Friday, April 3, 2015

Two Approaches To History: Michener’s Mexico and Philbrick's Bunker Hill

This week I finished read Nathaniel Philbrick's Bunker Hill, a meticulously researched account of the events the preceded and to some extent instigated the American Revolution.

While reading this book I began to be aware of a pattern in many such contemporary re-tellings of history past. I noticed it first while reading The Long Hunter, a new Daniel Boone biography, perhaps 20 years ago. Lawrence Elliott produced the book because of the new availability of letters and other historical documents, he could paint a more accurate picture of the pioneer. In addition, because times have changed, readers would be more open to hearing “inconvenient truths” about one of America’s early heroes.

Bunker Hill is just this kind of book. Philbrick has sifted through acres of letters and documents, court records and diaries, to find new details that might shed light on features of the story that have remained in shadow due to the bold manner in which this tale has previously been told. The characters remain the same – Paul Revere, Samuel Adams, General Gage -- but we see them from a different light.

The problem I have with the book and other history books of this ilk (The Long Hunter being an exception) is that the details can become tedious at time. It’s like a competition between moving the story forward and getting all the facts in there as if they are essential to a true understanding. And maybe that’s the problem. A really true, true understanding is not fully possible as these people lived in different times, and no matter how vividly the picture is painted, it still has shortcomings, not the least of which is maintaining the interest of the reader so that he keeps turning the page.

There’s an alternate approach to illuminating history, and that is the historical novel. James Michener’s novels rest on the same foundation of Bunker Hill, thorough research. But the painting is now handled with a bit more artfulness. That is, Michener uses a fictional tale to carry readers into facets of history they have never visited before. Mexico is one such story.

If I remember my facts properly, Michener at this point in his career had a team of eight researchers for some or many of his books. To his credit he chose not to squeeze all the material they unearthed into his novel. It would have created an unnecessarily long aside. Instead, he produced a separate book, a small volume titled The Battle of San Jacinto. This little gem of a story was not a necessary appendage, so he wisely lopped it off.

It’s more than twenty years since I read Michener’s Mexico, but I well recall its story. Norman Clay, a Mexican-born journalist who writes for a major paper, goes to 1961 Mexico to research a bullfighting story. In the process readers learn about the complicated history of the mexclados who make up this nation, a mix of strong and weak tribes, perpetrators of inquisitions and their victims, and enterprises both noble and corrupt. Life is complicated, and nowhere moreso than Mexico.

The novel has its critics but it succeeded in keeping me engaged at the time, for 672 pages, perhaps in part because I'd lived in Mexico for a year about a dozen years earlier. Some critics found the details about bullfighting off-putting, but as I had previously read Hemingway's Death in the Afternoon I found it to be just another piece of a larger story. It did not seem out of place, perhaps even being a metaphor for Mexico's bloody overall history.

This review from Amazon.com sums up what I felt about Mexico at the time:

As a 1st time Michener reader, I loved Mexico. Michener weaves a story that is at once a tour-de-force of bullfighting, a sweeping panorama of Mexican history, an apologetic of the Mexican psyche for (typically) arrogant North Americans, and an exploration of the purpose of life for a middle aged Mexican-American journalist. It is a credit to Michener's art that he can pull off all that in a seamless and gripping read.

I myself have written a first draft of a historical novel titled Uprooted that takes place in Estonia during the Second World War. It will never have the breadth of a Michener novel, but who knows where it will lead? Michener wrote much of Mexico in the early 1960's and finished it 30 years later. I first wrote mine as a screenplay in 1994. Maybe I can see the project completed in 2024?

Meantime, may your weekend be a memorable one as you reflect on this day in history.

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