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What to Read Next (No. 193): Hampton Sides
A new book, a bookish interview, and more.
In 2012, I read Hampton Sides’ Hellhound on His Trail. My reading log, a Google spreadsheet, tells me that I finished it on May 8, to be precise—right on the edge of the faint dividing line between spring and summer. It was the same time of year that the book largely hones in on—the humid, world-changing spring and summer of 1968.
That story of the sixty-five day international manhunt for Martin Luther King, Jr’s killer opened my eyes to the power of narrative non-fiction, of narrative history, in a way that few books have done. (As I’ve written before, Daniel James Brown’s The Indifferent Stars Above was another.)
It took a few years for me to return to Sides’ work, but Blood and Thunder did the same thing, telling the epic story of Kit Carson and the American west.
In 2019, he published On Desperate Ground, a jaw-dropping account of the Battle of Chosin Reservoir. (Check out my review of that one here.) Of his books that I’ve read, which is only half of ‘em, it’s my favorite.
Needless to say, when I found out that Sides had written a new book, I knew I had to get my hands on it. He also was kind enough to answer a few bookish questions for me, which was an utter delight.
Let’s get to it! As always, hit “Reply” and let me know what you’ve been reading. I love to hear.
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The Exotic by Hampton Sides
Quick note: This small book—only about 90 pages—is exclusively available over on Scribd. It’s a Netflix-like platform for books, magazines, and podcasts (I use it mostly for books, naturally). You can sign up for a free 30-day trial and easily get through Hampton’s new book, plus a few more.
Okay, the story itself: Mai, who went by one name, was a Polynesian fellow. As a teenager, back in the late 1700s, Britain landed on his island and claimed it for themselves—as they were wont to do back then.
Mai was brought back to England, which the young man didn’t mind one bit. He wanted to learn how to use guns and take revenge on those damn Bora Borans who raided his home and killed his father.
In England, he was treated as a sort of pet—something that happened regularly in the 18th century to all sorts of “exotic” peoples (hence the name of the book). He eventually made it back to his home island, but was mostly treated as an outcast. Mai’s life thereafter was not a happy one. The famed Captain James Cook himself wrote:
Such is the story of colonialism. White people invade, think they’re on a grand adventure and having all sorts of exploratory fun, then ruin the people and the land with little regard for either.
Hampton Sides explores each side of that coin with all the drama, criticism, and narrative flair he so excels at. My only complaint is that it wasn’t longer—at 90 pages, each aspect of the story inevitably feels a little clipped. Thankfully, this shortform book is actually adapted from a “regular”-sized upcoming book on Captain James Cook’s final journey.
If you enjoy Sides’ work, or narrative history at all, you’ll definitely like this one. What I appreciated most was hearing a bit about what else was happening in the world in the 1770s; it’s easy to forget that there were other things going on besides the American Revolution.
A Few Bookish Questions With Hampton Sides
1. This is a question I asked Bob Drury back in Nov '20, and I'd love to hear your answer too. You write history books across a wide range of eras, which may strike some readers as unusual. Many of your peers concentrate on an era or even a single person. How do you find the stories you feature in your books? Do you follow your own obsessions?
It’s true that I jump around a good bit. I suffer from a kind of historical ADD. When I pick a subject I go in deep and spend years working on it, but once it’s done, I have to move on, to a very different time period, different geographical region, different subject matter altogether. I hate to do the same thing twice. I think it’s my complete ignorance about a subject and the world that surrounds it that fuels my fascination about it.
All of this said, when I look back on the progression of my own books, I do see connective tissue, common threads. Most of my books have focused on variations of the theme of resilience and endurance—how people survive traumatic ordeals by summoning some fragile and mysterious combination of courage, ingenuity, and grace under pressure. It’s a powerful motif, and one I seem to keep returning to.
That’s definitely true of my most recent book, On Desperate Ground, which was about a signature battle of the Korean War, the Battle of Chosin Reservoir, and also my current book, which is about the British navigator Captain Cook’s third voyage. I think on many different levels, the question I'm interested in is this: How do people survive massive tests, crucibles, tribulations? What does it take to get to the other side?
2. Are there any books that first catalyzed your love for history?
This is going to sound weird but I’m not really interested in “history.” As soon as we say something is historic, people start to snooze. People start to think, oh, that was a long, long sleepy time ago. They were splitting wood and churning butter and cinching up their corsets, and their teeth were horrible. That has nothing to do with me, here, now, today. Why does it matter what they did, or said, or thought back then?
So the books that catalyzed my interest in history were books that didn't seem like history at all. They were good historical novels, or novels that at least were steeped in solid research. Vivid storytelling set in historical worlds, in touch with the zeitgeist of that era. Some of E.L. Doctorow’s work, especially the book Ragtime. Also stuff by Gore Vidal and William Styron. And probably most influential of all, for me, was Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men. Realist fiction, in other words, rooted in true stories, set in the amber of their times.
3. Are there writers or books that have particularly shaped how you view history, and/or how you write history?
Two that come to mind are Shelby Foote, the first writer I ever met growing up in Memphis. And John Hersey, a professor I was lucky enough to have in college.
Shelby was the father of a high school buddy of mine. He spent decades working on his narrative history of the Civil War and was this real eccentric gothic southern character, with a glorious beard, who gave me enticing ideas about what history can aspire to be.
Hersey, on the other hand, was a prim and proper gentleman journalist for The New Yorker who wrote about current events of his day—such as the dropping of the atom bomb over Hiroshima—but he did his journalism in a way that immediately gave off a historical patina. There was a seriousness, a gravitas, that made you realize, wow, what I’m reading here really is the first draft of history.
4. Given your job, I imagine you mostly read history, and a lot of primary sources. What do you read to get away from that? Do you have any escapist or comfort reads? What do you read in your off time?
To tell you the truth, my eyes are so shot from poring over primary sources that by the end of the day, I’m afraid I don’t get to read for pleasure as much as I'd like. I go on a lot of hikes in the mountains behind my house. I binge-watch a lot of shows on TV—recently, Better Call Saul, Breaking Bad, Schitt’s Creek, and Ted Lasso— and read whatever magazines are scattered around the house, like Outside, The Atlantic, and The New Yorker.
5. Most history books that focus on the mid- and late-1700s are honed in on the American revolution. Are there any books you recommend (besides yours!) that get into what else was going on in the world at that time?
I can recommend two great books that delve deep into that period, albeit from different angles. The first is called When London Was The Capital of America, by Julie Flavell. As the title suggests, it looks at just how many Americans in the mid-1700s had close ties to London and still viewed it very much as their motherland and home city. The other book is called The Club: Johnson, Boswell, and the Friends Who Shaped An Age, by Leo Damrosch. It really puts you into the intellectual and cultural life of London of this period, as viewed from the prism of a handful of influential thinkers, artists, and scientists who all knew each other.
6. Any all-time favorite books that have especially stuck with you and/or shaped your thinking over the years? Books that you think about a lot? Fiction, non-fiction, whatever it is.
A few that spring to mind are Tony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See. And also Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City, and Daniel James Brown’s The Boys in the Boat. All three are books just dripping in historical and atmospheric detail.
7. What are you reading and enjoying right now? What's next on your list?
Right now I’m reading a classic book from the 1700s by the great French explorer, Louis Antoine de Bougainville. Bougainville was Captain Cook’s direct competitor and contemporary—and also, as it happens, a terrific writer. His account of his travels, A Voyage Around the World, is one of the epics of the period.
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