Recently, I saw the film Hidden Figures, which tells the story of the African-American women who worked as mathematicians and engineers for NASA during the 1960s. These women were an integral part of the space program from the earliest days of the Mercury program, and on up through the Apollo moon landings, but remained largely unknown to the general public even to this day.
As good as the movie was, I was even more excited to learn that it was based on a book of the same title, written by Margo Lee Shetterly. When a movie says, “based on a true story,” it often means more along the lines of “one or two true elements with a whole lotta fiction thrown in for dramatic purposes.” And while I understand why films take some measure of dramatic license in telling a true story, it always saddens me a little to learn how far many of them have drifted away from the source material.
Because I’ve always believed that true stories make the best stories. True stories not only tell us things we may not have known about history, but also things about ourselves and our time. Being a published non-fiction author myself, I’ve always gravitated towards true stories told well. And in that spirit, here are ten true stories that get it right.
A Night To Remember / The Night Lives On, by Walter Lord. First published in 1955, A Night To Remember is still the definitive book on the sinking of the Titanic. I first read it when I was in the fifth grade, and it turned me into a bona fide, rivet-counting, Titanic junkie. Lord’s narrative is filled with first hand accounts from survivors, and is so compelling and engaging, that the book reads like a novel rather than a dusty history. The Night Lives On was published in 1986, following the rediscovery of the ship, and continues the story by shedding light on the new research that followed. Both books are essential reads for anyone interested in the most famous of all shipwrecks (as well as anyone who needs their palate cleansed after James Cameron got through shoving Jack and Rose down their throats).
In Harm’s Way, by Doug Stanton. On the heels of the most famous shipwreck ever, comes the story of a lesser known, but equally compelling disaster involving the USS Indianapolis. Anyone who has seen the film Jaws will remember Robert Shaw’s chilling monologue about the ship, which was sunk in the final days of World War II, just after a top secret mission to deliver the atomic bomb components to the island of Tinian. For several days, the surviving sailors and Marines floated in the open ocean, dealing with hunger, thirst, hypothermia, and the worst shark attack in recorded history. Stanton’s book is even more chilling, adding new dimensions to the tragedy, many of which followed the survivors for the rest of their lives.
Band of Brothers, by Stephen Ambrose. This book tells the story of Easy Company, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne, as they come together in training, land in Normandy on D-Day, through the Battle of the Bulge, and to the end of the war in Hitler’s private mountaintop retreat. HBO’s miniseries is based on this book, and I highly recommend both as a study of how ordinary men came together in a crucial moment in history to save the world. The men of Easy Company feel like personal friends to me, to the point where I keep tabs on the 14 last survivors. The Greatest Generation, indeed.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot. Henrietta Lacks was an African-American woman who died of cancer in 1951, but whose cells were harvested by doctors, and have become the basis for all genetic research in the world today. This book gives a human face to the woman to whom everyone in the world owes a debt of gratitude. The medical knowledge and developments that have come about because of her cells have benefitted millions without even realizing it. The book also asks important questions about identity and privacy that resonate today.
The Hot Zone, By Richard Preston. Speaking of medicine, this book chronicles the history and rise of dangerous diseases such as the Hanta and Ebola viruses. Written in the early 1990s, this book not only inspired films like Outbreak, but inspired a generation of people to stock up on hand sanitizer.
The Code Book: The Science of Secrecy from Ancient Egypt to Quantum Cryptopgraphy, Simon Singh. I know what you’re thinking: books with super long subtitles are bound to be boring, and this one looks like a college text that will cost upward of ninety bucks in the university bookstore. But trust me—it’s fascinating. If you like history, you’ll like this book. If you haven’t the foggiest idea about cryptography, you’ll like this book. It’s geared towards the average reader, and is a fast and compelling read. It also feels very relevant today because of the heightened public awareness of cyber security.
Lone Survivor, by Marcus Luttrell, with Patrick Robinson. This is the story of a Navy SEAL team who went on an ill-fated secret mission to capture a high-ranking Taliban member in the mountains of Afghanistan. Luttrell is the titular lone survivor, and his story is both tragic and inspiring as he pays homage to his fallen comrades. (This book was made into a film with Mark Wahlberg, and is a powerful, but difficult film to watch).
Connections, by James Burke. In the late 1970s, PBS ran a documentary series called Connections, which was written and presented by British historian James Burke. In each episode, Burke took one of the technological breakthroughs of the 20th century—such as the internal combustion engine, the assembly line, the computer, or the rocket—and showed the unusual—and often surprising—twists and turns throughout history that led to its development. Burke showed that nothing exists in isolation, and that everything—and everyone—are, in fact, connected. This book was the companion volume to the show, and is a brilliant read for anyone who loves history and science.
Thunderstruck, by Erik Larson. Larson is one of those non-fiction writers who approaches his subjects as though he were writing a novel. Indeed, The Devil in the White City reads like a horror story, and is arguably his most well known work. But I have chosen to recommend Thunderstruck, in which Larson again takes two seemingly disparate historical events—in this case, the development of the wireless telegraph by Marconi, and the lurid tale of murderer Dr. Hawley Crippen—and weaves them together to their ultimate and inevitable intersection in history. In 1910, Crippen became the first criminal apprehended primarily through the use of a modern technology.
So there you have it: ten true tales that would enhance anyone’s reading list. I hope you’ll take the time to explore these stories and expand your view of history, as well as our world today. Next month, I’ll share some of my favorite fiction titles that came as complete surprises to me. In the meantime, happy reading!
Dennis Gaunt has worked as a slushpile reader for Deseret Book and Shadow Mountain publishers since 2000. All those years of reading other people’s words inspired him to take a crack at writing himself. His first book, Bad Guys of the Book of Mormon, was published in 2011, and he has since published other books and magazine articles in the LDS market, and has even recorded talks on CD for LDS youth and young adults.
Though primarily a non-fiction writer (for now), he loves reading and talking about what makes great fiction stories work. His years of wading through the slushpile from the other side have given him a unique perspective on the writing and publishing processes, and he’s excited to be a part of Thinking Through Our Fingers.
Dennis lives in the Salt Lake City area with his wife, Natalie, who still has the text he sent her all those years ago that read “Holy cow–I think I’m writing a book!” In his spare time, he enjoys photography, playing the guitar, cooking (hold the onions, please), going to Disneyland, and Godzilla movies.