Review: Before the Revolution: America’s Ancient Pasts – Daniel K. Richter

Before The Revolution Daniel K RichterMy version:
Genre: Non Fiction The New World, Europe
Belknap Press
First published: 2011
StoryTel subscription

America began, we are often told, with the Founding Fathers, the men who waged a revolution and created a unique place called the United States. We may acknowledge the early Jamestown and Puritan colonists and mourn the dispossession of Native Americans, but we rarely grapple with the complexity of the nation’s pre-revolutionary past. In this pathbreaking revision, Daniel Richter shows that the United States has a much deeper history than is apparent–that far from beginning with a clean slate, it is a nation with multiple pasts that stretch back as far as the Middle Ages, pasts whose legacies continue to shape the present. Exploring a vast range of original sources, Before the Revolution spans more than seven centuries and ranges across North America, Europe, and Africa. Richter recovers the lives of a stunning array of peoples–Indians, Spaniards, French, Dutch, Africans, English–as they struggled with one another and with their own people for control of land and resources. Their struggles occurred in a global context and built upon the remains of what came before. Gradually and unpredictably, distinctive patterns of North American culture took shape on a continent where no one yet imagined there would be nations called the United States, Canada, or Mexico. By seeing these trajectories on their own dynamic terms, rather than merely as a prelude to independence, Richter’s epic vision reveals the deepest origins of American history.

Perhaps more of a reference book than an actual readable in one go – though I did – book. There are a lot of facts, evidence, ideas and stories in here, so much so that you can become a little shell-shocked by it all. Then, as the basic idea was – perhaps – to hit the current members of the USA, in the face with facts (a waste of time however) that they were not the first wanderers into a virgin land, does get a little lost in the downpour of evidence that they weren’t. And that includes the invasion and genocide in South America as well.

Having said all that, it is a supremely interesting and thought provocative book. I am interested in the early history of the New World, Vikings, first English settlers and so on, so it was right up my thematic alley, with – not surprisingly – a myriad of things I either didn’t know, or didn’t realise. You’re not going to find a smoking gun with regards to what caused the Revolution of 1776, or add to the a-weepin’ and a-wailin’ over the treatment of the Native Americans. Though the pointers are there, in the attitudes and baggage brought from their pasts – from both sides – and no one emerges without taint.

Really superbly interesting and constantly engaging, and if this is a field of interest for you, unmissable.

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