I have in mind a particular genre of non-fiction. I don’t know if it’s already a category, or if I’m making it up. The Ride of Her Life: The True Story of a Woman, Her Horse, and Their Last-Chance Journey across America, the book by Elizabeth Letts I just finished reading, is an example.
I’m thinking of recent popular books about particular people and events which the author uses to illuminate some part of American history. The focus starts small, on a not necessarily famous person, animal, or event, and then broadens its scope to American culture at large.
Susan Orlean’s Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend (2011) tells you everything you didn’t know about the famous canine movie and TV star, actually played by more than one dog over the decades, like Lassie. But Orlean goes further: The Alaska Dispatch called the book “an excellent piece of cultural history.” You learn about Hollywood and movie stardom, about the many jobs dogs can do, and about the status of pets in American households, among other things.
In The Library Book, written seven years later, Orlean makes the 1968 fire at the Los Angeles Central Library her jumping-off point to chronicle the history of public libraries. Eccentric and vivid characters people the book. Orlean, by the way, grew up in Shaker Heights, where she developed her profound affection for libraries.
Seabiscuit (2001) by Laura Hillenbrand shows how a ramshackle hoopty of a horse became the most famous celebrity in America during the 1930s. Seabiscuit didn’t look like a sleek and elegant thoroughbred, but he was fast and plucky. His owners and trainers were eccentric and fascinating as well. Fame, American media, and hucksterism are Hillenbrand’s larger subjects.
A horse again takes (almost) center stage in Letts’s new book. Annie Wilkins, sixty-three years old in 1954, abandoned her farm and her tax debt, and set out to ride her horse Tarzan across the United States. She aspired to fulfill her mother’s dream of seeing the Pacific Ocean before dying. Her dog Depeche Toi (French for “hurry up”—is that a great name for a dog, or what?) and, a little later, a second horse, named Rex, kept her company. Wilkins became a celebrity, greeted in the small towns she passed through by enterprising newspaper reporters and Chamber of Commerce grandees. Letts recounts the development of highways, the decline of small towns and small farms, and the birth of TV. (Annie eventually appeared on Art Linkletter’s show.)
I enjoyed all these books. I like dogs, horses, and libraries, so keep that in mind if you’re considering following my recommendation.
Is this a genre? Have you read these or other examples? I’d love to know.
I saw her interview a while back on the PBS NewsHour. Very interesting!
If you are looking for another great horse book (although it is a novel, and not non-fiction), Horse by Geraldine Brooks is based on one of the greatest sires in the US. She manages to place the story in three time periods (events leading up the Civil War, 1960s New York, and present day) while weaving the main “character” into each section. I learned a lot about the history of horse racing and trainers, and the connection to race, both in the past and present.
I second the praise for The Library Book. Speaking as a librarian, I appreciated the love that the public holds for their favorite libraries. The book was also a history of California and taught me much that I didn’t know. And the public did not hear much about this fire because it happened (in 1986) on the day Chernobyl blew.
Sort of like the fact that Aldous Huxley and C. S. Lewis died on the same day as JFK, and so their notable lives were hidden in the back pages of the newspapers.
Dépêche Toi is, indeed, a great name for a dog, and in my mind’s eye, I know exactly what that canine looks like.
“Seabiscuit,” “The Library Book,” and “Rin Tin Tin” are among my all-time faves.
Love your posts!
I recently picked up Rachel Kushner’s THE HARD CROWD at the Minneapolis airport and found it fascinating. Although essays rather than full-length books, she does much the same thing with a number of individuals and even inanimate objects, like her father’s Vincent motorcycle which leads to discourses on gender politics, a high-speed motorcycle race down the Baja peninsula, and risk.
Have no idea what the genre is. Kind of reminds me of memoir, except it is, as you say, often about someone else or someTHING else. Maybe it is “Themoir” or “Thatoir”? Love all these posts even if I don’t respond to them.