Writing History with Brent Lewis

Brent Lewis has spent much of the last twenty years capturing history from the perspective of locals on Kent Island and the Eastern Shore. He has published three non-fiction books: one about The History of Kent Island; one about the Kent Island Volunteer Fire Department; and, one about the history of cinema on Kent Island. I talked to him to learn about how he developed his love for local history and what goes into writing a history book.

Brent has deep roots in Kent Island. On his mother’s side of the family, he can trace his lineage back ten generations to a land grant in Queenstown from Lord Baltimore. On his father’s side, he comes from a long line of watermen. His connections and interest in history led him to join the Kent Island Heritage Society where he led their oral history program. For the Kent Island Heritage Society, he interviewed nearly 100 people with deep connections to Kent Island… many whose stories would have gone untold had Brent not captured them.

History Press, a publishing house with a focus on local and specialist history, was looking to expand into our region. They reached out to local heritage and historical societies for book pitches. “I really wasn’t interested, but our long-time treasurer kept pushing me and pushing me so I kind of did it to placate her and get her off my back. Then suddenly I had to figure out how I’m going to put everything together,” Brent reminisced. Brent had written smaller pieces before, but this was his first time writing an entire book. Now, less than fifteen years later, he has published three books about local history and one novel.

Brent has always been interested in the more personal and human side of history; the primary source of his books is “oral history” or interviews. “We learn from stories; we see the perspectives of other people through stories; and, I think it’s very important to capture the unique story about this place,” Brent explained to me. “Oral history must be captured before it slips too far into the past. If no one were to capture these stories before the people who lived through them pass away, they may be lost forever.”

Retelling oral history requires Brent to strike a balance between skepticism and acceptance of his sources. “You have to do your due diligence and confirm everything you can, but at a certain point you have to trust your narrator because it’s their story to tell…[then] you have to show to the reader that this or that can’t be proven,” Brent explained to me. Brent doesn’t view these discrepancies as a bad thing, commenting that, “often these smaller takes on perspective, even ones that are wrong, reveal a much larger truth.”

Next month we’ll delve deeper into history by looking at Brent’s first book “Remembering Kent Island: Stories from the Chesapeake.” Brent’s books can be purchased online at Amazon or checked out from our local libraries.