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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

Presto Chango

Elizabeth Marsh

I have been preaching the gospel of the new American/world history — the way everything we thought we knew changes once you trace out the larger global connections behind familiar moments in American History. Well there is a new book, just out, that will make that point to you, to other adults, to teachers, to motivated HS students better than any textbook. A professor told me about Linda Colley’s The Ordeal of Elizabeth Marsh, then I started to see great reviews of it, and now I am reading it. This is a highly researched biography (no invention) that makes absolutely clear that the 18th century was a time of interconnections, in which the Caribbean, Europe, Africa, America, and Aisa were interlinked in trade, in war, in the paths people’s lives took moving from one continent to another. 

I’m too early in the book to give a full book report, but I mention it here because, just like the shifts in how we orient our history I mentioned the other day, it really can change how you see, how you envision, the past. That is why I was saying that this moment is especially good for students, for teachers, for librarians — it is not that we have to dig deep into primary sources (as Colley has). Rather, starting anywhere — with this book, for example — we can just begin to ask new questions. We can trace new connections. The doors of history are flying open — once we simply use the Open Sesame of asking how the familiar textbook events link up with what was going on in the rest of the world. Right now our textbooks are like train tracks, they lead from one known station to another. But it does not have to be that way.

I had the great fun of learning this when I asked why the Brits sent the tea that Sam Adams dumped in Boston Harbor. The textbook answer is, to insist that the Americans pay the tax on the tea. But since the Brits knew the Americans would resist paying, that was no answer. As those of you who have read The Real Revolution know, the real reason they sent the tea began with a famine in Bengal. So all a student has to do is take some familiar moment and ask a new question. For example, we all study immigration. Question, if Guiseppi came to New York from southern Italy in 1900, what happened to the rest of his family? In fact, very likely one brother went to Argentina, another to work somewhere in Europe, and, after he made money here, Guiseppi may well have gone back to buy a farm. One question and instead of going from Ellis Island to Little Italy and on into American History, you go from New York to South America to Europe back to southern Italy. Presot chango, American History is world history.