Historical Notes – Revealing the Person Behind the Myths

51zkQJrF6jL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_  The Marquis: Lafayette Reconsidered by Laura Auricchio

In Deborah Harkness’s Time’s Convert, the appearance of the Marquis de Lafayette and his role in both the American and French revolutions piqued my interest in the French aristocrat who is still revered as a hero in the United States (one of only seven people granted honorary U.S. citizenship) yet denigrated in his homeland of France as a traitor.  With almost one hundred pages of reference notes, The Marquis offers a definitive examination of the man and his complex life.

“The Marquis de Lafayette at age nineteen volunteered to fight under George Washington and became the French hero of the American Revolution. In this major biography Laura Auricchio looks past the storybook hero and selfless champion of righteous causes who cast aside family and fortune to advance the transcendent aims of liberty and fully reveals a man driven by dreams of glory only to be felled by tragic, human weaknesses. “

Auricchio’s narrative is informative and conversational – an easy way to learn history.

A Well Behaved Woman by Therese Anne Fowler

II4KCPF3K4I6RPOASD4BZRMMLU  The Vanderbilt name carries with it a sense of awe for me.  I’ve heard of the railroad baron who built an empire and had magnificent homes in New York City with a “beach house,” known as The Breakers in Newport.  I know about Gloria Vanderbilt of skinny jeans fame, and her son, Anderson Cooper, the blue-eyed white-haired newsman.  But who was Alva Smith Vanderbilt?  

Therese Anne Fowler reveals the story of the outspoken  feisty suffragette married to William K. Vanderbilt,  grandson of Cornelius and great great grandfahter to Anderson. In the first half of her life Alva does what is expected of her, marries into money and society, and works behind the ssenes to assure the Vanderbilt name is synonymous with wealth and power.  But after being betrayed by her husband with her best friend, she divorces William and marries her own true love.  Divorce in the Gilded Age was no small undertaking, but she manages.  Eventually, in the second half of her life, with no husband, she uses her money and influence to fight for women’s right to vote and equality.  

Although Fowler’s narrative is sometimes painstakingly slow and the plights of the wealthy seem overbearing, Alva rightfully takes her place among strong women in history.

Just in Time for Halloween

9780399564512  Witches and vampires take on a literary bent with Deborah Harkness, who returns with Diana Bishop, Oxford scholar and reluctant witch, in Time’s Convert.   If you missed the All Souls Trilogy introducing the cast of characters, Harkness thoughtfully brings you into the family with clever references as she tells the new story of what it takes to become a vampire.

Alternating between contemporary Paris and London, and the American colonies during the Revolutionary War, the story fills in the background of one of its main characters. Matthew de Clermont, now Diana’s husband,  when he meets Marcus MacNeil, a young surgeon from Massachusetts, during the war.   Matthew, a vampire, offers Marcus the opportunity for immortality and a new life.  Marcus’s transformation is not an easy one and his newfound family often clashes with his inbred beliefs.  In the present, Marcus’s fiancee is undergoing her own tranformation to becoming a vampire, and Diana is coping with her two year old twins who seem to have discovered their powers.

If you are a reader of magic, the supernatural, and romance, Time’s Convert will satisfy.  And if you are a fan, Discovery of Witches has been filmed and showing in the UK, with Matthew Goode from Downton Abbey playing the handsome vampire.  Not yet in the United States; maybe PBS will add it to its collection next year.

Related Review: Discovery of Witches

The Silence of the Girls

SilenceOfTheGirls_200x300    Pat Barker’s Trojan women really know what’s going on in The Silence of the Girls, but they have no voice in Homer’s Iliad.   If you missed reading this classic and have wondered what all the allusions mean, Barker’s story follows the original plot closely – even to Achilles’ best friend disguising himself with Achilles’ god-given armor.  Unlike other retellings of The Iliad, Barker tells the story from the point of view of the enslaved Trojan women, with the narrator the captured queen Briseis, a friend of the infamous Helen of Troy, who becomes Achilles’ slave.

The battles are brutal, the men are uncivilized, the feasting is sloppy, the hygiene is nonexistent, and the rats are everywhere.  The women observe, serve, and wait.

If you know the story, the plot line is not a mystery and the outcome not a surprise, but Barker uses Briseis to fill in the story behind the glory. In Homer’s The Iliad, Briseis is the catalyst in a quarrel between Agamemnon and Achilles.  After Agamemnon is forced to relinquish his own Trojan slave, he demands Breseis for himself, sparking a crisis when Achilles subsequently refuses to fight, threatening the Greeks’ ability to win the war. Awarded to Achilles as a prize in conquering her homeland, the city of Lyrnessus, Briseis is a minor character referred to by name fewer than a dozen times in Homer’s epic, and then only to emphasize her beauty. Pat Barker gives Briseis a voice.

Barker addresses how differently history treats men and ignores women.   When King Priam of Troy sneaks into the Greek camp to beg Achilles to return his son Hector’s body, he cries:  “I do what no man before me has ever done, I kiss the hands of the man who killed my son.” This moment is among the most celebrated in literature, and yet Briseis’s perspective is very different. “And I do what countless women before me have been forced to do,” she thinks, observing the scene. “I spread my legs for the man who killed my husband and my brothers.”   When Briseis described the famous Helen’s confession of how she’d been raped as a child by a riverbank. “Of course I believed her,” Briseis says. “It was quite a shock to me, later, to discover nobody else did.”

The civilized Greeks who gave us democracy and Socratic inquiry could be very uncivilized. Barker dismisses the legend of the Achilles heel, as well as the glory of all those Greek heroes who have been lionized in songs, plays and books. Breisis tells the real story from the silenced women and ends with an admonition – we change history to suit, soften its horrors to be able to live with it.

“What will they make of us, the people of this unimaginable distant times?  One thing I do know; they won’t want the brutal reality of conquest and slavery.  They won’t want to be told of the massacre of men and boys, and the enslavement of women and girls.  They won’t want to know we were living in a rape camp. No, they”ll  go for something altogether softer….{and} Achilles {will be}granted eternal glory in return for his early death under the walls of Troy…”

Despite the anachronisms and coarse language, Barker’s story makes its point – those silent women’s voices can be very powerful.  In another retelling of a Greek classic, Madeline Miller’s book, Circe, centers around a minor character in The Odyssey, a witch goddess who became the protagonist Odysseus’s lover.  Maybe I’ll read that next.

History Lessons

t_500x300 The Removes by Tatjana Soli

Custer’s Last Stand at the Battle of Little Bighorn is the stuff of legend, and his name lives on in ignominy or heroism, depending on the viewpoint, but Tatjana Soli’s The Removes introduces him as a Civil War hero and follows his battles with the Cheyenne and Sioux, as well as with himself to his court martial, reinstatement after nine months of enforced leave, and finally to his last confrontation.  Despite Custer’s bravado in his fancy attire and long golden hair,  the horror and gore is sometimes too much for him; when he washes and rewashes his hands until they are raw to remove the imaginary blood, it reminded me of Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth – “out. out, damned Spot…”   Like Macbeth, this is a tragedy and not easy to experience.

Soli alternates her story between the young soldier Custer who is married to Libbie Bacon, and Annie, a fifteen year old pioneer girl captured by the Cheyenne and forced to live as a slave among them.  As the key women in the novel, Libbie and Annie represent how the West has changed their lives and their perspectives create an important foil to the violence in the lives of the calvary soldiers and the Cheyenne warriors.

The “removes” calculate the number of times Annie’s life changes, from being captured to trades with other tribes, and finally her return to what is left of her family.  The battles both Custer and Annie witness are fierce and the desperation they both feel is palpable.  Ironically, both Custer and Annie feel more at home in the great outdoors than confined to the “prison” of civilized homes.

The narrative has a stitled staccato rhythm, giving the story the frame of a documentary at times.  As Soli explains the western expansion, the greed for gold, the stealing of Native American territory, the senseless slaughter of people and animals, the story is too horrible to imagine but too compelling to look away.  Custer is both the philandering dandy and the dedicated soldier; Annie is the abused captive as well as the clever girl who barters to survive.  In a note at the end of the book, Soli says “the pendulum swings from simplistic descriptions of Indian warfare in the old Hollywood westerns to the opposite but equally false ones in more current books and films. … We honor the past most when we depict it as accurately as possible without contorting it to contemporary mores.”

Their stories may be fictional, but Soli uses them to retell the unsettling history of the wild west, melding empathetic examples of characters with unforgettable historical events.

Unknown   Leadership in Turbulent Times by Doris Kearns Goodwin

If Doris Kearns Goodwin had been my history teacher in high school, I may have paid better attention.  Since I have not read any of Goodwin’s biographies of the four American Presidents she addresses in her latest examination – Leadership in Turbulent Times – I am looking forward to learning more about the men she identifies as great leaders.  Two are immortalized on Mt. Rushmore – Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt.  FDR is also in the mix but I was surprised she included LBJ as one of the four leaders to emulate.  In her prologue she reveals her special relationship to Lyndon Johnson, whom she first met when she was a White House Fellow, and later helped him with his memoirs.  She prefers to focus on his role in Civil Rights rather than the Vietnam War.

Clearly, Kearns is determined to provide government leadership models by looking back, since the present has few to offer.  In her forward she states:

“It is my hope that these stories of leadership in times of fracture and fear will prove instructive and reassuring.  These men set a standard and a bar for all of us.  Just as they learned from one another, so we can learn from them.  And from them gain a better perspective on the discord of our times.”

I have only just started reading but the book promises a good lesson in history.

It’s Never Too Late to “Meet Me at the Museum”

1250295165.01._SX142_SY224_SCLZZZZZZZ_  Anne Youngson’s Meet Me at the Museum focuses on second chances in life and love, but shifting gears into this slow-paced epistolary novel fired up my unexpected interest in anthropology and had me looking for more information.  The Tollund man, a perfectly preserved prehistoric man found in the Danish bog, now on display at the Silkeborge Museum in Denmark, is the motivation behind a chain of letters between an unhappy older woman dissatisfied with her life on the farm, and a lonely museum curator who has recently lost his wife.  Tina Hopgood initiates the letters with an inquiry about the Tollund man, and Anders Larson, the museum curator responds,  with a short lecture on the exhibit and an invitation to visit.  

After 40 years as a farm wife, Tina is regretting she never visited the museum but also wonders about other options in her life she never had the chance to consider. Recently widowed Anders works at Denmark’s Silkeborge Museum, which houses Tollund Man, and is finding himself unable to move on after the death of his wife.  Gradually, over eighteen months of writing, their salutations progress from “Dear Mrs. Hopgood” and “Best Wishes” to “My dear Tina” and finally to  “All my love.” 

As the letters become more personal, they disclose their struggles and give each other advice.  Both have grown daughters who are about to make major changes in their lives, and both are wondering if their lives have had any meaning.  Throughout the story, Youngson interjects long descriptions of farm life from Tina and details of the Tollund Man from Anders.  Tina’s letters are filled with the monotony of tending chickens and slaughtering pigs.  She describes picking raspberries, noting that no matter how careful she is, she always finds some she’s missed, comparing her life to a missed row of raspberries. As their letters eventually merge into philosophical observations from both correspondents and the realization of their new-found connection, raspberries become their private reference for second chances, with Anders noting “I feel I have overlooked far too many of the fruits in this life I have.”

“Our letters have meant so much to us because we have both arrived at the same point in our lives. More behind us than ahead of us…Please do not be angry with the circumstances of your life … nothing is so fixed it cannot be altered.”

Youngson may be her own inspiration for the story.  As an Oxfordshire farm wife who always wanted to write a novel, she finally did write this debut novel in her sixties, and is now pursuing a Ph.D.  It’s never too late.

UnknownAs for Tallund Man, here’s what I discovered – click here for more information

 

Other Epistolary Novels I’ve Enjoyed:

  • Daddy Long Legs
  • 84 Charing Place
  • The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society
  • The Divorce Papers
  • Dear Committee Members