Margaret MacMillan has written a wonderful book, History’s People – Personalities and the Past. Rather than engage in a heated debate about the extent to which individuals drive history, MacMillan’s chapters focus on different types of personalities, many of which have directly affected the course of history. Some of her chapters make odd bedfellows. It isn’t often you see Woodrow Wilson, Margaret Thatcher, Josef Stalin and Adolph Hitler discussed in the same chapter, but MacMillan’s parallels are fascinating, even as she recognizes that Wilson and Thatcher could never share the malevolence of Hitler and Stalin.
HIstory’s People was created as a series of distinguished lectures, and the book is fairly short. MacMillan’s accounts are absolutely fascinating, and I wish she had written still more. The book comfortably describes famous, infamous and relatively unknown people with thoughtful attention. MacMillan is Canadian, and she writes about a number of characters in Canada’s history that would be little known to anyone outside Canada. The new information is welcome, and the themes she develops are compelling. She pays particular note to women who may not be well known, but who nonetheless were important pioneers and observers. She recognizes how important observers such as Samuel Pepys and Victor Klemperer (I Will Bear Witness) are to our understanding of the past.
This book informs the reader about a huge variety of historical movements and events. Using individual lives to tell these stories makes this a tremendously worthwhile book for both scholars and those of us who will welcome having some of our knowledge gaps filled with thoughtful and intriguing accounts of some very interesting people. I highly recommend this book!