Finding the “Story” in History
by Naomi Baltuck, © 1987

In the dictionary, history is defined as a continuous systematic narrative of past incidents. But it is also defined as a past that is full of important, unusual, or interesting events. Either is valid, but the latter approach to history can excite the mind and touch the heart. History need not be stale and tasteless; why eat bread when we can have cake?

Long before written language, it was the storyteller who passed down the legacies: tribal histories, hero epics, family histories, accounts of great battles. Even today, the best historians are not the ones who can write down the most facts, but the ones who can recognize a good story and breathe life into a page from the past.

Mr. Malamud, my tenth grade American History teacher, was a soft-spoken man in a starched white shirt and a bow tie. On the first day of class, he handed out textbooks, as he was required to do. Then he told us, “What you'll learn from me is the history that they are reluctant to put into the textbooks.” For the rest of the semester, those textbooks gathered dust in our lockers, while Mr. Malamud presented what he called “lectures” from his own research. But he couldn't fool us: we knew they were stories.

Long before it was widely known, at least in the Midwest, where I grew up, I had learned about the Japanese-American internment during WWII. I learned that the Civil War was about much more than abolishing slavery. I learned to see characters in our history as real people, and to evaluate historic events by how they affected the people.

In Mr. Malamud's class, we did not learn by rote. Throughout the semester, we had to choose six topics from a list of highly controversial subjects, do our own research, and make our own interpretations. For instance, was Davy Crockett a great statesman, or a big blowhard, and was there any truth to the rumors that he did not die at the Alamo? We had to decide, and tell how and why we came to our conclusion.

Just as Mr. Malamud taught us to read between the lines, storytellers can do so for their listeners. After all, there is no source of historic information that has not already been interpreted by someone, even if it is just one person looking back at her own childhood. Everyone who tells a story from history is an interpreter of the events that she is relating, if only by choosing that particular story to tell.

Will Durant, author of The History of Civilization, wrote, “Civilization is a stream with banks. The stream is sometimes filled with blood from people killing, stealing, shouting and doing things historians usually record, while on the banks, unnoticed, people build homes, make love, raise children, sing songs, write poetry.

The story of civilization is the story of what happened on the banks. Historians are pessimists because they ignore the banks for the river.”

The work of a good historian will remind us that, no matter how far back we can or cannot trace our family tree, every person on earth today is related to that first little band of humans that wandered and parted, multiplied and became the ancestors of the many diverse peoples that inhabit the world.

Did a toe stubbed on the Appian Way hurt any less than a toe stubbed on a New York sidewalk? Babies must always have loved a lullaby, and tears of sadness or joy must have been just as real to the one who shed them a hundred, or even a thousand years ago. Yet these things that are so much a part of the human experience are the very things which are omitted from the textbooks as trifles.
I have researched and am now telling a program of stories I call “The Land of Our Hearts' Desire.” It is a collection of true stories of the rugged women and men who pioneered the Northwest. This was at once the most exciting and perplexing storytelling project I had ever undertaken.

While searching for the “story” in history, I found many a diamond in the rough. Told in a dull manner, or crowded with unnecessary details, such as extensive genealogies, it would nevertheless shed light on family values, or shatter a widely-accepted misconception, or simply tickle the funnybone. Even while recognizing the potential of a story, I also knew that most listeners would not be willing or able to sift through the layers and digressions to get to the heart of the story.

Also, with the exception of well-documented chapters of our state history, such as the Whitman Massacre or the Sager family tragedy, many stories from history have only one source, often a pioneer's journal entry, or an interview with an aged settler many years after the fact. Yet the story begs to be told.

Native American Chief Black Elk once said, “This they tell, and whether it happened so or not, I do not know, but if you think about it, you will know that is true.”

When polishing up one of these gems for telling, I know that I must remain true to reality and not change critical facts simply to suit my purpose. I keep in mind the social mores of the times, and try not, for instance, to mold a pioneer heroine of the last century into the shape of today's woman, but respect her for who she was and how she coped in her own world.

I read volumes and volumes of books, journals, and articles, until I had enough of a background to begin to see between the lines. I could then put myself into the place of the original tellers and fill in the picture they painted with their words. Details, such as the cold cabin floor on little bare feet, the smell of bacon frying in the pan, the warmth of the family cat on a little girl's lap during a cold night's journey, sharpen the focus of a picture from the past.

When there is no dialogue in an original source, I imagine the actual words that might have been spoken, and create a small exchange between two characters. Sometimes I tell a story in the first person, to make a story feel more immediate.

Most of the pioneers interviewed did not describe the view from their own front porch, as the interviewer was sitting right there on the porch steps and could see for himself. But listeners who have not been there need to know.

I have traveled throughout Washington collecting stories, and visiting local museums. I have admired the autumn colors of Snoqualmie Pass, savored the pungent fragrance of sagebrush in Eastern Washington, and have watched the sun sparkling on the snow in Blewett Pass. I will sometimes use that experience to set the scene for a story, so that listeners can understand the desolation, the harshness, or the richness of a place.

And I always ask myself, “What made this character react as she did? Is this detail cluttering up a story, or does it help paint a better picture? Is this true to the story?”

My story, “The Day the Mountain Fell” is derived from a paragraph or two told by an old woman, about the time an avalanche swept down the mountain and crushed the family cabin. She, her mother, and siblings were buried under the snow for hours. Her narration has little description or emotion, even as she relates how, while they were all trapped, her dying mother calmly instructed them how to carry on when she is gone.

The power of this story is in the narrator's unspoken words. I imagined how this woman might have told the story to a close friend, and then I could almost hear the exchange between the mother and her children as they lay buried in the snow. Realizing, too, that the passage of many decades must have softened the memories, I decided to tell the story in the first person, as a younger woman, instead of fifty years later, and without the reserve the narrator must have felt toward the stranger with a clipboard who was writing down her words. I've added description of the landscape, a little historical background, and simple dialogue to establish more of a feeling for the experience and the characters. It's the same story, but without a little interpretation, artistic license, and a bit of polish, it could easily have been passed over.

Looking back, an old Washington settler once said, “I didn't know those common everyday things would be history.” It is precisely those common everyday things that are the essence of history, the essence of life. It isn't too late. By finding and sharing the “story” in history, we can still honor the hidden heroines and unsung heroes, rescue them from volumes of forgotten boredom, and bring them back to life.