Tag Archives: History

Going Backstage to Meet Our American Cousin

I select all of my husband’s reading material.

He’s perfectly capable of choosing a book by himself, of course. It’s just that I happen to work at a library. And after being together for 25 years, I’ve gotten incredibly good at knowing what his preferences are … um … between the covers.

In the bookish sense, that is.


Backstage at the Lincoln AssassinationOne of the books that I brought home recently for the husband’s consideration was Backstage at the Lincoln Assassination: The Untold Story of the Actors and Stagehands at Ford’s Theatre, by Thomas A. Bogar.  Which prompted my beloved to ask me – in the course of his reading and during what passes for two-plus-decades old marital conversation fodder these days  – about some ancestors who are buried in Laurel Hill Cemetery, a well-known Philadelphia resting place steeped in history.

“Your Hess relatives are there,” I answered, mentally dusting off some genealogical research I’d conducted years ago.

“Huh. Well. You won’t believe this and I’m not 100% sure, but I think two of them might have been at Ford’s Theatre the night Lincoln was shot.”

“Please don’t tell me we’re related to John Wilkes Booth, for God’s sake,” I said. “We have enough problems.”

Now, everyone knows all about the main characters who had a starring role in the first-ever presidential assassination, which occurred exactly 150 years ago. We know about the President and Mary Todd Lincoln and the infamous John Wilkes Booth. We’ve heard of Ford’s Theatre, and some of us might even know that the play being performed that fateful night was Our American Cousin. 

But there haven’t been many accolades for the people who were actually onstage and those assisting with the production itself.

Until now.

In Backstage at the Lincoln Assassination, theater historian and author Thomas A. Bogar tells his reader about the 46 actors, managers and stagehands who found themselves in the spotlight during one of history’s defining moments.

And among them? Courtland V. Hess, a 25-year-old singer and actor from Philadelphia who was not feeling well on that ill-fated evening and who was scheduled to play the role of Lieutenant Vernon in Our American Cousin.  Also at the play was William Heiss, who was at the performance to see his brother Courtland (who had, apparently, thought it prudent to drop the pesky family “i” on his quest for fame and glory). William Heiss was somewhat of a Big Deal with the telegraph service; it seems that he was involved with the decision to shut down the commercial telegraphs immediately following Lincoln being shot.

(My husband, who earned a masters degree in American history, is physically cringing that I am writing this post from his memory and without double-checking the actual source for myself. I get that, but, well … Backstage at the Lincoln Assassination is, as of this writing, currently checked out of the library. To keep a modicum of nerdy peace in the family, my husband is making me promise you – and especially Mr. Bogar – that I’ll go back and make sure I know what the hell I’m talking about.)

Regardless, this intriguing tidbit of information – along with my putzing around on the Internet and my previous findings while climbing our family tree – is more than enough to pique my curiosity about our family’s potential connection to the Lincoln assassination.

There is the small matter of the differing last names. If all of our relatives spelled their name as Hess while this side of the family originally went by Heiss and if Courtland remained a bachelor … then there’s probably not much to go on.  But it’s definitely worth looking into, especially since our library has quite an extensive genealogical collection focusing on Pennsylvania history.

It’ll be interesting to see if these folks really are our American cousins.


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Book Review: Next to Love, by Ellen Feldman

Next to LoveNext to Love, by Ellen Feldman
Spiegel and Grau
304 pages 
Read by Abby Craden
11 hours, 23 minutes

Next to Love by Ellen Feldman is a historical fiction novel set during World War II and the decades afterwards. It follows the lives of Babe and Claude, Millie and Pete, and Grace and Charlie – all close friends living in Massachusetts. When the men are sent overseas, leaving the wives behind, all of their lives are changed.

At first the plot sounds like any other wartime novel, but after a slightly slow beginning, this picks up steam. What I liked about this was Ms. Feldman’s focus on the women. Certainly, the men and their sacrifices as soldiers and veterans are an absolutely essential part of the novel, but it gives equal time to the women and their struggles.

(It made me think of my grandparents’ own missing years (see this post), and of my grandmother writing to my grandfather about going into town with her sisters, and with news about who was coming home from the war.)

Next to Love gives the reader a glimpse into an era that is quickly being forgotten, with approximately 550 World War II veterans dying each day. At times, it almost seems as if Ms. Feldman is packing too much cultural and societal change into this – but it was truly a time when so much was changing.  A lot of issues are explored here, many of which (post-traumatic stress disorder in veterans, racial relations, early widowhood, rape – just to name a few) still carry stigmas today.

In interviews, author Ellen Feldman mentions the influence of the Bedford Boys in this novel. From Amazon.com:

Q: In your acknowledgments you give partial credit for your inspiration to the Bedford Boys of Virginia. Who are the Bedford Boys?

A: The Bedford Boys were a group of young men from the town of Bedford, Virginia (population 3200), who joined the National Guard before World War II. They went through training together, shipped out to England together in September 1942, and were among the first American G.I.’s who landed on Omaha Beach on D-Day, June 6, 1944. Nineteen of them died in the first minutes of the landing, twenty-two in the invasion. Six weeks later, on July 16, the Western Union teletype machine at Green’s Drug Store in Bedford began rattling out the messages from the War Department. It was said that no other community in America lost more of its young men in a single day. Revisionist history now suggests that the casualties came not from the town, but from the county of Bedford. Geography is beside the point. Whether to town or county, the loss was staggering, the ripples from it heartbreaking and enduring.

Though the Bedford Boys were part of the inspiration for Next to Love, I was careful not to research the lives of the actual young men from Bedford who served in World War II. I wanted to write a novel about love and loss, and the scars they leave rather than an account of those particular men and the loved ones they left behind.

Ellen Feldman, a 2009 Guggenheim Fellow, is an excellent historical fiction author who is becoming one of my favorites. (On my Kindle – thanks to NetGalley – is her new novel, The Unwitting, which was published earlier this month.) Several years ago my aunt lent me Lucy, Ellen Feldman’s historical fiction novel about the relationship between Franklin Roosevelt and Lucy Mercer, and I loved it (and now my aunt knows where the book is, because I never returned it to her). I requested Next to Love from NetGalley and wound up listening to it on audio, which I enjoyed. The production and Abby Craden’s narration are both excellent. 

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The Sunday Salon: Unplanned Reading

The Sunday Salon

As a reading year, 2014 is off to a different than anticipated start. Like many book bloggers, I tend to give much thought to the beginning and end of year insofar as books are concerned. I like the idea of my first book of the year being a significant one – a book that propels you toward a goal or one that provides inspiration to break a habit or start a new one.

I mulled and contemplated what my first book of 2014 was going to be. Maybe a writing book. Maybe a memoir. Maybe, as has been my tradition for the last few years, some poetry.

And then … I was stuck. Maybe it was the result of too many choices. I told myself to stop overthinking and just read a book already. Any book. Seriously, several days – almost a week into 2014 and there I was – still bookless because I was holding out for the perfect book when I had piles on my nightstand, more than 1,100 on my Kindle, and hundreds in my house. How ridiculous. And what if the first book wasn’t the perfect book to begin 2014 or one I had been planning to read? Who cares?  

I needed a new audiobook for my work commute, and as it turned out, that became the first book I read in 2014.

Next to LoveNext to Love by Ellen Feldman is a historical fiction novel set during World War II and the decades afterwards. It follows the lives of Babe and Claude, Millie and Pete, and Grace and Charlie – all close friends living in Massachusetts. When the men are sent overseas, leaving the women behind, all of their lives are changed. It sounds predictable, like any other wartime novel, but this is very well done. I enjoyed Ms. Feldman’s writing – she laser-focuses her words on the women and the societal and cultural changes of the times. As an audiobook, Abby Craden’s narration is excellent.

(I previously read and loved Ellen Feldman’s 2004 historical novel Lucy, about Franklin D. Roosevelt’s affair with Lucy Mercer, which is why Next to Love was of interest.)

Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted

This week I listened to Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted: And All the Brilliant Minds That Made The Mary Tyler Moore Show a Classic by Jennifer Keishin Armstrong. When “MTM” premiered in 1970, I was not quite 2 years old – not exactly the target audience. Rather, I watched it during its resurgence on Nick at Nite in 1992, when I could appreciate it much better.

It helps to have some knowledge of and appreciation of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” when reading this book, but this isn’t your usual television/celebrity retrospective. Sure, there’s a decent amount about the actors, which was interesting. But this is mostly about the women who wrote for the show and why that was so groundbreaking and how that shaped the issues portrayed on the show – as well as those on future shows produced by MTM Enterprises. (Some reviews suggest that this should be called “Jim and Treva and Allan and Susan.”)

This was entertaining, and the audio proved to be a good choice. I enjoyed this for the inside stories and especially the focus and perspective on the writers.

I’ve also been catching up on some back issues of The New Yorker and Creative Nonfiction, both of which we get at the library. This week I read the November 4 issue of The New Yorker, and the Winter 2013 issue of CNF.

Hope your Sunday – and your 2014 – are going well!


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Book Review: Between Shades of Gray, by Ruta Sepetys

Between Shades of Gray
by Ruta Sepetys 
Philomel Books, a division of Penguin Young Readers Group
344 pages

“How could we stand up for ourselves if everyone cowered in fear and refused to speak? 
I had to speak.”  (pg. 55) 

I am almost at a loss for words after reading this, Ruta Sepetys’ debut novel.

(Which is another matter altogether. This is the work of someone who has been writing for a long, long time. Or, perhaps, someone who has carried a certain story for a long, long time.)

Between Shades of Gray is, indeed, just that: a story that doesn’t lose you. It haunts you because of the shattering losses (of childhood, of innocence, of family and of country) that are described within these pages. Going into it, you know that many of the events actually occurred but – as the back jacket flap states – this is a story seldom told.

This is the story of Josef Stalin’s reign of terror through genocide in the Baltic states during World War II and how hundreds of thousands of people were deported from Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, only to be sent to Siberia. There, they were sentenced to years of torture in hard labor camps. Among them were women and young children, including members of Ruta Sepetys’ family. (She is the daughter of a Lithuanian refugee.)

The prose in Between Shades of Gray is simple and spare – yet stark and searing. It’s written from the perspective of Lina Vilkas, who is 15 years old and an aspiring, talented artist when she is deported by the Soviets to the barren lands of Siberia and the actual honest-to-God real North Pole of the frigid Arctic Circle with her mother and younger brother. Even while captive, Lina courageously finds a way to honor her missing father and to give voice to the unimaginable suffering through her drawings.

Sepetys chooses to tell this story in a novel that reads almost memoir-like. That’s a reflection on the extensive interviews and research that Sepetys conducted for the novel; many of the incidents that occur in the book actually occurred. Knowing this, it is astonishing that anyone in the camps actually survived (I gasped at the ending, when it was revealed how long Lina and her family were imprisoned.)

As future generations become more removed from World War II, names like Stalin will become just that – just names. We will forget, and the stories will become detached to their names. We can’t forget that there were real people and real lives that simply disappeared when Stalin eradicated entire countries (Lithuania, Lativa, and Estonia) from the map from 1941 until 1990.

Between Shades of Gray
has been described as an  important book – and it truly is. It’s a young adult novel, but that seems almost a mis-characterization. It’s more historical fiction, really, but with that crossover appeal that makes it on par with The Diary of Anne Frank for its historical significance, perhaps even moreso. For as much as we know about the Holocaust and as important as it is for future generations to continue to learn about it, the ethnic cleansing that occurred in the Baltics is just as much a pivotal, important event in history that most people don’t know much about.

“It was hard to imagine that war raged somewhere in Europe. We had a war of our own, waiting for the NKVD to choose the next victim, to throw us in the next hole. They enjoyed hitting and kicking us in the fields. One morning, they caught an old man eating a beet. A guard ripped out his front teeth with pliers. They made us watch ….

My art teacher had said if you breathed deeply and imagined something, you could be there. You could see it, feel it. During our standoffs with the NKVD, I learned to do that. I clung to my rusted dreams during the times of silence. It was at gunpoint that I fell into every hope and allowed myself to wish from the deepest part of my heart. Komorov thought he was torturing us. But we were escaping into a stillness within ourselves. We found strength there.” (pg. 163-164) 

This is not an easy book to read but, as I said, it’s an incredibly important one. And, ultimately, a hopeful one, too.


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Book Review: The Virgin Cure, by Ami McKay

The Virgin CureThe Virgin Cure
by Ami McKay
319 pages

If you decide to read The Virgin Cure (and this review is going to try its damnedest to convince you that you absolutely must), make sure you don’t skip the Author’s Note at the end. That’s because Ami McKay’s concluding commentary is just as important – and just as haunting – as her sophomore novel itself.

There she writes that “in 1870, over thirty thousand children lived on the streets of New York City and many more wandered in and out of the cellars and tenements as their families struggled to scrape together enough income to put food on the table.” (pg. 317)

Let that sink in a moment.

Thirty thousand children. Living on the streets.

The Virgin Cure takes its title from a myth – and a very real fate that befell many young girls of this time.

“Sold into prostitution at a young age, many girls from poor families were brokered by madams (or even their own parents) as “fresh maids.” Men paid the highest price for girls who had been “certified” as virgins. At this time in New York, syphilis was an overwhelming, widespread puzzle of a disease with no remedy….An even greater tragedy than the human wreckage resulting from this disease was a deadly myth that preyed upon young girls. The myth of “the virgin cure” – the belief that a man with syphilis could “cleanse his blood” by deflowering a virgin – was without social borders and was acted out in every socioeconomic class in some form or another. In fact, the more money a man had, the easier it would have been for him to procure a young girl for this unthinkable act.” (pg. 318)

I had no idea.

A lot of people don’t, which makes this historical novel such an important one. Although Ami McKay’s main character of Moth, just 12 years old, is fictional, she represents a part of our history that should not and cannot be forgotten. She has awoken in me an interest to read and learn more about this time.

When we first meet Moth (named thus because of a whispered word that her long-gone father supposedly heard from a pear tree), her destitute and fortune-telling mother has arranged for her to be sold as a maid to the wealthy Mrs. Wentworth. Whether Moth’s mother truly believed she was giving her daughter a better life or whether she knew the hardships she would encounter is irrelevant; Moth soon becomes one of the many street urchins in the Bowery section of New York City,

Despite her hardships, Moth never forgets her mother nor gives up loving her, even when almost every other person in her life gives up on her or assigns the 12-year-old to an unimaginable fate.

“Sometimes, for a moment, everything is just as you need it to be. The memories of such moments live in the heart, waiting for the time you need to think on them, if only to remind yourself that for a short while, everything had been fine and might be so again. I didn’t have many memories like that ….” (pg. 222-223)

You know Moth is going to succumb to the temptation of prostitution because the rewards and comforts of that life are just too great. (Even if the jacket copy didn’t give away that particular plot twist, the reader easily sees that coming, despite longing to step inside the pages and prevent the inevitable from happening.)

What isn’t expected (among a few twists that Ms. McKay expertly gives us) is the kindness shown to Moth by Dr. Sadie, a female physician (a rarity in the 1870s!) who cares for the girls living at Miss Everett’s “boarding house.”  And this is also where the Author’s Note section becomes especially powerful, as Ms. McKay shares that Dr. Sadie is inspired by a real person – in this case, Ami McKay’s own great-great grandmother Sarah Fonda Mackintosh, who studied under Drs. Elizabeth and Emily Blackwell.

I absolutely loved this aspect – and really, every single aspect – of The Virgin Cure. I was fascinated that a Dr. Sadie actually existed, and her courage left me breathless. If I have any criticism of this novel (and this may be the only one, and it’s minor), it is that I wanted to know a little more about Dr. Sadie.

Through her precise writing, command of what must have been countless research, and evocations of emotions on every page, Ami McKay immerses her reader in every aspect of life in 1870s New York, bringing such a depressing, politically corrupt, and overall difficult time period to vivid life. She does this by including ephemera from that era alongside the narrative. Lyrics, poetry, letters, descriptions of clothing, author’s notes, and more provide more of a vivid picture (if that’s possible) of the timeframe and hardships.

I loved this additional information. As it was, I was right there in the Bowery with Moth slurping oyster stew, and with her lacing up Mrs. Wentworth’s corset, and in the hall as she was kissed. My heart broke several times in this book, over and over again. (If you have a tween-age daughter or love a girl who is that age, know that there will be parts of this that will be absolutely heart wrenching to read.)

But it is for those very reasons that I cannot emphasize how important a book The Virgin Cure is. And like much of life itself, then and as well as now, the heartbreaking parts are also what gives this novel its unparalleled beauty.

5 stars
Highly recommended read (a new designation that I am giving to those books that are truly exceptional for one reason or another and that I find myself recommending to others repeatedly)

TLC Tour HostI was thrilled to receive a copy of The Virgin Cure from the publisher, via TLC Book Tours. I did not receive any compensation in exchange for my honest review. As always, my thanks to TLC Book Tours for inviting me to participate in this tour.

Click here to see the other bloggers participating on the tour and what they thought of The Virgin Cure. 

Connect with Ami McKay through her website, Facebook pageTwitter account, and Pinterest board.


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The Sunday Salon: In Which I Ask My History Expert Husband to Recommend Some Good Books for Your 4th of July Reading

The Sunday Salon

Me, to The Husband: “I thought I’d write a blog post on good books to read for the 4th of July. Any suggestions?”

The Husband: “Huh?”

Me: “Well, I know there’s the David McCullough books that you like. And the Joseph Ellis one you just got from the library. Other than them, what would you recommend?”

The Husband: “Those two.”

(This is probably a good time to mention that The Husband happens to have an advanced degree or two in the American Presidency and that the majority of what he reads in his leisure hours are presidential biographies and the like. So, it makes sense that he would be my go-to-source on this topic.)

Me: “I need more suggestions.”

The Husband: “This is ridiculous. Like anyone is going to read an entire book in one day.”

Me, rolling eyes in exasperation: “You don’t GET IT. It’s to INSPIRE my blog readers. Maybe they’ll want to read something patriotic for the 4th and, you know, into the next week.”

I click onto his Shelfari page and annoyingly start rattling off titles.

“How ’bout this? Or this one? Oh, and yeah! Remember when I got you this from that little library when we lived in the townhouse in 1994? Did you like it? Would my blog readers like it?”

Hammering out the Constitution wasn’t this damn difficult, people.

I’m pleased to say we have a final document, people, just in case the upcoming 4th of July holiday gives you a hankering to read up on your American history.

The Husband tends to enjoy works by Joseph J. Ellis, particularly First Family: Abigail and John Adams; Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation; and American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson; and His Excellency. (He has Revolutionary Summer out from the library now.) 

Pittsburgh native son David McCullough (who will be honored next week with a bridge named after him, accompanied by a lecture that The Husband will be attending) is an amazing historian. For our purposes today, The Husband recommends David McCullough’s 1776 and John Adams.

Jon Meacham”s Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power and American Lion are also excellent reading choices for the Fourth of July.

The Husband also suggests:

Duel: Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr, and The Future of America, by Thomas J. Fleming

Fallen Founder: The Life of Aaron Burr, by Nancy Isenberg

The Radicalism of the American Revolution, by Gordon S. Wood

Go forth and read!

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Welcome to the Future

I don’t pretend to know all that happened with the Supremes and The Voting Rights Act today.
This is not the go-to blog for your sound-bite legal analysis in that regard, kids. I confess, this is a little over my head.
But I hear Voting Rights and I think Dabney Montgomery.
I think of his words, the ones he shared with our Unitarian Universalist congregation in Delaware, back on February 14, 2010.
I read them again today.

So then. An encore post from February 16, 2010.

Living History (or, Spending Valentine’s Day in the Presence of Greatness)

Dabney Montgomery and Henry L. Smith,
two former Tuskegee Airmen who I met on Valentine’s Day morning

“And I stood in the corner and thought, how can I change this situation peacefully? And that thought stayed in the back of my mind for many a month and year.”

~ Dabney Montgomery, Tuskegee Airman and bodyguard of Martin Luther King Jr., 2/14/2010

Walking into church on Sunday morning, Valentine’s Day, was like taking a walk back in time.

A walk alongside Martin Luther King Jr., en route from Selma to Montgomery.

A walk along the tarmac with the Tuskegee Airmen.

I knew that this particular service, commemorating Black History Month, was on the schedule, but I had forgotten that it was planned for Valentine’s Day.

And so it was that I found myself in the presence of greatness.

Dabney Montgomery, a Tuskegee Airman and former bodyguard of Martin Luther King Jr.’s, was the guest speaker on Sunday at our Unitarian Universalist congregation. Of the 5,000 Tuskegee Airmen, there are only 280 still alive.

“And you have two of them with you today,” he said, indicating himself and nodding to Henry L. Smith, seated in the audience.

We listened, a rapt audience of nearly 200, as Dabney Montgomery told us about a time where people believed African Americans were incapable of flying a plane.

When people believed they could not be taught such skills, because they believed that the arteries in their brains were shorter than in other people’s brains.

We walked with Dabney Montgomery down the tarmac, as he recalled Mrs. Roosevelt (“you remember Mrs. Roosevelt, don’t you?”) demanding to be flown by an African American pilot.

He received an honorable discharge from the Army in 1945, and upon returning home to his hometown of Selma, Alabama, he only had one thing on his mind.

Registering to vote.

We walked with Dabney Montgomery as he went to register to vote, and was told to go around back and enter through the back entrance, as he was handed three separate applications to vote. The applications needed to be filled out by three separate white men who could vouch for his character.

“Not only was I black,” Mr. Montgomery said by way of explanation, but I “didn’t have enough money in the bank [to vote], didn’t have a house.”

“And I stood in the corner and thought, ‘how I can change this situation peacefully?’ And that thought stayed in the back of my mind for many a month and a year,” he said.

Dabney Montgomery volunteered to be one of Martin Luther King’s bodyguards on the historic Selma to Montgomery March in 1965.

We felt the spit from onlookers as the marchers walked by.

“After the march, I took the soles off the shoes I wore,” Dabney Montgomery explained. “You can see them for yourself in the back, there.”

Several months after that march, The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was signed.

We walked back into the room with Dabney Montgomery as he registered to vote.

“And this time, there was a black woman behind the desk,” he laughed.

And then he turned serious again.

Whatever the situation is, “it can be changed through nonviolence, but you must stand and never give in. Don’t compromise. [We need] nonviolence not only in the schools, but in the home,” he said, referencing recent bullying attacks and the shooting by a professor in Alabama.

“Nonviolence is a must if we are to survive,” Dabney Montgomery concluded.

We’ll walk hand in hand someday …” we sang, as the closing hymn, and as we joined hands and I reached for the African-American man’s hand next to me, I couldn’t hold back the tears any longer. (I hate crying in public, but in this case, I wasn’t alone.)

Afterward, I was chatting with people I hadn’t seen in months as my 8 year old daughter Betty rushed through the door.

“Look, Mommy, they have cake!” she exclaimed, pointing to the refreshments.

“We can have cake,” I said, “But first, there’s somebody who I want you to meet.”

I told Betty that I wanted her to shake this man’s hand and thank him for his service to our country. That she would understand why when she was older.

We approached the throng of people surrounding Dabney Montgomery, taking photos with him as if he was a movie star. He welcomed all of this, even basked in the attention.

What does one say to such a hero? I thought.

“Your words were so inspiring,” I said. “Thank you for your service to our country. It is a real pleasure and honor to meet you.”

“Thank you,” Mr. Montgomery replied. A former ballet student, he bent down and shook Betty’s outstretched hand. And then, we all ate cake.

I went to church on Sunday seeking a spiritual boost.

But what I got was so much more.

“Hey, so many things I never thought I’d see
Happening right in front of me
I had a friend in school
Running back on a football team
They burned a cross in his front yard
For asking out the home coming queen
I thought about him today
And everybody who’s seen what he’s seen
From a woman on a bus
To a man with a dream
Hey, wake up Martin Luther
Welcome to the future
Hey, glory, glory, hallelujah
Welcome to the future …”
“Welcome to the Future” ~ Brad Paisley
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