From the editor of several popular collections of letters (Behind the Lines, 2005, etc.), a down-home account of his travels in search of neglected historical sites.
There’s no particular rhyme or reason to the places Carroll chose to visit, which range from the tiny Hawaiian island where a Japanese pilot crash-landed after bombing Pearl Harbor to Daniel Boone’s grave, which may not actually hold his remains and which gives rise to a long discourse on other famous people who were buried, dug up and buried again elsewhere. This grab-bag approach suits Carroll, whose appreciation of history is sincere but shallow. At one point, in a Cleveland bar that stands on the site of a movie theater whose showing of a risqué French film led to the Supreme Court’s landmark 1964 ruling on obscenity, the author got into a conversation with a patron “about how boring we thought [history] was growing up.” Now that he loves history, the author’s strategy for converting others is to make it as unintimidating as possible: He offers chatty descriptions of his journeys and of his guides to the various sites, who were often just amateur historians like Carroll, and he makes eloquent pleas for the importance of such forgotten episodes as the Wyoming race riot that killed dozens of Chinese coal miners in 1885. Still, it’s odd that he spends so much time at places where no physical traces remain of the incidents he wishes to commemorate. “The stories, not the physical sites, are what’s paramount,” he avers, a claim that would be more convincing if it weren’t immediately followed by, “and they become more indelibly impressed in our minds when we travel to where they occurred.” Since Carroll is a good storyteller and has done an impressive amount of research, his lack of rigor and aw-shucks manner will grate only on readers who prefer a more systematic approach to history.
Amiable pop history.