Saturday, June 16, 2012

Is History Boring? If So (And Many People Think It Is), Why?

My participation in LinkedIn Groups continues to provide fodder for some very interesting blog topics. Another discussion that I joined recently is the "History Enthusiasts Group." One of their threads starts: "History 'is boring', says bestselling historical novelist."
Boring Lecture - Note the newspaper reader in the back.
Duke University Archives

Of course, the fact that "History Enthusiasts" are exploring such a topic is somewhat ironic. We're all essentially "preaching to the choir." But many people do consider history boring. Often, this is because they were required to take one or more history courses, and the instructor never managed to catch their interest. (And, unfortunately, some history teachers manage to actively turn off interest.)

To me, the basic ingredient that makes history, or any topic, not boring is the enthusiasm of the presenter. In fact, in my experience, that ingredient "trumps" about anything (except inadequate preparation).

As those of you who follow this blog know, my degrees are in chemistry, which I also love. (I wasn't so sure I could make a living with history as a major.) I had a full-time research job, but was also fortunate enough to teach college chemistry part time, from freshman through graduate level. I was certainly not the smartest professor my students ever had, or the slickest presenter, but I was not afraid to show my enthusiasm for the subject. I have quite a few kind notes from former students thanking me for what they learned. (I was even credited with a few promotions for my working adult students, which is surely "a stretch." Knowledge must be applied.)

Still, one Group participant commented that the teacher or presenter should also show some degree of "relevance" for the historical information. I agree. Enthusiasm "buys you time," but you must use that time to connect with your students, or your audience if it's some sort of public lecture. Fortunately, except for the most calcified intellects (which can happen at a sadly early age), people do generally like to learn new things. So you don't necessarily have to teach them something that will advance their career, improve their sex life, or whatever. (Although those would certainly help.)

They just need to be able to relate to the information. I once gave a talk on the history of technology to a group of scientist and engineers. I called it "Inflation, Gunpowder, and Freeze-Dried Potatoes." [Aside: Since I live in the state of Idaho, any reference to potatoes earns "bonus points."] Everyone in the room knew about dried potatoes ... but no one knew that the Incas of South America were freeze drying them as far back as 1,500 years ago. Instant connection, and an attentive audience.

I never taught pre-college classes, but I did give "guest lectures" and demonstrations to most of those grade levels. The break in routine and my introduction as a "real" scientist gave me an natural advantage ... to start with. But I had watched other guests lose a room, by (1) not connecting with the kids, whatever their age level, and (2) droning on like they'd rather be anywhere but talking to a bunch of children.

I always asked the teacher(s) what they were covering in class, and then tried to tailor my presentation to that. (Not always easy when other teachers heard I was in the building and asked me to add their class to my agenda.) Not claiming any special insight; it just seemed to make sense.

A pet peeve of mine is teaching science/technology as a disembodied collection of facts and "laws." (I understand the constraints on class time, but that does not change the frustration.) Anyway, I always tried to work in at least one or two quick scientific biographies, i.e. history. (Madame Curie was always a star, but surprisingly -- and sadly -- few had heard of Aldo Leopold, a star in the American environmental movement.)

The extra effort was worth it: No one is more eager to learn than youngsters who are treated with respect and a degree of affection. To see their faces light up when they "get it" is definitely a thrill for the presenter. (BTW: Not going to say I never lost a class, or an audience, but enthusiasm and relevance almost always "saved the day.")

This topic also cross-connects with the other Group I am in: "Historical Fiction." Well-written and properly researched historical fiction can be a very useful tool in "making history come alive" to students. However, the author must do his/her "homework" (research). Obviously, the writer must adhere to the known facts about historical events and people. Equally importantly (but much more difficult unless there is a personal memoir), the political and social forces driving the characters should be true to the period.
Basis for Hit Movie Gettysburg

"Technical" anachronisms -- artifacts used in a story before they were known to be invented -- are generally easy to spot. Earlier, I posted a blog about language anachronisms, which can be much harder to detect. I won't repeat that material here.

But what I'll call -- for want of a more precise term -- "societal" anachronisms are actually more pernicious.

An easy example: "Pensions," in the sense of financial support for older people from a governing body or a large corporation, are a relatively recent innovation ... although we now consider them almost a right. To say even a highly skilled craftsman in Medieval times was living on a retirement pension would probably be considered an anachronism. Without a good explanation of why this commoner had received such special treatment, the author is presenting a totally inaccurate picture of what life was like at that time. (I have other, more upsetting examples, but this should make my point.)

Of course, minor anachronisms can actually provide worthwhile "teaching moments," if they're properly used. For example, the presence of a Medieval pensioner in a novel could easily provide a springboard for a class discussion of how those who could no longer work were really treated.

Bottom line: History can indeed be boring ... but it need not be if the historian, or history teacher, makes the effort. (And carefully chosen readings of historical fiction can help.)

New Happenings for Boise River Gold Country: Book-Signings Scheduled

Old-Timer Panning for Gold.
Idaho State Historical Society.
I have updated my earlier blog article about the book with this information, but I'll repeat the news here: Boise River Gold Country is now available from Barnes & Noble and other online booksellers. In general, that means you can go into a local "bricks and mortar" bookstore and order it. (For more details about the book itself, visit that article, or click on the cover photo on the left.)

At the end of this month, I will be attending the Jackson Hole Writers Conference. They have scheduled a general book signing on the evening of June 30. There, you can buy the book and I will sign it. However, if you chose to order the book online (use the CreateSpace store – I get a bigger royalty) and it's delivered in time, I'll be happy to sign it any time you can catch me at the conference. If you can't be there for the signing, see me earlier and I can sell and sign one directly. On the advice of many other published authors, I always carry a supply with me. (You will need to go to Idaho City, if you'd like Skip Myers to sign it also. The book was his idea.)

Now that Barnes & Noble can order the book for their customers, they have agreed to host a book signing at their store in the Grand Teton Mall here in Idaho Falls. The date is now set as Saturday, July 7. The B&N outreach person has ordered posters to promote the event and plans to list it on our newspaper's "community bulletin board" and with other local media. We will start the signings at noon and continue at least two hours ... and as long as there's interest. (Well, out to closing time anyway.)

 At some point, we hope to do similar signings at the B&N stores in Twin Falls and Boise, but that is just a notion right now.

The next book signing in the Boise Basin will be during their overall Gold Discovery Sesquicentennial Celebration, July 28 - August 4. Although they have devised an overall schedule, some of the details still seem to be "up in the air."

We hope to have one book signing event scheduled around the Opening Ceremonies on July 28 in Centerville. Then we would probably have another toward the end of the week, in Idaho City.

Preview Available now has a preview of Boise Basin Gold Country available with their listing. When you click on the "Look Inside" tag, it shows the Copyright page, the Table of Contents, a couple pages of the preface, all of Chapter One, and then the photo credits and references.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

The “Unreview” : Anachronisms in Historical Fiction

As those of you who follow this blog know, I sometimes include book reviews here. Recently, a writer asked me if I would review a piece of historical fiction, a novel set in ancient times. I was pleased at the request and agreed. However, for reasons that will become clear, I decided against a standard assessment of the book.

That’s because major problems in the treatment kept jerking me out of the narrative flow. The reasons why are instructive. But I do not plan to identify either the author or the book title. I will also do my best to mask the exact nature of the story itself. The problems I encountered illustrate, I’m afraid, why many historians don’t much like historical fiction.

The sample copy arrived in the mail and I immediately read the back-cover blurb. (I hasten to note that the cover art was very well done.) A glance at the first page or so heightened my excitement. Novels set in Classical Greek or Roman times are rather unusual. The story I was to review was set over a time period that spanned the later years of the Seleucid Empire.

To refresh your memory, the Seleucid Empire ruled a large part of the Middle East after the breakup of Alexander the Great’s empire. Antiochus the Great ascended to the Seleucid throne in 223 BC. He expanded and stabilized the empire, but also suffered a painful defeat against the Roman Republic in 188. After his death the following year, the empire declined. Thus, around 140 BC, the Jewish Maccabees wrested a semi-independent kingdom from the Seleucids.

The novel is written as the memoirs of three men, linked by family, whose lives overlap during this period. Each serves with the Roman Army. I began reading with much anticipation. However, after not too many pages, I began to lose the flow. I’d have a spurt of interest, and then feel like I’d been thrown off track.

I had been reading as a reader, but now I backed off a bit and began to read analytically. At first, I thought the problem arose from some distracting matters of writing “craft” – not directly relevant to the subject of this blog. But then came (cliché alert) “the straw that broke the camel’s back.” The narrator says that another character “needed to vent” about something terrible that had happened. This phrase, used in the sense of an emotional catharsis, is a rather modern Americanism. In fact, “vent” with a meaning of “express freely” did not appear in the language until around 1590 AD.

An “anachronism” is something considered “out of its time.” Some are blatant: A character using an automatic pistol during the American Civil War. (Automatic pistols – like the famous Colt .45 automatic – were not invented until the 1890s.) Others are harder to spot: A character checking his wristwatch while he waited for the Admiral Horatio Nelson funeral procession to start. (Lord Nelson was killed at Trafalgar in 1805; the first wristwatch appeared in 1868. Knowledgeable readers would consider this a blatant anachronism, but I suspect others might miss it.)

Of course, “the master,” William Shakespeare, is often accused of anachronisms in his plays – and rightly so. However, back then, very little study had been devoted to “what life was like” in those earlier times. Even classically-educated Elizabethans learned few details of daily life in ancient times. The lower classes knew nothing at all. So playwrights selectively used upper-class artifacts shown in historic statuary and frescoes, or contemporary props that would at least be familiar to their audience. Moreover, as just one example, reproducing Roman costumes, weapons, etc. for a stage production of Julius Caesar would have been far too costly.

But perhaps the most difficult anachronisms occur in the use of language … and that turned out to be why I could not really “get into” the story. The narrators of these memoirs are meant to be Romans, living in the period 220-140 BC. Although one endured years of slavery (as a captured soldier), they are from the upper classes of Roman society and are well-educated.

Early on, the story-teller refers to the first “Punic War.” Well … the Romans of the time did not call it that. The epic poem, Punica, was not written until at least 170 years after the Romans destroyed Carthage. The term “Punic” for “pertaining to Carthage” did not come into general usage until around 1530 AD.

No big deal. The reference quickly set the time frame, and I barely noticed the anomaly the first time through. But on the very next page, the narrator’s father remarks that he had “grown like a weed.” Somehow, that did no sound like something a Roman would say, so I checked it out. The first known use of that analogy was in John Heywoods Proverbs, published in 1546 AD. In fact, “weed” has no Latin cognate; it is Old English, from about 1400 AD and based on a Germanic root.

On the next page, the narrator states that he knew he could not “talk back to” his father. That phrase, in the sense of disagree or argue, dates from around 1800 AD, or later. Beyond that, both “talk” and “back” are of Germanic origin.

The use of specific words also began to distract me. “Booty,” as applied to captured wealth, dates from around 1450 and has a Germanic root. (The narrator later speaks of the “spoils” of war, a more appropriate term.) “Intelligence” in the sense of “information obtained from scouts and/or spies” did not come into usage until around 1550 AD. The narrator also says he participated in a “debriefing,” an egregious anachronism since that term did not exist until around 1945.

You may well feel that I’m being too picky. And it’s true that the presence of any one, or even a few of these anachronistic references would not necessarily be a problem. (Although even one would be a “deal breaker” for some readers.) But there are so many, including some that are considered modern clichés. When the reader cannot get through a few pages without encountering another one, the anachronisms become a major distraction.

And it did go on like that. At one point, in a span of three pages, the narrator used “intelligence” (for “information”) again, plus “britches” to describe some barbarian’s trousers. Besides these specific words, he also used the phrases “weak kneed” and “be his own boss.” First of all, “britches” is a Twentieth Century term. (There is a perfectly good Latin word – bracae – for trousers, by the way.) “Weak kneed,” used to show concern or nervousness, did not come into usage until 1850 AD. Moreover, “weak” is from a Germanic root. The “boss” phrase is quite modern. The word itself, from a Dutch (i.e. Germanic) term for “master” (baas), did not appear in English until 1640 AD

I tried to persevere after that, but a few pages later I hit the “needed to vent” usage. After that, I began skipping through the book, jumping ahead pages at a time. I continued to find language anachronisms, some repeats plus many new ones. To bolster this “unreview,” I even made notes about phrases whose origins I could trace. The examples I’ve used in this blog are only a third of those I recorded – and that list came from less than a third of the book. (There were also others that caught my attention, but I could not easily find their sources.)

Right toward the end, the narrator says, “What’s done is done” to denote unhappy circumstances that cannot be changed. This phrase first appeared in Shakespeare’s Macbeth, published around 1605 AD. “Done” itself, as the past participle of “do” is from Old English and is therefore of Germanic origin.

An author must tread a fine line between authenticity and being understandable to his/her audience. And English offers many, many choices in how to say something. Here, the author’s choices just didn’t sound right, coming from those characters. Thus, the narrators never convince me that they are actual Romans, telling their own stories. And without that “willing suspension of disbelief,” I did not much care what happened to them.

In the end, as noted above, I decided not to publish a standard review of this book. Sad. I really wanted to enjoy the book. The story itself is well-conceived, and the characters seem like they could be interesting. The author has clearly done a lot of research about that period of history, and has crammed an amazing amount of it into the text.

Some will surely think I’m being too picky about the anachronistic language, and perhaps they’re right. Without that, I would have probably enjoyed the characters, solid historical research, and a pretty good story. If you think you might be interested in reading the novel, send me a separate e-mail and I’ll identify it for you. (It’s available at Amazon and Barnes & Noble.)

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Stagecoach and Freight Routes in South-Central Idaho

Before railroads entered Idaho, animal-drawn stagecoaches and wagons transported most people and freight. Main routes connected large settlements, while feeder lines came and went as events dictated. One of the more interesting side routes operated in South-Central Idaho in the early 1880s.
Wagons on the Oregon Trail. Utah State Historical Society.

When Congress created Idaho Territory in March 1863, many emigrant wagons, mostly drawn by ox teams, still crossed the region. They followed the Oregon Trail, but there was no stagecoach service along that route. Not until August of 1864 did scheduled stagecoach service arrive in Boise City. From there, the line continued more or less along the old Oregon Trail to The Dalles in Oregon.

That route across southern Idaho from northern Utah became the most traveled road in the Territory. The second most favored track ran across eastern Idaho into Montana. There, coaches and freight wagons took a path that was generally similar to the later railroad route.

Then, in 1869, crews completed the transcontinental railroad. A station at Kelton, Utah, near the northwest tip of the Great Salt Lake, became the preferred link for central Idaho and points west. Except in the winter, passengers and freight followed the so-called Kelton Road through City of Rocks. From there, they turned north and then west to the station at Rock Creek, about 12 miles southeast of today’s Twin Falls.
Stagecoach on Kelton Road. Idaho State Historical Society.

During part of the winter, passengers traversed the City of Rocks segment on horse-drawn sleighs. Meanwhile, freight wagons avoided that area, taking a track through Albion, then the seat of Cassia County, and on to Rock Creek. For nearly a decade, the route crossed the Snake River via a ferry 25-30 road miles from Rock Creek. (Over the years, at least two, and possibly three operators ran a ferry in this general area.) Coaches and wagons then followed the old Oregon Trail into Boise City.

About every twelve miles, stage lines of that day positioned stops where fresh teams replaced jaded ones. So-called “home stations” were located about fifty miles apart. Here, passengers could purchase a rough meal and perhaps accommodations for the night. The town of Rock Creek started as one such home station.

In 1878, John Hailey’s Utah, Idaho, and Oregon Stage Company (UI&O) improved the road along the south side and switched the route to cross via Glenns Ferry. They followed a different track onto the high ground, but rejoined the Oregon Trail further west before continuing into Boise.

The following year, the discovery of fabulous lodes of silver in the Wood River drainage set off a rush into that area. By 1881, the towns of Ketchum, Hailey, and Bellevue were booming. The Idaho Statesman headlined (February 22, 1881), “Stage Line to Wood River.”

The UI&O had work crews out stocking stage stops along two branches. One split off from the old Oregon Trail in an easterly direction, headed for the soon-to-be town of Shoshone. From there, it continued into Bellevue. Stages on this branch carried passengers to and from Boise City.

Stage Station Footprint. Landowner photo.*
The other new branch left the Kelton Road at Goose Creek, about twelve miles west of Albion. This route crossed the Snake via Starrh’s Ferry, which had been granted an operating license in July 1880. From the ferry, the track headed generally northwest. Traces of the first station north of the river on this branch can still be seen.

The track passed through some rugged country, including several miles where sand dunes impeded progress. It finally linked up with the Boise branch to continue into Bellevue. In the spring, the Idaho Statesman reported (April 23, 1881), “Two daily stages are to be run from Kelton to Wood River.”

Stagecoach (green) and Railroad (gray/black) Lines.
The UI&O did not have the field all to themselves, however. They has to contend with a stage line that linked with the Utah & Northern (U&N) Railway at Blackfoot. The competition was not always friendly. Blackfoot boosters claimed (Blackfoot Register, April 16, 1881) “that a report had been circulated in Ogden that the new iron bridge over Snake river had been washed away.” They blamed their competitor for circulating false rumors to scare customers away.

When the Wood River mines first opened up, operators had no way to process their complex lead-silver minerals locally. Thus, for the first few years, they hauled their best ore over the Starrh Ferry route to Kelton. Rails cars then carried the ore to smelters in Salt Lake City, Denver, and as far away as Omaha.

Wagon Ruts in the Lava.
Landowner photo.*
So far as is known, none of the ore went to the railroad station at Blackfoot … for a very good reason. The U&N tracks were then narrow gauge – they would not switch to standard gauge until July 1887. The transcontinental line was all standard gauge, so operators would have faced the added expense of transferring the ore or using special rail cars.

In any case, this lucrative freight business did not last very long. All through 1882, crews for the Oregon Short Line Railroad (OSL) laid tracks west from Pocatello. Early that year, the town of Shoshone came into being, and the tracks reached there in February 1883. Three months later, the OSL completed a branch line from Shoshone into Hailey. By then, long haul traffic – passengers and freight – had stopped using the Kelton Road and its branches.

Nonetheless, most segments continued in use for local traffic. Of course, the railroad caused some rerouting. The Idaho Statesman reported (July 1, 1884) that a new route was “contemplated from Goose Creek, via Starrh’s ferry to Kimama, on the O. S. L.” (Kimama is now a railroad siding a bit over 20 miles north of Burley.)

Starrh’s Ferry manipulated the power of the river current to move back and forth. It thus ceased operation in 1904, when Milner Dam stopped the free flow of the Snake. Even then, well-worn stage and freight tracks served local traffic, and some eventually became major highway routes.

Around 1910-1920, “auto stages” finally replaced horse- or mule-drawn stagecoaches on most passenger routes around the state. These usually employed gasoline-powered touring cars; what we call “buses” arrived a few years later. Although hard evidence is lacking, seasonal stagecoach traffic on some back-country roads may have continued well into the 1930s.

* I am being deliberately vague about specific locations along this route, which was brought to my attention by a landowner in the area. Much of the old line passes through private property. The station remnants are on public land, but need to be preserved for possible future study.
References: [B&W], [Hawley]
John Bertram, et al, Rock Creek Station and Stricker Homesite: Idaho Historical Site Master Plan, Idaho State Historical Society (2001).
“Ben Holladay’s Overland Stage Line in Idaho,” Reference Series No. 1002, Idaho State Historical Society (January 1993).
Larry R. Jones, “Snake River Ferries,” Reference Series No. 54, Idaho State Historical Society (October 1982).
"Site Report - Wood River," Reference Series No. 206, Idaho State Historical Society (1981).
“Stage Lines – Overland and Kelton,” Reference Series No. 146, Idaho State Historical Society