Thomas Jefferson and the Tripoli Pirates – Review

Brian Kilmeade and Don Yaeger. Thomas Jefferson and the Tripoli Pirates. New York: Sentinel, 2015. Print.

As this book points out, the Marine Corps Hymn has the line “to the shores of Tripoli.” Thomas Jefferson and the Tripoli Pirates tells us, among other things, the history behind that claim. Fast-paced, and engaging, Thomas Jefferson and the Tripoli Pirates tells about the first significant warfare and first declared war that the United States engaged in since its founding.

The authors no doubt found the topic still relevant today. The notorious Barbary pirates, working under the authority of four governments in North Africa were seizing “infidel” ships, stealing their cargo, and holding their crews for ransom. Most European nations put up with this as part of doing business and paid Morocco, Algeria, Tripoli (today’s Libya), and Tunisia annual tribute money. The fledgling United States under Washington and Adams did so, too, but the demands were getting more and more exorbitant—we are talking about a measurable percentage of the Federal budget in those days.

When Thomas Jefferson was an envoy to France under Washington, he joined John Adams and attempted to negotiate with the Tripolitan ambassador to France, Sidi Haji Abdrahaman. When asked why his country was “[making] war upon nations who had done them no injury,” he told them that according to the Qur’an:

[A]ll nations which had not acknowledged the Prophet were sinners, whom it was the right and duty of the faithful to plunder and enslave. (14)

Plus ça change…

Kilmeade and Yaeger note:

The man who had written that all people were “endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights” was horrified. (14)

Nearly ten years later when Thomas Jefferson became president, he realized that the only way to convince these rogue states to not attack American shipping was to subdue them so that they would leave us alone. The United States had virtually no navy at the time (it was authorized in 1794 and the first ships were launched in 1796), but the Barbary states had no formal navy at all, just small privateers. If a group of solid Western frigates were to take them on, it would be possible to get concessions.

Most of the book tells how this happened. We hear about James Cathcart, who spent nearly eleven years as a slave in North Africa, but as a naval leader reminded this reader of the Civil War’s General Butler. He mostly cruised around the Mediterranean hobnobbing with the British and did virtually no fighting or even surveillance of the African Coast, just as Butler spent a year with the Army of the James observing the James River.

We read of envoy Tobias Lear who thwarted the Marine plans with a treaty with the Bashaw of Tripoli in spite of the Marine victory at Derne. We read of William Eaton and Presley O’Bannor who would lead the Marine contingent from Egypt to Libya in an attempt to overthrow the Bashaw of Tripoli. Had it not been for Lear’s agreement, he probably would have succeeded. As it was, it did help prove that fledgling America could stand and “assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them.”

Then we hear of a young Stephen Decatur whose courage exemplified the American spirit, and his commander Edward Preble whose success insured that the Barbary pirates would leave American ships alone for the better part of a decade. When, in 1815, the pirates returned to their old tricks, Madison sent a much stronger force to prevent them from doing more harm.

This lively book not only tells us of military and diplomatic adventures and misadventures, but also gives contemporary descriptions of the people and governments of the Barbary states. Though he had been captured by the Tripolitans, Captain William Bainbridge was able to smuggle out intelligence to American leaders. He also noted that the overall power of the political leaders was relatively weak, and they mostly were able to stay in power by a small armed force and Islamic law. Perhaps things have not changed so much today.

This book was given to me because it looked interesting. It is. It is very easy to read as well; it appears to be at a middle school reading level. In other words, do not be deterred. While reading the acknowledgments, I learned that Mr. Kilmeade is a news reporter for Fox News. I do not subscribe to cable television, so while I have heard people talk about Fox News, I can honestly say that I know little about it or him. If you have strong opinions about that, do not let that deter you from reading this book. Since I am writing this at the Christmas season, I would recommend it to anyone looking for a gift for someone in the U. S. Navy or Marines.

Precious and Grace – Review

Alexander McCall Smith. Precious and Grace. New York: Pantheon, 2016. Print. No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency.

Precious Ramotswe has got to be one of the most endearing characters in fiction. Precious and Grace is the latest installment form the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series. Precious solves the mystery she is hired for as well as one on the side. Typical of the series, the solution is not as straightforward as it first appears.

This time a thirty-five year-old single woman from Canada who lived in Botswana until she was eight comes to the agency looking for information. She wants to find her old house in Gabarone and her childhood nurse named Rosie. All she has is a photograph of her with Rosie in front of the corner of a tract house. She still speaks some Setswana and tells Precious and her “co-director” Grace Makutsi that she has always felt Botswana was her real home.

Meanwhile, it appears that Grace and another dear friend of Mma Ramotswe have invested some money in a Ponzi scheme. Supposedly an organization is buying skinny cattle from the drought-ravaged north a low price, driving them south where there is less drought, and fattening them up for sale at a twenty-five percent profit. Precious’s late father was a cattleman, and there are just too many details that do not make sense to her.

In both of these cases, there is more than meets the eye. Precious Ramotswe and the author Mr. Smith have a way that gets to the heart of the matter. Indeed, the Grace in the title may refer to Mma Makutsi, but it refers just as much to the virtue of grace itself.

Oh, and Grace’s nemesis Violet Sephoro continues to torment her, as indirectly as it may be. And the men at Speedy Motors have to figure out what to do about a stray dog that they have helped and that seems to have adopted them.

Of course, we hear more wisdom from Mma Ramotswe’s mentor, Clovis Andersen:

The obvious is often very obvious—not just a little bit obvious, but glaringly obvious. Yet we fail to notice it and, when we do, we are astonished we did not see it much earlier. (122)

Welcome to Wonderland: Home Sweet Motel – Review

Chris Grabenstein. Welcome to Wonderland: Home Sweet Motel. New York: Random, 2016. Print.

Welcome to Wonderland is going to be a series. Home Sweet Motel is the first installment. The humor is reminiscent of Gordon Korman’s in that the main characters are middle school students. It also reminds us of Karl Hiaasen because the story focuses on some of the fringe elements of Florida culture.

P. T. Wilkie lives at the Wonderland Motel which has all the tacky detritus of a bygone era—giant figures, a little train, a pool slide shaped like a frog, and lots of things in need of repair. As in hundred of tales, the Snively Whiplash characters are a banker and builder who demand mortgage money or they will foreclose on the hotel.

We ain’t got the money fo’ the mo’gage on the fa’m…

P. T., like his namesake P.T. Barnum, loves to spin tall tales. When Junior Achievement whiz Gloria Ortega comes to visit the motel, the two of them come up with a plan to make the motel profitable.

They add speakers to the frog slide so that the amphibian “talks.” They sell green “pond scum” ice cream. They set up a “pirate” treasure hunt and plan on a Ponce de Leon fountain of youth substitute.

Clever dialogue and funny ideas keep the story going even it the plot itself has been recycled many times. They may appeal to some reluctant readers since even a lot of high schoolers stick to graphic novels. While this is not a graphic novel, each of the short chapters has at least one illustration by caricaturist Brooke Allen.

Korman and Hiaasen set the standards for their respective fiction styles, but Welcome to Wonderland is full of fun and headed in their direction.

Calls and Responses – Review

Tim A. Ryan. Calls and Responses: The American Slavery Novel Since Gone with the Wind. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State U P, 2008. Kindle E-book. [References are Kindle lines, not page numbers].

Calls and Responses, a book-length piece of literary criticism, focuses on the treatment of American slavery in American fiction since the 1930s. It deals with some of the critical issues such as the controversy of Styron’s The Confessions of Nat Turner and the challenges to traditional interpretations by postmodern writers, all the while conscious of the elephant in the room: Gone with the Wind.

First the book summarizes a couple of nonfiction treatments of slavery that influenced fiction along with Gone with the Wind itself. The reason I recognized the name of one historian was that he himself became a historical figure. Herbert Aptheker was a literal card-carrying Communist who was trying to overthrow the United States with the help of the Soviet Union. Needless to say, Ryan says Aptheker’s treatment of slavery is Marxist (or should I say Marxian?). Class conflict is everywhere! This was certainly suggested in Gone with the Wind where the field slaves all join the Yankees but the house slaves like Mammy stay at Tara even after the Civil War.

Ryan shows that The Confessions of Nat Turner is influenced by this idea. Aptheker wrote what is still considered the most detailed summary of ante-bellum slave rebellions in the United States. Ryan shows that the Turner in Styron’s novel looks down on the field hands because they are illiterate but he can read.

Styron claims to have also been influenced by Frederick Douglass’s autobiography, but that book suggests something quite different. Douglass at different times was both a house slave and a field slave. He notes that house slaves were usually fed better and not beaten as much only because abuse of them would have been more visible to the neighbors, and slave owners had to at least keep a pretense that they treated their “children” well. Douglass shows cordial relations among slaves of all types. Conflicts were either out of fear of their masters or conflicts that motivate any other people in human relations.

The first half of Calls and Responses makes it appear that the author may be a Marxist, but that could be only because most of the works in the first half seem based on the Mitchell/Aptheker thesis. He recognizes that this perspective is limited. Curiously, both the plantation system that Mitchell mourns and Communism are at their heart feudal in nature. I tell my students that the Civil War put an end to feudalism in America. Communism mostly flourishes in countries like China, Russia, and places in Latin America which still had or have visible traces of feudalism in them.

Indeed, the author appears to conclude by acknowledging the position like that of Douglass, that “Contemporary historical studies tend to confirm the idea that there were close relations between slave classes rather than the fundamental boundaries between them suggested by Gone with the Wind.” (566-568)

Ryan suggests that the more postmodern novels seem to turn some of this concept of classes among slaves on its ear. Octavia Butler’s Kindred is about a time-traveling contemporary black woman who goes to the southern plantation where her ancestors were slaves. In her own era, she is happily married to a white man, so the prejudice and ambivalent treatment of slaves in her family’s past shocks her in ways she can hardly believe.

The book includes some treatment of Frank Yerby’s The Foxes of Harrow and Alex Haley’s Roots. Ryan notes that Roots, which is subtitled The Saga of an American Family is more in the tradition of East of Eden or The Godfather than slave novels (2191)

Calls and Responses
acknowledges that Beloved is set mostly after emancipation but still deals with the long-term effects of slavery. “Beloved, the spirit of Sethe’s murdered baby, represents the ghost of slavery itself.” (2614) At the same time the novel is committed to “keeping the past alive in order to construct a better future.” (3733, citing Kimberly Chabot Davis)

It also includes more detailed looks at Dessa Rose and especially Valerie Martin’s Property, both of which focus on the treatment of female slaves. Property also presents a female slave owner who is a more nuanced character than someone like the O’Hara women.

Ryan’s treatment of The Known World is very effective. It is very different from the review on these pages because it is looking specifically at the issue of slavery. This also turns some usual concepts on their ears because the story is about a black family that owns slaves. To Ryan, this novel illustrates “that history may be only available to us as unreliable narrative , but texts are finally the only kind of access we have to very real processes, events, and consequences. History, in other words, may well be bunk, but it is also vitally important.” (3467-69)

To me, the key “discourse” in The Known World is the ex-slave’s painting of the bird’s eye view of the Townsend plantation. All the faces of the people in the picture are looking up. Ryan says that they “look directly to the face of the viewer.” (3660) Perhaps so, but they are also looking to heaven, to God. He alone sees all and knows the exact truth. No wonder the Day of Judgment is described as a time when heaven opens its books. (Revelation 20:12)

Best. State. Ever. – Review

Dave Barry. Best. State. Ever. New York: Putnam, 2016. Print.

Best. State. Ever. is Dave Barry’s latest contribution to make us laugh. He tells us about his survey of offbeat places to visit in Florida. Barry seems to dismiss the usual tourist attractions. Indeed there is almost a hostile overtone to Disney World—which is surprising because some of his books are actually published by Disney. The places in this book, though, are places that cannot be found anywhere else. Perhaps that is why Florida is the best. state. ever.

As a longtime columnist for the Miami Herald, Barry begins by quoting odd headlines and news stories from Florida such as those that tell of a well-known rapper arrested for stealing a swimming pool heater or a man pulling his son’s loose tooth by tying a string around the tooth and the other end of the string around the bumper of his car.

Barry devotes a chapter to the Skunk Ape—the Everglades’ version of Bigfoot, Yeti, Jersey Devil, etc. Other chapters include the famous Weeki Wachee Mermaids, a town devoted to spiritualists, the world’s largest retirement community, Gatorland, a shooting range for machine gunners, Club 54 (LIV) in Miami, and a Key West bar crawl.

These all have potential for humor, and Barry does not disappoint. He does, however, project some admiration about some of his subjects, especially the non-Indians trying to hang on to family lands in the Everglades and the skills of the above mermaids. His style with hyperbolic metaphors follows the tradition of Jean Shepherd with a wider range.

Some samples:

Miami Woman does not own a loose-fitting anything. If she ever went camping in the wilderness—which she would not, because the wilderness lacks nail salons—she would sleep in a form-fitting sleeping bag inside a form-fitting tent. (25)

In Florida, cockroaches are called Palmetto bugs because if they hear you call them cockroaches, they will become enraged and destroy your kitchen. (44-45)

There are recurring jokes about mold-a-matic machines which a few of these attractions have but are consistently out of order. The machine at Gatorland actually works, and it molds a phosphorescent plastic model of a man wrestling an alligator.

The retirement community called The Villages sounds like it might be fun for old people, but it also comes across as escapist or Disneyesque in its own way like the asylum in the cult movie classic King of Hearts. As a birder, I have always wanted to spend some time in the Florida Keys because there are some birds there that are rarely seen anywhere else in the United States, but Dave Barry seems to have spent all this time there indoors. He is not much of a nature lover, I guess, but he is definitely good for some laughs.

Song of Solomon – Review

Toni Morrison. Song of Solomon. 1977; New York: Knopf, 2006. Print.

The cards are stacked against us and just trying to stay in the game, stay alive and in the game, makes us do funny things. Things we can’t help. Things that make us hurt one another. We don’t even know why. (87)

For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. (Romans 7:15)

Song of Solomon is a strange, entrancing book. The story takes a little while to get going, but then it soars. After I had read two or three chapters, someone asked me how I liked it. I said that there were some interesting characters, but not much has happened—at least not to the characters the story had focused on.

That would change. By the end, we are privy to a family saga like something out of Faulkner—rich, deep, but askew enough to be Southern gothic at its core. No, many times we do not understand why we do the things we do, but like St. Paul in the above quotation, we know that there is something primal that moves us on.

The tite comes from the Bible, of course. The biblical Song of Solomon (a.k.a. the Song of Songs) is a love song sung by a husband and a wife. It is sexual. Rabbinical tradition said that Jewish men were not allowed to read it until they were thirty.

One of the story’s characters is named First Corinthians. She gets her name from another book of the Bible whose thirteenth chapter is called the Love Chapter. That name and the book’s title suggest an undercurrent of love. It seems as if all the characters are looking for love, but they have a hard time finding it or keeping it. Sometimes it is because they are looking in the wrong place, but mostly it is because they really do not know how to love. Brokenness takes a long time to heal. The question is simply this: Will it ever heal?

Macon “Milkman” Dead III loves and hates his father at the same time. His father is a wealthy landlord, and Milkman becomes his rent collector. He is learning the business. Like most sons, he longs for his father’s love, but Daddy is all business. His father also abuses Milkman’s mother Ruth, the daughter of the first black physician in their unnamed Michigan town.

Milkman learns from his father that land and property are what are important in life. Macon Dead, Sr., Milkman’s grandfather, was a prosperous land-owning farmer in central Pennsylvania after World War I. But, as the above quotation notes, the cards were stacked against him. A wealthy and covetous white landowner shot him and took his property to himself. The legal system sided with the white Butlers (distaff relations to Rhett?) and orphans Macon, Jr., and sister Pilate (yes, that is her name) have little recourse.

Brother and sister live in the same Michigan town now, but they are estranged. Milkman is told by his father to have nothing to do with his Aunt Pilate. As he begins to travel around town on his father’s business, he introduces himself to Pilate, her daughter Reba, and Reba’s daughter Hagar, who is five years older than Milkman.

From the beginning, he finds Hagar attractive, and when he is seventeen, she seduces him. From the age of nineteen to thirty-one he is in a relationship with her. Milkman does not want to marry her because he is unsure if he loves her, and, besides, they are cousins. (If the generations seem a little off, Milkman was not born until his father was forty-two. His two sisters, Lena and First Corinthians, are both a dozen or more years older than he.)

Little things become significant. In her house, Pilate keeps a green canvas bag that she calls her inheritance. Her estranged brother and Milkman’s friend Guitar both think she is hoarding a treasure in the bag. Perhaps in a sense she is, but it is not what they think it is.

Pilate teaches her daughter and granddaughter a folk song that says, “Sugarman, don’t fly away.” On one level we can say, yes, Hagar’s “sugarman” Milkman tries to leave her, to “fly away.” But like many folk songs and nursery rhymes there may be a more literal meaning which became obscured over time and history.

I recall hearing an older version of the sixties’ folk song “Tom Dooley” which has some very direct lines such as: “You killed little Laurie Foster.” Another line says, “If it hadn’t been for Grayson/ I’d ‘a’ been in Tennessee.” Tom Dooley was sentenced to death by hanging for murdering Laurie Foster, apparently turned in or betrayed by someone named Grayson. While there is some known history associated with the song, there is also a certain amount of mystery. That is true of many ballads from the Middle Ages on (think “The Wife’s Lament,” “Sir Patrick Spens,” or “Lord Randall). I have read some mere speculations, for example, about “The Sloop John B.”

It is also true that sometimes we do know something about what caused the ballad to be sung as is true with “Tom Dooley” or “Casey Jones.” What curiosity is the Sugarman song about?

Milkman goes on a quest. Initially he thinks is to find the lost family treasure, but instead he discovers the real family treasure.

He goes to Pennsylvania where he meets some old friends of his father’s who are all delighted Macon Dead has become a success. He also visits the ancient midwife Circe who lives in the Butlers’ abandoned homestead. The last Butler died without an heir, so all the corrupt land-grabbing and deck-stacking was futile.

Without giving too much away, we finally do meet a character named Solomon around page 200. The other names may be significant in various ways, but I do not want to make too big of a deal of it.

Solomon – the fabulously wealthy King of Israel who had 300 wives and 700 concubines and from whom the royal family of Ethiopia claimed descent. The founder of the Solomon clan in the book has 21 children by almost as many women.

Circe – a witch in Homer’s Odyssey. Many American slaves were given names Greek or Latin classical names like Alexander, Cassius, Sylvester, Lucretia, and so on. Free blacks would continue to name children after their ancestors. Morrison’s Circe lives in a remote house with thirty dogs, not unlike the Homeric goddess surrounded by a variety of animals on her lonely island.

Hagar – the Egyptian concubine and slave, eventually cast out by Abraham. So Song of Solomon‘s Hagar is Milkman’s mistress and eventually rejected. The novel’s Hagar is angry and tries several times to murder Milkman unsuccessfully. She is angry but also looking for love and respect, perhaps typifying the way many African-Americans feel about white Americans—they are against us” (see above) and we hate them for that, but at the same time we need respect and love like any other human beings (perhaps even the way some women view men).

Pilate – perhaps the oddest name. No, she does not kill any Christ figure in the story. Her name seems more of a burden than anything. Her father randomly chose the names of both daughters out of the Bible. She freaks people out, including potential boyfriends and husbands because she has no navel. Does she represent Eve? Macon, Jr., calls her a snake, a different character from Eden. But didn’t the man blame the woman?

For what it is worth, I once knew a man who had no navel. Back when I was working as an editor for a scientific newsletter, some of the scientists actually examined him. It turned out that he did have a navel visible in an x-ray, but apparently when he was born his belly skin was sewn over the navel. I share that to note that such things are not entirely unknown in our wide world.

One recurring image in the novel is flight. Milkman is born in 1931 on a day when an insurance agent attempts to fly across the state of Michigan on a set of wings he invented. Of course, it does not work. Man has invented the airplane, the glider, the helicopter, the hot air balloon, the rocket, but he needs some kind of aid to make human flight work.

Trying not give too much away, others (note the Sugarman song) attempt to fly. Milkman does in the last chapter, which also coincides with the peak of the Civil Rights movement. Is there a relationship there? Or is it more personal?

How do we deal with conflict? Murder and anger? Love? Sex? Or do we try to escape, to fly away? Morrison brings a lot together in what becomes a family saga not unlike Faulkner’s Go Down Moses.

A few final notes. I read this because my high school administration suggested I find a book for a college-level American Literature course that was magical realism but did not have profane language like the Tim O’Brien book I had been teaching. This book was not that.

Although there is some talk of ghosts and dreams, I believe this is hard to peg as magical realism in the vein of Marquez or O’Brien. It is more like Wuthering Heights: gothic but rooted in reality.

And, well, if the reader is offended by profanity, this is probably not the book to read. I guess nowadays we call that a trigger warning.

Still Song of Solomon tells us explicitly that even though many blacks did migrate to the North, they brought a Southern understanding and sensibility with them. Morrison may have grown up in Ohio like Philip Roth, but she is much closer to Faulkner, O’Connor, or Percy than to her fellow Ohioan. This will open your eyes.

The Frontiersmen – Review

Allan W. Eckert. The Frontiersmen: A Narrative. 1967; Ashland KY: Jesse Stuart Foundation, 2001. Print. The Winning of America.

The Frontiersmen is an excellent example of what today we call creative nonfiction. It also lets us see some of the people who made America what it is, warts and all. Like those films from the 1950s such as Ben Hur or The Ten Commandments, one is tempted to call The Frontiersmen an epic saga.

The book is about the opening up of Kentucky and the Northwest Territory in the late 18th and early 19th century. It includes appearances by Daniel Boone, Andrew Jackson, George Rogers Clark, William Henry Harrison, Tecumseh, and other names we recognize from our history. However, the story focuses on a man who seems to have been everywhere during this time period and who typified the early white settlers in this region and who really represents some of the best of American exceptionalism. This heroic character was Simon Kenton.

The Frontiersmen begins in the area around Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, which was the edge of the frontier in 1770. English-speaking settlers, mostly from New England and Virginia, were moving to wilderness to stake a claim. The region we know as Kentucky was especially wide open.

Kentucky of 1770 sounds almost like an earthly paradise for the rugged individual. Beyond its mountains were fertile plains with tall grass full of deer and bison. As can best be judged, no Indians permanently lived there, although they would come from other places, especially north of the Ohio River, to hunt there. When young Virginian Kenton thinks of settling there, an Indian tells him it is a place of blood. That is never explained, but we think that Indians may have fought over it and then decided to quit the battle and simply go there for seasonal hunting.

We read about how most, but not all, of the settlers in the west supported the Revolution. George Rogers Clark in particular created havoc for the British outposts in the west. Clark and Daniel Boone both became friends with Simon Kenton who was a scout and survival specialist. We learn that Clark was unable to settle down after the war and drifted into alcoholism. Boone remained a leader in Kentucky, but as it became too civilized for him, he moved farther west, eventually settling in Missouri which reminded him of Kentucky when he first moved there.

Parallel to the story of the white settlers, we are told the story of the Indians in the area. Each tribe and tribal group is named. It is interesting to note that there were some adoptions between the Indians and the whites in both directions. One Marmaduke van Swearingen would join the Shawnee tribe and eventually become Chief Blue Jacket. We learn his life story and how it shows the challenges the Indians faced and the challenges they made as they came in contact with the coastal settlers. (Eckert would also write a biography of Blue Jacket).

Another Indian who appears from time to time is Thayendaga, otherwise known by the name his adoptive parents gave him, Joseph Brant. But the Indian who becomes lead character in this saga is Tecumseh. Tecumseh was an educated and charismatic leader. At one point he asked for the hand of a daughter of a white settler in marriage. They were in love, but she realized that she could not give up her lifestyle for that of the wife of an Indian.

Tecumseh and his brother, known as the Prophet, seemed to understand better than most what was happening west of the Alleghenies. He almost succeeded in uniting most of the Indian tribes from Florida to Montana, but ultimately the tribal loyalties were too strong. Tecumseh allied himself with the British in the War of 1812, but the British were not the most respectful allies for native peoples.

One interesting detail The Frontiersmen shares about the Shawnee is their history narrative. They said that they crossed an ice bridge to North America with different Shawnee groups crossing at different times. After they were well settled in North America a new tribal group arrived, one of the last to cross before the ice bridge disappeared. They also spoke the Shawnee language and joined their brothers. This makes one think that some of the Native American population may not have been here as long as many people think.

When the southern parts of North America were first being settled and explored by the Spanish, the Shawnees were living in what is today Florida. By the middle of the 1700s, they had settled in Ohio where they were a major people group at the time European settlement of the region began.

As had already happened with many of the Indians closer to the coast, some stay on, convert to Christianity, and attempt to join the new order. Others dig in and resist, attacking vulnerable farms and villages. Others move farther west.

Simon Kenton himself was captured by Indians multiple times and survived their version of the gauntlet at least eight times. Most people are killed, but those who survive are nursed back to health and treated with respect.

Kenton entered into a blood covenant with fellow settler Simon Girty who decided to stay with the British during the Revolution. They would continue to meet from time to time, but they respected that personal covenant even through the War of 1812.

Although Kenton was wise in woodcraft, hunting, and scouting, he was illiterate. He initially claimed thousands of acres of land when Kentucky first opened up, but he had a difficult time holding on to any of it because someone else always seemed to have a written title or deed of some kind. Eventually he bought land in New Madrid, Missouri, where he hoped to settle. By then he made sure of his title. That land would totally disappear in the famous New Madrid earthquake, the largest earthquake in North America in historical times.

There were numerous battles, both with other people and with nature. We learn how Kenton and others would survive being out in a snowstorm. We see the Ohio River both as a thoroughfare for trade and people moving west, but also a place prone to attacks from Indians and occasionally the British. It was hard, rugged, beautiful, and full of promise. America owes a lot to these people.

The Frontiersmen is not the first to tell this story, but did Andrew Jackson really lead a group of pioneers into Kentucky when he was only a man-sized twelve, getting into at least one drunken brawl? Eckert notes the record of Jackson’s early life appears to have been covered over to some degree. Some sources indicate he was born before his parents arrived in America, as many as ten years earlier than officially noted, and that he may truly have been a president who was not a natural born citizen. I guess there were not many Jackson “birthers” in his day.

Few books give us an insight to the lives of the people who opened the Midwest. We understand a good deal about the heroes and villains, Americans, British, and Indians. This saga is worth sharing. Yes, Eckert does take some license with dialogue, though he claims all dialogue is based on existing historical documents, but he tells history as a story. In French the word histoire means both “story” and “history.” Isn’t that the way it should be?

In the Lake of the Woods – Review

Tim O’Brien. In the Lake of the Woods. New York: Penguin, 1995. Print.

If anyone has read the story “On the Rainy River” from O’Brien’s collection The Things They Carried, In the Lake of the Woods bookends that story. “Rainy River” begins O’Brien’s Vietnam saga, and In the Lake of the Woods apparently ends it. At first it does not appear to be another war story like the works O’Brien is justly best known for like If I Die in a Combat Zone, Going After Cacciato, and The Things They Carried.

John Wade and his wife Kathy are staying in cabin in a remote area of Minnesota lake country. We find out that Wade, still a young 38 and the Lieutenant Governor of Minnesota, has just lost a party primary for the U. S. Senate. The couple understandably want to get away for a while and re-connect and think things through.

Much of In the Lake of the Woods is flashback. At first the flashbacks tell of how the pair met in college and how they fell in love. We also find out John Wade’s father committed suicide when John was twelve and that as a boy his hobby was sleight of hand. By the time he was in high school he was putting on magic shows.

We also learn that he was drafted into the army out of college and went to Vietnam in 1968. At first the reminiscences about Vietnam mostly have to do with how he was trying to maintain a long distance relationship with Kathy, writing letters while she was finishing her studies. He used to do magic tricks to entertain his comrades in his platoon, so he got known by the nickname Sorcerer. Indeed, it seemed that soon everyone forgot his real name.

Although a few of the flashbacks are a little jarring, they are not too unusual. He does think about something that happened at Thuan Yen, and then about a third of the way through the novel the book mentions that his platoon leader was a Lt. Calley. That, of course, is not a fictional name. About two thirds of the way through the novel we learn that Thuan Yen became known to the outside world as My Lai.

So even though most of the story is set in 1980’s Minnesota back country, the Vietnam War still figures. One of the more interesting characters in the novel is Tony Carbo, Wade’s campaign manager and longtime political operative. Several times he asks if Wade has any skeletons in his closet so they can bring them out and minimize them before the campaign heats up. Wade says that he cannot think of anything.

Needless to say, his primary opponent has someone look into Wade’s background, including his service record, and discovers that he was involved in some way with the My Lai massacre. Wade had been seen as a shoo-in in the primary, but after that revelation his reputation and poll numbers tanked.

It is safe to say that In the Lake of the Woods is a study of PTSD—after a failed election on top of suppressed war memories and a father’s suicide. Still, the main story is a mystery.

One morning John Wade wakes up (it is nearly noon, he had been drinking the night before) and Kathy is gone. At first, he does not think much of it. An athlete in college, she still likes to jog or take walks. He figures she just was taking a walk—it was a few miles to the first general store. When she has not returned by dark, he gets worried. The next day the search begins.

For three weeks the search is quite extensive: sheriff’s department, volunteers, airplanes, with park rangers and border patrol from both the United States and Canada. No trace of her is found. A boat owned by the cabin owner is missing, so they think that she took off and got lost in the maze of waterways along the Minnesota-Canada border.

Wade himself becomes a suspect, and some people call for a search of the cabin and the property around it. Still, nothing is found.

The style of In the Lake of the Woods is reminiscent of Going After Cacciato, but there is not exactly any magical realism. Since Wade is a magician, perhaps O’Brien is making a little fun of the genre. There are a number of chapters entitle “Evidence” which include brief testimonies by Wade’s friends and family members, statements by political figures who knew the Wades, quotations from a variety of books on history and psychology, and observations by locals involved in the search.

There are also a few chapters named “Hypothesis” in which possible explanations for some of John’s and Kathy’s behaviors are explored. Perhaps Kathy just needed to get away and got lost. Perhaps John really killed her in a bloodless manner and sunk her in the boat. Will we ever know?

Ultimately, In the Lake of the Woods may well be the last of O’Brien’s Vietnam tales—even though the war is only on the novel’s periphery. The Rainy River flows out of the Lake of the Woods in real geography. With O’Brien it goes the other way. And at its core, O’Brien perhaps expresses his own views more clearly. He is no longer hiding as he was in the works mentioned earlier. And his views are existential:

But who will ever know? It’s all hypothesis, beginning to end. (300)

The title itself may give us a hint. It is not On the Lake or By the Lake or At the Lake but In the Lake. As Polonius put it: “By indirections, find directions out.” (Hamlet 2.1.66)

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie – Review

Alan Bradley. The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie. New York: Random, 2009. Print.

This murder mystery is marketed to adults, but considering that the main character is a 12 year old girl with an unusual family, this could just as easily be marketed as a young adult novel. Flavia, our protagonist, has two sisters who torment her—of course, she can just as well torment them back. Flavia loves chemistry, and she uses her knowledge of chemistry to get back at sister Ophelia who had tied her up and locked her in their attic.

How could teenagers get away with such stuff? Their mother died when Flavia was a baby, and their father pretty much does nothing except work on his stamp collection. The family is minor British aristocracy, and they live in a large manor house with two hired help—the cook Mrs. Mullet and caretaker Dogger. The three kids are pretty much left on their own in the big house.

One day their father, Colonel De Luce, gets a mysterious delivery, a stuffed jacksnipe (a type of long-billed sandpiper) with an old postage stamp impaled on its bill. This unusual message disturbs the Colonel, and within a couple of days an intruder is found dead in their yard.

The story has quite a bit of action. The colonel is arrested for the murder of the stranger, and Flavia does some sleuthing and getting into trouble to try to find out who really did it. People who have a smattering knowledge of chemistry and stamp collecting will especially enjoy this story, though things are explained clearly enough for the uninitiated. It did help, for example, for this reader to know what urushiol is. Eventually Flavia tells us. (It is the active ingredient, if you will, in poison ivy.)

Similarly, if the reader knows anything about the earliest postage stamps which were first issued by the United Kingdom in 1840, the story becomes fascinating. Without giving away too much of the plot, the stamp stuck onto the snipe is a Penny Black – the first postage stamp ever issued. It has a picture of Queen Victoria in a frame. In the bottom of the frame are the words “ONE PENNY” in capital letters.

The Penny Black
The Penny Black

However, this stamp also had markings to indicate the position of each individual stamp on the sheet. In the lower left hand corner it has one letter to indicate the row the stamp was in. Letter A was the first row, B the second row, and so on through T, the twentieth and last row. In the lower right hand corner of the frame it had letters A through L, to indicate which of the twelve columns the stamp had been cut from. The stamp on the snipe had the letters B and H, so the writing along the bottom could be read as “B ONE PENNY H.” It turns out than a boarding school classmate of Col. De Luce was Horace Bonepenny. When putting the family name first as for alphabetizing, that becomes Bonepenny H.

There are a number of entertaining clues like that that help Flavia solve the mystery, but also get herself into many jams. This book is the first of a series, and I suspect that many readers will enjoy the clever Flavia and her humorous cheer.

One note on the American edition of The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie cited above. The cover is all wrong. It has a picture of a totally black bird like a crow with an orange stamp impaled on the bill. The jacksnipe, like other snipe and sandpipers is spotted brown and shaped completely different from a crow. I can also assure the reader that any stamp known as the Penny Black is not orange; however, there is an orange stamp that does figure in the story: the Ulster Avenger. It got its name because it was orange like the favorite color of Ulstermen. Read the story and find out more about that one.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons, public domain. See

Ben-Hur (novel) – Review

Lewis Wallace. Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ. 1880;, 30 March 2011. E-book.

With the recent films Hail, Caesar and Ben-Hur (the third at my count), I felt I ought to read the novel that inspired these movies, Lew Wallace’s Ben-Hur. I have seen the 1959 film starring Charlton Heston, and I do recall it pretty well, considering I saw it around 1960. The film is fairly faithful to the book, though of necessity much is cut out or collapsed. Wallace tells a very good story.

Like the 1959 film, the story begins with the three wise men or magi visiting the baby Jesus. Unlike the film, one of the wise men, an Egyptian named Balthasar, becomes an important character in the novel. Indeed, Balthasar is the theologian of the story whose influence ultimately steers the protagonist Judah Ben-Hur both to Jesus and to an understanding of the Kingdom of God.

(In fairness to the film, the occasional voice-overs of the 1959 production were given to the same actor who played Balthasar.)

When we think of the movie, we think of the chariot race. Indeed, about a third of the novel focuses on the chariot race, too. In other words, it is not like The Lord of the Rings’ Battle of Helm’s Deep which takes about half an hour of film time but only a couple of pages in the book. No, there is not a blow-by-blow description of the race for 180 pages, but it does focus on the many things that lead up to the race: Judah’s training as a Roman military officer, the betrayal by Messala, Judah’s desire for revenge, Judah’s connection with the Arab sheik Ilderim, the choosing of horses, and the horse training.

As most readers know, Wallace was a general in the American Civil War and knew horses. This part of the story is told well, even for those of us who are not that familiar with horses or who have seen the movie and know how the race turns out. I thought of Trollope’s The Eustace Diamonds which describe a fox hunt in such a way that even readers who know little of foxes or horses or hounds get a sense of why people enjoyed the sport.

The most surprising thing about Ben-Hur was that romance is a major element in the novel, though a minor one in the film. That’s right, Judah Ben-Hur was attracted to two lovely damsels: Iras, the seductive daughter of Balthasar, and Esther, the shy but intelligent daughter of the rich Jewish merchant and family retainer Simonides. Which one will he choose?

Although we may think of the story arc involving horse races and slave ships, one reason that Ben-Hur has continued to be enjoyed is that it portrays many important relationships. Most readers can relate to at least some of them. There is, of course, the betrayal of Judah Ben-Hur by his childhood friend Messala for political gain.

Throughout the book, Judah worries about his mother and sister. Their fate, until they meet Jesus, is worse than death. Yes, they have leprosy, but beyond that their imprisonment is most cruel and unusual.

As is well-known, Ben-Hur is sentenced to be a galley slave where he manages to survive for three years and rescue the Roman admiral Arrius who adopts him as a son. Ben-Hur then reconnects with his father’s steward Simonides, who is now the richest merchant in Syrian Antioch. Through Simonides he meets both Balthasar and Ilderim, along with Iras and Esther. Ilderim sets him up with the horses and chariots that will defeat Messala. But more than that, Ilderim helps him organize and army of Jews and Arabs that will rebel against Rome when the time is right. Simonides sympathizes with this plan, but Balthasar demurs.

Balthasar has told both Judah and Simonides about his visit to Bethlehem some three decades earlier to see the infant who was to become the King of the Jews. He understands with the two of them that the Jewish Messiah will rule the world in the name of the one true God.

Simonides and Ben-Hur see the Messiah as a political figure. He will conquer the Romans and set up a righteous government ruled by the Jews according to Jewish Law. Indeed, the army that Ben-Hur organizes, he organizes for the Messiah. When the Messiah, who must be a grown man by now, gives him the word, his armies will rise up.

Balthasar, of course, is a gentile Egyptian. Because of his studies as well as his encounter with the baby Jesus, he does believe in the one true God. However, being a gentile, he does not see the Messiah in the nationalistic terms that his Jewish friends do. He explains that if God is the God of all mankind and that if the Messiah is going to rule the world in righteousness, His kingdom will be different. He must first make people righteous. He has to somehow deal with the sinfulness of all mankind.

The novel is perhaps a little more realistic than the film. In the film, Judah’s mother and sister get healed of their leprosy at the cross. This was done, I believe, for the economy of time in the film. In the novel, they are healed as they call out to Jesus when He passes by. In other words, more like the way Jesus healed a number of people in the Gospels.

I think it is not much of a spoiler to say that Judah Ben-Hur will end up with the nice Jewish girl, but we also learn that Balthasar’s daughter reverts to polytheism. At one point when she takes Ben-Hur for a boat ride, most readers could not help thinking of another famous Egyptian beauty: Cleopatra on her barge. So Iras never accepts her father’s stories about the Christ or his belief in a single Creator God. As has been said, God has no grandchildren.

Wallace makes a few clever and subtle Biblical connections. The Bible in Acts 11:26 tells us that the followers of Jesus were first called Christians at Antioch. While we cannot say that Esther of Antioch coined the term, the first time we hear the term used, Esther speaks it.

Judah Ben-Hur, we are told, was a Jewish prince—not unlike the rich young ruler who questioned Jesus. Ben-Hur’s family line goes back at least to the time of the resettlement of Jerusalem after the Babylonian captivity. We find that Wallace named the family Ben-Hur because Nehemiah 3:9 describes Rephaiah the Son of Hur (i.e., ben Hur in Hebrew) as “the ruler of the half part of Jerusalem.” Jewish nobility indeed!

We see one interesting note of comparison with the film. In the chariot race, Ben-Hur does not wear a helmet the way that the rest of the racers do. I just figured this was typical Hollywood. The star does not wear a hat or helmet so we can see who is doing the daring deed (this goes from Rambo to Branagh’s Henry V). However, the book actually tells us that Ben-Hur did not wear a helmet in the race. They were serving the cameraman and the original source at the same time!

The story ends with a mention of the Catacombs of Callixtus (or Calixto). Those were rediscovered around 1850 (one reliable source says 1849, another 1854). Anyway, they had been in the news just prior to the Civil War, so that Wallace’s audience would have known something about them. Callixtus’s story parallels that of Ben-Hur in some ways: a slave who escaped by jumping off a ship, sentenced to slave labor in a mine where he got the attention of a mistress of the Emperor at the time (c. A.D. 200), and was eventually freed and became a priest and then the Bishop of Rome.

Questions, Comments, and Observations on the English Language