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17 May 2011

The History Book that Found Me

The History Book that Found Me



Ever had a history book fall into your hands when you least expected it? Track you down in an out of the way place and say, Read me?

My family decided to escape an extra cold winter a few years ago. On the spur of the moment, we grabbed up tickets for a Caribbean cruise and left for tropical waters without a backward glance. (Boy, can you find discounts if you book a cabin at the last minute.) We boarded the ship in Miami and found some very promising scenery in the form of palm trees and white sand. Our vacation was looking good.

Until we reached the beautiful, deep blue sea – only to find Old Man Winter had arrived first with a bang. Temperatures were 30-40 degrees below normal and strong winds whipped up high waves. Ports closed their doors to the ship, rather than allowing small boats to ferry tourists ashore.

Passengers ignored the beautiful pool and headed for anyplace warm indoors. The bars and theaters were crowded and the library became a central attraction. I quickly ran through every book I’d brought onboard and started to wonder where I could find anything to read beyond the newsstand’s international fashion magazines.

Then the captain announced they’d arranged an unexpected visit to Key West. Yes! Surely in the Land of Hemingway, I could while away enough hours that I wouldn’t need to buy another book.

Wrong, so, so, wrong. It was even colder in Key West than it had been cruising the Caribbean. And a T-shirt and hoodie is definitely not the right attire for an open tram, speeding through the streets. By the time we reached downtown Key West, all I wanted was someplace warm until I could catch the next tram back to the ship. But where to go?

Unlike a typical Key West afternoon, street vendors were nowhere to be found. Many of my fellow passengers jumped off the tram and disappeared into the bars, to explore the local drinks. Others vanished into the tiny shops. It only took me a couple of minutes to realize that it would take longer to walk between the stores – and freeze – than it would to explore each shopkeeper’s wares. Where was a warm place to spend some time? Buying something to read was clearly too much to hope for.

A sign caught my eye: The Pirate Soul Museum. Yes! If it’s a museum, there was something in it for me, regardless of the topic. And it had to be cozy, if only to keep the exhibits happy.

The Pirate Soul Museum is a state of the art museum, complete with a genuine pirate chest and a Jolly Roger. It has dark booths that whisper in visitors’ ears and blow spooky air up hems. Maps show where pirates caused trouble and genuine equipment show how they lived their lives, down to knives and forks. I’d go back in a moment, especially since it’s now moved to St. Augustine right next to a 17th century fort. The website is a total delight, with all sorts of extra information. (The Rum Bible? Video tours?)

Best of all, it had a bookstore, the way every first-rate museum should. But the tram was about to leave so I simply grabbed what was closest to the cash register and ran.

Back at the ship, I found a warm corner in a bar to examine my prize. Under the Black Flag by David Cordingly arose from the Pirates: Fact and Fiction exhibit. “Crew Approved” by the Pirate Soul Museum, it contrasts the fictional image of pirates with what actually happened. It’s superbly written and beautifully conveys the author’s enjoyment of the subject. His sheer depth of knowledge and sly digs of humor bring constant delights.

The first chapter analyzes Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island – and finds it remarkably factual. Remarkable amounts of pirate and seafaring lore had woven themselves into Stevenson’s heritage. For example, somehow a pirate ship sailed to Scotland during the Golden Age of Piracy, pillaged and raped the locals – only to fall victim to Highland justice. All of this only a few miles from where Stevenson would later be born and raised!

I found this so amazing that I started reading snippets aloud to my family. Friends overheard and soon all of us were talking about and passing around the fascinating book. By the time I disembarked, my copy was scuffed, dog-eared – and definitely well-loved.

The history book that had found me had also been greatly enjoyed by others.

Have you ever had a history book fall into your hands out of the blue? What’s the most surprising way you’ve ever found a history book?

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2 Comments:

Blogger Isobel Carr said...

I love that book! I read it when I was making pirate costumes and doing lots of research. I don’t know if I’ve ever discovered a book randomly, but I have stumbled across just the right book at exactly the right moment (e.g. The Lady in Red when I was working on Ripe for Pleasure and needed to fill in my heroine’s world a bit).

7:05 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Great story! I had a friend give me David King's "Vienna 1814" for my birthday a few years ago. I'd wanted to write about the Congress of Vienna for ages, but the gift of that book was the catalyst for writing "Vienna Waltz."

1:54 PM  

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