Brief Heroes and Histories
Barbara Holland (1998, The Akadine Press)
Hurrah! for Barbara Holland, who has undertaken the program that Marilynne Robinson commended in The Death of Aadm, of looking at the actual history of things we've grown used to thinking we know all about. Notwithstanding the understanding to be gained by the study of military, political, and economic history, I'm always hungry for the old-fashioned narrative sort. That is, story-telling: why did our hero do such a thing, and what happened next? (Or the villain, or course, but remember--nobody is the villain of his own story.)
And what heroes these are, when their stories emerge. Before William Penn was master of Pennsylvania, he was a thorn in his father's side: "Early Quakers were less concerned with modesty and humility than with defiance, and Penn could defy with the best of them." Or: "If the Transcendalist philosopher Bronson Alcott had taken the slightest interest in earning a living, we would never have had Little Women." And: "Heroicly speaking, the Marquis de Lafayette was a bright spot - and even he spent more time begging for boots than he spent in battle."
Hardly less interesting are the metastories of what has happened to the stories through the ages. "The real Pocahontas story is more interesting, but we can't tell the children because it shows our earliest settlers in a dim light. Heroic princesses are strictly optional; heroic settlers are basic education." Robin Hood's story has probably been improved by moving his dates to the era of Richard the Lion-Hearted, and casting him as Errol Flynn.
Not just human heroes and heroines, but institutions come in for Holland's story-telling mastery: the Algonquin Round Table, the jury system, the British Raj have their origins and their human quirks. Holland writes with economy and elan; her ready curiosity is a sure guide to the interesting bits of history. Enjoy--