Wednesday, September 11, 2013

History, Our Story

If knowledge is power, then discovering that you been misled is disheartening at best.  History, according to my old school texts, was really "His Story", as if God himself had come up with the plot. What if he hadn't? Or what if we'd messed up the ending? Realizing that my understanding of science and history was both inadequate and faulty, I kept my mouth shut a lot more. My babies kept growing and I planned to teach them myself, so correcting my ignorance was imperative. At the same time, I was wary of "teachers" who showed too much eagerness.  How could I ascertain that a guide esteemed accuracy as much as I did, and wasn't merely pushing an agenda?

I first got acquainted with Garry Wills through his theological writing, but I soon discovered his books on American history--specifically, Head and Heart: American Christianities and Under God: Religion and American Politics. Compared to the filtered texts I had read as a teen, Wills offered a much deeper, broader view of the religious forces that continue to shape our nation and our government. And, unlike David Barton, Wills is an acclaimed historian. I could not get enough, carrying these hefty tomes along on my summer vacation and gasping over all the facts I had somehow missed.

Finally, someone else who had written about Mary Dyer's miscarriage! That story had bothered and mystified me since reading Winthrop's report of the exhumation in The Light and the Glory--a strangely covenantal twist on history with ties to a New England cult. Along with its sequels, also co-authored by Peter Marshall and David Manuel, this version of American history is prominent in some homeschooling curricula and has received accolades from prominent politicians like John Ashcroft and Sam Brownback. But The Light and the Glory was saturated with assumptions about supernatural involvement in human affairs. The Devil was just another character in the story, albeit an invisible one. Now here at last was a genuine professor of history pulling back the veil of mystery and presenting the facts simply, without spooky undertones. I felt as if I was privileged to be one of Wills' students, feverishly taking notes and hanging on every word.

Later on I discovered Sarah Vowell. I had heard her book The Wordy Shipmates discussed on NPR numerous times before I finally checked it out. Sarah's inimitable style suited me exactly. I loved her crisscrossing rabbit trails, her personal commentaries that made the history come alive, the stranger-than-fiction tales that made the facts so believable. The characters--John Cotton, John Winthrop, Anne Hutchinson, Roger Williams--were familiar names to me, but Vowell's analysis was fresh and honest. Between her and Wills, I finally found a way to understand and relate to the Puritans without feeling bound to defend them.

Replica of a missionary's house, Maui
Vowell's Unfamiliar Fishes, about the intertwined history of the USA and the Hawaiian Islands, was so good that I read it twice. When I visited the harbor at Lahaina on Maui, I saw for myself the dual influence of New England on that little Pacific island and pondered how it must have confused the locals to have English-speaking sailors and missionaries fighting over foreign moral codes. The heritage left by agrarian New England Calvinists lingers in the pungent air near the sugar mill, and is commemorated by this replica of a clapboard house nestled in the Kepaniwai Heritage Gardens in the Iao Valley.

On another cross-country trip, we listened to eminent historian David McCullough read his history of the American Revolution, 1776. The issues were so much less clear-cut than my old textbooks suggested, the colonists and the British all such colorful characters, the war so horribly cruel. My children wrestle with the complexities of that period every time they watch "Liberty's Kids", a engaging and invaluable series that dramatizes conflicting points of view during the birth of the American nation. Unlike the "homespun" versions, I find that straight history doesn't leave me feeling proud.  

It takes more courage to face history this way, more honesty, more stamina. I find that humanity's past, rather like its present, is anything but clean, anything but black and white. History is not a neat museum placard. The heroes aren't quite pure and the villains aren't quite vile. Every chapter has to be examined through the lenses of its place in time, its place on various maps, its cultural perspectives. And my judgments will change with my understanding. What once looked like moral courage may appear differently when the light shifts. 

I still love history, though, messy as it is. 

Because it is our story.

1 comment:

  1. I love this post SO much, my friend!! I too have been DEVOURING science and history, most often with my mouth hanging open in shock and wonder and awe. :-) Thank you so much for these book recommendations. I'm going to track them down as soon as possible. :-)