March Bookshelf: N.H.’s Earliest Neighborhood
Dennis Robinson’s latest book is a weighty tome — four pounds, to be exact. Aside from its sturdy clothbound cover and substantial pages, the reason “Strawbery Banke: A Seaport Museum 400 Years in the Making” is so heavy is contained in its title — it tells a tale that spans four centuries of Strawbery Banke history, going all the way back to a trader who came to what is now Portsmouth decades before the Pilgrims arrived. (He is said to have been looking for sassafras to cure venereal disease.)
The history is so rich and complex, Robinson says, he just wrote until he “felt the tale was done.” At 432 pages, it’s a serious read, but Robinson’s elegant writing makes its reading effortless. He says he set out to write a page-turner that pulls people in like a detective novel, and in that he has succeeded.
In the book Robinson didn’t simply rearrange dusty facts about Strawbery Banke’s history, he spent long months researching it, along the way unearthing fabrications, inaccuracies and never-before-published information. “Never trust old history books,” says Robinson, who is editor and owner of the regional Web site www.SeacoastNH.com.
His due diligence (“as a journalist, I’m used to poking around where I don’t belong”) drew praise from no less a history luminary than filmmaker Ken Burns, who called it “an important book.” That’s no surprise to us — we named Robinson New Hampshire’s “Best History Writer” in 2007.
Robinson ushers the reader through the early years of Strawbery Banke as a bustling (and at times seamy) seaport through the “Puddle Dock” neighborhood of 19th-century immigrants to the controversial federal development project that would wipe out that neighborhood through eminent domain and on to the creation 50 years ago of the 10-acre Strawbery Banke Museum that preserves the past. Robinson says, “These 10 acres tell the evolving story of this nation better than any other historic campus I know.”
“Strawbery Banke: A Seaport Museum 400 Years in the Making” was published by Peter E. Randall and is distributed by University Press of New England, www.upne.com.