- The Accidental Historian: Tales of Trash and Treasure
An attorney by training and a historian by inclination, Monte Akers has great enthusiasm for the past, and he mines his broad interests effectively to tell remarkable stories, explore the margins of history, and have a good time in the process. With a well-honed sense of humor and an engaging, self-effacing style, he understands how to bring the reader along on his personal journey. His journey is one with no preconceived boundaries that encompasses a healthy range of curiosity extending from archival research and heritage tourism to reenacting and relic hunting. Along the way, the author asks important and provocative questions about the past that challenge conventional historical thinking, and then offers his own unique set of answers based on his experiences and focused insights.
Akers’s personal search is both entertaining and enlightening, providing elements reminiscent of both Antiques Roadshow and History Detectives. There is serious history in the book, no doubt, but there are also healthy doses of irony and humor, and they serve to keep the reader in eager anticipation of the next surprise moment. Akers’s special tongue-in-cheek perspective is clearly evident from the opening pages, when he writes about his early experimentation with Civil War reenacting. Describing his chance opportunity to serve as a battle scene extra in the 1980s television mini-series, North and South, Book II, he noted:
Charlie [Sullivan] and I were unfettered, unattached, and undisciplined. We each possessed both Federal and Confederate uniforms, we knew that most re-enactment units welcomed additional warm bodies, and we were not shy about asking, or begging, to be allowed to join up with any unit we believed might get on camera that day. We made it our goal for the week to get filmed firing the shots that killed us(8).
Akers cuts a wide swath through history with his quandaries about such seemingly disparate topics as Robert E. Lee’s bald pate, sexism on the reenactor battle-field, the poignant relationship between a celebrated general and a five-year-old child, encounters with con men peddling dubious artifacts, the story of a reported Alamo survivor, the value of old letters, and the veracity of recorded rebel yells. The cast of characters he encounters—both past and present—is equally diverse, and they provide important cultural dimensions to the stories. Few of them are a challenge to the author himself, who chronicles with more than a small measure of objectivity his own interesting life in pursuit of the past, which includes well-intentioned efforts at poetry, songwriting, acting, genealogical context, and even a run at local politics. [End Page 207]
Akers has a skill for presenting well-told stories, unresolved mysteries, and noteworthy characters, and the results make for compelling reading. In the postscript to the book, he provides a fitting summation of his arguments before the general court of readers: “History—family, local, national and world—moves forward and on, and we must move with it as long as we can, then enjoy the next great adventure in the great cycle. Perhaps then we’ll learn the truth about what really happened, told us by the folks, or spirits, who were there and who knew the value of preserving a good tale” (209).