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Michael Green delivers a Nevada history that finally gives Las Vegas its due — and doesn’t shrink from the state’s dark side

This book was long overdue. For more than two decades, a new comprehensive Nevada history has been sorely needed. In addition to the fact that many transformative events have occurred over the past quarter-century, we’ve needed a new approach to better reflect the driving forces behind the state’s 20th-century history.

More specifically, Nevada has needed a history that gives proper attention to Las Vegas. All the previous histories — the most recent being those by Russell Elliott (1973) and James Hulse (1989) — have barely acknowledged that Las Vegas is part of Nevada, let alone the state’s primary political, economic and social influence since the 1960s. Writing from the vantage point of Reno’s ivory tower, Elliott and Hulse intentionally or naïvely short-shrifted the rising colossus in the south.

UNLV history professor Michael Green’s Nevada: A History of the Silver State (University of Nevada Press) addresses this glaring deficiency at every opportunity. Rather than treating Las Vegas as a footnote or sidebar to what previous writers have considered the main story happening up north, Green weaves the city’s history logically into the larger narrative. The Mormons settle in Las Vegas on Page 70, Helen Stewart enters stage left on Page 156 and Steve Wynn gets his due on Page 386. For the first time, readers living south of Beatty have a state history they can identify with.

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Green addresses another weakness of past histories by confronting the darker aspects of Nevada’s past: political corruption, bigotry and organized crime. Political figures such as Pat McCarran and Paul Laxalt are honestly portrayed, their successes and failures described in equal measure, and organized crime’s pivotal role in the growth of Las Vegas is not glossed over. (Hulse could not summon a single mention of Bugsy Siegel or Moe Dalitz in his state history.) Green is at his most animated when chronicling the thrusts and parries of Nevada political battles, a subject he knows particularly well.

This book is refreshing, too, for eschewing old-fashioned notions that certain topics are unsuitable for a prim state history. In Nevada, perhaps more than any other state, popular entertainment is an essential element of the cultural and economic history, and Green embraces this. He name-checks many of the showroom stars who helped put Las Vegas on the map, including Liberace, Frank Sinatra and even the Strip’s first nude show, Minsky’s Follies at the Dunes. (By contrast, Elliott’s history ekes out a short paragraph on the early symphonies, ballet troupes and theater companies in Las Vegas but fails to mention the Rat Pack or Elvis Presley.)

Green has wisely not tilted his history too heavily in favor of the state’s southern half. He updates the rest of the state as well, including the redevelopment of downtown Reno, the 21st-century mining boom in Northern Nevada and the cultural phenomenon of Burning Man in the Black Rock Desert.

In the end, Nevada: A History of the Silver State is a “survey” history, ideally suited for college students taking a course in Nevada history. As such, it sometimes lacks the literary flavor or storytelling power of more narrowly focused works. But Green, recognizing this, incorporates some fun Easter eggs to enliven the reading experience, often in the form of unexpected pop-culture references. He cites the musical Porgy and Bess, quotes the environmental writer John Muir and mentions the Charlie Chaplin movie The Gold Rush, among other such references.

For Nevada history buffs, this book is essential, serving as a solid foundation for all subsequent reading. As a favor to those readers, Green concludes each chapter with a “suggested readings” list that includes all the better nonfiction books about Nevada.

 

Geoff Schumacher is the director of content for the Mob Museum and author of Sun, Sin & Suburbia: The History of Modern Las Vegas.

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