The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead


   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.


The Floating Theatre by Martha Conway


  Last week was Autism Awareness/Acceptance Week, and this is an interesting and unusual historical novel with an autistic protagonist, working on a floating theatre – think Show Boat, but on the Ohio rather than the Mississippi, and in the 1830s rather than the 1880s.  The part of the Ohio which they’re on is effectively an extension of the Mason-Dixon line, with slaveholding Kentucky to the south and the free states of Ohio and Indiana to the north, and our girl May inadvertently becomes involved in helping slaves to escape.  So it’s a fascinating combination of themes – May’s “social awkwardness”, life on a showboat, and the Underground Railroad.  It’s just a shame that it’s so short, just under 350 pages long: I think there was the potential to develop the story much more than the book actually did.

May isn’t an actress or a singer: she makes costumes.  She’s always worked alongside her cousin, but, when roles begin to dry up, the cousin accepts a job giving speeches for a wealthy Abolitionist.  There’s no place for May, but the woman gives her some money – but then, when she gets a job on a showboat, demands that she repay her by smuggling slaves to freedom on the opposite bank.

So, really, it’s all a bit cynical.  Neither cousin becomes involved out of conviction.  Both oppose slavery, but, like a lot of us with a lot of things, they haven’t actually been doing anything active about it, because they’re too busy working and getting on with their daily lives.  The boyfriend of one of the actresses is a doctor who moonlights as a slave-catcher, not because he’s got any strong feelings about slavery but because it’s a good way of making a fast buck.  Most of the other people in the theatre company just want to keep their heads down: expressing any strong views on a controversial subject risks stopping people from coming to see them.

And that’s the way most things go, isn’t it?   People don’t get involved.  But May does, because she can’t pay this woman back any other way.  And, obviously, it’s very dangerous.  This is before the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, but May is still breaking the law under the terms of the 1793 Act, and putting herself in physical danger as well.  The horrors of slavery are really brought home to her when she meets a young girl who’s recently given birth after being raped by her master’s son, and is desperate to get both herself and her baby to a free state.

It’s really getting interesting at this point … but then the book’s cut short.  The showboat goes up in flames after a curtain catches fire, and one of the men on it, Leo, himself the son of an escaped slave, is tragically killed.  May and the leader of the company, after several earlier hints of romance, get together, and plan to get a new boat and continue helping slaves to escape – this time, out of genuine conviction, rather than to pay off a debt.  So, apart from the death of poor Leo, it’s a positive ending, but I wish that the book had been longer.

May is “high functioning autistic”, for lack of a better expression, and I’ve an idea that she’s based on the author’s sister.  The book isn’t about autism: the protagonist just happens to be autistic, although obviously autism had not been recognised in the 1830s so the term “autism” is not used.  She worked brilliantly as a character.  The portrayal of life on the showboat worked well too.  May and her cousin getting involved in antislavery activities purely for financial reasons wasn’t really what I’d expected, but it wasn’t unconvincing.  This isn’t the best book I’ve ever read, but it’s worth a go because of the combination of three interesting themes.


Golden Poppies by Laila Ibrahim


.  This is the sequel to Yellow Crocus and Mustard Seed, the story of the intertwined lives of the family of a former slave and the family of her former owner’s daughter.  The author’s style of writing and general use of English are far better in this book that in those, but the Gilded Age just isn’t as interesting (to me) as the immediate antebellum period, the Civil War and Reconstruction, and I could also have done without the very long descriptions of railway carriages and characters’ new bathrooms.

Having said which, this third book, set partly in California and partly in Illinois, does cover some important subjects, notably the Pullman workers’ strike of 1894, the campaign for women’s suffrage in the US and Susan B Anthony’s decision to sideline African-American women, the issue of light-skinned mixed race men “passing” as white – quite understandably so, as it enabled them to earn far higher wages for far shorter hours – and the campaign for the abolition of the miscegenation laws.

Quite a lot of it centres on Unitarian churches.  I’m not sure how many Greek-American women would have attended Unitarian churches, as happens here, but I suppose some may have done.  The general theme is that California is thought to be more liberal in terms of equal rights for black and white people, and to some extent for women and men, but that, in fact, that isn’t always the case.  There’s also a detailed sub-plot involving Lisbeth (the daughter of the former slaveowner)’s daughter and her abusive husband.

It’s not the greatest book ever written, but it does cover some interesting subjects – civil rights for African Americans, rights for women, rights for workers in general –  and, as it’s available quite cheaply for Kindle readers, is worth a read.

Nadiya’s American Adventure – BBC 1


This is historical and cultural, OK: it’s not just an excuse for me to talk about food!   I have to admit that the first thing I did, on arrival in New Orleans in 2014, was go to the Cafe du Monde for a beignet.  I did go and look at the historical sights, and have a ride on a Mississippi steamboat, after that; but, when it comes to New Orleans, it’s food first!  Nadiya Hussain looked as if she was having a wonderful time, making and eating food from different New Orleans traditions.  And what a refreshing change to see a BBC documentary in which everyone was just being nice to each other.  No-one was pushing an agenda, making nasty remarks, or making accusations against anyone.  Everyone was pleasant, cheerful, enthusiastic and positive.  What a lovely, lovely hour’s TV!  When we can travel again, could Nadiya be given her own series, please?  Let’s all be nice to each other and eat cake.

Sadly, there weren’t any beignets in this programme.  I was rather put out about that!   But we did start with Mardi Gras … I’m assuming that this was Mardi Gras 2019.  And King Cake – this is what we would know better as Twelfth Night cake (always reminds me of the disastrous picnic in Katherine L Oldmeadow’s Princess Prunella!), complete with a small figurine hidden inside, brought to New Orleans by French and Spanish settlers and now associated with Carnival rather than Christmas.  In New Orleans, they get through the most enormous amounts of it, and we saw it all being made by hand.  And we heard the bakers talking about what an amazing time of year Mardi Gras is, everyone feeling the love and sharing the love.  I can’t see it happening in 2021, but fingers crossed for 2022.

Also in the French quarter, we got to see, and Nadiya got to make, the famous po’boy sandwiches.  No-one’s 100% sure how they originated!  But they’re very nice.  And usually very big!

But, as we were reminded, New Orleans isn’t all about the French Quarter, and we then saw Nadiya visiting an African-American neighbourhood which was devastated by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.  There, she met a family trying to revive their local community with a restaurant serving soul food, the traditional African-American cuisine of New Orleans … although the actual term “soul food” only dates back as far as the 1960s.

And then it was out of the city and into the bayous, on a boat with a couple and their young daughter.  Or should that be “bayoux”?  There, she met five generations of a Cajun family, and was treated to gumbo and jambalaya, and a discussion about Cajun history.  Now, certain BBC presenters – Simon Reeve’s travel programmes are now virtually unwatchable – would have done the whole “Evangeline” thing, used it as an excuse to make abusive remarks about Britain, then made abusive remarks about America, and then probably said that Nadiya was guilty of “cultural appropriation” for trying on a Vietnamese hat later on in the programme!  Not in this.  Everyone, Nadiya herself and all the people she met, was friendly and welcoming and genuinely interested in what each other had to say.  This is the sort of programme we need!  More of this, please!

Next up came a children’s jazz band, and rocky road for the kids!  And then, finally, we were treated to members of the New Orleans Vietnamese community combining Creole crawfish dishes with traditional Vietnamese food to create something new – a melting pot, in fact.  And, yes, Nadiya tried on a Vietnamese hat.  And, no, no-one found that in the slightest bit offensive.  They were interested in her, and she was interested in them.

This was just wonderful.  Bravo, Nadiya, and bravo, all the people of New Orleans who made her so welcome!

The Good Lord Bird – Sky Atlantic


It’s quite strange seeing Ethan Hawke, who, as a teenager in Dead Poets Society, was a celeb crush for some of my schoolfriends over 30 years ago, playing a crazed (but probably rather accurate) version of John Brown!   There are loads of antebellum books/films/TV series featuring elegantly-dressed men and hooped-skirted ladies sweeping down the staircases of plantation houses, or black-suited men and black-bombazine-clad ladies attending abolitionist meetings in Boston or Philadelphia, but this is the first one I’ve seen which has actually been set in Bleeding Kansas.  And Bleeding Kansas was where the action was, in the 1850s.  Then came the raid on Harpers Ferry.

I’ve been to Harpers Ferry.  It rained.

It’s all seen through the eyes of a former slave boy called Henry, who’s dressed up as a girl because Brown misheard his name as Henrietta, and is nicknamed Onion because he mistakenly ate an onion which Brown thought was a good luck charm.  And there’s also a prostitute called Pie.  Er, right.  James Caleb Johnson, the young lad playing Onion, steals the show even from Ethan Hawke’s amazing performance as John Brown.

This certainly isn’t reverential.  Frederick Douglass is shown as having a blatant extra-marital affair – which, by all accounts, he did (and probably more than one), but which no-one ever mentions because he’s seen as such a hero.  Brown himself is shown as being rather crazy, with one of his sons exasperatedly telling him to cut short his over-long prayers and preaching because the Good Lord has probably got sick of listening to them and has other things to do.

The whole thing is rather bonkers.  And it’s got a very catchy theme tune which is completely inappropriate to the seriousness of the subject matter.  But it’s fascinating.  Bleeding Kansas, which in many ways was the dress rehearsal for the Civil War, does tend to be very overlooked.  And John Brown’s become such a legendary figure – we all know the song! – that people forget that he wasn’t some sort of saint.  If he were around today, he’d probably be described as an extremist.  He was responsible for a number of murders.  But his point was that those Abolitionist meetings in Boston and Philadelphia and wherever else weren’t achieving anything: slavery had been abolished in many other countries but there was no sign of that happening in the United States.

And thus you get into all those debates about what it is and isn’t acceptable to do for what you believe is right.  It’s an intriguing story.  I wasn’t sure that I was going to enjoy this, just because it is all slightly bonkers, but I really am doing.

Twist of the Thread by Christine Evans


This is the sequel to Song of the Shuttle.  Much like that, it’s well-researched and quite entertaining, but a little far-fetched!  I’m not sure how realistic it is that a housemaid from a Lancashire mill town would persuade a former Confederate soldier to marry her, and then take over the running of his ruined plantation, insist on paying all the former slaves a fair wage, and become close friends with all the former slaves, giving everyone else in their district of Louisiana a salutary lesson in race relations and equality, during Reconstruction.  Nice idea, though!  The fictional town of Gorbydale doesn’t match up exactly to anywhere, but it’s probably closer to Rochdale than anywhere else, and Rochdale was particularly well-known for its anti-slavery stance.

Meanwhile, the dodgy husband tried to murder his wife’s ex-employer’s cousin, accidentally murdered her friend instead, spent a lot of time gambling on Mississippi riverboats, faked his own death, and then turned up in Liverpool.  As you do.  As I said, it wasn’t particularly realistic, but, apart from a quibble over the demography of Cheetham Hill, and possibly some confusion over the date of the opening of Strangeways (I’m not quite sure what year it was meant to be in the book by then), the actual history was fairly accurate.  And it was a good read.  I need distracting, at the moment.  I’m sure we all do.

This was meant to be a series, but, sadly, the author died suddenly.  She’d written the third book before her death, but obviously there won’t be any more.  There wasn’t as much history in this book as in the first one – that, despite the rather bonkers storyline, appealed to me because it was about the Cotton Famine, my dissertation topic, and the American Civil War, one of my great and long-term historical loves, but this one was more about the personal lives of the characters.  As well as the story of Dolly, the housemaid, we heard about Jessie, the main character in the first book, and how she coped with having a disabled child, and also about Jessie’s friend Honora (whom Dolly’s husband tried to murder!) and her medical studies in America.  It was all quite interesting, but a bit more about Gorbydale’s recovery from the Cotton Famine would have been nice.

During the Famine, of course, there was state assistance via the Public Works Acts, but there was also a huge privately-organised relief effort, with money being raised from all over the world, and local committees distributing it, and organising, for example, sewing schools, which feature in this book.  With Andy Burnham launching the OneGM fund today, and Marcus Rashford doing so much to raise money to provide meals for disadvantaged children, I’ve been thinking a lot about this.  And my house is built on the site of what was a Cotton Famine Public Works programme.  Anyway, that’s beside the point.  This isn’t the greatest book ever, but, as a 99p Kindle download, it was well worth reading!




I missed this film, about Harriet Tubman, who escaped slavery and helped many others to do the same, at the pictures.  It’s really not like me to miss a film about 19th century American history; but it wasn’t on for long, and not all cinemas showed it.  So thank you to Sky for showing it, as part of Black History Month.  All the local cinemas would, however, definitely have shown the new James Bond film next month, had its release gone ahead; and I would definitely have gone to see it, as would many other people.  I’d also have gone to see The Secret Garden, but that’s now gone straight to Sky without even being shown at cinemas.   And now it looks as if Cineworld are going to mothball all their cinemas, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see Vue and Odeon follow suit.  It’s very sad.  The film distributors aren’t giving them a chance.

Anyway, back to the point.  This unfortunately isn’t very historically accurate, but it does get across the message of how brutal slave owners could be, the tragedy of families torn apart, and the bravery of those involved in the Underground Railroad – and just how much work and organisation went into it, at a time when communication systems were obviously nothing like they are now, and many of those involved hadn’t even had the chance to learn to read and write.

It’s quite an old-fashioned film, with an ’80s/’90s feel to it – glorious music, sweeping panoramas, elegant costumes for the slave owners and the free black characters, and a dramatic chase through the forest.  I know there was a bit of moaning that the lead role went to a British actress rather than an American actress, but Cynthia Erivo really does a superb job.  It must have been particularly difficult to portray Harriet’s belief that she was having religious visions – thought to have been linked to a severe head injury inflicted on her when she was young – but she does it very convincingly.

I’m surprised that this didn’t do better at the box office, but – very sadly for me! – American historical dramas just don’t seem to sell well these days.  I was sorry to see Mercy Street pulled after two series.   Oh well, I enjoyed it!  And it tells an important story.

Harriet Tubman was born Araminta “Minty” Ross, into slavery in Maryland, and married John Tubman, a freedman.  Dramas about slavery do tend to focus on the Deep South, where marriages between slaves and free people were very unusual, but they did happen in the Upper South.  And, with Maryland bordering the free state of Pennsylvania, it was easier (in relative terms) there for slaves to escape; and we see Minty escaping, being assisted by members of the Underground Railroad, and adopting her mother’s name, Harriet – the change of name, to reflect her new status, is a powerful moment.

We then see her returning to try to bring her husband and sister to slavery, only to find that her husband, thinking she was dead, had remarried, and her sister wouldn’t leave her children, but then leading many others to freedom, returning time and again to come so and becoming known as “Moses”.  She did indeed lead many people to freedom, thought to be around 70 people in 13 trips  – and she was actually even braver than the film suggests, because this was mostly after the passing of the Fugitive Slave Act meant that escaped slaves, if recaptured, would be returned to slavery, whereas the film suggests that many of her missions were earlier.

The film over-dramatises it, giving Harriet a glamorous friend who runs a boarding house where she stays, and giving Harriet’s former owners, the Brodesses, a handsome son who seems to be rather obsessed with her.  It also shows the Brodesses’ neighbours all turning up at their plantation to confront them when they realise who “Moses” is, and Harriet tying up three of the Brodesses inside their plantation house as she helps some of their slaves to escape, and culminates in a dramatic chase through a forest and a showdown in which Harriet gets the better of the handsome son and prophesies the coming of the war and his death in it.   It’s a shame that it’s not historically accurate, because the showdown really is a great scene and Cynthia Erivo plays it so well, as she does another scene in which she reminds members of the Underground Railroad who were born free just how evil slavery is, and how they can’t possibly understand it in the way that she can.

It then shows Harriet fleeing to Canada, and briefly reminds that she led the Combahee River Raid during the war, in which she actually led a military expedition which rescued over 750 former slaves, but that’s all done briefly so as not to detract from the big showdown scene preceding it.

Not too many marks for historical accuracy, but the general storyline’s there – the horrors of slavery, and this brave and rather mystical woman who escapes from it and helps many others to do the same.  It’s not at all preachy or aggressive: it gets the message across through the excellent performance of Cynthia Erivo and the big dramatic, if not accurate, key scenes.  Certainly well worth watching.


On the Basis of Sex


I’ve finally got round to watching this, following the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg.  It only covered a small part of her life and work – I’m waiting for the “RBG” biopic to become available on Amazon Prime for no extra charge – but what an inspiring story.  I hadn’t realised that, whilst she was at law school, her husband was being treated for cancer, she was attending his classes as well as her own, and they had a young child.   A lot of people would have struggled even to make it through, but she finished joint top of her class.  And, despite that, struggled to find a job at a law firm because people didn’t want to employ a woman, especially one with a child – but went on to argue successfully a number of gender discrimination cases, including the “Moritz v Commissioner” tax law case on which much of this film focuses.

She became only the second woman to serve on the Supreme Court, the first Supreme Court justice to officiate at a same sex marriage ceremony, and the first woman to lie in state at the Capitol … and I’m struggling to think of any other lawyer who became such an icon, even a cult figure.  It’s an incredible story.

It’s also a wonderful American Dream story.  The film didn’t go into her background, but this woman who achieved so much was the daughter of a garment factory worker whose parents couldn’t afford to send her to college and an immigrant who came to America to escape discrimination against Jews in Odessa.  It would be nice if people would remember that America offers those opportunities, and also that Ruth Bader Ginsburg was someone who tried to build consensus and work with, not against, those with different views, and certainly wasn’t aggressive or abusive towards people with whom she disagreed.

The film showed some of her time at law school, and then her work on the “Moritz v Commissioner” case, and bits about her family life, so it didn’t really do her justice because it wasn’t intended to: it wasn’t a full biopic.  But it was very entertaining and very interesting, with strong performances from all the main cast members.  Oh, and it was also quite romantic, with Felicity Jones as Ruth and Armie Hammer as her husband Marty working really well together.   It wasn’t the greatest film ever, but I’m certainly glad that I watched it.


Libertarians on the Prairie: Laura Ingalls Wilder … by Christine Woodside


Manchester Histories recently held a “DigiFest” to mark the 50th anniversary of the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act.  I thought that the anniversary would attract a lot of attention nationwide, given what an important landmark it was in terms of disability rights; but it seems to have been pretty much forgotten, which is rather a shame.  I’m mentioning it here because I think that Mary Ingalls was the first book character (not “fictional character”, as, obviously, she was a real person) with a disability whom I came across who was realistically portrayed.  She didn’t make a miraculous recovery, like Clara Sesemann in Heidi, and she didn’t just suddenly die for no apparent reason, like Rosamund Sefton in Mary-Lou of the Chalet School.  She got on with her life as best she could, a much-loved member of a family and a community.  At the same time, the loss of her sight meant significant and difficult changes for her, her parents and her sisters.

In the books, Laura takes a teaching job at the age of 15, and the entire family scrimp and save, so that they can send Mary to college.  In reality, Mary’s education was state-funded.  It’s that sort of thing which people who write academic works about Laura (I’m so glad that this book – “Libertarians on the Prairie: Laura Ingalls Wilder, Rose Wilder Lane, and the Making of the Little House Books”, to give it its full name!  – refers to “Laura”, not to “Wilder”, because surely everyone thinks of her as “Laura”) pick up on when arguing that the books express libertarian ideas and ideals.  It’s fascinating how much theorising about the Little House books goes on, and how they’ve become caught up in debates about the frontier theory and ideas of American history, about what America stands for, in culture wars, and even in politics.  To some extent, this happens with all well-known books – people apparently use Anne Blythe, nee Shirley,’s comments about how she doesn’t write any more now that she’s got kids as an argument against women’s lib –  but there aren’t too many parallels for the way that people go on about Ronald Reagan apparently being a fan of Laura’s books, or worry about what Laura would have thought of Donald Trump.

For all the talk about political messages, the early books, in particular, are aimed at very young children.  I read the whole series when I was about 7, and, if there were political messages in them, I didn’t get them, any more than I got the religious messages in The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe or even the much less subtle ones in Little Women.  I was genuinely impressed by the much-discussed epiphany scene in Little Town of the Prairie, but only because I took it to mean that all American schoolkids knew the entire Declaration of Independence off by heart.  But, yes, reading the books now, I can see what the academics who make these arguments are getting at.

I don’t think that this book made a particularly strong argument for Laura’s books as an expression of libertarianism, though, certainly not to the extent that Prairie Fires  did.  It wasn’t that the arguments were weak, just that libertarianism wasn’t actually mentioned that much.  Most of it was about the relationship between Laura and her daughter Rose, and the argument over whether or not Rose edited, even co-wrote, and was pretty much responsible for the final versions of the books.  As far as Christine Woodside’s concerned, there’s no argument – Rose played a far bigger part in the writing of the books than has ever been acknowledged.

Would it matter so much if she had?  Well, according to Christine Woodside, yes, it would, because we, the readers, don’t want to accept that the books are not the Word of Laura.  Or, indeed, that they’re not the True Word of Laura: I must confess to being quite upset when I had to accept that the life of the Ingalls family wasn’t exactly as it’s set out in the books!  As Christine Woodside points out, there’d be quite a to-do today if someone wrote a series of books which they claimed were autobiographical, and then it turned out that they’d changed a load of things and left a load of things out.  But times were different then.  Today, we’d just say that the books were “based on” the lives of the Ingalls family.  Which they were.

I personally don’t accept the theory that Rose did most of the work on the books.  I accept that she did some work on them, but I still think that they’re mostly Laura.  Let The Hurricane Roar, which Rose did write,  isn’t a patch on the Little House books.  Christine Woodside obviously thinks differently, and that’s fair enough, but I wish that she’d presented a more balanced view, and not gone 100% for the Rose theory.

I’d also have liked more about Laura and less about Rose, something which I find with all academic works about the Little House books.  The book also covers what happened after Rose’s death, i.e. the rather sad tale about how the copyright ended up in the hands of Roger MacBride, which wasn’t at all what Laura had wanted, but the positive, or negative, depending on how you look at it, story of how he got the TV series going and turned the books into a big franchise.  I do not like that word.  It does my head in when I hear American football teams referred to as “franchises”.  Did the TV series help to keep the popularity of the books going?  I don’t know.  For some reason, I never watched it.   It’s all about the books for me.

There are quite a few books about Laura Ingalls Wilder and Rose Wilder Lane.  If you’ve read one of them, this one won’t tell you anything that you don’t already know.  If you want to read more about the libertarian theories, Caroline Fraser’s “Prairie Fires” is better.  But this isn’t bad, and I’m always glad to read another book about Laura.  She was a big part of my childhood, and one of the reasons I’ve always loved American history.  And nothing is ever going to change that!


The Plot Against America – Sky Atlantic


The scheduling of this chillingly well-written and well-acted “alternative history” series has sadly turned out to be very timely, coinciding with the deeply unpleasant and distressing Wiley affair.  It’s reassuring that the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary, together with a number of other public figures, have been quick to speak out against Wiley; but the alternative universe depicted here, in which Charles Lindbergh defeats FDR and leads an extremist government in America, is frighteningly convincing – there’s nothing in it that makes you think, nah, this is just a story, it couldn’t really happen.

What *is* happening?  The OSCE’s comments on the Polish president’s recent election campaign were that “the incumbent’s campaign and coverage by the public broadcaster were marked by homophobic, xenophobic and anti-Semitic rhetoric”.   The welcome news of an unreserved apology and damages over the Panorama programme about anti-Semitism in the Labour Party has worryingly been criticised in some quarters.  Without wanting to make generalisations, the feeling in this programme that some police forces in the US were failing to protect certain communities sounds more than a little familiar.  And how often do we hear governments say that they’ve “got” to do business with some very questionable regime, as this version of Lindbergh says when he pals up with Nazi Germany?   We’re a long way from this nightmare alternative history, thankfully, but there’s certainly some worrying stuff going on out there, and this series certainly struck a few chords.

I haven’t read the book, written by Philip Roth and published in 2004, but gather that the TV series, showing events through the eyes of a Jewish family in New Jersey, is based closely on it.  It’s so scarily plausible, and the writing and the acting are so good.  The kids are particularly good: it can’t be easy for children to act out such unpleasant scenarios.  I’m not normally a fan of “alternative history” series, but this one’s well worth watching.

The idea is that Charles Lindbergh stands against FDR, on an America First message tied in with a message about staying out of the Second World War, and is duly elected president.  And you can see exactly how that would have worked.  Imagine the reaction now if it were announced that American or British or Australian or French troops were being sent to East Turkestan, or Rakhine province, or Yemen, or Syria.  Yes, there are atrocities being carried out there, but no-one would want to see boots on the ground and Our Boys and Girls being killed there.  OK, that’s not quite the same as the Nazis taking over most of Europe, but still.  And this was very soon after the Great War, when so many lives were lost.  A lot of people here backed appeasement in 1938.  You can see how the anti-war message in America would have worked.  Especially with a national hero like Lindbergh putting it across.

And, from there, Lindbergh says that America has to work with Nazi Germany. You know, a bit like we have to work with Saudi Arabia.  OK, obviously I am not comparing Saudi Arabia to Nazi Germany, but it’s that same idea of “we’ve got to work” with a morally very questionable regime.

I’m not convinced that using real people in prominent roles in alternative historical universes is acceptable, I have to say.  OK, I don’t suppose anyone’d mind that much if someone wrote about an alternative universe in which King Harold won the Battle of Hastings or Henry VIII stayed married to Catherine of Aragon, but four of Charles Lindbergh’s children are still living, and I don’t suppose they’re very happy about their father being portrayed like this.  Both Charles and Anne Lindbergh are known to have had Nazi sympathies, but I don’t know if this is a step too far.  It does make it seem all the more realistic, though.

And anti-Semitic incidents rise.  We see it all through the eyes of the Levin family – mother, father, two sons, and a nephew who goes to Canada to enlist in the Canadian Army.  The family’s been written so as to encompass a range of views, which again all comes across as being very realistic.  Bess Levin wants to keep her head down and her family safe, and feels that the best option would be to leave for Canada, and let someone else put their head above the parapet.  Herman Levin, however, wants to make a stand: he insists that he’s not submitting to the anti-Semitic policies of the new government, and that he’s not being driven out of his own country.  Both characters are so convincing, and so easy to sympathise with – you can see where each of them is coming from. Philip, the sweet little younger son, just wants things to stay the way they are; but Sandy, the older son, is swept along with the views of creepy Rabbi Bengelsdorf.

Rabbi Bengelsdorf is in some ways the most interesting character  – the Jewish community leader who’s closely allied with Lindbergh, and keeps insisting that Lindbergh isn’t anti-Semitic, even though everyone else can see exactly what Lindbergh is.  Rather like certain factions of the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn.   Bess’s sister Evelyn becomes involved with, and eventually marries, him, and they end up attending a state dinner and ball for Joachim von Ribbentrop, where she actually dances with him.  I could live without the faint suggestion that she’s so desperate to get a man that she’s going along with anything Bengelsdorf says, but maybe that’s not how it’s meant to come across.

I was originally assuming that Bengelsdorf was only interested in power and influence, and was saying whatever he thought the president wanted to hear, but it’s actually more complex than that.  He does a lot of talking about the need to assimilate and how Jews shouldn’t all be living in closed communities – and the way he says it makes a lot of sense.  And it’s exactly what was said in 19th and early 20th century Budapest and Vienna.  I wish that that comparison’d been made, but I think it was a case of American writers only looking at America.  Instead, a big deal was made of the fact that Bengelsdorf was from South Carolina and his ancestors fought for the Confederacy.  I really could have done without that.  Can we all get past this making a big deal of the fact that there were prominent Jews in the antebellum South, please?  See Song of Slaves in the Desert .

Bengelsdorf leads a programme called “Just Folks,” as part of the “Office of American Absorption”, which temporarily places Jewish boys into rural families to make them “more American”.  This does, on the face of it, sound a little more far-fetched, but the story’s told so well that it seems to follow on naturally from everything else.  And then, the next step, Jewish families are being relocated to “America’s heartland”.  The Levins are told that they’ve got to move to Kentucky: Herman’s boss is given little choice by the government but to say that he’s being transferred there.  It’s all made to sound so attractive – away from the pollution and the crowds of the big city, property’s so much cheaper … .  They can get out of it if Herman quits his job, but the authorities’ll make sure that he never gets another one.

Radio host Walter Winchell, another real person, tries to whip up support against Lindbergh, and announces his intention to run for the presidency.  There are violent clashes at rallies.  Winchell is assassinated.  Then Lindbergh’s plane goes missing – has there been an accident or has he been assassinated as well?   We know that the British and Canadian secret services, with whom Alvin’s working, may well have been involved.  [We hope they are.  The British and the Canadians are the good guys in all this.]  Riots break out.  We’ve seen how easily that can happen. They turn into pogroms.  [This happened in South Wales, of all places, in 1911.]   Philip’s friend’s mother is murdered by the Ku Klux Klan.  Conspiracy theories abound.  Bengelsdorf is arrested.  An emergency presidential election is called, with FDR standing, but some of his supporters are stopped from voting, and we see the contents of ballot boxes being emptied on to fires.

And there it ends – which I assume the book didn’t.  Are we going to get a second series?

Just a couple of other things.  I did wonder why Lindbergh didn’t seem to have turned on any other group of people – African Americans or Native Americans, maybe – but I assume that Philip Roth wanted to focus on the Jewish community, and the fact that we saw it all through the eyes of one family did work very well.  And I also wondered how it worked for viewers not familiar with Jewish culture and religious practices.  Herman said that you probably couldn’t even get a minyan in Kentucky.  The Italian American guy moving into the Levins’ house took the mezuzah off the door and handed it to Philip.  None of this was explained – would all viewers have “got” it?    I’m never sure how much explanation should be given – it would make the dialogue unrealistic if characters explained something that they wouldn’t need to explain.  It’s a lot easier in a book, where you can put a footnote.

By the end, there were scenes of riots, shops burning, people lying shot dead in the street, cars burnt out where the Ku Klux Klan set them on fire with their drivers inside.  I can’t even say that you think this couldn’t happen, because …. can anyone actually say that they genuinely cannot imagine this sort of thing happening?  That’s why it was so good.  We didn’t see Nazis in jackboots marching along Pennsylvania Avenue: it wasn’t externalised.  Things like this happen from within.  There was nothing in this which you could not imagine happening.

I don’t usually watch alternative historical universe things – give me proper history – but this had such good reviews that I thought I’d give it a go.  I think I’m glad I did.  It was so good that it was horrific.  And so relevant that it was even more horrific.  No-one wants to be paranoid.  But nor should anyone be complacent.