Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Book Review: I Believe in Yesterday

I am always delighted and a bit scared when I find out there is a new book out there on Living History. I am delighted because there are not a lot of books out there on living history, and scared because not all of them are the most flattering to our quirky community. I am especially scared when a book is written by someone who is not even tangentially involved in the community, because I know we look like weirdos from the outside. I’m not sure someone on the outside can understand why so many of us are so passionate about history and about re-creating it. I am even more on alert when I find out the author of a new LH book is not an academic or anyone who studies people in order to find out about people. He is a journalist who writes quirky and often dark travel type books about his misadventures in foreign lands. Well, I always knew we were a tourist destination, how bad can it be?

I got the book: I Believe in Yesterday in audio format because it was the only format available in the US and because I have a very long commute so I like audio books. While the audio format has the subtitle: A 2000-Year Tour Through the Filth and Fury of Living History, the paperback has the subtitle: My Living Hell in Living History. And that really sums up this guy’s story.

Tim Moore is happy in his suburban life in an old house that he had extensively modernized, but one day he feels the pull of nostalgia, and wonders if he can make it as his ancestors had to live. I also wonder if he was desperate for another book idea since his previous books all seem designed to put him in awkward positions, what could be more awkward than going back in time when everyone knows it was rough and miserable? He visits 7 different centuries in seven chapters. Actually, instead of visiting the centuries, because as far as I know no one has yet to invent a time machine-- he visits, and participates in, reenactments of those different times and places. He goes in woefully unprepared and manages to make an ass out of himself in almost every situation. If you enjoy reading about someone else’s misery, then I recommend this book.

To be fair, I think he treats all the reenactors, living historians, and quirky characters that he meets very fairly. He does not make fun of them in writing, really only himself. He does manage to lie to them, a lot. He leaves folks with the impression that he knows what he is doing, then writes about how he tells the public all the disinformation he can make up, he ignores people’s warnings, does not do what they tell him to do (even if he has volunteered to do it in the first place) and generally makes himself and those around him more miserable in the process. The book would not be a bad book, if the author/narrator was not trying to be such a dumbass.

I enjoyed his descriptions of a wide variety of historical levels, of timeperiods, of types of reenactors, and environments. He managed to find seven very different experiences, each one had something unique to say about Living History and the folks who participate in living history. The first chapter was an Iron Age settlement that had been sold by the folks who built it to a guy who didn’t care, the second chapter he joined a group of Roman reenactors from France at an event in Denmark, the third chapter he spent a weekend with some crazy Vikings. The next few chapters he spent with more established living history enterprises, chapter 4 he spent at a Burgundian castle, and actually enjoyed himself playing with the cannon crew, chapter 5 he spent a week as a servant at a well established Tudor manor house. This chapter was the one that infuriated me the most. He got a job, got training, had someone make him a great set of clothes. And he totally blew it. He was surrounded by 300 other people, all reenacting the same thing that he was, and the best thing he did during the whole week was run and hide! He did the most damage to other people during this chapter, and I was so disgusted by the fact that he could have had a grand time and totally muffed it that I could not go back to the book for some time once this chapter was over. Chapters 6 and 7 were a little better in that by then he was a little less scared of bugs, he did not try to fight, he was never put in a position of any responsibility. For the last two chapters he tagged along at two reenactments in the USA, the first on a walk with a wagoner from the 1770s the second he shuffled around a Civil War reenactment in Louisiana as a war correspondent. He was lost for most of the chapter, but folks were so nice to him, and by the final chapter he had stopped complaining.

He had also, it seemed to me, stopped trying to find out what drew folks to re-live these rougher times, he had stopped trying to figure out if he could survive and just let other people do the surviving for him. The lessons were there if you are willing to look hard, but the end of the book still felt abrupt to me. I wish the dolt had learned more than the fact that it is possible to sleep under the stars with your head in an ant hill. I know I learn more and experience more every time I go out and do this, and I have not had nearly the opportunities for adventure that this guy had.

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