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Stories Make History Memorable

It Happened in Washington

by James A. Crutchfield

143pg., Morris Book Publishing, LLC, 2008

Reviewed by Erin E. Mulkearns

I grew up in Virginia, one of the most history-laden states in the country. I went to John Rolfe Middle School, named after the husband of the Powhatan princess Pocahontas, and Varina High School, named after the tobacco Rolfe brought to the new world and the plantation where he and his wife lived. I grew up with words that would twist some people's tongues: Tappahannock, Rappahannock, Chickahominy, Shenandoah. I can rattle off the date that English settlers came to Jamestown, the eight presidents born in Virginia, and which city was the capital of the Confederacy during the Civil War. I've visited Monticello, George Washington and Woodrow Wilson's birthplaces, Thomas Jefferson's poplar forest, Jamestown, Yorktown, and Colonial Williamsburg. I've seen the room where George Washington died. I even had a friend whose house had blood stains on the wooden floor from serving as a hospital during the Civil War.

Most of what I know about the history of Virginia I learned before the age of 12, a result of many hours of state and local history taught in elementary and middle school. As I've migrated around the country as an adult, first to Baltimore, Boston, and now Seattle, I've realized just how much is lost from the identity of a place by not knowing its history. Short of the "Paul Revere rode here” sign a few blocks from my house in the Boston area, I've missed out on really getting to know the places I've lived through their history.

It Happened in Washington by James A. Crutchfield was an opportunity to learn more about the history of my new home. In 32 brief accounts of events, from the mudslide at Ozette that occurred around 1480 to the discovery of the Kennewick Man in 1996, Crutchfield leads the reader through a chronological history of the state of Washington.

We follow some of the first white settlers of the Pacific Northwest and the explorations of the Columbia River; conflicts between early settlers and Native Americans over land and borders; the establishment of Seattle; and more recent history such as the Seattle World's Fair and the 1980 eruption of Mt. St. Helens.

Along with these accounts, a map of the event locations and a list of Washington facts and trivia are also included. For someone from outside the state, the map is a particularly usful addition; knowing exactly where the Columbia River or Walla Walla is in relation to other landmarks greatly helps with orientation.

Crutchfield provides a detailed setting for each vignette, with vivid descriptions of Washington's natural beauty to draw the reader into the scene. His inclusion of writings from the people and places being chronicled also serves to bring the stories more fully into the reader's imagination.

However, the descriptions of events presented here are all a bit dry. Despite vibrant accounts of setting and people, the actual events that occurred are often relegated to one or two uneventful sentences somewhere in the middle of the chapter. For example, the 1980 eruption of Mt. St. Helens is one of the most memorable natural occurrences of the past thirty years. Entire hour-long television shows have been dedicated to minute-by-minute accounts of exactly what happened when. Yet the most description Crutchfield gives this momentous natural disaster is that "it was 8:13 am when the eruption occurred.”

What's missing are the anecdotes and details behind the history that make us, as people, interested in what happened and why it happened. When Great Britain and the U.S. argue about where to create the border between the U.S. and Canada, we want to know more about why people are on the side that they are and the details of how the conflict is solved. When Mt. St. Helens erupts, we want to feel the suspense of the sleeping beast awakening, smell the sulfur in the air and feel the heat, see those first tendrils of smoke escaping from the crater, and experience the shock of the massive explosion.

So in the end, I certainly did learn some facts about the state's history from this book. To my mind, though, there is a distinction between facts and stories. Crutchfield gives the reader the facts, but the stories are what make history memorable. The facts are learning someone's birth date and where they came from, but the stories in their past will tell you more about their identity as a person. I can say that I learned the facts about Washington, but as for the identity of Washington, I'm still searching.

Erin Mulkearns is a Ph.D. student at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in the University of Washington Molecular and Cellular Biology program.

Interesting Facts About Washington:

- 20th largest state in area, but 15th in population.

- Coldest recorded temperature: -48 degrees F.

- Warmest temperature is 118 degrees F.

- State motto is "Alki” meaning "by and by.”

- State gemstone is petrified wood.


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