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Author writes history with a telling panache

When it comes to writing about history, best-selling author Hampton Sides aims to bring facts alive in a nonfiction narrative rather than shovel them into a tome to gather dust.

"Academic history has a very well-deserved reputation for being deadly dull," Sides observed. "One reason it is often so dull is that you rarely have people doing things, feeling things or having any real time on the ground in a physical setting.

"A lot of academic history is about argument coming out of a thesis, about testing that thesis and proving that thesis," he added. "It is about ideas clashing and concepts clashing, but not about people."

Sides, 50, will discuss the art of nonfiction narrative in writing about history starting at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at South Medford High School. The Southern Oregon Arts & Lectures Series event is sponsored by the Jackson County Library Foundation.

His books that have made The New York Times best-seller list include "Ghost Soldiers," which featured the late Dr. Ralph Hibbs of Medford who survived the Bataan Death March in the Philippines in World War II. Among his other top sellers are "Blood and Thunder," about mountain man and scout Kit Carson; and "Hellhound on his Trail: The Electrifying Account of the Largest Manhunt In American History." The latter focused on James Earl Ray, the assassin of Martin Luther King.

A native of Memphis, Tenn., Sides is a graduate of Yale, where he majored in American history. A former journalist whose articles have appeared in The New York Times and Washington Post, he is the editor-at-large for Outside Magazine. He also writes for such periodicals as National Geographic, The New Yorker, Esquire and Men's Journal. He lives in Santa Fe, N.M., with his wife and three sons.

Capturing that narrative approach in "Ghost Soldiers" first brought Sides to Medford in 1999 to interview Hibbs, who had practiced medicine here for nearly 35 years.

Hibbs, who died at 87 in 2000, was a prisoner of war for three long years at the Cabanatuan Prison Camp No. 1. Some 6,000 POWs died during the first six months at the camp, Hibbs told the Mail Tribune in a 1997 interview.

"They died faster than we could bury them," said Hibbs, author of "Tell MacArthur to Wait," a book published in 1988 about his ordeal in the Philippines.

Sides used Hibbs' account in his book, which went on to become the basis for the 2005 movie "The Great Raid," starring Benjamin Bratt, James Franco and Ralph Fiennes. The nonfiction book focuses on a mission by 121 rangers from the U.S. Army's 6th Ranger Battalion to rescue some 500 American and British POWs held in an infamous Japanese military prison.

Sides wove the experience of Hibbs and three other main characters into his story line.

"Dr. Ralph Emerson Hibbs lay delirious in a ditch at the tattered edge of the jungle, his teeth clicking with chills," the book begins. "The malarial attack came over him suddenly as they always did, his strength dropping from his legs like an untethered weight."

Sides is recognized as one of the nation's best writers, said the doctor's widow, Virginia "Ginny" Caldwell Hibbs, 93, of Medford, who will be at Wednesday's presentation.

"Hampton is an exciting writer who is very accurate in all his facts," said Virginia Hibbs, known for reading with a critical eye. "He is one of our finest young writers."

And she knows a fine writer when she reads one. She was widowed before she married Hibbs, a widower himself, in the early 1990s. Her previous husband, to whom she was married for 30 years before he died, was Erskine Caldwell, author of "Tobacco Road" and "God's Little Acre." Among their friends was a writer named John Steinbeck.

Sides, who described Virginia Hibbs as the "grand dame of Oregon letters" and a friend who gave him very good advice regarding "Ghost Soldiers," noted that the art of narrative history is not taught in most universities.

"Whenever possible I try to find characters who move the plot along through action," he said. "It is especially important to start a chapter out that way to bring the reader immediately into the action. Then you can back up and explain to the reader how we got to this place."

Although acknowledging that many historians don't appreciate the genre, Sides said there are also supporters. One was the late Shelby Foote, a noted Civil War historian who happened to be Sides' childhood neighbor and friend. Foote used the nonfiction narrative approach in his award-winning writing, Sides said.

"Why are so many history departments openly hostile to good writing? I don't get it," Sides said of universities. "I'm on a campaign to make narrative writing one small component of those departments.

"Birds wouldn't start flying backwards, the world would not be turned upside down, if history majors learned to write better and incorporate narrative history as one of their tools," he said.

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 541-776-4496 or email him at pfattig@mailtribune.com.