Historical Fiction: Fates and Traitors, by Jennifer Chiaverini

Fates and Traitors

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Jennifer Chiaverini is making a name for herself as the author of novels about quilts, but I prefer her works about historical characters, among them Mary Todd Lincoln, Elizabeth Keckley, and Julia Grant. My favorite among the historicals is The Spymistress, which told the story of Elizabeth Van Lew, a truly courageous woman who managed to spy for the Union while living in the midst of Confederate Richmond.

Fates and Traitors, which is scheduled for publication in September, caught my interest because it features John Wilkes Booth and some of the important women in his life. The plot traces the trajectory of Booth’s decision to assassinate President Lincoln, from the points of view of his mother and sister, one of his sweethearts, and Mary Surratt, at whose home the conspirators met. Chiaverini makes use of the slender evidence available about Booth’s relationship with these women to flesh out the story line, which was a bit too romance-y for my liking, but she managed to make it interesting and factual enough to sustain my interest. There is nothing really new here, but it was edifying to read about Booth as a real person rather than the demon he is usually portrayed as being. The title, which is a bit clumsy, I think, refers to a vision Booth’s mother experienced when John was born, in which he was fated to become famous. Lucy Hale, thought by many to have been his fiancee, comes across as incredibly naive; while her family thinks Booth is a bounder, she remains blind to many signs that he was up to no good.

Fates and Traitors has not supplanted The Spymistress in my estimation, but it was an interesting and divergent picture of the Booth I’m accustomed to reading about. It left me with the impression that if he had been more respected as an actor, his life might have taken a far different course.

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Historical Fiction: The Light in the Ruins, by Chris Bohjalian

The Light in the Ruins

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

1943, Florence. The Nazis are losing their grip on Italy, and the invasion of the Allies is immanent. The aristocratic Rosati family, led by patriarch Antonio, have two sons in the Italian army, and are hoping that the winds of war will pass peacefully over their estate, the Villa Chimera. But as the Nazis gear up for the invasion, they commandeer the villa and surrounding property, and much to the chagrin of the Rosati sons, their father takes the path of least resistance. No one is pleased when 18 year old Christina falls hard for one of the German lieutenants.

1955, Florence. The brutal murder of Francesca Rosati, a war widow who also lost her children, takes place, during which her throat is cut and her heart torn from her body. Only a few days later, her mother in law becomes a victim, her heart left in a box for the tourists to find on the Ponte Vecchio. The case is assigned to Investigator Serafina Bettine, who served as a partisan in the war and nearly died from severe burns during the final stand at Villa Chimera. From this point forward, The Light in the Ruins alternates between the two time periods, as Serafina attempts to track down and identify the serial killer.

There is much to be admired in this novel, in its evocation of times past, of the idyllic Italian countryside, and in its depiction of the brutality and horrors of wartime. Its characters are finely drawn, especially those of Serafina, Christina, and the German commander, Decher. All of the characters struggle over painful moral dilemmas; should Antonio be accommodating the Nazi occupiers? Should Italian art treasures be shipped off the Germany without resistance? What role should civilians play, or pay, in wartime? It is in the plotting of what is essentially a murder mystery that the book fails to deliver. What ought to be a gripping serial killer investigation falls short in the suspense department, even though it’s difficult to guess who the perpetrator might be.

At its best, the work of Chris Bojalian is mesmerizing, and in sections, The Light in the Ruins lives up to that standard. As a mystery, however, it is far from compelling.

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It’s a Mystery: The Long Way Home, by Louise Penny

The Long Way Home (Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, #10)

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Long Way Home is Louise Penny’s tenth Chief Inspector Gamache novel. The pace has changed in more than one way, for Armand has retired from heading the homicide unit of Quebec’s Surete, moving with wife Reine-Marie (I always smile at her name; in some sections of the US, she’d probably be called “Queenie”.) from Montreal to Three Pines, the picture-book village in which much of this series is set. Armand is struggling to recover from PTSD, and wants nothing more than peace, good food, and the company of family and friends. But if that were to happen, there would be no tenth novel….

One of the prequels to The Long Way Home, A Trick of the Light, ended with the separation of village artists Clara and Peter Morrow, because of Peter’s intense jealousy of Clara’s professional success. The couple agree to live apart for a year, then reunite to decide whether they have a future together. On the appointed day, however, Peter fails to show up, and after weeks of worry, Clara asks for Gamache’s advice. The good-hearted Armand cannot refuse, and offers to help Clara track her husband’s whereabouts. Peter’s trail, faint at first, turns out to encompass four European and two Canadian cities, before it abruptly ends. The worst is feared. Through a combination of well honed investigative skills and keen intuition, Gamache’s and Jean-Guy Beauvoir (now son-in-law and former second in command), manage to piece together seemingly unrelated details and bring the search to a suspenseful conclusion. No spoilers here.

In what has now become a trend in this series, author Penny takes her readers to some of Quebec’s provincial wonders, in this case the immense Manicouagan Crater, caused eons ago by the impact of an asteroid. The famous art colonies at Baie St. Paul and the mighty St. Laurence River are also given parts to play. As always, her elegant prose, psychological insight, and memorable characters, who by now seem real to me, add a strong literary component which raises her books above mere genre. Who wouldn’t love to know Gamache? And the characters that are specific to each mystery are just as complex and intriguing as the regulars. I’m hoping that in the next entry, we learn whether thirteen year old Bean is a boy or a girl.

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Folklore in My Garden: St. John’s Wort

imageEach year on Midsummer’s Eve, when summer begins here in New England, I stroll around my garden searching for the little yellow blooms of St. John’s Wort (Hypericum perforatum). I’ve never planted any. Around here it grows as a wildflower, and a few volunteers show up each year, in various places, sometimes the same and sometimes not. From the time of the ancient Greeks, it was considered to have magical powers to ward off evil and protect against diseases, and since early Christian times, the feast of St. John the Baptist, June 24,  has been considered the best day on which to pick the plant for such uses. Some sources have said the red spots appear on the leaves on August 29, said to be the anniversary of his beheading.

Other ideas stem from folk beliefs. The bright yellow blossom was associated with the sun, which made St. John’s Wort popular for divination and fortune telling. In Germany, for example, young girls dreaming about marriage in the coming year would pick a sprig in the evening; if it had not wilted by morning, her chances were good. The red juice from the crushed leaves was called Witch’s Blood, and made effective love potions. A poem translated from the German:

“The young maid stole through the cottage door,
And blushed as she sought the plant of power.
‘Thou silver glow-worm, oh! lend me thy light,
I must gather the mystic St. John’s Wort to-night;
The wonderful herb whose leaf will decide
If the coming year shall see me a bride.”

Similarly, it could foretell who in a family would die the soonest. Bringing the flowers indoors on Midsummer Eve would protect from the evil eye, ward off witches, promote good fortune, and prevent fires and lightning strikes.  (Guess I’d better bring some in tonight!) Placing a bunch beneath a pillow could banish nightmares, and in one case it rid a house of poltergeist activity! From an English poem:

“St. John’s wort doth charm all the witches away.
If gathered at midnight on the saint’s holy day.
And devils and witches have no power to harm
Those that do gather the plant for a charm:
Rub the lintels and post with that red juicy flower
No thunder nor tempest will then have the power
To hurt or to hinder your houses: and bind
Round your neck a charm of a similar kind.”

Be sure not to step on this plant, or a Faerie Horse just may steal you away. But perhaps you can avoid that fate by wearing a few leaves and flowers as a necklace.

Medicinally, noted herbalists used St. John’s Wort in ointments to heal deep wounds, bruises, and venomous animal bites. In infusions, it could dissolve stones in the urinary tract or kidneys, and  cure fevers, jaundice, gout, and rheumatism. It was also good for bed sores, lockjaw, and insomnia. Native Americans made use of St. John’s Wort against diarrhea, skin injuries, bleeding, and snake bites. In Europe, it has been used for centuries to alleviate nervous disorders, hysteria,  and insanity, and very recently, St. John’s Wort has been newly discovered as  a modern treatment for depression and virus infection. Today, there are many commercial preparations available as standard oils and liquid or powdered extracts. Now that researchers are taking this herb seriously for medicinal purposes, who knows what knew applications might be discovered?






CT History: The Glastonbury Cows Make History

When I was growing up, we used to joke that there were more cows in Glastonbury than people, and perhaps there were. That’s no longer the case, but this afternoon I came across this article, which made me smile. You go, girls!


From the newsletter of  New England Historical Society.

In the early days of the fight for women’s voting rights, Connecticut’s Glastonbury Cows were the stars of the show. In June of 1869 the tax collector in Glastonbury, Conn. asked two elderly sisters to pay their road tax early, which they did. Abby and Julia Smith were then surprised when the town accidentally billed them for the tax again in October.image
When they asked that the town correct the matter, the tax collector, Albert Crane, refused. When they tried to enter Town Meeting to raise the issue, they were turned away. And thus, two suffragettes were born.
The Smiths were wealthy, quite possibly the wealthiest home in Glastonbury. Their father was a one-time clergyman who pursued a career in law. He left his daughters a large land holding, investments and a farm. Their mother left them a sizable inheritance, as well.
The frustrated sisters paid the tax a second time, but they were furious about their lack of political power. They began attending women’s suffrage rallies. And with the passing years, their frustration grew. Their taxes were increased. And in 1874, they were told they could not let the tax go unpaid in exchange for a 12 percent interest charge – a courtesy afforded other taxpayers.
The Smiths became convinced that their taxes were only being increased on properties owned by women, and that they couldn’t delay payment because they were women. They became convinced that modern women needed a vote, and decided to stop paying taxes until they could.
“Taxation Without Representation,” was their rallying cry. The Smiths joined a group of women suffragist activists who chose taxes as their protest weapon of choice. Abby Smith was a regular writer on the topic:
“We have lately sent a day in celebrating the heroism of those who threw overboard the tea; but how trifling was the tea-tax, and how small the injustice to individuals compared with this one of our day!”
In 1874, the matter came to a head when the tax collector sized seven cows from the Smith sisters and auctioned them off to pay the taxes. The sisters used a straw buyer to retrieve most of the cows, and the story of the Glastonbury sisters and their cows went international.
As the story blossomed, it sparked heated newspaper columns. The Smith sisters’ critics argued that the pair were receiving all sorts of services in exchange for their money: roads, schools, police protection, etc. In one clumsy analogy, a writer noted they were like children, who also couldn’t vote. The arguments against the two only made their case stronger.
The supporters of the Smiths, on the other hand, took great pleasure in promoting their story. Those who didn’t see the rightness of the Smiths arguments were: “too stupid to think, too selfish to feel for others, or too cowardly to stand up for the right not yet lifted into popular recognition.’
The cows themselves, meanwhile, became celebrities and knickknacks woven out of their hair were hot sellers at fundraising bazaars that promoted voting rights for women. Julia published a popular book, Abby Smith and Her Cows. For several years through 1878 the process of seizing part of the sisters’ herd of Alderneys in lieu of tax payment and the Smiths buying them back continued.
Because of their Alderney cows, the Smiths were celebrated at rallies, testified to congress and were dinnertime conversation in homes across America. In 1878, at the age of 81, Abby died in July. In 1879, Julia, age 87, decided to marry for the first time, and her husband began paying the taxes on her property, and she repaid him. A compromise of love.
Julia Smith did not contain her feminism to tax protests and suffrage. She also published, in 1876, the only translation of the Bible written by a woman. Julia’s father was a student of the Sandemanian school of Christianity, which believed worship needed a conscious, mental act rather than being a spiritual matter. The apple apparently didn’t fall far from the tree.
Julia, curious about what might have been altered in the King James version of the Bible, decided to translate it herself from Greek, Hebrew and Latin texts. Her texts were literal and made no effort to update the language or provide context to Biblical stories.
In 1881, tax collector Crane was voted from office. When the town charged that several thousand dollars were missing, he said his books had been stolen and he couldn’t square accounts. “I’m not surprised at anything he says,” Julia wrote.
In 1886, Julia died having relocated from Glastonbury to Hartford. Like many early suffrage agitators, she died without seeing women vote. It would be the 1890s before women were voting in some elections in Connecticut and 1920 before women voted nationwide.

It’s a Mystery: A Trick of the Light, by Louise Penny

A Trick of the Light (Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, #7)

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the  seventh of twelve books in the Arnaud Gamache series (to date). In order to read any of them but the first, which could easily be billed as the Three Pines series, it’s necessary to accept the premise that a remote, off the map village, almost fairy tale-like in its charm, could truly be the site of so many vicious crimes. But this is no cozy mystery series; rather, each entry is a well crafted, elegantly written police procedural featuring complex characters, many of whom appear from book to book and some only in the specific title.

In Trick, the spotlight falls upon Clara and Peter Morrow, a married couple who are fairly prominent members of the Canadian art scene. The mystery originates with Clara’s celebratory party, held at her home in honor of the unmitigated success of her first private gallery show in Montreal. Her joy is destroyed the very next morning, with the discovery of the broken-necked corpse of Lillian Dyson, Clara’s college roommate who became a much reviled art critic. No one saw Lillian at the party. Is her murder, among the flowers in Clara’s garden, just a coincidence?

Gamache’s investigation leads him into the ugly underbelly of the art world, where both creating and dealing are a dog-eat-dog business. It also delves into the ugly secret that Peter Morrow has been keeping from his wife. No, he’s not the killer. But their marriage will be brought to the brink of failure. Finally, the internal struggles of Gamache and Beauvoir, as they try to come to terms with nearly losing their own lives in their last big case, affect the investigation, and their personal lives, as well.

As always, this book is a pleasure to read. If Gamache at times comes across as too perfect, he does have to compete with Three Pines, after all.

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Revisited Myth # 87: People bought their tea in bricks, not loose tea leaves.

From history myths.wordpress.com

History Myths Debunked


Well, that depends upon which people you’re talking about. Tibetan people, yes. American people, no.

Bricks of tea date from as early as 733 AD, according to a Victoria & Albert publication, Tea: East and West. But that was in China, where bricks of tea were particularly popular in central Asia (Mongolia and Tibet) because they could be carried by porters across the mountains into that region. There, tea bricks were used as a form of currency. “Tea could be bartered against practically anything, and workmen and servants were routinely paid in it.” (p. 60-62) Perhaps this myth got started when people assumed that what they’d heard about the Far East was equally true in the West.

Americans, however, used tea in its loose-leaf form. They stored it in tea chests or canisters at home, sometimes under lock and key, because it was so costly. At stores, it was sometimes…

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