5 Books that Change the Way We See History
Humans crave stories. That’s not a declaration of opinion but a statement of fact. Stories are the basis of the entire publishing and news industries, they make our art more compelling, and they frame our entire public discourse. And this isn’t new. Ancient pastoralists and societies have used stories to explain and frame their reality since the birth of human civilization.
History is, effectively, the story of human civilization. The subject tells us who we are, where we came from, and what has happened to get here. Hence the reason so many novels are set during a historical period or intertwine in major events.
Yet, the stories we so often think we know are usually only a fraction of the record. Our biases or our focus tends to impact the stories we tell. Parts of the story are left untold. Today, we’re going to look at books that attempt to set the record straight.
Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly
We all know the names Gus Grisson, Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and John Glenn. We know about NASA’s projects Mercury and Apollo. The space race. “Beat the Reds!” and all that jazz. But that’s only part of the story.
Margot Lee Shetterly tells the little known story of the black, female mathematicians and human computers who made space flight possible. Tasked with space-flight calculations, they were responsible for the equations that determined success or failure. For the astronauts themselves, it meant life or death. And all at a time when Jim Crow still dominated the south.
Hero of the Empire by Candice Millard
Winston Churchill is known for two roles: First Lord of the Admiralty during World War 1 and Prime Minister of Britain during World War 2. But most people can’t tell you much about the man beyond these relatively short windows of time. His modern public image is born from two positions in government.
Candice Millard’s Hero of the Empire covers an instrumental series of events in Winston Churchill’s life. After losing his first Parliamentary election, Churchill was commissioned as a war correspondent to cover the Second Boer War. Millard’s dramatic and gripping tale focuses on Churchill’s Rooseveltian ego, excess and heroics in the instrumental event that would propel his fame and presage his rise in politics.
Liar Temptress Soldier Spy by Karen Abbott
The Civil War is the instrumental event in the history of the United States (and arguably the world). The four-year-long war changed the trajectory of the still young republic and pulled back the curtain on the horrors of modern warfare. Historical scholarship has examined, reviewed and debated the war in detail. Yet they often overlook the role of women.
In Liar Temptress Soldier Spy, Karen Abbott looks into the lives of four women who did considerably more than tend to wounded and mind their homes. Women on both sides went beyond their assigned roles as homemakers to play an active part in the war. As soldiers and spies, most of the women Abbott examines were known to the great and powerful of their day.
The Zookeeper’s Wife by Diane Ackerman
European existence in World War 2 was frought with fear. The Nazi regime, with dreams of pan-German domination of the entire world, had highlighted certain races for extinction. We all know the names Schindler, Mendes, Wallenberg and Michaelov. But for every one you know, there are a dozen others you don’t.
Ackerman’s The Zookeeper’s Wife tells the relatively unknown story of Jan and Antonina Zabinski. Working as the zookeeper of the Warsaw Zoo, Jan and his wife, Antonina, became members of the Polish resistance after the invasion and occupation of Poland. The pair hid Jewish “guests”, many from the doomed Warsaw ghetto, in the zoo, passing many through to freedom.
Princesses Behaving Badly by Linda Rodriguez McRobbie
When you think princess, most likely your mind goes to something Disney related. Disney has played a huge role in defining princesses to modern audiences. Cinderella, Snow White, Frozen, Beauty and the Beast, they all play a role in shaping the ideal of a princess. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s just true.
Linda Rodriguez McRobbie’s fascinating Princesses Behaving Badly changes the narrative. Instead, she focuses on the princesses who went against the grain and did remarkable things. Her deep research provides fun, interesting, and sometimes inspirational tales without the heavy, deep read of most history titles.