Popular history sometimes seems the intellectual equivalent of a child’s bedtime story—it thrives on repetition. The most common genre, often biographical, tells the same story about the same famous people or the same event, over and over again: the founding fathers, Lincoln, Custer, Teddy Roosevelt; Teddy Roosevelt, Custer, Lincoln, the founding fathers. The second genre—there are, I think, only two—is often written by men, some of whom are professors. It promises to provide the only history book that you will ever have to read, because it explains everything from the Neolithic until tomorrow.
Elizabeth Fenn’s Encounters at the Heart of the World is part of a small renascence in historical writing. Some of the most interesting of these new counternarratives—most of them written by women—move purposefully against the grain of popular history, much of which seems to be consumed by men. These historians also seek a popular audience, but they are uninterested in attracting readers with the usual bait. They write about unusual and uncommon topics. They juxtapose people, places and events not usually considered together, but whose pairing seems obvious once it is made. They certainly do not claim omniscience. Their histories are often tentative; they are persuasive because they acknowledge the limits of evidence, while displaying a kind of virtuosity in their ability to work from fragments. The authors often insert themselves into the narratives, so that the reader gets a sense of how the history has been fashioned.
But for all their presence in the text, the history is never about the historians. They are as interested in finding different ways to tell a story as they are wary of claiming too much certainty. The authors I’m thinking of have hit their stride, having already published more than one book. The best-known and most prolific of their number, Jill Lepore, has written most recently not about Benjamin Franklin but his sister Jane. In her book Plutopia, Kate Brown juxtaposes the towns of Richland, Washington, and Ozersk, Russia—an obvious coupling, once it is made, of the places that produced plutonium in the United States and the Soviet Union. Conevery Bolton Valencius writes not about the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, but the New Madrid earthquakes of 1811 and 1812. And Fenn, in Encounters at the Heart of the World, offers a history of the Mandan Indians, who usually merit only a footnote in the standard historical narratives.
Americans know the Mandans, if they know them at all, as the people who hosted Lewis and Clark during the first winter of their famous journey of exploration. By then, Mandan villages had been at the center of life on the northern Great Plains for roughly three centuries. Fenn traces them back even further in order to explore a millennium of North American history. The Mandans did not dominate this history; they were not conquerors. They were farmers and quite peculiar traders. By and large, they did not travel. Instead, they waited for the world to come to them.
The past is a crowded place, and any historian has to answer two basic questions: Why tell this particular story, out of all possible stories about the past? And why tell it in this particular way? Fenn is explicit, if brief, about the first. She goes to North Dakota, the middle of the Mandan world, for a very old American reason: she thinks something is missing from contemporary American life, and she believes the Indians know what it is. She has sensed that “the Mandan story provided an alternative view of American life both before and after the arrival of Europeans.” Her musings have the whiff of the spiritual seeker, and insofar as this is the case, it is a problematic reason to come to Indians, although hardly an uncommon one.