There’s power in a name: A review of The Office of Historical Corrections by Danielle Evans

A copy of The Office of Historical Corrections by Danielle Evans being held up against a chalkboard wall.

You know that feeling when a book comes into your life at just the right time? That’s how I felt about this incredible collection of short stories and a novella. Overall, the collection was full of amazing stories that I think are all worthy to be checked out. But for the sake of this review, I’m going to focus on the novella, “The Office of Historical Corrections,” because in my opinion, if you have only time to read one story from this collection, it should be that one.

Quick synopsis: “[I]n the eye-opening title novella, a black scholar from Washington, DC, is drawn into a complex historical mystery that spans generations and puts her job, her love life, and her oldest friendship at risk.”

I read finished this story the day that the Capitol building was stormed by Trump supporters on January 6th. I’m only 25 years old, and I can honestly say this is the first time in my short life I felt truly scared. Scared for our sacred democracy, scared of white supremacy, scared of the consequences of selfish political leaders, and so much more.

The novella’s narrator is Cassie, a worker for the fictional Institute of Public History, more facetiously referred to as “the Office of Historical Corrections.” The job of its employees is to “address a different sort of public health crisis,” says Cassie. “We were the solution for decades of bad information and bad faith use of it. Our work was to protect the historical record, not to pick fights (guideline 1) or correct people’s reading of current news (guideline 2)” (pg. 165).

Warning: the following contains some spoilers. Keep reading at your own risk!

As a reader, I was first struck by how interesting this concept could be if followed perfectly — potentially a solution to people’s distrust of facts by providing an office that is designed to let the public know the truth. But like most things political and governmental, political correctness ends up taking the front seat, which often forces Cassie, who is Black, to choose to either ignore or accept corrections regarding race that don’t really serve to help anyone who it actually matters to, much to the malaise of those close to her, such as her boyfriend, who is also Black.

The plot really picks up when Cassie’s former coworker Genie creates a PR nightmare that requires Cassie — the Office’s token Black employee — to troubleshoot. Genie, also called Genevieve, is following a historical mystery of sorts involving a black man who supposedly was killed in the 1930’s near Milwaukee, but new information suggests he may not have actually been murdered. Genie is there to solve it, and Cassie is there to fix whatever Genie does that reflects poorly on the Office.

Without going into too many details that would severely ruin this story, what I will say is that the ending is truly devastating and unforgettable. But as a reader, I was left with this important message: there is power in naming something and calling a thing what it is. That is the grand lesson that Cassie must learn — whether she actually does so is another question. But the story’s ending in particular reveals not only the incredible freedom and power in revealing the truth and calling something by its proper name, but also the devastating effect it can have when some people choose to ignore it.

So as I read this book and simultaneously watched people storm the Capitol, I was reminded of the importance of putting a name to something and not sugarcoating it. I looked on Facebook and saw “friends” referring to those people as protesters, participating in their constitutional right to peacefully protest what they considered an unfair election. Some people suggested it was fully within the rights of Trump as President to encourage his supporters to simply protest.

But if we are to agree with the premise of “The Office of Historical Corrections,” then it is vital that we call a thing by its name. I am immensely thankful for the hosts of people who voiced what the events of January 6th actually were: insurrection caused by sedition, anarchy, domestic terrorism, white supremacy, an attack on democracy and free elections, and so much more.

I obviously wrote this review in retrospect of the Capitol storming, but it truly took me this much time to both process the events of that day and Evans’ stunning novella. If you’ve made it this far, I hope you found something thought-provoking in this review and are encouraged to read her novella (or hopefully the entire collection) if you haven’t already. I can see this whole short story collection being taught one day in a literature or critical race theory course. It’s just that good. This story is definitely the reason I will always love stories — for the way fiction can express truth and reveal knowledge in a way that transcends the pages and intertwines with reality.

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