Tuesday, January 28, 2014

History Whodunnits

By Jeff Burns

            Are you  a mystery buff?  There are few mystery writers who can imagine plots as complex and intriguing as real-life murder mysteries.  To paraphrase, Truth is always more interesting than fiction.  Here are four books you might enjoy.
            The Devil in the White City: A Saga of Magic and Murder at the Fair that Changed America by Erik Larson tells two great stories at once.  First, the Columbian Exposition of 1893 is brought to life, from conception to fruition.  It was a feat of architectural and design genius, and a triumph of civic boosterism that made Chicago into a first-tier city.  The other story is that of H.H. Holmes, sometimes called America’s first serial killer.  Holmes built a boardinghouse for visitors flocking to the world’s fair; unfortunately, it was really a human slaughterhouse.

            New York City in 1897 was the scene of a fierce battle between the two greatest titans ever to publish newspapers:  Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst.  Their newspapers regularly outdid each other with titillating headlines and stories of sex and murder.  One murder in particular seemed ready-made for the conflict.  Paul Collins’ The Murder of the Century: The Gilded Age Crime That Scandalized a City & Sparked the Tabloid Wars tells the story of the dismembered body and the love triangle that galvanized the city’s attention.

            Fast forward a few decades and half way around the world to China during the Japanese invasion and occupation and you find Midnight in Peking: How the Murder of a Young Englishwoman Haunted the Last Days of Old China by Paul French.  A British schoolgirl, the daughter of a diplomat is murdered in 1937.  Her father, a Chinese detective, and a British detective all lead investigations which reveal that she led a double life.  The book is a fascinating account of the foreign community in Peking, diplomats, businessmen, shady characters, Russians who fled the Bolshevik Revolution, among others, and how they and the Chinese dealt with the Japanese invasion. 

            Douglas Preston is a best-selling author (alone and with Preston Child) of numerous mysteries, usually with a supernatural bent.  However, in 2000, he found himself embroiled in a string of murders and attacks around Florence Italy, as a suspect.  In The Monster of Florence, he investigates the murders and details his involvement.

      Happy sleuthing!

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Viewing World War I through a German Officer's Photos

By Margaret Duncan, Ed.D.

I am a self-admitted Kickstarter addict but usually my addiction is limited to supporting various board games.  Lucky for me though I happened to see Dean Putney’s project that asked for support in getting his Great-Grandfather’s personal photo album printed.  His Great-Grandfather was Walter Koessler, a German officer in World War I.  Walter was a photographer and at a time when cameras were rare, spent time during the war taking pictures of his WWI experiences. Not only is it remarkable that Walter took these pictures, but that he recorded them in a photo album that was kept and passed down through his family for the last century makes it really special. 

Reading and looking through Walter’s album is very much like opening a window into a world that is very foreign to many Americans.  Most significant, Walter is a German and his album is from a perspective we seldom see or study in-depth in American classrooms.  Many of my students will rather watch Lost Battalion (American perspective) rather than All Quiet on the Western Front (German perspective) when we viewing a WWI movie. 
So, what does this large 11x17 coffee table book contain? It is Walter’s story and it is told through a thousand amazing and beautiful images, from life in the trenches to his photographic reconnaissance in an airplane.  Putney has faithfully recreated Walter’s entire photo album.  Each page contains photos that tell a story—early pages show young men having fun, later pages reveal the death and destruction that comes with war. 

This book is not a history book.  You will not learn new facts or be able to pass a test on WWI after reading the book.  Rather this book is about the images and the story they tell.  The idea that a picture is worth a thousand words came to mind when I read through the book.  I do not know Walter, any of his photo subjects but I am still fascinated by his photo album.  I wish more family stories related to the photos had been passed down and included in the book.  However, I am content with the photo album as is.  One of the series of images that fascinated me the most was of the St. Quentin Cathedral in France.  These photos show a city decimated with the outline of the Cathedral apparent.     

Perhaps one of the great appeals of Walter’s photo album is not just that it documents the experiences of a man on the opposing side, but that it simply exists.  In a world where folks are quick to take a selfie or use only their phone as a camera, I wonder how our descendants will be able to view our lives when we leave no printed photographic evidence.  Even I am guilty of this, I have thousands of pictures from birthdays and vacations that will never be printed.  Sadly, I have no photo albums or scrapbooks to pass down to my children.  Walter’s photo album is not just special because it’s of a time and place that we study, but it shows how amazing a photo album can be when passed from one generation to the next.

For anyone who loves history, I recommend taking a look at Walter Koessler: The Personal Photo Journal of a German Officer in World War I.

For more info about Walter Koessler:

Library of Congress World War I Images and Resources

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Jim Crow, the White House, and Burying a King

By Jeff Burns

            On this Martin Luther King Day weekend, I thought I’d recommend some very interesting books on the civil rights struggle that I’ve read in the last couple of years. 

After the Civil War, some blacks decided that they had to leave the South in order to exercise their newly won freedom.  Many of them moved to Kansas, where they built farms and all-black towns.  They called themselves Exodusters, in an allusion to the biblical Exodus, and Nell Irvin Painter documents their story in Exodusters: Black Migration to Kansas After Reconstruction.

Guest of Honor: Booker T. Washington, Theodore Roosevelt, and the White House Dinner
That Shocked a Nation by Deborah Davis tells the story of a seemingly innocuous event that caused a firestorm of controversy that threatened the administration of Theodore Roosevelt.  In 1901, TR invited Booker T. Washington to have dinner with his family in the White House.  It was the first time a black man had dined in the White House, and the ensuing hysteria almost destroyed both men.  The book does a great job of telling the story of the event and the two men with fascinating insights.

Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War IIby Douglas Blackmon brings to light the shameful practice used across the South for 100 years after the Civil War.  Black men were routinely arrested and convicted  on a wide range of charges, bogus charges in many cases.  When they were unable to pay their assessed fines or bails, they essentially became slaves of the jurisdiction, forced to work on city and county projects and even rented out to local businesses and farmers.  It’s a painful reminder that slavery did not end with the Civil War.

Do you ever wonder how “soul food” got to places like Chicago, Detroit, and Philadelphia?  After the Civil War, some blacks moved away from the South, but it was not until World War I that there any real numbers.  During World War I (and later in World War II), factories in northern cities desperately needed workers, and thousands of southern blacks moved North to take advantage of the opportunity.  The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson chronicles this huge demographic trend from 1915 to 1970.  The book reflects her exhaustive research and interviews with over a thousand people, but Wilkerson masterfully tells the story through the lives of three individuals involved.

Whenever I taught the history of the civil rights movement in the past, I always talked briefly about Thurgood Marshall, pretty much just mentioning him as the chief attorney for the NAACP who led the fight to segregate schools in the Brown vs Board of Education case and as the first black Supreme Court justice.  I didn’t really know much more myself.  Then I read Gilbert King’s Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America, and I learned much more about what a great America hero and courageous man he really was.  The book is about a horrific miscarriage of justice that occurred in Lake County Florida, the heart of citrus country,  in 1949 when four young black men were accused of raping a white girl.  Marshall organized and led their defense, at great risk to his own life.  As a result of reading the book, my respect for Marshall the man has increased tremendously, and I think he deserves much more recognition than he receives in civil rights history.

When MLK, Jr was assassinated in 1968, violence erupted in over one hundred cities across the country, but peace reigned in Atlanta, his hometown.  Rebecca Burns (no relation) wrote Burial for a King: Martin Luther King Jr.'s Funeral and the Week that Transformed Atlanta and Rocked the Nation about that trying week leading up to King’s funeral as Atlanta coped with overwhelming grief, despair, and tension as Atlanta became the focus of world attention and was saddled with the racist, segregationist Governor Lester Maddox, an active KKK member threatening violence, and the arrival of thousands and thousands of mourners including numerous national political figures and celebrities.  Burns tells the stories of numerous individuals who worked to keep the peace including the Atlanta Mayor Ivan Allen, who was a phenomenal leader during the time. 


Monday, January 6, 2014

The Westerns: Adventure and History in Books

By Jeff Burns

            In the mood for a story about the West?  Let me recommend a few good books that you may not have heard about.

First, the novels:  One Thousand White Women: The Journals of May Dodd and The Wild Girl: The Notebooks of Ned Giles, 1932, both by Jim Fergus.  They are both fictionalized accounts of journals written by very interesting people in unique settings.

            Imagine a secret treaty between the US and the Cheyenne nation in 1875.  The Cheyenne chief demands that, in order to expedite the assimilation of his people into a peaceful coexistence with whites, 1000 white women must be sent west to become wives of Cheyenne warriors.  The government rounds up prostitutes, criminals, and asylum patients, women who wouldn’t be missed by many.  One of the women selected is May Dodd, committed to an asylum by her parents because she has an “unnatural” sexual appetite.  (At the time, “unnatural” meant that a woman enjoyed sex, and some women were medically treated and even institutionalized for the malady.)  May tells her own story and the stories of several other women as they adjust, or not, to Cheyenne life, including a former slave who becomes a great warrior on her own.

            In The Wild Girl, a rancher’s young son is kidnapped by a small renegade band of Apaches.  A large expedition is mounted to rescue him.   Joining a motley crew of millionaire playboys, cowboys, and soldiers in this last great Indian “adventure” is a young photographer named Ned Giles who forms an unusual relationship with the wild girl of the title, a captured member of the Apache band used by the expedition to find the renegades and perhaps to be traded for the boy.
            One of my favorite John Wayne movies is “The Searchers,” in which the Duke is searching for his niece, stolen by the Comanches.  The movie was inspired by and loosely based on the real life story Cynthia Ann Parker, a girl stolen by Comanches.    The Comanches dominated a huge territory in the southern plains, terrorizing Anglos, Mexicans, and other Indians throughout Texas, Oklahoma and northern Mexico for many years.  Cynthia Parker’s son, Quannah Parker, became the most famous Comanche chief, leading at the height of the tribe’s power.  S.C. Gwynne chronicles this history in Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History.

            After reading Empire, I was led to read The Texas Rangers: Wearing the Cinco Peso, 1821-1900 by Mike Cox. The Texas Rangers were formed chiefly to fight the Comanches before becoming the chief law enforcers of the state.   (Wayne’s character in “The Searchers” is a Ranger.)  It took a particular kind of man to be a Texas Ranger, and Cox tells their story well in this very interesting book.
            We all know about the Trail of Tears, but how much do you know about the Long walk of the Navajo?  Blood and Thunder: The Epic Story of Kit Carson and the Conquest of the American West by Hampton Sides tells the story of Kit Carson’s brutal conquest of the powerful Navajo nation and their forced relocation to a barren reservation.
            If you’ve ever seen any photographs of Indians, you are probably familiar with the work of Edward Curtis, probably the most famous Indian photographer who desperately tried to capture the history of the Native Americans before they all disappeared in the early 20thcentury.  Timothy Egan wrote a fascinating biography of the man and account of his life’s work in Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher: The Epic Life and Immortal Photographs of Edward Curtis.
            Finally, here are two novelists that you can’t go wrong with:  Larry McMurtry, the author of Lonesome Dove, and Tony Hillerman, the author of the series of mysteries featuring Navajo policeman, Joe Leaphorn.

            So, saddle up and head west, Pilgrim!

Thursday, January 2, 2014

A Few Books about Antebellum Slavery

By Jeff Burns

            Few aspects of American history have generated as much discussion and debate as slavery.  While some continue to argue about its importance as a cause of the Civil War, there is no room to argue its huge shadow on the development of the United States.  From colonial times through the Civil War, there was almost nothing, politically, socially, or economically, unaffected by slavery, and its legacy goes even farther.

            Here are some books about slavery from various angles that might be new to you that you might want to consider reading.
            First is a novel by Isabella Allende based on the 1790s slave revolt in Saint- Domingue, now known as Haiti, and follows its main characters to early 1800s Louisiana.  It’s called Island Beneath the Sea.   Many people don’t realize that the overwhelming majority of Africans imported for slavery ended up in the Caribbean and Latin America;  some estimates hold that only 4-10% of Africans were brought  to British North America.  This novel does a great job of presenting a picture of both Caribbean slavery and the very complicated social structure that was built on skin color.

            The second book is called American Uprising: The Untold Story of America's Largest Slave Revolt by Daniel Rasmussen.  In 1811, 500 Louisiana slaves rose up and marched against numerous plantations, intending to capture New Orleans.  Amazingly, I’d never heard of it before reading the book.

            The Manor: Three Centuries at a Slave Plantation on Long Island by Mac Griswold features several unique perspectives all wrapped up in one book.  First, Griswold is a landscape historian who specializes in telling the story of the land.  Second, it’s the story of a plantation on Long Island, New York.  Many people don’t realize that slavery actually lasted longer in some northern parts of the US than some southern parts.  Slavery had only been
abolished in New York a generation before the Civil War.

            Black Masters: A Free Family of Color in the Old South by Michael P. Johnson and James L. Roark  illuminates another fact of slavery that shocks many Americans:  there were free black people in the South that owned other blacks as slaves.  This book specifically focuses on a few families in Charleston, South Carolina.

            Two recent books tell the stories of slaves belonging to Thomas Jefferson and James Madison,  Master of the Mountain: Thomas Jefferson and His Slaves by Henry Wiencek and A Slave in the White House: Paul Jennings and the Madisons by Elizabeth Dowling Taylor and Annette Gordon-Reed.  Both books have not only a lot to say about slavery, but also a lot about the two presidents in the  process.

            My last recommendation is another novel, Wench by Dolen Perkins-Valdez.  Wench  is  fiction based on another fact that few people , if any, are ever taught about slavery.  In the 1850s, there was apparently a resort of sorts in Ohio, just over the river from Kentucky, where it was not unusual for white masters to vacation with their slave mistresses.  Perkins-Valdez creates and tells the stories of 4 of these women.