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Nonfiction Review – I Wish I’d Been There

I Wish I’d Been There by Byron Hollinshead

Review by Vicky T. (VickyJo)


“What is the scene or incident in American history that you would like to have witnessed—and why?” This is the thought provoking question that Byron Hollinshead posed to twenty of our finest American historians, with an invitation to answer in essay form. Those essays were then gathered together and put into a fascinating book called “I Wish I’d Been There: Twenty Historians Bring to Life Dramatic Events That Changed America.”

This is such a fun book! First, I had to think about my own choice. If I could only pick one incident, which one would it be? That’s a hard one, but I think I’d have to say I would have loved to sit in on the first Thanksgiving. Or maybe be at Roanoke Colony, right before everyone just disappeared. Then again, it would be so neat to sit in a crowded, darkened theater and watch Harry Houdini perform.

I don’t know if the participating historians had as much difficulty as I did when choosing their one, single event to witness—but I do have to say they choose some great ones.

Mary Beth Norton, a professor of American History at Cornell University, chose the Salem Witch Trials. Of course! What really happened in Salem in 1692? Were the four young girls truly being tormented by witches…or just bored? To watch an entire community descend into panicked paranoia would be compelling. On the other hand, these accusations could have been made in order to seize lands and property, to benefit a few greedy men. Mary Beth Norton tells us what she knows, what she believes, and why she would love to have witnessed it all.

Thomas Fleming, historian and author of fine historical fiction, wanted to be with John Brown at Harpers Ferry. Being a novelist, his essay is a rich imagining of what it would be like if he had been…say, a journalist in 1859, assigned to follow Brown and report on the happenings. He drops the reader into that long-ago time, and brings us along on the raid that changed our country forever.

There are so many choices! We have essays on the day Abraham Lincoln was shot; the day Chief Joseph surrendered; the day Lewis and Clark first see the Rocky Mountains; the day Jenny Lind debuts in America, courtesy of P.T. Barnum. Each historian chose a fascinating snippet of American history, and the enthusiasm and longing for that snippet comes through in each chapter. Not every choice was from our distant past, either; there are essays about sitting in on the meeting between JFK and his brother Robert when they discussed America’s role in Vietnam; one historian wanted to march on Washington with Martin Luther King; one wished he could have been in the White House on March 13, 1965 when Lyndon Johnson confronted George Wallace. Read: at one point, Johnson says “Now look, George. don’t think about 1968, think about 1988. You and me, we’ll be dead and gone then, George. Now you’ve got a lot of poor people down there in Alabama, a lot of ignorant people. You can do a lot for them, George. Your president will help you. What do you want left after you die? Do you want a great big marble monument that reads George Wallace—he built? Or do you want a little piece of scrawny pine board that read George Wallace—he hated?” That meeting would have been something to see.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. Each participating historian offers a well-written, well-reasoned explanation of the slice of history he or she wishes to have witnessed. And to be honest, I wish I could have been at each one of these events too. It certainly makes one think: which historic event do you wish you could have witnessed?



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6 Responses to “Nonfiction Review – I Wish I’d Been There”

  1. Michelle L. (keyi) says:

    At 14 I was deeply in love with anything Stephen King wrote. I turned 14 while on holiday in Italy and while my parents were taking in the sights, I was deep in Different Seasons and The Dark Tower.

  2. Michael G. says:

    Favorite book at 14

    My favorite book at age 14 was:

    The Great White Buffalo
    Harold McCracken
    ASIN: B0007E55K4 (1943)

    I loved to read about the Plains Indians growing up, and regularly went to the public library to ‘reload’ on books to read over the summer. This book tells the coming of age story of a young brave, and all his adventures in attaining full warrior status, and a new adult name. I believe it registered so strongly with me, because it successfully paralleled the transition I was making into adulthood. I recently found a hardcover, library-retired copy of this book, and am torn as to re-reading it, since I’m afraid it will likely not resonate in the same manner, but instead break the great memory of it.

  3. Kitty L. (kittymeow) says:

    Song for a Dark Queen by Rosemary Sutcliff.

    I had previously read The Eagle of the Ninth series and others by her so I knew this was going to be a good book. Little did I know how powerful this book was going to be, it haunts me to this day. I remember spending years where I had forgotten the author and name of the book, but occasionally things would pop up that brought the subject matter back to the front. About five years ago I ran across the book at a flea market. Realizing it was THAT book thrilled me to no end and I bought it, however, it sits in my bookcase unread as I am not sure I actually want to revisit it. Boudicca the brave, you will never be forgotten…

  4. Lisa S. (gatorgal1981) says:

    Double Date by Rosamond Du Jardin

    I actually loved all the books in this series about twin sisters Penny and Pam. Like me, they were were high school students, later became college students and finally had a “Double Wedding”. Though I went to high school in 1970’s and the books took place in the 1950’s, I enjoyed reading about their adventures and found the stories very relatable.

  5. Atti R. (RoyalScatterbrain) , says:

    when I was 14 I became enthralled with egyptology after reading:

    “Sinuhe der Aegypter” published in Germany 1952 – I believe the American movie “The Egyptian” was based on this historical novel by Mika Waltari…

    I still have this treasure of a book and my favorite genre is still historical fiction and/or history. It is well over 40 years ago that I read this 670 page tome and here is what I remember: the story is told in the 1st person. Sinuhe is an egyptian physician who lived from about 1390 BC to 1335 BC and described his life as such in 15 books/chapters. It’s as well an adventurous as it is a travel ‘memoir’ of this fictitious physician told in simple prose almost like a fairy tale. I do not remember much of the details by looking at the headers of the chapters but I do remember being propelled into a different era and culture and can’t wait to read this novel again.

  6. I have to recommend the series that I still am reading 30 years later. I
    That is Elfques, the journey to sorrow’s end by Wendy and Richard Pini.

    Why you ask? One word – ELVES At thirteen I read my first fantasy novel, the Hobbit. After that I was hooked on ELVES. I wanted more, all elves, all the time. By 14 I had read all of the Lord of the Rings. I haunted bookstores looking for more on elves.
    What did I find? A graphic novel called Elfquest. It had such a dramatic cover, full colour and artwork on every page. Oh I was thinking it is only a oversized comic, I was torn, would it be worth the money I have to earn for it? I went back several times before I decided I had to try it. It was the BEST money I ever spent on a book. I spent many hours rereading the story. Soon I hooked my friends on it . I have long since lost that original book but, I have purchased a dozen more copies. The series has many more volumes than that first one yet, it is my favorite of them all.
    Truly a universal story. It has everything,love, death, magic, conflict, joy, sorrow, a host of characters, beautiful art and ELVES of all kinds.As an adult I even met the authors at a convention . They were so kind to a nervous fan, signing autographs and chatting about their work. It is not a comic but, more a epic saga 40 years running. One word of caution, it is not mean for young children, PG 13 for sure.

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