Tag Archives: history

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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Filed under American history, Book Reviews, Historical fiction, Twentieth century

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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Filed under American history, Book Reviews, Historical fiction, Twentieth century

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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Filed under American history, Historical fiction, Research, Writing Historical Fiction

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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Filed under American history, Historical fiction, Research

Surprising Research: Returning the World War II Military Dead

While working on a chapter that deals with the death of my main character’s uncle in the Italian campaign during World War II, I decided to look up how long it took to bring back the bodies of dead members of the U.S. military. Having grown up during the Vietnam War and seen the televised footage of caskets returning home, I assumed that it might take a few weeks or months at most. But the answer stunned me. The United States did not bring home the first shipment of World War II dead until October 1947, a full two years after the war ended.

More than 400,000 U.S. military personnel died during the war. The government offered the surviving families two burial options: 1) they could choose to have their loved ones buried in an overseas military cemetery, or 2) they could ask to have to the remains returned to the United States for burial.

World War II was a much more widespread and complicated conflict than any the United States had fought before; battlefields ranged across Europe, Africa, and Asia. The government realized that because the dead were found in such far-flung regions—and because not all of those places would be in friendly hands at war’s end—it was likely that many more families would want their loved one’s remains returned than had occurred after the end of World War I, which took place primarily in Europe.

Not all the dead were recovered. The remains of more than 280,000 Americans were found. (Some are still being found.) As it turned out, more than 171,000 families chose repatriation. In a little more than three-quarters of those cases, those who died were buried in private cemeteries, with the rest being eligible for burial in national cemeteries.

Why did it take so long to return the bodies?

  • First the war had to be won. The government had a policy against transporting remains while the conflict continued.
  • Second, after hostilities ceased, the military had an enormous job to get the live troops back home safely.
  • Third, recovering the bodies of the fallen, buried in temporary graves around the globe, was in itself a logistical nightmare.
  • Fourth, the government had to contact all the families of the dead to learn their wishes. The questionnaires did not go out to the families until 1946, and then the government had to compile the results so it would know what to do in each case.

Next week, I will write about the process of bringing the remains home.

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Filed under American history, fiction, Historical fiction, Research, Writing Historical Fiction

Twenty Years After 9-11

I’ve never posted this poem here, but today seems an appropriate day. I wrote it when my brother Keith was serving as a civilian contractor, driving trucks in Iraq, and he told me they weren’t allowed to stop when people ran in the road because of the threat of IEDs (improvised explosive devices). Please note that what happens to the trucker in the poem is something that I imagined, not that my brother experienced. Keith died last December of COVID-19, so now for me personally, this poem relates to two of the great tragedies in our country’s recent history.

Fatal Impacts

I. The Fireman

He never knows what wakes him—

the click of the furnace,

the dull scrape of a snowplow in the street,

his wife’s soft sigh—

but once awakened, he hears explosions,

the loud percussive impact of a body hitting street,

bursting in a wet and heavy instant

like a monstrous water balloon

or a dropped melon.

Like a repeating loop of newsreel,

he sees them jump from the towering pyre

and try to keep on running,

arms pumping, legs striding through the smoky sky

as they plummet to eternity.

And he who could not save them,

nor the comrades lost in the Twin Towers’ fall,

keeps faith by living with the burden of memory—

the smell of burning flesh and fuel

the acrid taste of powdered concrete—

and waits for it to crush him

so he can join the others.

II. The Trucker

The snores are loud in a tent of 40 men,

shaking him from sleep

just as the roar of jet engines

must have vibrated the tower windows

right before the impact.

Eighteen hours he drove that day,

hauling steak, detergent, and stacks of mail

to an army base near Fallujah.

As he returned,

a barefoot boy in dirty clothes,

scrambled over the gravel shoulder

and onto the single-lane highway.

The boy held out his hands before him

in the universal gesture for “Stop”

and squeezed shut his eyes.

Following orders,

the convoy neither slowed nor turned

but drove straight forward to avoid ambush.

His was the truck that hit the slender body,

the initial thud of impact

followed by a bump as he ran over a yielding mass,

each set of wheels encountering less and less of a barrier.

Now he lies on his cot, trying not to shudder,

and tells himself the boy would have grown to be a terrorist,

so that killing him was like squashing a baby scorpion.

Above the snores of his tent mates,

comes the high-pitched hum of an overworked heater.

And hearing its whine, he imagines

that somewhere in the desert,

a brother or uncle or cousin

wails over a broken body

and vows jihad.

Copyright: Ruth Hull Chatlien. May not be reprinted or published without the author’s written permission.

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Zion: Theocracy on the Prairie

For the next few months, I will be writing about various utopian communities that I have been researching as background for my next historical novel. One of the many reasons for my interest in this topic is that I happen to live in a community that was founded as a religious utopia at the turn of the twentieth century. Zion, Illinois, was founded in 1901 by a faith healer named John Alexander Dowie.

Dowie was born in Edinburgh in 1847 to a religious family. His father worked as both a tailor and minister. In 1860, the family moved to Australia to better their economic situation. The young Dowie became interested in the spiritual aspects of healing at an early age. An experiment with his father’s pipe at the age of six made him feel so sick that he swore off the use of tobacco or alcohol. He developed digestive problems once they moved to Australia, a condition that he claimed to heal by praying and trusting in God.

When Dowie was 21, he returned to Scotland to enroll at Edinburgh University, where he studied theology and English. His father called him back to Australia before he obtained his degree, but once there, he was ordained as a minister in the Congregational Church, a denomination he served for nearly ten years. During this time, he published an anti-Catholic work called Rome’s Polluted Springs.

He became an independent minister once he began to preach divine healing, the belief that he could cure people through prayer and the laying on of hands. He was briefly involved with the Salvation Army and later got in trouble with the Melbourne, Australia, authorities for leading unauthorized processions. Fire destroyed his church under questionable circumstances, bringing the suspicion of arson down upon Dowie. He used the insurance money to pay off his debts and then moved to the United States.

He held services up and down the West Coast for a couple of years and then visited Chicago in 1890 for a convention on divine healing. A successful experience healing a woman with a fibroid tumor convinced him that God wanted him to stay there. During the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893, he rented a nearby property and held services of “Divine Healing.” Many scholars believe that the majority of the healings that took place were entirely staged, although there is some evidence that Dowie was able to relieve people of psychosomatic illnesses.

He continued his work in Chicago after the fair, gaining quite a few followers—and substantial opposition from those who thought he was a fraud. In 1896, he founded the Christian Catholic Church in Zion. (At this point, Zion was a reference to the mountain in Israel, not the later community in Illinois.)

Because of the continuing controversies about his work, Dowie secretly bought 6,000 acres of land in far northern Illinois (45 miles north of Chicago) on the shore of Lake Michigan. On that land, he founded one of the only completely planned communities in the world. The streets were laid on a grid with a circular drive surrounding the church at the center of the town. All north-south streets except two were given Biblical names. (The two non-Biblical names were chosen to honor his native Scotland.) East-west streets were numbered, starting with 1st Street on the Wisconsin-Illinois border and going south. A great deal of land was reserved for parks, a feature that continues to distinguish the city today.

The government of Zion was a theocracy, controlled by Dowie’s church, which prohibited consuming alcohol, tobacco, and pork, or practicing modern medicine. Dowie owned all the land in town and offered settlers 1,100-year leases.

The town, supposedly built as a community where believers could lead a perfect Christian life, turned out to be a giant economic fraud. Dowie’s followers were required to deposit their money in Zion Bank, which was not a legitimate financial institution but was wholly under Dowie’s control. He also sold worthless stocks in various Zion businesses. The town was continually in financial trouble, and in 1905 when Dowie traveled to Jamica for health reasons, he was deposed. The town came under the leadership of Wilbur Voliva, Dowie’s lieutenant. An investigation discovered that somewhere between two and three million dollars were missing.

Gradually, the church’s hold on the town diminished. Other churches were founded in Zion, as were new businesses. It remained a dry community for nearly a century, but in 2000, the city council passed an ordinance allowing liquor to be sold within the city limits.

Dowie’s fame, however, will live on as long as people read great literature. James Joyce was so intrigued by the man that he made him a character in his novel Ulysses.

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Oneida: Perfectionism and Free Love

John_Humphrey_Noyes

For the next few months, I will be writing about various utopian communities that I have been researching as background for my next historical novel. The first one is the Oneida Community.

The founder of Oneida was John Humphrey Noyes, who lived from 1811 to 1886. In 1831, Noyes experienced a religious conversion at a revival meeting led by Charles Grandison Finney at the tail end of the Second Great Awakening, a period of religious fervor in the United States that lasted about forty years. Finney was one of the theologians of the period who believed in the doctrine of Christian perfectionism, the idea that believers could be free of sin after their conversion.

Noyes was heavily influenced by this doctrine. After his conversion, he wanted to attain sinlessness, but he was not sure how to achieve it. He began to attend seminary, first at Andover and then at Yale, but his academic studies did not provide the answer he sought. One night in 1834, after preaching a sermon whose theme was, “He that committeth sin is of the devil,” Noyes had a mystical experience as he lay awake in bed. He felt “a stream of eternal love” flow through him three times in succession, and after that, he believed that his heart was clean, his life was sinless, and that God lived within him.

Within two years following this epiphany, he had started a community of “Bible Communists” in Putney, Vermont. Members lived together, worked together, worshipped and studied together and eventually held all property in common. In his most controversial move, Noyes began to preach free love and his own unique doctrine of complex marriage. Each female adult member of the community was the wife of all the men, and each male adult member was the husband of all the women. The reason for this is that exclusive ties of monogamy were considered the source of jealousies and problems. In complex marriage, sexual relations were permissible among any consenting heterosexual partners as long as the men pulled out before orgasm to prevent pregnancy. The community practiced selective breeding, deciding as a group who would be allowed to have children together. As soon as children were able to walk, they were taken from their parents and raised by the community so they would not be corrupted by the worldly teachings under which their parents had been raised.

Needless to say, such practices were highly controversial in the mid-nineteenth century. Noyes was arrested for adultery. Jumping bail, he moved to Oneida, New York, and established a new community. There, the Oneida Community developed successful industries, including the manufacture of a particularly effective steel trap, silverware, and embroidered silks.

Despite their economic success, the community was regarded with suspicion and hostility by their neighbors because of complex marriage. In 1879, Oneida abandoned the practice at their founder’s recommendation. Noyes and a few followers moved to Canada. The remaining members also gave up their socialist institutions and reorganized their businesses as a joint stock company, which continues in operation today.

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Research Photo Sunday

More photos from my trip to Conner Prairie, last summer.

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Doing Distressing Research

Because of my current treatment plan (for breast cancer) and my resulting emotional fatigue, it’s been hard to get excited about working on the new novel. Another reason for my reluctance was the type of research I was doing.

The novel I’m planning to write is based on the true experiences of a woman who was taken captive during one of the most brutal Indian wars in U.S. history. To get a broader background, I decided to read a 400-page book on the beginning of the conflict. I have to say, it was one of the hardest reads I’ve done in a long time. The book went into excruciating detail about the violence committed during the conflict. Some of it was really barbaric.

It’s not like I’ve never done this sort of research before. As a textbook editor and writer, I have covered some really horrible periods of history in which humans have committed unspeakable horrors against each other. Immersing myself in such knowledge always depresses me. I remember one three-week period in which I had to write a chapter on Reconstruction. Having to spend all my working hours dealing with stories of lynchings and the other forms of terrorism inflicted on the recently freed slaves left me feeling so sad and heavy. I was never so glad to be finished with a chapter!

With that assignment, at least, I knew I’d be done after a relatively short time. In contrast, my novel will probably take me a couple of years from research to final revisions. As I read that book that described attack after attack, I began to wonder if I’m really up to dealing with this oppressive material—especially since I’m already dealing with other stressors.

Well, for the time being, I’ve decided to soldier through. I’m just going to have to alternate the upsetting reading with research about more pleasant things, such as fashion or native culture. Fortunately, my main character didn’t personally witness too many barbarities, so I can limit my exposure to that material should I need to. At least, that’s the plan for now.

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