J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Choose Your Own Bunker Hill

While preparing for my teachers’ workshop at Old South Meeting House this summer, I came across a small school reading book that impressed me, and I wanted to pass it along. It’s The Battle of Bunker Hill, by Michael Burgan, issued by the school-library publisher Capstone. Burgan’s written a lot of other history titles for the same press, including treatments of the Boston Massacre in both traditional prose and comics forms; he’s one of the firm’s go-to guys for the Revolution.

You remember the “Choose Your Own Adventure” books from 1979 and beyond? They’re coming back (in what looks like a desktop-publishing production). And some other presses have taken the same idea and created their own multiple-path books in various formats. In this “Interactive History Adventure” series, Capstone has adopted the form and applied it to history.

In this Battle of Bunker Hill, the reader starts out by choosing one of three roles: British soldier, Massachusetts militiaman, or Boston civilian. Each character faces a series of choices. Some lead to death, some to capture, some to a non-fatal wound, some to victory, some to defeat, some to not going into the battle at all.

Obviously, this genre doesn’t lend itself to creating memorable characters: the books are too short, and the protagonist (“you”) is an empty box for the reader to fill in. But the “Interactive Historical Adventures” form excels at making readers see events in the moment and consider the choices that people of that time had to make. The form implicitly casts doubt on two common assumptions about history—that things could have worked out only one way, and that there’s only one way to understand the past.

Burgan sticks to the generally accepted outline of what happened on 17 June 1775, though there are some factual details I might quibble about. A more important weakness in this book is ideological balance. The text talks a lot about the American fighter’s desire to secure “freedom,” but it doesn’t present the British soldier’s motivation in such stirring terms. True, a lot of those redcoats joined the army just to survive, but there was a strong ideology of loyalty to the empire, king, and union to compete with the Patriots’.

Another weakness is inherent in the “Interactive” approach: every turning point is defined by a reader’s choice. But sometimes life is random. A soldier might end up dying not because he chose to march this way or that, but because of something he had no control over. The form of this book inherently implies that the right series of choices can spell the difference between dying in a hail of musket balls or surviving a hail of musket balls.

I wonder if it’s possible to design an element of randomness into such a book; asking readers to flip a coin, or telling them, “If your first name has an odd number of letters, turn to page 48. [Dead.] If your first name has an even number of letters, turn to page 49. [Missed you by that much.]”

The book is illustrated with the school-library publisher’s usual collection of nineteenth-century artworks showing the Battle of Bunker Hill. Because they look old-fashioned, it’s tempting to think of them as authentic, but they were all made decades after the last soldier in that battle had died and are therefore just as fictional as the book itself. As long as young readers understand that this book represents an attempt to understand the past, not an exact recreation of it, they should enjoy the immersion on the choices people faced in 1775.

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