I Wish I’d Been There

Published By: Anchor

Book Category: Non-Fiction, History

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Reviewed by Muhammed Hassanali

Subtitled: Twenty Historians Bring to Life Dramatic Events That Changed America

Twenty historians and writers of historical fiction were asked to pick a defining event in American history and write an account of it. Given the sheer number of significant events in American history and the various lenses one could use to view history, picking a single event (or compiling twenty events) becomes a daunting task. The selection is a reflection of the authors’ personal choices. One willl remember endeavors like this one for their omissions–rather than their accomplishments.

Arranged chronologically, this work begins with the funeral of a chieftain in Cahokia and ends with Lyndon Johnson’s conversation with George Wallace in regard to civil rights. It also includes Washington’s treaty with the Creek Nation Indians, Lincoln’s assassination, the Salem witchcraft trial, the Amistad trial, the Scopes trial, Lewis and Clark expedition, Jenny Lind’s debut in New York, Chief Joseph’s surrender at Bear Paw Mountains, John Brown’s stand at Harper’s Ferry, John and Robert Kennedy discussing the Vietnam war, and others.

The contributors were given liberties to hear testimonies that were not written down, witness reactions which are not recorded, listen to thoughts that are only imagined, and experience conditions that are conjured up for that time period. As with works like this one, readers would find certain chapters more appealing than others, certain events more interesting than others and certain writing styles more provocative than others.

We engage in role play everyday. Our moments of empathy bear witness to such role play. Hence the idea of compiling a book where the author is free to role play is a good one. The “short story” format of the book allows the reader to take in history in small doses. While this works for those of us who only have a limited duration of reading time, it does not allow for in-depth historical analysis and insight. Permitting the authors to embellish what is known through historical records humanizes the historical events. However in some cases, the authors go a little too far. There are some really good chapters and some that need refinement – overall a mixed bag.

Armchair Interviews says: Unique look at history—what was chosen and what was omitted.

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