On the Wing

Do Your Homework


I have been researching and writing about the history of our area for a few years now. The lives and adventures, the successes and low points of the people who managed to find their way to this remote part of Puget Sound interest me, especially people whose stories have barely been told, if at all.

Unlike the stories of well-known pioneers, who left a rich paper trail, the lives of less-known settlers and early residents can be hard to reconstruct. To stitch together those narratives, I spend countless hours searching through museum and library collections, poring over maps, examining physical and digitized archives, leafing through yellowed ledgers, and reading newspapers of the time. Bit by rewarding bit, the stories emerge; it’s a lot like working on an archeological dig, reconstructing a ceramic pot from shards scattered at the site. There will be pieces missing, but sometimes it’s possible to extrapolate from what you have and fill in the gaps.

The work is immensely satisfying and off-the-charts fun. I become a sleuth, pondering evidence, triangulating my material and my sources to confirm it. Sometimes the trail leads me to new discoveries, which may upend existing narratives. If the evidence leads to a rewrite of accepted oral histories or recollections, I may risk running into some resistance on the part of those whose past I’m excavating. I remember interviewing a local family for a story once, sharing my independent research on their place and their own distant history; they were as gracious as can be, but as they would later confess that while I may have uncovered and documented events that were probably accurate, I had robbed their history of its swashbuckling romance.

That gave me pause, but thankfully other than my hurt ego and the awkward realization that I had trampled all over that family’s history, there were no other repercussions. I am still friends with them, and I honored their story as the gateway to my own findings. No one lost face; both stories ended up with a seat at the table. Romance and fact managed to coexist peacefully.

There are larger, more important narratives, however, which may diverge and cannot be reconciled, where there is just not much of a middle ground where differing views could meet. The present moment in our history is a good example. There are issues like climate change or the pandemic and the responses to them where opposing sides advance arguments that can be debated, at least in theory. But there are also demonstrably false narratives spread for purely political gain. Misinformation can be remedied with honest debate and a review of the data; disinformation needs to be rejected and those who advance it rebuked.

But how can you tell? How do you know which side to believe, whose side to take? How do we tell the story that most closely matches reality?

You don’t, unless you do your homework.

As a student of language and a writer of history, I can tell you it’s not fun being corrected for errors or admitting that I might have fallen for a piece of nonsense. When that happens, it means I haven’t done that homework. I may have missed a source, or perhaps I misinterpreted the data. I’ll never forget my mortification when someone pointed out an inconsistency in a paper I presented at a linguistics conference years ago, back when I was a little too sensitive about my own findings. That was a lesson for the ages for me, especially in my current work. I am acutely aware of the responsibility that comes with writing about forgotten people and events from 100 or 150 years ago. My story may well be the only account of their lives available, at least until I or a future historian revise it based on new evidence.

That is why I always cite my sources, to give others the chance to check on my work and correct any errors or omissions. Because this is no longer about me or my ego; it’s about getting the story right. I’ve come a long way since that painful conference.

So, if you’re going to challenge a narrative in the marketplace of ideas, do your homework. It’s not about you; it’s about falling in love with the truth. And as you will discover, that’s off-the-charts fun.

Joseph Pentheroudakis is an artist, historian and avid birder who writes from Herron Island.