Rethink American history

For most of your life, you’ve eaten what’s put in front of you.

You’ve also swallowed most everything you’ve been taught in school, particularly in history class.

But did you ever think that there are two sides to it all — what you’ve learned and what others perceive? Maybe there’s more to history than what your textbooks have said, so read “A Most Imperfect Union” by Ilan Stavans, illustrated by Lalo Alcaraz, and you’ll find more to chew on.

History, says Stavans, is “plastic.” One person sees things one way, someone else notices something different; we remember the big events, but not the everyday. This “contrarian,” likes to poke around the hidden recesses of history, to see what might be missed, almost-wrong, or just interesting.

We already know, for instance, that Columbus didn’t “discover” America. Not only did the Vikings get here long before he did, but there were people here even before that. Native Americans — a continental population now estimated to be up to 100 million — had culture, religion, trade, and organized government.

But “clashes … are how the nation took shape.” Indians fought the Pilgrims, Pueblo Indians revolted against the Spanish, British colonies fought amongst themselves, and the colonists fought against the British. The colonists didn’t get much land when the war was over, but through the decades, the United States grew.

Immigrants, who “know what it means not to have something they cherish,” contributed literature, food, and more, all of which has had “a powerful effect on American culture.” Americans invented new transportation methods, movies, new music, photography, and all kinds of science. We’ve taken good, worked through bad, and made an “amazing patchwork landscape … that’s always striving for perfection.”

In his introduction, author Stavans explains why he enjoys “contrarianism”: he’s an immigrant himself, which gives him an individual perspective on American history and an inclination to question things that he believes need questioning.

And you’ll find plenty of thought-provoking here in a fascinating everything-old-is-new-again way, since similar events from decades ago are again in the news. Because of those fresh outlooks on old-new issues, Stavans’s point of view and Alcaraz’s drawings may lead you to some reflection of your own this school year.

If you’re the kind of person who enjoys creating your own opinion about old tenets, if you love dissension and debate, or if you want the kind of history book your father never had, then “A Most Imperfect Union” is a book you’ll savor.

“A Most Imperfect Union,” by Ilan Stavans [269 pages, 2014, $25.99].

Terri Schlichenmeyer has been reading since she was 3 years old, and she never goes anywhere without a book. She lives on a hill with two dogs and 12,000 books.