Monday, September 26, 2011

Thoughts about History

I was thinking about stories and history and life the other day, about the sorts of books I read and how I feel when I read them, and about the local history I know and share, and I realized something. For me, there are two types of history. Maybe this is normal, but it's not, but I think it's interesting enough to merit a blog post all the same.

The main type of history is, of course, world history, all the facts and stories we've gathered about the span of human existence. It's epic and complicated, fantastic and scary, repeating and fascinating. It's sometimes hard to separate facts from fictions or synthesize what actually happened from all the varying reports. Most importantly, the people who populate this kind of history don't feel like people. I can read about Sumerians, Romans, Ming Chinese, Elizabethans, 19th-Century Americans, and men in WWII trenches, and unless I'm reading firsthand accounts, nobody feels real even though I know they were. There's an aura of fiction to this kind of history, and one I'd imagine historians and historical novelists have to push past at every turn.

And then there's the history of the places I know intimately, the stories about specific events and people who shaped the parts of my province I know best. While there's still a slight sense that the events aren't real, it's still a lot more grounded. I can point to landmarks or stand on hillsides and say, "This is where such-and-such happened" or "So-and-so could've been here then". I took a walking tour of historic Vancouver a couple weeks ago and had a strong feeling of "yes, this happened" because I could see the streets, knew the buildings, and, importantly, knew that the people being talked about were the same rough-and-ready types who had first colonized the area I grew up in. When I think about this type of history, I have a sense of ownership, that this is my history and something to be proud of.

This divide between world history and local history parallels my reasons for reading histories and historical novels. Most historical fiction I read or want to read, I choose because I want to know what life was like in a certain place at a certain time. The biographies and histories I choose are picked for the same sorts of reasons. I want to expand my knowledge base and find things out. But the novels, bios, and histories I've read about British Columbia—the gold rush, the ranchers, the loggers, and so on—I read because I know the basic stories and want to see how they're realized on the page. I use those books more like a time machine than an archive, and when I'm reading them, there's a deeper sense of "this could have happened" than I get with other historical fiction. I also get the time machine effect through firsthand accounts, as I alluded earlier.

I imagine this is probably a pretty common thing. History's always more immediate when you can see where it happened, or when you can see artifacts. The sense I got of European history, and the ancient world, while I was touring Europe so many years ago was incredible. And of course, local history often has a folklore quality to it. We tend to mythologize important people and events, and tell our children about them at a young age. The biggest hero of the area I grew up was a guy named Billy Barker, who found a motherlode that spurred a gold rush that built a city and drew ranchers into the area. Without him, the town I grew up wouldn't have been founded. There were other rushes, and other miners in the area first, but he's the guy everyone's heard about. I also learned the mythology of the fur trade, the Northwest Passage, and Canada's explorers.

At what point does local history become the more global "characters-not-people" history? How long does it have to be before the cultural memories fade? How much area can be called local? (My schoolbooks mythologized the colonization and exploration of the whole country, but the only bits at felt real are the bits that happened to BC.) Is this mythologizing of history what created the world's myths? I don't know. I don't even know if there's a single answer. But it's something interesting to think about, isn't it?

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