Fates and Traitors by Jennifer Chiaverini


If the President of the United States leaves office mid-term, for whatever reason, the Vice President automatically takes over.  They may well turn out to be considerably worse.  Obviously 😉 I’m referring to the events of April 1865: this book is sub-titled “A novel of John Wilkes Booth”.

The style of writing leaves something to be desired.  It sometimes comes close to that sickly over-sentimental style that’s much more often found in American books that British books, and someone really ought to tell the editor that the plural of “beau” is “beaux”, not “beaus” (have they never read Gone With The Wind?!  Surely everyone’s read it at least a dozen times 😉 !!), but the actual story is fascinating.

Unless you go right back to Roman times, assassins are usually people not known to anyone outside their own circles, but John Wilkes Booth was quite a celebrity.  His name would have been well-known to anyone in Washington society, and to many other people too, certainly those with access to the world of theatre.  He was a bit of a pin-up, as dashing, good-looking actors always are.  And he was from arguably the greatest American theatrical dynasty of the day.  His father was a famous actor, first in Britain and then in America, his brother Junius was also an actor, and his brother Edwin – whom I first came across just over thirty years ago, as a minor character in John Jakes’s wonderful Heaven and Hell – is often described as the best American actor of the nineteenth century. Furthermore, he was involved with, and possibly secretly engaged to, Lucy Lambert Hale, who was one of Washington’s most popular belles, the daughter of a leading Republican, and had admirers (beaux, with an x!) including Robert Lincoln, the son of the president.

So not your usual sort of modern assassin.  Well, insofar is there is one.  The book concentrates mainly on various women connected with him – his mother, his sister Asia, his sweetheart Lucy, and Mary Surratt, at whose boarding house the conspirators met and who became the first women executed by the federal government.  It starts with his parents’ story, which reads like a Hollywood film script on its own.  His father, a famous London-based actor, left his wife and child and ran off to America with his mistress.   They had several children, of whom John Wilkes was one, and then it all came out that they weren’t really married and that his father had left a wife back in England!   Eventually, Booth senior and his first wife were divorced, and Booth’s parents married, but it was all a right scandal.  And there was also considerable sibling rivalry between the brothers, Edwin being by far the best actor.

From there, though, very little is said about John Wilkes Booth’s life until he got involved with Lucy Hale, and then it’s all from her viewpoint.  There’s no real effort to explain why he decided to take such a drastic step.  The original plan was actually to kidnap Lincoln and exchange him for Confederate prisoners, which would have been pretty drastic in itself, but, with the war all but over, it was decided to assassinate him instead.  The book makes references to his love of the South, but they’re all rather vague and superficial, and not at all satisfactory.  He wasn’t exactly the most obvious of assassins.  It would be far easier to understand Lincoln being assassinated by someone from the Deep South, the fire-eating South, imbued with genuine notions of the Glorious Cause, probably someone who’d lost relatives and friends, and maybe their home and money as well.  Or someone from a poor area of the upcountry, who felt that they had nothing to lose.

Why John Wilkes Booth?  He didn’t even live in the Confederacy.  He’d spent some time in Virginia, but his home was Maryland, one of the four (five, once West Virginia was admitted to the Union),Southern states within the Union.  The whole issue of the Upper South is interesting.  Virginia, Arkansas and Tennessee, and North Carolina can probably be counted as the Upper South too, seceded.  Maryland, Delaware, Kentucky and Missouri didn’t.  A lot of divided loyalties.  When you think of the Southern outlaws in the immediate post-bellum years, you think first of Frank and Jesse James – from Missouri.  Mary Surratt was from Maryland.  Washington itself was – and still is – a Southern city.  Richmond and Washington are only about 100 miles apart  It really is ridiculous that the two capitals were so close together, and both so close to the border.  I suppose they weren’t going to move the federal capital, but why not leave the Confederate capital at Montgomery, where it was before the Upper South seceded?  Very odd decision.

Anyway!  Nothing really to try to explain why Booth did what he did.  And so much else about him was missing.  Mary Surratt’s deep Catholic faith was clearly shown, but there was nothing about Booth’s own possible Catholic links.  Some people at the time tried to make out that it was some sort of Papist plot.  OK, obviously that was a load of nonsense, but the fact that people were speaking in terms which belong more to the 1680s to the 1860s says a lot about attitudes at the time – think the horrendous Elsie books! – and you’d think it would have merited a mention.  Even more strangely, nothing’s said about the other women he was supposedly involved with.  We see Lucy, after the assassination, reading in the papers that he had a mistress, and carried photos of various actresses around with him, but that’s the first we hear of it.  Lucy ends up feeling that she didn’t really know him at all.  The reader unfortunately ends up feeling exactly the same.

Having said all of that, it’s worth reading this just to get a better understanding of John Wilkes Booth’s background, because it’s so crazy that this matinee idol type, member of a leading theatrical dynasty, was the one to carry out this act that, in addition to being utterly horrific because all murder is horrific, had such a huge impact on the future of America.  We’ll never know if Reconstruction would have gone any better under Lincoln than it did under Johnson – and the idea was to assassinate Johnson as well, but it didn’t happen – and Grant, but it’s hard to think that it could have gone much worse.    Booth shouted “Sic simper tyrannis!  The South is avenged!”.  Surely the South would have fared much better if Lincoln had lived.  Some sort of economic rebuilding would have been key: there are parts of the South which still haven’t recovered economically from the war, after over 150 years.  But we’ll never know now.

And, yes, if you remove a president, you get the vice president instead.  Worrying thought, that, isn’t it?


How the world made America – History Channel


This two-part series about immigration into (what became) the United States focused on major waves of immigration, which sometimes made it seem a bit stereotypical and generalistic, but there’s no way that they could have made a coherent programme otherwise and it really was very interesting. They did it in a docu-drama way, and focused on individuals as representatives of each group, showing interviews with descendants of each individual, which I thought was rather nice, and also mentioned well-known historical figures whose ancestors came over in that particular wave of immigration.  Some of the groups they mentioned were very much minority groups, and others – Huguenots and Greeks, for example – weren’t mentioned at all, but, OK, you can only fit so much into two episodes.

They started off with Dutch immigrants, mainly young men after beaver fur, and how they founded New Amsterdam, which, as we all know, is now New York. Then on to the English.  They focused on Philadelphia Quakers, who can only have formed a very small proportion of all the English immigrants into the colonies in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, but it was rather nice to hear about how their belief in freedom and equality influenced America, rather than all the usual stuff about Puritans in New England!   They also made the point that ships had improved by this time, despite the horrendous conditions on board, and that the English, unlike the Dutch, tended to come over in family groups.

Then on to Texas – part of Spanish-ruled Mexico at this point, but the programme talked about how it was the Spanish who brought cattle to what’s now the United States, and (this did seem a bit contrived!) claimed that this played a big part in the colonies winning their independence. The next part, after covering how citizenship was restricted as early as 1790, claimed that people of French descent living in New Orleans and other areas included within the Louisiana Purchase were responsible for developments in medicine, which seemed even more contrived!   I know they were trying to make out that each group made some sort of major contribution to American culture, but I’m not sure that you necessarily associate New Orleans with medicine.  Oh well!

Then over to internal migration, with the sad story of Native Americans being forced west. At this stage, they also talked about slavery and the large number of people brought to America from Africa as slaves.  I’m not sure why they didn’t mention that earlier, because the 18th century rather than the early 19th century would seem a more appropriate time to focus on the slave trade, but the chronology got a bit muddled generally at this point.  They went on to the Civil War before mentioning all the people who moved to America as a result of the “Hungry Forties” and the 1848 revolutions, which annoyed me because I thought they were missing the 1848 stuff out, but then they went back to it afterwards!

Anyway, back to the 1840s (the aspects of it mentioned in the right order), and the development of steamships. And then one of the best-known waves of immigration to the US – from Ireland, as a result of the Potato Famine, with a lot of talk about the contribution of Irish immigrants to railroad building.  And the effect of the California Gold Rush in encouraging people to Go West.

The reason that they mentioned the Civil War before mentioning immigration from the German states, in particular, from the 1840s, was so that they could go on about immigrants joining the Union Army, and show someone going on about how immigrants loved the United States and made the ultimate sacrifice for it. The bounties given to immigrants joining the US Army, and the fact that the Confederacy was not threatening the rump United States at all, weren’t mentioned at all.  There are plenty of other aspects of German immigration which could have been focused on instead.

Then they started talking about Scottish immigrants and the role of Scotland in social and industrial change … some of which would have worked a lot better in the context of the late 18th rather than the late 19th century, but it worked with the railroad building of the 1870s and 1880s as well.  And it was nice to see a positive focus, rather than talking about the Clearances.  Shame they weren’t talking about Canada, or they could have shown someone yelling “Craigellachie” J. They didn’t mention Andrew Carnegie, which was a bit odd, come to think about it.  Oh well.

The “coolie” labourers from China were also discussed at this point. This is an area that I’ve been reading up on recently: it’s appalling how these people were excluded from citizenship, purely on racial grounds – it was a time when many immigrants from many countries were pouring into the United States, and the Chinese, settling mainly in California and Hawaii, were the only ones legally discriminated against in this way.

A lesser-known group are the Mennonites of the Russian Empire. I knew that quite a lot of them had moved to Canada, but I honestly hadn’t been aware of what a major contribution they made in Kansas, where Mennonites from Ukraine, the “bread basket” of the Russian Empire, played a big role in developing wheat-growing there.

I’m not sure how much the people who made the programme actually know about the Russian Empire, but they then proceeded a) to talk about Finland as being part of Scandinavia and b) to ignore the fact that Finland was under Russian rule at this point!   They were talking about Scandinavians, mostly from Norway and Sweden, moving to Oregon, and the crucial role that they played in developing the logging industry there.   I’d have associated Scandinavian immigration more with Minnesota and other parts of the mid-West than with Oregon, but, again, they couldn’t talk about everything.  Something like a third of the population of Norway emigrated to the United States.  Asked which country lost the highest proportion of its population to emigration to the US in the 19th century and I think most people would, correctly, say Ireland, but how many people would know that Norway came in second place?   Interesting.

And, asked about major “push” factors involved in 19th century emigration, and I think the two that most people would come up with would be the Potato Famine and the pogroms.  At this stage, the programme moved on to Eastern European Jews fleeing the pogroms in the Russian Empire, and discrimination elsewhere in the Russian Empire and also in the Austro-Hungarian Empire.  This is probably the period that you really think of when you think of immigration into the US – huge ships, Ellis Island, the Statue of Liberty, and huge numbers of people settling in Manhattan.  It’s inspiring, but it’s also sad, because, for so many years, there were always opportunities for people fleeing bad conditions, and that seems to have changed now.  Or has it?  There’ve been articles about some parts of Western Europe – I think Portugal’s been mentioned – and maybe parts of South America as well, which are actually looking for immigrants, to fill gaps in the labour market, but those aren’t the countries which people are heading for.  Everything’s such a mess now.

Then back to the issue of Chinese immigration, and the very unpleasant attempts to use the 1906 San Francisco earthquake as an excuse to push the Chinese community outside the city. And more and more immigrants flooding in from Europe – from Poland to Chicago and other growing industrial cities, and from Southern Italy into New York and elsewhere.  They were generally trying not to be negative about anyone, but they did mention some of the issues with Mafia gangs, and the attempts to deal with those.

And, at this stage, in 1924, in came the quota system – which lasted until 1965. I remember first coming across this when I was a university student, and being quite shocked by it.  There have to be controls on immigration, but controls based on skills and economics are one thing and this very unpleasant “quota” system is quite another.  It was put in place purely because of concerns that most immigrants were now coming from Southern and Eastern Europe, and from outside Europe.  Immigration from Asia, including the Middle East, was pretty much banned, immigration from Africa severely restricted, and immigration from elsewhere limited to a percentage of the number of people from that country already in the US – that being aimed at keeping down numbers from Southern and Eastern Europe.  And this went on until the 1960s.

They then talked about Mexicans being invited to work in the US during the Second World War, mainly to take the places of men who’d gone into the Armed Forces, and how many of them remained. Then, rather bizarrely, they talked about Japanese-Americans in the context of GI brides moving to America.  Surely only a very small percentage of GI brides were Japanese, and only a very small percentage of Japanese-Americans are descended from GI brides!   Maybe they didn’t want to talk about Japanese immigration before the war to avoid talking about internment.  Anyway.  Then Cubans, many of them children, moving to Miami, and then the sad story of the Vietnamese boat people.

It was all quite simplistic, as I said, but it was very interesting as well. Take a minute to imagine what would have happened if the “New World” hadn’t been “discovered”, and the surplus populations of so many countries hadn’t moved there.  Strange idea, isn’t it?  Very interesting series.




Robert Redford’s The West – History Channel


This is a rather strange programme. It’s supposed to be about the history of the American West, but most of it is about the producers’ fanboy obsession with Jesse James.  Not that Jesse James isn’t interesting, but he was hardly the only person or even the most important person in the history of the West.  Incidentally, every time he’s mentioned (which is an awful lot), I get earwormed by that Cher song.  And it’s actually narrated by a British guy called Bert Morris, not by Robert Redford at all, although I suppose that including Robert Redford’s name in the title made it sound more glamorous.  There are a lot of interviews with actors who’ve played cowboys in films.  Mainly older people like Robert Redford and Burt Reynolds, but also Kiefer Sutherland, because of Young Guns … which set me off reminiscing about the days of the Brat Pack (and being earwormed, as an alternative to Cher, by Bon Jovi).  What happened to the Brat Pack?  You never hear of most of them these days.

The series started with the premise that President Grant wanted to encourage people to move west because he thought it would stop Jesse James from restarting the Civil War! Excuse me?  Yes, there were bands of ex-Confederate insurgents, for lack of a better word, hanging around, but I hardly think they were likely to restart the war.  The South was on its knees.  And the war’d been over for nearly four years by the time Grant became president, anyway.   And associating the focus on the West with the issues in the South – caused by the utter balls-up that Andrew Johnson’s administration made of Reconstruction, but that’s another story – doesn’t really follow.  However, the producers have obviously got a major thing about Jesse James!   We heard an awful lot about him, and about his gang and what they got up to.  We heard absolutely nothing about settlers moving West.

Anyway, eventually, they did get on to the West, and the peace treaty agreed between Grant’s government and the Lakota Sioux. And then the coming of the railroads.  Ah, this was more like it!  Er, no.  The focus then switched to Jesse James and his partners in crime attacking the railroads.   And, apparently, the Panic of 1873 and the Great Depression of the 1870s were all due to Jesse James!  Forget the Franco-Prussian War, forget all the issues over silver currency, forget the failed harvests (I was rather narked that they didn’t even mention the locust plague, the one that everyone knows all about because of Laura Ingalls Wilder): it was all to do with Jesse James.  The railroad speculation bubble and its collapse happened because the US government had got the needle with the railroad companies, and that happened because it was investigating them after the railroad bosses complained that the US government wasn’t doing enough to protect the railroads from Jesse James.  So now we know.  Still no settlers.  Except the ones who were on the trains which were attacked by Jesse James.

BTW, I’d either forgotten or never known that Jesse’s mum and Jesse’s wife (his wife was also his first cousin, and named after her auntie) were both called Zerelda. So that’s where Enid Blyton got the name from!  Well, I’ve never come across it anywhere else.

Then we moved on to the discovery of gold in the Black Hills, and the betrayal of the treaty of the Lakota Sioux by Grant’s government. This bit was good.   Crazy Horse was presented as being uber-cool, and General Custer as being an annoying idiot.  I don’t like General Custer.  Probably because John Jakes presents him as an annoying idiot in Heaven and Hell.  However, before you knew it, we were back to Jesse James.  And we still hadn’t seen anyone actually settling in the West.

Next week, we’re getting Little Big Horn.  And Buffalo Bill Cody.  I bet they won’t mention that his ancestors came from Preston, so I’ll just mention it here 🙂 . And, you guessed it, more about Jesse James.

It’s all very dramatic and exciting. Lots of reconstructions with everyone shooting each other.  Lots of shots of people galloping across the plains.  And they are making the point that the Native Americans got a horrendously raw deal out of it all.  But what is the obsession with Jesse James?!  If you want to make a series about Jesse James, call it something like … er, “Jesse James”.  And where, oh where, are the pioneers?  Where, oh where, are the cowboys?  The Gunfight at the OK Corral was 1881, so we haven’t got there yet and presumably that will come up in later episodes, if the producers can tear themselves away from Jesse James long enough, but it really would be quite nice to see some pioneers.

Oh well. It’s good entertainment.  And I really must see if Young Guns is coming up on any of the Sky Movies channels any time soon …

Jamestown – Sky 1


Well, the first three episodes of this have certainly been eventful. The one who used to be in Holby City‘s been wrongly accused of witchcraft.  Not to mention she and her friend being chased by a pack of wolves.  The one who used to be in Waterloo Road ‘s getting well stuck in there with all the politicking … which largely involves all the blokes plotting against each other, and getting stressed about James I’s disapproval of tobacco plantations.  Max Beesley’s character’s being killed by his own brother – except that he isn’t really dead, and is presumably about to show up again at the most inopportune moment.  And the said brother’s been wrongly accused (there’s a lot of wrongful accusation going on) of stealing arms and selling them to the Native Americans.  The only one who hasn’t really done anything is the Puritan maid, who seems to be channelling Baldrick.  Most of her lines sound as if they were written for him.

It’s a bit daft, and some of the characters are rather too caricatured, but it’s entertaining. It’s also nice to have a series which shows that “America” did not begin with the Pilgrim Fathers.  And indeed that Jamestown was not all about John Rolfe and Pocahontas.  We started off with a group of mail order brides.  There are all sorts of true stories about emigrant men sending home for brides, whether it was by advertising or by asking relatives and friends to find someone suitable and willing, and there are also true stories (this was more of a French thing!) about women just being packed off to help populate colonies.  In this case, the Virginia Company recruited a number of women who wanted to emigrate to the “New World” – the deal being that they married whichever man agreed to pay for their journey.

It was filmed in Hungary, not Virginia, but never mind. And we’ve got the governor, the company recorder, the doctor, the drunken pub owner, the former indentured servants now trying to set up their own plantations … so they’ve tried to include company.  Most of the characters have Lancashire or Yorkshire accents.  Even the posh woman who claims to be from Banbury isn’t kidding us: we know that the actress who plays her comes from Manchester 😉 .  The main characters are the posh woman (who harbours a dark secret) and two of the mail order brides (one feisty, one less feisty but determined to marry the bloke she fancies rather than whoever’s paid for her).  They do a lot of talking about sisterhood and sticking together.

It’s probably not very much of a reflection of what life in early 17th century Jamestown was actually like; but it’s not bad.  And it’s entertaining.  It’s certainly not boring!

Great American Railroad Journeys – BBC 2


Word PressThis 15-part series didn’t start off very promisingly, but got better and better as it went on.  I was originally expecting some sort of epic coast-to-coast trip, but I suppose that would have been too much train time and not enough sightseeing time.  It started off with three days in New York, which, whilst New York is a very interesting city, was hardly very original.  We see more than enough TV programmes set in New York, surely!   And the historical talk, as far as it went, was mainly about the Gilded Age, which isn’t my thing.  Then several more days in New York state.  He finished that leg of the trip at lovely Niagara Falls, which is spectacular and always worth seeing shots of (although I wish he’d mentioned that the American town of Niagara Falls used to be called Manchester, something that hardly anyone seems to know!), but, from a historian’s viewpoint, the series only really got interesting when he then headed south.

First up, and still north of the Mason-Dixon Line, Pennsylvania.  Philadelphia!  Gettysburg!  Two places of which I have very cherished memories of visiting, two places steeped in history.  And the fascinating Amish country.  Then south to Maryland and Washington DC.  I’m so glad I’m not the only person who felt that a trip to Washington DC wouldn’t be complete without visiting Ford’s Theatre!  And then to wonderful Virginia.  Mount Vernon!  And I’m so jealous that he went to Manassas Junction!  And I note that the term “Bull Run” was never used once.  Then to Richmond, capital of Virginia and one-time capital of the Confederacy.   Such a stupid, stupid idea to have the Confederate capital so close to the border, but anyway.  And then moving back in time, to Williamsburg and, finally, to Jamestown.  Much more my sort of thing than some Gilded Age art gallery!

This isn’t specifically meant to be a historical series, but a few interesting points came out of it.  One was the way that the Civil War/War Between The States is spoken of as being a war about slavery.  It wasn’t!  It wouldn’t have happened were it not for the issue of slavery, and, thankfully, it brought about the end of slavery in the United States, but war was declared by the Union in order to force the eleven states of the Confederacy back into the Union against their will.  How is that any different from Serbia bombing the hell out of Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina to try to force them back into Yugoslavia?  If, following the last general election, in which the Tories won an overall majority but got only one seat in Scotland, Scotland declared independence, David Cameron sent the British Armed Forces to invade it, four years of brutal killing and devastation followed and Scotland was then put under martial law, would that make David Cameron the greatest Prime Minister of all time?  I’m not trying to be controversial: I just have a lot of problems with the whole thing of “saving the Union”.  It wasn’t under external attack.  Some states just wanted to declare independence.

OK, rant over!  What else?  Well, as Michael Portillo said to a local historian, the way in which the story of the Pilgrim Fathers and the settlement of Plimoth has become the founding myth of what became the USA, with Jamestown, which was very definitely there first, largely ignored.  Is that all about the Civil War/War Between The States?  That’s certainly what the local historian seemed to think.  The reverence shown for the great George Washington.  And, sadly, the way in which both racial segregation and vast socio-economic divides still exist in the US.

As I said, not the best of starts, but it turned into a very interesting series.  I don’t think anyone’s quite sure if this is meant to be a history programme, a travel programme or a programme about railways, but, whatever it’s meant to be, it works well.  Great British Railway Journeys is back next week, but it’s going to be four weeks of repeats.  Fingers crossed for a new series, whether in Britain, Europe or the US, very soon!




The Revenant


Word Press  Leonardo di Caprio does an excellent job in this film, but the real star of the show is the scenery!  It’s meant to be the Dakotas, but most of it was filmed in Alberta, and some of it in British Columbia (and a bit of it in Argentina). It is absolutely glorious. It’s a shame that there isn’t an Oscar for best performance by natural scenery! And the way they’ve managed to show the bears, and the caribou, and the other animals, and even the insects … it’s stunning. Absolutely wonderful.

Definitely worth seeing for the scenery! So what about the story? It’s based on a book, by an author called Michael Punke, which in turn is based on the true story of Hugh Glass, a member of an expedition undertaken in 1823 by members of Ashley’s Hundred, later known as the Rocky Mountain Fur Trading Company.  The original idea was to travel via the Missouri River, but, following an attack by Native Americans, a group of the men decided that it would be safer to continue overland. Glass was attacked and severely injured by a grizzly bear, and seemed unlikely to survive. General Ashley, the leader of the expedition, didn’t want to abandon him, but, as carrying him was hampering the progress of the rest of the group, asked for two volunteers to stay back with him and take care of him until he died. However, the men concerned, Fitzgerald and Bridger, did abandon him, took his equipment, caught up with the others, and falsely reported that he’d died. Unbelievably, Hugh Glass managed to set his own broken leg, treat his other severe injuries, and make his way more than 200 miles, aided by Native Americans who supplied him with weapons and with a bear hide to wear, to the nearest American settlement.

It’s an amazing story. It’s probably been embellished both at the time and since, but the gist of it does seem to be true. However, what I found a little disappointing was that the book and the film chose to turn it into a tale of revenge. In the film, and presumably the book, that Glass had a son, whom Fitzgerald murdered, and Glass’s motivation for getting back was to track down Fitzgerald and avenge his son’s murder. The film ended with a gunfight in which a third party was killed and Glass left Fitzgerald, half-dead, to be finished off by an approaching band of Native Americans. The novel on which the film’s based is actually called “The Revenant: A Novel of Revenge”. In fact, this son never even existed. And, according to the records, Glass did track down the men who’d abandoned him, and forgave Bridger, who’d only really been following orders – but he spared the life of the Fitzgerald because by then he’d joined the Army and the penalty for killing a soldier would have been death. The gunfight never happened, any more than the murder of the non-existent son ever happened.

The film also shows Toussaint Charbonneau, who was a member of the famous Lewis and Clark expedition, abducting and raping a Native American woman. Apparently this has caused some upset amongst French-Canadians but, although this particular incident seems to be fictional, it’s known that a similar incident did take place, just at a different time.

To get back to the story of Hugh Glass, what an absolutely amazing story of a man’s triumph over nature. To survive such a vicious attack, and to make his way through the wilderness, in bitter, snowy, wintry conditions, relying only on his own knowledge of the way and the signs provided by nature, hunting for what food he could find … it’s just incredible. And the scenery is absolutely breathtaking. What more of a story, what more of a tale of heroism, could you ask for?   So was it really necessary to make it into “A Novel of Revenge”?   Surely, it should have been about Man versus Nature, not Man versus Man. Or is it just me?  Is it just me?

Oh well. Give Leonardo di Caprio credit for a very impressive performance … and cover your eyes during the bear attack, but keep them wide open during the rest of the film (oh, and be warned that it is rather long), and really, really feast them on that amazing scenery!   Glorious, glorious Canada!

The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd


Word PressThis book, set largely in antebellum Charleston, combines fact and fiction in telling the stories of Sarah Grimke, the elder of the two famous abolitionist Grimke sisters, and a fictional character, Handful, a female slave who was owned by the Grimke family and was close to Sarah when they were both young.  The blurb on the back cover, “two girls who grow up never doing as they’re told”, makes it sound like a children’s book about two naughty little kids, and I’m surprised at the publishers for degrading a story about such important issues by describing it in such a ridiculous way, but let’s try to ignore that!

Two years ago, I visited South Carolina on an organised tour.  My priority was to see Charleston, which I’d been wanting to see for many years, but it also included a tour of Magnolia Plantation, and I was rather excited when I found out that the place had once belonged to a nephew of Sarah and Angelina Grimke, because they are such important figures.  The book shows us Sarah’s struggles as an opponent of slavery in antebellum South Carolina, and as a strong-minded woman in a society in which women were expected to confine themselves to the domestic sphere.  We see how she eventually moved to Philadelphia, but, even there, was seen as being too radical, both in her Abolitionist views and in her views of women’s place in society.  We also see how Handful, forbidden to leave the Grimkes’ property without permission, threatened with being sold away from her mother, and physically abused by her owners, manages to remain unbowed, and eventually runs away.

The book also shows Handful’s mother becoming involved with Denmark Vesey, but I think that that was a wasted opportunity: Sue Monk Kidd doesn’t really show how the Vesey plot, and then the Nat Turner Uprising in Virginia nine years later, intensified the fear of a widespread slave uprising, especially in a city like Charleston where slaves formed a majority of the population.  Early in the book, we see Sarah’s father say that he knows that slavery is wrong.  By the 1850s, it was highly unlikely that a man in his social position would have said that, as the mood shifted from regarding slavery as a necessary evil to trying to convince society that it was a positive good.  Fear of slave uprisings had a lot to do with that.  So too, obviously, did the question of whether or not slavery should be permitted in new states joining the Union.  Whilst that was more of an issue in the 1840s and especially the 1850s, it was an issue earlier on too, and I’m surprised that the Missouri Compromise isn’t mentioned in this book.  The Nullification Crisis isn’t mentioned either, which you’d think it might be in a book set in Charleston.

Oh well, enough about what isn’t mentioned!  There’s plenty which is, and a lot to think about, as there always is in any book which tackles the issue of slavery.  We also see Sarah struggling to cope with the realisation that, even amongst Abolitionists, there are few people who truly believe in racial equality at that time.  Over 150 years after the end of slavery in the …. I’m going to say United States, but I do realise that that’s a controversial term when talking about 1865, but you know what I mean!  Anyway, over 150 years after the end of slavery in the United States, the subject of racism has still not been fully resolved.  This book is quite uplifting, though, because we see Sarah freeing herself from the constraints of the society in which she grew up – and there are many examples, in both the USA and Britain, of women taking the lead in reform movements – , even though she has to sacrifice a lot in the process, and we see Handful refusing to let her spirit be broken and, in the end, managing to get away.  I’m not trying to compare the position of a white upper-class Southern woman with that of a slave, obviously, but the theme of the book is that both women are trying to invent their “wings”.

Sadly, very few slaves were able to find freedom, but there was a very important “slave culture”, which was never broken and which lives on today.  The book’s title comes from an African-American folk tale about people having wings.  It’s a very fitting title for a very interesting book.


Tony Robinson’s Wild West – Discovery Channel


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This is a three part series, and the second and third episodes are going to cover all the exciting-sounding stuff that we associate with the “Wild West” – Buffalo Bill, Wild Bill Hickok, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, cowboys shouting “Yee-haw”, and so on. This first episode concentrated on the tragedy of the West – the decimation of the Native American tribes driven out by white settlers, and the destruction of their Great Plains culture.

I feel like an old biddy these days, but I actually am too young for some things, and one of them is remembering the golden age of cowboy films. I don’t remember playing “cowboys and Indians” as a kid, either: that was something Mum and Dad’s generation did rather than mine. However, I did, from quite an early age, read Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie books. Little House on the Prairie itself, the second book in the series, tells us about the Ingalls family’s time in what’s now part of Kansas but was then part of Osage territory. Pa Ingalls becomes quite friendly with a French-speaking Osage chief, and Laura is quite interested in the Osages – especially the babies – but Ma Ingalls famously says that “the only good Indian is a dead Indian”. Different times, different views, but, even so, it’s shocking and frightening to think of views being held like that by anyone, especially a very upright, morally-upstanding woman.

The Little House books aren’t directly relevant to this programme, but Tony Robinson read part of a newspaper article about the Battle of Wounded Knee, written by L Frank Baum, later to become the author of The Wizard of Oz but then a journalist in Dakota Territory, saying much the same thing. I gather that some people are now saying that he meant the opposite of what he said, but that’s not how it comes across.

The Ingalls family and their neighbours had to leave the Indian Territory, but, of course, the far more common story is that of Native American tribes being pushed further and further west, and the frontier eventually disappearing as the whole area became part of the United States. I probably haven’t got this quote quite right, but there’s a scene in the musical Oklahoma! in which someone (Curly?) says something along the lines of “They’re going to make a state out of this land, and they’re going to call it Oklahoma”. When Oklahoma became a state, the last “Indian Territory” disappeared. The musical doesn’t mention that, incidentally.

I’ve now got well away from what Tony Robinson was actually talking about in his programme, which didn’t involve either Laura Ingalls Wilder or Rodgers and Hammerstein. Oops! What he was talking about was, as I said earlier, the decimation of the Native American tribes driven out by white settlers, and the destruction of their Great Plains culture, in the Great Plains region in the years following the American Civil War. Incidentally, I wasn’t very impressed that he talked about the Civil War starting after seven states seceded, complete with a map showing the first seven states to secede. Yes, in the initial wave of secession, seven states did leave the Union, but what about the four – Virginia, Arkansas, North Carolina and Tennessee – which left in the second wave of secession a couple of months later? Come on, Discovery Channel – this is very basic stuff!

Just to wander off the point again, I read Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books when I was a little kid, but it was when I read Heaven and Hell, the third book in the superb North and South series by John Jakes, when I was 12, that I really began to learn about Little Bighorn, about Wounded Knee, and about the destruction of the Native American culture of the Plains. Then Dances With Wolves, which came out three years later, drew a lot of attention to the subject. Yes, I know the film has its critics, but anything which addresses this particular area of American history is controversial.

How did Tony Robinson go about addressing it? I thought he did very well. He referred to “Indians” rather than “Native Americans” or “Amerindians”, which actually sounded quite strange in this day and age, but then a lot of what he was talking about was the popular idea of the Wild West, and that idea is about “cowboys and Indians”. He was very sympathetic towards the Native American tribes, and I think he could actually have made the point that there were atrocities committed by Native American groups against white settlers too; but I think that most viewers would agree with his point of view. What happened in the West, the way the Native American tribes were treated, was very wrong. And tragic. It was a terrible, terrible tragedy.

All countries and cultures have things in their pasts, and in some cases in their presents, which were wrong, so I’m not having a go at the United States, but it’s important to acknowledge these and to try to come to terms with them. The issue of what was done to indigenous peoples seems to have been addressed far more comprehensively in Canada, in Australia, in New Zealand and in parts of Latin America than it has in the United States. Perhaps it’s been overshadowed by the issue of relations between black and white people in the US. Having said which, just in this past week there’s been a lot of talk about the use of Native American symbols by American sports teams.

It’s a difficult subject to write about, and it must be an even more difficult subject to present a TV programme about. I think Tony Robinson did a very good job: he spoke about Native American culture and history with the respect it deserves, and he interviewed a number of Native American people who are working today to preserve what remains and to keep alive the memory of what’s gone.

Next time, he’ll be talking about all the “Yee-haw” stuff, and I’m looking forward to that, but he did the right thing to start by reminding us of what went before, and was lost and destroyed to make way for what came afterwards.



Songs of the South – BBC 2


Word PressWhilst roaming around the southern states of the US on various quests to visit sites associated with the Civil War (or the War Between the States), I’ve ended up visiting a fair few places associated with Southern music, which is why I’ve been looking forward to Reginald D Hunter’s three-part series on the “Songs of the South”. And I wasn’t disappointed with the first episode, which covered Tennessee and Kentucky.

It started off with “Dixie” … which isn’t a song you’d really associate with Tennessee or Kentucky but I suppose is the quintessential song of the South. I’ve got a recording of Elvis singing it, but Elvis didn’t get a mention! However, Dolly Parton got plenty of mentions. Reginald went to the wonderful Grand Old Opry in Nashville, and also to the “Dollywood” theme park. I’ve been to both those places! Dolly Parton comes across as being such a lovely person, and that style of country ‘n; western music really is very good to listen to even if you’re not particularly a country music person.

That’s the … what’s the word? Public? Marketable? Outward-looking? Glamorous, even? Anyway, that’s one side of country music. He then went more into the darker type of music, all those songs about death and murder. There is a lot of that, even in well-known songs. I don’t think he actually mentioned it, but “Billie Joe McAllister jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge” was the one which occurred to me. “Southern Gothic.” It’s – obviously! – not very cheerful, but it’s an interesting genre.

He also looked into “hillbilly” music … and there was a bit of an undertone there, “hillbilly” sometimes having the sort of unpleasant connotations than “redneck” does. However, he said that he – an Afro-American man, born in Georgia – had been made to feel very welcome there. The discussions about Appalachia and its music were very interesting, although one woman, when talking about how the term “hillbilly” might have originated from the fact that many of the early settlers in the Appalachians were supporters of William of Orange, seemed to think that they’d fled to America because they were being persecuted. No, dear – William of Orange won the Glorious Revolution (so to speak). Then there was a bit of square dancing – not something I’ve ever done much of, LOL, but which, as was pointed out, was traditionally a very good way of getting to know people in rural communities.

He also talked about the importance of railways in Southern songs – specifically, the Chattanooga Choo Choo! He got to go on a ride along the line, but the actual train to which the song refers is in a museum … I know because I’ve been there and had my photo taken with it :-). I’d never really thought about it much, but, yes, you do get a lot of rail-related songs in the South.

Then on to bluegrass music. This is a very Southern thing, but it’s also got strong roots in English, Scottish, Welsh and Irish folk music, and it’s good to see that this sort of music’s still going. “Bluegrass” is a term generally associated with Kentucky, and it was also in Kentucky that he covered the most challenging part of the programme – minstrel music.

The idea of white musicians putting on black make-up and playing stereotypes of black people is so offensive to modern eyes that it’s a difficult subject to tackle, but, as the people interviewed on the programme said, you can’t pretend that black and white minstrel shows never existed, and you can’t ignore their importance in the development of musical performance. Or how good some of the music genuinely is, especially that written by Stephen Foster, someone who does seem to have sympathised with the plight of the slaves in the South. Reginald visited the house in Bardstown, Kentucky, which is thought to have inspired “My Old Kentucky Home”, to discuss the subject with singers there.

I’ve been there too :-). I saw an outdoor evening performance of “Show Boat” there. That’s got nothing to do with this programme :-), but it was a very good evening and I’ve got fond memories of it. I’ve got a lot of fond memories associated with Songs of the South, and I’m looking forward to the next two episodes in this series. Recommended viewing!

Farmer Boy by Laura Ingalls Wilder


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I’ve had the 7 “Little House” books for over 30 years and have read them so often that they’re falling apart, so I don’t know why I’d never read this, the story of Almanzo’s childhood (a year in the life of, when he was 8/9) before, but better late than never! For a kick off, here is a description of a typical Wilder family breakfast:

There was oatmeal with plenty of thick cream and maple sugar. There were fried potatoes, and the golden buckwheat cakes, as many as Almanzo wanted to eat, with sausages and gravy or with butter and maple syrup. There were preserves and jams and jellies and doughnuts. But best of all Almanzo liked the spicy apple pie, with its thick, rich juice and its crumbly crust.

All the meals seem to’ve been like that! Did they do some eating?! But they did a lot of hard physical labour as well … often at the expense of attending school, in Almanzo’s case. Unlike the Ingalls family, the Wilders (BTW, why is Almanzo’s eldest sister not mentioned?!) were comfortably off, and, although they did most of their own farm labour and had no domestic or permanent farm staff, certainly higher up the social pecking order than Almanzo’s future in-laws. They seem to’ve been very keen on putting money in the bank, whereas I’m not sure that banks are ever even mentioned in connection with Charles and Caroline Ingalls! And the three elder siblings mentioned in the book – including Eliza Jane, who came across no better here than she did as Laura’s teacher, to the extent that I’m surprised Laura wrote like that about her sister-in-law – went off to a boarding school. However, they did work incredibly hard. Until affected by crop failures in the late 1860s and 1870, they ran a successful farm in Malone, New York state, very close to the Canadian border. Incidentally, although the book, given Almanzo’s age, must be set in late 1865 and early 1866, less than a year after the end of the American Civil War, there’s not one mention of the war or its aftermath.

They did pretty much everything themselves. They produced things, they used pretty much everything they produced, and they were proud to be free and independent. It was the American Dream. I don’t know how accurate it is, but the way it came across was just that … the old-style American Dream. Whilst I’m using clichés, add “the Protestant work ethic” in there. It was a hard life, but how incredible to have been able to live a life like that. And what a shame that it didn’t last for them.

Like all Laura (I always think of her as “Laura”)’s books, this was a lovely book. I just don’t know why I’d never read it before!