Boise might not always be the most exciting burg in which to reside, but its history is much more complex and interesting than one might suspect. Among the big players in Boise's history as both a cultural and economic force is Gowen Field, currently serving as a National Guard base, although it wasn't always. Surprised? That's one of the many historical tidbits in Entertaining Strangers by Rachel Smythe, a history of the base's formation and effect on the Treasure Valley.
Well-researched and armed with (for the attention-impaired) plenty of pictures, the author-a one-time intern for the Idaho Military Historical Society-presents a picture of life on and off the base during World War II. Gowen Field began life as a station for the Army Air Corps, which sought to take advantage of Boise's advantageous flying conditions.
Construction began in January 1941, which turned out to be a good thing, as the base was functional when war was declared in December 1941. Used as a training ground for bomber crews, the base quickly grew to the point where Boise experienced housing shortages, and remained a sizable military presence until the end of 1945, when it was deactivated until the National Guard stepped in years later.
Smythe uses personal recollections and a collection of photos and art from 1941 to 1945 to illustrate how the base changed Boiseans' lives, from big changes (black soldiers coming into town, sudden economic prosperity) to smaller ones (it became a lot harder to get a taxi). One of the most striking photos in the book is one taken from the MK Depot that illustrates just how much Boise has changed; the Capitol building is not only the tallest building in the picture, it almost looks like the only one in the picture. Surrounded by trees and empty fields, it stands alone, looming much larger against the sky than it seems to today.
With all these in its favor, Entertaining Strangers has just about everything it takes to be an enjoyable read. However, the author's writing style betrays the origins of the book as an academic project, a flaw that the narrative can never quite overcome. Various points are telegraphed like textbook examples and the opening and closing chapters-which deal mainly with the process of leasing the land to the military and Boise's modern-day airport-read like they were taken from different works. The meat of the book is more interesting, and the author displays enough flair to keep the people discussed vivid, but the overall effect is reminiscent of a thesis.
There's no doubt that Smythe has a deep interest and level of commitment in telling the story of Gowen Field's first years. But the inherent interest of the material just can't carry it. Only serious Treasure Valley historians and trivia buffs need apply here. Casual readers won't find enough to keep them entertained.