Foreign exchange

Guest post by Claiborne Skinner

Last month, I donated  a copy of my little book The Upper Country: French Enterprise in the Colonial Great Lakes to “The High School affiliated with Renmin University of China” as part of an educational conference.  This is, I believe, the first copy in the People’s Republic.  Nearly four and a half years after Johns Hopkins Press published the book, it is now in more than 350 libraries in 18 countries that I know of.  As a first-time author, I spent the first year waiting (and worrying) about the reviews.  These were, by and large, kind and I thought that would be the end of it.  Thanks to the internet and e-mail,  however, my relationship with the book has continued and taught me  a something about how and why people “do” history.

Bob Brugger’s charge when he approached me to write The Upper Country was to create a regional history for undergraduate students.  I assumed, therefore, it would generate little interest outside of Canadian and the upper Middle Western universities. The reviews seemed to bear this out, with virtually all of them  from Middle Western or Canadian academics.  In practice, however,  the 18 countries extend from the U.S. and Canada (Fort McMurray, Alberta) to Tahiti.  What it was doing in Taiwan, Australia, and the South Pacific was a mystery which I eventually chalked up to routine library acquisition policies.  My electronic encounters with readers have taught me differently.  A student at the University of Oklahoma frantically emailed one night to say that he had to write a paper on the book, due the next morning, and could I help?  We worked on it back and forth for a while and he eventually wrote back to thank me.  Another Oklahoman reviewed the book on Amazon.com.  He had questioned one of my conclusions and  I tracked him down on a voyageur re-enactor website by his nom de guerre to ask what sort of sources he had relied on.  A charming guy, he said that he would get back to me as soon as he and his friends had paddled down a lengthy portion of the Missouri River in their freighter canoe.  The book has also ended up in the public history field. One day, I took a group of my students to a forest preserve museum dedicated to the fur trade.  After I signed them in, the person at the counter recognized my name and called in the entire staff as the book was used for training their guides and interpretive staff.  The field trip then became an impromptu book signing.

What really startled me was the number of foreign encounters I had with the book.  I found it assigned in an American history course at the New College of London.  A woman at the University of Helsinki e-mailed to ask a question about the French chronicler Pierre Liette.  Snooping around one day, I encountered the book in a footnote from a French language article on the year 1730 in Wikipedia. Another day, I found it cited in a German language Wiki article on the Upper Great Lakes .  Finally, surfing the Web, I found myself discussed in a truly splendid Italian history forum: Il Forum di Far West in an exchange on the 1736 Battle of Ackia in northern Mississippi.

The fact of it seems to be that a good story is a good story.  This is no particular reflection on me.  Rather, the collision of peoples, empires, and cultures in the heartland of North America seems a drama universal in its appeal.  I just managed to avoid getting in the way. Now with The Upper Country in China: a billion people at $25 a book?  Who knows?

Claiborne Skinner is an instructor of History and Social Science at the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy in Aurora, Illinois, and the author of The Upper Country: French Enterprise in the Colonial Great Lakes.

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