I like my history (and books) on the messy side

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I’ve spent the last two weeks on vacation in Hawaii. (I just like saying that).  Halfway through the trip, I decided it was imperative that I knew a bit more about Hawaiian history.

I fingered a slim, academic volume in a museum gift shop, as well as a few hefty, hardcover tomes in hotel lobbies.

The choice seemed important. I love to know why things are as they are, but most histories, I’ve found, are more concerned with the what. Photographs of the queen’s palace. A timeline of annexation. A list of phases and revolutions.

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I understand that this information is important, even useful. But what I find is that it doesn’t stick.

To remember what has happened, I need to become emotionally involved with the characters. I have no trouble remembering gossip, for instance. And what is history but gossip writ large, an unfolding drama of schemes, dreams, desires, beliefs, passions, personalities, and politics?

The timelines and phases come later, when we see time’s effects. In the moment, history is simply life.  As a reader, I want to be transported to an alternative present-day, when the struggles are still raw and the blood and tears yet moist.

Eventually, I grabbed “The Betrayal of Liliuokalanai: Last Queen of Hawaii 1838-1917” from a kiosk in an airport.

It looks a little trashy, as paperbacks bought in airports sometimes do, but it is likewise as compelling as any popular thriller or romance. A quick scan of a random page includes the words “relief,” “disappointment,” “frustration,” “regret,” “moved,” and “craved.” Surely any of these reactions is sufficient to advance a plot, and I guarantee that all of them are being experienced right now in Washington, DC, where I live and where modern history is being made.

Of course, history told through the prism of emotions can’t be verified – it’s subjective and speculative. But I’m willing to err on the side of good research and best guesses if the result puts complex, flawed human beings at the center of what happened. If given a choice, I’ll take my history just like my economics: messy and without a rational actor.

Kelly Nuxoll is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C.

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