A River of Lost Footsteps: Histories of Burma by Thant Myint-U

In teaching largely refugee populations, one of my top priorities is to learn more about the histories and cultures of my students. This is essential in connecting with them as the basis of any good educational system is relationship. In Minnesota, we have a large population of Somali, Karen, and Hmong refugees, whether first, second, or third generation. There are plenty of other refugee and immigrant populations from every continent. It’s really a melting pot!

When I worked in adult teaching, many of my students were from Burma and ethnically Karen. I learned a great deal about Burma and the Karen in many different and deeply personal ways. Because of this, I was excited to discover the book A River of Lost Footsteps: Histories of Burma by Thant Myint-U. As an avid history fan, I was eager to read this and learn even more about what my students were telling me about.

Thant Myint-U was raised in the US amidst Burmese political academics, which is evident in the course his life has taken. In the preface, he discusses his graduate work in modern history. His thesis focused on 19th-century history of Burma and this book is somewhat an extension of that, seeing the time period on through to more recent events and how events that occurred 200 years ago have rippled through now, both for Burma as a whole and with familial accounts.

Here is a man, an author, who very clearly cares about the country of his family and what has led up the current political climate. This book, his first, gives a great analytic overview of the history, colonialism’s effects on Burma’s development as a country, and modern perspectives. It is rather evident that it is written by an academic, which makes sense as Thant Myint-U has a Ph.D. and works in academia, and is heavily involved with humanitarian work and politics (with over two decades of experience in peacebuilding, research, and political advising). Even so, it was an easy, beautiful, intriguing read.

I doubt I could pick a favorite part of the book as I was so thoroughly engaged in his historical analysis, the way he describes people and events, and really–the learning. It’s relatable, especially for history buffs (and even if you’re not!). However, as it is an overview, there are things that are either left out or not discussed as thoroughly. I think that is only because what he could do with these items would each be an extra full-length book on their own.

If you enjoy colonial history, politics, or academic works, this is a book for you. It doesn’t read as a stuffy book in the slightest, so if you’re reading for fun (even while learning), this is also a book for you. If you’re looking to be introduced to the country, again, this book is for you. Basically, I definitely recommend it. Happy reading!