Saturday, December 11, 2010

The Story of Mount Desert Island by Samuel Eliot Morison



Why I read it: Annual trips to Mt. Desert Island.

Summary: A quick and dirty, witty local history of the land now famed far and wide as the host to Maine's Acadia National Park.

My Thoughts: Needs a map. Now onto the good stuff.

Growing up around the city of Boston, just south of it, in fact, and embroiling myself in the world of Massachusetts history, I've run across the work of Morison on innumerable occasions. He's a giant round these parts. But I've only read pieces here and there. I've never pushed through his opus on the Navy in World War II from cover to cover (to cover to cover to cover...), but I truly enjoyed One Boy's Boston, his memoir of growing up in the ritzy Beacon Hill section of the city.

So I knew the old Harvard professor had some wit to him before I picked up this book. But I was shocked - happily so - when I read his statements about the Red Paint People, a native tribe whom he termed "addicted to make-up" and surmised may have been wiped out by a neighboring tribe because they were too concerned with their cosmetics to defend themselves.

Wow.

Racism aside (the first place most people will go when reading this passage; keep in mind when it was written), these words jump off the page for one specific reason. Historians can get too bogged down in proper, technical and accepted writing techniques to creatively express the important details of a story. Morison obviously wanted to break free from the stereotype of the American historian. He wanted to show that history can be engaging, fun, eye-catching and thought-provoking.

I've spent my career in search of good nonfiction stories. Yes, I want everything I write to be factual, but factual does not have to mean boring. Remember the saying about truth? A lot of times it's just about connecting the dots and asking the right questions. In Morison's case, the fate of the Red Paint People was pure speculation and his write-up is merely an exercise in "thinking out loud" (the book is, in fact, a collection of lectures he gave for fellow "rusticators" in Maine). But it's a food-for-thought type of supposition. Go ahead - you come up with a theory as to why the Red Paint People faded away. Is it any more or less plausible than what Morison has thrown out?

I'll tell you one thing. I'm now a fan of the author, and look forward to reading more of his work.

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