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Bookends: A journey through time and space across the USA February 5, 2015

Posted by klondykewriter in Bookends.
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Bookends: A journey through time and space across the USAThe Men who united the States

By Dan Davidson

July 23, 2014

– 910 words –

 

The Men Who United The States: America’s Explorers, Inventors, Eccentrics and Mavericks and the Creation of One Nation, Indivisible

By

Harper

400 pages

$34.99

 

Simon Winchester is a proud new American citizen who wears small “Old Glory” cufflinks on his shirts. I noticed them while we were having lunch together in Skagway back in May during the North Words Writers’ Symposium at which he was the keynote speaker. While he was born and raised in England and is an officer of the Order of the British Empire, an honour received from the Queen in 2006, he had by then travelled extensively in the United States and had spent decades, by his own reckoning, dreaming of becoming a naturalized American citizen.

So the author’s note at the beginning of the book begins, “On Independence Day, July 4, 2011, I swore a solemn oath before a federal judge on the afterdeck of the warship USS Constitution in Boston Harbor…” He even spells “harbour” in the approved American style.

He currently lives and works in Sandisfield. Mass. where, I was delighted to discover at the other end of the book, he and a group of friends publish a monthly paper called the Sandisfield Times. They do it to help create a sense of community. I’m all for that.

Winchester is a great believer in the things that forge links between people and communities and bind them together. Thus, there is this book, which pulls together a number of reflections he has been collecting and pondering for years.

I say that with some confidence as he had previously written about a trip along the Alaska Highway in his 2006 book A Crack in the Edge of the World: America and the Great California Earthquake of 1906, in which he effectively trashed Watson Lake, Whitehorse and Dawson City, but loved Haines Junction all to pieces.

In the present book he tells a little story about being hauled over for speeding somewhere between Watson Lake and Whitehorse and being treated very well by the RCMP officer who caught him.

What has all that to so with uniting the States? Well, it’s a little sidebar section on the building of the Alaska Highway, needed because, if you are going to talk about highways bringing a country together, you have to mention that one.

This book is organized according to an oriental classification of the elements, with sections called “When America’s Story …” was dominated by wood, went beneath the earth, was travelled by water, was fanned by fire, was told through metal.

This organizational structure was essential to Winchester in creating the book, but may be less significant to those of us who are reading it. I think you could drop down into this book at any given point and still get a lot from it, without necessarily taking note of the chronological march of events.

In person, Winchester is a raconteur, and his written word is very close to how he speaks. He even uses the word “quotidian” (meaning daily) in ordinary conversation, and is determinedly Oxfordian in his word choices. One of the advantages of reading this book using KOBO’s software was the immediate availability of a dictionary.

Winchester looks for quirky characters to tell stories about, and lots of the people who worked with the wood, earth, water, fire and metal were people about whom odd and fascinating bits of story can be told that liven up the narrative.

He also drops himself into the stories he tells, giving us his personal impressions of significant places he has visited during the travel and research undertaken for this or some other book. Sometimes he is quartered in hotels motels or B&Bs. At other times he is out there in a vehicle with backpack and tent at hand.

Some people find this sort of style intrusive but, as I have already demonstrated in this column, and in many others, I like the personal touch in this sort of story. It keeps the thing from becoming a dry information dump and conveys the enthusiasm with which the author has approached and stalked his or her subject.

It can get out of hand and ruin the book, but I find that Winchester seems to know how far to take it, and the overall effect is good.

This is, of course, a personal reflection on the elements that Winchester feels have served to knit his new country together. Some people will disagree with him on various points along the way. One review that I encountered was offended by his obvious preference for PBS (radio and television) over the fare provided by the major networks. That’s a matter of taste. The major theme of that section of the book is not damaged by his choosing one over the other.

I’ve listed the actual real world book version at the top of this column, but have already noted that I read it as an e-book. Be careful which software or device you use. There are extensive footnotes (worth reading) scattered throughout the book and not all versions of the KOBO software will allow you to access them. My iPhone was the best reader for this book, while my iPod and Blackberry Playbook could not find the footnotes. The Desktop KOBO software for your laptop works well, but I don’t like reading on a device I can’t hold in my hands, so that didn’t help.

 

-30-

 

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