Escape to the Past—the joys of historical novels

At a time when present day life often seems overly complicated and depressing, many reading in bathtubreaders as well as many TV viewers choose to go back to earlier times. Somehow it seems as though life must have been simpler then, although the truth is that it wasn’t. Finding enough food for the family and keeping young babies alive was a lot harder than coping with an overcrowded bus on the daily commute.

Even though we know life wasn’t really simple in the old days, it’s easy to believe that it was because the problems were different. After all, the Regency heroines of romance novels never had to worry about having a scandalous video of their indiscretions turn up on Facebook.

But historical novels often deal with issues that are very current and similar to what’s going on today. Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace might be set in a different time, but the alias-gracedifficulty of judging guilt or innocence in a crime is a perennial problem. It will be interesting to see whether the TV version of Alias Grace treats the subject with as much depth as the book did.

TV is often scorned as offering a more sanitized and false picture of the past than historical fiction books. Certainly the imagined world of Downton Abbey which attracted so many viewers, brought people into a domain where servants and gentry shared not only an estate but also a world view. The master and mistress of the house cared about the servants and thoughtfully helped them through their troubles. In the end almost everyone made out all right.

Novels that deal with servants and masters are often far more frank than TV shows about the carelessness and cruelties that often make a servant’s life miserable. If you pride and prejudicereally want a glimpse of what it was like to be a servant in early 19th century England, you might want to read Jo Baker’s Longbourn, which gives a fascinating glimpse of the life of a servant in the service of Jane Austen’s fictional Bennet family from Pride and Prejudice. Admittedly Jane Austen wrote about an earlier historical period than Downton Abbey, but it is hard not to believe that Baker’s view of the world is far more realistic than the one offered by the familiar TV series.

If you are a fan of historical fiction, whether mysteries set in medieval Europe or novels based on American history like The Underground Railroad, you’ll enjoy this great list of historical novels website.    Choose your century and ENJOY!

 

 

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Science carries on while society falls apart

Turning on the news first thing in the morning has been a lifelong habit of me. Just like thousands of other people, I would hate to think that the something exciting had happened overnight without my knowing about it. Recently, however, the morning news has been so discouraging that I often switch to music for the rest of the day. Learning more about natural disasters thousands of miles from home, or human foolishness in capitals across the world makes a harsh background to our everyday life.

Sometimes it seems the only way to remain calm and carry on is to ignore the feverish

neutron starGW170817.rect_-150x150

Neutron star

 

activity of politicians, pundits and the cruelties of societies turning on one another. Music is a good escape, and so is paying attention to the work of scientists whose dramatic breakthroughs bring good news to a world absorbed in the bad news of politics. This week we had the dramatic story of how astronomers discovered the collision of two neutron stars, an event that had been predicted but never before actually seen. As the Scientific American announced in its story about the event, “Spacetime ripples from a stellar cataclysm in a distant galaxy help explain the cosmic origins of gold, and chart the course for a new age of “multi-messenger” astronomy”

Even as our ordinary world carries on its squabbling about who-said-what and which party will win the prize in the next election, science is carrying on the important work of the world—discovering new knowledge and sharing it with all of us.

Women have long played a major role in astronomy, and in honor of this event I want to call your attention to the role of women in studying the stars. Several years ago I wrote a blog post about Caroline Herschel, one of the pioneers. Caroline and her brother William were able to work with the primitive telescopes available in the 18th century to chart the movements of stars. Caroline specialized in finding comets as they flashed across the sky.

It wasn’t only solitary astronomers who were able to advance the science. The most recent book from Dava Sobel, who has written many books about science and scientists for the general reader, offers a realistic account of how the science works and how many individuals work together to discover the truth about scientific phenomena. She recognized the work of the women astronomers at Harvard University in The Glass Universe: How the Ladies of the Harvard Observatory Took the Measure of the Stars. The advances made by these late 19th and early 20th century astronomers still surprise and intrigue readers who wonder how we know what we do about stars and other natural phenomena. Slow, patient cooperation among a large number of scientists was the key to the discovery of how our universe is constructed.

 

The methods of science—the patience and cooperation of many individuals should be an inspiration to the men and women who are working to make our political and social world a better place to live. The search for knowledge and for solutions to problems grows out of patient cooperation, not hasty judgments and angry quarreling. Reading about people who actually advanced humanity can make us a bit more optimistic about our ability to work together now to overcome the challenges facing people everywhere.

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Finding the Past in the Land of the Future

What does Anne of Green Gables have in common with The Parable Series by Octavia Butler or The Hunger Games or my own Charlotte Edgerton mystery story A Death in Cover of A Death in UtopiaUtopia? Recently I discovered that they all have enough in common to share a space on the Internet in Utopian studies.

Five hundred years ago, Thomas More coined the term Utopia and used it to describe a fictional community that many readers saw as far better than the actual communities in which they lived. Ever since then, it seems, people have been searching for the ideal Utopia where healthy, happy people could live and flourish without the need for violence, war, and greed.

During the early 19th century, in both America and Europe, the search for the ideal community continued and led to the establishment of several Utopian societies including Brook Farm in Massachusetts and the Oneida colony in New York. At a time of crisis when the country was changing, many people were discontented with the ways things were going. Fulfilling lives seemed to be disappearing as the industrial society replaced the old rural, farming life Americans had been accustomed to. Isolated groups of people trying to forge a new society did not, however, find great success in changing the world. As years went by, the Utopian or “intentional” communities have mostly faded away, but perhaps technology has found a new way to bring together the dreamers, past and present, who hope for a better world.

Even Ronald Reagan, the idol of conservatives across the country believed that

Ronald Reagan

Ronald Reagan

 

technology would solve the world’s problems.  As reported in The Guardian (June 14, 1989) he announced “The Goliath of totalitarianism will be brought down by the David of the microchip.” It never quite worked that way though; Goliath has not quite disappeared in the almost 30 years since Reagan predicted its demise, but our world has certainly been changed by technology.

The Internet has made it possible for writers, readers and dreamers across the world to share ideas about how people have tried to change society in the past and what could happen in the future. This summer a conference, Solidarity and Utopia 2017 in Gdansk, Poland, brought together scholars from many different countries and disciplines to discuss the ways Utopian ideas have affected the world. There was a great deal to be learned.

I had never known that Lucy Maud Montgomery’s famous Anne of Green Gables became an important document in Poland during World War II. Polish soldiers were issued copies of a Montgomery novel to take to the front; later, it became part of a thriving black market trade for the Polish resistance.

As for my own heroine, Charlotte Edgerton, here is what one scholar discussed about her appearance in A Death in Utopia.

Intentional Community under the Magnifying Glass: Brook Farm in A Death in Utopia by Adele Fasick Elżbieta Perkowska–Gawlik (Maria Curie-Skłodowska University, Lublin) A Death in Utopia of 2014 by Adele M. Fasick is the first book in the Charlotte Edgerton mystery series. The eponymous utopia stands for The Brook Farm Institute of Agriculture and Education, a famous intentional community set up by George and Sophia Ripley in West Roxbury, Massachusetts, in 1841. But for economic solidarity and the solidarity of ideas, Brook Farm would have never come into existence. However, “all the grand plans for reforming the world” (Fasick 3) were very soon confronted by the practicalities of farming, in which most of the members lacked experience. Since the novel covers the span of time from September to November 1842, i.e. the second year of Ripley’s experiment, the spirits of many members appear to be high yet the looming financial crisis casts a shadow over the future of the whole enterprise. To make matters worse a Unitarian minister visiting the community is found dead on the premises of Brook Farm. Charlotte, one of the Brook Farmers, resolves to protect the good name of the community and find the culprit. In my presentation I will argue that Fasick’s idea of inscribing the fictional investigation of an amateur detective into the life of Brook Farm has proved to be successful as far as “magnifying” the issue of solidarity is concerned. However, Charlotte’s amateurish attempts to solve the criminal conundrum reveal more of the ideals and daily routines of the intentional community than of the tragic circumstances concerning the crime, a facet most probably intended by the author who has already explored the history of Brook Farm on a scholarly basis.

We may not have reached a Utopian society, but the possibilities are still worth discussion. And being able to talk about them on a worldwide network is the kind of Utopian dream that Thomas More and the Brook Farmers would have loved to celebrate.

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Sisters and Lost Worlds

My sister died this week. Her death was easy and not unexpected. At 86, no one can hope for many more years of life. But her loss leaves a hole in my life and a world of memories that can no longer be shared. After parents die, sisters and brothers are the

Janet and Adele 1945 Rockaway

Janet and Adele Mongan;  Rockaway Beach, NY 1945

only people left who have known us as children and remember what our lives were like.

We were born in Queens, New York, and grew up in our small neighborhood in the big city. We didn’t have many models of what sisters were supposed to be like. Princess Elizabeth and Princess Margaret Rose in England were the most prominent sisters we heard about. But it is hard to find much in common with girls who spent so much time standing on the balcony of palaces and watching troops parading by. The other sisters we read about lived in books like Little Women and spent their lives in improbable good deeds.

But we learned. We went to public school, so every Tuesday and Thursday afternoon after school we would walk over to church for catechism class. I remember one afternoon we walked there silently because I was angry and refused to speak to my sister for some reason I’ve now forgotten. In class the subject was sin, as it so often was, and for some reason I asked Sister Mary Bernard whether refusing to speak to your sister was a sin. “Yes, Adele”, she said fixing her fierce eyes on me.  “Refusing to speak to someone is a sin.”

I’ve forgotten, or rejected, a lot of what I learned in catechism class, but I always remember that stern pronouncement. And I still believe it. Talking to people, and listening to them is what makes us human. If we refuse to talk—to communicate—we are denying our humanity. I wish some of our leaders could learn that. Perhaps they needed a Sister Mary Bernard in their lives.

But our main job during those years was winning the war. We did that by spending our allowances on war stamps and pasting them in booklets until we had enough to buy a war bond. We also stomped on empty tin cans to flatten them for recycling. Sometimes we stayed after school to help in the war effort. I can remember one afternoon we addressed envelopes so the OPA (Office of Price Administration) could let grocers know they could raise the price on filberts. Neither of us had any idea what filberts were, but we firmly believed that sending these notices to every grocer in Queens would help our brave soldiers and sailors.

Eventually the war ended—first the European War and then V-J Day when the entire World War ended. We looked forward to peace forever. Peace meant prosperity and frozen food, television, and no more black-and-white movies.  We finished high school and went away to college.

During college vacations we would come back to the city. The YWCA at 53rd St. and Lexington Avenue in Manhattan played a large role in our lives. We went to a modeling class there one summer and learned to walk and apply makeup in a way we hoped would make us look sophisticated. We also went to the Friday night dances.

YWCA at 53rd

53rd St. YWCA

At one of those Friday night dances I remember meeting two young veterans just returned from Korea. One of them told us stories about the war that horrified me.

Suddenly I became aware that the Hollywood-based stories we had grown up with about heroic, generous and kind American soldiers had not told the whole story. We learned that war meant brutality and cruelty on both sides and that no one was immune. Perhaps those lessons helped prepare us for the later horrors of Vietnam. And perhaps learning about adult lies helped us to really grow up.

We both went on to have husbands and children, even grandchildren, with all the joys and complications an expanding family brings. But whenever someone dies she leaves a hole in the world—a set of memories that will eventually disappear when there is no one left to remember. One by one our time is done. The world goes on with new players and new memories. But good-byes are never easy.

Fear no more the heat o’ the sun,

Nor the furious winter’s rages;

Thou thy worldly task hast done,

Home art gone, and ta’en thy wages:

Golden lads and girls all must,

As chimney-sweepers, come to dust.

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Our Unknown Neighbors to the South

As hurricane Irma inches its way to Florida, it’s hard to stop looking at TV pictures of the trail of broken buildings, flooded landscapes and unhappy, bewildered people it has left Caribbean Islandsbehind. For several long days now the storm has been punishing the small island that dot the Atlantic between Florida and South America, islands that most Americans know almost nothing about. Still suffering the effects of centuries of colonial rule by European governments, most of those islands will find it much harder to rebuild homes and lives after the hurricane has passed than Florida and other Southern states will.

In honor of the inhabitants of some of those Caribbean Islands, I am repeating a blog post that I wrote several years ago in honor of one of the heroines of the Islands.

Mary SeacoleMary Seacole was born in Jamaica in 1805 in the prosperous and attractive city of Kingston, the base of British operations in the West Indies. White British upper-class people controlled the island, while most Jamaicans of African descent were slaves. Mary’s mother was apparently of mixed-blood and was free, as were many children whose fathers were white. Mary herself writes in her autobiography “I am a Creole, and have good Scotch blood coursing in my veins. My father was a soldier, of an old Scotch family;”

Mary’s mother was a boarding house keeper and a healer. That may seem an odd combination to us today, but it made sense because British officers and officials, who often found it difficult to cope with Jamaica’s climate and tropical diseases, could use both services. Mary learned traditional healing methods, using plants and other common substances. While she was a teenager, Mary spent a year in London, which she apparently enjoyed despite the presence of “street-boys to poke fun at me and my companion’s complexion.” Travel was her favorite occupation and she managed to return to London as a merchant selling West Indian preserves and pickles. For most of the rest of her life, Mary Seacole combined business and healing as her twin sources of income.

After an adventurous few years in Jamaica and Panama and a short marriage to a rather frail man who died while still young, Mary was established as a prosperous “doctoress” and merchant. She visited the United States, but found the prejudice against people of color too extreme for her. She preferred England where she was accepted more neutrally, even if sometimes slighted and patronized, but for the most part she remained in the West Indies and Central America where her color was not an issue.

When the Crimean War started in 1854, Mary determined that she would go to the war zone to help the troops. She heard of Florence Nightingale’s plan to take a group of nurses there and applied to be one of them, but was not accepted. Never one to give up a good idea, she raised enough money herself to pay for the expenses of the trip and set out. She found facilities in the camps and hospitals deplorable, just as Florence

Florence Nightingale

Nurse during Crimean War

Nightingale did. Florence worked with the Army and the government using the rules and regulations to get her way. It was a long, difficult road, but one that Florence, well-disciplined and familiar with upper-class life, was prepared to take. Mary chose a different route. Scornful of protocol, she opened a facility called the British Hotel where she offered food as well as giving medical treatment to soldiers. Because she had no access to government money or very much in the way of charitable giving, she charged for services, but she devoted everything she could to serving the troops.

Florence Nightingale was rather scornful of Mary Seacole and probably distressed by her flamboyant dress and habits. Nonetheless Mary became a heroine to the troops and a friend of many people in high places, including relatives of Queen Victoria. When the war was over she returned to England to high praise and much publicity. She received a commendation from the queen and when she published her autobiography, Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands, it sold well. The book is still worth reading and is available in several editions, including a free ebook version, on Amazon.com. There is also a fascinating biography Mary Seacole: The Charismatic Black Nurse Who Became a Heroine of the Crimea by Jane Robinson. It is not easy to find in the U.S., but well worth searching for. And perhaps when we send aid to help the victims of natural disasters, we should remember our neighbors to the South whose small islands and brave people are so often forgotten.

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Cutting the endless chatter

This has been quite a week, starting with the magnificent display of a solar eclipse that was seen across much of the country. Even those of us who were unable to see the show in the sky, it was breathtaking to view it on the various screen that surround us these days.

solar eclipse

Solar Eclipse Aug. 2017

Unfortunately the week spiraled downward from there. Our President decided to send more troops to Afghanistan to pursue an endless war that has been unwinnable for sixteen years and will continue to be unwinnable for the foreseeable future. As the President said in answer to a question about why his strategy would win when so many others have failed, his reply was couched in terms of how many terrorists would be killed. But that has never worked and is unlikely to work now.

Eleanor Roosevelt once wrote, “I cannot believe that war is the best solution. No one won the last war, and no one will win the next war”. The world has had a chance to see the truth of that statement over and over again during the last half century, most recently in the Middle East. Israelis and Palestinians have been struggling and fighting ever since the creation of Israel and no one has won. Many people have lost—lost their lives, their families, their freedoms—but there are no winners. There are no winners in Syria or Central Africa. Wars keep exploding and then sputtering out in temporary truces and ceasefires, but no one ever wins.

And things kept getting worse. The same American hatemongers who brought violence and death to Charlottesville started planning demonstrations in other cities for the coming weekend. A huge storm swooped down on the Texas coast and under cover of the attention being paid to that, the President announced that he was pardoning a convicted violator of our constitution, Joe Arpaio, who had not even been sentenced yet. Mr. Trump also announced, for no apparent reason, that he doesn’t want any transgender people allowed to join the armed forces. Hatred and fear is being spewed out by our leaders with the result that our society becomes more toxic and unlivable every day.

I won’t be posting here again until after Labor Day. I think I’ll spend some time watching the ocean and trying to disconnect from the news and the poisonous atmosphere of some of our commentary. I’ll concentrate on the sounds of the sea and the seagulls crying over the eroding beach.

ocean beachBreak, break, break,
On thy cold gray stones, O Sea!
And I would that my tongue could utter
The thoughts that arise in me.
Alfred Lord Tennyson
 

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High Hopes and Endless Patience

This past week for me has been a kaleidoscope of experiences and feelings—decades of American life encapsulated in a few hectic days. It started out with a visit to the Summer

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Summer of Love exhibit-DeYoung Museum, San Francisco

of Love exhibit at the DeYoung Museum. Along with crowds of other people I walked through galleries of colorful dresses and posters while listening to music of the 1960s. Is it really 50 years since those dresses were worn and those songs were sung?

Colorful lights played upon the audience, many of whom, leaning on canes and wearing hats and shirts that surely had been in their closets for close to 50 years were reliving the excitement of those days. The world looked bright, people were coming together and celebrating brotherhood and love (sisterhood was not a big topic back then). It’s hard to look at some of the optimistic slogans on display and wonder what has become of all that hope and peace.

The next few days of this week were taken up with high drama over North Korea. Instead of the summer of love, I was swept back into the feelings of five years earlier when the Cuban Missile crisis scared us all. I remember the panic among the nursery school mothers as we watched our children building block towers and wondered whether their lives and ours would be cut short because of a quarrel between Washington and Moscow. Some of my friends went to Washington and demonstrated for President Kennedy to negotiate a settlement with the Russians or turn the whole problem over to the United Nations. Fortunately for us, Kennedy did not follow the advice of the generals. He sensibly believed that U.S. allies would think Americans were “trigger happy cowboys” who would lose Berlin if they could not settle the Cuban missile crisis without war.

The Cuban Missile crisis was finally resolved, we all survived, although it took many years for the true story of that event to be told. Just last year the National Geographic printed a story of the level-headed Russian submarine captain who saved the world from nuclear destruction.

Will the world always have to rely on a handful of people to save us from the hysteria and emotional reactions of leaders and followers alike? As this week drew to a close and we still worry about North Korea, we have been confronted by another disaster in

charlottesville-va-rally-aug-12-2017

Charlottesville, Virginia. The evil forces of racism and hatred that have bedeviled this country from its beginning have not disappeared. After all of the years of progress—all the hopes and plans of generations—we are thrown back into a world where mobs scream hatred and attack innocent people.

Will America always vacillate between high ideals and rabid know-nothing hooliganism? Will there never be a time when rational people of goodwill can finally prevail? It is hard to be patient at a time like this, but that is all we have to offer–patience and determination to make our country and the world a little better year by weary year.

 

 

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