One of the ways books find their way to me is via podcast. I listen to a few pop culture and history podcasts and usually the lovely hosts have book recommendations. This particular one comes via Dave Gonzales of Storm of Spoilers and Fighting in the War Room. His description of the book both sold me and really is a fantastic encapsulation of what the book does; “GHOSTLAND … tracks other American ‘hauntings’ and reveals how those stories are the product of racism and sexism a good 80% of the time” caught my interest immediately and went directly onto my to read list for the year.
Ghostland hovers around several interest areas of mine, and for a few years I was an active part of the dark tourism that he covers in this book (ghost tours and paranormal programming at historic sites and buildings). So, why not unpack the culture that leads to these things in the first place now that I’m safely on the other side (I had many reservations about doing these programs). There is a social undercurrent that feeds the stories we tell, and choose not to tell, and it extends as far as our ghost stories.
This book tells the story of the dead by focusing on the problems of the living; how do we deal with stories about ghosts and how do we inhabit and move through spaces that have been deemed to be haunted? Colin Dickey pays attention to what can be known about the stories of a haunting story, but then also tracks the ways in which changes to the story, and sometimes even the “facts” themselves are changed. Dickey uses his personal experiences and research to tell a version of American history you may not be familiar with. Or, you might actually be familiar with it as the major weakness of Dickey’s work is that he is often telling his reader the story of some of the most famous hauntings around the states (Winchester Mystery House, anyone?), which can make for an occasional slog of a read. But, for me, it was all made worth it by Dickey unpacking the inherent racism and misogyny of the ghost stories that populate our collective conscious.
This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read, where we read what we want, review how we see fit (within a few guidelines), and raise money in the name of a fallen friend for the American Cancer Society.
Sometimes it’s tough to read a historical monograph and keep my own training out of the mix. I’m simultaneously a professional historian, and not. I do not hold advanced degrees in History, but I work at bringing history alive for visitors at my museum job. I spend the winter reading and researching various topics to prepare for the oncoming season of programs. This year my main research thrust is immigration and domestic servants. That led me to reading Ordinary Days, Extraordinary Times: Morristown New Jersey’s Irish Immigrant Past by Cheryl Turkington.
In her work Ms. Turkington covers approximately one hundred years of the Irish immigrant experience in Morristown. Morristown, if you aren’t familiar, is notable for being at the crossroads of the American Revolution and later for becoming a country escape for millionaires. There were 92 millionaires living in Morristown around the turn of the last century. Ms. Turkington generally turns from those two topics, and instead looks at what life looked like, and how the Irish neighborhood of ‘Dublin’ was born in this town.
While informative to me, Ordinary Days, Extraordinary Times, left me wanting. Perhaps I expect too much, but let’s start with what worked well: the quality and variety of information provided. Ms. Turkington, a staff member of the North Jersey History and Genealogy Center, conducted dozens of oral histories, scoured local records and couched the information in the larger context of the history of the Irish immigrant experience between 1840 and 1940. And she does so unflinchingly. The racism, the anti-Catholicism of the time are explored and place in historic perspective. I can appreciate it ever more so because it’s rare that a book or historian working in the Northeast to honestly explain the impact of institutions such as the Ku Klux Klan in our localities. Ms. Turkington brings this chapter of Morris County’s history to light.
Where Ms. Turkington loses me is in the style. Simultaneously she writes as if the reader is intimately familiar with the geography she is describing while also in cases using a lecturing style. In Ms. Turkington’s defense this book is only available for purchase at the library which published it (The Morristown and Morris Township Library) and it is natural for her to have written for a local audience. However, I feel she may have sold her research short by not aiming for a larger scope in the tone of the writing. In many ways I am her ideal audience being familiar with the area and its history, and interested to learn more and explore primary document research, I was also turned off because by the nature of being that audience, this work was written below my level.
Perhaps the most fun aspect of this work for me is the frequency of seeing familiar 19th century names from the area. It was in many cases like bumping into a friend on the street.
This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read.