Category Archives: historical

Reading: To Hell and Back by Charles Pellegrino

6th August 2015

tohellandback*I requested this book from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Today marks the type of anniversary some will celebrate and others will denigrate. Exactly 70 years ago today, the United States, in what some say was an effort to end the war and others claim was a way to justify the expense of scientific research, dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima in Japan.

My Pacific War reading inevitably led me here, but I knew I should not read anything regarding the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki without gaining a much broader understanding of what led humanity to this moment. Flyboys by James Bradley gave me a look at Japan’s history and rise as a military power as well as the cruelty of the Japanese military to American pilots. The Girls of Atomic City by Denise Kiernan gave me an insider’s view of the making of the bombs as well as the American ignorance of such raw power.

By the time I made it to Charles Pellegrino’s To Hell and Back: The Last Train from Hiroshima, I thought I was ready. He opens his book with this line: “Had Mary Shelley or Edgar Allan Poe been born into the mid-twentieth century, they would never have had to invent horror.”

And then it begins. Pellegrino starts at the epicenter in Hiroshima, mixing science with humanity, breaking down what the bomb did to the humans below it as well as who those humans were and what they were likely doing, based on routine and the flash prints left behind where once men, women, and children stood.

He weaves survivor memory and testimony, illustrating the immediate chaos of the bomb’s aftermath, describing the teacher whose face would be marked from the flash of the bomb, as a student held up her calligraphy on rice paper, creating the only barrier between her and the pika-don, or “flash-boom” as the Japanese termed it.

The first 50 pages of this book resulted in me gasping aloud again and again, shocked at the apocalyptic world it described and bookmarking information I’d never come across before and wanted to come back to.

First published in 2010, Pellegrino’s book was recalled by the publisher when the New York Times uncovered false information – the book set forth, in part, that an American was killed and others irradiated, based on the testimony of a man who apparently lied about his involvement in the entire affair.

This publication, by Rowman & Littlefield, has no such testimony, and names and situations Pellegrino discusses have popped up in multiple books I’ve read on the topic.

All this to say, the book is not only compelling but a reliable and fascinating account of the survivors not just of Hiroshima, but of the men and women deemed “double survivors,” those who left Hiroshima in time for the bombing in Nagasaki.

Pellegrino gives voice to their suffering, their sorrow, and their spirit of survival in what is, for me, required reading on the subject.

Add it to your Goodreads list.

What Is the Fourth of July?

2nd July 2015

Teaching American Literature has, in some ways, shown me how deeply patriotic I can be. In years past, I’ve touched on some of the reasons why. There are moments, in teaching my class, that I have to pause because the utter beauty of our nation’s hopes and ideals is so touching. Yet my consistent, analytical look at the important writings of our country also deeply saddens me, as I watch the ways in which previous generations and my own generation use them to their/our own ends.

The reality in our country right now is that many, many people glance briefly at words that we’ve fought over since our country’s inception (see my friend Ryan’s great post at The Signal Watch for a great look) and use them to oppress others and to justify injustice.

This Independence Day, while I will of course still be floating in a pool and drinking various frozen drinks and taking breaks for all-American foods like barbecue and apple pie (I’m only human, and Texas is hot), I’m also conflicted. In recent years, after too many incidents to count, of injustice and hate against our African-American citizens, we take blatant racism and still try to turn it away. We perpetuate violence against this community and then expect them not to react or to react only in ways which we decree acceptable, when, as Anne Braden, activist, said, “The battle is and always has been a battle for the hearts and minds of White people in this country. The fight against racism is our issue. It’s not something that we’re called on to help People of Color with. We need to become involved with it as if our lives depended on it because really, in truth, they do.

On July 5, 1852, a man named Frederick Douglass stepped in front of an audience and spoke these words in his much-anthologized speech, later published in pamphlets as “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July”, and in doing so validated Braden’s idea nearly a century before by asking:

Fellow Citizens – Pardon me, and allow me to ask, why am I called upon to speak here to-day? What have I, or those I represent, to do with your national independence? Are the great principles of political freedom and of natural justice, embodied in that Declaration of Independence, extended to us? and am I, therefore, called upon to bring our humble offering to the national altar, and to confess the benefits, and express devout gratitude for the blessing, resulting from your independence to us?

and later:

I am not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary! Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessing in which you this day rejoice, are not enjoyed in common. The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity, and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not me…This Fourth of July is yours, not mine.

and last:

What to the American slave is your Fourth of July? I answer, a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciations of tyrants, brass-fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade and solemnity, are to him mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy – a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody, than are the people of these United States, at this very hour.

I love this country of mine dearly. I’m proud, for so many reasons, to be an American, but I’m not inured to the racial injustices either. In a year when race-based violence has exploded, when a man can walk into a church and tell men and women he is there to kill them based on their race, when black churches receive threats and then burn to the ground, and we still deny race as an issue, we are ensuring that a vast majority of our population is still excluded from our celebration of liberty. When we value and fight tooth and nail to fly a flag that flew in our nation’s darkest hours instead of mourning for lives lost? We guarantee that we will remain segregated and fearful of one another.

I say all of this, not knowing what the answer is, not knowing how to help. But I say it because it must be acknowledged. Because to not acknowledge it is to be a silent supporter of the institutionalized racism so many of us fail or refuse to see.

Happy Independence Day. My hope is that we can come to love America and its ideals enough to tear away that thin veil and recognize our crimes, to realize that no nation is perfect, that our forefathers were conflicted, imperfect men as well, and that each generation makes a choice to fully embrace the love of freedom our country has come to signify.

As Douglass also points out, “Would you have me argue that man is entitled to liberty? that he is the rightful owner of his own body? You have already declared it.”


Further reading:

  • From 1995’s “America’s Long History of Black Churches Burning” – “It is worth observing that the absence of any organized conspiracy may make the phenomenon of church burning more, rather than less, disturbing. Far easier to abide the idea of a tight-knit group of racist fanatics than to accept the alternative that we live in a time when a substantial number of individuals, unconnected with one another or with organized white supremacist groups, regard burning black churches as a plausible act, worthy of emulation.”
  • From “Why Racists Target Black Churches”…during slavery, these churches provided more than just spiritual solace. They facilitated an explosion of black literacy in the South”
  • From “Why Racists Use Rape to Defend Racist Violence” – “It’s tempting to treat Dylann Storm Roof as a Southern problem, the violent collision of neo-Confederate ideology and a permissive gun culture. The truth, however, is that his fear – of black power and of black sexuality – belongs to America as much as it does the South.”
  • From “Thugs and Terrorists Have Attacked Black Churches for Generations” – “But today, as the nation mourns the victims of Charleston and awaits details about the perpetrator of the attack, black Americans will be most awake to the reality that there are bigots who want to see them dead. What they’re owed by their fellow Americans is vocal solidarity, so that they’re as awake to the depth and breadth of the belief that black lives matter.”
  • From “The Recent, Hateful History of Attacks on Black Churches” – “Churches have long been hubs of organizing and advocacy in the black community, which was one reason they were so often attacked during the civil rights movement. But the violence didn’t end there—attacks and threats against black churches and institutions still take place at a greater frequency than you might think.”
  • From “Black Churches Are Burning Again in America” – “Churches are burning again in the United States, and the symbolism of that is powerful. Even though many instances of arson have happened at white churches, the crime is often association with racial violence: a highly visible attack on a core institution of the black community, often done at night, and often motivated by hate.”

UPDATE: As I was searching for related articles, I see Slate’s James West Davidson had similar thoughts: “The Best Fourth of July Speech in American History”

Review: Road to Reckoning by Robert Lautner

4th February 2014

pg1*I received this ebook from the publisher Touchstone in exchange for an honest review.

“I, to this day, hold to only one truth: if a man chooses to carry a gun he will get shot. My father agreed to carry twelve.”

Thomas Walker is 12 when his father decides to venture out West to sell Samuel Colt’s Improved Revolving Gun. But a mere three days into the journey, Walker’s father is shot dead, and Thomas is left to find his way home with nothing but a gelding, a wagon, and a wooden model gun for protection. He encounters Henry Stands, a former ranger who reluctantly takes on responsibility for Thomas as they make their way back East. Told from the adult Thomas’s recollections, Road to Reckoning is part dime store novel and part coming-of-age tale.

Road to Reckoning was my first “wow” novel of 2014. Lautner’s choice to have an older Thomas narrate his tale allows for poignant moments of recollection, such as when he talks about journeying out with his father and the anticipation he felt:

Every word he spoke would be to me.

It is a fault of nature that fathers do not realize that when the son is young the father is like Jesus to him, and like with Our Lord, the time of his ministry when they crave his words is short and fleeting.

These observations aren’t often enough to become laborious, but they fit well in the telling. At the same time, Thomas also recognizes that his father doesn’t belong in the West, and his brief time there is evidence of that. Thomas can’t help but grudgingly look up to Henry Stands. Henry Stands, with his foreign gun the Native Americans think is magic, swaggers into this story and into Thomas’s life with a charisma that becomes the stuff of legends. Though he’d just as soon be without the burden of a young boy, he also recognizes his duty, leading to one of the best scenes in the book, when Stands faces down a group of men with nothing but a wooden pistol:

What you may make of a man approaching abomination with a wooden pistol in his hands is your faith’s decision. If you are young I hope it does not inspire too much. If you are older you may think Henry Stands foolish, or worse, bitten by madness, or you may yet feel something rising in your chest at the thought of yourself about to stand down four armed men with nothing but your valor and self as your only true weapon. I have given you only a wooden toy.

Though most of the comparisons call True Grit and The Sisters Brothers companion reads, much of Road to Reckoning reminded me of Huck and Jim’s journey in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Just as Huck and Jim are an unlikely pair who do fine with one another as long as they’re on the Mississippi, Thomas and Henry’s tenuous alliance seems sure until others interfere.

A product of the West*, Road to Reckoning fits its setting well while also tempting readers with its story of danger and derring do and the after effects on the young man at the heart of it all.

Add this to your Goodreads shelf.

*Lautner does a masterful job with his depiction of the West, particularly as the author lives in Wales (!).

Review: The Girls of Murder City by Douglas Perry

1st January 2014

pg1*I purchased this book.

The subtitle of Douglas Perry’s The Girls of Murder City tells it all: Fame, Lust, and the Beautiful Killers Who Inspired Chicago. Though I’ve long loved the music of Chicago (my mother is especially – and disturbingly – fond of the line, He ran into my knife ten times!), I never realized it was based on the true story of a spate of murders in Chicago in the early 20s. 

In 1924, the Cook County Jail was full of women killers. Perry briefly discusses the phenomenon, citing the new found freedom of women in Chicago in the Jazz Age as a possible reason for the higher female crime rate. If you were pretty, you got off. If you weren’t, or worse, were a foreigner, then the jury was a bit harsher. Disturbed by the indulgent treatment of these female killers in the media, young journalist Maurine Watkins decided to lend her hand to the court of public opinion. With all-men juries showing leniency to the attractive inmates, Chicago’s female inmates began to learn a nice dress and a new hairdo worked wonders for their trials, and Maurine was determined to document the ridiculousness of it all.

Belva Gaertner and Beulah Annan were the worst offenders in Maurine’s opinion – both having killed lovers without much remorse. But even though both women were accused of lewd behavior and illegal drinking, they became the darlings of the Chicago papers and later, the juries. Anxious to attempt redress for the injustice, Maurine writes her play, Chicago, what New York Times reporter Brooks Atkinson said was “a satirical comedy on the administration of justice through the fetid channels of newspaper publicity – of photographers, ‘sob sisters,’ feature stunts, standardized prevarication and generalized vulgarity.”*

Though the end of the book drops off a bit as it discusses Maurine’s subsequent failures as a writer, The Girls of Murder City is a fascinating – and sometimes amusing – look at a true phenomenon of Chicago in the Jazz Age. I’d recommend this book for anyone interested in feminism, true crime, the musical Chicago, and more specifically, as a great intro to someone looking to read more nonfiction.

Add this to your Goodreads shelf.

*This is a nice reminder that the “good old days” of journalism never really existed…

Review: Stella Bain by Anita Shreve

12th November 2013

pg1*This book was sent to me by the publisher Little, Brown in exchange for an honest review.

A woman wakes in a French battlefield hospital with no recollection of who she is, where she is, or how she may have gotten there. But she does remember how to assist the doctors and how to drive an ambulance, a difficult skill. From all accounts, she’s American, though it’s only 1916, and American hasn’t yet entered the war. On leave, she attempts to make her way to the Admiralty in London. She isn’t sure why she needs to go there, but the place holds significance for her, and she’s hopeful someone can identify her there.

But on the way, she takes ill, and Dr. August Bridge and his wife take her in. Dr. Bridge is a cranial surgeon, unfit for war because of scoliosis and bad eyesight, and he begins working with Stella in an attempt to regain her memory, as there are moments of clarity for Stella in which she only feels emotion. She sketches disturbing images she sees but cannot determine whether they are true or a figment of her imagination. But the story turns in an instant when Stella remembers her old life.

***

So, you should know that when I was in college, I devoured Anita Shreve books. In my estimation, they are similar to what the Jodi Picoult books are now. Pretty covers. Intriguing stories, but with a depth I usually enjoy more than some other women’s fiction.

Stella Bain was initially enthralling. Watching as she struggles to place herself and recall her reason for being in France is fascinating. I felt as though much of the book would be spent with her and Dr. Bridge working to restore her memory. However, when her amnesia disappears – rather quickly in the scope of the novel – the story becomes something different altogether. Stella begins to tell what brought her from America to the battlefields of France, another different but intriguing narrative. Yet after the reader understands what has brought her to war and what caused her amnesia, the novel begins to wane.

Still a good read, Stella Bain suffers from what many novels in the past several years have – a promising introduction but a less-than-stellar fulfillment of its early potential.

Recommended for fans of Anita Shreve and those interested in World War I.

Add this to your Goodreads shelf.