Massachusetts by Nancy Zaroulis

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This is one of those Edward Rutherfurd/James Michener-type books which tell the history of a country, a city, or, in this case, an American state through the lives of several generations of a small number of families. In this book, it’s just one family – the Revells, one of whom arrives in America on the Mayflower. It’s always tricky to know what to say about books like this, because only so much can be fitted in and we all have our own ideas about what the most important events in history are. It’s very interesting as a history of Massachusetts, but I did find it quite insular – neither world war got more than a passing mention, the Civil War didn’t feature very much because there was no actual fighting in the area, and don’t even get me started on one of the characters claiming that the Industrial Revolution started in Massachusetts – and it might have been better to have included different families from different backgrounds rather than just the one. Gold star, however, for the focus on female characters, which is unusual in these types of sagas.

The Revells do the American Dream thing, and become one of Boston’s leading families. We follow them from the Mayflower, on to the founding of Boston, and its early days under strict Puritaan control – we see the persecution of anyone whose religious views didn’t suit the Puritans, and we see one of them falling victim to the Salem Witch Trials. Massachusetts is such a paradox – in the forefront of the fights for Abolitionism and women’s suffrage, both of which are covered in the books, and yet with such a history of religious persecution and, well into the 20th century, religious and ethnic discrimination.

The book doesn’t shy away from the negatives. The Sacco and Vanzetti trial, which saw two Italian anarchists executed for a murder of which they may well have been innocent, is covered in detail. We also see the struggles of the Shaughnessys, a working-class Irish-American family, against poverty and discrimination – although the focus is always on the Revells.

This was published in 1991, before there was so much emphasis on “diversity”; but books like this do usually include a number of different families. I assume from her surname that the author, like a lot of people in Massachusetts, has Greek heritage: there are no Greek Americans here. Sympathy is shown for Native Americans, but they only feature when they’re kidnapping one of the early Revell women, and there is only one black character, the maid of the woman who’s kidnapped, in the entire book. It’s made clear that the discrimination against Catholics and Jews and, in the early days, Quakers is wrong, but we don’t really hear their voices, except to some extent with the Shaughnessys. There’s also sympathy for the industrial workers and their attempts to form unions and win better working conditions, but, again, we don’t really hear their voices, only those of the wealthy Revell who owns the mills, and another Revell who’s reporting on it all.

On the other hand, this isn’t a textbook, so maybe I’m being unfair. If it’d been called “The Revells of Massachusetts” instead of just “Massachusetts”, I wouldn’t be criticising – it’s only because the title suggests that it’s telling the history of a state, not that of one family. And, as I’ve said, it’s not as if it doesn’t show both negative and positive aspects of the history of Massachusetts. All sorts of things are included. There’s quite a lot about transcendentalism. And it ends with an environmentalist campaign.

It’s pretty much all set in Massachusetts. We don’t follow the characters anywhere else. The Civil War doesn’t really feature very much, because there was no fighting in or around Boston. However, there is loads and loads about the Revolution. The Revells are in there at the Boston Tea Party, and they play major roles during the War of Independence. Let’s just say that that’s very much told from an American point of view. But the War of 1812 isn’t mentioned very much, and the two world wars and Vietnam only feature in passing.

I’ve got mixed feelings about this book. The characters are quite interesting and there’s a lot of information about the history of Massachusetts, especially Boston. I can’t fault the history, and, apart from the part about the War of Independence, it isn’t biased. And it was great to see so many strong female characters. But I’d like to have seen some different families – maybe a poorer family who’d also come over the Mayflower but not succeeded economically, for a start. And, whilst I fully appreciate that the book was about Massachusetts, I think that having all the action in Massachusetts meant that some crucial events, notably the Civil War, didn’t get the attention they deserved.

However, despite the moaning (sorry!), I did enjoy this – it packed a huge amount into 700-ish pages, and it was never boring. Books like this can be a really good way of learning more about a place.

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Ann the Word by Richard Francis

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Shakers are a lot more interesting than Transcendentalists.  They do not worry about cold showers or manure.  More importantly, there’s the local connection.  Whilst obviously I knew that Shakerism originated in Manchester and Bolton, even I wouldn’t have claimed that “American’s most important and successful utopian community” had been deeply influenced by a fight over potato prices on Shudehill.  I’m not sure that I’d have claimed that Ann Lee, the first leader of the Shakers, was the most influential working-class woman since Joan of Arc, either – although I can see the point.  This isn’t a particularly good book, and it says nothing about the influence that Shakers had on architecture, furniture and education, not to mention bonnets, but it makes some very valid points about how the authorities couldn’t handle the idea of a religious community being led by a woman.  And it goes into quite a lot of detail about the geography of 18th century Manchester – which will probably mean nothing to New Englanders, who are presumably the intended audience, but is very interesting if you’re me.

To be fair, it’s meant to be a biography of Ann Lee, not a book about Shakerism; and she died before the Shakers had established their reputation for being skilled farmers, craftspeople and educators.  It’s a shame that something wasn’t said about that, though, especially as the author was quite negative about Shakerism.  OK, it’s hardly most people’s thing, but each to their own!  There aren’t many sources about Ann, other than those written by people who lived and worked with her, so most of what the book says about her time in America is just an account of conversions of different people, and it reads like a novel, with a lot of dialogue and detailed accounts of who took whose arm and who got upset and so on.

The part about her early life in Manchester is much more interesting – probably because there were virtually no sources about it, so it’s mainly about Manchester!  There’s an account of the Forty-Five, and also an account of food price riots in 1757, notably the one on Shudehill – along with comments about how this was all linked to working-class assertiveness.  If you go back to the Civil War era, and look at the Levellers and the Diggers, there’s certainly a link between working-class assertiveness and radical Protestantism: I’d never really thought about it in connection with the Shakers, but it’s a fair point.

Ann was born in Toad Lane, which is now Todd Street – by the side of where Cathedral Gardens, Chetham’s and the National Football Museum are – and, of course, that was the heart of town in those days.  The Infirmary, where Ann worked as a cook, and the “house of correction”, where she was imprisoned for a while, were all in that area.  So was the grammar school, which the author annoyingly doesn’t mention!  The descriptions of town in the mid-18th century are the best part of the book!   Ann’s early life is interesting, too, especially how she suffered from what would now be recognised as depression and eating disorders, and spent some time in an asylum: it was after that that she really got into the religious stuff.

There are also references to Shakers in the Cheshire area – mainly in the Marton area just north of Congleton.  There’s a really nice café there: I sometimes stop at it on my way home from Little Moreton Hall and Biddulph Grange!  And a reference to groups of “prophets” meeting in Great Budworth.  There’s a nice ice cream place there.  Sorry, food on the brain!

The parts about her life and work in America are, as I’ve said, mostly about converting different people: there are a lot of names, which I doubt will mean anything even to someone who’s very au fait with Shakerism.  However, the accounts of how the Shakers were persecuted by the authorities are fascinating, and disturbing.  They were accused of being British spies, this being the period of the American Revolution, and, as they refused to swear an oath of allegiance because they said it was against their faith, many of them were imprisoned.  Suspicion about a woman leading a religious group meant that Ann was horrifically persecuted. OK, there’d have been hostility towards anyone seen as claiming to be some sort of Second Coming, but Ann was seriously sexually assaulted.  It wasn’t just the authorities: the Shakers were attacked by mobs as well.  Think about the treatment of the Yazidis by ISIS.  Was the treatment of the Shakers by other Christians so different?

It’s not the greatest of books, but I very much enjoyed reading what it said about 18th century Manchester, and it made some very good points about hostility towards the idea of women as religious leaders.  It also said a lot about attitudes towards religious minorities in both Britain and America – not just Catholics and Jews, but minority Protestant groups as well.  I think we tend to forget that it’s only very recently that that’s changed, and there are still some issues now.  Anyway, I think that’s enough reading about New England Utopian groups – on to something else now!

Fruitlands: the Alcott family and their search for Utopia by Richard Francis

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I have *not* taken to Transcendentalism: this is for research purposes only.  Fruitlands was the short-lived commune set up by Bronson Alcott, Louisa M Alcott’s father, and his London-born associate Charles Lane. They had an interesting range of ideas, from the admirable, notably supporting Abolitionism and, to some extent, women’s rights, to the offensive – some of their ideas about producing a perfect new generation came unpleasantly close to eugenics – and all sorts of other things.  Opposing organised religion and political parties – wouldn’t life be so much more peaceful …?   Following a vegan diet. Trying to avoid cooking anything.  Opposing individual property ownership. Drinking nothing but water, not using artificial lighting, showering and bathing using only cold water, not using any form of animal labour, not using even natural fertilisers (they said that manure upset the weather), practising celibacy except as “necessary” to procreate; and one of them was into nudism because he thought that clothes stifled the spirit.

Some of it seems rather extreme; and their experiment didn’t last very long.  After only a few months, Lane and Alcott fell out, Lane joined the Shakers – everyone knows that Shakerism originated in Manchester and Bolton, yes 🙂 ?!  – , Mrs Alcott put her foot down, and Fruitlands was abandoned. But certain aspects of their theories and practices held some appeal at the time and afterwards, and do resonate in our own age of concern about environmental issues and religious and political extremism.  But, as so often happens, it wasn’t thought out properly – trying to live entirely off natural products on land that wasn’t really arable wasn’t the greatest of ideas – and those in charge were so repressive and dictatorial and determined to force their views on everyone else that they created more discord than harmony.  Louisa wasn’t impressed … and yet there are certainly some aspects of Fruitlands in Plumfield.

This is for research purposes, as I’ve said – it’s not really bedtime or holiday reading.  But there’s some interesting stuff in it – plenty of food for thought.

Transcendentalism’s usually said to be an offshoot of Romanticism, combined with religion, and then taken off in the direction of separating yourself from wordly things and sticking closely to nature. I get myself all tangled up with Romanticism. It’s a Lancastrian thing – we’re very proud of the Industrial Revolution, but we also want to keep the Lake District unspoilt so that we can wander about dreaming of hosts of golden daffodils!

I do not get tangled up with religion, but some of the Transcendentalists did – Eve eating the apple was apparently a bad thing because, although apples work with veganism, she was looking for knowledge instead of just looking for an apple. This is not my department. If someone says “The Fall”, I assume they mean the late, great, Mark E Smith & co. It had links to aspects of Unitarianism, and also to the Shakers – who’ve always interested me because of the local connection.  I’m so parochial!  It’s linked to Hinduism and Jainism as well, and I find those links easier to follow, because they don’t get everything mixed up with the creation story.  Anyway, this is not my department, as I’ve said: I’m just doing some research into the history of New England, and this particular area of it appealed because of the Alcott connection.

Louisa M Alcott’s own take on it was that the men did a lot of waffling whilst the women tried to keep body and soul together.  I feel so sorry for Abigail Alcott, Louisa’s mother. Some observers commented that the Transcendalists – like 17th century Puritans – thought that no-one should be allowed to be happy; and remarks made in Abigail’s letters and diaries suggest that that was how she felt. Bronson, like a lot of idealists, conveniently ignored the practicalities of real life, so they were always in debt. He also nearly ended up in prison for refusing to pay his tax so that he could distance himself from the state – a bit like that Australian couple who were in the news recently, for refusing to pay their property taxes because they said that their property actually belonged to the Good Lord. (Presumably they were quite happy to use all the public services paid for by everyone else’s taxes.)  And he didn’t want to get a job because he thought that being a wage slave was bondage, but he thought it was fine to tap friends and relatives for money because that was encouraging them to be charitable!  A very far cry from Jo March writing penny-dreadfuls in order to pay her way in life.

Abigail suffered from both physical and mental health problems, as well.  A vegan diet is obviously fine if you’re getting the proper nutrition, but they didn’t have the requisite knowledge about that and so she was existing on fruit, bread and water, and consequently felt ill for a lot of the time. And the ideas about producing perfect offspring meant that Bronson blamed her when they had a stillborn baby. Even the domestic postbox idea, which she introduced and which sounds like such good fun when Laurie introduces it in Little Women, came about not as a bit of fun but as a way of trying to relieve domestic tension – write your issues down instead of bottling them up or yelling at each other about them. I don’t wonder she had enough. It can’t have been very nice for either her or the children … although it’s interesting that the Bhaers’ Plumfield, which was supposed to be so wonderful, was probably named after Plum Tree Meadows, the previous name for the area where Fruitlands was situated.

On a more positive note, the Anglo-American links are fascinating. I always think that with 19th century movements. Considering that letters must have taken quite a while to cross the Atlantic, the amount of communication and sharing of ideas is fascinating. The nudist guy was British, incidentally.  There was even an Alcott House, predating Fruitlands, in Surrey, named after Bronson Alcott. He seems to have been obsessed with the idea that American women were better than British women, though! That probably explains the rather offensive way that Louisa portrays Kate Vaughn, which always annoys me. And their contacts, or at least Bronson Alcott and Charles Lane’s contacts, with some very well-known names on both sides of the Atlantic, are worth nothing – Carlyle, Hawthorne, Thoreau. Louisa M Alcott’s probably better known than any of them these days: I wonder what Bronson would have made of that!

If Bronson Alcott were around today, he’d probably be one of those people who, whilst some of his ideas would be too extreme for most people, would have many ideas which made a lot of sense, especially with all the current concerns about the environment … but who alienate others with their lecturing tone, their refusal to respect or even listen properly to other people’s views, their lack of humour, their failure to consider practicalities and their constant attempts to guilt-trip everyone.  I don’t know why it always seems to get like that.  It’s a great shame.

Also, as the author points out, they didn’t really get involved with the Abolitionist movement, and they didn’t seem very concerned about all the other social and political issues of the day.  Marmee and the girls taking their Christmas breakfast round to the Hummels (this is my comment, not the author’s!) might not have changed the world, but at least they tried to help people in need!

It seems very likely that Plumfield was Louisa’s attempt at showing a gentler side of it – one which might have worked.

There’s a lot of philosophy in this book, so it’s quite heavy-going, but the author’s done a very good job with the subject matter.  Some of the ideas are quite outlandish, and he’s very critical of how self-obsessed they were, but he doesn’t mock them – yet, at the same time, he shows the impracticability of Alcott and Lane’s particular experiment, and its negative impact on Abigail Alcott and others.  And he gets a few Little Women/Little Men references in there, whilst resisting what must have been a strong temptation (well, it would have been to me!) to include dozens of them in a book which isn’t actually about them.  I wouldn’t say that this was an entertaining book, but it was quite interesting.

And, whilst I’m certainly not suggesting that we all start running around starkers, or avoiding eating potatoes because they grown downwards rather than upwards, some of the ideas are certainly relevant to today.  Avoiding buying clothes or other items known to have been produced unethically.  Being careful when it comes to artificial substances getting into the food supply. Not being cruel to animals.  The Fruitland experiment just wasn’t viable, and I don’t think I’d have liked Bronson Alcott or Charles Lane very much, but, as I said, there’s some food for thought here!

Our Own Country by Jodi Daynard

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This wasn’t a very good book, but, whilst reading it, I got into an interesting discussion about whether or not historical fiction should reflect the prevailing attitudes of the time and demographics that it’s about, given that there are always going to be people who feel differently. In this book, Eliza, a white woman living in Massachussetts at the time of the American Revolution becomes romantically involved with a mixed-race slave, they have a child together, and the relatives and friends with whom she’s living at the time are absolutely fine about it. My initial reaction was that the book was unrealistic – but, whilst it seems unlikely that that’s the reaction she’d have got, it *could* have happened.

Having said which, it really wasn’t a great book. That was a shame, because it sounded great. It’s rare for books to explore the experiences of slaves during the American War of Independence, or even to make the point about what a horrific paradox it was to speak about “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” when millions of people across what became the United States remained enslaved.  That’s usually left for books set during the Civil War – and it’s sometimes hard not to feel that writers are glossing over the fact that slavery existed north of the Mason-Dixon Line as well as south of it.  But we heard very little from the point of view of John, Eliza’s boyfriend, or from Cassie, the family cook to whom Eliza was very close, so the message never really came across.

It was pretty much all told from the viewpoint of Eliza herself, a young woman from a well-to-do family living in the colony of Massachusetts. Her brother was pro-independence, her father was a Loyalist. That again sounded like an interesting idea, showing how families were divided by the conflict, but, again, it didn’t really work – the brother moved away, and was later killed in action, and we didn’t really get to see the family discussing its members’ different viewpoints.

Nor did it help that the author had tried to be true to the time period by writing all the dialogue in what was presumably meant to be 18th century speech patterns, but sounded artificial.  Also, all Cassie’s speech was written in broken English.  I’m sure the author meant well, but I felt quite uncomfortable about it.

John and Abigail Adams featured quite prominently, as friends of Eliza’s sister-in-law, and there were some interesting observations about the privations which resulted from the war.  And a spy story, which I think probably made more sense if you’d read the book to which this is a sequel, which I hadn’t!

Overall, a good idea, but not very well executed.  And it ended with Eliza and John living happily ever after in Barbados, which I didn’t really get – did the author think that society in Georgian Barbados wouldn’t have had any problem with a white woman being married to a mixed-race man?  I wish I could say it wouldn’t have, but surely we all accept that it would.

So is it OK for historical fiction to show a relationship that flew in the face of societal norms of the time, be that because of class, race, religion, gender, one party being married to someone else, or anything else, without really showing the problems that the couple would have faced?  I’m not convinced that it is.  It’s not inaccurate as such, because it could have happened.  And lots of things happen in books which aren’t very realistic, so it’s not really fair to criticise an author for being unrealistic.   But it doesn’t really work for me.  But, hey, maybe that’s just me!

Beyond the Pale by Elana Dykewomon

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As part of WordPress.com’s showing love and support for Pride month, I’m very pleased to be reviewing a book which shows aspects of two of my specialist subjects from university days, the history of the Russian Empire and the experiences of working-class immigrants in the United States (New York City), through the lives of a same sex couple and a couple including one transgender partner.  It covers a lot of themes, including the Kishinev pogrom, the fight for workers’ rights and the growth of trade unionism in New York City, and the US women’s suffrage movement.  I don’t know how easy it would be to follow without any background knowledge of the history and culture (I’m fairly au fait with Bessarabia, but I’m weird!), and it doesn’t help that the author uses a very strange (“modern”, apparently) transliteration system which I doubt any of her readers will have seen before, but (odd transliteration aside) I found it generally pretty good, if rather rushed in parts.  I do like a historical novel which assumes that the reader has the background knowledge and can just get stuck right in there!  There are a lot of “suffering in the old country, coming to America” novels, but this one’s quite unusual.

The main character in the early part of the book was Gutke, born in Kamenka (in what’s now the disputed area of Transdnistria) in the mid- 1850s, after her mother Feygele was raped.  Neither Gutke nor the reader ever knew who the attacker was.  It was an isolated attack, not part of a pogrom, but the use of sexual violence against women as a means of persecuting a particular community, as happened during pogroms, or as a side-effect of war, as when soldiers were based in Kishinev during the Russo-Turkish War, came up several times during the part of the book set in Bessarabia.  It also mentioned, briefly, that Gutke, by then a midwife, assisted women looking to terminate pregnancies resulting from rape.  These are difficult and distressing subjects, but they’re relevant to every generation.  Oh dear, that makes the book sound really miserable.  It wasn’t exactly a fairytale, but it really wasn’t all miserable!

Feygele was shunned by her own community for having an illegitimate child, with a non-Jewish father, even though people knew that she’d been raped.  So she moved to Kishinev to make a new start – and Gutke grew up there in a very female-centric world.  Feygele got a job at the women’s ritual baths, and Gutke, when she was old enough, became a midwife.  It was very much a world of sisterhood, and also a world in which several of the main people in her life were lesbians.  And we were shown how she resented the way in which her world treated women: many of them were pushed into early marriages, and she wasn’t allowed to say the mourning prayers when her mother died – a man who wasn’t even a relative or close friend said them instead.

Gutke then met Dovid/Dovida, who became her partner.  This should have been an interesting relationship, but unfortunately we didn’t see much of it, and we didn’t hear anything from Dovid/Dovida’s point of view.  The reviews on Amazon had referred to a transgender character, but it was never clear exactly what the character’s situation was.  They were a genetically female character with the given name as Dovida, living as a man called Dovid, but that seemed to be more because of the greater educational and career opportunities open to men than because they identified as male.  It’s not even clear which name the character’s known by in private: Gutke seems to use both of them at different times.  We know that the character has a male identity in public, but we don’t really see them at home, and there is this confusion over whether they identify as male or just prefer the life of a man because it offers things that the life of a woman doesn’t.  All a bit vague, really.  And, shortly after Gutke and Dovid/Dovida got together, the book moved on to another set of characters, led by a girl called Chava, the link being that Gutke was the midwife who’d delivered her.

Chava’s brothers were involved in the Bund and in Zionism, but, again, this wasn’t really developed properly.  Instead, the story moved on to the Kishinev pogrom.  Of the many pogroms, this is probably the best-known, and it had a huge impact on public opinion in the West.  However, this was the first time I’d ever seen it described in a novel, rather than in a text book.  Again, the book didn’t shy away from a difficult and distressing subject.  Chava’s father was killed, and her mother raped and killed.  Afterwards, it was decided that Chava should go to Odessa, and from there emigrate to America with some relatives, including a cousin of the same age, Rose.

This was the end of the section of the book set in the Russian Empire. Now, one thing that really winds me up with books set in the Russian Empire is when authors talk about “Russians” when writing about an area that isn’t actually Russian.  This book did refer to the state as “Russia”, which I suppose is fair enough, but it did make it clear that Kishinev – and I wouldn’t expect anyone to write about “Chisinau” or “Moldova” when writing in English about a period prior to the 1990s – was in Bessarabia, and talked about Moldavians and the Romanian language.  Gold star for that, because it really does annoy me when people get it wrong!  But I could have done without the weird form of transliteration for Yiddish words.  The author said herself, in the glossary, that she was used to the traditional spellings.  Yes, and so is everybody else, and no-one will know this weird “modern” form, so why use it?!

So, goodbye Kishinev, goodbye Odessa, and hello New York City’s Lower East Side.  Like most working-class immigrants, Chava and Rose and the rest of the family all too soon found that the streets weren’t paved with gold.  Well, they hadn’t been expecting that, but nor had they been expecting to end up working long hours for low pay in sweatshops. It’s a common theme in books, but this one was unusual in that the two girls – only in their mid-teens – soon became involved with the labour movement.

They also became lovers.  Was that possibly a bit of a cop-out by the author?  Because they were part of the same family unit, they were living under the same roof, and sharing a bedroom anyway, so the issues that might otherwise have arisen, about them sharing a home and how people might have reacted to that, never arose.  But the development of their relationship was very well-portrayed, whereas with Gutke and Dovid(a) it felt as if we missed most of it.

The political stuff was all a bit rushed.  I can’t believe that anyone, especially a 17-year-old girl, would organise a strike almost immediately after arriving in a new country and starting a job.  The timings were rather odd generally: without the references to historical events – the Russo-Turkish War, the assassination of Alexander II, etc – it would have been impossible to know how much time had passed, and it jumped from the 1880s to the 1900s very suddenly.

But the inclusion of the labour movement in a book about immigration was interesting.  Although so many first and second generation immigrants have been involved in the struggle for workers’ rights, and women’s rights, in the UK, the US and elsewhere, the subject’s often avoided, and it does seem to be because people are nervous about writing anything that suggests minority groups are linked with anything that can be seen as anti-Establishment.

Many of the people mentioned in the American part of the book were real historical figures.  Emma Goldman, a proponent of workers’ rights, women’s rights and gay rights, who was imprisoned as an anarchist.  She’s well-known to historians, but you don’t often find her or people like her in novels.  “Coming to America” (or Britain, or anywhere else) novels more often go for an angle of going from  … well, not necessarily rags to riches, but usually working-class to middle-class.  It doesn’t always happen like that, however hard people work.  Samuel Gompers, the founder of the American Federation of Labour, even better-known than Emma Goldman but also rarely found in fiction.  Lillian Wald, shown as a friend of Gutke and Dovid/a – who’d almost moved to New York –, the founder of American community nursing and an advocate for female suffrage and African-American rights.  Rose Schneiderman, a member of the New York Women’s Trade Union League, who drew attention to dangerous workplace conditions following the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire  of 1911, and helped to pass the New York state referendum of 1917 which gave women the right to vote.  I’m not sure that two teenage immigrants working long hours would have met quite as many leading activists as they did, but never mind!

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire.  It killed 146 people, mostly young women.  The doors were locked to stop workers from taking unauthorised breaks, so they couldn’t get out.  It did lead to legislation about workplace safety, but that wouldn’t have been much consolation to the families and friends of the dead.  And, in the book, one of the dead was Rose.  Most of those killed were recent immigrants, some from the Russian Empire, some from Italy.  They’d gone to America for a better life.  Many, like Rose, had gone there to escape the pogroms … and, as the book put it, and it’s hard to argue, they were effectively killed by American capitalism instead.

I suppose the book did end on an upbeat note, with Chava joining Rose Schneiderman on a tour of Ohio to try to gain support for women’s suffrage.  And Gutke and Dovid/a presumably got to live happily ever after, and their support of Chava was very moving, as was the support that Feygele received from the women she met in Kishinev.  But it was a sad end to the book.  After the recent Coronation Street storyline in which Rana died on her wedding day – for which it was very unfair to criticise the scriptwriters, given that the actress had chosen to leave! – there was a lot of talk about  how stories involving same sex romances tend to end in tragedy far more often than those involving opposite sex romances do.  But maybe this was never going to be a happy ever after book, because it was always about how tough life can be, for Jews in the Pale of Settlement in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and for immigrants in New York City in the early 20th century.

It was rather rushed, as I said, especially the part in America, with a lot of aspects of it not really being developed very well, but the subject matter was fascinating, and, whilst it’s well-known, often neglected in fiction.  This isn’t the best book ever, but it’s worth a go.

 

A few other reviews with particular LGBT interest, as WordPress.com is marking Pride month:

Pose

A Terrible Splendor

A Very English Scandal

Second Serve

The Favourite

Gentleman Jack

 

The Heretic’s Daughter by Kathleen Kent

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Martha Carrier was one of the nineteen people hanged during the Salem Witch Trials.  She was also (born Martha Ingalls Allen) the first cousin seven times removed of Laura Ingalls Wilder, which is apparently mentioned in Prairie Fires … which I might finally buy now that it’s down to £7.99 on Amazon.   And she was a direct ancestor of Kathleen Kent, the author of this book, who’s focused her writing on the effect of the trials on the families of the accused.  The Salem Witch Trials have been called the rock upon which theocracy in America was shattered (some people could possibly do with reminding about this).  But they also shattered the lives of the twenty people (one, an elderly man, was crushed to death for refusing to plead) who were killed, the many others who were also accused, and their families and friends.

The book’s told from the viewpoint of Martha’s daughter Sarah – who was also imprisoned, and forced to testify against her own mother – looking back as an adult on her childhood experiences. Sarah was actually only 7 at the time of the trials, but, for the purposes of the story, has been shown as being a few years older than that. Kathleen Kent hasn’t tried to eulogise her ancestors in any way: none of them actually come across as being particularly pleasant, and the book shows that Sarah only really came to appreciate her parents at the time of the trials, when she saw her mother’s great courage and her father’s love and loyalty; but I don’t think anyone could have been all sweetness and light in the harsh conditions of late 17th century Massachusetts (the family lived in Andover, near Salem). And the reader might not like the characters, but they’ll come to admire them – especially Martha, who refused to try to save herself by pleading guilty to witchcraft, but urged her children to say whatever would save their own lives.

It’s very hard to try to make sense of what happened. Witch hunts often happened when someone had fallen ill, or livestock had died, and crops had failed, and people were looking for someone to blame, and or an excuse to take revenge on someone they had a grudge against. But, in the Salem area, the accusations started after some young girls in the area started having fits. What caused that? Was it mass hysteria? It’s difficult to try to understand, but it does happen. The film “The Falling” is based on an episode of mass hysteria in Blackburn in 1965, and that’s just one example of many. It’s also been suggested that some sort of hallucinogenic fungus might have got into the food supply. No-one really knows.

And the book doesn’t really focus on that – it focuses more on the way in which bad feeling could spread in a small community, and the interaction between that and the mood of the religious or political authorities – pretty much the same thing, in Salem in 1692. The Carriers had never been popular, having been blamed for a smallpox epidemic which affected the area. They’d also fallen out with family members over an inheritance dispute, a neighbour in an argument over a trespassing cow, and a former servant whom they’d dismissed for misconduct. Being unpopular anyway, they were vulnerable to accusation at a time when hysteria was spreading through the area and allegations were flying about right, left and centre.

And how it all spiralled!  Over 200 people were accused.  Sarah and many other children were amongst those imprisoned.  The book chillingly and brilliantly describes what the conditions in the prisons must have been like – and shows how, even under those conditions, women like Martha tried desperately to preserve their dignity by keeping as clean as they could.  It also shows the struggles of the rest of the Carrier family – and there’s a strange sub-plot in which it turns out that Martha’s husband, Thomas Carrier, was the man who executed Charles I.  I don’t know whether that’s a legend in Kathleen Kent’s family or whether it’s something she came up with for the sake of the book.  Thomas and his children eventually got an apology and compensation for the execution of Martha.  Much good that would have done them.

The book does focus entirely on the times. Whereas The Crucible famously drew parallels between the Salem Witch Hunts and McCarthyism, Kathleen Kent has written a true historical novel, about historical events, with no attempt to make veiled comments about modern-day attitudes. I like that. History teaches us many lessons which are relevant to the present day – the dangers of religious extremism, especially given the issues with Christian fundamentalism in the US, are particularly relevant to our own times – but it’s incredibly annoying when people only use history to make a point about modern-day events. I don’t particularly like the word “weaponise” because it’s an artificial word, but there is a tendency for people to “weaponise” history, and Kathleen Kent’s avoided that. Oh, and she never mentions Laura Ingalls Wilder, despite the publicity it would have brought her, which is also admirable.  It’s not an enjoyable book as such, and it’s not something that you’ll want to read over and over again, but it’s a good one, and I’m glad that I’ve read it.

 

Jamestown season 3 – Sky 1

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Inviting someone round for tea and then chopping their head off at the table’s a bit anti-social, really, although displaying severed heads on spikes was a tradition for centuries: London and York were particularly into it. This is one of those so-bad-it’s-good series – it’s certainly never going to win any awards for historical accuracy, but it’s entertaining; and I love the fact that most of the settlers have northern accents 🙂 . It’s also the perfect antidote to the “culture wars”. No demi-religious myths about founding fathers, no cringeworthy romanticised stuff about Pocahontas, no snowflakey suggestions that all male white settlers are bad.  Instead, we get diversity, with strong white, black and Native American characters, strong male and female characters, and, in this series, a disabled character (with a Lancashire accent) but without anyone (other than the troubled gay Puritan bloke who sadly lost his head whilst he was having his tea) being preachy. There should be Polish builders, though! The real Jamestown colonists brought in Polish artisans … who then launched the first ever labour strike in the New World. And without anyone getting their head chopped off.

The programme’s moved away from the original storyline of the three young women making new lives for themselves – and Alice has now departed … so that Sophie Rundle can marry Suranne Jones in this new historical drama series set in Halifax. I wish the BBC’d get a move on with showing that: it’s started in the US, but not here, which is rather strange. She (Alice, not Sophie) decided to leave because her husband Silas has run off to join the Pamunkey. Verity hasn’t had much to do yet in this series, but Jocelyn, the other member of the original trio, continues to play all the blokes off against each other and get her own way – go Jocelyn!  Although she’s being very nasty to poor little Mercy the maid, who, as if being bossed about by Jocelyn wasn’t bad enough, got clouted with a scythe-thing by the nasty Puritan Virginia Company secretary (before he lost his head) for snogging Silas’s brother. That’s the little brother, who used to be Sean in Emmerdale. Not the big brother, who’s Max Beesley.

OK, the whole thing’s a bit daft, but it does cover the serious issues of the positions of slaves, and of female settlers, in Jamestown society, and this series is going to tell us more about the clashes between the settlers and the Pamunkey. And, as I’ve said, it’s good to have a series which covers the arrival of settlers in what was to become the United States without making it look like either some sort of religious destiny thing, some sort of romanticised thing, or some sort of white supremacist thing. We’ve just got a variety of characters – some white, some black, some Native American, some nicer than others but that’s because of their individual personalities and not because of their ethnicity – trying to make lives for themselves.

It’s hardly the most historically accurate series ever, but it deserves credit for that. And it is very watchable! Oh, and the scenery’s lovely – it’s actually filmed in Budapest, not Virginia, and, having just been to Budapest and been on a nice boat trip up and down the Danube, I’m having great fun spotting bits of Margaret Island and the shores!  This is the last series, so enjoy it whilst it lasts.  I’ll kind of miss it once it’s gone, but not many programmes seem to last beyond a few series any more …