It’s a Mystery: The Book of Speculation, by Erika Swyler

The Book of SpeculationCarnival

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Narrator Simon Watson is a  librarian/curator living alone in his dilapidated family house on the cliffs of Long Island sound. Before his birth, Simon’s mother was a carnival “mermaid”, who drowned in Long Island sound when he was 7. Her death cast an emotional pall over Simon, which he’s never quite shaken off. His younger sister, Enola, left home to join the circus as a fortune teller, following, in a sense, in her mother’s footsteps. As the book opens, Simon is about to be laid off from work. At loose ends, he receives a fragile antique manuscript in the mail, from a distant book dealer who bought the book on speculation. Simon throws himself into reading what turns out to be an intriguing management journal that belonged to the flamboyant owner of an 18th century traveling show, Peabody’s Portable Magic and Miracles. In short order, he begins making disturbing connections between the show’s history and that of his family. Drowning, it seems, was a longstanding tradition among his mother’s female ancestors, who were also show people. Now Enola seems set on the same tragic path, and Simon is desperate to save her.

Erika Swyler deftly mingles past and present in The Book of Speculation, her debut novel. As Simon’s research uncovers new facts, she takes readers back and forth between the modern story and characters and those who worked in Peabody’s show. This is a plot driven book, which is not to say that characterization suffers. The imagery is rich and powerful, built around water, magical symbolism, archetypes, the uses of language, the uses of illusion. Key words are freighted with meaning, some in double or even triple entendre. Names (Enola, Watson, Doyle, Evangeline)  carry their own portents. Past is as important as present. The Tarot structures both stories, in a way that can be viewed as mystical or simply psychological; meaning is left open for the reader to interpret, as is the enigmatic final chapter. It is the sense of impending deadline that drives the reader on; this novel has the power to enchant.

Feline Phrases – cat quotes and cat-based idioms



All cats are gray in the dark – people are pretty much the same regardless of appearances.

Alley cat – person with loose morals

Another breed of cat – something very different

Cat around- lead an aimless, immoral life

Cat burglar – silent thief

Catcalls – booing or heckling

Cat got your tongue? – Why aren’t you talking? May date to middle ages when body parts severed for punishment were fed to the cats or pigs.

Cat nap – short rest

Cat’s meow, cat’s pajamas, cat’s whiskers – special

Cat walk – narrow place to walk, requiring balance

Fat cat – well fed and pampered, wealthy

Cat on a hot tin roof – jumpy – from the play by Tennessee Williams

Pussyfooting around – moving carefully, not promising anything – like a hunting cat

Playing cat and mouse – being sneaky, secretive, like hunting

Not enough room to swing a cat – reference to cat-o-nine tails in the cramped quarters of a ship

When the cat’s away the mice will play – good off when not supervised.

More than one way to skin a cat – this saying actually relates to cleaning catfish, which has skin too tough to eat.

kittty-curiousCuriosity killed the cat – being too nosy can land you in trouble. This saying was penned by Ben Jonson in Every Man in His Humor.

“I believe cats to be spirits come to earth. A cat, I am sure, could walk on a cloud without coming through.” Jules Verne.

“I have lived with several Zen masters — all of them cats.” Eckhart Tolle.

CT and MA Early Fieldstone Grave Markers

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Eastham Cove Cemetery, Eastham, Cape Cod, Massachusetts

BENNET PAINE         
DYED MAY YE 30
1716 AGED 45
Y’s.

Eastham Cove is an ancient burying ground that contains the graves of three Mayflower passengers. The earliest burial dates from 1660.  It also has more than 16 fieldstone markers, most of which are no longer legible and therefore unidentifiable.

Bennet was the daughter of Major John Freeman (1719) and his wife Marcy (Prence) Freeman (1711). Eastham vital records indicate Bennet was the wife of John Paine. He died in 1731 at age 70. He is buried in the old section of Orleans Cemetery. Researchers indicate that John and Bennet Paine had 12 children.

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 Captain Nathan Hale Cemetery, Coventry, Connecticut

HERE
LYETH THE BO
DY OF HANNAH
BUELL WHO W
AS THE WIFE O
F PETER BUELL
DECEASED FEB
20 1718

Hannah Wells Buell, born November 22, 1689, was the wife of one of the original settlers of Coventry, Peter Buell, whose name also appears on this stone. This is the oldest legible stone in the graveyard. Crudely shaped into a semicircle, it is the only example in town of the work of the Norwich Ovoid Carver, an early craftsman whose name remains unknown. Note how the words, “OF” and “WAS” are divided. Peter lived to the age of 89 and is buried nearby.

 

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Essex River View Cemetery, Essex, CT

PRATT

This undated stone bears only the single name, Pratt. There is a footstone several feet behind it with the same lettering. This is believed to be the burial place of Lt. William Pratt, one of the founders of Saybrook, CT, of which Essex was once a part. Lt. Pratt was born in England in 1609, and died in 1678.

It’s a Mystery: The Last Summer of the Camperdowns, by Elizabeth Kelly

The Last Summer of the Camperdowns

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

While cruising the opening chapters of The Last Summer of the Camperdowns, the two totally self-obsessed women from BBC’s comedy series, Absolutely Fabulous, sprang to mind. I thought they were the ultimate narcissists, but they have nothing to hold over Greer and Godfrey Camperdown, parents of the novel’s narrator, Riddle, an only child. Greer is a former movie star, Godfrey an aspiring congressman and songwriter who enjoys treating dinner guests with impromptu performances. Just as in AbFab, the child has to play referee when the parents’ egos run amok, something that occurs nearly every day. Riddle is a thoroughly engaging 13 year old, who copes with the madness around her by throwing herself into horseback riding, that age old refuge of young girls. One summer afternoon, when searching for her lost puppy in the stable, Riddle overhears the ominous sounds of someone in pain and distress. To her horror, the stable manager discovers her presence, realizing that Riddle has been an ear-witness to something terrible. He spends the rest of the novel reminding her that she had better keep the secret.

This is the story of how Riddle copes with her guilt over not telling what she knows, which becomes crushing when she figures out who the victim was. At the same time, she develops her first agonizing crush on the older brother of the victim. Riddle is a fairly reliable narrator, and her accounts of the actions of the adults that surround her are perceptive and telling. Ancillary characters are also well drawn. The setting, among the dunes and ponds of Wellfleet, Cape Cod, is idyllic, evocatively described, as are the times, the very early 70’s when memories of WWII are still sharp. The length of this book is excessive, bogging down in the middle of the story, but the ending is a winner; just when you’re sure you know what happened, a series of bombshells in the final dramatic chapters puts paid to that illusion. If you decide to read Last Summer, have patience when the pace slows, because once it picks up, it’s memorable.

Historical Fiction: The Yanks are Starving, by Glen Craney

The Yanks Are Starving: A Novel of the Bonus Army

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Great Depression. My mother grew up during the hardscrabble 1930’s, and told tales about what life was like. The fears from that decade never left her. I don’t recall her ever telling us about the Bonus Army, however, and reading The Yanks Are Starving was my first exposure to a shameful incident in America’s 20th century history. Many of the “doughboys” who fought in WWI were unemployed during the Depression. They were each entitled to “bonus pay” for their military service, but their certificates would not mature until 1945. Impoverished and desperate, the soldiers banded together to march on Washington to demand immediate payment. The Bonus Army was was lead by former army sergeant Walter W. Waters, who is one of the main characters in Glen Craney’s novel.

The book opens before the first world war, and in alternating chapters, introduces Waters and seven other characters, many of whom became household names. Among them are Black Jack Pershing, Herbert “Bert” Hoover, and Douglas MacArthur. It was fun reading about their lives before they became major players. As America enters the war, these characters converge, their battlefield experiences nothing short of heart-stopping. Similarly, their post-war lives are followed, until the Depression forces them to band together once again. It seems likely that the story of the Bonus Army was suppressed because no one wanted to remember the violence perpetrated upon them by their own government in their own capitol city.

Glen Craney has taken the facts of their lives to shape strong and memorable characters. He relates their story with vivid realism, particularly through dialog, and it is clear that he knows his history. Good historical novels like this one, well composed and founded upon sound research, provide enjoyable but valuable ways of learning about our not-so-distant past.

Esther Williams Meacham: The Redeemed Captive


On the bitter cold night of Feb. 29, 1704, the little town of Deerfield, MA, an English outpost on the western fringes of the Bay Colony, once again found itself in the cross-hairs of the imperial feud being waged between France and Great Britain for the dominance of the North American continent. The armed conflicts of the 18th century between the English colonies in North America and the French settlements that stretched into Canada were fought with the support of Native American allies.

In 1704, Mohawk Indians, converted to Catholicism by Jesuit missionaries, allied with the French settlers in Canada, attacked the frontier village of Deerfield, Massachusetts, killing 50 of the very young and old and kidnapping 112 more. They then marched the prisoners to Canada, killing 20 more women and several children along the way as acts of mercy, including the wife and infant son of John Williams, a Puritan minister and a prize hostage. While he and his surviving sons were ultimately released, his daughter, Eunice, who was seven at the time of her capture, remained with her captors, converted to Catholicism, and at the age of 16 married an Indian, with whose people she chose to spend the rest of her life. A fuller account of Eunice’s saga can be found here:

Raid

The opinions expressed in the linked article are not necessarily my own.

The gravestone pictured above is located in the Nathan Hale Cemetery in Coventry, CT, and it marks the burial site of the sister of Eunice Williams. Esther Williams Meacham was one of the Deerfield captives who was released and returned to her life among the Puritans. Esther married a minister and relocated from Mass. to Connecticut, and local accounts tell of Eunice’s infrequent visits to her sister’s household, during which she refused to stay inside the house, preferring to pitch her own shelter on the village green.

Esther Meacham’s gravestone contains a summary of her ordeal among the Mohawk:

Here lies what was Mortal of

Mrs. Esther Meacham ye Pru

dent Pious & virtuous

Consort of ye Revd Joseph

Meacham she was ye Daugh

of ye Venerable John Will

iams of Deerfield & was

Carried Capture to Canada

with her Father & his Family

was wonderfully preserved

& Redeemed & lived an

Eminent Example of what

was amiable in a wife a

Mother a Friend & a Christian

Slept in Jesus March 12th

1751 in ye 60th Year of her Age.

Esther’s marker was carved by a local Coventry craftsman, Gershom Bartlett. Follow up to Eunice’s story:
link

 

 

Biography: Captive Histories

by Evan Haefeli and Kevin Sweeney

 

haefeli_sweeney_300In 1704, a French and Indian coalition raided the frontier village of Deerfield, Massachusetts, destroying property, killing 50 of the inhabitants, and kidnapping 112. Forced to march in the dead of winter to Canada, many of the captives died along the way. Many survived, however, and later printed narratives of their ordeals. The most famous victims of this raid were members of the Williams family, and much has been written about them in subsequent centuries. In Captive Histories, Sweeney and Haefeli have gathered primary documents pertaining to the Williams survivors and those less famous. The difference in this book is the inclusion of multiple perspectives, including the Abenaki and Mohawk stories that have been passed from generation to generation via oral tradition. Letters, military reports, oral narratives,and memoirs are collated and evaluated in such a way as to compare and contrast the English, French, and Native American points of view, and to assess belief systems, traditions, the the reliability of the evidence. Captive Histories does not read like a historical novel; it is an important and valuable piece of research and socio/political/cultural commentary on one of colonial New England’s most notorious events.