Monthly Archives: August 2022
“The Back Bench” by Margaret Hope Bacon
This book can be categorized as historical fiction, but it is entirely different from “The Last White Rose” (see below). It’s very short. It covers one year in the life of a completely imaginary teenager during a very comprehensively documented historical period, namely 1837 – 1838 in Pennsylvania. The protagonist, 14 year old Myra Harlan, is sent from a Westchester (PA) farm to Philadelphia after her parents die.
Myra’s family is Quaker, the most common religious denomination in Philadelphia at that time, and much of the plot is driven by the schism (or Separation) suffered by Quakerism in 1827. Elias Hicks led a walkout from the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting of Quakers. The two factions were referred to as Hicksites and Orthodox Quakers. (Reconciliation was completed in 1955!)
Bacon makes her position clear. She depicts the Orthodox Quakers as status obsessed and materialistic, the Hicksites as salt-ot-the-earth farmers who practiced virtuous simplicity. Enrolled in the Orthodox Friends Select School for Girls, Myra is advised to keep her Hicksite background a secret.
The other emphasis in this book is on race. Quakers disowned slave owners, supported abolition (with disagreements over process) and sometimes helped escaped slaves travel to safe areas, including Canada. Myra observes discrimination during Quaker worship – people of color, acknowledged members of Quaker congregations, were seated separately from others during worship. Based on her convictions and experience, Myra ultimately feels led to sit on the back bench with her acquaintances of African descent.
Bacon wrote many books (mostly non-fiction), the best known being Valiant Friend, (1980), a biography of Lucretia Mott. I LOVE Mothers of Feminism, (1986). I had the good fortune to meet Margaret Hope Bacon at a Quaker event. She was there as a participant (not a speaker or workshop leader). Her name tag simply read “Margaret”.
“The Last White Rose – a Novel of Elizabeth of York” by Alison Weir
Historical fiction is my guilty pleasure, and I’ve read extensively about the Wars of Roses and the Protestant Reformation in England. Elizabeth of York married Henry VII of the House of Lancaster, establishing the Tudor line through their son Henry VIII. Why read this when I know the outcome? Guess I’m just a sucker for royalty, castles, etc.
One controversy about Elizabeth of York is whether she was a reigning Queen (hence her husband’s equal) or a Queen consort. By blood, it can be argued that her claim to the throne was a strong as her husband’s, and that she should be considered Queen Elizabeth I. Royal sons and daughters weren’t considered equally in matters of succession.
Reading this book is a reminder that dirty tricks, political betrayal and “alternative facts” are nothing new in public life. The consequences were unpredictable – some turncoats were pardoned, others were tortured to death. Some disappeared. And the innocent suffered. The so called “Princes in the Tower” disappeared in 1483, aged 9 and 12 years old. Their deaths remain a mystery to historians. Much about this historical period is uncertain.
Girls and women were pawns, married (sometimes as infants) and sometimes divorced for reasons of political expediency. England was trying to establish itself as an international power, not merely a northern fringe country.
The relationship of church to government was complex. A church might offer “sanctuary” under various circumstances, to criminals or potential targets of political kidnapping. Royalty were presumed to rule by the grace of God. God was assumed to determine the outcome of battle.
In the absence of science, superstition ruled in medicine and in agriculture.
Want something entertaining to read on vacation? This is it. Somewhat long winded. Not as good as Philippa Gregory, but enjoyable.
“Wolf Island: Discovering the Secrets of a Mythic Animal” by L David Mech (author) and Greg Breining (Contributor) – University of Minnesota Press, 2020
This is a a recent book is about research on the predator/prey relationship between wolves and moose, conducted from 1958 to 1962 at Isle Royale in Lake Superior. Most of it is taken directly from Mech’s field notes.
Field notes from ecologists provide insight (and entertainment!) that can’t easily be gleaned from peer reviewed scientific articles, of which Dr Mech published an astonishing three hundred, plus a dozen books (Wikipedia). I’m so glad this volume made it into print. We all need to know more about science.
So, most of what is written in this book is old. The dangers and challenges of remote winter field work were very great in 1958. Bush planes were temperamental and communications irregular, but Mech LOVED what he was doing as a graduate student. Later he wanted to change fields (to American Studies), but I’m glad he persisted as a biologist.
Mech is very restrained in his writing, giving us just a few glimpses into other areas of his life. We learn just a little about his family, and he also discusses religion.
A final chapter of the book discusses the amazing technological changes which subsequent decades brought to fieldwork, including radio tracking and DNA analysis.
Wildlife and wilderness management inevitably become controversial. What is “natural”? When animals and humans occupy the same space, what interests should be defended? What do we lose when biodiversity is decreased?
My mind wanders to issues of public policy. How can we make prudent decisions when our understanding of nature is so incomplete? Whenever I have an opportunity to meet young scientists, I feel encouraged that the work of groundbreakers like Mech is being carried forward.