Tim Egan is no stranger to Spokane. He grew up here. So he knows why people were checking their phones as his lecture began.
The Gonzaga women’s basketball team is up by two, he said, so everyone can put their phones away.
Three hundred people and fifty people laughed as they filled the Hemmingson Ballroom, leaving only standing room among the predominantly community member crowd.
The Spokane native, GU Prep graduate, New York Times columnist, author of eight books and Pulitzer Prize winner for his work on the series, “How Race is Lived in America,” visited his hometown as a part of the GU history department's William L. Davis S.J. Series.
This was a free and open to the public lecture on how through history, the United States has a shared national narrative.
A famed part of GU’s history is its star alum, Bing Crosby. Or in Egan’s case, his grandfather’s 1920s college roommate. Crosby was a horrible student, Egan said according to his grandfather. He never went to class, spent his nights singing and drinking at nightclubs and stealing every girlfriend, left and right.
Not exactly the man cast in bronze in front of his namesake building on campus.
But now, this narrative was shared between the audience and Egan.
His lecture stressed that the events of the past are stories that compose the future and are worth rediscovering. Egan exemplified narratives from which his books are based upon and how they work to evaluate history and the people it affected.
From his identity as an Irish Catholic, to the fire that spread across the West in 1910, to the evergreen stories of immigrants in the U.S., Egan illustrated that what constitutes the American narrative is rich in diversity.
Egan’s book “The Worst Hard Time” shares the stories of those who survived the dirty 30s – when dust storms terrorized the Great Plains.
The stories of the people who had endured the storms hadn’t been told, and through Egan’s curiosity and affinity for history, he found them.
He began meeting women in their 90s who had endured the Dust Bowl and asked them to share their stories.
This soon led him to write his book published in 2006, “The Worst Hard Time.”
“[It] was a complete joy for me,” Egan said. “They were handing the baton in their last years, off to me. My job was just don’t drop it – tell their story well and move out of the way.”
He hopes to do his part in creating a national identity around this historical event through books like these.
Egan emphasized the idea of a shared national narrative, as the nation today is the most polarized it has been since the 1850s, he said.
“In a poll last week, millennials care more about a potential date’s politics than sexual attraction,” Egan said. “Now my conclusion from reading that is I’m glad I’m not dating right now.”
Aside from Egan’s concern for the young dating scene, he asked the audience to consider two central questions:
“Can there really be such a thing as a unifying narrative in this noisy, argumentative, multiethnic, multi-community nation of 330 million people?”
“And a second question I want you to consider tonight is what is the worth – what is the value of understanding those shared narratives? Why should we understand history in this fragile, fragmented fractioned citizen democracy?”
For Egan, the biggest threat of disregarding these narratives comes from short-minded politicians and short-sighted educators.
And that is where he believes journalists, educators and story-tellers can work to engage themselves with people from different backgrounds than themselves and concern themselves with those stories.
This includes embracing and taking ownership of the wrongs done by the nation onto others.
“There are so many echoes of the past that are our stories about what is going on today in 2019,” Egan said. “You think history is the thing that gets buried, then it gurgles. History comes back to bite us constantly.
Egan is currently working on a new book that will be released this fall about his time along the Via Francigena, the ancient road and walking trail running from France to Rome.