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.

Book Club Bait – A Novel and a Nonfiction Study by the Same Author of Where the Crawdads Sing

What an opportunity – same author, two books – a fiction and a nonfiction book.  Read both but read Where the Crawdads Sing first.

Where the Crawdads Sing

51ZnaGuoiiL._AC_US218_How could a child survive alone in a North Carolina coastal marsh?  Why did the local townsfolk ostracize the child instead of helping her? What survival lessons are to be learned from the natural world of plants, insects, and animals in the wild?  Who killed Chase Andrews? What is a crawdad, anyway?

These are only a few possible questions to discuss after reading Delia Owens’ Where the Crawdad Sings, an amazing coming of age story intertwined with science and observation of nature  – with a compelling unsolved murder mystery thrown in to keep the pages turning.   A respected scientist and winner of the John Burroughs Award for Nature Writing, Owens successfully inserts scientific observation within this compelling fictional tale of a young girl who effectively raises herself after she is abandoned in a ramshackle shack in the Southern marshland.

Five year old Kya’s mother walks away one day and never comes back.  One by one her four older brothers and sisters leave too; only her abusive alcoholic father is left, and eventually he is gone.  Although she tries attending school for one day, the taunting she receives is unbearable to this sensitive and shy child; she never goes back, and lives in solitude for most of her young life.  Her social interactions are limited to the seagulls and the fish.

A born naturalist and observer, Kya becomes an expert in the natural life of the marsh, taking samples and creating precise drawings to document her findings. Owens cleverly connects Kya’s observations to lessons and secrets she adapts for survival.

“Kya honed her skills of harvesting mussels by watching the crows; she learned about dishonest signals from the fireflies; she learned about loyalty and friends from the seagulls.”

As she grows into a wild beauty, she attracts two young men from the town – Tate, who shares her love of nature and teaches her to read, and the former high school football captain resting on his laurels, who lies to her with promises of marriage to get her to sleep with him.

The story alternates years from Kya’s young life as the “Marsh Girl” and her present day (1969) trial for murder.  The storyline is easy to follow, and the ending is satisfying, but the story offers so much more.  Owens is painlessly educating the reader while teasing out a possible murder mystery.

I really wanted a book in my hands, so I bought the hard cover, but I did check the audible version first (sadly I had no credits available) and the sample had endearing Southern accents in the dialogue.  Either way – a good book with an unlikely combination of being both informative and suspenseful.

51DPKT-EQEL._AC_US218_Cry of the Kalahari

Owens has co-authored three non fiction nature books with her husband, Mark Owens: Cry of the Kalahari, The Eye of the Elephant, and Secrets of the Savannah, all  based on their research in Africa.  Where The Crawdads Sing is her first foray into fiction.  I found Cry of the Kalahari in my library system, and am now reading through this nonfiction account of two American zoology graduate students who embarked on their own research study in the Kalahari Desert in the 1970’s.

“After selling virtually everything they owned to fund their daring trip, they flew to Africa with only $6000 in their pocket, determined to live in the wild and study animals that had never encountered humans before. This is the tale of their seven years spent in the desolate wilderness of Botswana, with only the animals for company… camping out in the Kalahari Desert with lions, jackals and hyenas regularly wandering into their camp.”

The book has a conversational style almost like reading their diary – but also includes scientific observations and over thirty amazing close-up pictures of them with lions sleeping nearby, jackals investigating their tents, and other wild animals looking at home in their camp.

Book Club Picks

Unknown     It’s that time of year again; book clubs are organizing their lists for monthly discussions.  How do you pick books for your book club?

When my book clubs identify books a few years old, I’m often reluctant to reread, especially if it would require me to take notes on the characters; however, a time-honored book by one of my favorite authors is never a chore, and I relish immersing myself in the story again.  Wallace Stegner’s Crossing Into Safety appears on one list, and the title jarred me into remembering why I liked it so much – it’s worth rereading to get that feeling again.

Not many book clubs identify best sellers or just published books – maybe because those books are not readily available in the library, or maybe because they just haven’t come to the attention of the group.  Sometimes when I am reading a new book, I wonder what others would think about it, but it’s often years before it appears on a book club list.  My good friends across the waters often save me with immediate discussions by email.

Now and then, a book I’ve missed appears on a book club list – usually nonfiction and finally in paperback – and I am grateful to know it.  Book clubs can trigger a new interest or provide an informative window.  I still remember reading and discussing Barbara Chase-Riboud’s Hottentot Venus and Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel, and gaining new insights into areas I never would have picked to read about.

Here are a few selections for discussion from book clubs I’d like to join.  Have you read any?  Are any on your list of books to read soon? The first set is from my friends in California, the second is closer to home.

  • The Women in the Castle by Jessica Shattuck
  • The Good Daughter by Jasmine Darznik
  • Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman
  • Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegman
  • Prairie Fires: The American Dream of Laura Ingalls Wilder by Caroline Fraser
  • The Map of Salt and Stars by Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar

 

  • The Ghost Writer by Philip Roth
  • Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
  • The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark
  • The Overstory by Richard Powers
  • Green Island by Shawna Yang  Ryan
  • All for Nothing by  Walter Kempowski

 

 

 

Hemingway at Eighteen

After reconnecting with an old friend today in Kansas City, of course our conversation meandered toward books. Her most recent read is a book set in Kansas City about one of my favorite authors. The local bookstore is, not surprisingly, sold out, so I’ve downloaded the ebook. What better book to read in Kansas City than Steve Paul’s Hemingway at Eighteen: The Pivotal Year That Launched a Legend – Hemingway’s year as a journalist for the Kansas City Star.

The Chicago Review Press Overview:

“In the summer of 1917, Ernest Hemingway was an eighteen-year-old high school graduate unsure of his future. The American entry into the Great War stirred thoughts of joining the army. While many of his friends in Oak Park, Illinois, were heading to college, Hemingway couldn’t make up his mind and eventually chose to begin a career in writing and journalism at the Kansas City Star, one of the great newspapers of its day. In six and a half months at the Star, Hemingway experienced a compressed, streetwise alternative to a college education that opened his eyes to urban violence, the power of literature, the hard work of writing, and a constantly swirling stage of human comedy and drama. The Kansas City experience led Hemingway into the Red Cross ambulance service in Italy, where, two weeks before his nineteenth birthday, he was dangerously wounded at the front.Award-winning writer Steve Paul takes a measure of this pivotal year when Hemingway’s self-invention and transformation began—from a “modest, rather shy and diffident boy” to a confident writer who aimed to find and record the truth throughout his life. Hemingway at Eighteen provides a fresh perspective on Hemingway’s writing, sheds new light on this young man bound for greatness, and introduces anew a legendary American writer at the very beginning of his journey.”

Never Caught – The Washingtons’ Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave Ona Judge

never-caught-9781501126390_lg   With every day exposing another revelation about someone famous – now infamous – Erica Armstrong Dunbar’s National Book Award Finalist, Never Caught, adds to the list of politicians who are not who they seem.  If you think of George Washington as the stalwart leader of the Revolutionary troops, the fatherly first President, or even the boy who chopped down the cherry tree and would not lie about it, Dunbar’s story of Ona Judge may change your impression.

Modern accounts of history sometimes conveniently forget the founding fathers used slaves to run their households and, in the case of Southern aristocrats, kept thousands to run their plantations and farms.  Ona Judge was born into slavery and came to Mount Vernon with Martha Custis as part of her dowry.  When the Washingtons moved to the Philadelphia White House, she was among the trusted household slaves who came with them as Martha’s personal dresser and attendant.  Ever the politician, Washington maneuvered around Pennsylvania’s 1780 gradual abolition law, sending his slaves back from Philadelphia to Virginia every six months to prevent them from claiming freedom.  Pennsylvania law required the emancipation of all adult slaves who were brought into the commonwealth for more than six months.

On May 21, 1796, as George and Martha Washington ate their supper in the Philadelphia Executive Mansion, their twenty-two year old house slave, Ona Judge, walked out of the house and into freedom. With the help of the free black community in Philadelphia, Judge made her way to Portsmouth, New Hampshire where the free black community and white supporters provided refuge.

Dunbar’s history exposes the Washingtons as slave holders who adamantly believed in keeping their human property, and she notes their shock at the “ingratitude” of Judge; the President wrote she had fled “without any provocation.” Later, Judge recounted she had “never received the least moral or mental instruction” while with the Washingtons, and had been treated as property, just like all her family.  Despite being viewed as a privileged household slave by the Washingtons,  they determined how and where she lived.  Martha Washington’s gift of the slave to her newly wed granddaughter triggered Judge’s escape.

When Judge runs away before the group returns to Virginia at the the end of the Presidency, Washington uses his political influence and substantial power, sometimes illegally, to find her and bring her back.  Washington was willing to abuse his office and power to hunt another human being, while Martha Washington’s outrage fueled her husband’s pursuit of Judge.

Amazingly, Judge is able to negotiate with one of Washington’s abolitionist friends when she is first found in New Hampshire, but ultimately she must run again, always living in fear of being found. Judge remained firm that she would “‘rather suffer death’ than return to slavery” as Dunbar exposes the emotional toll of separation from family and the physical and economic realities of day-to-day living for black women.  Her life of freedom costs her security and left her in poverty, but her progeny are finally rewarded with a better life.

As a fugitive, Dunbar remained hidden throughout her life, and she protected the people who gave her refuge. Dunbar’s account uses Judge’s 1845 interview in the Granite Freeman and 1847 interview in the Liberator, the only recorded interviews Judge gave about her life, after many who had helped her had died.  Well-referenced manuscripts, letters, journals and approximately 130 secondary sources add to her documentation as she convincingly immerses the reader in the life of Ona Judge and changes the perception of George Washington.