Living, Breathing History by Marc Favreau
When I was a child, my dad would get us up early on April 19, to make the short trip from my hometown of Waltham, Massachusetts, to Lexington, just a couple of miles down the road. He had passed on his history bug to me, and I thrilled to the sights, the crackling muskets, and the smells of gunpowder as the droves of re-enactors brought the battle of Lexington and Concord to life. For the young buff, it was history in Technicolor, something to fire the imagination; other than my history textbooks. Schoolhouse Rock, and the novels of Howard Fast, we didn’t have much to go on in the 1970s.
Lexington was just the beginning. We drove all the way to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania and toured the civil war memorials there. We visited Sturbridge Village and Plymouth Plantation, and even colonial Williamsburg. All of these experiences really got me excited about history, and helped me understand the living, breathing stories behind the textbooks. I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t fascinated by what life used to be like, or by how things got to be the way they are today.
Hearing stories about the past inspired me to write my own.
Now I have two sons, and just like my dad, I take them everywhere, showing them as much of the world as I can. And I try to tell them really interesting stories; you could call it our family tradition. I wrote my first history book for young readers with my in-house audience very much in mind.
My book Crash is about a very difficult time in American History, called the Great Depression. During the Great Depression, millions of people lost their jobs, their money, and their homes, a lot of people went hungry and had to wander the country looking for work. It lasted a very long time – over ten years. Some people thought it would never end. But a new president came along named Franklin Roosevelt, and he helped launch something called The New Deal. He had a lot of help from people like Eleanor Roosevelt, his wife, hundreds of incredibly smart and creative people who came to Washington to help him, and millions of ordinary Americans who pitched in to rebuild the country. The New Deal saved America from disaster, and ever since then, it has kept America from sliding back into the kind of poverty and hunger and desperation that so may people suffered from in the 1930s.
I think that most people know what it’s like to get knocked down, and to have to pick yourself up again. What happens when a disaster strikes? How would you react? Who would you turn to? What would you do? Would you mope about it?
It’s such an important lesson in life – that falling down can be painful, but it can also be a strange sort of opportunity to find a new path, or to do things differently, and better. During the Great Depression, Americans abandoned a lot of old ideas that were not working. Many people now think of the 1930s as an ugly time, but we often forget the great things that came out of it. The country came together and built something new.
I started thinking about Crash in late 2008 and early 2009, when all of a sudden, the whole economy, everything we always assumed would remain stable, seemed shaky, in risk of collapse. My kids were both quite young then, not really the audience yet for a book like this. But it was a frightening time, and everywhere you looked in the media, people started talking about the Depression, The New Deal, the safety net – it was like all of these essential parts of our daily life, our country, became visible, and moved center-stage.
I think I realized then that for my own kids to develop into responsible citizens, they were going to have to know about this history and these issues. What is the proper role of our government? Who will take care of us in our old age, or when we fall on hard times?
One of my own teachers once remarked that the most important thing we can learn about the past is that is was different; that things change; and that, therefore, the present can change as well. History is not simply about education, but also about motiving us to think about what we can do to improve the world we live in.
This history lesson matters to me as a parent because of how I see my own kids developing. As early adolescents, they are starting to look at America through the eyes of young citizens. They want to understand their world, to figure out what makes it tick, and to grapple with why things are the way they are. Just the other week, for example, my older son took an overnight bus to the March for Our Lives, and he came back fired up, thinking about the Constitution and about voting and about how ordinary citizens can have an impact on American politics. He is learning that being a good citizen requires an intense engagement with the present.
But I also aim to make sure that both of my boys appreciate how citizenship demands an active relationship with the past – the “prologue,” as the inscription reads on the National Archives building in Washington, which houses, among many other documents, the Declaration of Independence. I want to make sure they know the human stories behind the documents and the dates – the chronicles of passion and bravery, of women and men, many of them barely out of their teens, who put their lives on the front lines and the picket lines, to keep America attuned to its revolutionary ideals.
Marc Favreau is Executive Editor at The New Press and author of Crash: The Great Depression and the Fall and Rise of America, which was published in April by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers.