Long before I discovered history as my favourite way of telling stories, I loved choose your own adventure books, writes Julia Laite. The ‘choose your own adventure’ children’s books were one of Bantam’s most popular series in the 1980s. These slim and accessible volumes, invited ‘you’ to be ‘the hero’ of a particular story, and to exercise your agency through a series of limited choices that ‘you’ encounter every few pages. Depending on your choice, you are invited to turn to a different page, which in turn leads to more choices, and a series of different endings. As an nine-year-old in that heady year that was 1989, I adored them. I remember sitting in the afternoons in the unmowed grass on the hill above my elementary school with my friend, trying to play through all the different scenarios, our fingers stuffed into dog-eared pages. I remember next to nothing about their content—there were dragons, unsolved mysteries, adventures in some vaguely western setting, pirates—what I remember is their possibility, the way that they put a story’s instability at the very heart of the process of telling it.
Maybe this early, most certainly non-literary, form of written entertainment influenced me more deeply than I thought; or maybe my love of choose your own adventure books sprang from the same place in my mind as did my love of history. In my new book project, a microhistory of one case of trafficking set in the year 1910, the people I am writing about left few or no personal records behind, and even in official records have left only traces. And so, I found myself thinking back to ‘choose your own adventure’ each time I encountered a moment when I could not find the person I was looking for, or when there was a gap in their lifeline that I could not know or explain. If the trafficker Antonio Carvelli went to back to New Zealand after his deportation from England, turn to page 134. If he went back to Italy, turn to page 148. What I’ve found is that thinking in terms of ‘choose your own adventure’, that is, thinking about the branching narratives and multiple possibilities for individuals in the past, can be a way to deal with the uncertainties thrown up by the minor events, the small people, and the decisions, experiences, oppressions, challenges, harms, and joys in their lives..
The more common way to tell the stories of unknown or hardly-known people is to use the generalization method. As in, the prostitute in my story, Veronique White, probably got involved in in the sex trade because she was from a poor family, had little social support, and a strong aversion to domestic service: most women who sold sex shared these experiences. But this is the problem with the exceptional normal in microhistory. As soon as you get comfortable generalizing, substituting in a composite portrait for an individual in order to get them from point a to b in chronological time or to explain why they got there in the way they did, then you suddenly discover something that throws your safe assumptions into disarray. White’s family was not poor, in fact, and her brother in law was a high-ranking official in Western Australia. Her social network was strong, and she died surrounded by her loving family. Every individual, normal life is so full of exceptions to rules; or just plain old surprises. And so instead of composite selves I’m trying to construct multiple possible selves for my characters.
Now, I want to make it clear that I consider this method of history-thinking to be rather different from ‘What If’ history. For one, it is not about big events or big people. It does not take place in that thought universe where Hitler does or does not get shot, like some Nazi Schrodinger’s cat. It perplexes me, this desire to play with the known, when there are so many wonderful unknowns, for which this kind of thought experiment might actually reveal important truths about actual lived human experience. So, while counterfactual history asks ‘what if it did, or what if it didn’t’, this is more about dealing with an equal set of ‘may haves’. It is, I guess, a plea for more ‘may have’ history.
Even if we sometimes use counterfactuals to engage students, history is still usually taught to younger students as a series of events, an inexorable march forward through time. There is no instability in the happenings. Hitler invaded Poland in September of 1939. Turn one page, and one page only, and you will see how it triggered successive declarations of war.
I’m not taking issue with this! Just in case Richard Evans is hiding under the table. Of course we need to teach this. It happened this way and it affected millions and millions of lives, the entire course of global history, like a lightning bolt with a billion forking arms. Like some behemoth butterfly, flapping its enormous wings.
But while I sometimes take comfort in teaching this kind of account, it isn’t why I love history. I love history because of the stories that we will never completely know. I love it at the almost imperceptibly thin ends of each of the lightning bolt’s billion forks, not at that atmospheric crash where the lightning started. And it makes me a little sad, as I welcome our new BA students to their courses, to know that most of them have never gotten a taste for choose your own adventure history, where both the small heroes, and the reader herself, gets to explore the maybes, the perhapses, the contingencies, the roads less and more travelled.
Technology and digital gaming can be leveraged, I think, to bring choose your own adventure history into the classroom. Already, historians are developing simple choose your own adventure websites to teach students about how individuals might navigate their way through historical conditions not chosen by themselves. There is so much potential here, even if big-name digital gaming companies are unlikely to show any interest in the quiet life of Lydia Harvey, domestic servant, trafficking victim, hospital orderly. These digital branching stories can help students play with the idea of what we can’t know about the past. They can help them understand how power gifts the powerful with a greater number of possibilities, but also how even the most marginalized person has a range of choices, even if the number pages they could have turned to are severely limited and often, as they did in the original Bantam books, led to certain death. Choose your own adventure history recognizes the fundamental instability of the stories we tell about the past, while reminding us that every person’s story is worth exploring.