Tag Archives: history

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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Book Review: The Wreck of the Columbia

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Imagine looking forward to a midnight steamboat excursion on the river, only to have your plans disrupted because your employer is late coming back from an errand and you don’t get off work in time. You go to bed bitterly disappointed . . . and later wake up to the terrible news that the boat sank in the river and several of your friends and acquaintances have drowned.

The tale of a young woman who experienced such a shock is the dramatic opening to the book The Wreck of the Columbia by Ken Zurski. The Columbia was a steam-powered, paddlewheel, riverboat. At its last inspection, it had been called the safest boat in western waters, but on July 5, 1918, it suddenly sank in the Illinois River and broke apart. Of some 500 passengers aboard the vessel that night, 87 died.

Zurski has resurrected this story from the forgotten pages of history. His well-researched account includes profiles of many of the passengers aboard the steamer that fateful July night as well as a brief history of steamboats and the towns of Pekin and Peoria, which were most affected by the disaster. He recounts the heroic attempts to rescue the people who were trapped in the wreckage and later to salvage the bodies so they could be returned to their families for burial. Zurski goes on to explain the investigation into the causes of the sinking and the legal proceedings that followed. The account also contains several brief tangents to help people better understand the time period in which the accident happened.

One nice touch to the book is that each chapter opens with a photograph of a person or object of interest to the story. The images help put a human face of the disaster.

I think this book has a wide appeal. People interested in the history of the early 20th century, the Midwest (especially Illinois), and transportation should find it fascinating. And, of course, the book is a natural for anyone who’s been fascinated by the history of the Titanic or Lusitania. While the death toll from the sinking of the Columbia was much smaller than either of those two tragedies, it still made national headlines, and it had a devastating effect on the town of Pekin.

My major complaint with the book is that it doesn’t have an index. The stories of some of the passengers are told in installments in different chapters, and when I hit the later parts of those stories, sometimes I wished I could easily find the earlier mentions. Still, it was an engrossing history, and I highly recommend it.

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Betsy’s Circle: John Carroll

JohnCarrollPeale

John Carroll by Rembrandt Peale [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Although Betsy Bonaparte’s family was Presbyterian, she had a Catholic wedding because Catholicism was the religion of the Bonapartes. The man who married Jerome and Betsy was none other than the first Roman Catholic bishop in the United States.

John Carroll was born in 1735 in Upper Marlboro, Maryland. He came from a prominent family and was a cousin of Charles Carroll of Carrollton, one of Maryland’s four signers of the Declaration of Independence. Because there were no Catholic schools in the United States at the time, John Carroll was educated in France and Belgium. He was ordained as a Jesuit priest in either 1767 or 1769. A few years later, in 1773, the pope issued a decree suppressing the Jesuit Order, largely for political reasons. Carroll traveled to England and then returned to Baltimore the following year.

After the American Revolution, Carroll became a leader of U.S. Catholics. In 1789, the Vatican appointed him the bishop of the diocese of Baltimore, which at the time included the entire United States. Carroll was consecrated the following year.

Bishop Carroll oversaw the construction of the first Catholic Cathedral in the United States, which was the Cathedral of the Assumption in Baltimore. He was instrumental in the founding of Georgetown University and the establishment of St. Mary’s College and Seminary. Liturgically, he was ahead of his time in promoting the reading of the liturgy (the formal church service) in English rather than Latin. On the other hand, he was a slave owner and only toward the end of his life did he come to advocate the gradual freeing of slaves.

In 1808, Carroll became an archbishop with jurisdiction over four other bishops in the United States. He died in Baltimore in 1815.

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Book Review: The Hare with the Amber Eyes

The book I’m reviewing today is unusual: part history, part genealogy. The Hare with the Amber Eyes traces a collection of netsuke through several generations of a family.

But first things first. What are netsuke? A netsuke is a miniature Japanese sculpture that was used as a sliding bead on the string of a container such as a pouch or box. They were intricately carved from wood or ivory into a variety of forms: fruit, animals, tiny human figures.

Edmund de Waal, a British ceramic artist, inherited this collection of 264 netsuke from an uncle who was living in Japan. De Waal grew fascinated with the tiny, beautiful little objects and spent over a year tracking their history within his family. The collection was amassed by Charles Ephrussi, one of the sons of a wealthy Jewish banking family that originated in Odessa but had migrated to Paris and Vienna. Charles lived in Paris, where he was known as an art connoisseur during the period of early Impression and the second empire. He never married or had children, so his collection was passed on to a nephew who lived in Vienna.

For me, the Vienna section of the book was the most interesting: the story of a socially prominent and fabulously wealthy Jewish family during the days leading up to the German takeover of Austria in the late 1930s. It shed a new perspective on a well-known story. The book also documents what happened to the family during World War II and how the netsuke collection miraculously remained in the family’s possession even as the Nazis confiscated everything else of value they owned.

I recommend the book strongly to lovers of both political and social history. It was beautifully written and a fascinating read.

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Happy (Belated) Birthday, Jerome Bonaparte

Jérôme Bonaparte - Sophie Lienard

Jerome Bonaparte by Sophie Lienard, via Wikimedia Commons

So, there’s a problem with the title of this post that I’m guessing a lot of people don’t even know about because it’s usage that has become quite common. Allow me to digress from Jerome for a moment. When I was a young child, I received a lot of praise for my ability to draw recognizable faces. So in third grade, when we were given the art assignment of creating a drawing to represent February, I proudly drew two side-by-side ovals and then put Washington’s portrait in one and Lincoln’s portrait in the other. I put in a lot of effort to make the faces look as much like the presidents as I could. I wrote “Happy Birthday George Washington and Abraham Lincoln” across the top like a banner. (This was in the days when we honored each of their birthdays separately instead of lumping them into President’s Day.)

My teacher refused to hang the picture because they were dead, and it’s not proper to wish happy birthday to a dead person. I was crushed that she would be so picky about a technicality of usage instead of noticing how hard I’d worked on the art.

Here we are, decades years later, and I still remember that rule, but as you can see, I decided to break it. Yesterday was the 229th anniversary of Jerome Bonaparte’s birth, and I’m saying happy birthday to him. Take that, Mrs. Brown.

I can’t give you the usual biography here, because that would give away way too much of the plot of my novel. So instead, I’ll share one humorous story about Jerome that I included in The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte.

[Betsy] sat up in bed, wrapped her arms around her knees, and smiled at the memory of a story he told during their last dance. When Jerome was fifteen, Napoleon had taken him to live in the Tuileries in the hope of imparting discipline to the baby of the Bonaparte clan. Napoleon, however, was often away on government business, and during his absences, Jerome discovered the delights of shopping in Paris. After one such trip, the First Consul found that his youngest brother had purchased an elaborate shaving set whose articles were made of gold, silver, mother of pearl, and ivory—and ordered that the bill of 10,000 francs be sent to the palace. “This is ridiculous! You do not even have a beard!”

The boy looked longingly at the objects his brother had confiscated. “I know. But I just love beautiful things.”

Happy birthday, Jerome. I hope wherever you are, you’re surrounded by beautiful things.

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Betsy’s Circle: Dolley Madison

Dolley Madison

Dolley Madison by Gilbert Stuart, via Wikimedia Commons

One of Betsy Bonaparte’s more surprising friendships was with Dolley Madison. On the surface, the two women seemed to have little in common, yet they had an amiable relationship that lasted many years. For example, while Dolley was in the White House, Betsy often looked in on Dolley’s son at his boarding school near Baltimore. And Dolley Madison once gave Betsy the commission of buying her a turban or anything fashionable on her next trip to Europe because she so admired Betsy’s taste. 

Dolley Madison, born Dolley Payne, was raised as a Quaker in Virginia. Her family moved to Philadelphia when she was a teenager. When Dolley was twenty-two, she married a young lawyer named John Todd, with whom she had two sons. Tragedy soon struck, however. The terrible yellow fever epidemic of 1793—which wiped out some 11 percent of Philadelphia’s population—killed both her husband and her younger son, who was only three months old.

Within a year, Dolley had met and married James Madison, a bachelor who was seventeen years older than she was. As the main author of the U.S. Constitution, Madison was an important political figure, so this new relationship thrust Dolley into a much different social sphere than she had been used to.

She proved to be more than up to the task. After Thomas Jefferson became president, James Madison became his secretary of state and Mrs. Madison served as the hostess for the widowed president. After eight years, Madison succeeded to the presidency, and Dolley Madison officially became the first lady. She was famous for her entertaining. The following description comes from my forthcoming novel The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte:

Under Mrs. Madison’s direction, Benjamin Latrobe had transformed the oval drawing room into a blazingly colorful salon that was the talk of Washington. Latrobe had repainted the walls sunflower yellow, highlighted moldings with strips of pink wallpaper printed with white and dark green leaves, hung crimson velvet curtains with gold tassels, and laid a carpet with a red, blue, and gold arabesque pattern. Dolley Madison held open houses every Wednesday in the lavishly decorated room. So many people attended—sometimes as many as 400 in a day—that the regular event became known as Mrs. Madison’s “crush or squeeze.”

Dolley Madison became a beloved national hero during the War of 1812. When it became evident that the British were going to take Washington, D.C., in August 1814 and that it would not be possible to protect the President’s Mansion, Dolley stayed to oversee the removal of as many precious and important items as possible—including a full-sized portrait of George Washington. It is this action for which she is best remembered today.

Gilbert Stuart - George Washington - Google Art ProjectGeorge Washington by Gilbert Stuart, via Wikimedia Commons

Although Dolley and James Madison remained devoted to each other, Dolley did have one major sorrow. Her surviving son Payne Todd was an irresponsible alcoholic. His behavior was a trial to his mother, particularly after James Madison’s death. Because of Payne’s heavy spending, Dolley Madison spent much of her later years in poverty.

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The Oldest Surviving Song

My husband and I are movie buffs, and one genre we like to watch on occasion is a well-done sword-and-sandal movie epic. Partially, that’s because my husband first fell in love with movies when his grandmother took him to see Ben Hur when he was six years old. Spartacus and The Ten Commandments (in all its campy glory) are also favorites around our house.

If you watch films like that often enough, you start to believe that we know what ancient music sounded like. The Roman army used a lot of drums and brass with a slightly discordant sound, just as they did in Ben Hur. The ancient Israelites played the lyre and sang in a minor key like Lilia in The Ten Commandments.

Um, no. Those scores were just some Hollywood composer’s idea of what ancient music sounded like. In some ways, music is the most transient of all art forms. Even if there are written records of ancient compositions, they’re no good to us because the knowledge of how to read most musical notation systems has been lost.

That’s why I was so interested yesterday to read that there is a two-thousand-year-old song that has not only survived but has even been recorded recently. You can hear it here:

Isn’t that cool?

According to a BBC article, the breakthrough came because scholars have found some ancient documents that described a vocal notation system and explained how different pitches in the scale related to each other. We know what the instruments looked like because of vases and other ancient art, so we can recreate them. And we have a short song by a composer name Seikilos that was inscribed on a marble column about 200 C.E. That’s the song in the You Tube recording.

This post on the History Blog features another version of the same song, this time with someone singing the lyrics.

However, to me, these two versions sounds rather different, so maybe there’s still a bit of mystery here after all.

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Book Review: Unravelled

unravelled

I just finished reading the historical novel Unravelled by M.K. Tod. It has an interesting premise summed up by its log line: “Two wars. Two affairs. One marriage.”

The novel opens in 1935. Canadian veteran Edward Jamieson has received an invitation to go to France to commemorate the Battle of Vimy Ridge. Edward has struggled to overcome what we now call PTSD and later hidden his memories of the war from his wife Ann. So, he’s not eager to return to the place where he survived such horror. Yet, something else from his past—the memory of a passionate love he lost during the chaos of wartime—compels him to make the journey. What he finds in France leads to a marital crisis nearly as destructive as a battle.

Flash forward a few years to the eve of World War II. Although his age and permanent lung damage from the first war prevent Edward from signing up for active duty, he finds another way to serve his country—a way that must be kept secret from his family. Ann, in turn, finds herself struggling against loneliness, resentment, . . . and unexpected temptation. Is the Jamieson marriage strong enough to survive so many external stressors? That is the central question at the heart of this book.

The writing makes it evident that Tod did her research meticulously, yet she is judicious in her choice of details. Not once in the course of the book did I feel that she was piling on interesting facts just to show off her hard-earned knowledge. Tod also is unsparing in portraying the effect of war on families, but she avoids melodrama or maudlin sentimentality.

My biggest regret about the story is that I wanted to see what Ann and Edward were like together in happier times, before the decade of turmoil portrayed in this novel. In some of the conversations where they discuss their problems, they refer to what their relationship has lost. And they think things like, “I miss Ann’s sense of humor.” As a writer, I imagine that, in dealing with such an epic story, Tod had to make difficult choices about what to include in the plot. However, as a reader, I would have liked to have briefly glimpsed that more ideal time through a dramatic scene or two instead of having the characters tell me what they lost. Such scenes would have given me a sharper sense of the damage and raised my emotional stakes in the survival of the marriage.

I don’t mean to imply that I didn’t care about the characters. I did, and I felt compelled to continue with their story because I wanted to know what happened. Despite an exceptionally busy work schedule, I read the book in less than a week. It was also interesting to read a novel from the Canadian point of view. Most of the other novels I’ve read set during the two world wars have been told from a U.S., European, or Asian perspective.

Lovers of historical fiction, especially those interested in the two world wars, will find this a captivating story. The novel will also appeal to readers who like to explore the inner workings of a marriage. For these reasons, I recommend Unravelled without hesitation.

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19th Century Life: Visiting Cards

Yesterday, as I was making breakfast, I found myself thinking about the 19th century custom of leaving visiting cards. I’m not an expert, but as I understand the custom, when two people had a mutual acquaintance or perhaps met casually at a social function, the visiting card was a way to check out whether they might develop a relationship. The scenario went something like this:

Mrs. Hopewell called on the home of Mrs. Fotheringale and left a card with a servant.

If Mrs. Fotheringale was interested in pursuing the acquaintance, she would call on the home of Mrs. Hopewell and leave a card.

Then Mrs. Hopewell would know that if she called on Mrs. Fotheringale during visiting hours, she would be admitted into the house.

And Mrs. Fotheringale could call on Mrs. Hopewell.

Thus, a social acquaintance was established.

I see a contemporary parallel in blogging, don’t you? I stop by a new blog, and “like” a post. The blog owner might then come by here and “like” a post. I visit his blog again and leave a comment. He might return the favor. Then we decide to follow each other’s blogs.

As they say, the more things change, the more  they stay the same, n’est-ce pas?

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This Date in History: October 12, 1809

At the beginning of the French Revolution, most European nations were shocked by the the events in France and considered it appropriate to try to restore the French king to his throne. It goes without saying that all those other countries had monarchy in some form or another. However, by January 1793, Louis XVI was dead. The execution of the Bourbon king only intensified international opposition to the idea of a republican France. In 1793, Austria, Great Britain, Prussia, Spain, and the United Provinces of the Netherlands formed a coalition to oppose both the French government and the spread of revolutionary ideas to their own lands.

Over the course of the next 23 years, France was almost continuously at war, and in all probability, the only thing that kept it from being defeated at an earlier date was the military genius of Napoleon Bonaparte. Napoleon’s leadership was a double-edged sword, if you’ll forgive the pun. His brilliant victories defeated Austria and kept Britain at bay time and time again. However, after he became First Consul in 1799 and  emperor in 1804, the other rulers of Europe viewed him as an upstart and a usurper, and they adopted the goal of defeating him at any cost. It became a vicious no-win situation for Napoleon. He felt that he had to use his leadership and military skills to keep his country safe, yet he became one of the primary reasons his country was being attacked.

Which brings me to October 12, 1809. By this time, the Allies had formed not one, not two, but five coalitions to defeat France. The Fifth Coalition essentially fell apart when Napoleon trounced the Austrians. France and Austria negotiated a treaty to end the war at the palace of Schönnbrunn in Vienna. While this was going on, a seventeen-year-old German named Friedrich Staps decided to assassinate Napoleon to bring an end to his rule. Staps entered the palace grounds on October 12 while Napoleon was viewing a military parade and tried to approach the emperor. One of Napoleon’s aides found the young man suspicious and had him arrested, and a knife was found to be hidden on his body. Under questioning, Staps admitted his plans. When Napoleon asked if he would be grateful for a pardon, Staps declared that he would still try to assassinate Napoleon anyway. A firing squad executed Staps on the 17th.

It was not the first attempt to assassinate Napoleon, and such attempts on his life only made him more obdurate in pursuing his goal to build a French empire. He greatly feared what would happen to France if he should die without a clear succession plan in place. After this attempt, he took decisive action that I will discuss in my next blog post.

Schloss Schoenbrunn Gloriette

Schönnbrunn Palace, via Wikimedia Commons

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