The Shipwreck We Missed in History Class

The first time I heard Stuff You Missed In History Class, I knew I’d found some some kindred spirits in Holly Frey and Tracy Wilson. Each episode is like you drove a Subaru hundreds of miles through the Appalachians, to arrive at a college town just in time for a dinner party where everyone’s educated, and you sit between two engaging women with subtly different Southern accents, who tell you all about a topic in thirty minutes. All that, except you didn’t have to leave your Subaru.

The conversations – and there are hundreds of them – could be about Victoria Woodhull; about Copernicus; a concise history of air conditioning; the Lumiere Brothers (two episodes); Martin Luther’s wife; the woman who led the repeal of Prohibition; the Sepoy Rebellion; or anything else.

Princess_Sophia_(steamship)_on_Vanderbilt_Reef_10-24-1918

I mention them today because they recently told the harrowing story of the sinking of the S.S. Princess Sophia, which left Skagway, Alaska on October 23, 1918, around 10 pm, three hours later than it should have, going a lot faster than it should have, and you can either guess the rest or listen to them tell it.

Theirs is the only podcast I’ve ever truly binged on, more than once in fact, and what’s remarkable about it is how spare the story-tellers are at injecting any kind of first person. Sure, they’ll say “I think” here or there, or leave you with some impression about them while having an ironic chuckle, usually at the expense of some ill-informed or overly confident participant in their stories, but they graciously keep that to a minimum.

I guess I do know that one of them is a mother and the other an animal lover, and any mention of cruelty to animals or kids gets a “You know this pushes my buttons” comment. Otherwise they leave out any of the personal-voyage-of-discovery anecdotes that tend to flatten every story in the National Public Radio orbit. It’s like, you can’t hear about a murder-mystery without the narrator mentioning the nature of the epiphany she had while on her way from the coffee shop to the crime scene.

Others have written about them with more access than I have. They have lots of stories about women, a sympathetic appreciation for religious subjects, and a sense of wonder about entrepreneurs.

Stuff You Missed History Class has that rare balance, both a sense of humor and a reverence for its subjects. In those hundreds of hours you rarely hear any theoretical rhapsodizing, though Holly Frey has a knack for stepping back and reminding you of the context of the story. In the case of the S.S. Princess Sophia, she muses, the end of World War I and the world flu pandemic kept us from committing this utter disaster to public memory.

What a vision, by the way, to think of a ship full of the bodies of the dead pulled from the water, arriving at a Canadian port on November 11, while people are celebrating the just-announced Armistice that ended the war.

I, for one, would have been tempted to stop the story and say “Think about that! Now that’s irony.” The Stuff You Missed History Class ladies, however, almost always stick to the third person and keep answering the question every story-teller should: Then what happened?

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