Nonfiction Worth Reading: Pox Americana, by Elizabeth E. Fenn

Pox Americana: The Great Smallpox Epidemic of 1775-82

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As a museum interpreter, I’ve long related aspects of the story of George Washington and his dogged determination to win the Revolutionary War. Then a friend loaned me her copy of Pox Americana, and now I’ve learned about yet another obstacle that Washington had to vanquish alongside the British forces. I knew that smallpox afflicted the American population for a couple of centuries, but not to the extent that, between 1775 and 1782, it was as deadly as one of the black plague outbreaks that so famously devastated Europe.

Pox Americana is an eye opener. It opens with a description, complete with photos, of the course that smallpox takes, from early exposure to its horrific outbreak to its most frequent outcome, the death of the sufferer. The photos were explicit enough to prompt me to put the book aside for a few days to get over a bout of nausea over what they showed. The narrative provides the history of the inoculation efforts that were opposed by so many, and, once it became evident to Washington that his forces in 1775 Boston were likely to be annihilated by the disease, the process which he went through in order to formulate a plan to save the army as well as the general populace. “Taking the smallpox” via inoculation was no walk in the park. Evidence that British military leaders attempted to employ germ warfare against the American side (Europeans had greater immunity to smallpox due to centuries of exposure) is also examined. Of course, it wasn’t only Caucasian Americans that were susceptible, and the second half of the book follows the spread of the disease to such distant places as Mexico and the Pacific coast. There is also evidence that Native Americans were subjected to germ warfare by the American ruling class.

Pox Americana is not a pleasant book, but it is a well researched study, one that provides new information about a little known crisis in a competent, readable style and format. Without Washington’s foresight, our national anthem might yet be God Save the Queen.

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Modern Lit: The Museum of Extraordinary Things, by Alice Hoffman

The Museum of Extraordinary Things

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Alice Hoffman works her magic again in The Museum of Extraordinary Things, a tale about a place that, in its time, would ordinarily be referred to as a freak show. The museum is located near Coney Island’s Dreamland. Among its extraordinary performers is the owner’s daughter, Coralie, who was born with webbed fingers, and therefore, to his way of thinking, will make a perfect mermaid. Night after night, she immerses herself in her tank to entertain audiences  that range from ordinary folk to out and out perverts. Her autocratic, rather demoniacal father also forces Coralie to take nightly swims in the Hudson, to foster stories about a mysterious river creature.

Coralie narrates her own role in this tale, sharing the protagonist role with Eddie, a young Jewish emigre who is estranged from his father, a garment worker in New York’s sweatshops. Eddie rejects this life to become a photographer, quite a gifted one, and he narrates his own side of the story, working among the lower classes in such settings as the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. He also develops a reputation for being exceedingly good at locating missing persons. Eddie and Coralie’s paths of course with cross, and the second half of the book chronicles the  halting development of their relationship.

This is a book replete with vivid period detail. Hoffman includes among her characters some real-life figures as she depicts the terrible hardships of life among the underclasses at the beginning of the twentieth century, and one of the joys of reading her is that she never has to lapse into preaching to make her point clear. Though it is ultimately a love story, even its denouement is far from light and airy; this is the sort of tale that will stay with you long after you’ve returned the book to its shelf.

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It’s a Mystery: The Girl Before, by J.P. Delaney

The Girl Before

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Recently, it’s become increasingly difficult to find new original novels, what with so many authors seeking to capitalize on the popularity of such bestsellers as Fifty Shades of Gray, Gone Girl, and Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, and also the dystopian/YA/vampire market. Some book sources are inventing names for new genres. I don’t know about that, but it’s pretty easy to recognize piggy backing for popularity when you see it. Some of the writers doing that are Ruth Ware and B. A. Paris, both of whom I’ve read and enjoyed, and perhaps if their  books had been published first, they’d be the bestsellers. The same can be said of The Girl Before, by J. P. Delaney, but to give credit where it’s due, Delaney has added some twists of her own.

This book focuses upon two women who rented One Folgate Street, an avant-garde, architectural prize winning house in London going for a ridiculously reasonable rent. Emma is the first tenant, the “girl before”, whose occupancy ended with a fatal fall down the interior stone stairs. Her successor is Jane, who is struggling to find her equilibrium following a stillbirth. It’s a mystery why either of them would even consider moving to a place whose creepy, obsessive owner, architect Edward Monkford, presents them with a manual containing hundreds of  restrictions (just the two about no rugs and no books would have killed the deal for me) and has a computerized, visual monitoring system called “housekeeper” that controls the home’s every system and ensures the tenant’s compliance.  The book’s other mystery concerns Emma’s death; when Jane learns about she becomes determined to discover what happened and why. That task is complicated by the steamy affair she and the kinky Edward are conducting.

Though loaded with time-honored  tropes and other derivatives (that creepy “housekeeper”, an owner reputed to have caused the death of his own wife and child, the fact that both Emma and Jane are ringers for the dead wife), this book has its appeal. The atmosphere is decidedly eerie, and the  house, austere as it is, nevertheless provides some clues, as does Emma’s rejected former boyfriend.  Jane’s behavior is often foolhardy, but if you can accept that, the psychological implications of all that goes on are fascinating, as is the surprise that abruptly pops up at the very end. The characters are strange and Edward in particular is odious, but their story is weirdly compelling.

At the Crossroads: Medieval Folklore and Practices

Walking between worlds has long been a theme in human beliefs, superstitions, and folklore. Spirits, otherwordly beings such as fairies, demons, and ghosts are often reported at the boundaries and edges of this realm and the next. Burial grounds, certain days of the year (Halloween, All Saints, Midsummer, Midwinter, for example), the boundaries between cultivated and wild land,are just some of the places where the supernatural may be encountered. Death can be viewed as the ultimate boundary.

It was also believed the spirits travel best in straight lines. Burial mounds, stone circles and the like are often connected by “avenues”. Labyrinths, mazes, knots and tangles (Native American “dream catchers”) were thought to confound and impede their comings and goings., which may be why labyrinthine symbols are often discovered at neolithic burial sites. Crossroads, at the center of which one finds oneself on two roads at once, are such places. The symbol of the cross itself may represent this duality.

A crossroads, then, particularly one located outside of town, was a place where one could encounter ghosts and demons. On the Isle of Man, people would sweep the crossing place at midnight to keep it clear of them. Witches were thought to hold their sabbaths there. In some cultures, offerings were left to appease malevolent spirits. The choice of four separate routes was believed to confuse ghosts, keeping them bewildered until the light of day forced their return to the grave. For this reason, suicides and suspected vampires were often buried near these spots, and gallows were sometimes erected there.

“Corpse ways”, or paths along which coffins were carried to the cemetery, were often straight, but sometimes passed over a crossroads. At this point, the bearers would set the coffin down and exchange positions at the corners of the bier, possibly symbolizing the reversal of life by death.

To argue at a crosswords is a sure invitation to misfortune.

If you take a three-legged stool to a crossroads in Scotland on Halloween when the church clock strikes midnight, you will hear the names of those parishioners who will die in the coming year. But if you take an article of clothing belonging to one of the doomed, at throw it in the air while calling out their name, you can save them. Also, if you listen to the wind, you will hear your own fortune.

Magical cures could also be attained at crossroads. To get rid of warts, some folks in England would rub the wart with a few wheat grains that were then left at the crossing. To avoid the ague, close to midnight you could turn yourself around three times, drive a nail into ground at the center, and walk away backwards before the striking of the clock, which would enable you to stay healthy, but the poor unsuspecting soul who first stepped over the nail would come down with the ague.

In the deep South of the United States, crossroads were held to be places where one could sell his soul to the devil in exchange for the granting of a wish, often for musical talent.

Just a few thoughts to ponder next time you’re sitting at a red light at a crossroads.

It’s a Mystery: Raven Black, by Ann Cleeves

Raven Black (Shetland Island, #1)
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Ever since experiencing a fascinating visit to Scotland’s Iona and Staffa Islands a few years back, I became interested in other islands in the region. Books set in the British Isles always appeal to me, and I regularly troll the new book release lists looking for new titles and/or authors. In the case of Raven Black, it was the author’s name (Henry VIII’s fourth wife)  that hooked me. Also, the names Shetland and Fair Isle have long been familiar to me as an avid knitter, so I just had to give Ann Cleeves’  Shetland series a try.

Like another popular novel series set in Scotland, Raven Black is a book involving outlanders. The first one we meet is Fran Hunter, who, following her divorce,  relocated to Shetland from London so her daughter could have contact with her father, a prominent island native.  She is struggling to find a niche in the small, literally insular, community where most families have lived for generations. Not surprisingly, it’s the sort of place where everybody knows everybody else and everybody else’s secrets, things not shared with outsiders. When she discovers the strangled body of another newcomer, high school student Catherine Ross, Fran will quickly learn what many of those secrets are.

Detective Jimmy Perez, called in from nearby Fair Isle, is the next incomer on the scene. Nearly everyone he interviews throws suspicion on an elderly local man, who was implicated but not accused in the disappearance of another young girl eight years earlier. Perez, being familiar with the way of life, resists jumping to conclusions, always observing, listening, reading between the lines.

This is a tautly plotted mystery  full of local atmosphere, tradition, and  complex characters.  Perez slowly teases out the conflicts and resentments that underlie community relationships, and he finds no dearth of suspects as well as an abundance of clues. But clues are not evidence, and not until the killer makes another move, during the biggest folkloric festival of the year, do his theories crystallize. There’s plenty of local color and attitude from start to finish, and none of the many clues are tells. The surprising  and satisfactory ending left me eagerly anticipating the sequel, White Nights.

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Nonfiction Worth Reading: New England Bound, by Wendy Warren

New England Bound: Slavery and Colonization in Early America

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Most Americans know about slavery on southern plantations, and about New England’s role in achieving abolition. As school kids, most Americans learned about the horrors of plantation slavery, and were taught to take pride in the wisdom and perseverance of  the Northern states as leaders of the abolition movement. What we weren’t taught anything about was the institution of slavery in New England, where many Native Americans and the first Africans were enslaved within a decade of the founding of Plymouth Colony. More than a few studies of this topic have been published in the past decades or so and are gradually making inroads into the public’s awareness of this hidden history.  Wendy Warren’s meticulously researched new book is a welcome addition to the discussion.  Prominent 17th century families such as the Winthrops and the Mathers, and countless ordinary families either owned slaves, trafficked in them, or built their fortunes on the forced labor, deprivation, and pain of several thousand kidnapped individuals.

New England Bound draws upon such primary documents as court records, journals, and runaway slave notices to illustrate the breadth of this system in the context of the Triangle Trade. But more interestingly, the author has interpolated some of the ways in which the lives of those enslaved were impacted by the experience.  For example, Indian captives were locally available but proved to be difficult to manage because, being natives, they had recourse to a network of kin; for this reason, they proved less reliable than Africans, and most Indians  were sold/shipped off to the West Indies. Warren does a particularly effective job of presenting the  psychological effects of being ripped away from one’s family and social network  to an alien environment oceans away. Slave laws prevented the forging of new connections (families, networks of friends)  for these victimized people, whose sense of isolation must have been profound, whether they were island bound or working in a New England farmstead.

Writing in a flowing style, Warren provides much food for thought. She also looks into the earliest anti-slavery tracts, the very first written at the end of the century by none other than Samuel Sewall of Salem Witchcraft fame. Reading this book will forever change the reader’s conception of America’s first hundred years.

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Modern Lit: Into the Water, by Paula Hawkins

Into the Water
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The sleepy, remote little town of Beckford, England has a decidedly spooky history. The river that runs through it has what’s known as the drowning pool, which over the centuries has the site of a string of drownings, all women. As Into the Water opens, Jules Abbott is summoned following the death of her older sister Nel, to identify the body and to take care of Lena, her teenaged niece. Nel has been researching the  history of all the local women who died in the pool, starting with a young 17th century woman who drowned during the dunking test for witchcraft. There are many in Beckford who resent that work and who vow to keep the book from publication. The police believe, or say they believe, that Nel committed suicide, but Jules isn’t buying it. One of Nel’s supporters is Nicky, the elderly town mystic. Most view her as barmy, but when she tells Jules that most of the victims, recent and historical, have been wronged by the men in their lives, what she says resonates with Jules, who will come to rely more and more upon Nicky’s insights. Nicky may not have paranormal powers, but she’s certainly a good observer.

Into the Water has multiple narrators, and it is difficult to tell which are reliable. The star of the production is the town with its river; the theme is social justice, misogyny, and the misuse of power. Because there are several victims, there a several subplots, the most vivid being not Nel’s death but that of her daughter’s best friend who drowned only the month before. But all of the women’s stories are compelling in their own right;  the development of Jules’s thorny relationship with her niece is well presented, as is the denouement of her thorny relationship with her sister.  And over everything lies the aura of the strange, secretive town, not threatening, just peculiar. And it’s easy to allow oneself to be drawn into Nel’s conundrums. Into the Water is more psychological drama than suspenseful mystery.

Most of the critical reviews I’ve read compare Water with Girl on a Train, all opining that Water lacks the same brilliance. I prefer to judge books on their own merits, and that’s what I’ve done with my own review.