Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred D Taylor



I’m sure that this used to be on the school recommended reading lists, but somehow I’d never read it until now – for a Facebook group reading challenge.  It’s a children’s book, about 9-year-old Cassie Logan, a young  African-American girl growing up in Mississippi in the 1930s, where the local authorities provide school buses for white children but not for black children, where black children only get grotty textbooks already used by numerous white children and now falling to bits … and, as we learn as the book goes on, where bullying, violence and even lynchings are not uncommon.    The book’s been criticised for showing every white character as a stereotypical redneck, but that’s not actually true: there’s a white lad called Jeremy who’s keen to be friends with the Logans.

Apparently, this book is banned in some educational districts of the US, because it uses racist language.  It’s a book about racism.  How are you supposed to get that across without using racist language?  I do understand the concern that young children might pick up on extremely offensive words and, maybe quite innocently, repeat them, but people need to find a way of working this out.   The Holocaust novel “Maus” has also been banned in some educational districts of the US, because it contains scenes of violence.  How do you teach children about the Holocaust without mentioning violence?  And both these books are aimed at secondary school age children, anyway, not little ones.  As several Holocaust survivors said on Holocaust Memorial Day earlier this week, education is the most important thing.

The Logan family – like the O’Haras of Gone With the Wind, a little ironically – are determined not to lose their land, come what may, and we see their determination to keep both their land and their pride.  TBH, I didn’t find this to be quite the classic that I was expecting, but it was still an interesting and important read.  And I think it is quite difficult for British readers, however much we know about American history, and however much we may love America – and I do love America – to accept that the Klan were carrying out lynchings even after the Second World War … there were even a small number of lynchings in the 1980s.  Depending on how you define lynchings, you can even say that they’ve gone on into the 21st century.  It’s hardline stuff, but it’s stuff that people need to be aware of.

This isn’t the best-written book I’ve ever read, and the characters weren’t that convincing, but it was on our school recommended reading lists for a reason (er, even if I never got round to reading it), and it’s an important book for “young adults” to read.



The Gilded Age – Sky Atlantic


  Was Mrs van Rhijn’s late husband a descendant of the horrible Nicholas Van Ryn (admittedly with a different spelling) of Dragonwyck?   And are any of the nouveaux riches related to the Countess of Grantham?  Just curious!  This is actually rather good.  It’s missing the brilliant one-liners of Downton Abbey, but there’s certainly plenty to interest the viewer in the numerous characters, the general Gilded Age atmosphere of the clash between the old New York families and the new money families, and the stories of a young black woman trying to make her way in the world, Mrs van Rhijn’s gay son, and the “below stairs” people.   Impressive cast list, as well.

It does feature the Astors, the Roosevelts and Clara Barton, but the main characters are fictional.  We’ve got Marian Brook, a young woman from Pennsylvania, old money but without any actual cash, coming to New York City to live with her aunts, Mrs van Rijn and Miss Brook, and the friend she makes en route, Peggy Scott, the ambitious young black woman who becomes Mrs van Rijn’s secretary.  And then we’ve got the Russells, their new, social climbing, neighbours – think the Carnegies or the Rockefellers.  And two sets of snobby servants.

Not a lot actually happened in the first episode, beyond setting the scene, and the Russells holding a party which was snubbed by the “old” families.  And there was very little to put it into historical context, other than a message of Jesse James being shot. But it was certainly promising.



The Chaperone


  I have to admit that I don’t know very much about Louise Brooks apart from what’s in the OMD song: I was quite into OMD in the early 1990s.  However, although this film involves Louise Brooks, it’s actually a fictional story about a woman who never existed but who, in the film, is Louise’s chaperone when Louise leaves Kansas for New York.  And is played by Elizabeth McGovern from Downton Abbey.

It’s quite an involved and imaginative story: we learn that the woman was, as a toddler, left at a New York orphanage run by nuns, and was then shipped out to Kansas on a train carrying young children to be adopted.  It sounded so horrific, and the horrified woman, when she found out, said that it sounded like some sort of slave market.  The nuns pointed out that – like Anne of Green Gables, I couldn’t help thinking – she was taken in by a loving couple and given a good life.  But what if she hadn’t been.  Everyone knows the story of Anne, but somehow you never think very much about these children who were sent out across the US and Canada, and how it was all the luck of the draw as to who took them in.

She was hoping to find her birth mother, and she did find her, but none of it was very convincing.  And then we learnt that, after her adoptive parents had died young, she’d married a rich lawyer, but then caught him in bed with another man.  She ended up leaving him for a young German man who worked at the orphanage.  It was all extremely far-fetched, and didn’t really have anything to do with Louise Brooks, so I’m not sure why the story involved her at all.  But anyway, it was something to watch!



Pippa in Switzerland by E E Ohlson


You’re spending your school holidays (the school isn’t named, but, as we keep being told that it’s near Brighton, it’s presumably Roedean) in the Bernese Oberland, where, having sorted out your sister’s love life (after her estranged boyfriend just happened to show up in the same place) and some random woman’s marriage, you climb a glacier – wearing your Guide uniform, as you never wear anything else.  You and your friend get lost in the fog, and take shelter in one of those huts which are always so conveniently placed in Switzerland and Austria, but two lads are in there already.  Are they Swiss?  No.  They’re two Etonians on holiday, and the uncle of one of them is mates with your sister’s new fiance.  Of course.  Luckily, you and your friend are carrying a huge picnic basket, so you share all the food.  Then, when the fog clears, you carry on climbing.  That’s just one part of the book, but you get the general idea.

I think that we’re *meant* to find the “irrepressible” Pippa irritating, with her constant minding of other people’s business, her complete failure to see her faults as pointed out by other people and her bizarre insistence on wearing her Guide uniform wherever she goes, but the book was actually very entertaining in a totally OTT jolly spiffing sort of way!   And it only cost me £1, and it was certainly worth £1.


The First Actress by C W Gortner


I was amused to read C W Gortner’s comment in the afterword about how he became interested in Sarah Bernhardt, the subject of this book, when he was being a melodramatic little boy and his grandma would say that he was “doing a Bernhardt”.  When I was being a melodramatic little girl, my grandad would say that I was “a Sarah Bernhardt”.  I used to think that it was just a quirky saying of his, but Gortner says that it was a comment made by a lot of parents and grandparents at one time.

Gortner is obviously a huge fan, and waxes lyrical about how Sarah can be credited with creating modern, natural acting, as opposed to the more overblown acting seen in earlier times.  I’m not quite sure how that fits with the idea of her as being melodramatic, but I’m not an expert in theatre so I’m not going to worry about that too much!

The book’s written in the first person, and it’s quite short: it doesn’t cover all of Sarah’s life, and omits some fairly important parts of it, notably her marriage and her strong support for Alfred Dreyfus.  But it does give you a very good sense of the person, and what a fascinating life she led.

She was the illegitimate daughter of a Dutch courtesan living in Paris.  No-one’s entirely sure whom either her father was or who the father of her own illegitimate son was, but Gortner’s taken a view on both.  We see her difficult childhood and the start of her theatrical career – and how it was disrupted by her slapping a well-known but very irritating senior actress, which Gortner repeatedly refers to as “The Slap” … which kept making me think of Darrell Rivers slapping Gwendoline Mary Lacey, but never mind.

There’s quite a bit about the plays, but most of the book’s about her personal life – her family, and her friendships with a wide range of people including the Prince of Wales, Oscar Wilde, Victor Hugo and Alexandre Dumas.  There’s quite a bit about her lovers, too, but not as much as you might expect.

I think Gortner was quite keen to focus on aspects of her life with which he identifies – her Jewish background, her love of animals, and the possibility that she might have had a same sex relationship – but I think he just generally finds her very interesting and very admirable.  The book doesn’t go as far as her work during the Great War, but we do see her work during the Franco-Prussian War, which is obviously something completely different to her acting career: she was certainly an unusual woman.

As I said, the book’s quite short, and there’s certainly enough material about her to have filled a much longer book, but what there is makes for very entertaining reading, and I really enjoyed it.

The Puritan Princess by Miranda Malins


This was a fascinating idea, to write a book with Frances Cromwell, Oliver Cromwell’s youngest daughter, as the protagonist, and show how she went from being the child of a country gentleman, leading a quiet life and expecting to marry a man of, within reason, her own choice, to living at what was a court in all but name, surrounded by political intrigue and facing a marriage arranged for reasons of state.

The title of “Puritan Princess” was a bit of a misnomer and presumably chosen largely because of the alliteration: Puritanism didn’t really come into it, strangely enough.  And I’m with the Victorians, OK.  I do not like Cromwell.  I see him as the man who killed the king.  And banned mince pies.  However, I do accept that that view may be a teensy bit biased, as the book showed.  And it was a very interesting book.  I initially thought it was going to be a disaster, when Fanny/Frances started going on about “empowering” women and “owning” her own story as someone who wasn’t of aristocratic origins – seriously, “empowering” and “owning”, in the 1650s?! – but it did get better!

It was a fascinating story.  As the book said, these were times when no-one knew what the rules were, because there were no precedents.  Cromwell might easily have become king – as, over a century later, George Washington might easily have become king of the new United States.  Was that the best option?   What exactly had the Roundheads been after?   And had that changed, and when, and how?  How would people react?  What was meant to happen?  The book did go into the debates quite deeply, but it was a lot easier to read them all as discussions in amongst the family life of the Cromwells than to wade through Hobbes or Locke.

I’m not sure that I quite got the idea of everyone addressing the Cromwells as “Your Highness”, but the Cromwells are the author’s specialist subject so I assume she must have got that from somewhere.  But they did become a demi royal family of sorts, and, as the book said, there was even talk of marrying Fanny to the future Charles II.  In the end, Fanny was able to marry Robert Rich, the man of her choice, but, sadly, he died only a few months after the wedding.  So, in amongst all the complex politics of the time, we saw Fanny’s happiness and then her grief, and also the ups and downs of her siblings and their spouses, including her brother Richard who took over as Lord Protector after their father’s death, but was soon deposed.

And, at the end, Miranda Malins included the story that, after the Restoration, Cromwell’s daughters took their father’s body away and substituted it for someone else’s, when they heard of the plans to hang, draw and quarter it.  Was that true?  We still don’t know.

We live now in an era in which the lives and loves of Royals are treated as a soap opera, but people, in the social media age, seem to forget that politicians are actually human, and vilify and dehumanise them.  I suppose history has done that with Cromwell – as much as he’d probably prefer to be seen as a soldier rather than as a politician.  Having said that, he always seems to end up near the top of those “100 Greatest English people”/”100 Greatest Britons” lists we get from time to time, which I don’t get at all … but the point is that we don’t really think about what it must have been like for him, and even more so for his family, to go from being fairly obscure country gentlefolk to being at the centre of power.  And then back again!   This book made me think about that for the first time.  After a disappointing start, it really was a good read.


The School Knight-Errant by Sibyl B Owsley


This, published in 1933, started off seeming like one of those books which poke gentle fun at their own genre.  Vivian, a boarding school pupil and Guide, was an avid reader of schoolgirl magazines, always convinced that the gardener’s boy is a duke in disguise and that two innocent people having a chat are plotting dastardly deeds.  I thought it was all going to be a series of adventures which weren’t adventures, but then, unusually for a Girls’ Own or Boys’ Own book, we went off into the story of Betty, one of the school maids – not a sycophantic cipher, but the daughter of an intelligent, hard-working skilled craftsman who was out of work due to the effects of the Depression.  Betty, also a Guide, and Vivian became friends, and no-one seemed to find that odd.

There was then an admittedly rather far-fetched plot in which Betty’s sister bought a second-hand book which turned out to be worth a fortune and saved the family’s bacon, and then a slightly less far-fetched plot in which Vivian, after wandering off from a Guide camp in search of a Scout camp involving one of Betty’s brothers, had her bike damaged by horses and then came across an invalid girl who wanted to be a “Post Guide” – I never knew that you could be a Guide or Scout by post if you couldn’t actually join a company, but what a nice idea.

So it was all rather an odd mix of genres – the valuable book plot was more than worthy of one of Angela Brazil’s less likely novels, but the bringing into a GO story of Betty’s family, and the showing of how the Depression pushed a lot of hard-working people into poverty, and how Betty and her family were no different to the boarding school girls and their families, just born under an unluckier financial star, was unusual and very laudable.  An interesting book.

Vienna Blood (series 2) – BBC 2


Once again, we have lots of glamorous Belle Epoque costumes and lots of scenes of lovely Vienna, although there was an unfortunate absence of both Sachertorte and strudel.  It’s Vienna, OK.  I expect Sachertorte and strudel.

In the first episode, a Hungarian countess who’d been consulting our Freudian friend Dr Max Liebermann was found dead in the bath.  It was initially thought that she’d taken her own life, but it then turned out that she’d been poisoned.  Max had discovered that she had a son who’d been sent to an asylum in childhood due to his bad behaviour and, once he’d found out that it was murder, assumed that it was the son whodunnit.  He tried to arrange a meeting with the son, but the son planned to murder him … but ended up mistakenly murdering a mugger who’d stolen Max’s coat.  Is everyone with this so far?

The son insisted that he wasn’t the murderer.  The plot thickened.  So was it actually the countess’s young male companion who’d done her in, in the hope of getting her money?  No.  Further investigations suggested that the countess had been poisoned by accident, and that the poison had actually been intended for her male companion.  Who’d been discharged from the Imperial Army for being gay, and was only hanging around with the countess as a cover, whilst she was presumably hanging around with him because she saw him as a substitute son.  His boyfriend, a rank and file soldier with no officer mates to protect him, had taken his own life, and the killer was the boyfriend’s mum.  Who then turned up and shot him.  Then shot herself.  Do keep up.

So four people ended up dead, included the mugger, who’d probably only been after a warm coat.

I know it sounds absolutely ridiculous.  But it was actually rather good.