2020, The Year of My WIP: Reading, Dreaming, Writing

As 2019 dwindles to a close, I think a little about its opening days, when I stayed mostly in bed under extra-heavy covers, protecting myself from the steel-like cold that gripped our house while we’d been on vacation. Chasing it away was a weekend affair in which my son and I both violated the house rules against eating in our bedrooms. I had a pile of books nearby to keep me company but, truth be told, I didn’t touch them. I was wrecked from travel, but it was more than jetlag. I was severely burned out.

Eventually the house warmed up and the year marched forward, pulling me along as I ran to keep up. Part of how I managed to do this is that I didn’t pick up a book until March, spending the interim fighting illness. I dreamed a  lot of ghosts, which brought my mind back to the days a few years before when some very odd occurrences visited our home, and this in turn led to my first read of the year, The Ghost Midwife by Annalisa Christensen, whose debut novel, The Popish Midwife, I’d previously read, loved and reviewed.

Musing over all these ghosts gave way to some thinking about the imprints of characters populating my own mind, whose initial sparks gave way or, in a couple of instances, sometimes persisted. One such was a young girl from twelfth-century East Anglia, a place that for reasons unknown, I feel some connection with. (I can’t explain it; I’ve never been there. It just is.) Once I was randomly surfing my way through a lazy and occasionally boring evening and came upon a hit that made me sit up straight, almost as if I’d been emotionally poked by someone trying to capture my attention. This young girl immediately appeared, as if I had “found” her – in that nanosecond I recognized and knew so much about her, and spent the following days getting to know her better.

King’s Lynn, originally Bishop’s Lynn and referred to by locals as, simply, Lynn, as seen from the River Great Ouse. Image courtesy Ben Dickson at Wikimedia (click for more info)

She wasn’t an easy study, partly because she is young, reticent and inexperienced with strangers. She also is native to an era many centuries before our own, even a couple of hundred years preceding another medieval period I’ve studied. Still, I learned quickly about some of her passions, prejudices, fears, dreams, disappointments, even tragedies—her own and that of her grandparents, who survived William’s Harrying of the North. But those differences persisted and for awhile, she has hidden herself behind a veil—of time, of space? No matter, I sense she is still there, waiting, even wanting to be found again, and perhaps she will have greater confidence next time, as will I, I hope.

Part of why Adela, as I know her to be called, slipped away so easily could also be laid at my own feet, in that my attention was breathtakingly captured by another girl, slightly older and who also instantaneously, albeit unwittingly, revealed much of herself to me. With Perle, however, I felt almost as if we were playing a game, one involving puzzles that I have to piece together with information she seems to be leading me to—and let me tell you, it’s one of the biggest thrills of my life. Each set of two put together forms a more complete understanding in my mind and it’s not that I think to myself something like, “Oh, I have an idea for this story!” Rather, it is as if I have just realized something—realized—and draw in my breath with a gasp not just at that it pieces together, but how amazingly suitable all these details are with each other. And the conduit, whoever or whatever they might be, enthrall me as well as the tales they tell.

Hildegard of Bingen, Doctor of the Church, Sibyl of the Rhine. Perle and Adela might have known about her. Image courtesy Wikimedia (click image for more info)

Some of my readers may recall that I am in love with the ordinary people of the world. With that, of course, comes the awareness, for better or worse, that the vast majority of them through history are out of my reach, owing to illiteracy and death rates, lack of recordkeeping, destruction or deterioration of materials, enforced and environmental silence, to name a few factors of time. Nevertheless, I do believe many of them were so dynamic and colorful, and life would have been more exciting, intriguing or joyful when living it with them. How do I know this? Well, I don’t, not really. But it is so that there are people in every era like this—the disappointing part is that most are not remembered past their own time. They didn’t come from a notable family, were never party to any litigation, had no inventions or famous successes to their names. Those who knew them before they died eventually also passed on without leaving anything—at least nothing that can be conclusively connected to them, written, spoken or created—and new generations grew up knowing nothing of these people or their influence.

At various periods in my own life, certain instances of forgetfulness have haunted me a little, such as that of Pompeii and Herculaneum. I used to marvel that entire, thriving cities of people who once were, and who died all at once and so tragically, could be forgotten—snap!—like that. How could it happen? Of course, Pliny the Younger wrote about Vesuvius a quarter of a century after its magnificent eruption, though these letters were only published long after Perle and Adela were living, by which time the cities weren’t even, as they say, “only a memory.”

I’m not entirely familiar with the chain of custody of Pliny’s writings, only that they were published in Italy in the fifteenth century. And so I wonder: Is something still a memory if no one alive knows about it? Does it make a difference that somewhere, in some vault or archival depository, rests someone’s written descriptions of people, places, events? I want to believe it does, because to be forgotten seems to me a fate worse than death. Perhaps there is a bit of hyperbole within that pronouncement, though I assure you it is not deliberate, only born of a thought that this is a truer death than any kind experienced by the physical body.

What if, in a realm in which beings could mentally connect with those alive who exert connections to the past, what if these beings could somehow tap into the realm inhabited by the living and act the muse? The muse, of course, is not an original idea, I just sometimes contemplate that inspirations on some occasions are in actuality real people communicating real events to those of us with the means to record them. I must also give credit for this idea, or at least the lead-in to it, to Dying to Meet You, a kid’s novel I read with my son some years ago for battle of the books. I’ve forgotten much of it, but the gist is that a writer looking for a comeback settles into a new project, advised by the resident ghost, who harangues and harasses him in ways that made us howl with laughter. The point being, of course, that perhaps some historical fiction characters are those who have recruited authors to tell their stories, the ones that never made it to history books but that many want to hear. I’m sure this also has been the more serious plot of some historical fiction already written, so even this is not so innovative. I suppose the difference here is my suggestion that it is much more common and real than we know.

So far, none of these shadowy beings have harassed or harangued me, though they do seem to be telling their stories, and did even when they were hovering in shadows while I slept through the first quarter of 2019. Those dreams: Some were fairly vivid, others were shadowy and vague, but all led to one of the largest book-buying binges I’ve experienced in my life. As I attempt interpreting the information the ghostly beings pass along in their leads and murmurs, I wonder if they whispered all those months ago not only for themselves, but for me too, to rise up from my bed and find what I love. And so I carry on like a literary, historical detective, a position I never imagined I’d occupy, given that I am by no means an historian. But the variables gathered in the way they did, and this is how I move forward into the next decade.

I’m looking forward to my massive amount of reading as well as telling about some of it, and hope you’ll stay tuned for this journey I have been quite willingly drawn into. I’ve got other ideas too, some of it from past new years, but also some new new, inspired by a bunch of gabbing and creative ideas I’ve been witnessing.

At this writing, it’s getting closer to midnight, which means it soon shall be 2020. I’ve had a peek outside, and it is snowing magically and quietly as worlds meet between the hours. It’s going to be glorious.

 

Coming Upon the King: How I Came to Be a Ricardian

Not long ago I had opportunity to reflect on events that led to my re-introduction to Richard III, the last English king to be killed in battle and who, in the over 500 years since, has been regarded by many as a murderer of children – worse, a murderer whose motive was to steal the crown. To be honest, I was never really interested one way or the other, partly, I suppose, because when I first learned about Richard—in elementary and high school—I felt overwhelmed with details and loads of other eras and figures to keep track of. At a certain point more recently I thought maybe I’d read a bit about him just to catch up. I never imagined I’d be drawn into a medieval drama and determine to follow-up with it. Nor could I predict it would be one of his detractors that not only influenced me to further investigation, but also lead to my eventual determination.

In this season of reflection and consideration of others—those we relate to and don’t—it seemed fitting to re-blog my look back, which first appeared at Murray and Blue in the opening days of this month.

16th-century painting of Richard III

I’ll be perfectly honest with you: I was never really that interested in Richard Plantagenet, later Richard III. In school I had avoided the Anglo-Saxons like the plague, and Richard, well, perhaps like a round of the flu. He wasn’t quite as intimidating, despite the double-murder allegation lodged, and I got away with not having to write about him once my father, who was big on essays, unearthed a book about the famous American swamp fox. Not that it was easy to outsmart my dad; there was just so much history to know and he loved imparting it. In fact, he adored learning of most kinds, and almost every time I saw him he had a book in one hand, cup of tea in the other. Every weekday morning before work he would sit at the dining room table for about two hours, enjoying his study in the quiet atmosphere between night and day. He read almost anything he could get his hands on, with the notable exception of Shakespeare, of whom he was not a huge fan, though he never said why.

By the time I reached university I’d managed to evade Richard a few more times (and those fearsome Anglo-Saxons!), despite his seeming determination to capture my attention. I had to capitulate a bit when Shakespeare (him again) showed up in his own required course. I quite liked his poetry and how he played with language, but frankly didn’t care about star-crossed lovers (everyone read that in high school), a brooding Danish prince (that one too) or evil kings who seemed to be a dime a dozen. And the evil king who repeatedly crossed my path was none other than – you guessed it, Richard III.

I had to read Richard III three times because the professor, who in my opinion was quite brilliant but mystifyingly static in his forward movement, could present it in his sleep. So we read it in two regular lit classes and then in Shakepeare, in which our fearless leader liked to occasionally take on the parts of people he was teaching about. He had a larger audience here, and the more sizable lecture area gave him the space to move around as he caricatured his way through Richard’s role and the frequent trivia he was fond of. At the end of the semester I was appalled to discover that not only did 75% of our grade rest on a ten-question quiz, but also the questions had little to do with, say, history, critical theory or literary devices. A representative sample’s answer was, “A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!” I wasn’t a snobbish student, but did possess the expectation I be delivered the education I was paying for, not a bunch of trivia and phrases repeated so often, here and elsewhere, that they became cliché.

I didn’t realize it then, but I was in equal parts driven away from all talk of Richard III and hauled back to him by the frustration of knowing that even I considered the standard presentation tiresome. Students way more brilliant than myself repeated the stock phrases, though, and I felt like shaking them as I cried out, “Wake up, man! I want to read King Lear and Huntingdon won’t teach it!” My actual response consisted of acquiring a fish (the only pet I could get away with) and calling it Richard, as if that somehow revenged a king, allowing him to be something besides the pitiful stock bad man. I was irked, perhaps even irritated, but not yet inspired.

At the time I knew nothing of the Richard III Society and wouldn’t for some years, for after I graduated, my poor fish had been given last rites and I was just so relieved to have passed statistics and survived senior year burnout. But, as the universe seemed to want to have it, Richard came up in casual conversation, at this point two years before the discovery of his remains in a parking lot. I admitted I really knew very little of the man I’d previously complained kept coming, uninvited, into my life, and determined I’d remedy that. The universe, being as accommodating as it so often is, arranged for a car crash that left me immobile for an extended period, which in turn provided for quite a lot of reading time to fill.

Sir John Everett Millais’ The Two Princes Edward and Richard in the Tower, 1473 (1878). Privileged placement of the work on the cover of Alison Weir’s 1992 edition of The Princes in the Tower is utilized toward this author’s assertion regarding Richard: the “two pale, innocent, bewildered boys” of her blurb paired with existing stereotypes of medieval society, seek to convince viewers of Richard’s culpability. 

I started with Alison Weir’s The Princes in the Tower. It had a fairly beckoning cover and I really had no idea of any given book on this topic to another. Mainly I was looking for details. My intention was, quite simply: read one and be done with it. And so it began. Here was an account that claimed to have studied the case of the missing princes, one heir to the throne, both rumored to have been murdered by their “usurper” uncle, King Richard III, the bodies of the two “pale, innocent, bewildered boys” never found.

It didn’t initially strike me as odd that Weir would contradict herself—on the same page of her preface, no  less—with two opposing statements of direction: “The historian’s job is to weigh the evidence available, however slender and circumstantial” and “We are dealing here with facts, not just speculation or theories.” In all honesty, I was unaccustomed to reading like an historian; instead I read for elements such as repetition, privileged position, arcs and development. Still, my literary training had served me well—even including the aforementioned professor, who really did have good reason to be on staff; the pince-nez and dressing gown during office hours was an added bonus—and I began to wonder that perhaps historical writing really does have much in common with literary.

For example, Weir’s placement of Image 15 of the insert photos: One of, if not the most biased image in the insert collection, is a picture of two child-sized skeletons, discovered nearly two centuries after the princes’ disappearance. It is cleverly shadowed with near-opposing black and white shading that easily grabs the eye. Set in the page’s upper left corner, its positioning exploits our societal left-to-right reading direction as well as the “above-the-fold” tendency book browsers often engage when skimming though potential purchases. Its caption reads: “The remains found in 1674: ‘They were small bones of lads in their teens, fully recognised to be the bones of those two Princes’ (Eye-witness report, 1674; Archaeologia).”

Should the casual observer take the time to scan the rest of the page, the two remaining images—one of the urn in which the skeletal bones now rest, another of the exhumed skull of the princes’ eight-year-old relative Anne Mowbray—each play their role in telling the story the author wants readers to believe. Anne’s stark and startling skull, shown in a fairly large photo at bottom, plays on reader emotion with the mouth in its characteristic gaping position, not unlike a scream. It is included, positioned and designed to evoke pity, for both the untimely death of this little girl as well as the boys she was once close to. Of this Weir writes: “The skull of Anne Mowbray: York’s [the younger prince, Richard, Duke of York] child-bride and the Princes’ cousin, exhumed in 1964. Dental evidence indicates a familial relationship between her bones and those in the urn.”

The urn image is somewhat sympathetic, but rather generic and positioned to the right, closer to the book’s binding. Still, it has its role in this page-long tale, with its insinuation of finality. These bones are those of the boys, Anne’s remains prove it, end of story. Three statements, three images, we’re done here. A would-be consumer who saw even only the most privileged photo (the skeletons) before placing the book back on the shelf stands a high chance of walking away believing these were indeed the missing princes—a question not even entertained on the page discussed—and with Weir’s use of the word “murder” and the accusation against Richard in the jacket blurb, we’re a handshake away. Actually reading the story within all three captions and the deal is sealed. I am inclined to believe that readers have been lazy in every age, but also know that Weir and her publishers are very aware of how the demand for instant gratification and disintegration of critical reading skills in our era has further influenced the formation of opinions.

A quick disclaimer here: I personally don’t begrudge Weir her manipulation of privileged position or other literary techniques; these are what make books appealing, literature fascinating and history come alive. Human forms in photos engage our minds in a way an inanimate object doesn’t. We don’t relate to an urn, especially if we don’t know this is what that image is, but we do relate to images of people who were once alive, especially if they are children. However, I do take issue with the dishonest verbiage she carefully chooses to create the impression discussed above. For instance, the caption below Image 15 doesn’t say what year the princes died, presumed to have died, or disappeared (c. 1483). Yet an “Eye-witness report” from 1674 “recognised” the bones to be those of the missing princes? Did this eyewitness dabble in alchemy in his 200 + year lifespan? And where did he obtain his forensic expertise, with which he surely would be able to differentiate this set of remains from the twelve-year-old sons of Henry VIII’s cousins, whose families ended up in the Tower of London, where the Plantagenet brothers were last seen? Are there any signs of cause of death? The name dropping of Archaeologia lends some needed credibility, as does the dental evidence that “indicates” a familial relationship amongst all three deceased. These are only some of the questions Weir understands all too many consumers won’t ask; they’ll just take her word for it because they are in a hurry, don’t care enough or it doesn’t occur to them. There probably are other reasons as well, but the end result is that many will accept the information at face value.

Still, this was an awareness I came to later in my reading of The Princes in the Tower, or actually, even after I had finished and contemplated what I’d read. I had a niggling feeling about the perceptions I’d experienced. As I moved deeper into the book, Weir seemed to become more aggressive in her voice, and in previous remembrances I thought I even recalled a bit of name calling, which might have been the initial turnoff. (I could be wrong; stay tuned for another entry addressing this.)

The White Tower, Tower of London. Romanticized with its modern artificial lighting, we must imagine it in the days when the complete darkness of night, the likes of which many of us have never experienced, shrouded much in and around it.

As I sat with my casted leg propped up one evening, I realized with a grunt of dissatisfaction that I could not let it go until I read some more. My back was healing, but at this point pained easily after short periods, and my best friend was dispatched to collect a book or two from the university library. She returned with about fifteen, one of which was, by chance, Josephine Wilkinson’s Richard: The Young King to Be. She ignored my pointed stare.

It wasn’t long before I recognized a quote in Wilkinson’s book that Weir had utilized—in part. I suppose it was my naiveté with regard to historical reading that surprised me a little as I realized Weir had cherry picked what supported her agenda and left the rest. (Here also, stay tuned for more specifics.) At this point it really began to annoy me, and I was flummoxed as to how so many people could have gushed about what a fabulous book this was when I so easily picked out inconsistencies. Actually, I’ll have to revise that a bit: I read several reviews in which the authors did criticize Weir, but dismissed her liberties because “there’s no real way to tell” or “he probably did it anyway.” I’m pretty sure none of these people or any of us would want that standard upheld at our own trials.

Unknown to me, at roughly this time, the now-late historian John Ashdown-Hill published Eleanor: The Secret Queen: The Woman Who Put Richard III on the Throne. An analysis of the life of Eleanor Talbot, the woman said to have been married to Edward IV, Richard’s elder brother, before making Elizabeth Wydville his queen, the work follows a number of pathways, including those secreted in forensic dentistry. Ashdown-Hill discusses Anne Mowbray’s line of descent, an important angle given Weir’s assertion regarding the similarities between the teeth of the young bride and those of the bodies discovered in 1674, and a condition of congenitally absent teeth. The author notes that Anne Mowbray was related to the princes via a number of lines of descent, some more distant than others.

If those who have claimed that Anne Mowbray’s congenitally missing teeth prove that she was related to TL1 and 2 (and that therefore these were Edward V and Richard, Duke of York [the princes]) are correct, Anne’s dental anomaly must almost certainly have descended to her via her Neville ancestry (184-5).

Ashdown-Hill goes on to relate information about the battlefield identification of Anne’s grandfather, John Talbot, in connection to an absent left molar. This provides some evidence of the congenital condition being a Talbot trait, further leading to the speculation that if Anne did indeed inherit her dentition from her grandfather, “then those same missing teeth cannot very well be cited as evidence that TL1 and TL2 are Edward V and his brother, since the relationship of these latter to [Anne’s grandfather] was extremely remote.” Of course, it is possible John Talbot lost the tooth in some other manner and Ashdown-Hill further advises that Talbot’s remains had been disturbed several times, thus making elucidation on this point difficult (184-5).

Weir, in contrast, utilizes very little more than coincidence and contradictory information when aiming to prove that the bodies discovered in 1674 are Richard’s nephews, including the discovery to begin with. This position continues with her insistence that, apparently, only Plantagenet royalty could possibly have worn velvet, a type of material present with the bones and, given its availability timeframe, unlikely to indicate the remains were Roman, as had been suggested. She even goes on quite at length about all the experts and authors who examined the 1933 reports of Wright and Tanner, who themselves examined only an urn full of bones picked apart from those of animals (!) centuries after their initial discovery and under questionable chain of custody. Nevertheless, on all of this Weir categorically pushes the conclusion that “the evidence that the bones in the urn are those of the Princes is as conclusive as could be desired” (by whom?)(255-6).

Historian John Ashdown-Hill’s analysis of Eleanor Talbot’s life includes a far deeper discussion of the dental angle as glossed over by Weir, despite the absolute nature of her accusation against the king. (Click image for more information.)

It is easy to deduce there is much more to what I have summarized here, let alone the captions under three pictures in the middle of a book on the Bestsellers! table. As mentioned earlier, this dental information I didn’t know about when I first read Weir’s book – and she counts on that as well as the likelihood that few readers will check up on her words. The truth is, she’s right: few do follow up. For how long had my professor posited the claim that Richard III died shouting the line about the horse? How many from my class still believe this today? And this is counting just the influence of one person. Multiplied by how many readers Weir (and others) has persuaded, most of whom have very little time and/or inclination to look into what she says—some of whom, frankly, are as willing to manipulate the truth—it’s no wonder there is such widespread belief that Richard did the deed.

Of course, many people simply don’t care. At one point I was one of them. I liked history but wanted it on my own lazy terms, not having to deal with dates or the same few recycled names. Others view eras such as the Middle Ages with an attitude of “life is cheap,” which perhaps explains their willingness to allow an anointed king to be so maligned, and when looking back I found it curious that it stirred something within my being. I am, after all, an American with not a single drop of royalist blood running through my veins.

This, however, may be the because rather than the despite, thanks to our Magna Carta-inspired Constitution, the law of the land guaranteeing our rights, including those of the accused, a topic on which Richard III also had something to say. The widespread reliance upon and acceptance of misinformation to convict someone from the past bothers me for the same reason similar attitudes light a fire in me today. It doesn’t matter if someone dislikes or even hates Richard or any other political figure: Anyone who claims to value justice should be alarmed when someone is prosecuted and convicted under such inconclusive evidence, especially for the sake of bragging rights to having solved a centuries-old puzzle. This king may have lived and died over 500 years ago, but thirst for power and willingness to tyrannize others to achieve it is alive and well. Why would any tyrant stop with politicians? As we have seen throughout history, they don’t.

I had the great benefit of a father who taught me how to look a bit deeper, and though I don’t have quite the historian’s mind he did, I believed fiercely in justice. I also loved a good yarn, so followed with rapture as my father related to me tales from a variety of eras.

I only vaguely recall him telling me of Richard’s ability to fight, even something favorable about Henry VII (I used to refer to him as “the Henry after Richard the last”). His narratives often changed direction and he occasionally refused to answer questions, and at some point I understood he was teaching me to think. This surely colored my perception of Weir’s ridiculous portrayal of modern writers of Richard III as those who (a) believe the monarch guilty but too timid to admit it or (b) believe he is basically a saint (1). I also question the word “revisionist” as applied to Ricardians. It seems to me the revisionism began full force August 22, 1485, with the backdating of Henry Tudor’s reign to the 21.

I also grew up with a Scottish mother who never let me forget the Stuarts; at some points my eyes simply glazed over, and it all probably contributed to my lazy childhood approach toward history, despite my love of its people. This laissez-faire attitude extended to Richard, and for most of my life I didn’t care enough about him to have an opinion on his culpability. Interestingly, it was his detractors who chipped away at this armor as they repeated ad nauseum their claims, much of which was rank hypocrisy or projection. This entry has focused on one who chose as her work’s epigraph a Shakespeare quote that illustrates both, which reads in part: “Insulting tyranny begins to jet” (Richard III, Act II, Scene IV). Here Elizabeth Wydville wigs out over fears for her family, Shakespeare conveniently ignoring her role in all of this, as does Weir. (Talk about revisionism!)

There have since been others, but Alison Weir ended up accomplishing, in my case, the opposite of her intention in that I found her scholarship to be suspect, so I looked into it; what I came to believe through further reading and discussion was that Richard III, while certainly no saint, cannot justly be convicted of a double murder on the evidence she presents. That she has to go into stealth mode and employ manipulation, insults and overreach says much more about her than it ever could about King Richard III.

Despite Weir’s preface statement that “it is unlikely the truth of the matter will ever be confirmed by better evidence than we already have,” since the 2012 discovery of the king’s remains in a parking lot, more of consequence has been learned. For example, the Shakespearean depiction of Richard as a hunchback is in fact the propaganda it has long been characterized as. Rather, the king suffered from scoliosis, resulting in a sideways, spiraling twist to his spine, as discussed in a 2014 press release from the University of Leicester, a deformity not immediately visible to those encountering him. The hunchback myth traces back to Thomas More, on information from John Morton, Bishop of Ely, instrumental in Henry Tudor’s seizure of the throne. (This alone makes their party line suspect.) Owing to this accomplishment, Tudor historians, and not Plantagenet, were the ones relating the history. As my father drilled into my mind many times, and we have all heard in history class, the winner writes the story.

Shakespeare strove to be part of that winning group, though doing it for Elizabeth I, Henry Tudor’s granddaughter, over one hundred years after the fact, illustrating the reality that low-information readers (playgoers) existed long before the rampant misinformation pushers of our own time. Granted, we are often over-saturated with details, but this also gives us advantage in having the ability to track down more than ever before, even from places far removed from a small corner of England, within which one king and his men fought within the loyalty to which they were bound, and so became we.

—Lisl P.

Sources

Ashdown-Hill, John. Eleanor, the Secret Queen: The Woman Who Put Richard III on the Throne. Stroud: History Press, 2010.

Weir, Alison. The Princes in the Tower. United States: Ballantine, 1992.

Images

All images courtesy Wikimedia unless otherwise noted. Click any image for more details and, if any, annotations.

Guest Post: “Playing God” – Taking Liberties with the Lives and Personalities of Historical Figures

 

Poster copy

BITTERSWEET TAPESTRY 

BY KEVIN O’CONNELL

Publication Date: November 1, 2019
Gortcullinane Press
eBook & Paperback

Series: The Derrynane Saga, Book Three
Genre: Historical Fiction

AVAILABLE ON AMAZON

A dramatic decade has passed since sixteen-year-old Eileen O’Connell first departed her family’s sanctuary at remote Derrynane on the Kerry coast to become the wife of one of the wealthiest men in Ireland and the mistress of John O’Connor’s Ballyhar – only to have her elderly husband die within months of the marriage.

Unhappily returned to Derrynane, within a year, under the auspices of their uncle, a general in the armies of Maria Theresa, Eileen and her sister, Abigail, departed for Vienna and a life neither could have ever imagined – one at the dizzying heights of the Hapsburg empire and court, where Abigail ultimately became principal lady-in-waiting to the Empress herself, whilst Eileen, for nine momentous years, served as governess to the Empress’s youngest daughter – during which time Maria Antonia, whom Eileen still calls “my wee little archduchess,” has become Marie Antoinette, dauphine of France, though she continues to refer to her beloved governess as “Mama.”

As Bittersweet Tapestry opens, it is the High Summer of 1770. Having escorted the future Queen of France from Vienna to her new life, Eileen and her husband, Captain Arthur O’Leary of the Hungarian Hussars, along with their little boy and Eileen’s treasured friend (and former servant) Anna Pfeffer are establishing themselves in Ireland.

Their ties to Catholic Europe remain close and strong; in addition to Abigail and her O’Sullivan family and General O’Connell, his wife and young daughter in Vienna, their brother Daniel is an officer in the Irish Brigade of the armies of Louis XV, whilst their youngest brother, Hugh, is studying at École Militaire in Paris, his path to a commission in the Dillons’ Regiment of the Brigade. His gentle Austrian friendship with Maria Antonia having inevitably waned, Hugh’s relationship with the strikingly-beautiful young widowed Princess Marie Thérèse Louise of Savoy is blossoming.

Though happily ensconced at Rathleigh House, the O’Leary family estate in County Cork, being prominent amongst those families which are the remnants of the old Gaelic order in the area, Eileen and Art find that the dark cloud of the Protestant Ascendancy hovers heavily, at times threateningly, over them.

Bittersweet Tapestry is a tale of stark contrasts – between Hugh’s life of increasing prominence amidst the glitter and intrigue of the French court and Art and Eileen’s in English-occupied Ireland – especially as the latter progresses into a dark, violent and bloody tale . . . ultimately involving an epic tragedy, which along with the events leading up to it and those occurring in its dramatic wake, will permanently impact the O’Learys, the O’Connells – and their far-flung circle of family and friends in Ireland and across Europe.

With his uniquely-descriptive prose, Kevin O’Connell again deftly weaves threads of historical fact and fancy to create a colourful fabric affording unique insights into the courts of eighteenth-century Catholic Europe as well as English-ruled Ireland. As the classic story unfolds amongst the O’Learys, the O’Connells, their friends and enemies, the tumultuously-dangerous worlds in which they dwell will continue to gradually – but inexorably – become even more so.

Bittersweet Tapestry joins O’Connell’s well-received Beyond Derrynane and Two Journeys Home as The Derrynane Saga continues – an enthralling epic, presenting a sweeping chronicle, set against the larger drama of Europe in the early stages of significant – and, in the case of France – violent change.

Today here at Before the Second Sleep, author Kevin O’Connell talks about the merging of imagination and history in the historical fiction genre and some of his personal experience – the ups as well as the downs – of doing. See below for more stops on Bittersweet Tapestry‘s blog tour!

02_Bittersweet-Tapestry

“Playing God” – Taking Liberties with the Lives and Personalities of Historical Figures

Few if any other literary genres give an author the latitude that historical fiction does in allowing her or him to stray beyond the boundaries of fact well into the realm of fancy.

What is fascinating – especially in this age of instant information which permits us to seek and obtain “facts” with a few keystrokes – is that it is rather easy to believe that we “know” history: Napoleon was defeated at Waterloo, Washington crossed the Delaware, Joan of Arc heard voices and, at least for a time, led the French armies, the Bastille fell on 14 July.

But what is perhaps equally fascinating is that in many, if not most, instances we actually know very little beyond major events, beyond those happenings that were recorded as they occurred – or at least shortly thereafter. The reality is that so much more happened – or, at least in the mind of the historical fiction writer – may have happened. It is in this mystical sphere, where fact and fiction might be said to somehow intersect, where a good historical fiction author has the freedom to visualise, to roam far afield from recorded history to the locale of “perhaps” or “maybe,” most definitely to the area of “but this certainly could have happened….” Therein lies the magic – and the fun!

The “rules” are few, but rather clear: When “creating history” what one writes of as occurring must be plausible – wholly-believable by even the most knowledgeable reader.

Thus, actual events must stay true to history – unless, of course, one is writing parallel or alternate versions of history.  And even there, one must be careful.  “What if” can be interesting – it can also be wearisome, if not done properly.  Philip K. Dick’s 1962 novel,  Man in the High Castle (currently a television series),  comes to mind as alternate history extraordinarily well done.

Staying “true to history” can be a challenge – especially when one is feeling, shall we say, clever or especially creative. An example from my own work: Those familiar with the earlier books of the Derrynane Saga will know that Eileen O’Connell and her young charge in Vienna had developed a close, virtually maternal, relationship such that the future Marie Antoinette would address her governess as “Mama.”

As the time of preparation for the young archduchess’s departure for Paris approaches, I had Eileen begin to discuss – in  rather significant, even graphic, detail –  the intimate particulars of married life with the barely fourteen-year-old, soon-to-be-wed Antoine, who reacted with wide eyes, much giggling and a not insignificant degree of interest. In my mind I had entitled the episode, “The Birds and the Bees – Done Well!”

Hubris – pure hubris – and awful . . . as I learnt when that part of the manuscript was quickly returned by my awesome editor, who reminded me of things I was well aware, but had dismissed in the name of “being creative”: that Antoinette and Louise Auguste’s marriage would remain unconsummated for some seven years for the very simple reason that both of them were basically ignorant of the mechanics of sex. Indeed, it was not until the young Queen’s older brother, the  Emperor Joseph, actually journeyed from Vienna to see what could possibly be wrong with the marriage that the situation finally began to normalise. Had my imaginative little scene made it into the book it would definitely not have been a positive addition. Thus, one must be very careful and mindful of the “realities” even whilst writing fiction!

Now, in terms of people, in writing of the Imperial Habsburgs thus far in Beyond Derrynane and Two Journeys Home,  I did not stray very far from reality in presenting the Emperor Francis Stephen, Maria Theresa’s beloved albeit charmingly lecherous consort, nor their haughty next-to-youngest daughter, the Archduchess Maria Carolina, who became Queen of Naples and as prodigious a baby-producer as her mother.

I have, however, taken certain freedoms with the Archduchess Maria Antonia – Eileen’s beloved “wee little archduchess,” who was becoming Marie Antoinette, dauphine of France as Two Journeys Home progressed towards its close. In Derrynane, she was the pretty, pliant little girl of the history books. As she grew into late childhood and adolescence, she developed a gentle, at times wispy, personality – with moments of spark, such as when she expressed in no uncertain terms to the Countess von Graffenreit that she was going to France only as a matter of duty.

I have spoken of writing the Empress Maria Theresa as a “kinder, gentler” version of her real self, noting that I believed it was her interaction with my characters which perhaps made her less daunting than history would have us believe she was. These private moments with Eileen – as governess to her youngest daughter, and perhaps even more so with Abigail, who as Beyond Derrynane was ending, had risen to the post of Maria Theresa’s principal lady-in-waiting, the closest servant to the then-most powerful woman in the world – were gentle and laced with humour. Abigail’s gentle humour, her subtle-comedic personality definitely softened her mistress and their interactions almost from Abby’s arrival. In their relationship, there was little evidence of the prudish monarch, who sponsored “morality squads” to ferret out those courtiers she viewed as being sensualists, libertines. And, indeed, as the years passed, Maria Theresa laughed more and judged much less harshly – I believe because of Abby, and, to a lesser extent, of Eileen.

From these experiences, I concluded that the genre of historical fiction  permits its practitioners to depict not only actual historical events in a fictional manner but also events – and people – which could have happened . . . and who could have lived. Taking dramatic advantage of this latitude, I believe and hope that I have stayed within these bounds – and will continue to do so.

It was not, however, until the Princess Marie Thérèse Louise of Savoy was introduced in the closing sections of Two Journeys Home that I took the liberty, for the first time, of straying rather deeply into historical fancy – well far-afield beyond the known or recorded facts.

So it has been in connection with the planned re-appearance and development (in Bittersweet Tapestry) of Hugh O’Connell’s “Louise” that I am experiencing the creation of a significantly different temperament, indeed, personality and, in most ways an entirely dissimilar life for a relatively well-known historical character, and feel that the same can be rather daunting.

I must admit that, as with many of the twists and turns throughout the writing of the Saga to date none of this was at all well-planned, but rather developed as the story progressed and began to take shape or, as has been said of my work, that my “characters have pulled me along”!

As it was since their meeting in the closing pages of Two Journeys Home, Marie Thérèse Louise and Hugh continued – some days rather annoyingly –  coyly circling each other in my imagination, I continued to research the princess, in effect getting to know her better. This was achieved not only by reading, as well as studying literally dozens of portraits of her, but also – as the result of a beautifully-scheduled trip – by visiting her homes in Paris, both the Hôtel de Toulouse (the headquarters of the Bank of France), as well as a “country residence” she acquired in then largely-rural Passy in the mid 1780’s (now the Embassy of Turkey). I developed a sense that she perhaps might have been a more complex, indeed certainly a more interesting person than history has shown her to be.

Several of her portraits depict (at least to me) a very pretty young woman with a gentle, perhaps even playful sense of humour, one who laughs and makes others do so as well. She is, at least at this stage of her life, to a degree both shy and guileless, most likely a result of her sheltered life in Savoy and despite her singular position in the French monarchy. As she appears in Bittersweet Tapestry her life is undergoing rapid, totally-unforeseen changes – it and she are clearly both works in progress.

Lamballe is my greatest challenge to date because – at least to those even casually knowledgeable about the Ancien Regime and the horrors of the French Revolution – she is a familiar character.

At court, history tells us, she had a prudish, pedantic reputation (though it was also rumoured that she was for a time the Duc of Orleans’ lover) – as an aside, Orleans was the regicide who cast his vote in favour of the execution of  his cousin Louis XIV. Later known by his self-bestowed sobriquet Philippe Égalité, neither his name change nor his opportunistic striving proved sufficient to prevent his own execution on the guillotine.

It appears she was viewed by most as – at best – odd, strange . . . perhaps in more modern-day parlance she was a weirdo, most definitely not in the mainstream of the French royal family and aristocracy.

As people most likely sensed from reading  Two Journeys and will definitely experience in Tapestry, Hugh O’Connell’s Louise is quirky – but not in these ways. She is an interesting mix of hauteur and wide-eyed guilelessness – a Princess of the Blood with a sense of wonder, of whimsy.

As she continues to develop, she will – at times – be gently comedic in the way of Abby O’Connell. I believe this is but one of many reasons for Hugh’s attraction to her – she is an obviously bright, perhaps in some ways brilliant, most definitely beautiful young woman who can be funny, sometimes when she doesn’t mean to be. She is loving, she is kind, but she can – as is apparent from several scenes in Tapestry – also be a wee bit of a bitch!

As it has been alluded to, Louise and Hugh O’Connell will play prominent roles in the fourth volume of the Derrynane Saga. I believe that the liberties I have taken thus far – and shall continue to take in the fourth volume – with regard to the personality and life of the Princess de Lamballe, will make for a more compelling story going forward and, as the French Revolution descends into violence and terror, a much more dramatic and significantly more emotional conclusion to the Saga itself.

About the AuthorKevin O'Connell copy

Kevin O’Connell is a native of New York City and a descendant of a young officer of what had—from 1690 to 1792—been the Irish Brigade of the French army, believed to have arrived in French Canada following the execution of Queen Marie Antoinette in October of 1793. At least one grandson subsequently returned to Ireland and Mr. O’Connell’s own grandparents came to New York in the early twentieth century. He holds both Irish and American citizenship.

He is a graduate of Providence College and Georgetown University Law Center.

For much of his four-decades-long legal career, O’Connell has practiced international business transactional law, primarily involving direct-investment matters, throughout Asia (principally China), Europe, and the Middle East.

The father of five children and grandfather of ten, he and his wife, Laurette, live with their golden retriever, Katie, near Annapolis, Maryland.

WEBSITE | FACEBOOK | GOODREADS

Blog Tour Schedule

Friday, November 1
Review at Gwendalyn’s Books

Sunday, November 3
Review at Carole’s Ramblings

Monday, November 4
Review at Locks, Hooks and Books

Wednesday, November 6
Interview at The Writing Desk
Feature at Chicks, Rogues, and Scandals

Friday, November 8
Feature at Maiden of the Pages

Monday, November 11
Interview at Passages to the Past

Wednesday, November 13
Review & Guest Post at The Book Junkie Reads

Friday, November 15
Guest Post at Before the Second Sleep

Sunday, November 17
Review at A Darn Good Read

Monday, November 18
Review at Books and Zebras

Tuesday, November 19
Feature at What Is That Book About

Wednesday, November 20
Review at Al-Alhambra Book Reviews

Friday, November 22
Feature at Historical Fiction with Spirit

Monday, November 25
Review at Hooked on Books

Tuesday, November 26
Review at Red Headed Book Lady
Review & Guest Post at Nursebookie

Wednesday, November 27
Review at CelticLady’s Reviews

Friday, November 29
Review at Broken Teepee
Excerpt at Coffee and Ink

Book Review: The Year 1070 – Survival

The Harrying of the North Series: The Year 1070 – Survival
by Rod Flint

51UFE3CwlIL._SX311_BO1,204,203,200_I came across Rod Flint’sThe Year 1070 – Survival quite by accident, but once I’d found it, was rather excited to read, given that my previous 1066 and Harrying of the North material has mostly been non-fiction. I was intrigued to see how Flint would handle the storyline, how many historical details he would add and in which direction he would take the tale of Hravn and Ealdgith, young cousins suddenly displaced by the Normans’ vicious assault on their and others’ villages following the post-Conquest uprising in the year within the title’s name.

Flint wastes no time getting the harrying started and, as there must be in any group of harassed peoples, the boy and girl cousins emerge as two with the wily abilities to find an escape and proceed forward in pursuit of a safe haven. This isn’t to say the pair do not encounter doubt or setbacks; they certainly do, and both they and their creator put them to good use as perilous learning experiences. One such is when the fugitives stumble upon bandits who, amongst other threats, gleefully hint at what they plan to do with Ealdgith before killing her. It is a horrific fate that, in most people’s minds, tends to spring to the forefront of possibilities. The author’s use of the word rapeseems to reflect how it is regarded and feared by the vast majority: its presence as a potential is so glaring it hardly needs to be mentioned to know that everyone is thinking about it, whether victim, witness or perpetrator, and for the first few times anyone comments, it is only in reference. Still, Flint does not dance around the word, and the characters’ utterances of it accompanies a bold stand of defiance against any who dare try bringing it to life.

At the risk of beating too much into this angle, it is worth mentioning how well this comes off for Flint, a male author putting words into the mouth of a female character. This is a corner I do not often choose to play because, while I do think effectively portraying a female character is more challenging for a male author (and vice versa), it can be achieved, and here it is done competently. This author has the added burden of portraying characters who lived nearly 1,000 years ago, people so different to us we often forget how similar they also are. Still, they are realistic, their speech and mannerisms sincere, fears and strengths unaffected.

As the novel progressed, I found myself immersed in the characters’ lives on the run and where they would end up. Hravn and Edie – a gender non-specific name Ealdgith adopts, as a protective measure, to match her shorn locks – could have been given a bit more dimension, although it would not be accurate or fair to say they have absolutely no development, and they begin to come into their own as readers witness some of their growth, though portions of this are by reference. That said, this young adult novel will most certainly reach out to its target audience of people in a phase of life developing their own identities, with a definitive relatability, even given the differences in rank, circumstance, abilities, native historical era and so on.

The author is also well-skilled with descriptions of his settings, as if he had been there at the time the harrying was taking place. Naturally, these areas would have experienced immense change in the passage of time but, as mentioned in the author’s historical note, he utilizes tax and other records to map out harrying activities as well as Hravn’s and Edie’s chosen routes. Readers can also access these via Flint’s list of place names and the appearance of most on a map presented in the book’s beginning pages. The author is so thorough in his descriptions that one can follow the map as the tale progresses to watch the directions taken by the pair. I found this very satisfying because, apart from my regular love of maps, it also gave me a visual to keep track of where events were taking place, which can make a big difference in following many stories.

While a marvelous tale, the novel did suffer a bit from its great need of a really thorough edit, particularly in regard to punctuation. A few times I had to re-read sentences, but all in all it was not difficult to determine intent, and it definitely did not put me off the book. However, the story and the people it portrays deserve better, so I hope changes will occur in future editions.

As an introduction to the topic of the Norman Conquest, which Flint discusses quite objectively in his notes, The Year 1070 – Survival is a fantastic choice, especially for its prime target demographic, but also for adults who enjoy YA (as I do). For those more well-versed too, it provides a story of humanity in the midst of violent upheaval and a glimpse into how average people, who so often are my own heroes, might have coped and sought to claim back their own future. The series continues with The Year 1071 – Resistance and Revenge, available now, and concludes with the soon-to-be-published The Year 1072 – Retribution. I’ll be looking for both.

About the Author

Rod Flint is a Cumbrian born in exile in the south of England. A career as an officer in the British Army was interspersed with time in the financial and legal services, and as a safari guide in Cyprus.

He has lived in North Yorkshire, with his wife Judith, for twenty years and enjoys the challenge of exploring the remoter fells and dales. Unravelling the mysteries of local and family history is a hobby that has carried across into writing historical fiction woven around his own, one-thousand-year-long family connection to the north. Rod Flint is also a member of the Alliance of Independent Authors.

Find author Rod Flint on Facebook and at his website, Hindrelag Books, and the Harrying of the North series at Amazon and Amazon UK.

Great Land History: Nome, Alaska: A 1925 Mission of Mercy

“Nome Calling: No Serum, Urgently Need Help”

It has been a long while since I posted a Great Land History post, and when I went looking for a previous one on Nome and the 1925 Serum Run, it was nowhere to be found. Fortunately, its original publication post elsewhere  in 2014 (reverted to draft form) remained in digital storage, from where I copied to here, with a few image changes.

*********

1920px-View_of_Nome,_Alaska_with_snow_on_groundNome in 1925 was a city recently emerged from a gold rush in which its population had swelled by about 20,000 following discoveries along a prehistoric beach line on the Bering Sea. Now, with just under 1,000 Europeans and 450 Natives, it still remained the largest city in Alaska and was a hub for medical aid and supplies utilized by those from villages along Norton Sound and the Bering. Before the freezeover each year it also served as a shipping point in what Ungermann in The Race to Nome refers to as “trackless northwestern Alaska.” (Above: Nome, 1916. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.)

Inhabitants of this region in fact did know of natural trails where they existed and broke new ones each year as they made their way to and from destinations in the course of their lives and business. The mail run from Nenana, in Alaska’s Interior, to Nome took about thirty days by dog sled. Mushers also worked with the sled dogs on trap lines, hauling in moose and caribou and performing medical runs. Dog teams were such an integral part of survival in the area, and there were so many that Nome city ordinance required bells to alert pedestrians of sleds.

Alaska_boroughs_and_census_areas_1997-2007

 

 

 

 

 

 

Nome is located on the southern portion of the Seward Peninsula, itself jutting out of Alaska’s northwest into the Norton Sound. Image public domain, retrieved from Wikimedia Commons, For larger view, click here. 

It was here that Dr. Curtis Welch, an 1897 Yale graduate and promising physician from California, had arrived in Nome along with a good many other doctors. With the end of gold, so too were the doctors, who departed the northland in great numbers after the final payday. Welch had stayed on for his love of the land and its social customs, and along with his wife, a registered nurse, he dedicated his life to the people of Nome and outlying areas.

Now, on this January day years after the boom, Dr. Welch visited the home of two children who had been sick for three days. Owing to their sore throats their mother had thought they had bad colds, but when the doctor tried to examine them, the children couldn’t even open their mouths wide enough for him to see. Several days later he was able to examine another ailing child and found what he had suspected, feared and tried to dismiss. In Nome he didn’t have access to a laboratory to send specimens, but now the evidence was plain to see: diphtheria patches, stark and unmistakable.

The unimaginable dilemma Welch faced was that his on-hand supply of anti-toxin was not nearly enough, for diphtheria spreads with devastating speed. The serum was also five years old, and he feared what he had would not be effective. He had ordered new stock the previous summer, but none had yet arrived. With the port frozen over, shipping was out of the question and then, as it remains today, there is no road in or out of Nome. With the location of a batch of serum in Anchorage, a new question arose to plague the doctor: How to get it to Nome? While flight had been utilized in the Great Land, it was a summer occupation, given the open-air cockpits of the time.

While a Fairbanks faction lobbied to have their airplanes part of the rescue effort – they argued their case of machinery and greater speed – it, too, had to concede that industry is still sometimes inferior to traditional methods. Weather conditions exceeding negative 60 degrees Fahrenheit in testing had damaged parts, and engine oil congealed in the cold. In the end the necessary choice became the strength, endurance, intelligence and loyalty of the sled dog.

Sled dogs

Image by OpenClipart-Vectors from Pixabay

From the time Welch’s radio call went out on January 25 – “Nome calling…We have an outbreak of diphtheria…No serum…Urgently need help” – mushers met to organize the best drivers and teams, and set up a relay system with checkpoints at which the anti-toxin could be passed on, each one bringing the precious serum closer to the stricken city. The serum’s race to Nome began in a cylindrical container packed onto a train from Anchorage to Nenana where Wild Bill Shannon would pick up the first lap of the sled dog legs. His nine malamutes at some points carried on at a trot in order to keep from scorching their lungs with the frozen air. Shannon could tell by a particular pinch in his nose with inhalation when they were entering a cold pocket of air, and the current negative 50 degrees conditions were already to be met with caution.

While Shannon’s leg of the race proceeded fairly smoothly, the entire journey was to present a saga worthy of re-telling many millions of times over, and indeed it has been. As it unfolded, however, Nome’s predicament captured the attention of those in the United States, and they too were mesmerized. Alaskans were once again engaging in creative problem solving, to say the least – though sled dogs were commonly engaged, the precious cargo made the journey fraught with anxiety and fear. The Anchorage doctor had specially wrapped the package and sent along specific instructions for it to be warmed at each checkpoint. What if it froze? God forbid it be lost. An injury on the trail could result in a musher freezing to death – what would happen to Nome if the vital medicine never made it there? Each musher in turn attempted to keep the nightmarish possibilities at bay by banishing these thoughts from their minds, urging their dogs on and keeping an eye out for their needs along the way.

It was not long, however, before a too-large dose of reality intercepted their plans. The epidemic had spread in Nome and claimed four more lives. Fifteen more people had also become ill. The grave news for the mushers when they heard it spurred them on, with dogs who could sense urgency in their masters’ voices and who, it cannot be forgotten, pushed themselves to limits most people would consider unimaginable. Armed, however, with a combination of keen intuition – that warned them of cracking ice, for instance – and courageous drive, they continued their legs along a trail stretching across nearly 700 miles of rugged Alaska, the sort of terrain those Outside often romanticize but subsequently dismiss as unreal given its extremity.

Iditarod_Trail_BLM_map

Map of the historical and current Iditarod trails, courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Newspaper outlets of the day did the same, capitalizing on the event with hyperbole wholly unnecessary in light of the bare facts. Ungermann wonders how many of the agencies’ readers “could run thirty to fifty miles at subzero temperatures over a desolate frozen trail without stopping? How many of them would wade into a melee of snarling, snapping, part-wolf dogs to stop a fight and straighten [a] tangled harness?”  Indeed, how many of them, or those who wrote the articles for that matter, how many could balance the duties toward animals whose capacities made this journey even possible, yet relied on the mushers for their well being? As it was determined the relays’ distances would be shorter for greater speed, dog and master needed each other equally, and Nome desperately needed them both.

Early on in his young adult account of the serum race, Ungermann points out the danger of treating or perceiving sled dogs as pets. They weren’t comparable to fully domesticated dogs who play with boys and balls – these were creatures adapted to and simultaneously in need of the wild land they lived in. Sedentary lifestyles were (and remain today) anathema; the need for activity is hardwired in them. Moreover, their distinct personalities interacted within their own communities and the humans they teamed with in a variety of ways: they might clash with other dogs or prove to be capable leaders and models for the rest of their packs. Togo, for example, one of the more well-known of these serum race dogs, preferred to run in a straight line. Leonhard Seppala, his Norwegian-born musher, strained to keep his favorite dog on course, to no avail. Togo would run up precipitous banks and across pack ice as opposed to the trail, yet he always seemed to know when certain topographic points were to be avoided.

By the time the precious cargo reached Seppala’s hands, it was already almost a lucky twist it had. His job was to rendezvous with Henry Ivanoff near Shaktoolik. Ivanoff, who had collected the serum from Myles Gonangnan, proceeded on the way to meet Seppala as the two drove toward each other. However, Ivanoff’s dogs scented reindeer and broke away in search of the herd. The dogs’ drive up against Ivanoff’s sled brake caused frustration amongst the pack, resulting in a fight. As Ivanoff waded in to break up and untangle, he spotted Seppala driving by and waved to him. The Norwegian, unaware of the serum transfer and believing he was to carry on to where Ivanoff had left Gonangnan, waved back and continued on.

The wind carried Ivanoff’s words away as he attempted to capture Seppala’s attention. The dogs could see Shaktoolik now, which to them meant food and rest, and their drive and determination to reach their goal increased. Seppala, too, was looking forward to the rest, given his unawareness – a result of being out of telephone contact – of the change to relay distances, and belief that he still had another 140 miles to go before collecting the serum and turning right back around for Nome. The wind had been at his back on the way; going back to the beleaguered coastal city would be even tougher. Seppala strained to hear; was that a crucial word on the wind? He finally managed to hear it again and yes, it was what he thought he had heard. Ivanoff had shouted again, “Serum – turn back!”

Seppala and his team had run many a race in their time; the musher was famed for his speed and endurance. He relied on his team, in particular Togo, to get them safely through and this time not only would be no exception, but was also more important than any race they had ever run. Up against them was yet another dilemma: to drive straight across 20 miles of open ice as the shortest path to Nome, or farther inland along the coast. The latter was the safest, but also cost more in time, a fee Seppala could not afford. People were dying, some were already lost, and an epidemic was raging across a city of people under quarantine, people whose greatest support had always been each other. Now their foundation was a mortal danger, owing to the ease of transmission amongst close contact.

The wind had reached gale velocity and the driving snow was blinding. Seppala fully realised the awful danger inherent in the northeast gale. The ice of the bay could break up at any moment and be blown out to sea. In this dark, wind-filled world, he might not see or hear the open channels forming from the crumbling ice in time to avoid being trapped. He was familiar with the horrifying prospects of that possibility: drowning, freezing, or if he were very fortunate, being stranded on floating ice that later might be swept against shore ice.

Seppala thought of his daughter, Seigrid, who had contracted diphtheria and recovered. He considered his friends and their children waiting for what he carried, and quickly made his decision. “He would take the short route to Isaac’s Point and trust in God and the speed of his dogs to get him across before the ice went out.” Reaching the dwelling where he had spent the previous night, Seppala fed his team, warmed the serum and tried to wait out the storm. He rested a bit, but in his anxiety he could sit no more and started again to Nome. His trail of the previous day contained open water; the ice had broken up and gone out to sea.

Though not according to the plan set out for schedule of relays, Gunnar Kaasen picked up the last leg of the race, an element sadly later to be the subject of bitter disputes and accusations regarding the musher’s intentions. Kaasen, however, had his own demons on the journey, for when he reached Solomon a gust of wind – Alaskan sized to match the land: huge – flipped the sled, emptied it of its contents and tangled the team in a gnarling mess. Kaasen panicked. Feeling around for the most important item, what he feared was so horrifying a prospect it made him physically ill. Tearing off his gloves in the frozen dark, he tried to feel around the area where the sled overturned, until he finally, filled with gratitude, lifted the package from the snow and continued on his way to Nome.

The Iditarod Sled Dog race commemorates the great race to Nome, a mission of mercy carried out by courageous men and sled dogs to come to the aid of those in distress. As race finishers do today, Kaasen came in on Front Street to claim a victory for Nome, the serum delivery and defeat of raging diptheria. By February 2 inoculations had begun and the epidemic was broken. On February 21 the city’s quarantine was lifted and life began to return to normal – except for a few small changes. In less than six days 20 mushers and nearly 200 dogs accomplished what the mail run generally took five times that to achieve. This could not be forgotten, and indeed it was not. People across the world sent letters, poems and pictures. When it was later discovered that some of the sled dogs (who had been sold) were being treated cruelly, a group of Cleveland schoolchildren raised $2,000.00 to buy their freedom. The race also contributed to more widespread inoculation, and airmail routes, following improvement in technology, were established in Alaska. Today air routes are so frequently trafficked Alaska is referred to as “the flyingest state.” 

Alaskans still talk of the great serum race, ever grateful to the men and dogs, as well as all those who assisted without receiving any sort of attention or praise. Though I told much of this from memory, I also used three sources for other details, one of which is a long standing favorite: Kenneth A. Ungermann’s The Race to Nome

Two others continue to tell the story for future generations with stunning artwork and magnificent text:

510AuQEw55L

91phiEMuf1L

There are perhaps hundreds of books about the people and places surrounding the events that occurred in that frightful month in 1925. Posters, paintings, poetry and other art forms commemorate the run and one of its most famous participants, Balto. 

800px-BaltoBalto statue in New York City’s Central Park West. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Book Review: The Retreat to Avalon (Book I in The Arthurian Age)

Having grown up with a large portion of my attention almost continuously tuned to the era within which The Retreat to Avalon is set, the title naturally piqued my interest. I adored all the same figures millions of others did and could never get enough. It also happens that I am a great lover of “regular people,” often craving glimpses into the lives of those who lived in an amazing time but who were, perhaps, not unlike many of us. Author Sean Poage opens his projected trilogy, The Arthurian Age, with a chronicle giving us the best of both, bestowing upon us, especially those of us with a thirst for the ordinary, a glimpse of the Gawain we’d always longed for but never quite attained.

avalonThis author guides us away from lofty tales of virtue and beheadings, steering readers toward the more gritty world of crumbling Roman holdings and those willing to fight for its survival. Rome sees Poage’s Arthur as their last, best hope, and as the High King makes his way to war in Gaul, so too does Gawain, who until then had been living in the shadow of warriors, seeking a path for himself in a time of peace. A fairly sizable chunk of the novel’s first portion sketches out Gawain and his existence at home, depicting his struggles, small victories, relationships and dreams as we learn the who’s who of Gawain’s world and how it operates. Readers really get to know the ways of this era, not because Poage tells us, but through a narrative that truly sets us within, amongst the characters.

The Retreat to Avalon’s prologue sets up the story—and brilliantly so. Rather than a small bit of informative detail, the author allows characters to draw the curtain, but not merely with expository dialogue, though this is not a bad technique when done well, which Poage does. We recognize decades of history in the exchange between a pair of officials, who do sneak some backstory into their conversation, though they also reveal fears, dreams, and that which devastates one but is a symbol of future prosperity to the other. I did wonder about the extensive knowledge and economic projections Sidonius passes to Anthemius, specifically why the latter lacks such understanding. As a poet and diplomat, the Gallic Sidonius may have been better placed to draw such conclusions, than the at-times mistrusted Greek, whose military career tended toward the administrative. This speaks well of Poage’s research and which historical figures he chooses to fill certain roles.

This dexterity is brought to bear on the novel as a whole, and as the story progresses, we see a Gawain influenced both by the pre-Galfridian and Vulgate cycle of Arthurian legends. While there could be said to flow an element of the spiritual through the novel, Poage does not use it to paint Gawain as unworthy of any given “quest” he undertakes. He is human; he experiences errors in judgement and could have done differently at times. Still, he is brave, courteous, loyal to his oaths—just as we remember him—and devoted to his wife, Rhian. His parentage gives a nod to the Welsh tradition, as does the name of his brother, though his sibling is reminiscent of the character from either telling.

So too do we find elements that match our memories of these characters as the author moves us away from the realm of the magical to tell a story as it might have historically occurred. Even Merlin—who appears rarely—hints at the ordinary nature of his gifts. Jokes play the role one might expect them to in wartime, and when coming across them, I found myself actually chuckling aloud in the appreciation of a break from the hostilities. Some comedy is more sophisticated than at other points, but they all fit right into their passages, contextually as well as materially. Plus, they do their job.

            “A letter!” Gareth, looking obnoxiously awestruck, took back the jug and had a long pull. “You need to stop spending so much time with your letters, and your books and your lords and your…” He trailed off for a moment, struggling to continue the thought. “And whatever, and spend time with the lads. The goodwill you earned for the wine back at Cadubrega won’t last forever. In fact,” Gareth’s voice lowered conspiratorially, “I’ve been hearing many people call you the southern end of a northbound horse.” He nodded seriously, wobbling slightly. 

            “Who said that?” Gawain was more puzzled than angry.

            “Well, just me,” Gareth shrugged. “But I say it a lot, so it seems like many people.”

It is in moments such as this that one feels closer to the characters, and in the laughter comes a feeling of pleasure that we got to know them. Gawain’s story has been laid out and now we follow its trail, with rich passages of detail unburdened by excessive description. It is more as if we are within the scene, taking it all in ourselves; it is not merely a case of the narrator feeding us individual or stilted descriptions of what surrounds us—and there is a lot. This may account for the rather lengthy chapters, which ordinarily can wear me down a bit, though in this case I felt almost buoyed as I experienced each chapter, the scenes of which transition from one to the next so smoothly it can be difficult to stop reading. This includes the battle scenes, which, like the others, are written in a reader-friendly style that treats its audience as intelligent participants without overburdening them with less-than-commonly-known period or linguistic detail. The battle scenes, it should be stated, are some of the best in the book.

The only quibble I have with this author’s writing style is his wont to use action beats and speech tags interchangeably (e.g. “No, stay mounted,” Gawain waved), which can be slightly jarring for the expectation of words that aren’t there. However, he just about makes up for that with his pleasantly even use of “said” and other tags, such as “quipped,” “interrupted” or “groaned.” I’ve seen a lot of advice in recent years about sticking to mostly “he said/she said,” therefore many authors do. Poage, however, takes the matter into his own hands and succeeds by sprinkling all types around.

I would definitely be remiss if I left out one of the best parts of reading anticipation, something many people frown upon, but almost all people do: judge the cover. At a little over 400 pages, the heft is just the right amount to cheer one at the thought of sitting down with it, and its attractive images, inside and out, lend themselves to a perusal, a flipping through and contemplation of what we are soon to encounter as we take up the book. Each chapter head is illustrated with a simple, though not simplistic, drawing, the style of which reaches out to the ends of the page in actual scale but also breadth of imagination. I found myself, with each, wanting to continue scanning with my eyes, for the image to continue along far after it actually does.

This is not so different to how I feel about the book as a whole—it ends when it should, but I’m very pleased to know The Retreat to Avalon is just the first in a trilogy, and there is more to come. Anyone who knows even the basic layout of the Arthurian legends will find this version gripping for a number of reasons, amongst them the ordinary and extraordinary people whose lives contributed to this age as they filled and fought within it on their terms. Sean Poage brings to life for us the stories of people we so often want to read about, but whose voices, for various reasons, are in the margins, like the rest of the pictures we so long to see.

About the Author

SeanPoageHistorical fiction author Sean Poage has had an exciting and varied life as a laborer, soldier, police officer, investigator, computer geek and author. Travelling the world to see history up close is his passion. These days he works in the tech world, writes when he can and spends the rest of the time with his family, which usually means chores and home improvement projects, with occasional time for a motorcycle ride, scuba dive, or a hike in the beautiful Maine outdoors.

About the illustrations, the author adds: “The chapter illustrations were done by Luka Cakic, a very talented artist in Montenegro. When most people imagine King Arthur, they picture the later medieval romance versions, with plate armor and stone castles. It can be difficult to visualize an era we know little about, so I wanted to provide some pictures that might help anchor the reader in the time, and give a mental image to moments from the chapters. Luka worked with me through the process and did a fantastic job merging his style with my goals.” Check out our author’s interview with his illustrator here.

Have a gander through the rest of Sean Poage’s website, seanpoage.com. This June will be the one-year anniversary of The Retreat to Avalon‘s release, so there will be a giveaway contest! Visitors who comment on any of his blog posts will be in on the chance to win a signed copy of the book.

Look for The Strife of Camlann, Book II in The Arthurian Age series – coming soon! The Retreat to Avalon is available at Amazon and Amazon UK. You can also find the author at Facebook, Twitter, Goodreads and BookBub.

About the Reviewer

Lisl has loved Mary Stewart’s Merlin Trilogy since childhood and has lost count of how many times she’s read the books. She also adores poetry and, once she overcomes the fear of baring her soul, will be ready to publish her own first collection. She is a contributor to Naming the Goddess and her poetry has appeared in Bewildering Stories and Alaska Women Speak. She is currently working on a book of short stories, a tale set in 1066 and several essays, and it is her dream to write a ghost story on par with the best of the spooky Victorian writers.

Book Review: The Tree: Tales From a Revolution — New-Hampshire

The Tree: Tales From a Revolution — New-Hampshire
by Lars D. H. Hedbor

Having previously read almost every Hedbor book written, it was a delight to see this author’s latest, The Tree: Tales From a Revolution — New-Hampshire, recently peeping from my postbox. That right there should give readers an immediate heads up that opening a new tab for book buying is in order. I enjoy Hedbor’s characters, the diversity of which is impressive indeed—diversity not being used for its own sake. It speaks to his research capabilities and creative skills that the author could come up with the individuals and backgrounds he has, and realistically reflects our history and why those who populated it perceived events as they did. A Spanish sailor, breakaway loyalists, Quaker congregation, freed slave, grownups and youth, male and female—the list goes on, but one thing they all have in common is their ordinariness. Through Hedbor’s storytelling charms, we see not only victors, nor just the elite: we see us.

Trees are symbolic of much in our histories and spiritual intellect, not least of which is the ideal of life and liberty, both growing entities requiring nourishment. Abe’s father, a lumber cutter, realizes both ideals as he embarks upon a career providing lumber for London housebuilding, though the king’s mast laws regulate which pines he may use, despite them standing on Sawyer’s own property. Not unlike medieval forest laws, violations are punishable by jail or, preferable to the government, fines, which are little more than veiled taxes. Unrest is growing over this oppression, and when Abe is suddenly orphaned, he must take over the management duties against this backdrop as he navigates his auntie’s negative personality and a strange new friendship with Betty and her ever-present raven companion.

As always, Hedbor’s people occupy a skillfully managed narrative in which historical remoteness dissolves and we witness their daily lives amidst this growing upheaval. One we are unsure is trustworthy, another a milquetoast with dreams of a thieving bird in service to the king, and still another an outsider with a mysterious past. The author does, however, leave plenty of space for the development and distribution of secrets and intrigue, and the tension builds as each person’s character arc, to varying degrees, flowers in the pursuit of the liberty to be. This occurs in various forms, most notably the acquisition of a skill that nourishes liberty, a circumstance that in turn reflects the reality of life paired with death and the ongoing sacrifices required for it to flourish. It is a sober set of thoughts for people whose lives will soon be lived amidst the fire of war as they uproot and are uprooted while they simultaneously plant the tree of liberty still referenced by Americans today.

One thing I like best about these tales is the inclusion of food, and Hedbor has a knack for fitting it into the narrative without ruffling the fabric of the story. Abe’s spinster Aunt Rosanna, for example, makes her way partly by selling eggs, even through the bitter months:

She pointed to a barrel in the corner of the kitchen. “Since we’re coming into the winter season, the chickens won’t lay as much until spring. Some have already slowed down, because of their molt. We need to put eggs away for the winter, and they go in that barrel. Once there are enough to make a layer, we’ll cover them with the slaked lime I’ll keep in the pitcher beside it. Preserves them all through the winter, so it’s worth the expense.”

 Also utilizing his linguistics background, Hedbor portrays a woman whose no-nonsense perspective is reflected in the words she omits as much as those she chooses. Economic sentences, often harshly delivered, stand opposite those of Abe’s earnest and unsophisticated nature. Like the raven, who seems to show up around every corner these days, however, he is observant, and asks himself questions even if he doesn’t always verbalize them. This facilitates his friendship with Betty, as Hedbor seamlessly weaves together these and other elements of a story that provides both a broad understanding of how and why the New Hampshire colonists took one step closer to revolution, and a closer view of the individuals of that colony, who, without these Tales From a Revolution, would remain hidden within the shadows of history.

One of the most gripping of all Hedbor’s Tales, I was unable to put this book down and read it in one sitting. As readers proceed through events in the novel, especially knowing many are drawn from the documented history of New Hampshire’s 1772 Pine Tree Riot, we grow a better understanding of the colonists’ grievances and why they acted as they did. Once again Hedbor restores humanity to figures who were real, living people as opposed to those who existed in a distant and vague era. We grow to care about them both as characters as well as the ancestors of ours that they are. Thought-provoking to say the least, this is a rewarding read that will remain with readers long after the last page is turned.

To see information on each book, click here.

Really fun interview with Lars Hedbor here.

You may also wish to have a peek at my previous reviews for
Tales From a Revolution—

The Freedman (Tales From a Revolution: North-Carolina)

The Break (Tales From a Revolution: Nova-Scotia) 

The Path (Tales From a Revolution: Rhode-Island)

The Darkness (Tales From a Revolution: Maine)

The Wind (Tales From a Revolution: West-Florida)

The Smoke (Tales From a Revolution: New York)

The Light (Tales From a Revolution: New-Jersey)

The Prize (Tales From a Revolution: Vermont)

Get your free e-copy of The Declaration!

About the author ….

What made the American Colonists turn their back on their King, and fight for independence? How were they different from us–and how were their hopes and fears familiar to our own hearts?

These are the sorts of questions that I think are important to ask in examining the American Revolution, and in the pages of my novels, I suggest some possible answers.

My first novel, The Prize, was published in 2011, followed by The Light in 2013, and The Smoke, The Declaration, and The Break in 2014; The Wind was published in 2015, and The Darkness in 2016.

I’ve also written extensively about this era for the Journal of the American Revolution, and have appeared as a featured guest on an Emmy-nominated Discovery Network program, The American Revolution, which premiered nationally on the American Heroes Channel in late 2014. I am also a series expert on America: Fact vs. Fiction for Discovery Networks, and was a panelist at the Historical Novel Society’s 2017 North American Conference.

I am an amateur historian, linguist, brewer, fiddler, astronomer and baker. Professionally, I am a technologist, marketer, writer and father. My love of history drives me to share the excitement of understanding the events of long ago, and how those events touch us still today.

*********

You can follow and learn more about Lars D.H. Hedbor and his books at his website and blog, Twitter and Facebook. The Tree may be purchased at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, iTunes and Kobo.

*********

Author photo courtesy Lars D.H. Hedbor

Free copy of The Tree provided by author, with no expectation of a full review. 

Raven Diary: Thought and Memory

A raven studies some object of interest (click image).

When I was small, I was frightened by a raven looking in my window. He peered straight at me, which was strange enough, but then turned his head so I saw him in profile. Though this may seem benign, it unsettled me because the one eye I observed seemed to be working me even more directly; I could almost see the wheels turning as he processed his thoughts about this creature he studied. To be the object of such a discerning eye didn’t sit well with me at all, despite – or perhaps because of – his creator status, and for some years I avoided the birds even though within me I carried some other emotion regarding them, though I could never define it. It was as if he could read everything within me, thoughts and all, and I did not wish to be so exposed. Yet that probing seemed to come from some connection we had, something I knew to have occurred between us but could not place in my memory recall.

As the years went by, if I thought of it at all, I chalked my avoidance up to my lack of fan feeling for birds in general. My Auntie Astrid had taught me to whistle to birds and I delighted when they chattered back to me; I still do. Moreover, I flush in pleasure when they respond because my whistling isn’t all that accomplished or beautiful. There also are loads of quite pretty birds and the sight of them soaring in the sky really is very lovely. And I even marvel at some of the more peculiar beaks, especially the long, thin ones, which seem so exotic. But up close? I tended toward the perception of them as dirty, creatures who would projectile shit on a human just as soon as take food from them. I didn’t like the smell and was annoyed at the way the pet varieties tossed things from their cages. I vowed never to have one.

Maggie Mae (Queen of All Under the Sun), sunning herself on our front steps. To hear the song that gave this gorgeous creature her name, click image. ©2019 Lisl Zlitni

At one point I went through a period in which I wondered whatever happened to the person I used to be, the kid who had two cats (Snowball and Peanut), a dog (Lady) and a rabbit (Maggie Mae) – amongst other critters at various times. I knew becoming an adult and taking on more serious responsibilities played into that and that I just didn’t have time for pets. But one week in college I babysat a friend’s house while she and her husband were away and found myself put off by her dog’s oily coat, the lather of which rubbed off onto my hands, making me not want to touch him. That bothered me because despite my intense fear of dogs when I was super little (I had been a very small child and they were just so huge), I’d grown to love them, and cuddling dogs, especially the absolutely wonderful love muffin of a mutt I had in high school, was one of my favorite things to do.

So where was the animal-loving me? I disliked birds, didn’t want to touch dogs anymore, what was next? Somewhere in the midst of all this, I learned that the pre-teen daughter of a friend had thrown their bird across the room in a rage, slamming it against the wall. I remember being horrified and disgusted: what a terrible act, and against something so small and dependent upon others to keep it safe. In this I got my answer about myself, though would have preferred not to learn it this way. Life, however, did not allow me to dwell upon it, and forced me to move forward.

Mit Turtle u. Ziege ©2019 Lisl Zlitni

As it did, I managed to recognized indicators that perhaps I hadn’t grown as hard-hearted as I’d feared. I was thrilled to see a falcon with his man at the park strip downtown, even more so when my small son wanted to watch and listen as the man told us about his craft and wonderful companion. Later, it was a dream to keep goats and chickens, both of which I could somehow relate to people being in love with. Goats were just so adorable and chickens, though perhaps not quite so, I found so often to have such funny little personalities.

In recent years, ravens once more captured my attention, moving in and out of my consciousness/awareness quite a lot: congregating in parking lots and on street lamps, in books, movies, seeing references to them online and so on. But the biggest influence has been the weird way one used to come to my window and stare at me as I sat at my desk (flush up against a corner, with one window to the left, another to the right and sort of in back of me, a deck outside each window). Once that happened the first couple of times, I knew when it would again occur (if I was at my desk) because I first would hear them hanging around outside, moving about on the roof drainage duct or kaw kawing outside near my little corner. It was slightly creepy but didn’t put me off as it had before. In fact, it was rather fascinating, though I didn’t really do anything about it except to ask one of them several times (was it always the same one?), “What is it you are trying to tell me?” Once I prodded him, “Who are you?” He seemed to sigh a very deep sigh, as if the question exasperated him.

I say “used to come to my window” because it’s been some time now, at least a couple of months – I think. I’m not consistently working at home, plus I didn’t really pay much attention after a few words to them here and there, so I can’t pinpoint any dates or even what season it was, to be honest.

This changed last week when I found myself looking up more information about ravens and becoming somewhat hooked. What might be most fascinating about this to me is that even though it’s only been a few days—it was Tuesday evening and at this writing it’s Saturday—I couldn’t tell you what brought that about. All I know is that one moment I was minding my own business and the next scouring the internet. Although, I do recall the weekend before this one sitting out on my deck reading, frequently interrupted by ravens flying behind me making the same sounds as in the video below. They swooped as they talked to each other, and whenever I turned around, they and their chatter vanished. I’d briefly wondered if they were teasing me, having recognized me as the person they usually see inside, and now I was out there with them. I dismissed it then, only later learning they really do tease, at least each other.

Raven Creates Man, Juneau City Hall mural by Bill C. Ray (click image for full view and alternative perspectives). ©2019 Lisl Zlitni

In any case, I grew interested in the practice of leaving food for them (I was slightly horrified to learn that many ravens have an affinity for cheese puffs) and, on the advice of some more reputable websites, set out different items for them, attempting to bear in mind an oft-repeated piece of advice I also read or heard from these corvid lovers: Be patient.

I’m trying, man, I’m trying. Periodically I wonder if I’ve ever done anything mean to a raven, though I know it would have to be an offense such as closing the Venetians on one of them, or an act along those lines, because even if I was meh about these critters, I would never do anything to harm any animal. Still, I find myself wondering, “What did I ever do to you guys?” Because now that I’m trying to get their attention, they don’t seem to be having any of it. That may sound silly, but these guys hold grudges and they tell their friends about meanies in the neighborhood. Could I be known to the silky black songbirds as the crabby lady on the block? Duuuude. I was just trying to get some work done! I have to eat too, you know.

OK, so. Here’s what I’ve offered so far.

Tuesday: Laid out some strawberries on a paper plate. No takers that night or next.

Wednesday: Tried a few grapes this time. Nothing.

Thursday: Prepared chicken for dinner and set out a few raw pieces. Also, on paper plate, spaced apart, having read from Bernard Heinreich’s chapter on raven anxieties and piles of even much-loved treats seeming to appear fearsome to the birds. Response: Who cares? That is, it ended up flipped onto the deck, also untouched.

Friday: In all this time of whistling and watching, I’ve seen lots of gulls and magpies, but only one or two ravens, who did not come close. They were quite far and may not even have been ravens, because I didn’t hear their familiar kaw kaw sound.

In the morning on this day I put out a hard-boiled egg, sliced on a paper plate. A magpie came and ate, undisturbed by me standing not far from the window, watching.

Drove son to friend’s house and on the way back saw a raven sitting atop the Holiday sign (36thand C). As the light was red, I had the chance to see him try to move from the very top to a ledge not much down, which doesn’t seem to come out so far and it appeared he tripped, or misjudged the width, because it looked like he had to right himself and re-grip. He looked around as well, like a person would in embarrassment, but I’m sure he had some animal-kingdom reason for doing so. (Maybe drunk on berries?) I know, I know. I can already hear the lecture about anthropomorphism. But hey, there is some contemplation these guys possess theory of mind, so go easy on me, ok?

Drove around to parking lots, garbage bins, restaurants, seeking ravens looking for food or begging for a handout. Was totally prepared to furnish one. Raven atop Holiday sign was gone, none around town that I saw, despite the reality that when I’m not looking for them, they’re flipping everywhere. In hoardes. Later, asked son for suggestions and he replied, “Not gonna lie: our neighborhood.” Like it was shameful or something. Pft!

Saturday: In the early morning put out hard-boiled egg, this time not peeled. Ended up on deck. Peeled and cut it. Magpie came back to eat. Lazy bastard! Curiously, this time he left the white. About 19:30 was sitting in living room and heard kaw kawwent outside. Saw ravens above, but then the pair flew in southerly direction and could no longer see as neighbor’s house was in the way. However, did hear them for a few moments more.

800px-3782_Common_Raven_in_flight

Now I have a new set of contemplations: While the ravens have been on my mind since some time, I suddenly decided to start learning more about them. Why? Will this interest persist? Will I learn to watch and listen for the right clues? Ask informed questions? Will I be doing this in a year? In a week? What will I take away from this experience, if anything? And I certainly do hope there is something. I consider Thought and Memory for a moment, how their reports to Odin each evening shaped the world. As I look out into the world with my own eyes, reconsidering my own thoughts and memories, I wonder about my old fears and awestruck observations, their role in shaping me, but even more where we’re headed to now.

The video maker refers to these corvids as crows, but commenters confirm they are ravens. These songbirds are adept at imitating human speech, the sound of a flushing toilet, computer pings and a host of other audio samples.

Photos not otherwise marked are courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
Click each image for more info. 

Favorite Finds: A Sampling

Ever cleaned out a walk-in closet, maybe part of that activity entailing sorting through a massive amount of papers very carefully, shredding some, recycling others, properly filing away every single one you needed to keep? Then afterward you re-organize your belongings in an efficient manner, perhaps adding a few pretty touches along the way? When you’re all done you leave to make yourself some tea, thinking you’d go on the computer a bit or watch a little TV? As you pass the closet again on the way to the sofa you eye the door. No, just leave it. Oh what the heck. You open it up and stand in the jam, just looking at the beautiful, orderly, spacious new closet. Just looking. Then you leave, and maybe an hour later go open the door just to look at it.

Ever done that? Heh heh, yeah, me too.

Sometimes I have a similar experience with décor, or items I’d found with a little luck. I thrift shop quite a lot, you see – that is to say a lot meaning a significant percentage of the shopping I do, as opposed to I do it all the time. For example, the curtains I purchased last year were brand new, but some frames I needed to replace ones destroyed in an earthquake, well, those came from a local Goodwill, which I’d noticed in the past tends usually to carry a very large stock of frames in all sizes and designs – plus they’re way less expensive than buying them new, and in very nice shape. There I also found a fantastic basket to hold my book-quality magazines and a lamp I intended for the office, but loved it so much decided it was too pretty for a mere office.

Anyway, so sometimes I find an item and can use it as is, or may need to transform it a bit. In either case, it’s not uncommon for me to stop as I walk by just to admire it. It might be because I worked it into a more lovely state of lovely, or it may have memories attached to its acquisition. With one item I am glancing at periodically as I type, it’s because an idea came to me for how to use something I’d gotten that didn’t really work for why I purchased it. I suppose there are other explanations; those are just a few. Whatever the reason, I stop to admire and it usually makes me feel happy.

I do have material interests and preferences, but this isn’t really about the material, even though that’s the kind of items we are discussing here. On occasion I have shared these thoughts with my teenage son (he has sometimes helped me with the items’ transformation), who made really nice conversation or asked thoughtful questions. A couple of times it gave him ideas about doing something himself. I was pretty impressed, considering he isn’t all that interested in this stuff, plus he is a teenager!

In a way, though, I shouldn’t have been all that surprised because some of these ideas, at least one I can think of off the top, I’m certain were influenced by a beautiful book I’ve borrowed from the library several times: Susan Ure’s 10-Minute Decorating: 176 Fabulous Shortcuts with Style. In it Ure shows many small but significant ways in which to revitalize areas or pieces, do small makeovers, liven up, make an area or room all yours. And isn’t that what it’s all about? When we come home from the big world out there, the place we come to is our retreat from the world, a space just for us: it holds and comforts us—at least it should—and the surroundings put us at ease because they are us. They reflect back to our eyes and minds who we are as they wrap us in their warm and welcoming embrace. To me that also speaks of relationships because so many of the material items I own came to me via connections to someone else. I suspect this is not really unusual.

And so I thought I’d briefly share a few items I’ve been eyeing lately, hoping it might make you feel a little happy too. And if I’m very lucky, something in here might pass on to you a bit of what Susan Ure’s ideas and eye for the lovely gifted to me. Some of them may relate to literature and history—perhaps more—which really begins to comb a bit deeper in our thought processes. And who knows where that might lead?

Photo credit: Lisl P.

Last summer, my goal to do a wipe down of my windows and generally freshen up led to a wider expanse of cleaning and, in turn, decision to do a greater overhaul than I’d intended. I’d recently been reading Ruth Goodman’s How to Be a Victorian: A Dawn-to-Dusk Guide to Victorian Life and, though I didn’t angle to start papering my walls and installing patterns on everything in sight, there was something influenced by the era stirring within me. I was slightly baffled by it because I’d never been that interested in this time as one to study or read about. Perhaps I only wanted something softer than the medieval I’d been targeting for quite some time and had been unable to really achieve (“go online” and “do second hand” not having yielded real results, given that shipping to Alaska is typically astronomical and the medieval thrift finds Lower 48 people so often gush over don’t really exist here).

I know I did want to set up a work table with a few pretty items on it as pictured in some other décor books I’d picked up along with Ure’s. Having examined them numerous times, I dragged my boy along for a few rounds of thrifting, looking “for something Victorian.” For a kid not into this project at all, he was fairly impressive (also managing to wheedle a few new glasses he liked out of the trips). He found the serving tray pictured above, which left me breathless at the scope of his eye. The pattern of it struck me as very Victorian, with its cherubic children, nature themes and poetic sentiments: “Far from thee be every care” read a message being delivered by a dove in one section. I imagined serving biscuits on it. Alas, we’d amassed a small hill of booty and I started to put a few items back. “Let’s not go overboard with our excitement,” I cautioned, once more bringing him into something he never volunteered for. His glasses I kept, the tray I put back. He insisted I get the tray while I feared I was diving into a novelty that would wear off all too quickly. He showed me how carefully constructed it was: “It’s duct tape? Still, it’s surely manufactured and not just a tray taped over by enthusiastic but unskilled hands.” I marveled at the diction he surely utilized to woo my decision and heeded his advice.

Today I’m super glad I did. When I purchase things, I try to do it with intent: that I will love the item as much a year or two or five years from then as I did the day I found it. I can accept not being in love with something anymore, so long as it isn’t a regret and that this sentiment or falling out of love doesn’t set in soon after I bring it home. As I look at it today I still feel the unselfish desire of a young boy to find something nice for his mom, and the joy I felt at having such a person in my life—that he is my own flesh and blood. I still occasionally wonder, as I did last year, who had it before, what motivated them to buy it and how did they use it? Did they love it? Was that love linked to the love they felt for another human being? How did it end up at the shop? These are the sort of questions I also often ask myself of items connecting me to other, unknown individuals.

Photo credit: Lisl P.

I saw it sitting on a cluttered shelf, its empty vertebral shell beckoning to me for a ray of light. Straight away I thought of little tea candles I had at home, not knowing for sure if they would fit. Looking closer, I thought, “Do I really want this?” My mind went to Turtle, my precious boy with the nick name of his favorite animal, though that’s not why I call him that. He is sweet, kind, gentle, even mild. Certainly, he was definitely all boy: another pet name was El Gato because he so frequently fell from trees, tumbled down stairs, leapt haphazardly from tall playground equipment—you know how little boys are. Each time he landed on his feet. Yet from a very young age he took such great care of me.

I can remember once coming home from work with a raging headache: a student had thrown a pencil directly at me and in my recall I saw a slow-motion stick turning as it traveled through the air, eventually bouncing off my forehead, resulting in a sitcom-y sort of duh expression on my face. It hadn’t actually hurt, but the shock of a child acting in this manner and the stress of the day had taken its toll. My little one was too small to leave unsupervised while I took a greatly needed rest, so I asked him to lay at the end of my bed and maybe watch a DVD as I napped. Closing my eyes, I felt gorgeous little fingers caressing my face and hairline as I fell quickly into a delicious sleep.

Strangely enough, it struck me as akin to some of the weird pieces I’ve seen in pictures of Victorian mantlepieces—though their animals were usually much bigger than this mini masterpiece. And masterpiece it was! At home I marveled at the little critter, at his long, cunning front legs as compared to the back; at the precise lines drawn so perfectly-imperfectly into his marginal and costal shells. How his neck curves so gracefully! It was as if he was in the process of turning to look up at me. Dropping the tea candle into its place, I ran my fingers over his smooth surface. Metal clay, perhaps? I had to look it up; I didn’t actually know if there was such a thing. As it happens, there is, and I was delighted to find the creation process described here for a sea turtle not unlike my little guy.

Still he rests on a shelf not far from a green cousin brought back from Hawaii by one of Turtle’s friends, and another, smaller one, created by Turtle himself. Pictured here near some books, my critter and the others have since migrated to the top shelf of a taller case, where I pass by them many times each day. Each one has a splendid view of their environment and I of them, as I contemplate the biggest Turtle until he too will return home to claim his spot.

Great Land History: 55 Years After Good Friday

Just a few months ago, in November 2018, Anchorage, Alaska experienced back-to-back earthquakes, one a magnitude 7.0 that jumbled nerves and recalled images or stories of Alaska’s Good Friday Earthquake in 1964. In very short order, however, while the city learned there was a great deal of infrastructure damage and schools would be shut for a week, citizens were thankful and overjoyed that no deaths resulted. “Our spirits are broken” they joked, referring to numerous social media images of collapsed liquor shelves, “but #WeAreOK.” And: “Shaken, not stirred.”

Still, there was an unspoken current, one that recalled 1964, whether via people’s own memories or those passed down from others, and a silence would move over conversations as people quietly remembered those lost that Good Friday, and others left to carry the legacy of a day no one who lived through could ever forget.

In March 2014 my Great Land History series at The Review paused to recall the 50th anniversary of this day. It seems like not too long ago I posted that blog, yet here we are today at the 55th anniversary. In between we have experienced hundreds, perhaps thousands of shakers, most unnoticed and only a few we really remember. I wrote about one myself a few years back, thankful our big living room armoire, which always made me nervous about letting my son “camp out” overnight  there, didn’t fall. As it happened, I was awake when the 2016 earthquake came and leaped to get in between that armoire and my sleeping boy, realizing that had that thing fallen down there was no way I could have even ungracefully kept it from landing on top of him.

Last November I was on the 11th floor of a Midtown tower when the shaking came, and I leaped to my feet to be closer to others. As the building rattled and rolled (literally) I repeatedly stated, “It’s designed to sway and roll like this, it’s OK.” I was surely calming myself as much as anybody else, hey? In the days to come I reflected a lot about 1964 and the people alive then, but also the interdisciplinary research carried out over the last 55 years, the brains, the brawn, the dedication, perseverance and care for others that drove and continues to drive those who consider the safety of strangers a top priority. I also recalled seeing up close the eyes of other drivers who, like me, were on their way home with loved ones they’d collected, but were then stuck in a parking lot city street. These weren’t haunted eyes, but they were ones that knew too much, and they said, “Yeah, it stinks, all right. But we’re alive, we’re in one piece and we’re together.” And we looked after each other.

Today I re-blog the entry from five years ago so we can remember with gratitude those who came before and after and what their lives have meant to us.

*****

Note: The Good Friday audio/video link below
is no longer available; I am working on replacing it. 

When earthquakes in the United States come into conversation, people tend to think of California, memories being so vivid of the terrible destruction that has so often visited that state. However, what many outside the state of Alaska—Outside, as Alaskans say—are unaware of is that the northern state is much more seismically active than the sun-drenched, western one, with movement occurring nearly every day, often many times within 24 hours.

Of course, Alaskans tend to be used to their earthquakes; the great majority of them are quick and small. There is a minor amount of shaking and people may pause and look at one another (or not), waiting out the few seconds it usually takes to be done. Occasionally buildings will sway, as they are designed to do; sometimes a plate may fall off the wall or glassware rattle on the shelves. Typically this is all.

Before the shaker, the Fourth Avenue sidewalk on the left was at level with the street section on the right.

When the shaking started on March 27, 1964, people generally responded in the same way. It was a Friday, Good Friday in fact; schools were closed and businesses wrapped up early for the holiday. The weather had warmed up to 28 degrees (-2 C) and the afternoon and early evening proceeded like any other.

Unbeknownst to Alaskans, however, the Pacific plate pushing under the North American, 100 miles east of the largest city, Anchorage, had been grinding away and was about to subduct. They were to know soon enough, however, as the rattling continued and the ground began to move beneath them. Surface waves motioned and gaping fissures in the ground split downtown Anchorage apart.

Linda, a woman I worked with some years back, would occasionally remember that day for me, her most significant memory being of a man “running buck naked right through downtown.” He had been dressing following a sports activity when the quake struck. She said she was so traumatized by the sight and how devastated and humiliated the poor man might have felt, that she vowed she would never find herself in such a situation. “To this day,” I recall her declaring, “even showering at home involves having clothes at the ready, right there for me to grab if needed.”

Simultaneously in various areas, trees were torn from their roots, houses and buildings collapsed and people held onto anything they could grab to keep from falling over, or into the split streets themselves. Fourth Avenue, Anchorage’s main street, fell by 12 feet and an elementary school on Government Hill was torn into pieces. In a residential area 30 blocks of land slid into the water and the international airport’s control tower fell like a house of cards.

In Port Valdez, a massive underwater landslide killed 32 people. The city was destroyed and later rebuilt at another site.

Valdez (Val-DEEZ), a small city close to the epicenter near Prince William Sound, was in utter ruins. The ground rose and fell, cracked wide open and snapped shut, and buildings collapsed. A cargo freighter, the SS Chena, was hurled onto dry land and the dock shredded; later it was carried back out to sea.

The effects were similar in other cities: Resurrection Bay hungrily swallowed nearly one mile of Seward’s seafront, the train yard destroyed and the oil tank farm erupted into flames. Kodiak lost half its fishing fleet. After four minutes of the earth violently churning beneath and around them, surviving Alaskans around Southcentral surveyed the devastation, and were horrified. The destruction related here was just a small portion of the aftermath: the cost of damage was $311 million (seen elsewhere: in today’s currency, $2.8 billion).

That wasn’t all. Next to come was the tsunami, occurring when the Alaskan seafloor lunged upwards, causing the water above it to be hurled into the air and toward land. Some survivors managed to outrun it (likely having had a head start) or escaped to higher ground. Valdez was beaten by tsunami waves late into the night and eventually fell to the torrent, rendered uninhabitable. The tsunami caused such destruction to trees that now, 50 years later, their corpses are still seen along the highway near Portage and Girdwood, where 20 miles of the Seward Highway had to be rebuilt as it had sunk to below the high water mark.

Ghost Forest: Spruce trees killed, their remains preserved by tsunami salt water.

Dennis Giradot remembers the earthquake even though he was only five at the time. KCAW transcribes an audio in which Giradot recalls a flying pot of chili, his Beatles-fan brother’s guitar-shaped birthday cake (decorated with chili) and the sway of buildings outside their window.

[T]he next two nights we actual [sic] slept in our car[;] my dad had this big Mercury something… it was a blue thing with big fins in the back. The aftershocks were so constant and so strong we didn’t know if the building would hold up.

 Others’ memories aren’t necessarily so lighthearted: Kim Kowalski-Rodgers recalls for KTUU the sounds she heard first as an eight-year-old child playing outside her family’s home on Third Avenue. “I knew it was a monster.” Indeed, the horrible noises the earth made did sound like those emitted from the brawling lungs of a dark imagining. When I first saw video of the earthquake, at Good Friday Earthquake Rocks Alaska, as it had occurred in Anchorage, the audio impacted me at least as much as the destruction in action before my eyes: the awful noises sounded like those Grendl might have made as he was mortally wounded, and I thought people surely must have been terrified by them.

In terms of death toll, numbers don’t come close to the 700 lost in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake: 128. However, when measuring magnitude activity, this 9.2 quake went on record as the largest US quake in recorded history and in the world second only to Chile’s, occurring in 1960.

The disaster is still remembered by people around the world because although the damage was worst in Alaska, effects were felt around the world. The initial seismic waves shook buildings in Seattle and lifted Houston, Texas ground by six centimeters, 10 in Florida. Like a wave that ripples from one end of a body of water to another, so too did the shock waves across the globe, as they circled the world for the next two weeks. The tsunami that destroyed Valdez also reached the Hawaiian Islands and Japan, and killed 10 people in Crescent City, California.

Alaskans are frequently reminded their land is “overdue” for another sizeable earthquake, but next time the damage is likely to be worse, especially if it occurs on a day open for business and academics.With a now-larger population and infrastructure, there is more to be lost. Shipping remains as weather dependent as ever, however, and it were to occur in winter months, the death toll could rise in the aftermath if lodging and food supplies are inadequate.

In this week of remembrance we reflect on those who lost their lives in 1964, and prepare as best we can to help those in need following any future disaster.

Sources (not listed above) and further information:

Earthquake preparedness at AEIC
Tom Irvine 
USGS: Historic Earthquakes [being replaced]
Great Land of Alaska: 1964 Good Friday Earthquake [being replaced]

All photos courtesy Wikimedia Commons 
Click images for further information