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Book review: Extraordinary people living ordinary lives in 'American Story'

Ben FrederickThe Christian Science Monitor

Ordinary changes the world. It's not the politicians or the celebrities who shape our country and our dreams. It's the honest, hardworking, archetypical Americans who make this country what it is.

Bob Dotson has been working for NBC since 1969. He started out in hard news, but became dissatisfied and transitioned into a rather unique angle in television reporting – "ordinary people." For years, Dotson has been a correspondent for NBC's Today Show, interviewing ordinary Americans who live extraordinary lives for his "American Story" segment. He's traveled about four million miles around the United States and he's been in "more motels than the Gideon Bible."

His new book, "American Story," weaves the big themes of his own life together with the stories of some of the people he's interviewed. "American Story" is part memoir part impressionist painting: Each story (never more than 10 pages) is a capsule of the amazing story of one American. They can be deep, inspiring, funny, tragic, but more than that, human. Dotson distills the lessons their lives taught him into a few sentences at the beginning and ending of each chapter. If you step back from it all, suddenly you have a portrait of the American Dream being lived in our own backyards.

Take a person like Paul Rokich, who couldn't stand to see the Oquirrh Mountains in Utah be destroyed by copper companies. For 14 years, he would sneak through the fences of a mine owned by Kennecott Utah Copper and plant and water trees in the night. Eventually, Rokich confessed to the company, showing officials there the extent of his work. They hired him on the spot, amazed that one man had found a way to foster life in that blasted earth. Today Rokich does for a salary the same work he used to do for free in the dark hours of the night. The mountains he loves are green and diverse, thanks in large part to his own efforts.

Or try the former boss who came out of retirement to start a new company for his former employees who couldn't find work. Or the Harlem woman who has nearly singlehandedly raised more than 400 children of drug addicts.

These people don't tweet about their good deeds. They don't blog because they've got too much work to do. And so their lives go unsung, unless Dotson can find them. In 256 pages, none of the stories feel repetitious or schmaltzy.

Dotson has earned more than 100 awards as a journalist, including the Edward R. Murrow Award for Writing an unprecedented six times. It definitely shows in "American Story." Each story is arresting and to the point, showing us the heart of the matter, and keeping us there. Dotson always starts right in the middle of the action, keeping the narratives moving pretty steadily. The subject headings of the chapters provide unity for the often disparate stories.

Even if Dotson were not a good writer, the sheer humanity of his subjects would be moving. In an era of sometimes shallow journalism, Dotson's book offers a stirring picture of America's beating heart, reminding us that it is alive and well.

Ben Frederick is a contributor to The Christian Science Monitor, where this book review first appeared. Used with permission.