Simon the Fiddler

Reading Paulette Jiles’ Simon the Fiddler was like a quiet meditation at first, which is probably just what I needed.  I read slowly, taking in the author’s poetic style, the bits of song interspersed in the narrative, her all encompassing descriptions of the wild land from Ohio to Texas in post Civil War America.   If life seems difficult now, imagining those old times with yellow fever and impossible living conditions, had the unexpected side effect of an appreciation for today’s modern progress, such as it is.

Despite the pull of Confederate  conscription, the misery of military camps, and later the task of making a living as a musician, Simon is an optimist and a realist.  Coming from hardscrabble beginnings in Kentucky, he is determined to use his talent to make a good life for himself.  After the war is over, he manages to pull together a quartet, who with borrowed clean white shirts, follow the music from his violin to entertain – for money.

When Simon meets Doris, an Irish immigrant and indentured servant to a Union officer, he falls in love.  Through years of secret but limited correspondence, as she travels to San Antonio with the officer’s family, and he makes his way through Galveston playing his fiddle to save money for land and a wife, they form a bond until they finally meet again.  During this sojourn, Jiles slowly reveals the beauty of the land and its challenges.  Simon’s confrontation with an alligator is a highlight.

Finally, the action begins with Simon and Doris reunited in San Antonio, with romance sizzling as Doris plays the piano and Simon his fiddle. The story takes on a thrilling pace – intrigue, secret meetings, threats – culminating in a confrontation in a bar, ending badly.  All seems lost at the end – Simon in jail accused of murdering a man, the violin destroyed, and Simon beaten and wounded – from slashes to his gut to crushed knuckles.  And Doris?  Could she escape the Colonel’s sexual advances?

All ends well, thank goodness, because by this time I had invested a lot of time in Simon.  But the ending is not all sunsets and roses.  Jiles’ last notes are:

He saw all the hard road before them unrolling like a scroll and their names there,  for better or for worse, written in the Book of Life.

And so, life goes on …

After reading and enjoying Paulette Jiles’ News of the World, I had some expectations for her new book.  But this book is longer and slower moving; for a while I wondered if anything would happen, but the descriptions, the language. and the music kept me going.  And, it was worth it; Jiles delivers a moving tribute to pioneers’ determination and grit.  Not all were farmers and ranchers – some were fiddlers.

Review: News of the World

The Technologists

Using the ongoing rivalry of the Harvard elite and the MIT futurists, Matthew Pearl mixes post Civil War Boston with a slow-moving historical thriller.  The story opens with compasses gone awry causing boats to collide in Boston harbor; then bank windows melt with an unsuspecting customer leaning against the pane toppling to the street.  A promising opening, but the action slows immediately.  The search for the perpetrator suddenly switches to the confrontation between  Harvard old-school classical learning vs the new school in town – MIT with its suspicious sciences and new technology in the nineteenth century.

A team of MIT seniors (the first class about to graduate from the fledgling school) drives the action: scholarship student (known as “charity scholar”) Marcus Mansfield, a Civil War veteran and former factory worker with a brilliant mind; Robert Richards, blue-blood Boston dropout/transfer from Harvard; Edwin Hoyt, the quiet brains of the outfit; and token woman scholar, Ellen Swallow, who manages to rise above the trials of being among the all-male nineteenth century class.  To demonstrate that MIT students can think and solve problems as well as their Harvard rivals, the group works secretly to uncover the villain and save the reputation of their alma mater.

The historical context uses the then-new controversial revelations of Darwin and the suspicion  of machinery to add to the fear, with the underlying supposition that technology somehow is behind the city’s destruction. After the thrilling opening events, however, Pearl settles into flashbacks of the recently ended Civil War, and the culture of the late 1860s in old Boston.

After more catastrophes, a little romance, and continued drama among the collegiate, the mystery is solved and the unlikely genius behind the technological crimes is uncovered – but the revelation is a long, tortuous journey.  I tend to like my thrillers – historical or otherwise – to be fast paced and hard to put down; this was not a page turner.  Although I finally did finish The Technologists, it took longer than it deserved. I’d had the same feeling with Pearl’s other bestseller, The Dante Club –  the end was worth getting to, but also a relief to get to the end.

The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb

Before the public relations geniuses were spinning news, the master promoter P.T. Barnum, the self-ascribed “Prince of Humbug” was convincing audiences that he had what they wanted to see.  In The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb, Melanie Benjamin uses the historical backdrop of the nineteenth century and the drama of the Civil War to resurrect one of Barnum’s most famous acts – General Tom Thumb and his wife – together, a total of a little more than five feet of entertainment.

Unlike Charles Stratton, dubbed Tom Thumb by Barnum, Lavinia (Vinnie) Warren Bump had a life before the circus – she was a school teacher at age 17, but longed for more than the sheltered life her parents were prepared to give her on the farm.  Hearing of how Barnum had made Jenny Lind famous, Vinnie contacted him – after a short stint on a riverboat sideshow – expecting her talents in song and dance to make her fortune.   Benjamin uses Vinnie’s voice to reenact her struggle to become noticed for something other than her size.

Eventually, Vinnie met Barnum’s star sideshow act – Charles Stratton – taken in by Barnum as a two foot boy at age five, taught “to smoke at seven, to chew tobacco at nine…”  Seeing an opportunity to create another act, Barnum encouraged the courtship and General and Mrs. Tom Thumb became the new tour attraction.

As Vinnie tells her story, Barnum has an imposing influence over her and everyone else in her life.  Drawing from the real Lavinia’s diaries, Benjamin notes that her sources list dates and events, but Vinnie

“doesn’t discuss her feelings…she never shares any disappointments, any frustrations…The challenge was always to separate the humbug from the truth”

So, Benjamin creates them for her; Barnum becomes the unrequited love of Vinnie’s life, and Mrs. Tom Thumb becomes, under Benjamin’s pen, a feisty, adventurous, and determined woman – and the marriage – just part of the act.  Later, her sister (even smaller in stature) joins the group, leading to a tragic (and true) turn in the tale when she dies in childbirth.

Throughout the story, Benjamin inserts the Civil War as it is happening; her short blurbs introducing each chapter, a reminder of the times and a cruel counterbalance to the world of Barnum.   Queen Victoria and President Lincoln carry on with the reality while Barnum sustains the fantasy.   At times, Benjamin’s first person narrative seems stilted, with the dialogue needing more realism and less perfunctory chatting – and I often skipped over it.

If you can work through the excessive minutia (pardon the pun), The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb offers a unique perspective on the era and a sympathetic view of a vulnerable woman.