History Lessons

t_500x300 The Removes by Tatjana Soli

Custer’s Last Stand at the Battle of Little Bighorn is the stuff of legend, and his name lives on in ignominy or heroism, depending on the viewpoint, but Tatjana Soli’s The Removes introduces him as a Civil War hero and follows his battles with the Cheyenne and Sioux, as well as with himself to his court martial, reinstatement after nine months of enforced leave, and finally to his last confrontation.  Despite Custer’s bravado in his fancy attire and long golden hair,  the horror and gore is sometimes too much for him; when he washes and rewashes his hands until they are raw to remove the imaginary blood, it reminded me of Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth – “out. out, damned Spot…”   Like Macbeth, this is a tragedy and not easy to experience.

Soli alternates her story between the young soldier Custer who is married to Libbie Bacon, and Annie, a fifteen year old pioneer girl captured by the Cheyenne and forced to live as a slave among them.  As the key women in the novel, Libbie and Annie represent how the West has changed their lives and their perspectives create an important foil to the violence in the lives of the calvary soldiers and the Cheyenne warriors.

The “removes” calculate the number of times Annie’s life changes, from being captured to trades with other tribes, and finally her return to what is left of her family.  The battles both Custer and Annie witness are fierce and the desperation they both feel is palpable.  Ironically, both Custer and Annie feel more at home in the great outdoors than confined to the “prison” of civilized homes.

The narrative has a stitled staccato rhythm, giving the story the frame of a documentary at times.  As Soli explains the western expansion, the greed for gold, the stealing of Native American territory, the senseless slaughter of people and animals, the story is too horrible to imagine but too compelling to look away.  Custer is both the philandering dandy and the dedicated soldier; Annie is the abused captive as well as the clever girl who barters to survive.  In a note at the end of the book, Soli says “the pendulum swings from simplistic descriptions of Indian warfare in the old Hollywood westerns to the opposite but equally false ones in more current books and films. … We honor the past most when we depict it as accurately as possible without contorting it to contemporary mores.”

Their stories may be fictional, but Soli uses them to retell the unsettling history of the wild west, melding empathetic examples of characters with unforgettable historical events.

Unknown   Leadership in Turbulent Times by Doris Kearns Goodwin

If Doris Kearns Goodwin had been my history teacher in high school, I may have paid better attention.  Since I have not read any of Goodwin’s biographies of the four American Presidents she addresses in her latest examination – Leadership in Turbulent Times – I am looking forward to learning more about the men she identifies as great leaders.  Two are immortalized on Mt. Rushmore – Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt.  FDR is also in the mix but I was surprised she included LBJ as one of the four leaders to emulate.  In her prologue she reveals her special relationship to Lyndon Johnson, whom she first met when she was a White House Fellow, and later helped him with his memoirs.  She prefers to focus on his role in Civil Rights rather than the Vietnam War.

Clearly, Kearns is determined to provide government leadership models by looking back, since the present has few to offer.  In her forward she states:

“It is my hope that these stories of leadership in times of fracture and fear will prove instructive and reassuring.  These men set a standard and a bar for all of us.  Just as they learned from one another, so we can learn from them.  And from them gain a better perspective on the discord of our times.”

I have only just started reading but the book promises a good lesson in history.


9781594633478_p0_v2_s192x300  When was the last time you laughed at a caricature of a politician?   With political rhetoric in high gear on the eve of the Presidential election in the United States, I could not have found a better story to capture the power of the media than Columbian Juan Gabriel Vasquez’s Reputations.  Translated from the original Spanish, the language is clear and incisive as the life of  political cartoonist Javier Mallarino unravels in this short but powerful novel.

When Javier receives an award for his forty years of creating caricatures by using “a stinger dipped in honey,” he is startled into a reexamination of the value of his observations.  A thirty-five year old woman attending the ceremony asks for an interview but later challenges his memory of a party she attended years ago as a seven year old girl at his house. Unsupervised, Samanta and Javier’s daughter drank leftover whiskey from the adults’ half-empty glasses and passed out. A congressman who had come to plead for mercy in Javier’s portrayal of him discovered the sleeping girls. The day after the party Javier creates a damaging caricature of the local politician in the newspaper.

Vasquez frames the story like a mystery.  The reader wants to know what horror happened on the night of the party, but the revelation leads to more serious questions.  Did it really happen?  Was the cartoonist correct to publish his perception and ruin lives?  What if he were mistaken in his satire?

Interspersed with his retelling of the event, Javier describes his arrogance in his portrayals as he pursues truth over compromise, and wonders about the loss of his idyllic life with his former wife and daughter. Vasquez also echoes the political and social tumult of his home country Columbia as Javier recalls some of his political cartoons over the years.

As the story ends, Javier and Samanta find the wife of the accused congressman, who killed himself years earlier, and are about to find out the truth – or perhaps a version of the truth.  The line I found most appropriate for the election eve was Vasquez’s dry note:

“…the important thing in our society is not what’s going on, but who tells us what’s going on.


Bring Up the Bodies – the London Play

The new plays in London adapting Hilary Mantel’s award winning best sellers have been compared to a British version of House of Cards – full of political intrigue and back-door negotiations. If you have read and enjoyed the books, seeing them in play form can feel like stepping through the looking glass into Henry VIII’s world. “Wolf Hall” and “Bring Up the Bodies” play on alternate nights with a cast of characters (seven of them called Thomas) from the Royal Shakespeare Company.

I recently sat in a packed house to see “Bring Up the Bodies.” Over a thousand pages of print unfolded through two acts. The action is easy to follow and as compelling as Mantel’s books with teasingly ambiguous subplots. You will have to decide if Anne Boleyn was promiscuous and incestuous, or if the accusations were merely a convenient way for Henry to move on to Jane Seymour. The asides are as juicy and memorable as Noel Coward’s zingers.

I may have to reread Mantel’s books now; on second thought, it would be easier to wait for the BBC televised series in 2015.

Read my reviews of the books:

Wolf Hall

Bring Up the Bodies

And check out the RSC cast:

Bring Up the Bodies RSC

The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver

Remember those sacred pools with waterfalls and lush foliage in the movies that could only be accessed by diving down into an underwater cave, holding your breath, and coming up on the other side – that’s a lacuna. You could be stuck there if you lost track of time and the tide came in – or you might be able to swim out the other side. Kingsolver uses the word “lacuna” as an analogy for Harrison Shepherd’s life as well as the gap between reality and what could be – in her latest novel – The Lacuna.

The Lacuna is Kingsolver’s first book since writing Animal, Vegetable, Miracle – her promotion of healthy living off the land from her family’s experience – an environmentally correct plea ahead of its time, and complete with recipes. In Lacuna, although fiction, she delivers lessons again – this time political and historical.

Harrison Shepherd, whose mother is Mexican and father is American, records his life in diaries that steer the story through the Depression of the early 1930s in Washington, D.C., the lives of famous painters Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo in Mexico, the politics of Stalin and Trotsky. This is your life, Harrison Shepherd, from Mexico to North Carolina, from obscurity to fame to disgrace and back again.

This is not Bridget Jones Diary. Harrison Shepherd is a serious boy who becomes a sullen man. At first, the diary is an easy-to-follow recounting of growing up, but it soon morphs into a reporter’s third person account of historical events – educational but not compelling. Somehow, you will need to plough through the middle, and it won’t be easy, but here Kingsolver is laying the foundation for her real story.

The letters between Frida and Shepherd revive the action, and Kingsolver’s reviews of Shepherd as a new successful historical fiction writer will make you want to read his books and wonder why you are still muddling through hers. Eventually, the climax and denouement come – with more history lessons – by this time, it is the House on Un-Amercian Activities that plays a role in Shephard’s life. Kingsolver reminds us of one of the ugliest times in American history, as Harrison Shepherd’s life and career slowly come undone.

Not until the very end will you really know what this was all about – a life story about a lonely historical fiction writer who lives history and makes his own fiction – and the power of public opinion to change a life. It’s no wonder Harrison Shepherd feared people. The literal lacuna – that wonderful grotto – plays a part in the ending, but, by that time, you are as tired of people’s misdirected opinions as Shepherd.

Given the speed-of-light transmissions of celebrity foibles, the sound-bites taken out of context today, and the ease of knowing what is “right,” public assumptions are still a cautionary tale. Mrs. Brown, Shepherd’s assistant/secretary critiques his writing with her advice “…there’s no shame in a clever disguise…to say what you believe and still keep out of trouble…”. Are all writers hiding behind characters to say what they believe?

But sometimes a story is just a story. Robert Frost often cautioned the reader, “Don’t press… too hard. The real meaning is the most obvious meaning.”