Thursday, November 6, 2014

Four Daughters

By Jeff Burns

There seems to be a whole sub-genre of historical fiction out there that tells stories from the point of view of daughters, characters who can be both observers and participants in the action and historical events around them.  Here are some recommend options if you’d like to explore.

German author Oliver Potszch has written a series of novels that follow a Bavarian family in the 17th century, starting with The Hangman’s Daughter.  He embarked on writing the series after discovering that his own family, the Kuisls,  were renowned Bavarian executions.  Not only was execution a family business passed down from generation to generation, but the job involved much more than simply execution.  Executioners and their families were an ostracized, but important, element of society at the time.  They not only carried out executions, but many other punishments in those days when prison was not an option, and criminal offenders were tortured, flogged, and mutilated.  As part of their profession, executioners also were practiced in the art of healing and even a little alchemy.  The titular hangman is a veteran of the Thirty Years War that devastated the German states and has his own demons as a result.  He and his daughter, meanwhile find themselves involved in a series of murders that cause them to run afoul of civic and church officials.  While the hangman is the main character, his headstrong and challenging daughter always takes an active role in the investigations.  The books are exciting, fun to read mysteries, and their packed with historic detail.  I love the fact that the author always includes thorough notes in which he talks about the actual locations, events and people that inspired his work.  Subsequent titles include:  The Dark Monk, The Poisoned Pilgrim, and The Beggar King.

Linda Lafferty writes another 17th century tale, this time set in Bohemia, called The Bloodletter’s Daughter.  The title character also comes from a station in life deemed necessary but unseemly, and relegated to the lowest ranks of society.  Her father is not only the town bloodletter, the closest most people got to a trained physician in those days, but he also operated the town bathhouse.  Marketa, the daughter, finds herself the object of the deranged passion of a Hapsburg prince.  Another great murder mystery and thriller based on real life royal figures and a scandal that nearly toppled the dynasty.

From American history, there’s The Heretic’s Daughter by Kathleen Kent.  It is the story of the Salem Witch Trials, told from the point of view of sarah, the daughter of Martha Carrier, one of the first women to be accused and executed for witchcraft.  Kent herself is a 10th generation descendent of Martha Carrier.  It’s a detailed and complex tale of Puritan New England and the of the hysteria that accompanied the trials that led to hundreds of people being jailed and twenty being executed .  There’s one error in the book that got me, Giles Corey, the man pressed to death for refusing to confess, is called Miles, at least in the Kindle edition of the book. 

Moving into the nonfiction realm, there’s Galileo’s Daughter, by  Dava Sobel.  Ostensibly, a biography of Galileo’ daughter, whom he sequestered in  a cloistered nunnery , the book is really a great biography of Galileo, called by Albert Einstein the “father of modern science.”  Sister Maria Celeste’s life, and that of her father, is presented through 124 letters written to her father, in which they touch on a multitude of subjects, including the cloistered life, the Black Death,  his experiments, and of course his persecution by the Catholic Church for heresy. 

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

A Sampling of Wild West Classics in Comics

By Margaret Duncan, Ed.D.

I fully admit I am an adult that still gets excited to go into a comic book shop.  I am also a parent who has used children’s books, as well as comics to introduce reading to my girls. I have also used comics in my classroom to help get students more excited about a certain time period.  Classics Illustrated was a series of comics that ran for thirty years (1941-1971) and would adapt well known novels into comic book form.  Think of it as an earlier version of CliffNotes with pictures for students.  Many of the Classics Illustrated comics hold up well, they were beautifully adapted and illustrated.  For my girls, they enjoy the comics as much, and in some cases more than the original book. So, let us take a trip down memory lane with some classic western adapted novels from Samuel Clemens, James Fenimore Cooper, Francis Parkman, and Owen Wister.

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (No. 50), by Samuel L. Clemens 
This Classics Illustrated Comic is about a young boy, Tom Sawyer, growing up along the Mississippi River. The story is set in the fictional town of St. Petersburg but was inspired by Hannibal, Missouri, where Clemens/Twain had lived. The story is about Tom, an orphan who lives with his Aunt Polly and his half-brother Sid, and his adventures with his friends Becky Thatcher, Huckleberry Finn, and Joe Harper.  Also included in the comic is a biography on Clemens, better known as Mark Twain. As well as a story Bulldog Courage, a biography of George Westinghouse and an overview of the opera, Madame Butterfly by Giacomo Puccini. 

The Prairie (No. 58), by James Fenimore Cooper
Although The Last of the Mohicans is Cooper’s most famous novel, The Prairie is the third novel written by Cooper featuring Natty Bumppo. However, the fictitious frontier hero Bumppo is never called by his name, but instead referred to as "the trapper" or "the old man."  It depicts Bumppo in the final year of his life and he continues to be helpful to people in distress on the American frontier. Also included in the comic is a biography of James Fenimore Cooper, considered by many to be the first great American novelist.  There is also a biography of Hippocrates, the father of Medicine, and a dog hero story, Tunney, the Champ.

The Oregon Trail (No. 72), by Francis Parkman
The Oregon Trail is a first-person account of the two month summer tour in 1846 of the U.S. states of Nebraska, Wyoming, Colorado, and Kansas.  The book covers the three weeks Parkman spent hunting buffalo with a band of Oglala Sioux. The book is dated in its portrayal of Native Americans and the title is misleading, the book only covers the first third of the trail.  Also included in the comic is a biography of Francis Parkman, who many consider to be an authoritative source of early American Western history. There is also a biography on Edward Livingstone Trudeau, the isolator of the tuberculosis germ, a story about the famous opera, La Boheme by Giacomo Puccini, and a dog hero story about Duke, the Seeing Eye Cop.

Buffalo Bill (No. 106), no author given
According to the comic tease, this is one of the greatest adventure stories of all time.  It is the story of the American West and the men who conquered it, including one of the most celebrated, William Cody, better known as Buffalo Bill.  Also included is the biography of William Quantrill, part of the Bad Men of the West series, a biography of Henry Clay, the Great Compromiser, and a story of Early America, Wreck Ashore!.

The Virginian (No. 150), by Owen Wister
The Virginian is a novel set in the Wild West and describes the life of a cowboy at the Sunk Creek Ranch in Medicine Bow, Wyoming.  The Virginian’s real name is never given.  The Virginian does have an ongoing romance with the newly appointed schoolmarm, Miss Molly Stark Wood.  Also included is a biography of Owen Wister. Also there is a story about the person Wister dedicated The Virginian to, Theodore Roosevelt, T.R. and the Thieves, and a story about the Capture of Geronimo.

One thing I really like about Classics Illustrated is that each contains a bio on the author.  It is really nice that the reader can read the novel in comic/graphic form and then learn all about the person who wrote it.  Another great thing is that each story also ends with the same challenge: “Now that you have read the Classics Illustrated edition, don’t miss the added enjoyment of reading the original, obtainable at your school or public library.”

These are just a few American West classics, what novel would you like to read as a comic book?