My Rating: 9/10
It’s not often that I pick up a collection of short stories. Unless I’m familiar with the author, I often opt to wait for a library copy not wanting to risk paying out and being utterly disappointed.
I took a chance on Andrew Malan Milward’s I Was A Revolutionary: Stories. I wasn’t familiar with the author but praise for this book had been lauded on it from various outlets. I had other inducements, of course. I am a big history enthusiast and I was curious to see how Milward would approach Kansas history.
I Was A Revolutionary: Stories is a collection of short stories that center on Kansas history. When I learned about Kansas in school, I didn’t learn much about it outside of the era known as “Bleeding Kansas.” During this time, Kansas became the initial battleground of the Civil War. Through this book, I’ve come to learn that Kansas has a whole wealth of history. Though today Kansas lies unassuming in the middle of the United States, it had a host of interesting events and characters that influenced the state’s character. Milward taps into this diverse history and puts them into the short story form.
Andrew Milward plays with the form of the traditional short story and historical narrative. In some stories he immerses the reader in the events of the past but in others, he employs a mediated narrator to investigate details of the past. The latter has a fair share of historical narrative but the stories are framed in a wider contemporary setting where the characters have to sort through their own personal drama. In “The Burning of Lawrence,” Quantrill’s raid, a guerilla attack on the city of Lawrence perpetrated by a pro-Confederate group in the 1860s, is paired with a narrative of a woman investigating the history of this brutal massacre. Throughout the course of the story, Quantrill’s band is humanized as the story discusses what they were truly fighting for: love, pride, and their assertion of their personal freedoms (one of which was keeping slaves). The female narrator investigates how the history of the brutal attack was continually distorted at various points in the time while she’s pining unrequitedly after a man doomed to die in war.
In another story titled “The Americanist,” the narrator learns of the fantastic tale of the infamous “Goat Gland” doctor, John Brinkley, who claimed that the injection of goat gonads was a cure to improve a man’s virility. He had his own private radio station to promote this treatment and even when he was debunked by medical professionals, he went on to almost win a seat in Kansas government. At the same time, the narrator of the story struggles with his feelings towards his partner and the ongoing controversy surrounding the abortion clinic where his partner works.
Though the foundation of these stories are lessons in Kansas history, at their core they are windows into the human experience. Throughout all of history, people have struggled, triumphed, and lost themselves trying to fulfill a dream. From the hope of improvement in one’s lot as shown in “O Death” black exodusters dream of a better times waiting for them in the land of Kansas. This is contrasted to the stark realities of living out that same dream in the battle to struggle for survival in Nicodemus, an all-black settlement. In the title essay, “I Was A Revolutionary,” the narrator is forced to ask himself how he drifted into complacency after his radical youth in the 1960s (as a member of the Weather Underground, I think). At the same time, he tries to inspire a love of Kansas history to the class that he teaches at the university.
Lamenting a life lost and dreams unfulfilled is something that we all can’t help but think about as the years roll on. “What if I done this or that?” is a question that tends to haunt people throughout history. The real lesson however is how to push past these nagging doubts and try to persevere. We sometimes have to find new dreams and stop thinking about the past. We can only press forward.
I would recommend this book to anyone curious about Kansas history or historical fiction in general. I personally enjoyed this collection and I’m glad I spent the money on it.