The Hidden Light of Northern Fires by Daren Wang

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Eleven Southern states seceded from the Union in 1860-61, but there’s a little-known story about the hamlet of Town Line, New York state, close to Niagara Falls, also voting to secede.  No-one outside really recognised the vote, but Town Line didn’t vote to rejoin the Union until 1946!   It’s not clear exactly what went on, but many of the locals were German-Americans who’d left Bavaria and other German states during the 1848 Revolutions, and the author’s view, which is as likely as any, is that they’d fled partly to avoid conscription and didn’t want to be conscripted to fight for a Union with which they didn’t really identify.  Conscription didn’t actually exist in 1861, but, still, it’s as likely an explanation as any.

Town Line lies very close to the Canadian border, and, in this book, some of the inhabitants are part of the Underground Railroad, whilst others are bounty hunters who try to capture slaves trying to reach freedom in Canada, and return them to owners offering rewards for their capture.  We also hear their fears of competition for jobs if slaves are freed and head north.  A young male slave has fled Virginia and made it to Town Line, but been attacked by a vicious dog belonging to the bounty hunters and lost a leg as a result.   Our heroine Mary is trying to help him to get over the border.

It’s an interesting setting for a Civil War novel.   They tend to focus on either plantation owners in the Deep South or pro-war characters in the North, and ignore the spectrum of views which existed on both sides of the Union-Confederate border.  The blurb for the book refers to the “Mason-Dixon Line”, but even that’s not accurate because not all the Southern states seceded.   Washington DC was a Southern city, for a kick-off.  And West Virginia, from where the slave in question had escaped, seceded from Virginia and was admitted to the Union as a separate state.  It was complicated.

This is the author’s first novel, and that shows.  The subject matter’s interesting, but the characters are a little one-dimensional, all either goodies or baddies with not much in between.  And the escapee’s former owners live in West Virginia, but the book doesn’t really explain how West Virginia seceded from Virginia, etc – although it does make the point that slaves in Union slave states weren’t covered by the Emancipation Proclamation.

Some of the language and attitudes may offend, but none of it’s inappropriate in context.  It would be ridiculous to write a book in which characters in the 1860s spoke about racial issues in the language of the 2020s, and I wish people would accept that.  This isn’t a great book and never really gripped me, but it was very positive to see a book which showed a range of views being held by different characters.  Due to the “culture wars” present plaguing the US and beyond, a narrative’s been created by which the American Civil War was all about the North opposing slavery and the South supporting slavery, which just wasn’t the case.   There were complex issues involved, and views across a broad spectrum were held, in both Union states and Confederate states.   Thanks to Daren Wang for showing that.

 

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The Children’s Blizzard by Melanie Benjamin

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This is a novel about the severe blizzard which, after an ordinary-seeming morning, hit the Great Plains one afternoon in January 1888, killing  235 people and causing many others to lose limbs or digits to frostbite.   It’s sometimes called “The Children’s Blizzard” because, due to the timing, many of the victims were school pupils trying to make their way home at the end of the school day.

As readers of Laura Ingalls Wilder will know, teachers at that time and place could be girls of just 15 or 16, little more than children themselves.  They were the ones who had to decide whether their pupils should wait out the storm in the schoolhouses, try to get home, or try to reach another place of shelter.  Two of the four threads of the book are those of two such teachers, sisters, one of whom was hailed as a heroine in the national press as well as locally, the other of whom was vilified for making what turned out to be a bad choice.  The other main characters are a hired girl and a “booster”.

Boosters, who featured a lot in The Beautiful Snow, aimed to persuade people from Europe, mainly Scandinavia, and the eastern US to settle in Minnesota and Dakota Territory, giving a very over-favourable impression of the farming conditions and climate there.   Most of the characters in the book were Norwegian immigrants, and the author seems to contend that the US authorities and eastern US society weren’t overly concerned what became of them.

For some reason, there aren’t a lot of books about Scandinavian settlers in the Great Plains.  Vilhelm Moberg’s four The Emigrants books, about a Swedish family, spring to mind, and Laura Ingalls Wilder mentions Norwegian neighbours;  but most people’s image of immigrants in the late 19th century US is of people from Ireland, Italy and Eastern Europe crowding into New York City.   And, other than Laura Ingalls Wilder’s brief reference to a black doctor, I can’t think of any other books mentioning black settlers in the area, as this one does.  And the settlement of the area in general doesn’t get much attention, with the obvious exception of Laura’s books. Incidentally, I just did a “Goodreads” search on “pioneer”, and 8 out of the top 10 results were books by Laura.  Other than Willa Cather, none of the other authors or books in the top 25 were well-known.  Yet both the Native American Wars and the Dust Bowl have attracted a lot of attention from different quarters.  It’s strange.

It’s an interesting subject, not least because it’s had so little coverage; but it’s not the most gripping of books, which I think is largely because it’s so focused on the one incident, and goes into it very quickly.  We don’t really have chance to get to know and care about the characters before they and we are swept up in the blizzard.   But it’s still a fascinating story, about the hardship faced by the pioneers, many of whom had thought they were going to a land of plenty.   And, without wishing to get political, it’s interesting to think how often, in the past, there were places which were desperate for immigrants, so desperate that they deliberately gave a falsely favourable impression of the lands they wanted settling in order to get people in; and how that’s changed.

The best part of the book was actually the last few chapters, about what happened to the girls after the blizzard.   What happened sounded far-fetched, but is based on real accounts of the time.  The hired girl and the “right” sister briefly became the 1880s’ equivalent of tabloid celebs, benefited from a “Heroine Fund” set up by a newspaper and were able to start new and better lives.  The “wrong” sister ended up teaching at an “Indian school” in Montana and being horrified by the abuses committed there.   I think the author felt that she had to include that, given the current (unfair) fashion for criticising the Little House books.   And both the booster and the hired girl’s mistress were overcome with guilt over the way they’d treated them, which felt rather like a 19th century American moralising novel.  Somehow, that all made for better reading than the drama of the blizzard, maybe because we actually got to know the characters better.

All in all, I don’t think that I’ll be reading this again, but I’m certainly glad that I’ve read it once.  If you can find a reasonably-priced copy, it’s worth a go.

White Houses by Amy Bloom

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Marking Pride month #pridenotprejudice, this is a review of a novel about Eleanor Roosevelt’s relationship with the journalist Lorena Hickok.  No-one’s entirely sure whether they were lovers or just very good friends, but some of what’s written in Eleanor’s letters strongly suggest the former*.  They were both fascinating characters, Lorena as someone who rose from a very poor background to become a groundbreaking journalist, one of the first female sports reporters and also working on some of the major news stories of the day, and Eleanor as someone who was really ahead of her time in terms of her views on equality.  Also, given that history is full of dutiful political wives who turned a blind eye whilst their husbands played away, I rather like the idea of Eleanor doing her own thing just as FDR did his.

Unfortunately, I didn’t really love this book, told in the first person by Lorena.  It was too short for me to get into it properly, and it jumped about between 1945 and various other points in Lorena’s life, so it never really flowed.  Also, the author’s admitted that some bits of it were completely her own invention, notably a section in which Lorena ran off with a circus (seriously).  She’s also invented a gay cousin of Eleanor’s, called Parker Fiske, who goes around using rude words in Yiddish.  Why would an upper-class WASP use rude words in Yiddish, and why invent storylines and characters when writing a book which was supposed to be about real people?  And, whilst some of the sarcastic observations about the rich and famous are amusing, others just seem shoehorned in to reflect the author’s interests, rather than Lorena’s.

All in all, it was OK, but I didn’t really get why it attracted so many rave reviews.  Books that jump about in time so much never seem very coherent to me.  And making up storylines is fair enough if you’re writing about a medieval character for whom there are no sources for certain times of their life, but not for someone whose life story is known – and showing her going off to join the circus, like a Blyton or Streatfeild character, was just very odd indeed.

* “Hick darling, Oh! how good it was to hear your voice, it was so inadequate to try & tell you what it meant, Jimmy was near & I couldn’t say ‘je t’aime et je t’adore’ as I longed to do but always remember I am saying it & that I go to sleep thinking of you & repeating our little saying.”

“Dearest, I miss you & wish you were here I want to put my arms around you & feel yours around me. More love than I can express in a letter is flying on waves of thought to you.”

This was a relationship between two very big personalities, and a book about them could have been brilliant.  This one just wasn’t, though.

 

 

 

Thatcher and Reagan: A Very Special Relationship – BBC 2

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Those of us who grew up in the 1980s saw the likes of Mikhail Gorbachev (who comes from a village near the Russo-Ukrainian border, brought glasnost to the old USSR and must be absolutely devastated at what’s going on at the moment), Nelson Mandela, Vaclav Havel and Lech Walesa bestriding the world stage (I like that expression).  Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan and to some extent Helmut Kohl were also part of that.

Going back into history, you find, to name but a few, Churchill, Disraeli, Gladstone, Bismarck, Metternich, Louis XIV, Elizabeth I, Charles the Bold, Henry V, Saladin, William the Conqueror, Harald Hardrada, Julius Caesar, Alexander the Great … on and on and on.  Where are all the world leaders now?!   That new German Chancellor’s so anonymous that I can only remember his name because it makes me think of the snowman in Frozen, and the rest of them aren’t much better.   And how is banning Russian players from Wimbledon supposed to help anyone?  Maybe that’s why everyone’s so into Zelenskyy, because he actually *has* got something about him.

Anyway.  Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan were obviously both quite controversial figures at home, but this programme wasn’t about that; and I was impressed that the BBC, which often seems to forget that it’s supposed to be politically neutral, respected that – and focused on the relationship between the two, which was what it said on the tin.

We even got some Freudian-type stuff about how Ronald liked Maggie because strong women reminded him on his mother, and how Maggie liked Ronald because she was keen on glamorous, powerful men.  That does rather make one wonder how she ended up with Denis, who was many things but certainly not glamorous, but never mind.

It’s rather frightening how dated the video shots from the ’80s and early ’90s look now, but I’m trying not to think about that.  I’m still trying to process the fact that the Miami Open was won by someone who was born in 2003, and that the defeated finalist was someone whose dad I remember as a young teenage pro.  And how on earth is Brooklyn Beckham old enough to get married, when surely it was only five minutes ago that he was an adorable toddler kicking a ball round the pitch at Old Trafford after we won the league in, er, the year 2000?  Oh, and, speaking of the ’80s and early ’90s, remember the Berlin Wall coming in November 1989, Nelson Mandela being released from prison in February 1990, and those precious few months of thinking that we’d finally reached an age of peace?   It all went kaput when Iraq invaded Kuwait in July 1990, before The Scorpions had even released “Wind of Change”, but it was nice whilst it lasted.

This first episode really was quite interesting, because there was so much about that personal bond and what helped them to form it, and how Mrs Thatcher (as she was then) coped with being a woman in a man’s world.  I’m not sure that we needed quite so much psycho-analysis about the significance of her handbag, though.  Why are people so obsessed with the Queen’s handbag and Maggie Thatcher’s handbag?!   They should see the contents of mine – talk about everything but the kitchen sink.

I wish we could get back to a point where Anglo-American relations are as close as they were then, but we don’t seem to have had another pair of leaders who’ve got on so well.  Blair and Clinton, to some extent, but both of them were very narcissistic and I don’t think that they worked together anything like as well as Thatcher and Reagan did.

Also, even with the Gulf Wars, there wasn’t the sense of the common enemy that there was in the days of the Cold War.  I never really got the Cold War, TBH.  OK, it was coming to an end by the time I was old enough to understand much about it, but I think it was because people were always talking about “the Russians”, rather than “the communists” of “the Soviets”.  I like Russia.  Not easy then and not easy at the moment, but all that Russians-as-baddies stuff has never worked for me.  But it did for Thatcher and Reagan … until Gorbachev came along, and we’ll hear more about that next week.

A lot of this was about the issue of American nuclear weapons being based in Britain, and in Western Europe, and how Thatcher and Reagan worked very closely together on that, but we also saw them having their differences over trade issues, and over the lack of overt  American support for Britain during the Falklands War.

All in all, I thought it was very well-presented.  Too many BBC programmes these days take a very biased political viewpoint, and or try to make the issues of the past about the issues of today, like that ridiculous programme in 2017 which tried to make out that the Reformation was somehow linked to Brexit, or that Simon Schama programme which tried to link William Blake to Darth Vader.  This one did what it was meant to do, and it did it rather well.

 

Varina by Charles Frazier

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Hmm.  This was an interesting idea for a book, but it didn’t quite work for me.  As the title suggested, it was about Varina Howell Davis, wife of Jefferson Davis and therefore First Lady of the Confederacy.  She was a very interesting person – not the Southern belle you might expect, but someone who was very well-educated, partly in Philadelphia of all places, not a strong supporter of either slavery or secession, not particularly keen on hostessing and not at all convinced that her husband was the right person to be president of the Confederacy.

I was expecting the book to be set largely during the war years, and it wasn’t.  That was my fault, not the author’s: there was no reason why the book should have focused on those years, rather than on aspects of Varina’s life before and after the war.   So, OK, I can’t really moan about that.  But I can moan about the way it jumped about.  One minute, Varina was in her late 70s, living in New York.  The next, she was a teenage girl in Mississippi.  Then she was in her late 30s, on the run after the Confederacy surrendered.  Then she was in her 20s, living in Washington.  It just jumped about all over the place, and that really made it very difficult to get into the story.

That was really rather a shame, because her life story was very interesting.  And intertwined with it was the fascinating story of Jimmie Limber, a young free mixed race boy, who was  taken in by the Davises during the war after Varina saw him being mistreated by his guardian.  Sadly, he became separated from them whilst they were captured.  It’s not clear whether or not they ever met again, but this book imagined him and Varina being reunited years later.  That could have worked very well.

So it could have been a very good book.  But all the jumping about and failure to get into any one particular time in Varina’s life didn’t really work for me.  I wasn’t expecting Gone With The Wind or North and South – and I’m afraid that my idea of Varina was largely drawn from the negative opinion held of her by Ashton Main Huntoon in the North and South books, which, given what a nasty character Ashton is, was silly of me:-) – but I was at least expecting a coherent narrative!

Hmm …

 

All-of-a-Kind Family by Sydney Taylor

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I’d somehow never come across this lovely book before.  It’s rather like a Lower East Side equivalent of Little House on the Prairie, with the same simplistic language and a sense of a family home which is full of love and happiness despite poverty, but with a greater sense of community and a blessed absence of politics.

Like Laura, Sydney Taylor’s telling the story of a quintessential American experience, an essential part of the making of the United States of America, but it’s a very different one – the lives of first and second generation immigrants in New York City in the early 20th century.  We’ve got five young Jewish American sisters, and they’re American-born but their parents seem to have emigrated to New York from … we’re not told where, but somewhere in Eastern Europe, probably somewhere in the Russian Empire.  Quite possibly what’s now Ukraine.

In addition to what we see of the family’s home life in general, there’s a sub-plot about a family friend whose long lost love turns out to be the librarian at their beloved local library, and there’s an interesting storyline about the children having scarlet fever and how they have to put a notice on the door and then have the house fumigated once everyone’s recovered.  There’s also a wonderful description of the local market: I could read that over and over again.

And much of the book’s about festivals.  These are mostly Jewish religious festivals, but there’s also a chapter about the Fourth of July, and I loved that.  I know that some people take issue with the Fourth of July chapter in Little Town on the Prairie, and there’s now a rather unpleasant school of thought that celebrating any sort of national holiday makes you some sort of bigot.  It does absolutely nothing of the sort, and the All-of-a-Kind Family celebrating the Fourth of July is the way I grew up thinking about the USA, of (with apologies to Neil Diamond) freedom’s light burning warm, of people with a dream they’ve come to share … even if most of the people with that dream did find poverty on the Lower East Side rather than streets paved with gold.

I loved this.  I’m only sorry that I didn’t come across this series 40 years ago, when I was the right age for it!

Seeking Eden by Ann Turnbull

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This is the sequel to No Shame No Fear  and Forged in the Fire, the final book in the trilogy.  This one takes a different turn, as Will and Susanna and their children emigrate to the newly-established city of Philadelphia, seeking a Quaker Eden, and is narrated by their son Josiah.

Josiah gets what he thinks is a good job, as an apprentice to a merchant from Skipton, falls in love with the merchant’s daughter Katherine and she with him, and thinks he can see a promising future for himself … until they sail to Barbados and he realises that the merchant is involved in the slave trade.  Over the years, people have sought to associate slavery with particular religious groups, in an attempt to discredit them, but the fact is that members of many different religions were involved.  Quakers are probably the one group whom you’d think weren’t; but, in fact, some of them were.  And the way in which the story’s tackled is interesting, and not what you would expect of a 21st century book.

This is a young adult story, and not overly realistic – Josiah and Katherine are horrified when they find that Antony and Patience, two slaves who are lovers and expecting a baby, are to be sold separately when their owner returns to England.  They try to help them to escape, and fail, but, ultimately, Katherine’s dad arranges for the couple to be married, for the baby to stay with Patience, and for Antony to be able to stay with them sometimes.  OK, it *did* happen, but I’m not sure that a book written for adults would have gone with a happy ending.  And Katherine’s dad forgave Josiah and Katherine for helping them to escape, and agreed to give Josiah his job back and let him court Katherine.

It was quite strange, because the author was trying to present a balanced view of things, and doing that is very controversial now.  Some owners were kind.  Many slaves were able to get married, and, even if they didn’t live in the same place, spend time with their spouse.  But it’s difficult to show that, because it suggests some sort of positivity.  The book does show Antony being badly beaten, and makes it clear that their lives are insecure and that he, Patience and their baby could be parted at any time, but there is this happy ending.

And this is the first time that I’ve ever read a book showing Quakers as slaveowners or slave traders – and the author says that she herself was shocked when she found out that it did happen.  Philadelphia wasn’t the Eden that it was meant to be.  And I suppose that’s the whole point of the book – the very difficult paradox of the New World, which was seen as a land of liberty but also being a land of slavery.  That’s something which no-one is able to come to terms with.  And it’s difficult to write about it in a way which isn’t wholly condemnatory: the book never suggests that Katherine’s dad is a bad man, and shows some of the Quaker slaveowners as being decent people, but says that they accept slave trading and slaveholding because it’s the norm there.  That’s very difficult to do, and it’s an interesting choice.  I’m not saying that it’s right, wrong or indifferent, just that it’s an unusual choice in a 21st century book.

This book really wasn’t what I was expecting.  There was a lot to think about.

 

 

 

Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred D Taylor

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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

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  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 Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

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   This book’s won rave reviews and the Pulitzer Prize, so I was expecting to think it was brilliant; but I’m afraid I didn’t really get it.  I was expecting historical fiction, and that’s what it seemed to be at the beginning; but it then turned into … I’m not sure if it was meant to be an alternative history or sci-fi or an allegory or what, but it just wasn’t what I was expecting.  Each to their own and I’m sure that a lot of people will love this book, but it wasn’t for me.

I’ve read this prior to watching the TV adaptation of it, now showing on Amazon Prime. That’s been praised, as well as the book.  However, concern’s been expressed about the plethora of Auschwitz novels appearing in recent years, and I understand that concern is now growing about the number of films and TV series about slavery in the US.  It’s hard to strike a balance which draws attention to difficult aspects of the past without portraying the history of a particular demographic group as nothing but trauma; but I hope that people aren’t going to criticise individual authors and directors, all of whom I’m sure have genuinely good intentions.  You can’t do right for doing wrong, sometimes.

This started with a young woman, Cora, who was a slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia.  It wasn’t entirely clear when it was meant to be set – there were some references that suggested particular dates, but they weren’t consistent.  We heard about her family history, her grandmother being brought from Africa as a slave, and her mother escaping, and we also saw some of the horrors of life on a plantation with a cruel overseer and a cruel master.   Then Cora and a male friend, Caesar, decided to try to escape.  We then heard about a slave catcher, who was determined to catch Cora because her mother had eluded him, and we heard a bit about how being a slave catcher seemed like a good job for a thug with little hope of getting a well-paid job elsewhere.  So that was all very interesting, and that tied in with what I was expecting.  So far, so good.

But then it all moved away from history.  The Underground Railroad became an actual physical underground railroad.  First of all, Cora went to South Carolina, and found that medical schools there were conducting experiments on former slaves: presumably this was meant to put the reader in mind of Josef Mengele.  Then on to North Carolina, which had abolished slavery but was pursuing an ethnic cleansing programme of trying to create al all-white state.  Then she was captured, but escaped, and got to Indiana, which we were told was a former slave state, and lived in some kind of commune.  And then she headed out west – American destiny, Go West?  There’d already been references to the expulsion of Native Americans from lands taken by white settlers.

I’m sure it was all very well-written, and very clever if you like that sort of thing, but it just wasn’t for me.  I was looking for a book about someone reaching freedom with the help of the real Underground Railroad, i.e. the one which wasn’t a literal underground railroad bit was a network of people trying to help escaped slaves.  It started off with a very powerful depiction of the horrors of slavery, but I just couldn’t really take much from the rest of it because I knew that it wasn’t based on reality.

I’ll still watch the TV series, but I don’t really get this sort of alternative/fantasy/sci-fi history.  I don’t particularly get Game of Thrones, but at least that’s not messing about with such an emotive subject.  But, hey, life, would be boring if we were all into the same thing.