History isn't always made by great armies colliding or by great civilizations rising or falling. Sometimes it's made when a chauffeur takes a wrong turn, a scientist forgets to clean up his lab, or a drunken soldier gets a bit rowdy. That's the kind of history you'll find in The Greatest Stories Never Told. This is history candy -- the good stuff. (Amazon)
Reviewed by Amy Finnegan - Writer, Reader, Bookshop Talk Host
I don’t fall in love with a lot of nonfiction books, but when I do, I really love them. Such is the case with The Greatest Stories Never Told: 100 Tales from History to Astonish, Bewilder, and Stupefy. Each story is told in just two pages, with an average of only four paragraphs and a couple of photos, and yet I always finish each tale thinking “Holy cow, that’s so cool,” or “That is plain crazy!” or most often, with a simple, “Wow.”
I’d already heard bits and pieces of about half of the stories and was delighted to be reminded of the details. But even as often as I read history books (which is the majority of the nonfiction that I read), I was completely oblivious to several of them. Here are just a few teasers:
Do you remember that in the third Pirates of the Caribbean movie, one of the pirate leaders was a woman? Turns out, this detail was based on fact, and she was no ordinary pirate. Hsi Kai was the most successful pirate of all time, ruling the South China Sea “with an iron hand, terrorizing shipping, attacking seaside villages, and defeating every naval force sent to intercept her.” In the early 1800s, she commanded more than 1,000 ships with 50,000 pirates—more than twice the size of the famed Spanish Armada, and in a time when the U.S. Navy had just 5000 men. She retired undefeated, kept all of her loot, and lived peacefully to an old age.
Care to guess what happened to any of her pirates who took advantage of a female captive, even if the woman agreed to it? You’ll have to read that part for yourself.
Another fascinating tidbit: I grew up being told stories about the legendary Pony Express, when in reality, it was “an impractical, money-losing business that went bankrupt in little more than a year.” The notoriously dangerous enterprise was made obsolete almost immediately by the much less expensive, and instantaneous, telegraph. But at least it gave Buffalo Bill some good material for his Wild West shows.
To wrap this up, I’ll quote exactly from one of my favorite stories from this book:
“One of America’s most famous actors stood on a train platform in Jersey City. He was among a crowd of people about to get on board a train. As the crowd pressed forward to enter one of the coaches, the train unexpectedly started with a jolt, rolling a few feet before it stopped. The actor saw a young man lose his balance, and begin to fall helplessly between the platform and the moving car.
Thinking quickly, the actor reached down and grabbed the young fellow by the collar, pulling him to safety. The grateful young man recognized his celebrity savior, ‘whose face was of course well known to me, and I expressed my gratitude to him, and in doing so, called him by name.’
It is only later that the two men recognized the haunting irony.
|Robert Todd Lincoln|
The actor was Edwin Booth. His younger brother, John Wilkes Booth, assassinated President Lincoln the following spring. And the young man whose life he saved?
Robert Todd Lincoln—Abraham Lincoln’s son.”
As I said earlier, wow.
Read this book. It truly will “astonish” you.
Mature Themes: Nothing worse than the details told in high school history books