Monday, April 20, 2009

Writing in the Rearview Mirror

So. It's travel season and here I am back home from Kirksville, a nice courthouse town over on the eastern side of Missouri, where a swell children’s lit fest was convened at Truman State University. Then off I go to talk to school kids in Topeka, KS. I'll draw and answer their questions. We'll laugh and I'll tell them how I study for, write, draw, & paint my books. I'll talk about history too, seeing as I tend to write about dead people and what all they did in the world. Some people think that history's kind of boring. Just a pursuit of factoids: battles & birthdays. (just for you to know: Adolf Hitler's is April 20, 1889) According to history, many a well-known person delighted in dissing history, calling it “a great dust heap.” (Thomas Carlyle) “A fable agreed upon.” (Napoleon Bonaparte) “A catalogue of the forgotten.” (Henry Adams)

Well yeah, sure. I suppose. On the other hand, “to not know what happened before we were born,” said the great Richard Peck, “is to be always a child.”

And too, history is positively juicy with adventure and it's loaded with role models. Me being sort of a sissypants, I admire my sturdy, stubborn subjects: pilgrims, reformers, and a particularly persistent fellow who used to live a couple of blocks from my house. President Truman would have had his 125th birthday next month if he hadn't gotten his ticket punched back in 1972. He's the subject of The Harry Book, my first comic book biography. According to Mr. Truman, "the only thing new in the world is the history you don't know."

A historical vantage point helps us to understand how we got here so we're not wandering around on the world's stage with no idea of what the play's about. After all, any nation is more than its borders and banner; it's a combination of all the stories of all who’ve lived in the land, all down the years of the living past. Knowing what people did and survived helps to explain why peoples and governments behave as they do. A nation is like a person whose experiences and ancestral blood make for a lot of explanation, identity-wise. I’m me because of Ray & Elaine Harness & the rest of my ancestors, their blood, their inclinations, plus all that I've done, been, and read - especially the works of Laura Ingalls Wilder. Ten times a piece. I'm an accumulation of it all. Who we are is who we have been.

Anyway, I figure that knowing what folks have survived gives us courage to face what trials we have and a sense of history gives the present a boatload of drama and serious fun. After all, just about all of us live where others, generations of others, once lived, none of them knowing what the future held. A sense of history livens up the calendar with anniversaries and just about any set of numbers with – uhm – associations. When I see 1836 on the odometer, I think ‘Alamo!’ If the person behind the counter rings up $10.66 on the cash register, don’t you think ‘Battle of Hastings’? I’m afraid I do.

Ah well, on tangents I’ve been known to digress and all I meant to do was tell you how I came to write about the past besides the fact that I'm way better at drawing horses than cars. More about that in the future, Fates willing.

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