Slogging through narrative history in The Tunnels

I have this spectrum in my head for rating narrative histories. On one end is Erik Larson’s Devil in the White City, which a lot of people like but I find unreadable. This side of narrative history is saturated in flowery detail that drowns out the facts because it’s trying too hard to be like fiction. The focus is too narrow, it feels like I’m learning more about what Larson thought HH Holmes or Daniel Burnham might have been thinking on a particular day than understanding Chicago history. I don’t get an appreciation of the holistic reality of what Larson is trying to record. I just feel like he’s trying to turn history into a novel, which strikes me as disingenuous.

On the other side there is The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson, which uses individual stories as representative of larger historical currents. It traces the migration of black Americans from southern states to the north, and uses 3 oral history accounts to narrativize the plight of these black Americans. It appeals to the reader’s pathos in a fiction-like manner, yes, but it maintains its purpose as history by not treating these individual stories in a vacuum. Wilkerson puts them into historical context, takes time to describe the cultural and social climate for these individuals and others like them. She explains Jim Crow, the civil rights movement, the reasons why so many left the south and what many found when they found lives in northern cities. For every piece of micro-history, in other words, Wilkerson complements it with macro-history.

The Tunnels: Escapes Under the Berlin Wall-and the Historic Films the JFK White House Tried to Kill by Greg Mitchell fits somewhere in the middle of this spectrum. While I do think I gained a greater appreciation of what it was like to live in occupied Berlin during WWII and gained a somewhat greater understanding of the US’s involvement in Berlin at that time, I found that Mitchell was too committed to telling individual stories in lieu of a larger ambition. Reviews often praise this book for reading like a read life Le Carre novel, but I think that’s exactly its greatest fault–it tries too hard to be like a spy novel and not a history. Because real life doesn’t work like a novel, much of this book is a tedious cycle of extremely similar tunneling projects in Berlin. I ran out of steam about halfway through the book and had to skim a great deal.

I liked the book enough, thought I certainly learned my fair share of history, but I can’t help but wonder how it might have been more effective, how I might have gained a more holistic understanding of the history of West vs. East Berlin, if Mitchell hadn’t been so preoccupied by narrativizing this history.

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About Bryan Cebulski

Writer. Cis queer. History, masculinity, media. Point-and-click adventure protagonist. He/Him/His. Collects bad habits like Jessica Rabbit.
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