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Connecticut River Valley, New England, United States

Friday, June 27, 2014

A Battle Ground From Another Time, Another Place and Still the Same

Little Bighorn: A NovelLittle Bighorn: A Novel by John Hough Jr.
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Many readers would probably not chose to read this book unless they have an interest in the Indian Wars in general or Lt Colonel George Armstrong Custer and the rout of his 7th Calvary along the Little Big Horn River, specifically. It would be their loss. I entered this first reads giveaway on Goodreads for several reasons: I've been to the Battlefield several times, one of my daughter's classmates at MSU in Bozeman is a descendent of one of the Crow guides used by Custer and in recent years a town by the name of Garryowen was for sale and among the items included in the sale were many of Libbie Custer's writings and apparently some of her possessions. I must look Garryowen up again to see if it ever sold.

From the very beginning in the Willard Hotel in Washington D.C. I was hooked in the telling of the tale. The premise of the novel is that Custer, in Washington to testify before Congress before returning to Fort Lincoln in Dakota, promises the American actress and sometime lover, Mary Deschenes, that he will take her 18 year old son, Allen Winslow with him. Allen has no interest in going West to fight the Indians but, having been somewhat captivated by Custer and feeling a need to placate his mother agrees he will go. Unknown to him, Custer also plans on having him serve as escort for the young sister of one of his surgeons. Addie Grace Lord is anxious to escape her all girls' boarding school and her domineering aunt and uncle and wishes to visit her brother, George.

And so the adventure begins--with a very accurate description of the train ride from Grand Central Station in New York City to Albany, New York and then westward across the forested rolling hills of New York, through Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin to the flat plains leading to Bismarck, North Dakota. I've driven this route so often I could see it as I read. Across the Missouri to Fort Lincoln. By the time the two young people stepped out of the wagon in front of Officers' Row they had fallen in love. Fort Lincoln was set up like most of the outposts of the Midwest--a large Parade Ground with a flagpole in the middle and bordered by brick or clapboard buildings on at least three sides. The fancier buildings on one side making up Officers' Row, another side with enlisted mens' housing, some for married men and a dorm for the singles, another side bordered with the buildings necessary to provision, maintain horses etc for a large population of soldiers and families.

When the wind blows across the grounds of some of these places you can almost hear the sounds of voices: singing, ordering, talking, preparing. Those of horses hooves and the music of parade bands as the men go through their marching practice, getting ready for battle whenever it may come. By the time Custer and his men were ready to head to Montana I wondered what Garryowen, the drinking song and The Girl I Left Behind, the ballad, they'd chosen as their own music sound like. I also began to wonder, since so many of the characters were actual soldiers, which of the characters were fictional. I knew that Custer had taken his brother, Tom, with him. But a brother, Boston? A nephew, Austin? Both of these were friends of Allen and stayed with him throughout the story.

I found a webpage that has the full roster of the men with Custer, Reno and Benteen at Little Big Horn. Allen, Addie, Mary Deschenes appear all to be imaginary. But the others, including George Lord are on the list. Along with many of the other characters depicted. Fort Abraham Lincoln is now a State Park near Mandan,North Dakota and Custer was its Superintendent until his death in 1876.

Once more, as the troop marched Westward I could see the Badlands, the wide flatness at the foot of hills in which the Powder River runs and onward over what are now several reservations to the site of the battle which has become known as Custer's Last Stand. The first time I saw that sacred ground on which so much blood, soldier and warrior alike, had been shed, much of the land was off limits to the visitor. There were few of us and the Ranger was a taciturn, unfriendly man who either didn't know much about the battle, which I find hard to believe, or was not in the mood to elaborate with such small showing--I think there were about six of us there. My sister and I drove out the short loop road, looking at the small white markers purportedly placed at the spot where a trooper had fallen. Outside the visitors' center was a fairly small square on which a monument with the names of the men was placed. The small square of ground is a grave of many. Falling away toward the river is a slight downward slope on which several white markers are grouped, one of which has a blackened shield-like face proclaiming it as the spot on which Custer fell. Close by is another marking the location of Tom, his brother's demise.

As I read the description of the battle, I could see the crests and valleys of that terrain the imagine the waves of braves sweeping over them from all directions and yet, it was as if all was happening in slow motion. I was amazed that as I read, Kellogg wrote the date, June 25 and with a shock I realized I was reading this on June 25! I had started earlier in the day but, knowing how the battle would go, I kept finding things to take me away from the story. At last, I sat and read of the arrows, the bullets, the desecrations, the war cries, and simply the cries of anguish.

I've been back since several times. I'm happy to see the monument to the Crow and others who helped Custer. I look at the ribbons of clothe tied there by the Crow who still live on the reservation that surrounds the site and say a prayer,too. The road to drive is longer now, it goes out to an overlook that allows one to see where Reno's men were across the River. Horses graze free there and once in awhile a Native man in a pick-up truck brings bales of hay to them. There are some reddish markers, too, showing where Sioux warriors fell. The Cavalrymen were not the only ones who died.

I cannot like Custer--he was egotistical, had a history of disobeying orders, breaking treaties with the Indians, leaving men behind and leaving his post on several occasions. I'm not sure Reno was the drunk he is portrayed here but, though I bought a book about him, when I was last at the Big Horn, I've not yet read it. I know that both he and Benteen were seen to have been derelict--I'm not sure but I think Reno was even court-martialed. I know they both were highly critical of Custer's command decisions and that Libbie spent the rest of her life making sure her husband was considered a brave and gallant hero. I have more reading to do, obviously.

For those who want to start on learning about the Big Horn they could do worse than to start with this novel. I've often found myself delving into real history after having read a good fictional narrative about an event.

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Monday, June 23, 2014

A Story of Incredible Sadness

Burning ProspectsBurning Prospects by Melissa Miles
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A Goodreads first read giveaway, this is one of the saddest books I've ever read. A Revolutionary War veteran who moved from South Carolina to Mississippi with his family and slaves to establish a new plantation, before his death, makes it clear to his heirs both verbally and by dint of his written will, that his slaves are to be emancipated. He further stipulates that the income from the plantation's cotton crop and its sale is to be used to transport those slaves who wish to go to a colony in Africa, Liberia. Further that the monies be used to set them up there with a school and homes and money to establish themselves.

Captain Ross' daughter, one of his heirs, is put in charge of the estate and she is able in her lifetime to hold off her sister and her nephew from interfering with her father's wishes. Nonetheless, between their challenges to the will and the laws of Mississippi regarding the manumission of slaves, she is unable to see its stipulations enforced before she, too, dies. Fortunately, she had a codicil to her own will that was iron-clad and her own slaves were freed upon her death.

The remainder of the book tells the story of the family struggling to prevent Ross' will being enforced, the work of lawyers attempting to get it enforced, the work of abolitionists to keep the slaves informed of the progress in the courts. The life of the slaves as the years drag on as well as the lives of the owners of the plantation are told with great detail. While it is evident that the white plantation owners, in many cases, were religious people and good to their slaves, it is also evident that they saw them only as possessions. They justified their ownership through interpretation of Scriptural passages that seem to condone owning slaves--and they probably do, since these are the writings of men and from time immemorial, slaves have existed in most societies. Usually,they were taken from conquered peoples. And there is no doubt that the fortunes held by many plantation owners were achieved only through the labor of unpaid workers and that those fortunes would be reduced if not depleted were that to change.

On the other hand, while many slaves were treated well by their owners the fact remains they were not free. They were loved, cared for in every way but had absolutely no control of their own fates. As is shown in this book, once the kindest of masters died, the life of the slaves he owned was thrown into total upheaval and uncertainty. Would the new owner treat them as well? Would the new owner keep them all? If not, would the new owner sell them as family units or pick and choose who he'd keep and who he'd sell? What would the buyer be like and where would they be moving? Several people could answer those questions but not one would be a slave, nor would any slave be asked for their input on the decisions made. Even considering the times and the customs of the times, it is impossible for me to imagine looking upon fellow human beings this way---with total lack of recognition of their humanity. It is unfathomable.

Even more unfathomable to me is Ross' belief that sending these souls to Africa was humane. Africa? None of them had ever been there--they had no idea what Africa was like. And yet, I'm sure the author is correct. Much as people had flocked to America, a total unknown, to escape persecution or poverty, these slaves or at least some must have been fearful of moving to Africa but must have had hope of a better life, one of freedom at last. Unfortunately, Liberia, while it provided that, did not provide much more than that. The money Ross had hoped would carry them through to a happier life in their homeland had been squandered in the courts of Mississippi. Africans found these American blacks to be invasive and did not welcome them. Poverty and hardship followed them across the sea. But not before the tinderbox left behind when Captain Ross literally burst into flame--destroying his beloved home, killing a young child and seeing slaves hanging from the trees of Prospect Hill.

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Sunday, June 15, 2014

Marconi Wireless and the Capture of Dr Crippen

ThunderstruckThunderstruck by Erik Larson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Erik Larson has used the same juxtapositioning he used in Devil in The White City but here the story of the competition to achieve wireless communication over long distances was repetitive and at times tedious. Certainly the men involved in this race were interesting and the science behind this advancement in technology quite fascinating, though it was ironic that the man who was given credit for its achievement was in no way a scientist. Marconi was a rich man's son whose mother was a daughter of the Jameson Irish whiskey family and therefore had time and money to pursue what was basically an obsession to send messages across the Atlantic Ocean.

The second story involving the strange case of a gentle doctor's murder and dismemberment of an abusive wife was far less developed. As a result many questions involving the act and the eventual trial of the man who committed it left this reader feeling disquieted. There were times when it was wondered if the twining of the stories was going to involve the meeting of the two men in some strange circumstance. Yet, the Marconi story took place primarily in 1904 - 1906 and the murder and trial took place in 1910, leading to even more confusion.

At the end, the connection was revealed. Marconi's invention of wireless communication with ships at sea resulted in the apprehension of Dr Crippen and his paramour a they arrived in Canada, having taken a ship from Antwerp in an effort to escape the noose. Devil in the White City is by far the better book.

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Friday, June 13, 2014

Another Connected Politician Earlier Than JFK But Similar

Young Titan: The Making of Winston ChurchillYoung Titan: The Making of Winston Churchill by Michael Shelden
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Years ago, when I was teaching in a school that had morning announcements over an intercom to every classroom, our principal handed down a directive in which he said " Starting today there will only be one instrument for the consumption of liquids allotted per student!" . The students looked at me with perplexity, wondering what new rule this was and how it pertained to them. Fortunately, having listened to many politicians, including Winston Churchill, by then I was able to interpret the message as: you each only get one straw!

Granted my knowledge of WC was in his waning days. He was a short fat old man with a hat perched strangely on his head and a cigar in his mouth. His voice was a drone heavily accented with high British tones. My parents were not enamoured of him and nothing I saw or heard did much to alter my opinion that he was a bore who spoke in meaningless wordy pronouncements that boiled down to similar messages--you get one straw or something equally insignificant.

Still, I wanted to read about him as a young man. There must have been some reason that he rose so high to power at a very young age. Something other than just his connections to the aristocracy on his British father's side and to the wealth of America, on his mother's. I'd read books about Jennie Churchill, the beauty and one of King Edward's lovers. I'd also been aware of his father, Lord Randolph Churchill who'd died of syphilis at a fairly young age. But I'd not really known much about the son's young manhood, only of his lonely childhood, sent off to prep school after a series of nannies, as was and is sometimes still the custom in such circles.

In the first few chapters, despite the very readable descriptions of Winston the freckled red-haired Mommy's darling boy, I just could not seem to get the image of the old man out of my head. It probably didn't help that the focus was on his speechifying in which he delighted, whether out socially or performing politically. But within fifty pages the young man began to emerge. Here we see the charming, witty fellow who kept falling in love with some of the most beautiful women of his social set, only to have them either refuse his marriage proposal outright or manage to sidestep him so well that he never got the chance to propose.

We also see the rebel who is bound and determined to shake up the stodgy House of Commons and even gathers around him like-minded cronies to form a group called the Hooligans in the Tory Party. When his ambitions are stymied by his remaining a Tory, he blithely transfers his loyalties to the Liberal Party and attacks vigourously some of the Tories who played important roles in his ascendance. He manages to keep a friendship going throughout his life with the one woman who fell deeply in love with him, the daughter of the Prime Minister, while he marries his Clementine.

As I read about his speeches denigrating the House of Lords and its aristocrats, I could not help but saying to myself--but your family background is littered with these people. And sure enough, the people and the press of the day, had exactly the same reaction. Reading of the alliances and the fallings out of these politicians in a system of government so different from that in the US, I could not help but notice that the systems might be different but politics is not.

I did not come away liking Winston any better nor did I become terribly impressed by him as having accomplished very much but I did have a better grasp of what formed the man I did remember who had come through the Second World War much more successfully than the First. But then the allies were different and so were there leaders then.

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