On a day when the news is filled with stories about a hate crime in Kansas, an assassination by nerve gas in Malaysia, and the exclusion of our most reliable news sources from a presidential briefing, it is a relief to turn to the wonders of the natural world. Along with scores of other people I visited the Pacific Orchid Exhibition in San Francisco and was refreshed by the silent, wondrous beauty of flowers.
Orchids, of course, are more than flowers. They are symbols of luxury, wealth and ambition. Perhaps because Westerners had to search so hard for them during the 19th century when they were first discovered, they have been associated with kings, queens, rich men and beautiful women. Queen Victoria had her own personal orchid hunter who scoured jungles throughout the world to find plants for the royal conservatory.
Wealth and orchids often went together in early films such as Carole Lombard’s hit No More Orchids in 1932. The perfect film title to link orchids and wealth was a 1927 silent film called Orchids and Ermine, which featured young attractive girls trying to find themselves rich husbands. The movie version of a sensational World War II book (said to be the most-read book among British troops during the war) No Orchids for Miss Blandish again offered orchids as a symbol of wealth and privilege.
Novels that feature orchids usually qualify as escapist fiction and the Nero Wolfe series of books by Rex Stout certainly fits that category. I depend on the Kindle downloads from the San Francisco Public Library for much of my reading and this weekend I was lucky enough to find the Nero Wolfe story Black Orchids. It’s delightful to travel back in imagination to the 1940s and visit an orchid show in New York where Nero Wolfe and his sidekick, Archie Goodwin, go to an orchid show not unlike the one I visited. The flowers there were still as beautiful, the growers as dedicated, and the visitors just as enchanted as the ones I saw. The only thing not on display at the California show was a mysterious murder. Nero Wolfe’s love of orchids lives on and so do Stout’s books about him. They are well worth revisiting.
One of the things I like best about reading mysteries, and about writing them, is the intriguing subjects I learn about. In my recently published Charlotte Edgerton mystery, Death Calls at the Palace, Charlotte and her husband discover the excitement and anger of people involved in the Chartist movement in England during the early 19th century, just as I learned about them in researching the book. Deep divisions between the rich and poor, the demand for jobs that have disappeared, and the angry demonstrations that grow out of injustice echo some of the themes we see in our world today. And so do the strong convictions expressed in this “Chartist Anthem”.
The time shall come when wrong shall end,
When peasant to peer no more shall bend;
When the lordly Few shall lose their sway,
And the Man no more their frown obey.
Toil, brother, toil till the work is done,
Till the struggle is o’er and the Charter won.
Who would have thought that airports with their tedious lines and endless corridors could become so exciting? This week a new presidential order denying entry to people from several Middle Eastern countries caused consternation as immigration officers denied entry to some people with valid visas or green cards as well as all refugees. Fortunately for the country, several states protested and the courts have resisted the move and put a temporary halt on the order.
Prejudice against newcomers isn’t a new sentiment in the United States. Neither is prejudice against a particular religion that is seen as a threat to the country. From Colonial times on, many Americans have suspected that Roman Catholics with their “foreign” religion were a threat to the country.
The Irish immigrants who poured into the country from the 1840s on, were often the targets of discrimination by the press and clergy. Lyman Beecher, for instance, wrote that “The Catholic system is adverse to liberty, and the clergy to a great extent are dependent on foreigners opposed to the principles of our government, for patronage and support.”
One of the few writers who believed that the despised immigrants brought value to the country was Margaret Fuller. She praised the Irish immigrants for their generosity and family feeling and told her readers that they would be of great value to America. Fuller valued the contributions of other immigrants of the time too, including the Germans and Italians who could offer much to the country. My admiration for Margaret Fuller was what led me to write a biography of this brave woman.
Over the years, Americans learned that Catholics did not pose a threat to American values. They became a part of mainstream American life. But fearful people continue to fear. Today we are hearing echoes of Lyman Beecher as politicians talk about the threat of Muslims and of Islamic thought. As of 2014, seven states had passed laws or ballot measures that banned Sharia law from influencing the courts. These states include Alabama, North Carolina, Arizona, Kansas, South Dakota and Tennessee. Currently the Montana legislature is arguing about the need for such a law.
President Trump appears to view the world as a threatening place and to fear that people professing a religion different from what he is used to must be dangerous. As any historian could tell him, people who are not descended from the handful of English settlers, have made this country great. Fear of anyone different from ourselves leads to stagnation, not greatness. Perhaps the president should listen to a brave woman like Marie Curie who said it well: Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less.
And if President Trump wants to gain wisdom from the presidents who preceded him, he might pay attention to the words of one of our greatest leaders, Franklin Delano Roosevelt who famously announced that The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.