The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Olympics” (Viking, 2013). This nonfiction book features the well-developed characters and propulsive storyline you'd expect to find in a novel. And what a triumphant story it is.
Brown creates an intimate portrait of the physical and psychological struggles of Americans during the Great Depression by focusing on the figure of Joe Rantz. In spite of great misfortune and abandonment by his own family, Rantz’s ingenuity, grit and a bit of luck ultimately land him a spot on the University of Washington’s crew team. Thrilling and cinematically described races, coupled with the ultimate success of Rantz and his ragtag group of teammates, make for a satisfying and uplifting read.
Brown’s other books create a similar sense of drama as they recreate the circumstances of historical events, though tragic instead of triumphant. In “Under a Flaming Sky: The Great Hinckley Firestorm of 1894” (Lyons Press, 2006), Brown uses his own visits to the scene of the fire, personal interviews with survivors’ descendants and documented first-hand stories of the catastrophic event to craft a riveting account of the fire that consumed a small lumber town in Minnesota, killing more than 400 people. This disaster spurred the development of new forestry management practices in the U.S. and new government agencies to fight wildfires. Brown’s “The Indifferent Stars Above: The Harrowing Saga of a Donner Party Bride” (William Morrow, 2009) makes a well-known event feel new and incredibly –sometimes horrifyingly – intimate by focusing largely on the experiences of one survivor, Sarah Graves. Brown includes cultural history and modern-day psychology and science in his absorbing narrative about the doomed wagon train traveling from Illinois to California in 1846.
Works of historical narrative nonfiction like Brown’s are so engrossing because they do much more than recount dates and events; these books transport us to other times and places. Candice Millard’s “Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President” (Doubleday, 2011) is a richly detailed and suspenseful retelling of the assassination of President James Garfield. It reveals Garfield to be an impressive scholar, a Civil War hero and a leader, while also capturing the character of American politics and the state of medical science in the 1880s. Like Millard, Lawrence Goldstone uses extensive research in “Birdmen: The Wright Brothers, Glenn Curtiss, and the Battle to Control the Skies” (Ballantine, 2014) to present Orville and Wilbur Wright and their rival as complex and fully-formed characters. Goldstone weaves the history of aviation into his narrative and creates a palpable sense of the spirit of innovation that infused the dawn of the 20th century.
Using techniques of fiction-writing in nonfiction can also be successful for accounts of events that are broader in scope. One of the most moving and beautiful recent examples of this type of book is Isabel Wilkerson’s “The Warmth of Other Suns” (Random House, 2010). Described as epic, this book indeed covers a daunting number of years and a phenomenon involving millions – the decades-long migration of black Americans from the South, where “an invisible hand ruled their lives and the lives of all colored people,” to cities north and west. Wilkerson contends with the large scope by entwining the stories of three very different individuals – a sharecropper, a civil rights activist and a physician - with the larger social and historical contexts of their times.
Simon Winchester, in his book “The Men Who United the States” (HarperCollins, 2013), employs the same strategy, using biographies and anecdotes to lend life and intimacy to a large and distant series of events culminating in the formation of this nation. The four elements of wood, fire, water and metal provide a neat organizational structure for what could have been a sprawling mess but is instead an inspiring and cohesive narrative. Winchester includes Lewis and Clark’s famous journey, as well as the feats of lesser-known explorers, map-makers, inventors and scientists who helped define the boundaries of this country and bind its people together. Adding an additional layer of interest are stories of Winchester’s own travels, as he treks from the East Coast to the West to traverse some of the same lands his subjects did.
If you enjoy reading about history, we hope you'll check out “The Boys in the Boat” and then join us this September for film, discussions, presentations, art and performances exploring life in 1930s America and other related topics. The month of One Read events will close with a visit from author Daniel James Brown on Tuesday, September 30 at 7 p.m. at Columbia College’s Launer Auditorium. Find more information at www.oneread.org.