Stirring Up History

I’ve mentioned a few time my love of books. More accurately, it’s the love of stories contained in the books. Occasionally, certain stories resonate more than others. This post isn’t a book review by any stretch. Instead, it’s more of a prompting to ask yourself when was the last time you read a book that resonated?

To give you some context, I most recently finished a book in the Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon, A Breath of Snow and Ashes. It’s the sixth book in the series, and given the length of the books, I can’t begin to do the story justice. Suffice to say for my purposes today that it’s historical fiction set in the mid- to late-1700s.

Gabaldon is an author who revels in the details, so her stories tend to overflow with the minutiae of everyday life during this time period. This latest book is placed right at the beginnings of the Revolutionary War and reminded me of the fact that we take the United States existence for granted. I say taken for granted, because at the time, the likelihood of a successful rebellion against Great Britain wasn’t a given. Despite the bigger populations in cities like Boston and Philadelphia, many settlers were spread throughout the 13 colonies in the backcountry. I can’t begin to imagine the difficulties of forming said individuals into fighting militias, including the arming, feeding, and moving of them.

Even more interesting, I was struck by how everyone—men, women, and children—were caught up in the conflict, without regard to class or age. History tends to place the leaders of the past on pedestals, perhaps stripping them of their humanity. Within the stories told by Gabaldon and other authors, both fiction and nonfiction, such characters are brought back to life, making clear both the good and the bad. I believe this fact is why I was so struck by this story. Granted, I thought some sections of this particular book a trifle overdone, but overall, I was left wondering, “Could I survive in that world?”

I’m a big proponent of modern life. I like my technology and conveniences, but I also think we’ve lost something important. We’ve strayed away from the notion that there’s something bigger at stake, that certain ideals hold a value beyond money. When did that happen?

I’m not blind to the gray areas that make up most of history. Few things, if any, are black and white. I’m not trying to gild the past either. It was dirty and dangerous with no certainty of what the future held. But I’m saddened that we’ve moved past the point of writing and speaking about the “truths [held] to be self-evident.” We no longer write documents like the Declaration of Independence that declare:

…all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. (link)

These words that stirred men to historic achievements now pop up in advertisements, and we don’t seem to care. Santayana had the right of it, “Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” (link) Based on what I’ve seen, I believe he’s right. Heaven help us all.



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October 2007
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