Author Simon Winchester has only been a naturalized United States citizen since 2011, but you would never know it as he tells story after interesting story of, as the book subtitle suggests, “America’s Explorers, Eccentrics, and Mavericks, and the Creation of One Nation, Indivisible.” For years, Winchester has traveled the country (and the world, for that matter) extensively in his career as a journalist – although he was trained as a geologist. His work includes writing for The Guardian (UK), Conde Nast Traveler, National Geographic and the Smithsonian Magazine.
The author is a born storyteller, without a doubt, and not only does he tell the stories of America’s history but he intersperses them with stories of his own, related through his extensive travels and encounters with history. Interestingly, he divides the book into five parts with the following “themes”: Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal and Water. Using the underlying themes, he tells stories of American heroes known and unknown in a flowing, conversational style that’s easy and delightful to read. His background in science lends an authority to his writing as well.
He, of course, includes such familiar historical figures as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Lewis and Clark and Thomas Edison. But the stories of people whose discoveries are nonetheless important but largely forgotten are what strike me as the most fascinating (although I still learned a lot about people who I thought I knew well). For instance, I had never heard that Thomas Edison finalized some of his ideas about the incandescent light bulb while on a fishing trip in southern Wyoming (you’ll have to read the book!).
Lewis and Clark never mentioned seeing tumbleweeds in their trek across the West but in the 1870’s thistle seeds were accidentally imported in a sack of flax – and now we have tumbleweeds. One of the utopian communities that sprang up in the 1800’s (New Harmony) directly resulted in the vast American geological discoveries of that century – iconic places like Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon. Thomas Edison, even with all his genius, seemed to be a petty and vindictive character. While attempting to protect his inventions and reputation, he did more to, in fact, tarnish his reputation when he demonstrated the power of his direct current system by electrocuting an elephant.
These are but a few snippets about fascinating people who dedicated themselves to finding solutions to uniquely American challenges. Anyone interested in American history, especially unsung heroes, will enjoy this book. For me, it was simply a delight to read.
Have a GREAT day . . . someday it will be HISTORY!
© Sharon Hall (Digging History), 2014.