Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Lincoln's soldiers

Lincoln's Men, William C. Davis

Reading about the experiences of one (albeit unique) soldier in An Uncommon Soldier reminded me of this book.  Its subtitle really sums it up: "How President Lincoln Became Father to an Army and a Nation."  I was also reminded of my own personal challenge, to read all the Civil War-related books on my TBR pile before the 150th anniversary of the war ends in 2015.  If I can keep from adding too many more to it, I might just win that battle.

In the first chapters of Lincoln's Men, William Davis explores the place that George Washington and his soldiers of the American Revolution had in forming the United States' identity in the 19th century, taking on almost mythic proportions.  Americans saw themselves as a family, formed by "the Father of his Country," in a patriarchal society that looked to political leaders to guide and protect the family as Washington had.  Davis also looks at Abraham Lincoln's sole military experience, when at age 22 he he volunteered to fight in a conflict with Native Americans in 1831 that came to be called the Black Hawk War.  Though he served for only a matter of weeks, the experience was formative.  He was elected captain of his company, the first office he ever held.  With his men he suffered the hardships of life on campaign, including shortages of supplies.  And he saw the aftermath of war for the first time, with dead bodies left on the field.  From this brief experience, Lincoln gained an insight into soldiering, particularly with volunteers, as well as a firm commitment to meeting the needs of both soldiers and veterans.

Thirty years later he would bring that understanding, and commitment, to his role as Commander in Chief of the largest military force ever raised in North America.  In the first years of the Civil War, it was a volunteer force, later supplemented by military drafts.  Lincoln always understood that it was the soldiers who were bearing the burden of the war, its risks and hardships.  He made himself more accessible to his soldiers than any president in American history, welcoming them to the White House, reviewing them in Washington, traveling to visit them in camp, and touring the hospitals where so many ended up.  He paid constant tribute to them in his writings and speeches. He told them more than once that they could come to him in trouble; many took him up on that offer, as did their families.  Lincoln was famously unable to resist the pleas of mothers and wives, and his reviews of court-martial cases were notorious for their leniency.  He agonized over sending tens of thousands of these soldiers to their deaths in battle, particularly under the ineffective leaders that plagued the Army of the Potomac in the Virginia theater.

Davis draws on hundreds of soldiers' letters and diaries to analyze their relationship with their Commander in Chief.  As he shows through copious quotations, the soldiers, at least the rank and file, felt a strong connection to Lincoln, based in large part on his obvious concern and care for them.  From the beginning of the war they referred to him constantly and familiarly as "Old Abe," a nickname that later morphed into "Father Abraham."  They compared him with Washington, in his role of holding the Union together.  Their confidence in him carried them through the military disasters in the Eastern theater, through the Emancipation Proclamation that turned the struggle into war on slavery, and through the 1864 presidential election, which pitted Lincoln against the popular General George McClellan, the former commander of the Army of the Potomac.  Not all of the soldiers supported Lincoln, of course, and Davis gives voice to his opponents as well.

For those who might wonder if we really needed another book about Lincoln, Davis writes in his Acknowledgements,
"Lincoln's life has been plumbed to almost every depth, from his taste in music to his feelings on religion, yet this vital relationship between him and the soldiers who fought in, supported, and in the end died in his war, remains unpenetrated beyond a few paragraphs here and there . . ."
In this book, by focusing on that "vital relationship," he gives us new insights into Lincoln and his soldiers, as well an interesting overview of the Civil War through their eyes, in their voices.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

A woman soldier in the Civil War

An Uncommon Soldier, Lauren Cook Burgess, ed.

The subtitle of this book is "The Civil War Letters of Sarah Rosetta Wakeman, alias Pvt. Lyons Wakeman, 153rd Regiment, New York State Volunteers, 1862-1864."  I first learned about Rosetta Wakeman from another book Lauren Cook has written, this one with Deanne Blanton.  They Fought Like Demons is an overview of women soldiers in the Civil War, and an important part of the authors' thesis is to document the reality of the women soldiers.  Blanton and Cook have identified at least 250 women who served in the Federal and Confederate armies, which is admittedly only a fragment of the total number of enlisted personnel.  But they make a convincing argument that there were undoubtedly more women serving, who have never been identified and who chose not to reveal their service.

One of the women soldiers highlighted in their book was Rosetta Wakeman, who served in the Union army for almost two years.  Like thousands of her fellow soldiers, she died of disease, not in battle.  She was buried among her comrades in a military cemetery outside New Orleans, under her male nom de guerre.  Though she spent almost two months in a military hospital before her death, no one apparently discovered that she was a woman, or else chose not to reveal it.  The rudimentary medical care available at the time, and the very brief medical exams for army recruits, posed few problems for women who wanted to serve.

In her introduction to Rosetta Wakeman's letters, and in her meticulous notes, Lauren Cook Burgess tries to give as much context as she can both to Wakeman's life and military career, within the context of the experiences of women soldiers and generally of military service in the Civil War.  Unfortunately, there is little information about Wakeman's life prior to her enlistment.  She grew up on a farm in New York State, the oldest of nine children.  When she was 19, she left home to work, under a man's name, on a canal boat.  A few weeks later she enlisted with the 153rd New York, probably at least in part for the $152 enlistment bonus.  Her regiment was first assigned to guard and picket duty around Washington.  In February 1864, they were sent to Louisiana, to join General Nathaniel Banks' ill-fated drive up the Red River, which ended in defeat and retreat.  The hardships of the campaign, with forced marches and bad water supplies, took a heavy toll on unacclimated northerners like the 153rd New York, and "Lyons" Wakeman was among those who died from chronic diarrhea (which with dysentery would kill nearly half a million soldiers during the war).

Wakeman's letters home are in many ways typical of other Civil War soldiers' letters (I've read quite a few, through my own research in school and then my work as an archivist).  There are frequent comments about the weather and the food and her officers, questions about the family left behind and about friends also serving.  Remarkably, Wakeman was able to get leave to visit a cousin and another friend in their regiments, neither of whom apparently told anyone about her. It is elements like these that make Wakeman's letters very atypical, and in fact the collection is unique, among only a handful of primary source documents from women soldiers serving in the field during the Civil War.

In a Foreward to the book, Dr. James McPherson, the dean of Civil War historians, notes that Lauren Cook Burgess is herself a Civil War re-enactor, who represented a soldier in the field.  In 1989, after she was "outed," the National Park Service tried to ban her from re-enactments, on the grounds that there were no women soldiers in the Civil War.  Burgess ended up taking the NPS to court, and the resulting publicity caught the attention of Ruth Goodier, a great-grandniece of Rosetta Wakeman, who offered Burgess copies of the letters.  From that came this book, and Burgess's later work with Deanne Blanton.

There are thousands of collections of Civil War soldiers' letters in archives and in private hand across the United States.  Each one documents an individual's experiences in America's great struggle, and each is a voice from the past.  In An Uncommon Soldier, Lauren Cook Burgess ensures that one unique soldier's voice will be heard, and by extension that of her sisters in arms.

Friday, January 27, 2012

The Pirates of Penzance in Portugal

Pirate King, Laurie R. King

I've been a fan of Laurie R. King's books for a long time now.  I started with the Mary Russell novels, with The Beekeeper's Apprentice, and after reading through those (only four at that point), I quickly moved on to the Kate Martinelli books.  When Folly came out, it immediately became one of my desert-island books.  I am still hoping for more Martinelli books, as well as a sequel or prequel to Califa's Daughters (published under the name Leigh Richards).

But then something happened with the last few books.  Maybe it's me, but I haven't been able to get through Touchstone, despite a couple of tries.  I did read the two most recent Mary Russell books, The Language of Bees and The God of the Hive.  They seemed rather thin, as if the story was stretched to make two books.  Then when I heard that the next book would be about Gilbert & Sullivan pirates, I had a twinge of doubt.  While Laurie King is wonderful on character, setting and action, I don't think whimsy is her strong suit.

Any doubts I had about Pirate King were quickly put to rest.  I thoroughly enjoyed this book, which felt like a return to the Russell & Holmes that I love.  As the story opens, Mary accepts a commission from Inspector Lestrade at Scotland Yard to investigate Fflytte Films.  One of Britain's leading film companies, its investors are drawn from high society and even the Royal Family.  But there are disturbing hints that the company may be involved in criminal activities mirroring its film adventures, such as gun-running and drug-dealing.  In addition, the studio's secretary has gone missing, just as the owner/director, Randolph Fflytte, is preparing to shoot his new picture, a film about a film version of The Pirates of Penzance.  While Holmes remains in Sussex to welcome his brother Mycroft on a visit, Russell takes the missing secretary's position and finds herself in the middle of a chaotic film shoot heading first for Portugal and then Morocco.

Where the Martinelli books are focused on police investigations, the Russell books tend to be more adventures with detective interludes.  There is generally a case, but it isn't always the center of the story.  In the first part of Pirate King, set in and around Lisbon, I got so caught up in the saga of the film, with Mary riding herd on a dozen blonde actresses, not mention the crew and even the director, that I tended to lose sight of what she was actually supposed to be investigating.  (This part of the story dovetailed nicely with the book I'd just finished, Terry Pratchett's Moving Pictures, another book about a chaotic silent-film industry.)  Once the company sets sail for Morocco, though, the focus changes from fictional film pirates to their real-life counterparts, whose threat to Fflytte Films is even greater than the criminal activity Russell originally set out to investigate.

It was such a pleasure to meet Russell and Holmes again, and to be reminded just how good this series is.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Hooray for Holy Wood!

Moving Pictures, Terry Pratchett

I love Terry Pratchett's Discworld series of novels.  I came late to reading him, with 2003's Monstrous Regiment, but that just meant that I had all the older novels to catch up with, as well as the new ones to look forward to.  I'm not quite sure, then, why this book sat on the TBR pile for so long.

The Discworld books are set in a world that rides through space on the back of the star turtle, the Great A'tuin.  It is a world with witches and wizards, trolls and dwarfs - and gods who are only as strong as their followers' belief in them.  This world also resembles our own, though, in quite a few ways, particularly in the human characters.  The contrast, and sometimes the overlap, between the other-world and the actual-world elements provide some of the funniest moments in the books.  Pratchett uses them to satirize elements of modern life, and to point up their absurdity.

As one might expect from the title, Moving Pictures is a story about films and popular entertainment.  As it opens, on a small spit of sandy beach about 30 miles from the great city of Ankh-Morpork, Deccan Ribore, the last Keeper of the Door, meets DEATH.  We aren't told what the Door is or why it needs a Keeper, but as he explains to DEATH, he hasn't had time to find and train his replacement, so there will be no Keeper after him.  When he leaves, with DEATH, something emerges from the sandy hillside known as Holy Wood: "Something invisible. Something joyous and selfish and marvelous. Something as intangible as an idea, which is exactly what it was. A wild idea."  An idea that immediately makes tracks for the bright lights of Ankh-Morpork.

In the city, all kinds of people are soon infected with wild ideas.  The alchemists have figured out how to capture images on film, and suddenly a moving-picture industry springs into life.  Crowds of people find their way to the new studio town born out in Holy Wood, hoping to break into the "clicks."  Among them is Victor Tugelbend, a reluctant student wizard at the great Unseen University.  Cast in a one-reeler with an ingenue named Theda Withel (who goes by Ginger), Victor finds himself possessed by a force that turns him into the screen's best lover and fighter.  He and Ginger are on the way to stardom, but they begin to realize that there are forces swirling around Holy Wood with a deadly purpose, one that must be stopped.

To be honest, I didn't completely follow that part of the story.  It has something to do with the drowned city in the bay just off Holy Wood, and the duties of the Keeper of the Door, and beings from another dimension.  Even at the end of the book I still wasn't sure how it all fit together.  For me the great fun of the book was watching the rise of the "clicks" industry, and catching all of the film references and in-jokes.  Terry Pratchett clearly knows his classic films.  The greatest click ever made in Holy Wood, the one that sets off the final struggle, is called Blown Away: "A Man and A Woman Aflame With Passione in A Citie Riven by Sivil War!. . . Brother against brother! Women in crinoline dresses slapping people's faces! . . . A great city aflame!"  There are references to Snow White, The Sheik, King Kong, Singing in the Rain, and Casablanca, among others - not to mention a dog named Laddie that rescues people.  All this adds up to such a good, fun read, and as always, I am left in awe of Terry Pratchett's wit and cleverness.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

A rabbi's son in Poland

In My Father's Court, Isaac Bashevis Singer

I am always interested in how people find books, and in how they decide what they want to read.  I have gotten a lot of great recommendations over the past year from the blogs I follow, and from the on-line book groups I belong to.  Reading a review, on a blog or in a magazine, sometimes makes me think, "I need to read that book too!"  I also tend to read by association.  That is, something I see or read reminds me of an author, of a character or setting, which leads me to a particular book.

Last weekend I watched A Film Unfinished, a documentary about film footage of the Warsaw Ghetto, shot just before the ghetto was liquidated in 1942.  The film, which was never completed, was probably intended for Nazi propaganda.  The film crew staged every-day events like shopping and eating in restaurants, which for ghetto residents at that time were far from ordinary life, as well as rituals of Jewish life like Sabbath services and the mikvah baths.  Healthy, well-dressed men and women were posed next to ragged beggars, and the corpses of those who died of starvation were carefully filmed.  Some of the footage ended up in East German archives, other parts in the United States and Russia.  It was brought together to create this powerful documentary, with commentary by survivors of the ghetto and the Holocaust.  I can't forget the elderly woman who said she was watching the street scenes, hoping for a glimpse of her mother in the crowds.

The film reminded me of this book, In My Father's Court, Isaac Bashevis Singer's memoir of life in Poland in the early 1900s.  He was born in 1902 in eastern Poland, then under Russian control.  He was a young child when his family moved to Warsaw, where his father, a rabbi, served a poor Hasidic community.  The elder Singer held his rabbinical court, the Beth Din, in the family's home, and the young Isaac had a front-row seat on marriages and divorces, disputes over broken engagements and debts unpaid, and theological discussions over heaven and hell and everything in between.  The first chapters tell stories of the cases and of the individuals who brought them to the Rabbi.  Singer also describes the neighborhood of Krochmalna Street, its residents and shops.  He then takes the reader back into his family's history in the small towns around Warsaw, and the religious divisions between Hasidic Jews, each group following its own rabbi (I found the divisions a little confusing and hard to follow).  His memoir is not a chronological narrative, but a series of self-contained vignettes; individuals rarely reappear in later stories.

Life was difficult for the family in Warsaw, where his father's income on fees from court cases sometimes shrank to almost nothing.  There was also tension in the family as the oldest son, Israel Joshua, began to question both the oppressive social order (with its ingrained anti-semitism) and religion itself.  When war broke out in 1914, Israel Joshua was conscripted into the Russian army.  War brought additional hardships to their lives with food shortages and epidemic diseases in the city.  In 1917, Singer's parents made the difficult decision to split the family up.  Mrs. Singer took Isaac and his younger brother Moishe to her family's home in the village of Bilgoraj, which had come under Austrian control.  Isaac reveled in his new home, where for the first time he was surrounded by aunts, uncles and cousins.  He was enchanted with the country setting, far from the effects of the war, though there were hints of economic and political problems looming.  Here the book ends.

Also looming over this book is the shadow of the Holocaust.  In describing his Bilgoraj cousins, he mentions one family of seven children, of whom "Samson - the only one to survive the Nazi holocaust - was the same age as I."  One of the most moving chapters is the story of "Reb Asher the Dairyman," a hard-working and generous neighbor who served as the cantor for his father's small congregation on the High Holy Days, and who also gave the young Isaac rides around Warsaw in his milk wagon.
     "The friendship between my father and Reb Asher grew ever stronger, and during the war years, when we were close to starvation, Asher again helped us in every way he could.
     After we had left Warsaw (during the First World War), we continued to hear news of him from time to time. . . I do not know whether he lived to see the Nazi occupation of Warsaw.  He probably died before that.  But such Jews as he were dragged off to Treblinka.  May these memoirs serve as a monument to him and his like, who lived in sanctity and died as martyrs."
This book indeed serves as a monument, to people and places, to a way of life that would vanish in the Holocaust.  Like A Film Unfinished, it opened for me a door to an unfamiliar, fascinating world.  I will be looking for more of Isaac Bashevis Singer's work, and I'd welcome any recommendations of where to start, in his many books, or a good biography of him.

Friday, January 20, 2012

From Paris to Albania in a Model T

Travels with Zenobia, William Holtz, ed.

I came across this book last year, when I was looking for Helen Dore Boylston's "Sister," the published journal of her nursing service in World War I.  The subtitles really caught my eye: first, "Paris to Albania by Model T Ford," which sounded like quite an adventure; and then "A Journal by Rose Wilder Lane and Helen Dore Boylston."  I had no idea Lane and Boylston even knew each other, but in fact they met in Europe after the war and became close friends.  Then when I saw that the journal was intended for Lane's parents, Almanzo and Laura Wilder, I decided I needed to read it.

Unfortunately, I found it a bit thin, and not just in the number of pages (117).  The journal itself, which alternates between Lane and Boylston, covers a little over two weeks.  With their maid Yvonne, the women drove from Paris down to the Riviera, along the coast into Italy, and then south and east to Bari, where they took a ferry across the Adriatic to Durazzo in Albania.  It's an entertaining story, with descriptions of scenery and hotels and the people they met.  They were detained in every country they visited, for some violation of local law, which usually ended in a fine.  They stopped along the way in Monte Carlo, where Rose quickly became addicted to roulette, and in Rome, and frequently for maintenance on their Model T, which they named "Zenobia."  (The reader learns quite a bit about the Model T along the way.)  But it ends the day of their arrival in Durazzo.

The journal is book-ended with a Prologue and an Epilogue,which together make up about a third of the book.  In the Prologue, the editor William Holtz introduces Rose Lane and Helen Boylston with brief biographies.  Lane came to Europe in the wake of the Great War to do publicity work for the Red Cross and the Near East Relief Agency.  As Boylston later related in her published journal, she herself found it difficult to settle into civilian life again after the war, and she came back to Europe to work with the Red Cross as well.  The two met on a train to Warsaw in 1920.  By 1926, they had formed a plan to move to Albania, which both saw as a country emerging from its colonial past under Ottoman rule, still unspoiled by contact with Western Europe, but moving into the 20th century.  Holtz wants to put their ideas in the context of America in the 1920s, divided between the restless energy of the postwar generation and the conservative complacency of the older, and to analyze each woman's personality in light of their earlier experiences and the Albanian plan, which is an awful lot to attempt in a brief Prologue.

The Epilogue consists primarily of letters written by Lane to friends and family, describing their life in Albania.  I found these even more interesting than the journal, and I wish more of the letters, hers and Boylston's, had been included.  It would have changed the nature of the book, of course, and writing that book might have been more complicated than editing the brief travel journal.  Helen Boylston was alive when this book was published in 1982, which may also have been a factor in how it was written.  Rose Lane wrote a book about an earlier trip through Albania in 1923, called The Peaks of Shala, and I will probably try to find a copy of that, to learn more about what she saw and experienced there.

In a brief overview of Lane and Boylston's writing after they left Albania in 1928, Holtz mentions Boylston's great success with the Sue Barton books, which were apparently among the first "career novels" for young readers.  He of course also discusses Lane's work with her mother, and he is clearly in the "Rose wrote the Little House books" camp  (I myself am in the "Laura" camp, especially after reading Pamela Smith's Laura Ingalls Wilder  A Writer's Life last year).

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

A murderer goes free

Anthem for Doomed Youth, Carola Dunn

I've been slowly catching up with Carola Dunn's series of Daisy Dalrymple mysteries, set in the 1920s - so slowly that the latest book was published yesterday, and here I am behind again.

Daisy is an "Honourable," the only daughter of Viscount Dalrymple.  After her brother Gervaise was killed in the Great War, a distant cousin inherited the title and estate.  Daisy also lost her fiancé in the war, and afterwards she made a career for herself writing about country houses and historic villages for magazines.  In the course of one assignment at a stately home, a murder occurred, and Scotland Yard was called in, in the person of Detective Chief Superintendent Alec Fletcher.  Though he was older, a widower with a young daughter, and not of her class, Daisy fell in love with him and they later married.  Over the course of the series Daisy has continued (or contrived) to land in the middle of his cases.  She is a friendly person who attracts confidences, and she usually picks up important clues, which she may or may not share with Alec.  She has confidence in her own judgement, and if she decides a person under suspicion is innocent, she will do everything she can to protect that person, even to the point of withholding evidence. 

This book opens with the discovery of three corpses in Epping Forest.  Alec and his team are assigned to the investigation, which will keep him from the sports day at his daughter Belinda's school over the weekend.  Daisy makes plans instead to go with her friends Melanie and Sakari, whose daughters Lizzie and Deva also attend the school (it is a co-ed Quaker school, with international students like Deva from India).

The story moves back and forth between Alec's investigation of the three bodies, focusing on a possible link between the victims' service in the Great War, and the women's weekend with the girls.  On Sunday afternoon, Daisy and her friends visit the town's gardens, and there in the maze the girls find the body of the school's sports master, an ex-sergeant major and an unpopular bully.  Daisy wants to keep her involvement in this case quiet, and she also wants to protect the girls.  She and the other mothers pull rank on the local police inspector, DI Gant, evade questions, and deliberately confuse him.  Daisy goes even further when she identifies the murderer and decides to shield this person, who in her judgement did not mean to kill and is unlikely to do so again.  In the process, she also encourages Belinda to lie at least by omission to her father and DI Gant (which Sakari says will teach her that a wife should have some secrets from her husband).

The mystery itself, the connection between the two cases, is interesting, and the solution neatly worked out.  But I found Daisy's part in the story really problematical and much too flip, even for a light mystery like this.  While she has shielded suspects and withheld evidence before, she has never taken it on herself to let a murderer go free.  It rather spoiled the book for me, and I found myself wondering how far she will go next time.

Monday, January 16, 2012

The heirs of Redclyffe

The Heir of Redclyffe, Charlotte M. Yonge

The Heir of Redclyffe was published in 1853.  An immediate best-seller, it went through five editions that year and was reprinted year after year through the 19th century.  Charlotte Yonge was 30 at the time, already an established author, and she would go on to write ninety other books, including another best-seller, The Daisy Chain.  But it was The Heir of Redclyffe that made her one of the most popular and influential authors of the Victorian age.  Now, however, her books are difficult to find, and she seems to be much less well known than Elizabeth Gaskell, or even Margaret Oliphant.  I think that's a shame, because the two books of hers that I have read are such engaging, compulsively readable books.  I posted about The Daisy Chain back in June of last year, though of the two, I much prefer The Heir of Redclyffe.

Just a warning, this review will contain spoilers.  I knew something of the plot, from reading an introduction to another book, but it didn't spoil the story for me.  However, you might prefer to discover this wonderful book on your own (in which case, you should avoid any back-cover summaries as well).

The heir of the title is Guy Morville.  Orphaned at birth, he has been raised by his grandfather, another Sir Guy, on the remote family estate at Redclyffe.  At his grandfather's death, he is brought to Hollywell House, the home of his new guardian Mr Edmonstone, whose wife is a distant Morville cousin.  There the new Sir Guy meets his cousins Charles (crippled with a diseased hip), Laura and Amabel, and school-girl Charlotte.  He also meets his cousin Philip Morville, a perfect pattern card of intelligence, education, and accomplishments.  Due to straightened family circumstances he has had to make a career in the army, rather than follow the life of a gentleman and scholar, to which he is so well suited.

Guy finds a warm welcome at Hollywell House, and a family life that he has never had before.  He is immediately drawn to make Mrs Edmonstone his confidant and surrogate mother.  But his relations with Philip are much less smooth.  There is a long-standing divide between their two branches of the family, dating back to a disputed inheritance.  While Guy's line held the estate and the riches, it was also cursed with violence and vice, and he fears that he has inherited the family curse.  Philip, on the other hand, confident in his superior mind and talents, and resenting his undeserved poverty, constantly instructs and corrects Guy, as he does his Edmonstone cousins.  As the last male of the second Morville line, Philip is the next heir of Redclyffe, and it occasionally occurs to him what a better heir he would make, with all the advantages wealth and position would give him.  For the first few chapters, I was in constant dread that Philip was going to be the hero of the book, and I found him completely insufferable, so annoying that I sometimes had to put the book down to remind myself that these were, after all, fictional characters.  Guy, Charlie, Amabel, and even Charlotte find him equally exasperating at times, but he is generally impervious to their attempts to puncture his self-esteem, and there is no one Philip recognizes as an equal, who could teach him to judge himself with much-needed honesty and humility.  I cannot think of a character who has irritated and exasperated me so much (for readers of Georgette Heyer, think of Venetia's Edward Yardley, but ten times more overbearing and interfering).

Philip is especially close to his cousin Laura, the eldest of the Edmonstone daughters.  His fear that she will be ensnared by Guy's title and position makes him realize his own feelings for her, and leads him to a declaration, which results in an understanding between the two (not an engagement, but both consider this binding).  Laura, completely under his spell, makes no objection when he insists they keep this secret from her parents.  I sighed with relief at this point, which the narrator points out as Philip's first step off the paths of righteousness.  Both he and Laura will pay heavily for this.

Guy, meanwhile, has gone up to Oxford, where he proves a diligent but not brilliant student.  More importantly to Yonge, he is a man of faith and charity, constantly struggling against temptations, particularly his dislike of Philip and a violent temper (the besetting sin of the Redclyffe Morvilles).  He spends his vacations with the Edmonstones, where he in turn falls in love with Amy, the second daughter.  Philip, who on very flimsy evidence believes Guy to be leading a life of secret vice, interferes to drive a wedge between Guy and Mr Edmonstone.  In the best Victorian style, Guy is forbidden to see Amy, until a chance encounter proves his innocence of at least some of Philip's charges.  Guy and Amy are then married forthwith, to Philip and Laura's despair.

On an extended and marvelously happy honeymoon in Europe, Guy and Amy meet Philip, a fellow tourist on leave from his regiment.  When they later learn that Philip has fallen victim to a fever and is lying ill and alone in a small Italian village, they do not hesitate to go to his assistance.  Guy spends himself nursing Philip back to health, and then catches the fever himself, which proves fatal in his case.  I don't mind admitting that Guy's death brought me to tears more than once, as it did Jo in Little Women (whom Meg finds crying over the book).  Amy, who is pregnant, is left a widow after four months of marriage.   If her child is a boy, he will be the new heir of Redclyffe.  Philip, who has undergone a complete repentance and conversion, sealed by Guy's self-sacrificial death, realizes with horror that if the child is a girl, he himself will inherit - a prospect that once seemed no more than his due.

Yonge carries the reader through this convoluted plot on the strength of her characters and her narrative voice.  In this she reminds me of Trollope.  I particularly enjoyed Charlie, a young man struggling with pain and disability, whose sharp mind and sharper tongue add welcome notes of acid (his attacks on Philip and his championship of Guy won my heart).  However, faith (not just religion) plays a much larger part in her story than in any other Victorian writer I have read.  Yonge was strongly influenced by the Oxford Movement, under the guidance of John Keble, one of its leading figures and the vicar of a neighboring parish.  Yonge quotes frequently from his popular and influential book of poems, The Christian Year.  The strong and practical faith of Guy and Amy is contrasted with the more intellectual and in the end weaker beliefs of Philip and Laura.

I enjoyed this book so much, and the characters and the story are still vivid in my mind.  I know this is one I will come back to again, and I will be looking for other books by Charlotte Yonge.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

The Classics Challenge: January with Charlotte M. Yonge

I'm taking part in the Classics Challenge this year, hosted by Katherine at November's Autumn.  She will be posting questions of the 4th of each month, for us to answer about whichever classic we are reading at the time.  Fortunately, we have all month to post responses, since I was reading a book about the Civil War on January 4th (and even now, the book I'm reading isn't from the list I posted when I signed up for the challenge).  I am reading The Heir of Redclyffe, published in 1853.

This month's discussion focuses on the author, and because I'm not very far into the book, I'm answering the Level 1 questions (I had a lot of fun researching these):

Who is the author?  Charlotte M. Yonge

What does she look like?

(Source: Wikipedia)

When was she born? Where did she live?   She was born on August 11, 1823 and lived in Otterbourne, a village near Winchester in Hampshire.

What does her handwriting look like?

(Source: http://www.richardfordmanuscripts.co.uk/)
 What are some of the other novels she has written?   She wrote over a hundred books, as well as editing a magazine for many years!  She is best known today for The Heir of Redclyffe and The Daisy Chain.  But this title fascinates me: The Cunning Woman's Grandson: a Tale of Cheddar a Hundred Years Ago (published in 1889).

What is an interesting and random fact about her life?   The road that ran through her village of Otterbourne also ran through Chawton, past the "Jane Austen House."

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

A happy childhood in America

How Dear To My Heart, Emily Kimbrough

I found this at Half Price Books a few years ago, and I bought it along with another of Emily Kimbrough's books, Forty Plus and Fancy Free, which describes a trip she took with three friends to France and Italy in 1953.  The group ended up in London for the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, which Emily covered in radio broadcasts for CBS.  I found the book pleasant enough, but not to compare with Our Hearts Were Young and Gay, and it didn't immediately inspire me to read more of her books.

What did finally get me to take How Dear To My Heart off the TBR pile was reading We Followed Our Hearts to Hollywood, about her adventures with Cornelia Otis Skinner in the movie business.  This book was published a year later, in 1944, and I wonder if writing the first had sparked the second.  Emily Kimbrough was already an established writer and editor at magazines like the Ladies' Home Journal, but following these two books she went on to write several more, travelogues and collections of essays. 

In the Foreword, she writes,
"In these pages I shall not write an autobiography. I shall try only to write something about a happy childhood in America. A childhood that was happy in great part, I think, because it was spent in a little town, where I was not a stranger to anyone. And so I am setting down these things, partly out of a debt of affection to the town, and partly because I would like to say over, for those of us who remember them, some of the things which we shall never see nor hear again. The lamp on the newel post lighted with a wax taper held high in the Winter dusk . . "
I wonder too if the Second World War played a part in her decision to write this book, with its focus on small-town America, and a way of life that had vanished.

The small town is Muncie, Indiana, where Emily was born in 1899.  An only child for many years, she lived in a close-knit neighborhood that included her grandparents in the "big house" as well as uncles and aunts.  Her book is, as she says, not an autobiography, but a series of vignettes that move through the year from the Fourth of July to Christmas.  She recounts adventures in her grandfather's new automobile, her unpleasant introduction to public school, games with neighborhood children, and all the joys of the different holidays.  The tone is nostalgic, but not sentimental, and while she tells these stories from her child's point of view, she still conveys her retrospective adult understanding.  She keeps hearing comments about something that will soon put her nose out of joint, for example, and the reader can guess that her mother is expecting a second child, but Emily only wonders exactly how one's nose gets out of joint.  She seems to have no qualms about telling stories on herself, all the mischief that she gets into, a far from a perfect child (and her parents have no hesitation in spanking her, even in the middle of a store).

I loved reading all the details of life in these Edwardian years in small-town America.  It reminded me a little of Maud Hart Lovelace's Betsy-Tacy books, set in a small Minnesota town during the same years.  Emily's struggles in school also reminded me of Scout's in To Kill a Mockingbird.   And her life in the community, among her extended family, is an interesting contrast to Cornelia Otis Skinner's more bohemian childhood, told in her Family Circle (which was published four years later).  I will be keeping an eye out for Emily's other books, especially The Innocents From Indiana, about her family's move to the big city of Chicago.

Monday, January 9, 2012

A guided tour through Spain

Farewell Spain, Kate O'Brien

I bought this book many years ago, when I first discovered Kate O'Brien's books, and then let it sit on the TBR pile.  When I finally read O'Brien's Mary Lavelle last year, the Spanish setting was so vivid, so much a part of the story, that I could hardly wait to explore it again in Farewell Spain.

This is a complex book, with many layers, not simply the travelogue that I was expecting.  Written during the winter of 1936-1937, it is also a passionate protest against the ravages of the Spanish Civil War, and an elegy for the Spain that she knows and loves.  She fears not just the disappearance of that Spain, but also of Europe itself, through war, and even more war's aftermath, accelerating a drive toward uniformity:
     "If European society survives its next crisis, if science, having destroyed us, permits or maybe compels us to live again, it is to a very new sort of life that these races will be beckoned back . . .
   "The woes and beauties wrought hitherto upon the map by differences of language, faith and climate will be no longer worth consideration for - even if they are still potential - they will be controlled, patrolled by science, the international dictator, which in any case, by air-travel, radio and television will have made all possible novelties into boring fireside matters-of-fact . . .
     "Meanwhile we wait for our old, shaggy, warted world to go off in its last fit. And we count our ill-starred blessings - the junk we have accumulated and so obstinately loved and sought to increase. Temples, palaces, cathedrals; libraries full of moonshine, pictures to proclaim dead persons, quaint legends, quainter personal conceptions . . ."
Farewell Spain is her protest, her defiance, her theses nailed to the door for all to see.  But it is not an angry book, or a sad one (though there are moments of both).  "I write as a sentimental traveller," she says, but she is never that.  And since this is Kate O'Brien, it is a beautifully written and wonderfully readable book.

O'Brien takes the reader on a tour of northern Spain, along the Costa Verde all the way to Compostela, before heading south to Avila and Madrid.  She then travels north again, ending up in Bilboa, where she herself worked as an Irish "miss" and found the inspiration for Mary Lavelle's similar experiences.  Rather than a straight-forward narrative of one trip, O'Brien weaves together memories from different visits over the years.  Reading this I was reminded again how little I know of the geography of Spain.  I kept an atlas open while I read, and I frequently resorted to Google maps to locate the towns she mentions.  O'Brien also frequently refers to Spanish history and literature, and while I recognized some of the names, most of the references went over my head.  One exception was the chapter on Teresa of Avila, whom O'Brien claims as a feminist and "the greatest woman in Christian history."  I have read her Autobiography, and completely failed to understand her great work on mysticism, The Way of Perfection.  But O'Brien's frequent quotes from her letters make me think I need to look for those soon, as well as O'Brien's own monograph on this first woman Doctor of the Church.

I also have to admit myself shamefully ignorant about the Spanish Civil War, the shadow of which hangs over this book.  "As I write [in the first chapter] Irun is burning . . . The café on the corner is a heap of broken stones. A few men stand dejectedly about with guns."  O'Brien, though a proclaimed pacifist, is firmly on the side of the Republicans in the struggle against Franco and fascism.  She links this civil war to the American one: "But at least a war waged on the clear insistence - that government of the people by the people for the people shall not perish from the earth is one very impressive if horrible way of saying something which must never, never be denied . . ."  Franco's government reacted to this open partisanship by barring her from Spain for twenty years.

I was glad to learn from the Introduction that, after the ban was lifted, O'Brien returned many times to Spain before her death in 1974.  If I am ever lucky enough to travel there, this book will be the first thing I pack.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Murder in the provinces

Black Arrow, I.J. Parker

This is the third book in a series of mysteries set in 11th century Japan, the central character of which is Sugawara Akitada, an official in the Ministry of Justice in the imperial capital of Heian-Kyo (today's Kyoto).  The first Akitada story I read was The Masuda Affair, the seventh in the series (and one of my favorite books of 2011), and I am now catching up with the earlier books.

At the end of the second book, Rashomon Gate, Akitada accepted an appointment as the provisional governor of Echigo Province to the north (now the Niigata Prefecture).  As he will discover, this is a very different world from the capital.  It is known as "Snow Country" because of its long hard winters, which make travel, and therefore communication with the capital, impossible once the snows begin to fall.  The territory is also vulnerable to attack from the Ezo (Ainu) people from the north, and local warlords form the first line of defense against them.  As in Echigo, many of the formally-appointed governors prefer to delegate their responsibilities while they live in more congenial surroundings.

Akitada has brought his new wife Tamako (now expecting their first child) to the town of Naoetsu, with his household staff Seimei (his secretary), Tora, Genba and Hitomaro (all former outlaws).  He considers these men members of his family, for whom he is responsible, and their loyalty to him proves vital in this new assignment.  Akitada discovers that his position as governor does not impress people.  Real power rests with the Uesugi family, which holds the impregnable Takata castle, an army of warriors, and the title of High Constable.

Akitada is determined to uphold imperial authority and his own position as governor.  When the townspeople refuse to bring cases to his tribunal, he takes over the investigation of the murder of a local inn-keeper.  When the old lord of Takata, Uesugi Maro, dies and his equally aged retainer Hideo, disappears, Akitada and his staff begin looking into that matter too, as well as the finances of the province.  All this leads Akitada into conflict with the new lord of Takata, and with a prominent local merchant Sunada, both of whom seem to have much too much influence.  He finds unexpected allies in the community of hinin, outcasts, many of them of mixed Japanese and Ezo descent, and with a yamabushi priest, a shaman-healer.  Akitada must draw on all of his resources, including his knowledge of the law, to solve the murders and maintain imperial authority in the province, even against armed attack.

I really enjoyed this story.  While I would not want to be snowed in for the season at Naoetsu, it makes a wonderful setting, particularly for this time of year (even in unseasonably warm Houston).  I don't know much about 11th century Japan, and as always I appreciated the "Historical Note" at the end of the book.  I learned something about the Ezo (Ainu) from Isabella Bird's Unbeaten Tracks in Japan, recounting her travels to the far north of Japan in 1878, which made her one of the first Europeans, men or women, to visit that remote region.

I also enjoyed Akitada's adventures.  I expected him to triumph over the Emperor's enemies, and not just because I've read ahead in the series, but watching him work out the cases and the political situation was very satisfying.  I find him an appealing character, his strong sense of duty and honor mixed with self-deprecation and doubt.  He is at times overwhelmed with responsibility, particularly toward his family, but he also draws strength from them, and they respond with loyalty and affection, forgiving his occasional peevishness and sulks.  I also enjoy reading about all the domestic details of life in 11th century Japan, where tea is expensive and considered more a medicine than a necessity of life.  I'm glad I already have the next book in the series all ready to go.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

The story behind Glory

One Gallant Rush, Peter Burchard

The subtitle of this book is "Robert Gould Shaw and His Brave Black Regiment."  The regiment was the 54th Massachusetts, which was raised in January of 1863, shortly after Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation.  It was the first regiment of African American soldiers raised in the North to fight in the Civil War, which had become a fight to end slavery as well as to restore the Union.  This is the story told in the 1989 film Glory, with Matthew Broderick playing Robert Shaw, and in fact my copy is a movie tie-in, reprinted from its original publication in 1965.

The film opens with the battle of Antietam in September of 1862.  The book opens with Shaw leading his new regiment on parade through the streets of Boston in May of 1863, as they prepare to go to the front.  Then Burchard jumps back to Shaw's birth and early years, to explain how he came to accept this historic command.  The film of course could only hint at his background, which is a shame, because it turns out to be a pretty interesting one.  His parents, wealthy and socially prominent, were early converts to the anti-slavery movement, despite its unpopularity even in the North, working with leading figures like William Lloyd Garrison, Fanny Kemble, and John Andrew (the future governor of Massachusetts).  When Robert was a child, his father bought an estate next to the famous Brook Farm utopian community, where they came to know a whole world of New England intellectuals and philosophers.

After attending schools abroad, in Switzerland and Hanover, Robert returned to enter Harvard University in the fall of 1856.  He dropped out after his junior year to go into business in the New York offices of an uncle, but he found himself bored with the work.  He was caught up in the intensity and excitement of the presidential election of 1860, voting for Abraham Lincoln.  In the crisis that followed, as Southern states seceded, he joined the 7th New York State Militia (as did George Templeton Strong's brother-in-law, Jem Ruggles), later transferring to the 2nd Massachusetts.  His units served in the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia, but they missed most of the major battles in the first years of the war.  In Virginia, Shaw came in contact for the first time with Southern slavery, which deepened his commitment to abolition.  He also advocated the enlistment of black soldiers, who he believed would fight well and whose familiarity with the South could be a major asset for Northern forces.

Within three weeks of the Emancipation Proclamation, Governor John Andrew of Massachusetts had pushed the Lincoln administration to allow him to raise a regiment of "persons of African descent, organized into special corps."  Four days later, he wrote to Robert Shaw in Virginia, offering him a commission as colonel of the new regiment.  Shaw initially declined, thinking himself too young at age 25 and lacking experience of command, but he changed his mind and accepted.  He wrote to his fiancée Annie Haggerty in a very practical spirit:
"Then, after I have undertaken this work, I shall feel that what I have to do is to prove that a negro can be made a good soldier, and that being established, it will not be a point of honour with me to see the war through . . . At any rate I shall not be frightened out of it by its unpopularity . . . I feel convinced I shall never regret having taken this step . . ."
Through the spring of 1863, recruiting agents traveled the northern states and even into Canada to find men for the new regiment.  Unlike the regiments of escaped slaves already serving in the South, the 54th was made up primarily of free men of color, including two sons of Frederick Douglass. (Among the white officers was Wilkie James, the brother of Henry and William James.)  Many people came to inspect the troops in camp, and even those who opposed black enlistment were impressed with their training and military appearance.

On May 28, 1863, the 54th Massachusetts sailed under orders for South Carolina.  They spent the next six weeks skirmishing with Confederate forces on the islands surrounding the entrance to Charleston's harbor.  Exposed to fire for the first time, the men fought well, increasing Shaw's confidence in them.  On July 16th, Shaw led the 54th on a direct frontal attack, uphill across open ground, on the massive Fort Wagner.  It was one of those hopeless suicidal charges that make up the saddest and most frustrating stories of the Civil War.  Shaw fell before the walls, one of the regiment's 281 casualties.  The Confederates, who despised black troops and even more the white officers who led them, refused to return his body for burial, tossing it in a common grave.  His family later asked that he remain there, among his men.

From the film, I knew the general outline of Shaw's story and the fate of the 54th Massachusetts.  For many people seeing the film, it was the first time they learned about the issues facing black troops in the Civil War, including the opposition to their enlistment in the first place, and the fact that they were paid less than white soldiers until 1864.  As usual with film adaptations, I found that elements of the story had been changed for dramatic purposes.  There is no mention, for example, of Shaw's marriage to Annie Haggerty early in May 1863, a marriage both sets of parents opposed, which left her a widow after only three months of marriage.  The book gives additional context, and to me a deeper meaning, to the story of Shaw and his men.  At the same time, it focuses primarily on Shaw, and I would be interested to read more about the soldiers themselves and their experiences.  I did learn that the 54th was among the Union troops that marched in to occupy Charleston in the last days of the war, returning in victory to the place where so many of their comrades had fallen.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

The Woman in Black

The Woman in Black, Susan Hill

I read quite a few of Susan Hill's books last year, starting with The Small Hand and then going on to her Simon Serrailler mystery series.  When The Woman in Black, originally published in 1983, was recently re-issued, I added a copy to the TBR pile. 

Like The Turn of the Screw, it starts out with Christmas Eve ghost stories, but it isn't at all a holiday story.  As the story opens, Arthur Kipps is preparing to join his family in the drawing room of his country home, Monk's Piece.  He and his second wife Esmé have no children of their own, but she brought four children from her first marriage.  The family gathers around the fire, with the lights out, and the stories are told, each more gruesome, more fantastic, than the last.  As Arthur listens, he becomes increasingly uncomfortable, haunted by memories.  When the young people demand a story from him in turn, he abruptly leaves the room, unable to explain.  Standing outside in the frosty darkness, he resolves to write an account of the one ghost story he does know, from personal experience, one that he has never shared with anyone, the memory of which he has tried for many years to suppress.  This account will be left unopened, unread, until after his death.

The story that follows is his account.  Many years ago, as a young lawyer, he was sent to represent the firm at the funeral of a long-time client, Mrs. Alice Drablow, and to sort out her estate.  Mrs. Drablow lived at Eel Marsh House, near the village of Crythin Gifford, in the Fen country.  When Arthur arrives in the village, he finds that the house is isolated, accessible only by a causeway that is underwater at high tide.  He also finds the villages unwilling to talk about Mrs. Drablow, uneasy when they realize why he has come.  Arthur and the deceased's agent, Mr. Jerome, are the only mourners at the funeral, until he notices a woman in black at the back of the church, and later standing among the graves.  No one else sees her, and Arthur's mention of her clearly startles and dismays Mr. Jerome.

Realizing there is a mystery here, Arthur makes his way out to the deserted house, where he encounters her again.  He is determined to discover who she is, perhaps through the lifetime of papers that Mrs. Drablow accumulated, which must be sorted out for the estate.  Against the advice of nearly everyone he meets, he decides to stay in the house to finish the job as quickly as possible.  What happens there makes up the rest of the story.

I finished this book in one afternoon, and it did keep me reading, to find out what happened next and how it all turned out.  (The ending, while I saw it coming, was still a shock.)  I enjoyed seeing Arthur piece the story together through the family archives (and I couldn't help thinking that the local historical society might be interested in the papers he is discarding as rubbish).  Despite all the ghostly encounters, though, I didn't find the story all that scary.  I think the narration is part of the problem.  Arthur is clearly terrified by the ghostly manifestations he experiences, but I didn't feel that terror, and the repetition of the manifestations dulls the effect a bit, or at least it did for me.  I was perhaps not the most sympathetic reader, because while I know the conventions of the ghost story demand that he stay in the isolated house, against all advice, I still wanted him to be more sensible - pack up the papers and take them back to the nice comfortable inn.  I was also frustrated by the villagers' unwillingness to talk to Arthur, about any aspect of Mrs. Drablow's life or history in the place.  I know it is a small village, but isn't there always a town gossip?  The events at Eel Marsh House have personally affected people in the village; as painful as it has been, wouldn't they want to talk to Arthur, at least to warn him?  As the story unfolded, I found myself distracted by the details of Mrs. Drablow's life: what happened to her husband?  Were the manifestations a constant of life at Eel Marsh House?  If so, how did she manage to keep servants?  There is a reference to a house-keeper, but no explanation of what happened to her either.

A film version starring Daniel Radcliffe is coming out later this year, and I think this will make a good movie.  The atmosphere in the village and at the house, the manifestations, could all be conveyed very effectively on film, according to the rule of "Show, don't tell."  I will be interested to see it.