Monthly Archives: January 2021

“My Six Convicts” by Donald Powell Wilson (1951)

My Six Convicts: A Psychologist's Three Years in Fort Leavenworth

My Six Convicts FilmPoster.jpeg

This is another book I remember from my early teen years. It has a subtitle: A Psychologist’s Three Years in Fort Leavenworth. I remember very little… I learned of the brutality of the criminal justice system. And one of the convicts was able to enter a trance and cause the symbols of the zodiac to appear on his body. What do you suppose THAT was about??

Donald Powell Wilson is easy to track thanks to Kirkus Reviews, which explains how Wilson came to work at Leavenworth and his relationship to the six prisoners of the title. Wilson was doing narcotics research for the US Public Health Service. The prisoners served as his assistants. The unnamed Kirkus reviewer describes the book as “…dramatic, exciting, frequently moving…”

And then … there’s the movie! Film noir, according to Wikipedia. It’s described as being “true to the spirit of the book”, but with comedic and dramatic elements added. 

Strange that two of the earliest books I remember reading were made into films! 


“I Passed for White” by Reba Lee as told to Mary Hastings Bradley (1955)

I passed for white,

I Passed for White.jpg

When I compiled my list of blog posts about race in America (November 1, 2020), a memory crossed my mind. I remembered a book entitled I Passed for White, which I glanced at but didn’t check it out of my hometown library. I remember a photo of a girl about my age, 12 or 13, and reading that she told a (white) friend that her dark-skinned Dad was not her “real” father, but rather her stepfather.

Sure enough, I found the book for sale on Amazon.

To my surprise, the title led me (via Wikipedia) to a movie version of the book, which was referenced as a novel, not (as it seemed to be) a memoir. The 1960 movie adaptation was salacious. It made a much bigger splash than the book. A poster shows a negligee clad young woman lounging on a bed. The caption reads “I look white…I married white…now I must live with a secret that can destroy us both!” This from Fred Wilcox, the director who brought us “Lassie Come Home” and “The Secret Garden”! It was his last movie.

I couldn’t find information about Reba Lee. I found more than one obituary, but none that mentioned publication of a book.

Mary Hastings Bradley turns up in Wikipedia, but I’m not certain of the match. Bradley was a prolific writer of travelogues and novels, several of which were made into movies. Her last novel was published in 1952, and she lived in Chicago, the initial setting of I Passed for White. 

According to the movie plot summary, the protagonist left her community, married a white man, lost a child to stillbirth and divorced without revealing her mixed race heritage. Thereafter, she returned to her previous home and identity. 

None of which, I guess, was particularly surprising for America in the 1950s. Reba Lee was probably scantily compensated for her story (whether fictional or actual), and her personal history was, I suspect, sensationalized. I’m glad there are still copies of the book available. Perhaps there’s more to be learned here. Recently, the book I Passed for White has attracted some academic interest. 

“Guests of My Life” by Elizabeth Watson

So many people are mourning. The US Covid death toll on January 12 was 4,406. One day. So much loss and grief.

Guests of My Life was published in 1979 by Celo Press (168 pages). Elizabeth Watson wrote it after her 23 year old daughter died in a car crash. It consists of essays about how six different authors helped her to grieve and heal.

The first author is Emily Dickenson. The last is Walt Whitman. 

This may sound like a dismal book, but it’s not, and in fact it’s a good gift for those who are grief stricken. 

Guests of My Life is out of print, but used copies are available on Amazon. 

Museums in my life – a very selective account!

Roebling Museum

A Facebook friend recently posted a wonderful question! “Did the town you grew up in have a museum?” Thank you, Lynne Calamia! You can’t imagine how many memories this shook loose. Yes, my town had a museum.

What I remember: The Children’s Museum (of Hartford, Connecticut) was located in a big old brick Victorian house just near enough for me and my sister to walk to. Near the front door was a swan, beautifully mounted, in a big glass case. I loved it! So beautiful and so lifelike, with its wings raised. The swan was the symbol of the Museum. I believe it was a trumpeter swan, which has a ten foot wingspan!

I don’t remember much else about the Museum. I think it had dioramas, like most museums at that time. But what did they show? No idea.

By the time I was ten years old, the Children’s Museum had grown and moved, and was closer to me. My mother signed me up for a workshop on growing plants. We mixed our own potting soil. The swan was still on display (I think), but the Museum had a new symbolic animal, a whale. They built a huge model whale outdoors and children could climb in and around it, getting a feel for its enormous size. Fun!

Years passed and I returned to the Museum with my sons. Lots to see. Good family fun, but we lived 200 miles away. Clearest memory: the Museum had a live monkey, which predictably fascinated my two year old son. He and the monkey came face to face through a glass barrier. The monkey made an aggressive grimace! My son, terrified, forgot his ability to walk, dropped to all fours and scuttered away as fast as he could move! I scooped him up for reassurance. It didn’t seem to reduce his interest in animals or museums.

Through their growing up years, I took my sons to various museums. I like SMALL museums. If I go to a huge one, I’m likely to pick one floor or exhibit, rather than walk myself to exhaustion trying to see “everything”. 

My sons and I especially enjoyed house type displays. For example, the Mark Twain House in Hartford was a real hit, with its porch balcony the resembles a Mississippi steam boat. An the famous fire place with twin chimneys on either side of a big window, so residents could watch snow fall into the fire. So was Thoreau’s house at Walden Pond. It isn’t the original house, which was judged too remote for a public exhibit, but an excellent reproduction. Very appealing! My sons wanted to move right in. But very best of all were the 1903 Camp Buildings at the Wright Brothers National Memorial at Kitty Hawk in North Carolina. Again, not original structures, but a beautiful, detailed reconstruction. There wasn’t much “civilization” on the island of Kitty Hawk when the Wrights chose it for its open space and steady wind. They brought most of their own supplies and lived simply. Children love the idea of camping out! Roughing it! My sons spent more time studying the Camp Buildings than running along the 852 foot flight line that shows where the Wrights accomplished their amazing feat.

So, if someone asks what museums are for, I say they are for families to share. Now my most frequently visited museum is the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia. Medium sized, and home to the American Entomological Society and a world class collection of insects. Don’t miss it! Families love it. 

I hope to visit the Roebling Museum in Roebling, New Jersey, soon! The Executive Director is Lynne Calamia, mentioned in my first paragraph above. It’s a museum of history and technology, now closed for Covid but maintaining an active on-line presence. 

“The Beginning: A Laugh-out-loud satire (Jessica Christ Book 1)” by H. Claire Taylor

The Beginning: A laugh-out-loud satire (Jessica Christ Book 1)

I suspect H. Claire Taylor is channeling Terry Pratchett (RIP). Taylor lives in Austin, the city with the motto “Keep Austin Weird”. She’s having fun doing her part. Her website says she has two series for a total of 23 books. Sounds like she also writes comedy…

Jessica Christ is Jesus’s half sister, God’s second born child. She lives with her swinging mother in a small West Texas town. God speaks to her but often fails to answer important questions. This book runs from Jessica’s birth until high school. Much of it is, indeed, laugh out loud funny.

Jessica learns at the age of 5 that she has the ability to SMITE. As in “smite them, O Lord!”. Fortunately her first use of this power destroys a passing pigeon, rather than the school yard bully who is bothering her. The incident earns her considerable respect, but she knows better than to smite upon minor provocation.

This a good book to load onto my phone to provide odd moments of distraction. 

A good laugh is hard to find!

“The 7½ Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle” by Stuart Turton

The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle

This book was Turton’s 2018 debut novel. (His second novel was recently released.) I had trouble pushing through this book. TOO MUCH PLOT. Too many characters. Too fast a pace. Little time to “get to know” even the primary characters.

I’m always a bit put off by fiction that comes accompanied by a map and list of characters. Do really good authors need these aids? How often should I need to consult them? And what about characters not included on the list… (I make an exception for historical fiction, where dynastic charting is often useful.) 

Is there a genre name for fiction that includes dim figures in the background pulling strings? Not “deus in machina”, the “god” that steps in at the end to accomplish resolution. No, a slowly revealed and perhaps permanently hidden figure pulling the strings. 

I’m reminded of John Fowles The Magus, described on Amazon as “an elaborate series of staged hallucinations, riddles, and psychological traps”.

I’m not your ideal reader for fantasy fiction. I’m literal minded, perhaps to an extreme. My opinion about this novel may be an outlier.

So what about Turton’s book? I recommend it if you want something to keep yourself entertained on a long train trip. You have to enjoy uncertainty. I found the ending unsatisfying.