2020 has hardly been a year to remember, but it has been a year we will never forget. Our usual holiday celebrations have been downsized. Zoom calls have to substitute for hugs and kisses—not a good bargain. Many people have less money to spend on presents and many are worried about the future. And worst of all, many families will be missing people who were part of the celebration last year.
There have been many bad years in the past. Our parents and grandparents lived through New Year observances that came in the midst of wars, depressions, and plagues. During the mid-nineteenth century, Christina Rossetti described the way she felt about an incoming year.
New Year met me somewhat sad: Old Year leaves me tired, Stripped of favourite things I had Baulked of much desired: Yet farther on my road to-day God willing, farther on my way.
Let us all hope that 2021 will find us farther on our roads. With a new administration in Washington, a Brexit agreement in Europe, and several new vaccines giving us some relief from the pandemic, we can hope to move into a new period of peace and healing throughout the world.
Reading the year-end lists of best books in newspapers and online during the past few weeks has inspired me to think about the books I read in 2020. Some of them are almost forgotten, but a few I remember well and think of often. Today I want to share some thoughts about three of the most memorable books of the year for me. I wonder whether any of them have caught your attention through the long months of this strange year.
I’ve read very little fiction this year except for escapist mysteries that took me away from thoughts of shutdowns and pandemics but disappeared from mind soon after I turned the final page. There was one remarkable exception—Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line by Deepa Anappara—a book that starts with a mystery but opens up a new view of the world we live in.
The book is set in a poor neighborhood in India. and the story is told by ten-year-old boy, Jai, who decides to become a detective after one of the children in the neighborhood disappears. As he and his friends search for clues, several other children also disappear. The scenes of parents grieving for their children and struggling to provide some security for them are heartbreaking. Policemen routinely mistreat everyone from their poor neighborhood despite expecting bribes for the slightest service. The kids continue to be upbeat and energetic during their pursuit, but while the reader watches, the mystery grows deeper and more threatening. This book is gripping, and I am sure I will remember it long after 2020 is gone.
In an afterword, Anappara, a former journalist, tells us she wrote the book because she wanted a chance to focus on the common story of child-disappearances in India. While one book cannot begin to solve such a serious problem, it can at least make more people aware of what life is like in a part of the world that most of us seldom visit.
Every year brings new books about Shakespeare’s plays, but this year’s big Shakespeare book is different. Instead of focusing on the plays, James Shapiro’s Shakespeare in a Divided America, looks at American history through the prism of those plays.
Shapiro describes how the productions of Shakespeare’s plays in this country have changed over the years. One of the first chapters describes how Othello was receivedin the early 1800s. The play roused great emotions about miscegenation and led to arguments about whether or not Othello was Black. Many years later, productions of The Tempest influenced the anti-immigration furor of the early 1900s. And then came arguments about the staging of Taming of the Shrew revealing different attitudes toward women and their place in the world. Each generation has found a Shakespearean play that speaks to its current preoccupations. And through all those generations, Shakespeare’s plays have been more influential in the United States than in any other country in the world.
I’ve admired Samantha Power ever since I read her startling book A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide in 2013. After reading that, I followed her career as a journalist and her work as U.S. representative to the United Nations. But it wasn’t until I read her most recent book, The Education of an Idealist, that I learned much about her private life and development. This book is a straightforward memoir recounting her childhood in Ireland and covering the years up until 2016 when she left public life.
Power was born in 1970 and grew up in Ireland but moved to the United States with her mother and brother in 1979. She attended high school in Atlanta and then went to Yale University. After graduating from Yale, she decided to go to Bosnia where she began writing articles for prestigious newspapers and magazines. When she returned to the U.S., she went to Harvard Law School and continued her career as a writer and government official during the Obama administration. Her focus was on foreign policy and what the U.S. should do to fight genocide throughout the world. Her memoir gives the reader an account of the wins and losses she had to deal with in trying to hang onto her ideals and to influence government policy during those tumultuous years.
One of the things I liked best about this book is that Power gives us a glimpse of the day-to-day issues that arise for a woman combining marriage and motherhood with a demanding professional life. She avoids the trap of the “disappearing child” syndrome which causes many public figures to mention the births of their children but never to admit the overwhelming influence childrearing has on careers and lives. Power, in contrast, writes about her pregnancies, childcare, breast feeding and other aspects of motherhood which are usually ignored. I enjoyed the frank discussion of some of the decisions parents face as they combine family life with an active career.
Anappara, Deepa. 2020. Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line (NY: Random House).Power,
Power, Samantha. 2019. The Education of an Idealist; A Memoir (NY: Dey St William Morrow).
Shapiro, James. 2020. Shakespeare in a Divided America (NY: Penguin)
Despite all the bad things 2020 has brought, it has at least given many of us more time to read. And authors have kept us supplied with fascinating books. Let’s hope that 2021 continues to supply us with even more books to keep us reading.
November 29 is the birthday of Louisa May Alcott, one of the most popular authors America has ever produced. And unlike many best sellers of the 19th century, Alcott’s books are still familiar to most Americans.
Success did not come easily to Alcott, but once it arrived, it lingered for more than her lifetime. Her most famous book, Little Women, lives on not only in print, but in a long parade of film versions. Looking at the last several versions shows an interesting perspective on the storylines and actresses favored over the years. The leading character in each of these adaptations is Jo, the tomboy who grows up to be a writer. The actresses who have played Jo mirror some of the changes in the way we have viewed women over the years.
During the difficult years of the 1930s when Americans were struggling with lost jobs and few opportunities, many of them turned to the movies for encouragement. The 1933 version of Jo was played by Katherine Hepburn, who brought to the film the sharp-tongued, cleverness of an actress who exemplified the never-say-die attitude that helped us survive the difficult 1930s.
By the time 1949 had rolled around, America had recovered from the Great Depression and World War II was over. The sweet-faced June Allyson was a perfect example of a spunky American girl who no longer needed the sharpness of Hepburn. She made her way through life with a sunny smile and obstacles melted in her path.
When Greta Gerwig remade the story for a new film in 2019, Jo had changed into a very 21st century woman who knows her own mind and finds her own independent path. Played by Saoirse Ronan, she no longer needs the sharp tongue of Hepburn or the sweet smiles of Allison. Striding into the future that she is determined to build no mere man would dare to question her right to her ambition or to her success.
I can’t help wondering what Louisa Alcott would have thought of these versions. Growing up in a family plagued by poverty even though her father was part of a vibrant group of New England intellectuals, she wrote her most famous book under the pressure of need. She resented having to write a book for children, but her family needed money and she felt she had no choice. Success came quickly as Little Women became a best seller and gave the family security, but Louisa was never quite content. During a long life of writing bestsellers and supporting her family, she was never able to fulfill her deepest ambition to write meaningful adult novels.
The story of Louisa May Alcott and her father Bronson Alcott has been well told in John Matterson’s 2008 book Eden’s Outcasts; The Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Father. Matterson’s biography is an adult version of what life was like for the Alcott girls as they grew into womanhood. It offers a poignant recasting of how one American family grew during the turbulent 19th century. If you read Little Women when you were a child, perhaps it is time to read Eden’s Outcasts. It will broaden your understanding of how real life interacts with the fictions that grow out of it.
In the meantime, let’s all raise a toast to Louisa May Alcott on her birthday this weekend.
This week we celebrated Veterans Day in the United States. The date, November 11, commemorates the signing of the armistice ending World War 1 on November 11, 1919. It was during the 1920s that Veterans Day parades became common throughout the United States.
At first the veterans were almost always men. But now, according to the Veterans Administration, about one in ten veterans are women. And women veterans are very visible n public life. Several women veterans serve in Congress and even more have entered politics at the local and state level. But like so many other gains made by women, it was not easy for the first female veterans to be given recognition.
The first large group of veterans who joined together to help one another were the veterans of the Civil War. The Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) was founded to help Union soldiers readjust to civilian life and to support voting rights for the African American men who served with them. For fifty years or more it was an important political force, and it was also the first Veterans association to have female members—although very few of them.
The first woman admitted to the GAR was Kady Brownell of Rhode Island. Born in 1842 to a British soldier serving in South Africa, she moved as a child to the United States. When the Civil War started and her husband joined the Rhode Island regiment, Kady went with him. She served mainly as a nurse and flag bearer at several battles, including Bull Run. When her husband was severely wounded and had to leave the service, she left with him. Both she and her husband received honorable discharges.
Both the Brownells were interested in the rights of veterans and supported the GAR. In 1870, Kady Brownell became an official member of the association and eventually both she and her husband were granted Veterans’ pension. She was given $8 a month, while her husband received $24. That doesn’t seem quite fair, but it was better than nothing.
Sarah Emma Edmonds took a different path to becoming a veteran. She was born in 1841 in New Brunswick, Canada near the Maine border. When she was 15, she ran away from home to escape an arranged marriage and an abusive father. Traveling and getting a job as a woman was difficult, so Edmonds disguised herself as a man and adopted the name of Franklin Thompson. As a man she was able to get a job and support herself by selling Bibles, but when the Civil War broke out, she decided she wanted to serve the Union.
Edmonds enlisted in the 2nd Michigan Infantry on May 25, 1861, also known as the Flint Union Greys. At first, she worked as a nurse and also carried messages. She also claimed to have served as a spy, although her career is difficult to document. She wrote a best-selling memoir about her life as a spy describing her many disguises and adventures, but a few historians have questioned some of her facts. Being a spy means having to keep secrets, so perhaps we will never know all the details of her work.
In later life Edmonds married Linus. H. Seelye and raised two children. She also became a lecturer and an activist for Veterans’ rights. She was awarded a government pension of twelve dollars a month. In 1897, she was admitted to the Grand Army of the Republic, but her membership was short because she died in 1898.
This week as we thank all veterans for their service, is a good time to pay tribute to these pioneers who made the acceptance of women into the United States Armed Services possible.
Do you get the feeling that casting a vote has become a huge chore this year? Although voting used to be a routine task, conducted at leisure in a local precinct, this year it has been beset by troubles.
–long lines for in-person voting
–social distancing regulations
–lack of polling places
— slow mail delivery
–suspicious observers at the polls
Is it worth taking the time to vote?
Two centuries ago, when our first voting systems were set up, officials tried to make it easy for people. A November election was convenient because the harvest would have been completed, but the worst of winter would not yet have arrived. And all the voting and counting would be finished before the new year began.
Times have changed. For most people Tuesday is an inconvenient time to vote. Unlike colonial farmers who set their own calendars, most people today work Monday to Friday. But many states cling to an outmoded history and have not changed to reflect the way people live in the 21st century.
Some state and local government officials are not trying to make voting more convenient or easier for citizens. They are trying to make it more difficult. Many seem intent on preventing people from voting. But there are ways to get around this.
You only need to vote in the races you care about. Be sure to vote for one of the candidates for President. That’s the vote that counts most.
For Senators and Representatives, you should normally vote for candidates who will support your presidential choice. That’s the way work gets done in Washington.
You don’t need to vote every line on the ballot. If you don’t recognize the names of the people running for the school board, just leave them blank.
If you live in a state that asks you to make a choice on a long list of ballot measures, skip the ones you don’t know or care about. Let elected officials make those complicated decisions. That’s what they get paid for.
THERE IS NOT MUCH TIME LEFT—VOTE FOR THE DECISIONS THAT ARE IMPORTANT TO YOU AND DO IT NOW!
Although election day is still two weeks away, for many of us the election is all over but the counting. My ballot was mailed in this week and I’ve already been notified that it has been accepted and counted. State websites that let voters to track their ballots have made life easier for many of us. Thousands of people find it difficult to get to the polls on election day and this year the pandemic has made it dangerous as well as difficult. But not everyone can vote.
Sure you can vote if…
The story of voting in the United States has been a tale of expanding voting rights over the years. The framers of the Constitution could never have imagined that so many people in this country would be allowed to vote. They started out with the idea that a relatively small group of white men 21 years of age or older and substantial members of the community who owned property would be the ones who would go to the polls every four years to choose our leaders.
But many Americans were not content to let men of property determine all the laws. In various states men who did not own farms or other assets began demanding the right to vote. First the rules on property fell. Instead of having to own property or be wealthy, men who were merely respectable members of the community were allowed to vote. In some states, widows and women who owned property were also allowed to cast their ballots.
Finally by the mid-nineteenth century voting rights were extended by Constitutional Amendments which revolutionized the voting roles. On October 16, 2020, Jamelle Bouie wrote a column in the NY Times pointing out that the U.S. Constitution as it stands now was not written by the founding fathers. It has changed over the years especially by the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments which guaranteed voting rights to previously enslaved men.
Women in many states were still denied voting rights until the twentieth century. In 1920, the Nineteenth Amendment changed that so that states could not prohibit women from voting. And in 1965, the Voting Rights Act prohibited many of the measures that states had used to prevent African Americans and other minority groups from voting. The legal age for voting was soon extended to 18-year-olds instead of being limited to people over 21. Thousands of people were added to voting lists.
But states are still making voting difficult for many of us…
Change is not easy. States that were not allowed to charge poll taxes, soon came up with other schemes to make voting more difficult.
In the 2020 election, some states have set up new rules to keep voters from casting a ballot. Texas has ruled that only one ballot drop-off box can be set up in each county. If you don’t live close to a ballot drop-off site, you may have to travel 50 miles or more to get to the one closest to you. If you don’t own a car, you are on your own because there is no public transit offered. It seems that Texas has decided on a new property requirement for voting. You may not be required to own a cow pasture, but you are required to own a car.
And for people who want to vote on Election Day, some states are cutting down on the number of voting sites available. You can vote as long as you are healthy and strong enough to stand in line for six to eight hours. It is hard to believe that this is what the Founding Fathers intended when they planned for a democracy.
The only solution is to cast your vote if you possibly can…
This year when you cast your vote, it is not only a victory for you and the candidates you believe in, it also helps make up for all our fellow citizens who are being denied the right to vote. We owe it to our country to honor the freedom America has always stood for and will continue to stand for only if we use our voting power.
CAST YOUR BALLOT AND PROTEST UNFAIR VOTING RESTRICTIONS!
American news has been dominated this week by stories of President Trump’s illness and hospitalization. But it is important to remember that even a hard-fought presidential campaign may not be as important in the long run as the dramatic events happening in the natural world. The bizarre weather generated by changes in climate will affect us long after our next president has been chosen. This year’s hurricane season on the Southern coast has sent one hurricane after another up through the Gulf of Mexico. Weather watchers have even run out of names for new hurricanes, although the season is not half over.
Wildfires in California and Oregon have filled the skies with smoke over large parts of several states. On September 9, San Francisco and much of the Bay Area suffered through a day of darkness. Skies were bright reddish orange soon after sunrise and faded to a deep yellow after several hours. Pedestrians moved through dark street with careful steps and headlights and streetlights were on for most of the day. Normal daylight did not arrive until late in the afternoon.
Although during the week after September 9 the darkness let up, air continued to be smokey and unhealthy. Gradually as winds came in from the Pacific, smoke drifted to the Eastern states. It was a grim reminder of how weather affects everyone and how much a change in the weather can change our lives. At least now scientists and others are beginning to understand the causes and results of climate change. The tragedy is that some people refuse to acknowledge that information and prefer to drag us back into ignorance.
Throughout history, some of the most dramatic changes have been brought by events most people knew nothing about. In 1815 a volcanic eruption brought changes to climate around the world—and the most frightening part of the events was that no one knew what had caused them.
For three years weather was disrupted throughout the world—China had floods, Europe had freezing temperatures in June and July, and in America crops the New England States were hit by heavy frosts and snow during May and June. All of these disruptions were caused by a huge volcanic eruption of Mount Tambora on an island which is now part of Indonesia. The explosion sent streams of ash into the air where it lingered and caused temperatures to drop around the globe. Europe suffered crop losses that caused overwhelming damage in Ireland, Wales, and Germany. Prices rose sharply leaving hungry peasants suffering. Demonstrations at grain markets and bakeries, followed by riots, arson, and looting, took place in many European cities. It was the worst famine of the 19th century.
Observers were baffled by what could have caused the extreme changes in weather, and political leaders struggled to explain events. Some people blamed it on sunspots. Many others turned to religion for an explanation. In upstate New York, Joseph Smith announced he had discovered new revelations from God that led eventually to Smith’s founding of the Mormon church. No satisfactory explanation was found for the dramatic climate changes of 1815 to 1817. The volcanic ash gradually disappeared, floating to the earth in small droplets. Temperatures returned to a more normal pattern.
More than two centuries have passed since Tambora caused these dramatic changes in climate. But once again we are in the midst of climate changes that are affecting the lives of many people around the world. Temperatures are rising throughout the world making many areas of the world unlivable. But now scientists have collected enough data to know what we should be doing. It is time for all of us to acknowledge the danger and to work toward solutions instead of ignoring the challenge. The Union of Concerned Scientists has some important suggestions for all of us.
The news of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s death Friday night was a shock to a country that has been absorbing shocks all year. I saw the announcement late in the afternoon as I turned on my email. No sooner had I read the headline than the phone rang as a friend called to ask whether I had heard the news. For the next hour, messages by phone and email came in from friends and relatives the news spread. Many of my friends and relatives felt the loss as a personal grief.
A crowd gathered outside the Supreme Court building in Washington within hours of the announcement, and as the word spread across the country, another crowd of mourners gathered in San Francisco, probably in other cities too. On the weekend crowds in cities across the country gathered to march in a tribute to the Supreme Court Justice who was affectionately known as RBG.
Why has her death resonated with so many people while other justices have died in office without attracting much notice from the general public? The biggest reason is probably that Justice Ginsburg was a warrior in the long fight for equality for women—a struggle that has been part of American history for at least a hundred years
When the upper-class gentlemen who wrote our constitution started their work, Abigail Adams, wife of John Adams who was one of the authors, reminded her husband “Don’t forget the ladies”. But the men did forget them. More than a century passed before women won the vote, and even after they could vote, women—half the population—were still not considered capable of being leaders in government or business. Ruth Bader Ginsberg, like many other women, recognized this injustice. But unlike most women, Ginsberg did something about it.
Ginsberg’s reputation was built on her presentation of a number of cases documenting gender-related discrimination. The media of the past few days has shown the methodical way she went about winning case after case by showing that such discrimination was contrary to the spirit and letter of the Constitution. She never did win the final battle to get an Equal Rights Amendment added to the Constitution, but she supported the effort.
And Ginsberg not only fought for the rights of women, she also supported a series of interpretations of the Constitution that protected voting rights throughout the country. She opposed the Citizens United decision that enables corporations to give unlimited amounts of money to political groups. Throughout her long career she supported the view that all citizens should have equal rights and that the country should not be dominated by an elite group of wealthy people and corporations who bought their way into power.
Justice Ginsberg’s strong voice will be missed on the Court and throughout the country. As Sir Walter Scott wrote many generations ago, a beloved leader has been taken from us and our mourning will be long and painful.
He is gone on the mountain,
He is lost to the forest,
Like a summer-dried fountain,
When our need was the sorest.
The font reappearing
From the raindrops shall borrow;
But to us comes no cheering,
To Duncan no morrow!
Labor Day belongs to women. That may not be the way most people look at it, but history shows us that some of the earliest agitators for workers’ rights were women. Take the women of the Lowell Mills in Massachusetts, for example. They set the pattern for the cooperative struggle that finally brought us Labor Day.
In the early 1800s, New England was primarily agricultural. Small farmers tilled the fields and raised livestock in most states. If a man did not own enough land for all of his sons to carry on with farming, there was plenty of land in the West that could be settled and farmed.
But times were changing. Manufacturing became another source of wealth after Francis Cabot Lowell imported the secret of English looms to America. The Lowell mills in Massachusetts took advantage of the easy availability of waterpower and the low cost of cotton from Southern states, and a new industry was born.
The Lowell Mills soon found a good source of cheap labor among the daughters of New England farmers. Girls in their late teens could earn as much as $1.85 to $3.00 a week in the mills. There was no need for the mill owners to worry about their health or stamina. If anything went wrong, they could be sent back to their families. And when they got married, their husbands were expected to take care of their retirement.
All of the young women lived in boarding houses owned by the factory and paid room and board out of their salaries. Their activities were supervised by the boarding house matrons who saw that the girls went to church every Sunday and did not engage in unseemly activities during the week. They were encouraged to continue their education by attending lectures and writing articles for the mill’s newspaper, Lowell Offering. You can read some of their writing in Benita Eisler’s anthology The Lowell Offering: Writings by New England Mill Woman.
When the economy sagged during the 1830s, the mill girls’ work hours were increased to 75 hours a week. Many of them no longer had time for writing or even reading. In 1834 and again in 1836, they joined together to go on strike and demand shorter hours. Both strikes were defeated, but the mill girls did not give up. In the 1840s they formed the Lowell Female Labor Reform Association to press for reducing the workday to 10 hours. Although women could not vote at that time, the mill girls started a petition campaign to bring their demands before the legislature. Unfortunately, despite the publicity generated, their efforts failed. The ten-hour day was not won for most workers until many years later. Mill owners discovered they could hire immigrant woman to work in the mills for long hours at lower pay than the local farm girls.
Although their early efforts were not successful, the Lowell Mills girls had started something. Years after their time had passed, other women such as Mother Jones and Rose Pesotta led successful drives to encourage women to join unions and make working conditions more humane. And one of the most famous union songs of all times, memorably recorded by Pete Seeger, was written by a woman:
Which Side Are You On?
A Song by Florence Patton Reese
Come all of you good workers
Good news to you I’ll tell
Of how that good old union
Has come in here to dwell
Which side are you on?
Which side are you on?
Which side are you on?
Which side are you on?
My daddy was a miner
And I’m a miner’s son
And I’ll stick with the union
Till every battle’s won
They say in Harlan County
There are no neutrals there
You’ll either be a union man
Or a thug for J.H. Blair
Labor Day would be a good day to listen to that song one more time.
In August 1991, almost thirty years ago, Moscow seemed ready for a quiet month, but unexpected changes were brewing. Mikhail Gorbachev, the president of the Soviet Union, was vacationing at his summer home unaware that others were plotting his downfall. As was later reported in the New York Times, on August 17, half a dozen conservative communist Russian officials gathered at a steam bath to plot the overthrow the Soviet government. Four of the group would fly to Gorbachev’s estate and give him an ultimatum to resign, while others would assume control of the White House—the center of government. Over glasses of vodka and Scotch, they laid their plans.
On the day that these conspirers met, another group of people were assembling in Moscow—hundreds of librarians were arriving in the city to attend a conference of the International Federation of Library Associations (IFLA). Most of them were from Europe and the Americas, while some came from India, Africa, and Asia. Their goal was to encourage the development of libraries and the exchange of information between the people and governments of the world. Many of the participants were keenly aware of the differences in information policy between the countries of Eastern Europe and those of the West, but probably none of them had expected such a dramatic display of the struggle for freedom as they encountered in Moscow that summer.
I was lucky enough to be participant in that IFLA conference and to become a witness to the way many ordinary Russians experienced the events of the abortive coup. As a reminder of what life was like during that handful of August days in Russia, I have posted the journal that I kept as a record of that eventful week. It is available on this site.
The years that have gone by since 1991 have not been good ones for the Russians. The joy that ordinary people felt during the heady days when it seemed as though democracy was triumphing has faded away. The story of how freedom was gradually lost in Russia is masterfully told in Masha Gessen’s 2017 book: The Future is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia. I highly recommend it.