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November 13, 2014



History has expanded in recent decades to include more about the diversity of ordinary people and less about the politics and wars of white male leaders. At first, this new research focused on new subjects, and historians, myself included, continued writing of our findings in the same old ways. Now we are actually seeing experimentation with both new methods of doing history and new ways to share what we find.  See my reviews for more about these books.



Originally history grew out of odes celebrating tribal victories. Down through the 20th century, histories tended to be national, often written by men involved in political leadership. As we looked more closely, however, we saw that what we wanted to know does not predictably stop at national boundaries. While national stories continue to be valuable, some historians are deliberately researching the relationships between countries and regions. Marilyn Lake and Anne Curthoys have edited Connected Worlds: History in Transnational Perspective, a collection of articles about why such history is needed. Some of the most important non-fiction I have read recently has included books that explore the shifting power relations among nations. Before European Hegemony: The World System A.D. 1250-1350, by Janet Abu-Lughod,  has an economic focus and looks at how trade routes developed and diminished before global colonization. The Birth of the Modern World: Global Connections and Comparisons, 1780-1914, by C.A. Bayly, picks up with the story of how and why Europeans manged to dominant the globe. These books stretched my mind and gave me needed context for more specialized global books.



One problem historians have encountered is finding a fascinating individual who left too few documents to write about adequately. In answer, several of us have figured out how to use such figures as a prism for exploring not simply their lives, but also the times in which they lived. In Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin, Jill Lerope focues on the sister of Benjamin Franklin. Using Virginia Woolfe’s analogy, she points out how Franklin’s sister could no more have had her brother’s success than Shakespeare’s sister could have had his. Two books, both published by the University of Nebraska Press, each look at the history of a Native American woman in order to understand the transition each was experiencing as colonizers affected their lives. Lenape Among the Quakers, by Dawn Marsh, looks at how the expansion of Quaker settlement changed the life of a Lenape woman living in the Delaware Valley outside of Philadelphia.  Katie Gale: A Coast Salish Woman’s Life on Oyster Bay, by Llyn De Dannon, is set a century later, about a woman of mixed tribal descent living on the edge of the ocean in the Pacific Northwest and supporting herself as white community grew about her.  Both books bring to life the people being studied by describing their context and are full of “what might have been” if human beings had been a bit wiser.



Like everyone else, historians are creating graphic histories. Some are aimed at readers of all ages like March, by Congressman John Lewis, about his own involvement in the Civil Rights Movement, or Which Side Are You On?, by George Ella Lyon, about writing of the famous labor organizing song by that title.  Others are meant for college students and other adults. For example, Abina and the Important Men: A Graphic History, by Trevor R. Getz and Liz Clarke, explicitly discusses how to judge the authenticity of recent, more nuanced histories. It was published by Oxford Press, which traditionally limits itself to academic books.


3 Comments leave one →
  1. November 14, 2014 10:27 am

    Oh I can’t wait to read some of the books you mention here! The only one I’ve already read is Before European Hegemony.

  2. aartichapati permalink
    November 14, 2014 4:54 pm

    Abina and the Important Men sounds so great! I want to read the Before European Hegemony book, too.

    Have you ever read 1491 and its sequel, 1493? I thought they were a fantastic introduction to world history.

    • November 15, 2014 12:04 pm

      Great. I think you’ll like them. No, I haven’t read 1491 and 1493. Thanks for reminds me that I want to and putting them on my list.

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