Monthly Archives: August 2016

Across the Country Back toward the Civil War

After seeing our daughter in New York, we traveled northeast–farther northeast than I had ever been before. Unfortunately, both the gardener and I got sick, possibly infected by the 10-year-old Typhoid Mary I sat next to on the plane ride to New York. Rather than flying to see my mother when we had planned, we started driving southwest, in the general vicinity of home, hoping that eventually we would be well enough to fly without cracking our ear drums. (This was upsetting because my mother is having knee surgery soon, and I don’t get to see her now before the surgery).

Before we turned back, though, we did see some sights that engaged my imagination.

I found this little gem in Searsport, Maine. It’s a Masonic AND Odd Fellows lodge, built around 1870 in the downtown area. It houses a Civil War memorial.  My iPhone cut off part of the memorial, but I am so interested in old building architecture, as well as Masonic temples and lodges. I’ve been thinking about starting a Pinterest board for the Masons.

All these little towns ending with the word “port” are very charming, old, and generally not very updated. Since I’ve lived so long in the southwest, it’s very refreshing to be around this “antiquity” (I can hear European readers snickering). But it was almost disconcerting to be around so few chain restaurants and big box stores. I mean, that is almost all there is in Arizona and southern California.

We made it to Canada and stayed overnight in St. John, New Brunswick, a city with a fairly depressed economy over a length of time, from the looks of it. But this, of course, leads to a wealth of interesting old architectural details. Of course, we were driving, and I didn’t get too many photos. And if I did take any, I can’t find them.

Out in the middle of nowhere we stopped at a cafe/convenience store with a little rest stop building on its property. They sold a great variety of types of jerky, but the overall look of the place and the pale skinny girls who worked there made us wonder just which horror movie set we had stumbled onto.  There was a Sweeney Todd atmosphere throughout the property.

 

We stayed at Bar Harbor, Maine, before we turned back and headed south. It’s a small town, so it only took 20 minutes in the ER to get my pack of antibiotics!

We enjoyed our first time in Louisville.  But it was one of the more thought-provoking visits from a historical standpoint. The Ohio River separates Kentucky from Indiana at Louisville. Having read and taught a lot of 19th century American literature, I’ve read of the importance of the Ohio River to slaves who were trying to escape to freedom. If they could get across this river, they would reach land upon which they would be free. When you look at a map of the United States and see how far north the south actually ranges, you can grasp the magnitude of the journey that some slaves set out on. There is a whole lot of country south of Louisville!

Actually, the situation with slavery laws was more complicated than what I just described, but literature has managed to distill the situation down to this simple image.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin presents the image most compellingly when Eliza crosses the river to get to Ohio (rather than Indiana, but similar idea). She wanted to take the ferry across, but then she sees a slave trader and must grab her young child and flee.

A thousand lives seemed to be concentrated in that one moment to Eliza. Her room opened by a side door to the river. She caught her child, and sprang down the steps towards it. The trader caught a full glimpse of her, just as she was disappearing down the bank; and throwing himself from his horse, and calling loudly on Sam and Andy, he was after her like a hound after a deer. In that dizzy moment her feet to her scarce seemed to touch the ground, and a moment brought her to the water’s edge. Right on behind they came; and, nerved with strength such as God gives only to the desperate, with one wild cry and flying leap, she vaulted sheer over the turbid current by the shore, on to the raft of ice beyond. It was a desperate leap—impossible to anything but madness and despair; and Haley, Sam, and Andy, instinctively cried out, and lifted up their hands, as she did it.

The huge green fragment of ice on which she alighted pitched and creaked as her weight came on it, but she staid there not a moment. With wild cries and desperate energy she leaped to another and still another cake;—stumbling—leaping—slipping—springing upwards again! Her shoes are gone—her stockings cut from her feet—while blood marked every step; but she saw nothing, felt nothing, till dimly, as in a dream, she saw the Ohio side, and a man helping her up the bank.

I’ve looked everywhere for my river photos, but they have mysteriously disappeared. If Eliza had tried to cross at Louisville, where the Ohio River is a full mile across, she never would have made it.

Talk about a liminal space: the river between life and death, between freedom and shackles.

Original illustration by George Cruikshank 1852

Original illustration by George Cruikshank 1852

In case you’re wondering why Eliza appears white in the illustration, she was supposed to be biracial with light skin.

Have you ever read Uncle Tom’s Cabin? Have you avoided it because you heard it was racist? Why don’t you read the book for yourself before you decide that. The book is taught on college campuses because it’s a very important book in the history of this country. It helped bring about the abolition of slavery–and that was the intention of the writer, Harriet Beecher Stowe.

Tom is presented as a Christ figure, but is seen as meek (rather than godly) by critics of the book. Where the book truly goes awry, or odd, strange, peculiar, is what happens to a couple of the main characters in the last part of the book. It’s about something called “colonization” that was part of the abolition movement of the time period. That’s something you don’t hear about too often when you visit museums where the abolitionist movement is revered. Read the book and see what I mean!

OK, you can see that the Civil War came up more than once in my mind on this trip, and that is something that can only happen when you travel in areas where history actually happened. I get a little hungry for history living out here.

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Filed under Books, History, Nonfiction, Sightseeing & Travel, Writing

A Wonderful Meeting

My vacation started off with a very brief visit to the Big Apple to see my daughter perform in a new musical at a big musical theatre festival in the city. After a series of travel misfortunes, it didn’t look like the gardener and I were going to make it in time for the show, but a kind Southwest Airlines employee found us the last seats on an American flight. Our luggage went Southwest, and we went American. That was not the last of our travel woes, but we did make it to see daughter perform in a very unique and gorgeous show. Yes, she was amazing; thank you for asking ;).

At the performance, I met two very special audience members–two writers I greatly admire. Almost 2 1/2 years ago, I read Carolyn Quinn’s biography of Gypsy Rose Lee’s mother, Mama Rose’s Turn. 

Mama Rose's Turn

My review of her book can be found here: Memoir’s Cousin. Fascinating story of a fascinating woman. Carolyn blogs about an array of fun topics at Splendiferous Everything

Carolyn has written a new book for middle-grade students about the friendship between two girls – one American, one Japanese – during World War II. I can’t wait to read it. With my interest in children’s literature, my Newbery book collection (mostly books for middle-grade to middle school students), and my interest in WWII memoirs, it ought to be something I will really love.

About a month before my review of Carolyn’s book, I had written a review of a book that has been very special to me for many years. I posted my review in Teaching the Holocaust to Children and Teens. The book is The Upstairs Room by Johanna Reiss. Johanna, a Dutch Jewish child, lived for 2 1/2 years in the home of a non-Jewish Dutch family, hiding in a room upstairs. Johanna’s book was a Newbery Honor book, so it rests on my collection shelf.

Johanna wrote a sequel called The Journey Back, which I have also read. It really works best as a true sequel: read The Upstairs Room first.

It turned out that Carolyn and Johanna are besties, and when she found out I was coming to NYC, Carolyn arranged for the two of them to see my daughter’s show and for us to meet in person. They turned out to be so much as I had imagined them to be by their books. Carolyn is a warm and gracious woman, and Johanna is exactly the sensitive, sweet soul I had envisioned in all my readings of The Upstairs Room. How very special to meet them both and to share in such a special show experience with them.

The lighting was lousy in the tiny lobby of the 42nd street theatre where we met, so I had to really lighten the photo. Sorry it’s not better quality!

Carolyn Quinn, Johanna Reiss, and me

Just before I left for New York, I discovered that Johanna had also written an adult memoir, A Hidden Lifeso I ordered it to read when I came home. Now that I’ve finished it, I can tell you that you will want to give yourself some space after reading The Upstairs Room before opening A Hidden Life. I’m not yet prepared to write about this memoir because of its emotional impact, but I will mention that the book is written in a stream of consciousness style that is very difficult to write. Virginia Woolf is the writer who most comes to mind when one thinks of SOC. The style works very well for A Hidden Life because it forces the reader down into the emotional turmoil Johanna experiences after the death of her husband. Read the Amazon blurb to see the heart-breaking situation the story reveals.

For years, Johanna Reiss’ American husband, Jim, encouraged her to return to Holland to chronicle the two years, seven months, and one day she had spent hiding from the Nazis in rural Usselo, Holland. In 1969, she finally made the trip.

Accompanied by Jim and their two young children, Reiss intended to spend seven weeks researching the book that would eventually become The Upstairs Room, her Newbery Honor–winning account of her time hiding in the attic of a farmhouse in which for a time a contingent of Nazi soldiers was billeted.

But unknown to the millions of people who went on to read her beloved classic, behind the dark and painful story of the book was a still darker tale: Reiss’ husband returned to America early and committed suicide at age thirty-seven, leaving no note.

For Reiss, an ongoing reckoning with universal tragedy becomes particular: she is forced to reckon, too, with Jim’s death—and explain it to her children. Subtle and disturbing, the book is a powerful consideration of memory, violence, and loss, told in a stunning and sparse narrative style.

Johanna Reiss is the author of the classic young adult title The Upstairs Room, which Elie Wiesel praised in The New York Times Book Review as an “admirable account . . . as important in every respect as the one bequeathed to us by Anne Frank.” She is the winner of the Newbery Honor, the Jewish Book Council Children’s Book Award, and the Buxtehuder Bulle. She lives in New York City.

Read more about Johanna on her website.

What a wonderful meeting. How blessed I was to meet these two women.

 

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Filed under Art and Music, Blogging, Book Review, Books, Children's Literature, Memoir, Nonfiction, Sightseeing & Travel, Writing

Nonfiction Published in In Parentheses

A lovely magazine called In Parentheses published my piece “The Weight of Smoke” in their Summer 2016 issue. This piece falls somewhere between prose and poetry as it alternates between direct quotes from a 1902 article from the Kalamazoo Gazette and my creative interpretation after researching the story.

In “The Weight of Smoke,” my great-great-grandmother Alice Paak’s only brother’s house is on fire. His wife had passed away two years before. He and his children each have their own reactions to the loss of their home (which is not insured).

You can purchase a print copy of the magazine at the following link for $9.80. You get a free digital issue with that. Or you can purchase a digital issue for $2.00.

Volume 4 In Parentheses

Photo from thefamilykalamazoo.com

George Paake

“The Weight of Smoke”: The story of George and his children and the house fire of 1902

I’ve been gone for quite awhile and am now back. Woohoo! So glad to be home. I’ll tell you more about my travels later, but I can tell you that the five kitties are thrilled we are home. Kana was kept in her own room so she wouldn’t bother Tiger, and this morning she and Pear kissed. That was so nice to see because Pear used to be a little hissy to her. But not any more :)!

Can’t wait to get back to blog reading once I plow through a couple (10, 20) piles of paper that were deposited in my mailbox in my absence. UGH.

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Filed under Creative Nonfiction, Family history, Flash Nonfiction, Literary Journals, Nonfiction, Poetry, Publishing, Writing, Writing Talk

It’s Only Summer Once a Year

Go enjoy summer. Get. off. the. computer.

You could say that those words are meant for ME. Because I need them more than anybody does. My Vitamin D level is too low–presumably because I don’t get enough sun. That’s why I am still on blogging break!

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The Many-Dimensioned Cat World

Unlike other creatures of planet Earth, cats live in a world of more than three dimensions. This means that they are suddenly appearing and disappearing from our limited viewpoints.

Here’s a recent example. The other day, Pear Blossom was missing. She didn’t come to breakfast. I looked everywhere in the house for her. She had not been let outside, so if she was accessible within three dimensions, I would have found her. But she was not under a bed, in a corner, not even behind the toilet.

Eventually I decided to scoop the upstairs litter box since I was up there looking for a little tuxedo cat between my hanging clothes and in the shower. While I was bent over, Pear materialized behind me. Science fiction, but fact.

I don’t have a good education in math and science, so I can’t figure out exactly how many dimensions exist for cats. If their world is four dimensions, then Pear must have slipped into a different time point than I was in. But maybe she lives in five dimensions. All I have for an understanding of that world is a 60s singing group with an amazing lead singer called Marilyn McCoo.

I’m glad Pear decided to show herself to me. She’s my oldest cat, and I do worry about her health.

She and the other cats seemed happy to welcome the foster cat Slupe to our family for good over a week ago. We revised her name to Sloopy Anne Castle, and when I call for her, that’s what I call her–Sloopy Anne.

Arizona is so hot that Felix doesn’t want to leave the water bowl. Just in case he wants to drink some, he sleeps with his chin on the rim.

I’m no longer even pretending I’m going to write this summer. Maybe in a few weeks!

Lots of new cats at the shelter–and a few that have been there too long. Check out Home Fur Good’s cat roaming room if you’re in the Phoenix area.

Gigi came as a little kitten to Home Fur Good with her sister Dora. Dora was adopted months ago, but Gigi is growing up in the shelter. She’s a spunky little sweetie pie.

We have lots of kittens right now at the shelter. This little cutie is just one of many cuties of all colors and patterns.

Hope the rest of your summer is beautiful and restful. Or furry like mine haha. Gonna go on blogging break to recharge the brain batteries.

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Filed under Arizona, Cats and Other Animals, Nonfiction, Writing