Sunday, January 5, 2014

History is a Funny Thing: A book review of "The Men Who United the States."

Editor's note: This review first appeared in the Dec. 8, 2013 edition of the Berkshire Eagle.

History is a funny thing. What may start as fact often becomes clouded by fancy and the personages whose names still trip off the tongue today may overshadow the true heroes whose names have been wiped clean, if they were ever there at all, from the popular imagination.

In Simon Winchester 's newest book, "The Men Who United the States," the author tells the story of America through its "connective tissue" and introduces, or reintroduces, the many obscure and half- forgotten men who helped unite the country via exploration, road, canal, and railroad building, electric generation, the radio, television and the Internet.

While the more famous folks, Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Edison, for example, do get their due, the book's focus remains on the lesser known men whose work helped unite the country.

The narrative structure of this unique retelling of America's history by the British- born best selling author, and recently naturalized U. S. citizen, is held together via the five Chinese elements - wood, earth, water, fire and metal - corresponding to early exploration, geology, canal building, locomotives and other mechanized transportation and the telegraph, telephone and other electronic communication.

He did something similar in his last book, "Atlantic: Great Sea Battles, Heroic Discoveries, Titanic Storms, and a Vast Ocean of a Million Stories," in which he uses the "Seven Ages of Man" monologue from William Shakespeare's "As You Like It" as a framework.

In Winchester 's able hands, the stories of these pioneers - many considered cranks and misfits - and their contributions provide a lesser traveled journey through the country's past without losing sight of the bigger picture.

It should be noted the title does not lie and that the book almost exclusively looks at men's achievements. Sacagawea, who helped guide the Lewis and Clark expedition across the West in the early 1800s is the only woman who gets much of a mention in the book, something Winchester said he knew he would get some grief for, but that "It has to be accepted, like it or not, that most of those [connections] were created by men."

Winchester 's personal reminiscences that dot the book's pages provide nice counterpoints to the main stories, by connecting historical moments to the present, uniting themes, giving resonance to particular ideas.

One of the most touching of these is a story he relates about being in a remote area of Northern Australian in the mid-1990s and demonstrating the Internet to a 7-year-old boy whose mind was blown by its potential after seeing a video of a B1 bomber and a close up photograph of Mars, which the boy had previously only seen by looking at the night sky with his father's binoculars. Winchester left the computer for the boy and was soon receiving emails from him.

Another personal story comes in the book's epilogue, in which Winchester describes life in Sandisfield, where he has a small farm, and of the uniting of the village through a new community newspaper.

The author says in the book's final pages that the work of the nation's agencies and individuals "helped bind ever more tightly the peoples of the country together." The same could be said of Winchester 's book, which gives us a prismatic and unusual take on the nation's past and the strange, enigmatic and down right cantankerous men who helped make it what it is and will become, and provides - during this seemingly divided time in our history - insight into what has kept us whole.

No comments: