Before Bethlehem by James Flerlage

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Biblical novels, notably The Red Tent, can be very good.  This one’s only so-so, but it does have a reasonable stab at setting the nativity story in the historical context of the struggles faced by the people of Judaea and Galilee under the control of both the Romans and the religious courts.  It’s easy to forget that the nativity story’s set only 70 years or so before the outbreak of the war that culminated in the mass suicide at Masada, because no-one ever really talks about the two things as part of the same history.  It also includes some interesting Tudor-esque suggestions about Herod’s fears of being overthrown by either the line of the Maccabees or the line of King David.  However, the author’s unwillingness to choose between a Red Tent-type novel presented as historical fiction and a religious story with angels and divine messages means that the book doesn’t really work that well as a whole.

The story follows an Orthodox tradition that Joseph was a middle-aged widower with several children when he met Mary, and is told from the viewpoint of James, his youngest son. I understand that all the details of Joseph’s family as given in the book – his children, his brother and sister-in-law, the name of his first wife – come from the same tradition.  He’s shown as being a reasonably well-to-do man, rather than a “humble” carpenter.

I’m hardly an expert on the Bible, but I don’t know that it actually says anything about Joseph not being well-to-do.  Is the “humble” idea some sort of English thing from the Peasants’ Revolt and “When Adam delved and Eve span”, or am I overthinking this?  And the idea that Joseph was a fair bit older than Mary makes sense, because he disappears from the story fairly early on – although I suppose he could just have died young.  Anyway, whatever, this is the picture we get.

Archaeologists agree that Nazareth, as it is now, was only a two bit village at the time, and the book shows Joseph and his family being based in Sepphoris, a now-ruined city nearby, but also owning and farming some land at Nazareth. It suggests that Herod wanted to force all the builders/craftsmen in the area to leave their homes, close to harvest time, and go and work on constructing his new city at what’s now Tiberias.  Tiberias is – thank you, Wikipedia – supposed to have been founded quarter of a century later, but, OK, I suppose people must have been working on it beforehand.  I’m not sure how well this idea works, but it does get across the point that everyone in the area was very vulnerable at the time – you couldn’t really argue with either the Romans or the religious authorities, and just had to try to keep your head down.

Unfortunately for Joseph, in the story of this book, he not only caught the eye of Romans looking for workers but also caught the eye of the religious authorities, who were looking for a husband for Mary. And this is where the author gets himself all tangled up.

By this point, around a thousand years have passed since the time of King David. The Bible is a historian’s nightmare and it’s well nigh impossible to be sure who did or didn’t really exist, or when, but it’s generally accepted that the reign of David was around a thousand years before the birth of Jesus.  However, according to all the sources, there were still people whose line could be traced back to David, and Joseph – so the New Testament says – was one of them.  And Mary was, according to the book, considered special because she was descended from Aaron, brother of Moses (I think that’s quite a common tradition?) and had been dedicated to the Temple from birth by her parents.

This would make any child of theirs a double threat to Herod. Think Katherine Grey and Edward Seymour, or Arbella Stuart and William Seymour!   This idea works really well, and would explain quite logically why Herod might have had it in for Joseph and Mary.  Herod was only king because he’d sucked up to the Romans.  He’d replaced the Maccabee dynasty.  Yes, all right, all right, it’s officially called the Hasmonean dynasty, but (the nickname) Maccabee works better.  You don’t get football teams called Hasmoneans, do you?  He’d married a Maccabee princess, but she wasn’t his first wife or the mother of his heir.  Meanwhile, most people still regard the descendants of King David as the rightful heirs.

The nativity story totally contradicts itself on this bit. The “king” has to be descended from King David.  Joseph is descended from King David.  Therefore Jesus has to be descended from Joseph.  Let’s not go there, because people can get very offended if you start questioning religious texts, but, as a historical novel, this seemed at this point to be working really well – it was all very plausible.

It was also very interesting, with descriptions of life at the time, of the harsh punishments meted out by the religious courts, of the issues of Roman occupation, and of James and Joseph journeying to Jerusalem and their time there. The idea was that Joseph had agreed to marry Mary – who was very young, and came across as being rather a brat –  in exchange for the religious authorities using their influence with the Romans to get him out of having to work at Tiberias.

However, it then all goes a bit awry, because the author presumably couldn’t bear to abandon the religious story, and brought in angels and miracles. He couldn’t bear to leave Bethlehem out of it either, even though historians can’t find any evidence to support the census story and it’s likely that Jesus was actually born in the Nazareth area and the stable/Bethlehem stuff was “created” to provide a link to Royal David’s City.  He doesn’t go with the census story, and instead, having included angels – although he doesn’t actually show angels appearing in Nazareth, instead saying that they’d appeared “offstage”, whilst Mary was staying with her cousin Elizabeth – and insisted that it’s a miraculous virgin birth, says that they decide to leave Nazareth to get away from the gossip, the scandal, and, above all, fears of punishment by the religious courts.

No stable as such. Instead, the birth takes place in a watch tower.  On the Day of Atonement.  Well, it couldn’t have been December, or shepherds wouldn’t have been watching their flocks by night – and the idea is that they originally went to Jerusalem but the reason everywhere was full up was because there were loads of pilgrims there.  That makes sense, I suppose.  And then three astrologers sent by Herod turn up, everyone keeps going on about miracles and messiahs, and they head off to Egypt.

So it’s a strange mixture of actual, practical history, Orthodox tradition relating to the life of Joseph, and a religious-miracle element which the author evidently couldn’t bear to be without. I’m not knocking religious-miracle stories, if that’s what people are into, but I don’t think that trying to work them into a historical novel really works very well.  It would have been much better to have stuck with the idea of Herod being after Joseph and Mary because he was worried about the threat from a scion of the rightful ruling dynasty.

It might be worth a read, if only for people to remind themselves of the historical context. As I said, no-one ever really relates the nativity story to the issues of Roman rule in Judaea and Galilee.  The Christian stories move on to Rome and Ephesus and don’t cover the destruction of the Second Temple, the destruction of Jerusalem and the Siege of Masada, and the Jewish stories don’t do Jesus, so you don’t get them together. But trying to combine a historical story and a religious-miracle story can get a bit muddled.

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Great Lives: Laura Ingalls Wilder – Radio 4

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This didn’t half pack a lot into thirty minutes!   I have loved Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books ever since I was a little girl, and it made me rather happy 🙂 to hear them being discussed by three people – journalist Samira Ahmed, author Tracy Chevalier and Laura’s biographer Pamela Smith Hill – who obviously love them as well.  It makes me sad 😦 that the books have become the subject of so much controversy in recent years – the much-discussed issue of racism, the question of whether or not it was actually Laura’s daughter Rose Wilder Lane who did most of the writing, and the argument that the books give a completely sanitised view of events.  I thought that this programme tackled and answered all those questions really well, without letting them take the discussion over completely.

I loved how enthusiastic they all were! So often these days, you listen to or watch or read something about a particular author, and it feels as if the broadcaster or author is only interested in pulling their work to pieces.  Quite often, it feels as if they haven’t even read the books properly, especially with some of the rubbish that people spout about Enid Blyton.  What a refreshing change to hear people who were obviously genuine admirers of Laura talking about her life and work.  I always think of her as “Laura”, never as “Mrs Wilder” 🙂 .

They started off by pointing out that the books were first published during the Depression, and appealed to the sense of nostalgia for a bygone era that always tends to flourish in difficult times, and also to the whole romanticised idea of the West. I can’t say I’ve ever really been that into the whole romanticised West thing.  Westerns don’t really appeal to me that much.  I can talk all day and all night about the Civil War, the build-up to the Civil War, Reconstruction and even the Mexican War, but not so much the West.  I don’t even know that the Little House books are “Western” in the “Wild West” sense that people generally use “Western”: they certainly don’t involve showdowns at the OK Corral and all that sort of thing!  But the idea of the pioneers certainly has a very romantic appeal.  I’m being earwormed by the Pet Shop Boys’ Go West now!   One of Pa’s songs was something about “Uncle Sam is rich enough to build us all a farm”.  It’s the American Dream, to own your own land.  And the idea of the American Dream still holds today.  People are trekking across Central America because of it.

They also suggested that writing the books must have been therapeutic for Laura. Reading the books as a little kid, I had no idea that Laura had written them because she desperately needed money after her family lost their savings in the Wall Street Crash, nor about Almanzo’s health problems.  Was it therapeutic for her?  It’d be nice to think so.  And, as they also pointed out, the white settlement of the West is often presented as a male-dominated experience.  With Laura’s books, we see it from the point of view of a girl.  It’s fascinating how we get this incredibly tough lifestyle, but we also get all this really girlie stuff about dresses and hairstyles and wishing that you were prettier than you are.  I still want a delaine dress with buttons that look like berries!

One thing that wasn’t mentioned at all was the religious aspect: I don’t know why that was missed. Having said which, they did say that the books are sometimes presented – presumably in America – in a moralistic way.  Maybe it’s best not to go there.  The Bible Belt culture is something that be quite difficult to get your head round, and which I don’t think most British people are at all comfortable with.  I doubt that Laura would be too comfortable with some of what goes on, either.  As I said, best not to go there.

I never watched the TV series. I don’t know why, given how much I’ve always loved the books, but I never did.  But I gather that it’s that which is largely responsible for the saccharine sweet image that the books have got in some quarters.  As Samira and Tracy stressed, they aren’t saccharine sweet at all.  OK, some of the most unpleasant aspects of Laura’s childhood, which are in Pioneer Girl, aren’t in the Little House books; but the books, especially the early ones, were written for young children, not for adults or even for teenagers.  But the books are essentially a tale of bad luck and failure.  And, as they said, maybe that’s part of the appeal.  The Ingalls family keep having to pick themselves up, dust themselves down, and start all over again.

And Samira said exactly what I think every time I revisit the books – that, as a young reader, you think that their life sounds very exciting and that Pa is wonderful; but that, as an adult female, you think that Pa is an idiot and you feel desperately sorry for Ma. That poor woman, being dragged from pillar to post, with four kids, all because of Pa’s “itchy feet”!  I want to cheer when she finally puts her foot down and says that they’re staying put, so that she can make a nice home and the girls can go to school.

Then they, inevitably, got on to the “culture war” question. As we all know, the Association for Library Services to Children in America recently renamed its Laura Ingalls Wilder Award as the “Children’s Literature Legacy Award”, due to concerns in the books about the attitude towards Native Americans and African Americans.  It’s a very difficult and controversial subject, and I said all I had to say about it at the time.  Samira made an excellent point about how – she said especially in America, but I think it’s happening everywhere – we seem to be losing the concept of nuance.  Everything’s becoming so polarised, and people seem so keen to stick labels on things.  I think it’s largely because of people with extreme views at both ends of the spectrum dominating social media, and dominating universities: surely the majority of people do not view things in such polarised terms.  As she said, surely we can read a book and say that, yes, I enjoyed that book, but/even though there are things in it with which I’m not comfortable.  Why is that a problem?  I thought that she put that very well.

Then on to environmentalism! I am not scientifically-minded, and I can’t say that I’d ever thought very much about how digging up the topsoil on the prairies caused the Dust Bowl phenomenon of the 1930s, but, yes, it’s interesting to think that Laura lived through all that.

And then to the idea of Manifest Destiny. That I can go on about that at very great length – and obviously it’s an extremely problematic concept now, and the treatment of Native Americans, from well before Laura’s time, was beyond appalling, but it’s something that does have to be understood in order to understand the historical context of the books.  Samira commented that the US is still struggling to come to terms with this.  It doesn’t seem to be talked about that much.  The issue of discrimination against African Americans is rarely out of the news, but very little seems to be said about Native Americans – certainly far less than about the First Peoples in Canada, or the Maoris in New Zealand, or the Aboriginal Peoples in Australia.

They then made another interesting point – that the happiest book is Farmer Boy.  I’d actually have said that the happiest book was These Happy Golden Years, but I suppose that doesn’t have the level of security and comfort that Farmer Boy has.  Laura, at 15, having to go to a strange place and teach pupils who are older than she is, isn’t actually a very happy idea at all.  OK, OK, they’ve probably got it right and I’ve probably got it wrong!   And they picked up on the scene in Farmer Boy that most sticks in my mind – Almanzo’s enormous breakfast!  The amount of food they eat for breakfast!   Most people don’t eat that much in two days.  Why did Almanzo and Royal, who both seem to have had considerably more sense than Charles Ingalls, leave that life behind to Go West?  They didn’t mention Eliza Jane, but why did she Go West?   Again, it’s got to have been the American Dream.  All that hope.

And, in poor Almanzo’s case, it all came crashing down. In The Long Winter, he was this super-fit young man who heroically went off with Cap Garland to bring back supplies in order to save the residents of the town from starvation.  Then he was struck down by complications from diphtheria when he was only 31, making it impossible for him to do all the hard physical work their lifestyle required, just as several years of severe drought were making life in South Dakota incredibly difficult anyway.  It’s a sad story.  The American Dream went sour for a lot of people.  Really, it never worked out for the Ingalls family in Laura’s childhood.  The books don’t gloss over that.  And yet they’re never gloomy or miserable.  But they’re certainly not saccharine-sweet.  They might not be an exact historical reflection of Laura’s childhood and youth, but they’re very realistic.

She’s only four in the first book, and, if we include The First Four Years, she’s in her early twenties by the end of the series.  We do grow up with her – as Samira and Tracy said, the tone of the books does change, and they do move from being books for very young children to being books for young adults.  I read the lot when I was aged between about 7 and 9, but I can still read any of them, and enjoy them.

They were scathing about Rose Wilder Lane, though!   I think there’s quite a lot to admire about her life, but she certainly doesn’t sound like a particularly nice person.  They pulled apart the suggestions that she wrote most of the Little House books, and even said – quite rightly! – that Let The Hurricane Roar is basically a rip-off of Laura’s real life experiences.

They finished up by saying that adversity had been the making of Laura, which is something that I don’t think anyone can argue with. I’ve never listened to Great Lives before, so I don’t know whether it should have focussed more on why Samira Ahmed, who nominated Laura, thought they she had a “Great Life”, rather than just being a general discussion about a popular author and her much-loved books, but they got through an awful lot in half an hour, and it really was very interesting.  And it was just so nice to hear people being positive, at a time when so many people in the media only seem ready to criticise.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Seventh Gate by Richard Zimler

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This is an uncomfortable book to read, but so are most of Richard Zimler’s books. It shows how a circle of friends in 1930s Berlin are targeted by the Nazis because one is severely autistic, one has giantism, two have dwarfism and some are Jewish.  We also see former communists rushing to cover up their political pasts and present themselves and their families as Nazis.  Quite a lot of the plot is centred on the Nazi policy of forced sterilisation, and it does focus the reader’s mind on the persecution of groups of people whose treatment has not always been given as much attention as it should have been.

It’s supposed to be the fourth (and final) book in the Zarco series, but, although one of the main characters is a descendant of the other Zarcos and there are various references to the Kabbalistic mysticism of the other books, there isn’t really much of a link. The Zarco books are essentially connected with Portugal, and Portugal doesn’t feature in this one at all.  It also involves a relationship between a teenage girl and an elderly man, and there’s a murder mystery mixed up in it all as well.

Richard Zimler’s books are quite weird generally, and this one’s actually considerably less weird than the second and third Zarco books!   Part of it reads a bit like a Judy Blume book about a girl’s issues with school and boyfriends and hairstyles, and then there’s all this absolutely horrific stuff about what the Nazis did to her friends.  It does a good job of portraying the huge contrast between the culture of Berlin in the early 1930s – think Cabaret – and what came next, as seen through the eyes of Sophie, who links all the other characters together, and of the horrors of the Nazi era and how it tore apart the lives of people who were just minding their own business.

I have to say that I preferred the three earlier books in the series, but that’s probably just because Nazi Germany isn’t particularly “my” subject. This one’s worth reading because there are very few novels, or books in general, about the groups of people represented by some of the characters in this book – Hansi, the boy taken to hospital for TB treatment and gassed to death because he was classed as mentally disabled, Heidi, the female dwarf who was forcibly sterilised without her knowledge whilst being treated for a miscarriage, and Vera, the giantess who was forced to attend a medical appointment where an abortion was performed on her and she was then forcibly sterilised. There were also many other groups of people who suffered at the hands of the Nazis, and their stories need to be told.  It’s happening, but, even now, it’s only happening gradually.

Till the Boys Come Home by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles

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The “War at Home” series has got better and better as it’s gone on.  This one – which includes a slight crossover with the much-missed Morland dynasty series – takes us up to the Armistice, making it clear to us as we go through 1918 that a German invasion was a very real possibility in the spring and that there seemed to be no end in sight even by late summer.  It was only in 1918 that compulsory rationing was introduced, risking letting people go short of food apparently having been deemed preferable to interfering with market forces (too socialist!), and, with so many deaths, Russia pulling out of the war and the arrival of the first wave of the Spanish flu, things were looking pretty grim … and yet life went on, with moments of joy as well as sadness for most of the characters.

There are a lot more scenes actually at the Front than in the previous books.  I’ll try to avoid spoilers (in case anyone is actually reading my drivellings, and is also reading the books), but we get scenes with the Army, the Air Force, and with Laura Hunter driving an ambulance and running her hostel close to Ypres/Ieper.  However, it’s not a military book, and most of the action does still take place on the Home Front, with the Hunter family and their domestic staff.  We even get to attend a meeting with Lloyd George and Haig, at which the introduction of rationing is discussed.

The overall sense is of war weariness.  It’s not a gloomy book in any way, and it’s never less than entertaining, but the sense of war weariness is very well conveyed.  I quite understand about Liberal ideas of laissez-faire and all the rest of it, but it almost beggars belief that compulsory rationing wasn’t introduced until 1918.  Whilst food shortages here were obviously never as bad as they were in Russia, it’s incredibly impressive that people did put up with it.  We all know the jokes about the British forming orderly queues, but standing in orderly queues, knowing that there might be no food left by the time you got to the front of it, would have been no bloody joke.  And this was after more than three years of war, with no end in sight … and there can’t have been anyone, by early 1918, who hadn’t lost people who were important to them.  Even hearing of the death of someone you only vaguely knew, maybe even someone you didn’t like, must have been just beyond distressing.

The only people who don’t seem to be war weary are young lads, still hoping that the war isn’t going to end before they can get in on the action.  Meanwhile, men up to the age of 51 are being called up.

At home, it’s total war.  Most of the book’s set in the countryside, away from the air raids.  We don’t see anyone working in munitions factories.  The female domestic staff, and the older male domestic staff, are still in their old jobs.  Yet the sense of total war still comes across.  People look back at their lives before the war and feel that they were different people then.  That’s particularly so for the women of the better-off classes – to whom the war’s brought opportunities, as well as sorrow.  Unfortunately, some of the characters from the earlier books don’t really feature in this, so we don’t get to see how Audrey, the Hunters’ cousin, is going on in her managerial role in her father’s business, and we don’t get to see much of their cousins Jack and Beth either.  I suppose only so much could be fitted into one book, and it seemed better to concentrate on the core family and their servants.

There is a lot about the servants – but what there isn’t is any real sense of a change in the class system.  And we don’t really see the effect of the war on the working-classes: we hear about food shortages, and we’re told that the Spanish flu has killed many people in the poorer neighbourhoods, but we don’t actually see that, because the focus is on an upper-middle-class household.  That’s not a criticism, because the books are what they are and they do centre on this household, but it means that there are major aspects of the war at home which we don’t see.

On the other hand, the book shows aspects of the effect of the war which most Great War novels, or any war novels, don’t.  We get to see how a young man invalided out of the war at any early stage – David Hunter – copes with his injuries, and with his feelings of uselessness and helplessness.  We also get several romances involving older couples, which is unusual and rather nice.

A couple of minor points.  The Morland crossover is only that David is treated at the Southport Hospital, and we don’t actually get to see any of the Morlands again; but it was still nice to have that mention there.  And is Cynthia Harrod-Eagles a big Noel Streatfeild fan?  She talks about being “all over” things rather than “covered in” things, which is very Streatfeild, and Munt the gardener refers to elevenses as “beaver”!

I feel as I’m not saying very much, but I can’t say that much more without giving the game away.  Like the Morland dynasty books, nothing actually goes that deep.  The Kirov trilogy books, which IMHO are the best ones Cynthia Harrod-Eagles has ever written, go so much deeper!   Let’s say that there are births, and marriages, and deaths.  The book actually ends with a death.  It’s the death of a very minor character, but it says a lot that Cynthia Harrod-Eagles wanted to end that way, with a death at the Front on the very day of the Armistice, rather than with scenes of wild joy and rejoicing.  Yes, the war is over, but too many of the boys won’t be coming home.

I assume that this isn’t the end of the series, because a lot of loose ends have been left rather than tied up.  And I just keep thinking that the next one will inevitably involve the Spanish flu, and that that’s going to mean more deaths.  And I want to shout, no, please don’t kill off anyone else, I can’t take it.  That’s reading a book about fictional people.  How must it have been to have actually lived through that time?  Thankfully, we don’t know – but we can get quite a good sense of it, or at least of aspects of it, from these books.  At a time when the Great War is much in the news, they give you a lot to think about.

 

The Women in the Castle by Jessica Shattuck

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This is an awkward book. There isn’t really a plot as such, it jumps backwards and forwards between different years and different characters, and it doesn’t go into much depth about anything.  However, set mainly in Bavaria in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, it raises a lot of very challenging issues about the experiences of German women during the war, and the extent of complicity and collective guilt about the Nazi atrocities and how people did and didn’t deal with that.  It also makes the reader think about the general chaos in post-war Europe, about the differing attitudes of the Allies towards the German people – ranging from the American Quakers who sent Christmas presents for German children to the Soviet soldiers who brutally abused German and Austrian women – and about how the Nazis were able to win control in the first place.  It even mentions Salem school, briefly attended by Prince Philip.  Then it seems to come to the rather impractical conclusion that the best answer is to get away from Germany and move to the United States, the country where – don’t start discussing this bit with Donald Trump – everyone can start again.

There’s the odd horrendous historical blunder, notably referring to Namibia as “a former Habsburg colony”, but it seems to be accurate otherwise. The author, who’s American but has one German parent, is very familiar with Germany, and says that she wrote the book after finding out that her German grandparents were both committed Nazis.  I don’t know how you’d deal with that, and I don’t know how Germany’s dealt with it.  I think Germany’s tried, though.  It doesn’t try to make out that it was a victim.  And it doesn’t refuse to discuss what happened during the war – whereas Osaka has just broken off its twinning agreement with San Francisco, because San Francisco’s put up a statue honouring the women forced into brothels by wartime Japan.  Somehow, societies move on.  The states of the former Yugoslavia have done that, more recently.  Somehow.

There are three main characters in the book. Marianne, a Prussian aristocrat, is probably the central character.  The Bavarian castle in the title belonged to her late husband.  He, and her childhood friend Constantine – known as Connie, which really annoyed me, because he was supposed to be this very handsome, dashing, Alpha Male, and I’m not sure what was the idea of giving him such a feminine-sounding name! – were involved in the von Stauffenberg plot, and were executed as a result.  The book’s very vague on exactly what Marianne’s involvement was, and how come she and her children weren’t punished.  It’s also vague on how she came to marry a Bavarian, and the impression’s given that she always thought she and Connie would end up together, but it’s never really gone into.

Marianne had promised the two men that she’d try to take care of any other women whose husbands had been executed due to their role in the resistance. Maybe she’s the person the author wishes her grandmother had been – always vehemently opposed to the Nazis, unable to understand how everyone didn’t realise how evil they were, and unwilling to try to forgive anyone who’d played any sort of role in carrying out Nazi atrocities.  She can’t cope with living in Germany, and, in the end, she moves to America.  In old age, she publishes her memoirs of being a heroine of the Resistance.  Presumably her readers hear all about her role in the von Stauffenberg plot: it’s very irritating that we don’t!   And it’s then, eventually, that she accepts that maybe things weren’t as black and white as she thought.

Early on in the book, she traces Connie’s widow, Benita, and young son, Martin. Martin had been taken to a home for the children of “traitors”.  He copes well with the post-war world, but he ends up in America as well.  But Benita really suffers.  Like so many women in Germany and Austria, she was repeatedly raped by Soviet soldiers.  All credit to the Nobel Peace Prize Committee for the decision it made about this year’s awards.  Rape was used as a weapon of war throughout the war in the former Yugoslavia, and is being used now this minute in Rakhine province in Burma/Myanmar, and in the Democratic Republic of Congo.  The incredible Nadia Murad’s highlighted what IS did to Yazidi women.  The violence during Partition in the Indian sub-continent’s another example.  It’s thought that up to two million women were raped by Red Army soldiers in 1944-45.   Even some concentration camp survivors were attacked.  It hasn’t really been spoken about until recently.  It wasn’t only the Soviet troops, but it was particularly the Soviet troops.  Annoyingly, the book repeatedly uses the word “Russian” for “Soviet”, but that’s not unusual.

The Soviet attitude, insofar as there was one, seems to have been that the Germans and Austrians deserved everything they got, and that their troops were entitled to do what they liked after their part in defeating the Nazis. No. Two wrongs don’t make a right.

We learn that Benita was part of the League of German Girls, as a teenager. She had no great interest in politics, and regarded it as something like the Girl Guides.  She struggles, not surprisingly, to cope with what happened to her, but eventually forms a relationship with a former Nazi.  Marianne, who can’t understand this, persuades the man that it would be wrong for him to marry the widow of a former resistance hero.  He breaks off the engagement.  Benita eventually kills herself.

The most interesting of the women is Ania. Marianne brings her to the castle on the understanding that she’s the widow of someone Connie had worked with.  She manages the best of any of them, eventually remarrying and making a new life for herself on a farm.  But then it turns out that she isn’t who she says she is: she’d taken someone else’s papers.  She’d actually been deeply involved with the Nazis for years.  She’d bought into all the ideology: she’d been committed to it.  But she had, eventually, realised that she was wrong.

Ania’s story makes it frighteningly easy to see how an ordinary person could have been complicit in the Nazi atrocities. Her family and community had suffered badly as a result of the Great War.  They were then embittered further by the harshness of the post-war settlement, and by the occupation of the Rhineland by British and French troops, and the reparations demanded of Germany.  What a mess that settlement was: I saw on the BBC website earlier this week that the South Tyrol question’s reared its head again.  The Nazi youth groups seemed like good fun. They organised trips out into the countryside, and sports matches.  Everyone else belonged to them.  And the Nazis promised to make Germany great again.  Ania and her husband ran Nazi camps for young men.  She saw herself as a sort of housemistress.

She had some idea of what was going on, but she didn’t think about it much. It seemed distant, like something happening a long way away.  What do you do?  We have 24/7 news these days.  We know all about the Rohingya crisis, about Yemen, about Syria, about the Democratic Republic of Congo … what do we do about any of it?  Maybe share an article about it on Facebook.  Press the “sad” emoticon if one of our friends shares an article about it on Facebook.  I did sign a petition asking the Government to do something when news of the IS treatment of the Yazidi women first emerged, but I’m not sure what good I expected it to do.  Send the odd tenner to the Red Cross.  That’s all.

But at least you accept what’s going on. You don’t try to kid yourself that it isn’t happening.  You acknowledge that, and you hate it.  Ania can’t forgive herself for being complicit, and she also can’t forgive herself for her self-deception, for letting herself believe that people were just being “resettled”.  When babies and toddlers arrived at her camp, and were then taken away, she’d told herself that they were going to foster homes or orphanages.  It was when she’d accepted that they were being taken away to be killed that she’d left.

She makes a new life for herself, but never forgives herself. But her daughter, another one who ends up in America, working for a human rights organisation, does forgive her.  Ania reflects on the modern culture of baring your soul on TV chat shows and feeling that you’ve earned forgiveness that way, but knows that no amount of talking or soul-baring can ever put right what happened in Nazi Germany.

The book ends with a very minor character, the daughter of the man to whom Benita was briefly engaged, reflecting on how Nazism permeated everywhere in Germany, and how everyone’ll have old photos somewhere of parents or grandparents in Nazi uniform and or making the Nazi salute. Most of us will have photos of parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, great-aunts or great-uncles during the war, and hopefully we’re all very proud of them.  It’s hard to understand how Germany deals with that.  I’ve been to Germany several times, and will hopefully be going again next month.  I’ve got absolutely no problem with modern Germany, or with today’s Germans.  But is it always there?  When Angela Merkel said that all Syrian refugees were welcome in Germany, people said that she, someone who wasn’t even born until nine years after the end of the war, was still trying to make up for what the Nazis did.

The idea of collective guilt and collective responsibility was certainly very much to the fore in 1945. The book touches on the de-Nazification programme but, frustratingly, only touches on it.  We’re told that there are leaflets and posters showing concentration camp victims, as part of the de-Nazification programme – that the Americans are trying to make the Germans face up to what happened.  But that most of the locals try to ignore them.  There were films too, although the book didn’t really mention them.

In the American zone, everyone had to fill in a form, and they were then all categorised as either Major Offenders, Offenders, Lesser Offenders, Followers or Exonerated Persons. The idea was to implement a full, detailed, de-Nazification programme.  But there just wasn’t the administrative manpower for it, especially once attention turned to the Cold War.  In the British zone, only those applying for official jobs had to fill in the forms.  In the French zone, they didn’t really bother at all.  As early as 1946, “de-Nazification” was handed over to the German authorities.  Not much happened – lack of time, lack of manpower, too much paperwork, other things to do – and it was abandoned as a bad job in 1951.

The book says too little about it, only that most people hoped to get away with being classed as Followers. It also touches on the vast numbers of people in Displaced Persons Camps, and on the post-war food crisis, but it doesn’t really explain any of it.  There’s too much it doesn’t explain, but what it does do is make you think.

Final thought. All the characters agree that they can start anew in America, where there’s openness, and where there’s no guilt.  The people who emigrate seem to have no trouble being allowed into America.  There was a ship called the St Louis, which took nearly 1,000 Jewish refugees to Cuba in 1939.  Cuba wouldn’t let them in.  The United States wouldn’t let them in.  Canada wouldn’t let them in.  I’m not having a go at those three countries:  there are all sorts of stories about people desperately pleading at every foreign embassy in Germany and Austria to be granted a visa, and being turned down.  Eventually, the ship had to sail back across the Atlantic.  I’m pleased to say that Britain agreed to take a third of those on board.  The others were eventually admitted to France, Belgium and the Netherlands: 254 of them were murdered after those countries were occupied by the Nazis.  In a couple of weeks’ time, Justin Trudeau will be issuing a formal apology for Canada’s refusal to take the refugees.  A lot of apologising goes on these days.  No guilt?

I’m not sure what I wanted from this book. I was hoping for more of a sense of Bavaria, but it said almost nothing about Bavaria: the castle could have been anywhere.  The idea of a castle being returned to a family who’d opposed the Nazis reminded me of Marie von und zu Wertheim, nee Marie von Eschenau, a favourite character in the Chalet School books; but there wasn’t much about the castle either.  It was a very unsatisfying book all round, but it certainly contained a lot of food for thought.

A Weaver’s Web by Chris Pearce

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Oh dear. The author of this book thinks that Middleton Road is full of creeks, and that the population of Regency-era Manchester existed solely on potatoes and lived in fear of a Vulgaria-esque child catcher.  He also thinks that Methodist ministers are addressed as “Father”, Methodist chapels have stained glass windows and ornate altars, millowners are classed as aristocrats, and “well-bred” Georgian girls worked as housemaids.  And, yes, it is supposed to be a serious historical novel: he claims that he spent ages researching it!   The basic plot isn’t bad, and the section on Peterloo’s actually quite good, but I don’t think I’ve ever come across so many inaccuracies in a single book before.  I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry!

I don’t like being negative about things – I’m sure the author put a lot of work into this – but it was just cringeworthy. The language was all wrong, for a kick off.  I didn’t expect someone writing in the 21st century to sound like Georgette Heyer, but having characters in the early 19th century referring to their mate James Johnson as “Johnno”, or saying “You’re still in the 18th century.  It’s not a problem these days”, or talking about “citizens” (unless they’re in France!) was just plain silly.   Not to mention “wow” and “holler” and various other expressions that just did not belong in a book set in the 1810s.  Even the names were wrong: the name Albert wasn’t used in the UK before Queen Victoria’s marriage.  And no-one ever refers to Manchester as “the city”.  If you live locally, it’s “town”.  If you live a bit further out, it’s just “Manchester”.  OK?!

It’s a shame, because the general idea wasn’t bad at all. It started with a handloom weaver in Middleton, determined that he was going to remain working independently and not be forced into working in a factory.  Very interesting premise for a book, especially one incorporating the Peterloo Massacre.  Middleton was obviously chosen because of the connection with Samuel Bamford.  I’m still rather put out about the way Bamford was portrayed in the Peterloo film: he came across much better in this book.   However, the comments about eating nothing but potatoes, battling against the frequent gales (?) and hoping that the factory agents coming from “the city” would fall into a creek – on Middleton Road?! – were just bizarre.

Bringing in the growth of Methodism was a good idea, but surely anyone, however little interest they may have in religion, knows that Methodists do not have fancy church buildings and address their ministers as “Father”?!   Bringing in Hampden Clubs was also a good idea, but rather spoilt by the fact that our hero, one Henry, went off to spend all his money on prostitutes after the meeting, and convinced his family that he’d dropped the said money in a puddle … whereupon they all solemnly went off to search every puddle in Middleton for a pile of coins.  What??

One of Henry’s kids then ran away to “the city” to get a job in a factory, and, eventually, the rest of the family moved there too. There then followed various strange scenes involving some kind of child catcher – I can only think that the author had got the Industrial Revolution mixed up with Chitty Chitty Bang Bang – who went around town trying to catch kids to work in factories, and chaining them up.  Meanwhile, our pal Henry, by dint of stealing and gambling, managed to set up his own factory, and thus became an aristocrat (the word “aristocracy” was frequently used to describe millowners).  The rags to riches storyline, again, was a good idea, but it was executed very poorly.  It also involved a gentlemen (i.e. millowners!) versus players cricket match.  That would have worked fine in a village setting, but not in the centre of a big industrial city!

However, things did not work out for Henry. Apparently this was supposed to remind the reader of The Grapes of Wrath.  One of his kids was transported to Australia.  He managed to arrange for him to be brought back, but was set upon by highwaymen on his way to Liverpool to meet him at the docks, and then it turned out that the kid wanted to stay in Australia.  This was a bit far-fetched, but it made more sense than the child-catcher and the creeks.  Then his wife, who couldn’t cope with having to socialise with all the “aristocrats”, was put in an asylum.  Again, good points about the harshness of the criminal justice system and the treatment of mental health problems; but it all got rather ridiculous.  The wife was eventually rescued from the asylum by one of the sons, who pretended that he wanted to hire one of the inmates as a prostitute and then hid his mum under his coat.  As you do.  And then a group of Luddites burned down the factory.

I can see how it could have worked really well.  A lot of the important issues of the time were brought into the story.  There was the idea of someone thinking they’d made it and then everything crumbling to bits.  And the section about Peterloo, which was the reason I read the book in the first place, really did work fairly well.  But so much of it was just utter twaddle.  It was self-published because a load of publishers turned it down.  The author claims that he can’t understand why it was turned down.  Oh, to be that confident!

I don’t like being overly critical of someone else’s work, but I paid good money for this, and, to put it mildly, it really wasn’t worth it.   Oh well.  I suppose it gave me a few laughs!  But give this one a miss.

The Twentieth Wife and The Feast of Roses – Indu Sundaresun

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Everyone’s heard of the Taj Mahal. Most people will know the term Mughal/Moghul/Mogul, but probably in connection with either a local takeaway or as a term for a successful businessperson.  Not many people, even in the Indian subcontinent, will have heard of the Empress Nur Jahan.  And I’m not sure how familiar most people in the UK are with the history of the Moghul Empire, because no-one teaches us much about pre-colonial Asian history.  Novels about royal families are a brilliant place to start learning about an unfamiliar period in history – especially when they involve such an interesting character as the Empress Nur Jahan, or Mehrunnissa.  If you want something to learn about Northern India, or even if you just want a good read about something different, give Indu Sundaresun’s books a go.

The main character in these two books is, as I said, Nur Jahan, or Mehrunnissa (1577-1645), the twentieth and favourite wife of the Emperor Jahangir. Her niece Arjumand, known as Mumtaz Mahal, married Jahangir’s son, the future Emperor Shah Jahan, who famously had the Taj Mahal built as Mumtaz’s mausoleum after she died giving birth to their fourteenth child.  It’s ironic that the publishers are marketing these books, along with Shadow Princess, which is about Jahan and Mumtaz’s eldest daughter, as “the Taj Mahal trilogy”, because Indu Sundaresun is keen to make the extremely good point that Mehrunnissa, who exercised political power and was a patron of the arts, at a time when it was very rare for a woman to do so, is all but forgotten, whereas Mumtaz, who didn’t actually do very much other than repeatedly conceive and give birth, has achieved immortality because of a beautiful building.

Shadow Princess is well worth a read as well.  It shows, amongst other things, the battles between several brothers, resulting in one brother having the others murdered, and also makes the point that, romantic as the Taj Mahal seems now, people at the time weren’t actually all that thrilled about vast amounts of taxpayers’ money being spent on an elaborate royal tomb.  It also shows the shift in attitudes from Jahangir and Shah Jahan’s keenness to incorporate elements of different religions into the life of an Islamic court to Aurangzeb, Shah Jahan’s successor’s, destruction of Hindu temples and fiscal discrimination against his Hindu subjects.

Just to go off the point slightly, on a recent trip to Northern India I found it interesting that most of the major buildings in older parts of Delhi, and of course the Taj Mahal in Agra, were built by the Islamic rulers of a predominantly Hindu state, and that most of the newer buildings in Delhi were built under the British Raj, but that there’s absolutely no thought of pulling them down or complaining that they’re symbols of oppression or discrimination.

Anyway, to get back to the point, Mehrunnissa is the star of the first two books. They’re written in a way that makes them very easy to get into but at the same time conveys a huge amount of information about the Mughal court and the Mughal Empire, everything from life in the harem/zenana, including the rivalries between the various different wives, to political machinations within the court, to wars with rival powers.  And the romance between Mehrunnissa and Salim/Jahangir, of course!

In brief, Mehrunnissa is born, on the road in what’s now Afghanistan, to a Persian noble family fleeing to Hindustan. They’ve got so little at the time that she’s almost abandoned at birth, but her father rises to become one of Emperor Akbar’s Grand Viziers, and Mehrunnissa goes to live at court.  The romantic version of events, which is the one shown in these books, is that she and Jahangir took a shine to each other from early on.  Spoilsports now say that this never actually happened.  Oh well.  Whatever, she was married off, unhappily, to a Persian soldier, by whom she had one daughter – whom she later married off to one of Jahangir’s sons, hoping (in vain, as it turned out) that her daughter would become Empress in turn.  After he died, she married Jahangir.

By that point, she was in her thirties. Women at the Mughal court were generally considered past their sell-by date by then, but she was the one who had the Emperor’s affection when there were plenty of younger models he could have gone for instead.  Go Mehrunnissa!   And, at a time when women were not expected to exercise power, and bearing in mind that she was only part of the royal family by marriage, she was pretty much the power behind the throne.  Jahangir was a little too fond of booze and opium.  She sat with him when he held court, issued coinage in her own name, dealt with the various Western powers looking to establish or increase their influence in what’s now India, was involved in consultations with ministers, and raised an army to fight a rebellion – even riding into the thick of things on a war elephant.

She is brilliant!   Rags to riches.  Well, OK, not quite, but her family were in dire straits when she was born.  Bagging the emperor when everyone would have expected him to be more interested in some silly young thing.  Wielding political power at a time when women weren’t supposed to.  And commissioning a tomb for her father which is generally agreed to have been the inspiration for the Taj Mahal.  Not to mention taking care of hundreds of orphans, mostly girls.  She should be right up there amongst the female icons of history.

But she isn’t. Her story ended rather sadly – confined to effective house arrest by her stepson.  As many other strong women have been, she’s been painted by those historians who have written about her as – well, a conniving bitch, not to put too fine a point on it.  And her name isn’t really known much now, even in India and Pakistan.  Whereas the Taj Mahal is one of the most famous buildings in the world, arguably the symbol of India.  I loved the Taj Mahal, and I’m so glad I’ve seen it, and I agree that it’s quite romantic that Shah Jahan loved Mumtaz Mahal so much that he wanted to build such a splendid tomb for her, but … well, it’s a bit strange that the Mughal Empire has been immortalised by the symbol of a marriage and a death.  I suppose it makes a change from triumphal arches and grand palaces, eh?  Anyway, these books shouldn’t be being marketed as “the Taj Mahal trilogy” at all, and it’s rather insulting to Mehrunnissa that they are!

I wasn’t actually looking for a “strong women of history” novel. I just wanted to find out more about the Mughal Empire.  And this book really is a good starting point for that.  But I really did like the character.  And I liked the author’s writing, and will be looking for more of her books if I ever get through my existing book mountain.  We aren’t generally taught much Asian history in British schools and universities, and these books make the Mughal court in the late sixteenth and seventeenth century seem very accessible.  Read and enjoy!