And you thought you knew American history

Paul O’Connor, professor, gentleman, journalist, scholar and sometime editorial writer, is on his annual drive-about. For a companion when he’s driving long distances, he has some new audio books. Here’s a look at one he found worth the listen.

By Paul T. O’Connor

HERE IS WHERE: Discovering America’s Great Forgotten History. By Andrew Carroll. Random House Audio. 11 CDs, 14 hours. $45.

Drive into almost any town in the United States, and you’re likely to run across a bit of our history of which you were totally unaware. Very likely, most of the residents of that town won’t know much about that history, either.

Americans have great pride in their history, but it’s just that, pride. Like the great Sam Cooke in his 1959 song, we “don’t know much about history” – and certainly not the history under our own feet or around the corner from our homes.

Author and history buff Andrew Carroll sets off to try to correct that inadequacy with this delightful and entertaining book, Here Is Where. He’s collected, over the years, files full of wonderful, lesser-known stories from our past, and he weaves them together over 14 highly enjoyable hours of audio.

A few of his stories are coincidences, such as the fact that the brother of Abe Lincoln’s assassin once daringly rescued the president’s son from certain death by quick action at a New York train station. Other stories are mind-boggling in their unlikelihood, such as the story of North Carolina’s Carbine Williams, who invented the carbine rifle while in prison.

Then there are the stories that Americans don’t know because we teach history so narrowly, boringly and shoddily. One scientist from Miles City, Mont., discovered vaccines for half of the world’s 14 deadliest diseases, yet hardly anyone in his own country knows who he is.

Hell, no one in Miles City knew of his accomplishments when Carroll visited that railroad town, even though a few people remembered the scientist, and he still had family there. In a bar in Gillette, Wyo., recently, I ran into two Miles City natives, and they didn’t know the guy, either. His discoveries saved hundreds of millions of lives.

Much of the history we know is wrong, or involves credit that went to the wrong person. Rosa Parks wasn’t the first black woman to refuse to budge from her seat on a Southern bus, and to be arrested for it. Wernher von Braun is not, and did not claim to be, the father of American rocketry. That title most fittingly describes Robert Goddard, who is probably the father of all modern rocketry, be it American or anyone else’s.

Did skyjacker D.B. Cooper – whose name is really Dan Cooper, but the original press mistake of calling him D.B. is yet to be corrected in popular lore – really get away when he parachuted out of a jetliner in 1971 with $200,000 ransom? Or, was copycat skyjacker James Johnson, who was captured days after pulling the same stunt several months later, the same guy?

The stories run on entertainingly, from the invention of cruise control by a blind man to America’s first experiment with prohibition in mid-19th century Portland, Me., which, coincidentally, is now home to a number of very good breweries. (But don’t confuse it with Portland, Ore., please!)

Carroll traveled to many of these sites and confirmed that almost all of them are completely unacknowledged by plaques or statues. The account of his adventures gives the book a story line, considering the disparate historical events he covers. He reads the book, himself, and no one will confuse him with a gifted speaker. But given the offbeat nature of his journey, his untrained reading of the story seems appropriate.

Finally, my favorite anecdote from the book comes from the Goddard chapter. Carroll notes that Goddard was ridiculed in a New York Times editorial after he theorized in the 1920s that man could fly in space, maybe to the planets. Shortly after the 1969 moon landings, the Times ran a retraction of its uncivil editorial from more than 40 years before.

Don’t you just love it when editorial writers are made to look foolish?

  • Paul T. O’Connor, contributing editor, is a university lecturer who is available for freelance writing assignments. Contact him at ocolumn@gmail.com.

 

 

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One Response to And you thought you knew American history

  1. Denis DuBay says:

    Nice review. I assume this book comes in book form as well, or even an eBook.

    One of these days I want to fly across the country in a small plane and collect a bunch of stories about it. But I’ll have to find a big bank first.

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