I Am Not Invisible

Last evening I spoke in Athens, Georgia, on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the Athens-Clarke Heritage Foundation.  The topic was the future of preservation, and I took segments from remarks given by my colleague Tom Mayes at the recent EDRA conference on Why Old Places Matter and combined it with the basic elements of our recently released Preservation for People:  A Vision for the Future.

The first key concept from the vision is that a people-centered preservation movement hears, understands, and honors the full diversity of the ever-evolving American story.

I built on this concept by noting that,

“The recognition of our stories and the capacity to see yourself and others in the American narrative has a profound effect on our sense of identity.   A few years when the National Trust conference was held in Nashville, Congressman John Lewis challenged us to believe in the idea that ‘my house is your house.  My story is your story.  The history of my people is the history of all Americans not just African Americans.’”

The Well-Tempered City

The Well-Tempered City by Jonathan F.P. Rose

I followed that with a quote from The Well-Tempered City, by Jonathan Rose, the visionary developer, urbanist, and former NTHP trustee.  In that work he notes that cities emerge from the interdependence of related parts.  He says, “compassion is essential for a city to have a healthy balance between individual and collective well-being.”

It is my belief that hearing, understanding, and honoring the full diversity of America’s story helps provide “the connective tissue between the me and the we, and leads us to care for something larger than ourselves.”

After my remarks, a member of the Foundation’s board came to speak with me.  Linda Davis is a civic and business leader in Athens, a member of the local school board, and African American.  She told me that the vision is right in line with what she has been supporting in Athens in her five years on the ACHF board.  She said, “I am not invisible” and this future is “exactly what I hope for preservation.”  Her comment was straightforward, yet poignant.

Americans have conveniently forgotten most of the people whose lives are part of our layered history.  At this time of deep division in our national life, I believe—more than ever—that we each have to do whatever we can to hear, understand, and honor the stories of those who might have been forgotten in the past.  We have to make sure they are not invisible.

Have a good week.

More to come…

DJB

Places Teach Us, If We Let Them

I have just finished reading two books about the American West that were written in 1987 and 1994. As I finished the second one on a rainy Sunday afternoon I thought, “I hope I age as well.”  The older of the two—which I actually read second—was the first book cited by the author of the 1994 work in her “Sources” chapter.  Both are written by women I greatly admire as writers and thinkers.

So enough of the cat and mouse games.

Savage Dreams

Savage Dreams by Rebecca Solnit

Rebecca Solnit‘s Savage Dreams:  A Journey Into the Hidden Wars of the American West, was republished in a 20th anniversary edition in 2014, with a new preface by the author. I’ve been on something of a Solnit kick lately, as she is one of the most thoughtful of writers exploring a wide variety of issues across the American landscape. This early work is often hailed as a foundational work of environmental thinking.  However, I saw this more as a book about place and unacknowledged history, and the title of the post comes from her 20th anniversary preface.

At the end of Savage Dreams, Solnit lists her sources and calls out Patricia Nelson Limerick‘s The Legacy of Conquest:  The Unbroken Past of the American West for special inspiration.  I have come to know Patty Limerick a bit from recent work we’ve undertaken together, and this book has been on my bookshelf since the early 2000s, which I first heard her speak in Denver.  She is unquestionably one of the leading scholars of Western history.

What I found enlightening about both works was the timeliness of the issues they discuss some 25-30 years later.  Immigration, the dominance of the military-industrial complex, the “owning” of the historical narrative, the complex layers of history that are the reality underneath our myth making of exceptionalism and manifest destiny—all are as present and divisive today as they were as the 1980s turned into the 1990s.

I could delve into so much in these two works, but will be content with a synopsis of each and some quotes that may lead you to want to explore them on your own.  Solnit and Limerick are easy-to-read writers who take a different path in getting to their conclusions.  Solnit’s work here is more of a meandering conversation that, amazingly, arrives at its destination at the end of each chapter and feels very satisfying.  Limerick did not rely on original research in her ground-breaking work, but pulled together strains in New Western study with a style that is easily accessible.

Solnit’s work is actually two books, although they do connect in surprising ways:

“In 1851, a war began in what would become Yosemite National Park, a war against the indigenous inhabitants. A century later–in 1951–and a hundred and fifty miles away, another war began when the U.S. government started setting off nuclear bombs at the Nevada Test Site. It was called a nuclear testing program, but functioned as a war against the land and people of the Great Basin.”

In her preface to the 20th anniversary edition, Solnit notes that she was writing as a period of “making visible, of rewriting history” was underway. She is in the parking lots at Yosemite ten years after her book was written and noticed that the signs had changed, with a “massive reimagining of native America” as the old language of discovery was mostly gone, and the idea of virgin wilderness was seen as outdated.

Right from the beginning Solnit notes that “it’s important to remember that this was not inevitable change but was the work of scholars and tribal spokespeople, activists, and storytellers.”  That is so important in today’s charged political environment, where thoughtful scholarship is often under attack. As she notes, “the people consigned to the past have emerged as our best hope for the future.”

I found this most compelling in the Yosemite story (not to downplay the importance and terrible nature of the test site history).  But as we think about hearing, understanding, and honoring all stories in historic places, I was especially taken by the stories of eradication of the Native American people and story at Yosemite right from the beginning of its conquest by white Americans.  As one small example out of many, the kind of plants growing in Yosemite Valley in the 1850s was largely the work of its original inhabitants.  So when “Bunnell, Olmstead, and their peers rode into the valley and wondered at it for its resemblance to an English landscape garden, it resembled such a garden because it was one.”  Since Yosemite is often considered an American Eden and a touchstone for wilderness, it is surprising (to many) to find that it was an “artifact of generations of human care.”

Legacy of Conquest

Legacy of Conquest by Patricia Nelson Limerick

Solnit’s is an activist’s book, which is “about how understanding history and making it are not really very different” to quote one reviewer.  Limerick’s activism is of a different sort.  She seeks to take the story of the “settling” of the American West as “a series of quaint, violent, and romantic adventures—most with happy endings—and a process that came to an end with the ‘closing’ of the frontier in the 1890s” and turn that on its head.  The west is not a process, but a place.  It is a place where competition, profit, loss, uneven business cycles and—always—conquests are what ground its history.

Limerick’s book is also divided into two sections.  First, “The Conquerors” followed by “The Conquerors Meet Their Match.”  In today’s fight over immigration rights, the antagonists on each side could do much worse than read Limerick’s chapter entitled “America the Borderland.”  Limerick notes that this antagonism has been with us from the beginning of our country.

“…some New England Puritans brooded over the presence of Spanish Catholics far to the south; the ‘New World’ seemed less than pure if the papists had a more sizable empire than the Puritans.  Two centuries later, Anglo-Americans moving into the borderlands encountered long-term Hispanic residents.  Much modified by the environment, time, and contact with native populations, northern and southern Europe met in odd circumstances and conflicts between them, unresolved since the Reformation, surfaced again.”

SE Utah Cliff Dwellings

Cliff Dwellings in the Bears Ears area of Southeast Utah, where centuries-old conflicts over the West are still present today

One of the more difficult parts of our past to square with the American myth is the treatment of Mormons. Today’s hatred of “the other” has—it appears—deep historical roots. Limerick dives in here as well, to make the point that just when the reader thinks race is a key factor in dividing people in the West, we come face to face with the Haun’s Mill Massacre.  As she says, this attack by a Missouri militia on a poorly defended settlement, where seventeen were killed and fifteen wounded, “restores one to a realistic confusion.”  All of the victims of this 1838 massacre were white—and Mormon.  She examines the prejudices behind the 1857 Mormon War, which is extraordinary in that the U.S. Army was deployed against a church primarily composed of U.S. citizens.

There is so much here I could explore, but suffice it to say that both Rebecca Solnit and Patty Limerick have written books that are as timely today as they were some 25-30 years ago.  That’s a remarkable place for writers to find themselves.  In these challenging times in which we live in 2017, we do well to remember Limerick’s point that we need to think as anthropologists, because “humans live in a world in which mental reality does not have to submit to narrow tests of accuracy.”

Recommended!

More to come…
DJB

Living at the Intersection of Past, Present, and Future

James K. Huhta

James K. Huhta

(Note:  I made the following remarks at the funeral of Dr. James K. Huhta on Monday, May 8, 2017, in Murfreesboro, Tennessee.  Jim was the founder of the Historic Preservation Program at Middle Tennessee State University, an early mentor in the field, and—along with his wife Mary who died 11 months earlier—a dear friend.)

I thought I would start my remarks with a history joke…but they’re all too old.

Feel free to groan, because I will keep on with the bad puns and jokes if you don’t.  Just as Jim would have done.

In recent days, I have talked with people who knew Jim from all walks of life. We all acknowledge the deep pain of the past year to the family, friends, and this community. But like these friends and colleagues, I want to reflect today on his many accomplishments and his impact on others, before the inexplicable challenges of recent years became too much for him to bear.

Several people recounted how Jim’s optimism for the future set them on a path which they only now recognize as life-changing. His leadership positions in the preservation field were mentioned time and again. Some had personal stories of Jim, Mary, Becky and Suzanne.

But every single person I spoke with mentioned the puns.

It was the articulate humor “with which he approached all of life’s challenges,” as his Advisory Council colleague Tom King phrased it, that was the endearing feature that touched all.

Longtime U.S. Congressman Bart Gordon, who worked closely with Jim on what is now this city’s nationally regarded greenway system, told me that Jim’s most lasting accomplishment was “Holding the world’s record for most puns made as chairman of the Greenway Commission.”

I think Bart was only partially kidding.

Peabody award winning journalist Krista Tippett has written about the link between a sense of humor and wisdom in her book Becoming Wise.  She says,

“I have yet to meet a wise person who doesn’t know how to find some joy even in the midst of what is hard, and to smile and laugh easily, including at oneself….There is a science helping us to see a sense of humor in the brain as an expression of creativity, making unlikely connections, and leaning into them with joy.”

The Jim Huhta I want to remember today had a wise sense of humor and a wisdom that made unlikely connections, which he leaned into with joy. His professional accomplishments were numerous.  He was one of the pioneers of preservation education, a visionary working in a multi-disciplinary history program at a time when many of the other schools in this field were focused solely on preservation through an architecture and architectural history lens.  Jim once told a reporter for the Nashville Tennessean that “historic preservation is history outside (the) classroom, and it seeks to use our cultural heritage in a variety of ways…for future generations.”

As a pioneer in the field, Jim was sought out for leadership positions here in Murfreesboro, in Tennessee, and across the nation.  Locally, he chaired projects to restore the Rutherford County Courthouse as well as open the Stones River and the Lytle Creek Greenways.  Jim and former Mayor Westbrooks were the driving forces behind the bicentennial project at Cannonsburgh.

At the state level, Jim authored the plan for a National Heritage Area on the Civil War in Tennessee. When opportunities arose at the national level, Jim was there as well.  He was a founder and early chair of the National Council on Preservation Education, served as an Advisor to the National Trust for Historic Preservation and on the board of the National Center for Preservation Technology and Training, and was appointed by President Bill Clinton to two terms on the President’s Advisory Council on Historic Preservation.

Jim’s record of accomplishments runs to five single-spaced pages and is a testament to his vision, his indefatigable energy, his love of people, his sense of public service—and his wisdom.

But I want to focus on the intersections of Jim’s life.  Just as thriving Main Streets or exemplary historic sites are dynamic places where past, present, and future meet in a variety of ways, Jim Huhta lived those intersections of past, present, and future in a very personal way.

Jim had a family heritage that he loved to showcase.  It didn’t take long to figure out that Jim was the son of first-generation Finnish immigrants.  Usually that information would come out after he told you not to fly on a Finnish airline, because he heard that they sometimes disappeared in Finnair.

I know of students who took pilgrimages to Ashtabula, Ohio, simply because they heard him talk incessantly about his hometown.

But Jim knew that not everyone had a way to connect to their personal past, so he worked hard to get people to look—and treasure—what was around them.  In that same Tennessean interview from 1980, he noted that “Most of us have very little feeling for family, community, and local history. But if we would look at the history closest to us, we would have more pride in our communities.”

Jim wanted to know about your past, but more importantly, he wanted you to know about your past.

Understanding the past is important, but only if it connects and is relevant to the present and the future. How one lives right now in community was central to Jim’s understanding of preservation and public service.  One colleague who worked with Jim spoke to the “broadmindedness and focus on community” that he brought to historic preservation.

I saw this personally, as Jim pushed this young undergraduate to tackle challenges out in the real world. While students who came into his classroom were often scared by the large pile of books and multi-page syllabus he displayed on day one, once he weeded out those who didn’t want to work, Jim quickly led those who were left out of the classroom and into the community.  He had a very robust sense of public service, and Jim worked to instill that same value in those he taught.

But the past and present are still missing a key component if we do not see their connections to the future. I have been working with colleagues across the country on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the National Historic Preservation Act to prepare a vision for preservation’s future.  In reviewing this work, I’m pleased—but not surprised—to see how much of this vision comes from what I learned 40 years ago from Jim Huhta.

A preservation movement that puts people first is right in line with Jim’s insights that places from our past, reused today, have positive impact on our spiritual, social, and economic well-being in the future. Jim also believed—and lived it in his life and work—that a people-centered preservation movement hears, understands, and honors the full diversity of the American story.

As he talked about Becky and Suzanne, and later his granddaughters Olivia and Catherine, Jim made it clear that he was working at the intersection of the past and present for future generations – future generations where he had a strong and loving personal investment.

People were central to Jim’s life and work, as those of us who made frequent visits to see Jim and Mary at the yellow house can attest.  He had a familiarity with people from the past—including those who had often been under-represented—that has resonance today.

As the writer Rebecca Solnit has suggested in writing about indigenous communities, “The people consigned to the past have emerged as our best hope for the future.”  With his work to ensure that the lives and stories of those associated with places such as the segregation-era Bradley Academy were not lost, Jim clearly grasped and shared this concept.

My recollections of Jim always include the people he loved the most—Mary, Becky, and Suzanne—and a wide, generous view of family. Like many students after me, I spent hours talking not just with Jim, but with the family. Jim hired me to help with the landscaping at the yellow house while I was in school, and since he knew that my parents were Baptist teetotalers, he always offered up a beer after the job was finished.  When I moved away from Murfreesboro, my mother—who worked at Linebaugh Library where Jim and Mary were among her most faithful clients—would all but encourage me to make a run over to the yellow house when I returned for a visit, so I could enjoy an adult beverage and get caught up on what Jim and Mary were doing. In later years, I would hear of how the Huhtas stopped by to chat politics with my father at his regular table at the City Café. For me and many others, Jim would write exemplary letters of recommendation that would make you blush, but after he sent them off he would bring it back down to earth by telling a bad joke or three.  In his own way, Jim let you know that he understood you as a person with a past, present, and future that he embraced and celebrated.

This is a family to which I am clearly indebted, and to which I hold close as they struggle to make sense of that which cannot be understood on this side of life. I can only say that Jim’s life included a large measure of work to hold both people and place dear.

To paraphrase the writer Madeleine L’Engle, these are places filled with people living over centuries of time.  Places where a richness of experience permeates the rooms and life is lived to the utmost. Where we experience birth and death. Joy and grief. Laughter and tears. And bad puns.

Jim’s life was meaningful, consequential, and full of wisdom for a better future. And now, the fullness of that life will be in this place and in all of us.  May both Jim and Mary rest in peace.

More to come…

DJB

It’s Hard to Remember Not to Rely on Your Memory

Storytelling

Storytelling (photo credit: visme.co)

In a recent email exchange with some colleagues, I made the mistake of relying on my memory for a budget number instead of first checking our documents.  When the mistake was corrected by another on the email trail, I made the excuse that I was working from memory, and added that I should remember not to rely on my memory.  A colleague with a very dry wit responded with the quip, “It’s hard to remember not to rely on your memory.”

He had me there.

I’ve written in the past that, “Memory is a poet, not a historian.”  When you need things like budget numbers, we call upon the historian part of the brain, to make sure the figures are correct.

But in many instances memory—and especially the poetry of memory—is crucial.  Max DePree writes of the times when memory and storytelling come together in powerful ways.  He does so to differentiate between what he calls scientific management and tribal leadership.  “Every family, every college, every corporation, every institution needs tribal storytellers.  The penalty for failing to listen” to these storytellers, says DePree, “is to lose one’s history, one’s historical context, one’s binding values.”

I have heard several excellent examples of storytelling in recent weeks that helped me understand the historical context that was at the heart of the message.  At last week’s Main Street Now conference, Bill Peduto—the mayor of Pittsburgh—spoke in easily understood language that told you about the city he leads and loves.  When he says, “The city of Pittsburgh produced more steel in World War II than Japan and Germany combined,” one learns so much more than just the annual steel production numbers in western Pennsylvania.  You learn about the character of the people.  Stuart Graff, the CEO of the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, was engaged in tribal storytelling at the celebration of the Painted Desert National Treasure two weeks ago when he said that Wright stressed that one should “Study nature, love nature, stay close to nature.  It will never fail you.”   Stuart—speaking primarily to a group of conservationists and preservationists—was  making the counter-intuitive case for taking a different perspective when looking at modernist structures in natural settings, such as national parks.  My National Trust colleague Tom Mayes, in his Why Do Old Places Matter? series, participates in a type of tribal storytelling to remind us of the values around the work we do.  It’s not just about the buildings.

There are times when we will all be called upon to reflect on people, work, and values we hold dear.  Remembering (if we can) to rely on the poetry of our memory helps us turn those reflections into storytelling, which then helps us connect to our history, our historical context, our binding values.

Have a great week.

More to come…

DJB

Clarity of Vision

We all benefit when we are clear about what matters.

I  have always admired the clarity of vision that comes through the work and writings of Morris Vogel, the retiring president of the Lower East Side Tenement Museum.  Morris is one of my colleagues at the National Trust, and I value our professional relationship.  On a personal level, Morris is someone I look to for both advice and inspiration.

In these days when the nation is – once again – struggling with its checkered history on immigration, the Tenement Museum has stepped time and again into these conversations in ways powerful, relevant and timely.  I found the following statement, which Morris recently shared with his board and staff, a great reminder of how clarity of vision and mission is so important in finding one’s voice.

“Tenement Museum leadership in the museum field means that our colleagues at other institutions regularly ask how we handle difficult issues, and we’ve recently fielded requests for information about how we determined our pro-active response to the government’s refugee ban. The answer is that the Board of Trustees had already adopted a mission statement, strategic plan, and vision statement that spoke with clarity about the Museum’s role and purposes. Our mission statement calls for the Museum to “forge emotional connections between visitors and immigrants past and present; and enhance appreciation for the profound role immigration has played and continues to play in shaping America’s evolving national identity.” Our strategic plan calls for the Museum to “provide leadership to the national and international historical museum community by demonstrating how institutions can utilize the past to illuminate key issues of the present.” And our vision statement calls for the Museum to “demonstrate to visitors and the larger public, viscerally and intellectually, that America’s open society, democratic institutions, cultural creativity, economic vitality, and ability to accommodate difference owe to our experience as an immigrant nation.” That kind of clarity allows us to offer powerful historical programs and to speak effectively about present-day immigration to the broader public.”

In three sentences around mission, vision, and strategy, you have an incredible example of how understanding what matters can direct one’s life work.  Morris then continued with this call to relevance:

“The fact that a nation could build and continually renew itself through the hopes that brought uprooted peoples to our shores has never been more important than it is now. The stories of those dreamers form the heart of the Tenement Museum. Let me know if you want to visit with us—in these unsettled times—to renew your commitment to America’s enduring values.”

I have always been proud of the National Trust’s association with the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, and never more so than during these unsettled times.  We will miss Morris’ presence at our meetings when he retires this summer, but something tells me that this clear voice for justice and the importance of our past stories to life today will continue.  Thank you, good friend, for reminding us of how to be clear about what matters.

Tenement Museum

Lower East Side Tenement Museum (photo credit: LESTM)

Have a good week.

More to come…

DJB

Problem Solvers

Mia Lehrer MICD

Mia Lehrer speaking to the Mayors’ Institute on City Design in Charleston

I spent much of last week with eight mayors, and seven other resource panelists at the Mayors’ Institute on City Design in Charleston, South Carolina.  The mayors – two women and six men – came from cities as large as San Bernardino, California, and as small as Juneau, Alaska.  Three of the cities were state capitols, at least two were located on historic Route 66, they spread from coast to coast, every community had a historic core that the mayors saw as vital to their identity and future, and all were ethnically diverse. The political leanings of the mayors – and those of their cities – spanned the spectrum.  Some had been in office for several years, others were relatively new to either the mayoral office and/or public service.  One was a writer on social justice.  Two were accountants by training, while another was a banker.  One had spent much of his career running YMCAs.  As befits the mayor of a city that abuts Canada, the mayor of Juneau had worked for the U.S. Customs and Boarder Protection service for many years.  Another was a Main Street business owner.  In other words, their backgrounds were as varied as their cities and their politics.

We all came together as part of the 66th gathering of mayors and architects, planners, developers, and other professionals to address major civic challenges through design. As you can see above, none came in with a design or planning background, yet they embraced the notion that how our cities look and work can have profound effects on issues as wide ranging as housing, transportation, social justice, financial sustainability, environmental challenges, and much more. Mayors tend to be quick studies who, of necessity, have to grapple with a wide range of community concerns.

MICD Charleston

Speaking at the Mayors’ Institute of City Design in Charleston, March 2017

I had several revelations from the discussions we held around a design challenge in each community, but I want to focus on two.

First, mayors are problem solvers.  Yes, they come at those problems from different points of view. One spouse said that her husband, the mayor, “saw through the eyes of his heart” in his empathy for all his constituents, while others, dealing with serious financial crises, had to focus their minds on stabilizing their cities’ very shaky financial foundations.  Yet whatever the challenge they presented, they sought to make a difference in people’s lives. As I watched the thought process they brought to the eight challenges before them, I was reminded of Albert Einstein, who said, “The formulation of the problem is often more essential than its solution, which may be merely a matter of mathematical or experimental skill.”  These mayors were open to seeing new perspectives and formulating the problem in different ways to get to the right solution.

Problem solving can be in short supply in today’s political world, where scoring points can appear to be the primary goal.  That leads me to the second revelation from my time with the mayors: these conversations gave me an optimism for our public discourse and civic life that I’ve been missing in recent months. Public service for the public good is alive and well in America. Our mayors are facing tough problems while they are grappling with noisy interest groups, shrinking resources, politicized state and national governments, and much more. Yet they are plugging away, listening to different voices, shaping problems in new ways to reach healthy solutions.  That’s both comforting and reassuring.

It is easy to complain and obstruct.  My week with some of America’s mayors has challenged me to drop any easy path I may take towards complaint and worry and instead roll up my sleeves and get to work solving the problem.

Have a good week.

More to come…

DJB

Two Unexpected Books for These Times

The Immortal Irishman

The Immortal Irishman by Timothy Egan

It wasn’t until I was well into the second of two books I’ve devoured in the past few weeks that the timeliness of these very different works dawned on me.  Nothing in either the biography or novel – both released in 2016 – would have suggested that they were important books for our time, much less that there would be common threads.

And as a bonus, both are terrific reads.

Timothy Egan has produced a page-turning biography that captures the incredible saga of Thomas Francis Meagher (pronounced Mar), one of the most famous Irish Americans of all time.  Egan – one of my favorite writers (see the “Writers I Enjoy” list on the side of my blog page) – has previously written highly readable and well-researched histories on the Dust Bowl (The Worst Hard Time) and the founding of the U.S. Forest Service (The Big Burn).  In The Immortal Irishman: The Irish Revolutionary Who Became an American Hero, Egan bring Francis Meagher’s time and story to life.

Meagher was born to comfort in Ireland, but left that life to lead a failed uprising against the British during the Great Hunger of the 1840s.  In this part of the book, Egan’s description of the horrors of the potato famine and the English starvation of the Irish is visceral and hard-to-forget. For his part in the Young Ireland uprising, Meagher is “transported” to a Tasmanian exile on the other side of the world, yet escapes and comes to America where he is instantly hailed as the most famous Irish American in the land.

The 1850s in America have eerie parallels to today, with sectional divisions, strong partisan divides, and politicians who ignore the fundamental issues facing the country.  In the decades before the Civil War, the Know-Nothing Party – one of the predecessors to Trump’s Republican Party today – brought a nasty, nativist strain to politics that blamed immigrants – and especially Irish immigrants – for all the nation’s ills.  Irish-Americans were attacked in their homes, legislation blocked their arrival, and bigotry was both accepted and prevalent throughout the land.

Francis Meagher strode onto the stage and – through the power of his story and oratory – because a leader of Irish Americans in New York.  When the South (including a large number of Irish immigrants) fired on Ft. Sumter, Meagher helped recruit Irish Americans to join the Union cause.  In short order General Meagher was the head of the Irish Brigade, which was asked again and again to go into the worst situations in battles and save the day after the blunders of the Union’s incompetent generals.  The worst example was the charge they were forced to endure up Mayre’s Heights into the teeth of the Confederate Army at Fredericksburg.  The great Irish musician John Doyle captured that story in his terrific tune Clear the Way (with the music beginning after a short history lesson at about 2:48 in this video).

 

Disillusioned with the war, Meagher moves to Montana to become the territorial governor.  Hoping to finally make his fortune and create a New Ireland in the frontier, Meagher instead finds himself fighting injustice in this lawless territory.  The story ends with a mysterious death at age forty-three.  Egan provides compelling new information to perhaps help put a coda on this amazing life.

The Immortal Irishman is a first-rate work.  The relevance is that he reminds us that the nativist strain we face today has a long and sad history in the U.S.

Homegoing

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

I expected to enjoy Timothy Egan’s work.  I had no idea what to expect when I bought a young writer’s first novel on a whim – literally because a woman was standing at the book table at the Politics and Prose members sale and said, “This is a great read.”  We talked about other things she liked and her tastes seem to align with mine…so I took a flyer.

Am I glad I did.

Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing is a very impressive debut novel.  The story of two half sisters born in eighteenth century Ghana, and the families their different paths produced, is epic and emotional.  Gyasi skips back and forth between the family that stays in Ghana and the other one – unbeknownst to the first – who is sold off into slavery in the U.S.  She follows each, generation after generation, through wars in Africa and slavery and the Great Migration in the U.S.

The pace is brisk and there are multiple story lines to maintain.  The reader is helped along by the family tree in the front of the book, and somewhere along the way I found myself drawn into the rhythm of the story being told on both sides of the Atlantic.  Some reviewers have suggested that the African chapters are the stronger of the two strains of storytelling, but I found that to be a minor quibble.  Certainly the chapters about the family members sold into slavery are more familiar, but that doesn’t make them any less compelling.

Homegoing is yet another epic reminder of how a country that proclaims freedom was built on conquest and slavery.  So many times I came up from an extended period of reading this fascinating work, only to be faced with what seems like never-ending examples of bigotry and conquest coming from the evening news.

Two very different books.  Two excellent writers.  Two works that help us see that the national story is truly much more complex, layered, and difficult than we often realize.

Highly recommended.

More to come…

DJB