Category Archives: American history

Sunday Review: The Social Graces by Renée Rosen

The Social Graces tells the story of the rivalry between two women, a generation apart, who led New York Society in the late 1800s.

Caroline Schermerhorn Astor was known as THE Mrs. Astor. If you weren’t among the 400 socialites invited to her annual ball or her summer clambake in Newport, RI, you simply weren’t part of the elite. And people with “new money”—the railroad barons, etc.—didn’t have a prayer of receiving one of her coveted invitations. That is, until determined, clever Alva Vanderbilt came along.

This sharp dichotomy between old and new money is tremendously ironic. The founder of the Astor fortune, the first John Jacob Astor, was hardly a cultivated person. I describe him this way in my first novel, The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte:

Astor was a short man with dark blond hair, drooping brown eyes, and a large pointed nose. He spoke English with a German accent, and his manners were nearly as rough as the fur trappers who had made his fortune, but Betsy liked him because they shared the traits of ambition, determination, and practicality.

To be honest, I wasn’t sure how much I’d like a novel about two wealthy, privileged women competing to be the queen of New York society. However, I thought that, in their separate narratives (each has third-person point-of-view chapters threaded throughout the book), Rosen dramatized enough of the heartbreaks they endured and the life lessons they learned to convey their essential humanity. Both women make terrible mistakes with regard to their children, but in this portrayal at least, I never doubted their good intentions. (I’ve read enough other accounts of Alva Vanderbilt to wonder if Rosen was perhaps being too kind.)

Rosen made one other choice in the novel that I absolutely loved. Two of my favorite pieces of literature—the short story “A Rose for Emily” by William Faulkner and the poem “Richard Cory” by Edwin Arlington Robinson—share an unusual characteristic: both are narrated by the collective voice of the community in which the main character lives. I have always felt this modern version of the Greek chorus adds a unique perspective and have wished that more authors would make use of the technique.

Well, Rosen has a third voice to her narrative, in addition to the focusing closely on the lives of each woman. She has chapters narrated by “society” that give the collective opinion on the actions of Caroline Astor and Alva Vanderbilt. The last word, so to speak. This device reveals more of the broader impact of the two women, and I found it very effective.

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Sunday Review: Booth by Karen Joy Fowler

This is the first book of Fowler’s I’ve read, and I didn’t know what to expect. I checked it out of the library because learning more about the famous, or infamous, Booth family intrigued me.

For those who don’t know, John Wilkes Booth, the man who assassinated Lincoln, was a younger son of a famous family of 19th-century Anglo-American actors. Their father, Junius Brutus Booth, was highly acclaimed as was John’s older brother Edwin. Another brother, Junius Jr., was also an actor although not as highly regarded. I already knew from past research that during the Civil War Edwin actually saved the life of Abraham Lincoln’s oldest son, Robert—an event that can truly be described as stranger than fiction. So I wondered what other surprising things I might learn about the Booths.

The book is divided into sections offering the point of view of different members of the family, including sisters Rosalie and Asia and brother Edwin. In the author’s note at the end, Fowler tells us that although Rosalie existed, almost nothing is known about her—her existence in the surviving family records is summed up by the repeated epithet “poor Rose”—so that narrator is an almost entirely fictional creation. In Fowler’s hands, she is old-fashioned, less gifted than her creative siblings, unusually close to her mother, haunted by the memory of the many brothers and sisters who died young, and in constant pain from worsening scoliosis.

Asia is devoted to her family, particularly her brothers. To her, being a Booth is everything, so she plans to chronicle the careers of her thespian father and brothers. Yet, she is unconventional in her own way and provides an entirely different perspective on the Booth tribe than her much older sister does. Asia is the one who most represents what it is like to adore a relative who later commits a monstrous public crime.

Edwin is the Booth most haunted by the legacy of the family patriarch. As a boy, he was charged with accompanying his father on tour and trying (impossibly) to keep him from drinking. Edwin longs without much hope for Junius Sr. to acknowledge him as the heir best equipped to carry on the Booth acting legacy. These family obligations and his own personal failings oppress Edwin for years, along with a growing rift with John, who becomes increasingly radical as the war marches to its bloody end.

This then is the family that produces the assassin who became perhaps the most vilified American of the late 1800s. The book sustained my interest throughout; the shifting points of view provide sometimes contradictory opinions that help show what a tangle it can be to sort out what goes into the making of a killer.

My main complaint, however, is that the novel felt to me more like an intellectual exercise rather than an emotional journey. I remained largely unmoved even by the end of the story, and for that reason, I feel that the book falls short of the great novel it might have been.

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Sunday Review: The Masterpiece by Fiona Davis

Fiona Davis specializes in writing historic fiction about well-known buildings in New York City, and I have loved several of her novels. This time she focuses on Grand Central Station. The Masterpiece is a dual-timeline story set in the late 1920s and the mid-1970s.

The 1920s timeline focuses on Clara Darden, a young artist from Arizona who came to New York to study at the Grand Central School of Art. (Did you know there was once an art school on one of the upper floors of Grand Central? I didn’t.) Now working there as an instructor, she has to fight against two kinds of bigotry—sexism and the ingrained belief that illustrators are less-talented and less-important than “serious painters.” She meets and becomes involved with two very different men: a wealthy young poet and a fiery experimental painter from Armenia. Little do any of them know that the high life of the 20s can’t last forever; the economy is heading for a crash that will turn the country upside down and make art a dispensable luxury in a grim new world of standing in soup lines and making do with frayed, years-old clothing.

The 1970s story focuses on Virginia Clay, a women who is recently divorced and struggling to support herself and her daughter. She fails to qualify for the secretarial job she interviews for and ends up working at the Grand Central information booth. By this time, the depot is dirty and neglected—no longer the beautifully decorated showplace it was in the 1920s—and it’s home to drug addicts and other unsavory types, causing passengers to spend as little time there as possible. The building is in danger of being torn down, with only the lower sections incorporated into amuch larger structure.

One day, Virginia happens upon the abandoned art school and discovers a long-forgotten painting that speaks to her deeply. It also reminds her of a painting she saw in a magazine: a piece of art by the painter using the pseudonym Clyde, which is about to go on auction for a fortune.

The art school is the obvious tie between the two storylines, but as Virginia works to both save Grand Central and uncover the truth about the painting she found, more links between the two stories emerge. I found this a very enjoyable read.

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Sunday Review: A Woman of Intelligence by Karin Tanabe

This novel seemed like an appropriate choice to follow up Stephanie Marie Thornton’s A Most Clever Girl because both deal with women in the intelligence game in mid-twentieth century United States. The premise intrigued me enough to overlook my qualms about the cover image: “It’s stunning,” I thought, “but that outfit is more 1962 than 1952.” In this case, I absolutely should have judged the book by its cover. The story never felt authentic to me.

Katharina, the daughter of immigrants, grew up speaking four languages and has since become conversational in at least one more—Russian. The novel opens in the early 1950s with Katharina and a friend watching their very young children in Central Park. The friend seems to have taken to motherhood effortlessly; she’s calm, empathetic, and decisive in dealing with her daughter and any crises that arise. In contrast, Katharina is easily overwhelmed by her rambunctious toddler and crying baby.

Once her “present-day situation” is established, we go back in time to her life just after World War II. Because of her skill set, Katharina gets a job as a simultaneous translator at the UN (similar to Audrey Hepburn in the movie Charade, which is one of my all-time favorites, so I was intrigued). However, from the start, I found it hard to relate to Katharina. Even though she mentions in passing that translating the important discussions at the UN helps her feel that she is contributing meaningfully to world peace, that doesn’t truly seem to be what she loves most about her life. Rather, she rhapsodizes about being single and going out with her French friend, eating great food, drinking all night, and flirting with men, often going to bed with them. She comes across as a shallow hedonist.

Unlike many young women of the time period, she is not pursuing marriage. However, when she meets handsome Tom Edgeworth, a devoted and much-loved pediatric surgeon, she falls for him and he for her. They marry, not exactly in haste, but without much effort to discover if they are truly compatible as life partners, not just dinner partners and bedmates. Tom has made it perfectly clear that he expects the woman he marries to provide him with children as quickly as possible and to devote herself to them full-time. It seems to me that if Katharina is half as intelligent as we’re supposed to believe, she would have seen the red flags right away. Her French friend certainly tried to get her to view the prospect realistically. Yet Katharina marries Tom with a disturbing lack of concern.

Faster forward to motherhood, and Katharina is miserable, “trapped in a gilded cage” as the book jacket says. When she develops insomnia and starts drinking heavily and behaving erratically, Tom has little sympathy for his wife. Instead, he grows even more rigid even though he suspects she is having a breakdown.

Suddenly, in the midst of this increasing discord, the FBI recruits her. They plan to arrange things so she’ll encounter her former college lover, Jacob Gornev, in hopes that she will eventually be able to spy on him—because he is highly placed among American communists. (Is it just a coincidence that his name is so similar to Jacob Golos, the real-life communist spy who played such a prominence role in A Most Cleve Girl? I doubt it.)

Katharina’s main contact at the FBI is Turner Wells, a black agent who is spying on a civil rights group because, although he believes in civil rights, he’s afraid of too much communist influence on the movement. (A situation I found to be really distasteful and rather peculiar for a white author to place her one prominent and supposedly sympathetic character of color in.) To add one more bit of spice to this improbable stew of ingredients, Tanabe decided to have Katharina feel an almost instantaneous but forbidden sexual attraction to Turner.

The feminist exploration of motherhood might have worked on its own or with a different partner story, and the tangled loyalties of FBI agents could have been quite interesting. But the two storylines felt forced together in a marriage that was as incompatible as Katharina and Tom’s.

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Sunday Review: A Most Clever Girl by Stephanie Marie Thornton

This historical novel is based on the life of Elizabeth Bentley, an American who was recruited into the American Communist Party by friends. Soon thereafter, Bentley discovers a valuable role she can play for the party, a role that she believes will also help her country. Bentley falls in love with her handler, Jacob Golos, and together they form the largest foreign spy ring in the United States. All through World War II, she tells herself that she is not a traitor to her country because the Soviet Union is a U.S. ally so to help one is to help the other.

Things become much more perilous after the war when the United States and Soviet Union enter the period of hostility known as the Cold War. Events test Elizabeth’s loyalties until eventually she must irrevocably choose sides.

Bentley’s life is fascinating, and she certainly played a pivotal role in the mid-twentieth-century history. However, my enthusiasm for the novel was blunted a bit by its format. It is told as a dialogue between Elizabeth and a young woman who is searching for answers about her biological mother, whom she believes was one of Elizabeth’s associates. I think the story would have been more vivid if it hadn’t been spun in this retrospective way.

Despite that quibble, I recommend A Most Clever Girl to anyone interested in the era of Red scares, McCarthyism, and the Cold War.

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Sunday Review: Painting the Light by Sally Cabot Gunning

I was first drawn to this historical novel because it’s about an artist. As it turns out, the subject of painting plays less of a role in the story than I’d hoped, but I still enjoyed it thoroughly.

Ida Russell has been battered by life’s storms. Before the story opens, every member of her family of origin has died from drowning: her father and two brothers by accident, her mother by suicide. Before these tragedies, Ida was a promising painter and art student in Boston. However, lonely and weighed down by grief, she decides after an all-too-brief courtship to marry Ezra Pease, a sheep farmer from Martha’s Vineyard.

After the marriage, Ida discovers to her chagrin that Ezra is a lazy farmer, an unkind husband who alternates between inattention and disparagement, and a habitual gambler who takes part in nightly poker games in town. The charm he displayed during their courtship has vanished, along with her family property, which he sold as soon as he had the legal right as her husband to do so. The running of the household and many of the duties of the farm fall to Ida, leaving her no time to paint. Two years into their marriage, Ezra and Ida are barely on speaking terms.

Ezra and a friend named Mose open a salvage company, and the work occasionally takes them away from home—absences that Ida relishes—but that business doesn’t prosper any more than the farm does. Shortly after the novel begins, Ezra and Mose leave for a salvage job in Rhode Island. While they are away, a terrible storm hits, and their company boat catches fire and sinks. A ship named the Portland traveling to Rhode Island also sinks with great loss of life. A few days afterward, Ida is stunned to receive a letter from Ezra written just before he and Mose were about to board the ill-fated vessel. Although their bodies never wash ashore, they are presumed dead because only a small portion of those lost in the Portland are ever recovered. Although Ida retains little love for her husband, losing another person to drowning feels like an unnecessarily cruel trick of fate.

As Ida sets to work trying to make sense of her husband’s assets, she encounters Mose’s brother, Henry Barstow, a man she’s met before and liked. They team up to settle the estate and see if anything remains for either of them to inherit. Ida’s financial situation is dire. Ezra’s lies and deceptions—and the destruction of the salvage boat—have left her with nothing to live on but the grudging support of her husband’s aunt. Complicating matters, Ida finds herself more and more attracted to Henry, who is married but also in a foundering relationship.

Ida makes many discoveries through the course of the story—about her husband, about secret schemes, and about the island residents it takes her so long to come to know. Most importantly, she learns to rely on herself and to feel confidence in her own opinions rather than society’s dictates. 

Highly recommended.

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Teenage Boys, 1940s

While doing research for my current work-in-progress, I wanted to find vintage photos of teenage boys in the 1945s. Fortunately for me, Life magazine published a photoessay on teen boys in 1945. Fast forward to the 1.54 mark of the this video.

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Sunday Review: Where the Light Enters by Sara Donati

This novel is the sequel to the 2015 novel The Gilded Hour, which I also enjoyed.

Where the Light Enters takes place in New York in 1884, and through it, the reader gets to glimpse both those who are comfortably well off and those who are struggling just to survive. As in the previous novel, the two main characters are Doctors Anna and Sophie Savard. Anna is a surgeon. Sophie is a double rarity—not only a female physician, but also a multiracial one—which causes her to experience double-pronged discrimination. 

Anna and Sophie are cousins, but because both were orphaned as children, they were raised together by an aunt and are as close as (or possibly closer than) sisters. The story opens at a particularly difficult time for Sophie; she is returning from Europe, where her husband went to be treated for tuberculosis—without success. Now, as a widow who has inherited a substantial estate, she must decide whether to return to her medical practice and how else to carry on with her life when all she wants to do is grieve the man she has loved since they were children.

In the previous book, the two doctors—and their midwife aunt—came under the scrutiny of Anthony Comstock because of his crusade against the propagation of knowledge about birth control. Comstock appears in this novel as well, falsely accusing one of the cousins of urging a patient to have “an illegal operation,” i.e. an abortion.

Anna is married to Detective-Sergeant Jack Mezzanotte, whose large Italian family plays an important role in both books. Shortly after their marriage, Anna and Jack take in three Italian immigrant orphans, but the Church objects to the children being raised by people who aren’t “good Catholics.” The fate of the three Russo children is a thread that continues into Where the Light Enters.

Jack’s work as a police detective is another thread that ties both books together. In the first novel, he and his partner Oscar try to solve a series of six grisly murders that were apparently intended to punish women for seeking an abortion. The investigation of those cases continues into the second novel and grows more urgent when new cases arise that appear to be related to the earlier murders.

For me, the characters are what make this book an unforgettable experience. I loved Anna, Jack, Sophie, and Rosa especially, but all of the main and secondary characters are vividly drawn. The author does an adequate job filling the reader in on the essentials from the earlier story, so it’s not necessary to read the two novels in sequence, but I recommend doing so.

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The Railway Express Agency

Photo Credit: Michael Rivera

When I was a teenager, every summer we would go to a picnic hosted by the company my mother worked for. One of the features of the event was a watermelon-weight-guessing contest, and it was because of this game that I learned about a peculiar skill of my father’s.

Anyone who wanted to play would pick up the designated watermelon and guess its weight. I clearly recall the first time it happened. Dad walked up to the watermelon, picked it up, moved it up and down a few times, and said, “Twenty-seven and a quarter pounds.” People laughed at how precise his number was. After everyone had a turn, my mom’s boss revealed the melon’s weight. It was exactly 27.25 pounds. Dad’s on-the-noses guesses happened several years in a row.

You see, in the decades before UPS became a nationwide shipping service, the United States had the Railway Express Agency, and sometime in the years before I was born, my father worked for them. So he handled a lot of packages in his day and learned to judge their weight with uncanny accuracy.

My parents, decades after Dad worked for Railway Express, but still enjoying watermelon!

The agency was founded as the American Railway Express Agency in 1918, soon became American Railway Express Inc, and for most of its existence (1929–1960), operated under the name Railway Express Agency.

The agency shipped packages all across the United States by way of special railcars attached to passenger trains and by trucks to the nearest train depot from towns that weren’t on the railroad. After World War II ended, a coal shortage hit the nation, forcing the railroads to cut back on passenger service. That made the agency’s job of routing shipments more complicated because Railway Express didn’t have trains of its own.

The shipping agency faced other difficulties during the postwar years. Toward the end of the war, the federal government authorized the creation of a system of interstate highways, which would make truck shipments more feasible than before. Also, during the postwar boom, more families bought automobiles, and family road trips became increasingly popular. This caused a further decline in rail travel.

To keep its indispensable place in the nation’s economy, the agency acquired a fleet of refrigerated rail cars, known as reefers, for express shipments of perishable goods. That strategy bought the agency only a short-lived reprieve, however. Shipping by truck increased, and UPS began to ship by air. Railway Express failed to keep up, and in 1975, the agency (by then called REA Express, Inc.) terminated operations.

Because of the family history, in the new novel I’m writing, I’ve decided to have the father of my main character work as a package handler for good old Railway Express. The novel is set in the 1940s and 1950s, the last glory days of a bygone American institution.

Photo Credit: Rian Castillo

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Bringing Home the WWII Dead

After the end of World War II, the first shipment of the remains of U.S. military dead arrived in the United States in October 1947. Congress had authorized the U.S. Army to spend $200 million bringing back the dead of all the armed forces as well as civilian federal employees. As I mentioned last week, families had the option of having their loved ones buried in cemeteries overseas, which is also where those remains that could not be identified were buried (except for one that was returned to be buried in the tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington). The majority of families, however, wanted their loved ones brought home.

The army stationed people at military terminals located in two U.S. ports—Oakland, California, and Brooklyn, New York—to coordinate the unloading of the ships and the routing of remains by rail to fifteen distribution centers across the country. The army used its own fleet of mortuary cars, converted primarily from wartime hospital cars.

The military made every effort to treat the fallen with dignity. The remains of soldiers, sailors, and marines were not listed or handled as cargo; they were considered passengers. Military guards, who were recruited from regular troops, accompanied every train.

Once the remains reached the intended distribution center, they either went by hearse to the final location, if it was close enough, or on a passenger train, following the same procedures that railroads used for normal shipments of human remains.

Each of the dead had a military escort, who would be from the same service branch and of the same rank, sex, and race as the deceased. These escorts were not the same personnel as the troops who worked as train guards. The escorts were the only members of the military to interact personally with the loved ones of the fallen, so they went through five weeks of training on what to expect, how to answer questions, and what emotional and psychological reactions they might encounter. Some of their duties included:

  • Making sure no caskets were lost
  • Ensuring that railroad personnel handled the caskets with dignity
  • Verifying locations and identities
  • Seeing that the caskets were draped with flags whenever they were in public view
  • Carrying a new flag for the funeral, blank ammunition rounds for graveside salutes, and reimbursement forms for the funeral expenses

By the time the army had finished repatriating all of the World War II dead, remains of personnel fallen during the Korean War had begun to arrive in Oakland, thus extending the program a few more years.

Source: Murrie, James I. and Naomi Jeffery Petersen. (February 2018). Last Train Home. History Net. Accessed November 17, 2021 from https://www.historynet.com/last-train-home.htm

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