“One journey seeded all that followed” (Savoy 2015, 5). This opening sentence to Trace: Memory, History, Race and the American Landscape by Lauret Savoy sets the tone for the entire work. Savoy opens her book with the story of a memory of a childhood trip to the Grand Canyon as the first journey that would spark an exploration of memory, race, history, and land in America in her life. Starting with this childhood memory, Savoy confronts preconceived ideas about American history by going directly to source material. She explores what is left out of the retelling of history and who gets left behind in those retellings. At this moment in time, reflections on history and race in America seem increasingly relevant and important for library school students.
This post is part of an occasional series discussing how non-library-specific books and materials are relevant to library school students.
Read the first in this series, a review of Onward
Memory. History. Race. The American Landscape. For Lauret Savoy, an environmental studies professor at Mount Holyoke University, these themes she explores in Trace are inextricably intertwined with her own personal history. Her parents faced discrimination and challenges in many different areas of America, much of which she discovers in her research about their lives. As Savoy researched the history of her family, she simultaneously discovered more about the history of race in America, how that history has been remembered, and its effects on her and her family.
Trace is deeply and intensely personal because of Savoy’s inclusion of her own experiences and family history. This approach focuses the global topics discussed in the book back to a local and individual level. For example, instead of simply discussing the facts about the Army’s segregation of African-American nurses during World War II in Western American Army bases, Savoy shares her mother’s experience of being an African-American nurse in that setting (Savoy 2015, “Migrating in a Bordered Land.”) This approach forces the reader to dive deeper into what could easily be esoteric and distant ideas and reckon with their practical applications.
Each essay in Trace follows a similar loose structure. Savoy introduces a book, document, or story representative of the book’s main themes and discusses its contents and her experience with that item. Next, she revisits the facts and history behind the item, exploring how large pieces of history had been left out of the presented narrative. Beyond that exploration of history, every topic is connected to the geology and ecology of the land related to the topic. Each major theme is not treated to its own dedicated section: instead, commentary on memory, history, race, and the American landscape is woven throughout each essay.
Savoy digs into many example of instances in which history has been distorted by those who wrote the history, especially when recording the stories and places of any minority group. The essay “Properties of Desire” explores the history of a plantation in South Carolina where Savoy and a friend attended a living history presentation. That presentation focused on the Revolutionary War, and when Savoy pressed the guide about slavery at the plantation after that time period, no information was given. As Savoy says, “History as told to us [in the presentation] ended in 1805” (Savoy 2015, 91).
This experience at the plantation led Savoy to go deeper into this plantation’s past through census and other historical records to learn what was being left out of the story. What she finds about the terrors of slavery and oppression after 1805 is a searing reminder of how darker parts of history are pushed aside or ignored in order to tell a more pleasing story. She questions how to respond to these and other examples of misappropriations of memory, race, and history in America. Savoy challenges the American reader:
It is hard to engage painful elements of America’s past and be self-reflective, particularly if one must confront deeply ingrained beliefs and ideas that have shaped or made comfortable, one’s sense of self or place. Or if one seeks to shed a sense of inherited shame or pain in order to step away from stories of group victimization. But the legacy of slavery, and the racism it fed and reinforced, remains a malignant symbiosis. It feeds who we Americans think we are, as citizens and as communities. It still festers as untended wounds, quite open and disfiguring to some, hidden from view to others (Savoy 2015, 113).
This challenge is essential for the information professional to consider. Revisiting painful history is unpleasant and uncomfortable, yet it is a necessary task for those committed to sharing accurate information.
Trace is not a book that can be read lightly. In barely 200 pages, Savoy lays bare some of the gaping wounds in American racial history and memory. She brings to light unpleasant truths and challenges the reader to think critically about ideas and stories that deserve closer scrutiny. Her work also reminds the reader of the value and necessity of investigating source materials when available instead of relying solely on presented information. Through Trace, Savoy makes clear the power of connecting grand themes to a personal level in order to make those themes more accessible. I highly recommend adding this book to your to-read stack.
What books have you read recently that offer inspiration for your library life?
Savoy, Lauret. 2015. Trace: Memory, History, Race, and the American Landscape. Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint.
Sarah Davis is a Bilingual Children’s Associate at a public library in Oklahoma and an MLIS student at the University of Oklahoma-Tulsa.