In which people went West but it might not have always been for the best
Dreams of El Dorado by H.W. Brands
I find it very hard to review history books; there is so much to the really well written and researched ones that a quick little blurb on Goodreads or Instagram seems insufficient. And going into a detailed analysis isn’t always what people are looking for either. Additionally, America’s history of westward expansion is fraught territory and that has to be kept in mind while reading any book on the subject. And that last part sometimes makes reading histories of this period hard.
There are so many things in our history that were wrong; the movement of large groups of whites who marched into lands occupied by native peoples, wiping out vast numbers of Indigenous people along with the almost wholesale destruction of species, such as the beavers and the buffalo. Add to that the continued spread of slavery in new territories and the displacement of Mexicans from areas they had lived in for over a hundred years. It all doesn’t reflect well on American settlers and it has led to numerous problems in our country today. But Brand’s book also highlights some incredible fortitude, of native peoples who fought to stay on their lands, but the white immigrants as well. For people to explore uncharted areas on boats or to travel by wagon over arid prairie and snow-covered mountains, all in search of a better life for themselves and their children takes courage. To see just one side as bad and the other side as all good isn’t real and it doesn’t make for a true history.
Brand’s book does what all good narrative histories do, it brings the reader along for the ride. It puts you in the time and place and strives to make you understand what was going on in this particular period. It encourages you to try and see the forces that were at play and why things happened as they did. It makes you wonder and sometimes wish for a different outcome by showing you what could have happened instead. There are few American historians I enjoy as much Brand and there aren’t many that can distill a time period into a compelling book without getting bogged down. And though it can be difficult and uncomfortable to read at times, I think that is what makes it important work.