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Creating a Historian (Me)

The author sitting atop two small stone pillars in front of the Luxembourg Palace in Paris
In my element in Paris, France, 2014.

Every person who grows up to become a historian, arrives in the field in a unique way. However, no matter when they get there or how, there are usually signs along the way that indicate and deep and abiding love for history. For me (and I suspect for many others) there were signs all along the way, largely from the elements of pop culture (movies, novels, games, musicals, etc.) that made my heart happy and my mind curious.

Below, I share 10 non-academic things I loved in my formative pre-historian-podcaster years (and are still near and dear to me now). I think you will quickly see the ties between the interests of my younger self and the history work of my adult self. If you're not familiar with any of these works of art, I hope you'll be moved to check them out and see if they inspire you too. But most of all I hope they get you thinking about all the things that influenced your love of history.

  1. Disney's Newsies In 1992, Disney released Newsies, a movie musical about a strike of New York newsboys in the summer of 1899. Family lore says states that when my mother took me to see it (I was 7 when it was released), I was so still that she thought I'd fallen asleep. When she looked over to check on me, she saw that I was actually just completely taken by the film. To this day, Newsies is my favorite live-action movie (Spot Conlon was one of my first crushes), but it also stoked my love of history. I couldn't get enough of the fact that this was based on true events that happened in my beloved New York, almost 100 years earlier.

  2. Child of the Silent Night (Edith Hunter Fisher) Child of the Silent Night was already decades old when I was a child, and I don't remember exactly how it fell into my hands for the first time, but it was one of my first introductions to biography, which is still my favorite method of historical storytelling. This book told the story of Laure Bridgman, the first formally educated deaf-blind person in the United States. I had heard of Helen Keller, who hadn't? But I knew nothing about Laura. I was in grade school and could not put this book down. I devoured the story of how she overcame obstacles and learned to communicate in a period when deaf-blind people were not given the opportunities they deserved. Yes, it was watered down for children, but this book and a children's biography of Harry Houdini were in my regular reading rotation for years. I was fascinated by books that followed the life of one person through all of its phases and allowed me to view time periods and historical events through their eyes. In 2014, I brought Laura's story to Footnoting History listeners with an episode about her. You can hear it here, or get it in a captioned version here.

  3. Number the Stars (Lois Lowry) My earliest memory of this book is reading it in the bath tub and crying and knowing that I was crying because it was so good. Published in 1989, Number the Stars is probably the book that made me truly fall in love with historical fiction. The red cover featuring a photograph of a blonde girl with haunted eyes behind a necklace of a Jewish star is permanently embedded in my mind's eye. Set in Europe during World War II, it focuses on a young girl named Annemarie and her best friend Ellen, whose family has already seen one daughter (named Lise) die at the hands of the Nazis. I wept and reread it more times than I could count, and I was entranced by Lise: this brave girl whose work in the resistance lost her her life. I knew it was purely fictional, but that the war was very real and very terrible, and was so impressed by how real it made the era feel to me. It was my introduction to that era, and one which showed me the power of fiction to spark an interest in a historical period.

  4. American Girl American Girl is a line of books, dolls, and accessories that (in my childhood, it has since expanded) featured girls around the age of 10 living at different times in American history. Back in my day, there were four girls featured: Felicity (1774), Kirsten (1854), Samantha (1904), and Molly (1944.) Soon, Addy (1864) was added. Samantha was the first American Girl I "met", when I was given the doll and her book set for Christmas one year. I don't think I knew what American Girl was before she came to my house - and yes, I still have her. Like me, she was a brunette who was from New York, only she was from 1904 - a year not far off from my beloved Newsies. I liked Samantha, but as I read every book about every girl, I really loved Kirsten and Felicity (I suspect now that it was largely because they were from an even more distant time.) I even wrote a fan letter to Janet Shaw, who authored Kirsten's books, to tell how wonderful her books were. This year, as American Girl celebrates its 35th anniversary, I have been re-reading the original series and its extremely evident why they spoke to me: the girls were an understandable window into their time periods, and I learned about things as they did. Plus, after each story the books contained a few pages explaining how people lived in that day and the actual history involved in the narrative. Yes, these were simple versions of complex events, and I think some of them would be written differently if they came out now, but in the early 1990s they did a great job of introducing me to a variety of areas of American history (and I'd be lying if I didn't say Felicity's books were part of what eventually amped me up to first visit Colonial Williamsburg.)

  5. Disney's Pocahontas It is no secret that the story of Pocahontas portrayed in the Disney classic is not accurate. Disney itself even admitted that. Of all the things listed in this post, Pocahontas shows most sharply that I was going to be a historian in the future. Why? Because I was enraged over its lack of historical accuracy. How much of Pocahontas' story I actually knew at the age of 10 I'm not sure, but I definitely knew she wasn't a grown woman who had romantic tension with John Smith, and I was very upset at Disney for spreading lies. So, what did I do? With my mom's encouragement (thanks, mom!) I wrote a letter to Disney airing my grievances. To Disney's credit - I actually got a response! That Disney replied to me (I have to find the letter, but I believe it said they were going for the spirit of Pocahontas in a family-friendly way) was a big deal. The film became my favorite Disney animated feature, because I can take it for what it is (history-inspired fiction) and hope it leads people to learn about the historical Pocahontas. To help, in 2020, I did an entire episode of Footnoting History about the real Pocahontas. You can hear it here, or get it with captions here.

  6. Les Misérables (Musical) I talk about Les Misérables fairly regularly. I've publicly covered the film adaptation of the musical on Footnoting History (available here) and discussed the stage musical in depth on the podcast Thank You, Five (available here and here), but privately I've been warbling on about it since late 1995/early 1996. Living in New York, the image of Cosette was everywhere, and I often joked with my parents about why she looked so sad. Then the 10th Anniversary Concert (from Britain) aired on PBS and my brain exploded. It was pure, magnificent, history-inspired perfection. It drove me to read children's versions of the novel, then abridged versions, then the real one, and I saw the musical for the first time on July 6, 1996. Then I saw it again, and again, and again. It threw me head first into my love of French history, I immediately had to recognize its complexity. I remember in 7th or 8th grade I had to write a paper comparing a book to a movie. I picked Les Misérables. My teacher went for it. It only encouraged my love of the country and period.

  7. The Many Lives and Secret Sorrows of Josephine B. (Sandra Gulland) Sandra Gulland is the primary reason I ended up with an all-engulfing love of Napoleonic history, but without being fixated on Napoleon himself. Since her trio of novels about Josephine Bonaparte follows her life - including the parts he wasn't in - I didn't enter into Napoleonic France through him. I entered it through Josephine and Hortense and all the others who orbited around him. Since the day I began reading these books my heart has belonged in this era. I gobbled up any and all information I could find about it, and I still do. No matter how my attention strayed or what other periods I find interesting, this is where my heart lives and the Josephine trilogy started it all. (I spread my love of the Bonapartes and their period in French History on Footnoting History all the time, which you can find here.)

  8. Titanic (Musical) In 1997, when most of my friends were swooning over the film Titanic (which I enjoyed, too), I was swooning over the Broadway musical with its score by Maury Yeston. The film and the musical, I must note, have nothing to do with each other aside from both dramatizing the same tragic event. If Les Miserables made me love historical literature on stage, Titanic made my heart melt with soaring melodies and emotional numbers that reflected the lives of the people aboard the ship - many of which were based on actual historic persons. The songs are everything to me. They depict things like the awe of seeing the ship, passengers ruminating about their dreams of a better life in America, a stoker questioning the choices of those above him, and the ship's designer - knowing full well his death is imminent - envisioning how he could had designed it better. As a young teen I loved to (annoyingly) tell people how the stage musical was better than the movie because of its focus on real people, and I spent hours reading up about the Titanic because of it - and yes, of course, going to an exhibition when it was possible.

  9. The Scarlet Pimpernel (Musical) I was already interested in France and French history thanks to numbers 6 and 8 on this list, but The Scarlet Pimpernel musical put me over the edge. Based on the novel by Baroness Orczy (which I had neither heard of nor read at the time), the Frank Wildhorn musical opened on Broadway in 1997. Of course, I wanted to see it, and of course I was hooked. Here was a piece on yet another aspect of French history! I'd already gotten into the mid-19th century and the Bonaparte era, but Pimpernel added depth to my interest in the actual French Revolution. Though it has taken on several different forms since it originally opened in New York, the original (usually called 1.0) will forever be my favorite. It put the terror (and Terror) of the Revolution right in front of me, and once I heard 'Madame Guillotine', forget it. I felt like the musical was made just for me and it only furthered my love of history and the many ways that history can be portrayed to introduce the public to fascinating topics.

  10. Here Be Dragons (Sharon Kay Penman) Although Here Be Dragons was released when I was a child, I didn't read it until shortly after my senior year of high school when a friend gave it to me as a present for my 18th birthday. At this point my adoration of history was well-established, and I was already poised to enter college with history as my primary major (I was also majoring in math but that's a different conversation). Here Be Dragons and the two books that come after it, are set in medieval England and Wales and specifically explore the relationship between the Welsh Princes and the English royal family. I can say that without a doubt, this trilogy is the reason that when I started college I was upset my original college had very little in the way of medieval history. So, how did I handle that? I changed colleges, started at Fordham, and ended up focusing the rest of my education on medieval England. My forte ended up being the 12th-century reign of Henry II, in no small part due to other Penman books, When Christ and His Saints Slept and Time and Chance, so to call her my gateway to the middle ages is not an understatement.

Now that you know what influenced me, I want to know -- what influenced you?

DVD spines of Disney's Pocahontas and the Les Miserables 10th anniversary concert above a selection of books: The Many Lives and Sorrows of Josephine B., Here Be Dragons, Meet Samantha, and Kirsten's Surprise
A few of my favorite things.


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