The best books I read in 2015 were those that prompted me to put the book down and go online in search of more information, immediately.
In “The Unknown Travels and Dubious Pursuits of William Clark,” author Jo Ann Trogdon details the little-known journey the explorer made to New Orleans in 1798, six years before he joined Meriwether Lewis on the expedition that today bears their names.
Clark’s journal of his 1798 journey survives, today held by the State Historical Society of Missouri in Columbia. But he doesn’t have much to say in the journal, and maybe for good reason.
He was, at minimum, mixing with individuals who may have been active in what was called the “Spanish Conspiracy,” which included perhaps breaking Kentucky away from the young United States and into a closer collaboration with Spain.
But Trogdon, who holds a bachelor’s degree in Spanish and who earlier had written a book about the early days of St. Charles, Mo., knew there was another source on Spanish activities in the New World.
That was the General Archive of the Indies, the repository in Seville that maintains surviving documents of the Spanish government’s dealings in the Western Hemisphere. Among those papers were ones generated by Spanish customs agents who listed Clark’s cargo in detail upon his 1798 arrival in New Orleans.
The idea that Americans were not the only ones writing things down in early America somehow startled me.
And so I found the archive website (en.www.mcu.es). Four indifferent years of high school Spanish allowed me to stumble through the site until, after only a few minutes, I was looking at a map of St. Augustine, Fla., rendered at about the same time of its 1565 founding.
I had a similar experience when reading “Firebrand,” by Aaron Barnhart, former television critic for The Star.
The book, written for young readers, tells of August Bondi, the Vienna-born student who immigrated to America and made his way to Bleeding Kansas, where he fought alongside abolitionist John Brown.
My responses to this were: a) Seriously? and b) Why didn’t I know this?
A quick trip to the Kansas Historical Society website (kshs.org) gave me a detailed timeline of Bondi’s life, a breakdown of the society’s Bondi manuscript collection and recommendations for further reading.
I had been to the same website after reading “The 116: The True Story of Abraham Lincoln’s Lost Guard,” by Kansas City lawyer James Muehlberger.
The book details the 116 Kansas men who signed on to guard Abraham Lincoln during the first volatile days of the Civil War. The new president’s personal safety was not guaranteed in Washington, where the bonfires of rebel camps could be glimpsed at night across the Potomac River.
The book has a bonus: an appendix listing the 116 men and what happened to them after the war.
Almost 50 of them were lawyers. Two became governors of Colorado; another served as governor of Oregon. Three served Kansas in the U.S. House of Representatives.
These were formidable individuals. Did the Kansas Historical Society website have more on the “116”?
This didn’t happen just with nonfiction.
I couldn’t believe what I was reading after picking up “The Lady From Zagreb” by British novelist Philip Kerr.
I was late to Kerr’s “Berlin Noir” series, in which former Berlin homicide investigator Bernie Gunther displays a gift for vivid simile, as well as a jaded world view.
He’s a lot like Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe. But Marlowe never had to deal with Heinrich Himmler, the Nazi strongman in whose police apparatus Gunther enjoys a dicey provisional status.
Further, Gunther’s thoughtful conversations with Arthur Nebe, identified as a Berlin police commissioner, were unnerving, given Gunther’s references to the horrific crimes Nebe allegedly committed in service of the Nazis.
I went online. Nebe, I learned, was an actual historical figure who had committed war crimes.
When I asked Kerr, who visited Kansas City in April, why he had portrayed Nebe as so thoughtful, he said that to render war criminals as two-dimensional was to “let them off the hook.”
In other words, the monstrous crimes of people like Nebe seem only more so when those same people could be charming and cultivated.
My most dramatic and humbling online quest came after looking through “From the Bottom Up: The Story of the Irish in Kansas City,” by Kansas City public relations representative and political consultant Pat O’Neill.
O’Neill’s book is thick with photos of Kansas City Irish cops, firefighters, priests and politicians through the ages.
For me, their resolute sepia tone faces grew reproachful, to the point where they shamed me into not only going online but getting out my debit card so I could renew my lapsed Ancestry subscription.
Now O’Neill’s Kansas City Irish faces have been supplanted by those of my own blood relatives from St. Louis.
Then there was the Facebook page of George Hodgman, author of “Bettyville: A Memoir.”
The book details how Hodgman, a University of Missouri graduate laid off from his New York publishing job, returns to his mother’s small-town home to help her during her struggle against approaching dementia.
The book, written in vivid present tense, prompted this reader to wonder how Betty was doing now, right that very moment.
A short jump online brought me to Hodgman’s Facebook page where — by the time I showed up earlier this year — he had been preparing for guests.
Visitors to his page could, in real time, follow Betty’s struggle, watch the occasional short video and admire photos of Betty taken in her youth as well as only weeks before.
Hodgman’s posts continued through his mother’s death on July 26, 2015, and after, as he planned his mother’s memorial service and pondered how to go on without her.
The Facebook page is today full of likes and comments from Hodgman’s friends and visitors, thanking him for being so generous with his mother.
I was never sure I belonged there. But I’ve continued to go back.
And, as recently as a few days ago, that invitation remained open to anybody.