Tag Archives: American history

French Creek State Park, Phoenixville, PA

This is the third in my series state park reviews (see entries from June 3, 2017 and June 14, 2018). These are my perspectives on camping:

  • I’m a car/tent camper.
  • I camp with a group, ranging up to 35 people on, say, 10 sites.
  • My group is multigenerational.

Thanks, JM, for selecting French Creek and getting us organized!

I camped at French Creek several times in the past, and I’ve sometimes lauded it as “State Park Heaven”. Yes, it really is THAT GOOD! I first awarded that accolade when my kids were small. Instead of beach swimming, French Creek offers a pool. It’s big and beautifully designed, with lots of shallow water where kids play happily. The pool area is surrounded by grass and then a fence, decreasing the chance of a child wandering off. (Camping with kids poses ALL KINDS of challenges, but is usually worth it.) Because of the pool, those camping trips were the only times I ever brought kids home CLEAN. Wow!

We’ve never used a “group” campsite. They don’t have flush toilets. ‘Nuff said…

This year we were located on a “pet friendly” campsite loop, which made sense. Some years, our group has included dogs, maxing out at SEVEN one time! As it happened, none this year. Many of the sites near us had electrical hookups, which means (for the uninitiated) that campers could power up their huge, giant RV campers and go wild, enjoying all the comforts of home (air conditioning, sound systems, etc.) We felt out of touch with the surrounding culture, which included a light show projected up into the trees, and, on one site, a four by six foot screen showing NATURE SPECIALS. Like WILD PLANET. No kidding.

A camper always worries a little about noise, especially in the morning. Which will it be – children, dogs, rap music, someone who can’t resist chopping wood? No wood chopping this year, and babies/children not a problem. But the dogs! The first morning we heard only the occasional bark. But the second morning ONE DOG disrupted us repeatedly beginning around 6:30. My husband described it as the William Tell Overture of Barking, and began fantasizing about the Lizzie Borden school of conflict resolution. We restrained ourselves. So did everyone else! The third morning, all was quiet.

I offer the following advice to those who camp with dogs: if you can’t quiet your pet in the early hours, put it in the car and GO AWAY. Drive to the nearest Wawa, buy a coffee and CHILL. Come back after 8 am. Or put your dog on a leash and take a long walk. Be a good neighbor! (Goodness, I once resorted to putting my CHILD in the stroller and taking a 6 am walk…)

So what’s good about French Creek in addition to the pool? There are so many miles of well marked trails. And next door is Hopewell Village National Historic Site, both educational and entertaining.

We were thrilled to learn that the Natural Lands Trust has opened a new area near the French Creek called Crow’s Nest Preserve, with MORE trails and abundant natural wonders. Pennsylvania offers so many opportunities to be outdoors that, even on a peak weekend, you generally don’t feel crowded.

The final benefit is that French Creek is only two hours from home, and the trip takes us against the current of shore traffic. Easy!

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“I, Eliza Hamilton” by Susan H Scott and other books about Alexander Hamilton

I, Eliza Hamilton

I feel like I’m sneaking up on Alexander Hamilton.

I tried to read Ron Chernow’s biography Alexander Hamilton (2005) but got bogged down. I may return to it. I “accidentally” listened to The Glorious Cause: The American Revolution, 1763-178” (2007) by Robert Middlekauf, part of the Oxford History of the United States. (On a long family road trip, the driver gets to choose the recorded book, and even when interested, I sometimes doze off.) I haven’t watched the musical Hamilton, or even heard the sound track.

I accepted I, Eliza Hamilton from an historical fiction enthusiast. Conflict of interest right there…  I ask the usual question…why fictionalize an interesting and fairly well documented life? I guess some people just HAVE to have dialogue! And they can’t accept that there are questions that can’t be answered. Did Hamilton marry for money and social status?

My opinion about Scott’s book? So so. Romanticized. Sentimental. But I kept reading. Call it a C+/B-.

What I really want to understand about Hamilton (and American society at that time) was the role of dueling. Scott (in her discussion notes) says Hamilton was involved in ELEVEN duels or threatened duels. She is the first author I have read to raise the possibility that duelists did not always shoot to kill. (Their weapons were of poor quality and most were bad shots.) What was the nature of the “honor” being defended in these encounters? If, as I have read elsewhere, dueling (which was illegal or severely frowned upon) was an alternate dispute resolution system, did this reflect a flaw in the laws and courts that might better have handled the disputes? What kept dueling from spiraling down into blood feud?

Guess I better keep reading.

 

“The Wives of Los Alamos – A Novel” by TaraShea Nesbit

For me, the name “Los Alamos” triggers a cold shiver. This remote New Mexico location (it wasn’t a town) is where the World War II Manhattan Project was moved in order to build the first atomic bombs.

Who were these wives? They were married to scientists and engineers, often academics, hence enjoyed middle class or higher socioeconomic status. Many were young. They were told almost nothing about Los Alamos in advance. The ultimate answer to any question was “the war”. You are doing this for the war effort. Someone, somewhere, decided that, if a few hundred scientists were going to isolated for months or years, they needed some semblance of normal family life. But once the work was underway, the scientists labored behind locked gates ten or more hours per day, and could not speak a word about their activities to their wives and children.

Nesbit has not written a conventional narrative, using a looser approach which offers several versions of every situation. No one woman is followed through the three year period covered by the book.

For example, Nesbitt writes about the (often hasty) marriages that preceded the deployment to Los Alamos (p. 37):

Our brothers said we looked like movie stars, like angels, like ourselves, like ourselves but prettier, like our mothers. Or our brothers were late to our weddings because they were taking the office candidate exam. Or our brothers were not there to see us wed – they were in a bunker in Europe, they were at Army gunnery school. They were Navy bombers, and on our wedding day the newspaper reported: A Navy patrol plane with ten men aboard has been unreported since it took off on a routine training flight Friday and it is presumed lost in the Gulf, and we did not hear from our brothers on our wedding day, or the next week, or the next.

Using this approach, no experience is offered as “definitive”.

I knew a little bit about Los Alamos because my dear friends Libby and Charlie Marsh were among the residents. Charlie was a physicist. (He saw the scientists as being distinct from the engineers on the Project.) I don’t believe he was drafted. Scientists were brought into the military through other pipelines. I wish I had asked Libby and Charlie more questions. Both are deceased.

Nesbitt’s accounts of the experimental Trinity test (first nuclear explosion) and the subsequent bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are particularly intense.

How could we not have known? How could we not have fully known? In retrospect, there were maybe more hints than we cared to let ourselves consider: back in Chicago, our husband’s colleague told us, Don’t be afraid of becoming a widow; if your husband blows up, you will, too…Did we turn away from the clues because our questions would be met with silence? Or because in some deep way, we did not want to know?

Or perhaps we knew this might happen all along, but we never wanted to admit it.

I highly recommend this book. Understanding the experiences of my parents’ generation isn’t easy, but it’s worth the effort.

“Finding Dorothy” by Elizabeth Letts

Finding Dorothy: A Novel

This book was given to me when I made a purchase at an independent bookstore in North Carolina. There was a stack (several feet high) of pre-release volumes from which I was invited to choose. The official publication date is February 12, 2019. My copy is marked Advance Reader’s Edition. Maybe there’s too much competition if you release a book right before Christmas?

The “Dorothy” of this book is the heroine of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, who spoke the immortal words “I don’t think we’re in Kansas any more.” The book falls into the genre of fictionalized biography. (I disapprove, in principle…)

Elizabeth Letts begins by introducing Maud Gage Baum as an elderly woman, in 1938, during the months when The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, written by her deceased husband, was being rendered into a movie.

Flashbacks then reveal Maud Baum’s life story, beginning with her arrival at Cornell University in one of the first groups of women permitted to study there.

Many aspect of Maud Gage Baum’s life are distressing. She suffered from the rampant sexism of her day, poor medical care and economic instability. Her mother, Matilda Gage, was a well known suffragist at a time when the vote for women was widely considered a joke.

The book would be depressing, but L Frank Baum was such an engaging, imaginative and kind man that we understand how Maud was able to carry on.

One well developed theme was the Women’s Suffrage movement. Additionally, both Christian Science and spiritualism are touched in passing. Maud Baum lived in interesting times!

What about The Wonderful Wizard of Oz? Letts describes Frank Baum as a man of vast creativity and optimism. His book is described in Wikipedia as “the first American fairy tale”. What a wonderful accolade! Its popularity was sensational. Children believed every word of it, loved it, read it, dreamed it.

Somehow, I never read the book and never even watched the movie all the way through. But now I feel inspired to do both. I think that makes Letts’s book a wonderful success.

PS: Why have I read two works recently in which a DOLL figures prominently? The Dorothy of Letts’s novel is not a person, but rather the beloved doll owned by Maud Baum’s suffering niece, who is tragically mired in poverty and loneliness. The doll is destroyed and Dorothy is reincarnated as an imaginary friend. Think about the doll in the Neapolitan novels of Elena Ferrante. Kind of witchy, right? Can anyone explain to me the end of that long saga, when the doll reappears?

“What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815 – 1848” by Daniel W Howe, part of “The Oxford History of the United States”

What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848 (Oxford History of the United States)

Over the recent Thanksgiving holiday I spent many hours in the car, driving to the Outer Banks of North Carolina, then to a suburb of Washington DC and finally home to New Jersey. Recorded books make grueling trips bearable! My fellow traveler is working his way (selectively) through The Oxford History of the United States.

The Oxford History (conceived in the 1950s and published starting in 1982) will eventually consist of 12 volumes. They are not strictly sequential. (Some deal with a topic rather than a time period.) We are making no effort to read them in order. My husband began with The Republic for Which it Stands, covering 1865 to 1896 (Reconstruction and the “Gilded Age”). Then we jumped back in time to What Hath God Wrought.

Initially, this book was going to be titled Jacksonian America. Wow! I didn’t realize how much there is to hate about Andrew Jackson! His attitudes toward African Americans (enslaved or free) and native Americans were ugly. The rest of the world was turning it’s back on the “peculiar institution”. How would America move forward? The US was on shaky moral ground.

Taking a step back, the value of this book is that it shows how unprecedented and experimental the newborn United States was. The future success of our country was by no means assured.

Okay, I admit to having slept through a good deal of the recorded text, but it didn’t matter. What I learned was interesting! Consider, for example, the role of violence in civic life. Why so many riots? This book was published in 2007, but it has a remarkable amount to say about politics and behavior in 2018.

Three issues in this book that particularly engaged me were

  • the abolition movement
  • “Indian removal”, as in The Trail of Tears
  • women’s rights, especially suffrage

Sometimes supporters of these movements aided each other, and sometimes they found themselves at cross purposes.

When I’m on the road, I often need music or conversation, but well written history also makes the miles roll past. Previously I’ve read popular books about World War II. Shifting towards these more scholarly works has been worthwhile.

“Code Girls – The Untold Story of the American Women Code Breakers of World War II” by Liza Mundy

Product Details

I had high hopes for this book before I even opened it. Why? Because the group of smiling young women on the front cover seemed eerily familiar. A face very like theirs looks down from the mantel in my living room. My mother-in-law JRC was a “code girl”, an officer from the first group of women accepted into the Navy during World War II.

Mundy points out that the United States differed from Japan and Germany in its response to the challenge of global war. The US consciously and intentionally mobilized its women, taking advantage of a large pool of educated and willing workers. This was not done without considerable ambivalence. Mundy describes an assembly at which the women were treated to a detailed analysis of what was “wrong” with the use of women to serve military interests. Pretty much everything! The women refrained from expressing anger or amusement. I wonder if the speaker ever developed any insight into his own myopic boneheadedness.

I met JRC when she was almost 60, and contributed two of her (eventually) eight grandchildren during the next decade. Her death at age 85 (in 2005) was a grievous loss to me and all her large and loving family.

We all knew that JRC loved puzzles and codes. She said her interest started when she read Edgar Allan Poe’s popular short story “The Gold-Bug”. See Wikipedia for a good discussion of this thriller!

It’s tempting to continue with personal reminiscence, but I feel that my mother-in-law’s story is not mine to tell. Perhaps I’ll discuss this with family and ask how they feel about it. Like most of the “code girls”, JRC didn’t say much about her wartime military responsibilities.

In the meantime, I loved Code Girls and recommend it without reservation.

“A Schoolteacher in Old Alaska – The Story of Hannah Breece” edited by Jane Jacobs

I was on vacation (in Alaska) and had promised myself I wouldn’t buy gifts for family and friends – I was trying to travel light. But when I saw this book, I had to have it! Memoirs about Alaska’s early days are numerous, but this one stood out because of the identity of the editor. Jane Jacobs is identified on the book cover as author of The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Yes, that Jane Jacobs! A Google search of her name yields 22 million hits! Okay, it’s a pretty common name, but I’ll bet the majority refer to the “American-Canadian journalist, author and activist” smiling out at me from Wikipedia (but modestly absent from the book). Hannah Breece, sadly, is not listed in Wikipedia. I hope this is remedied soon.

How did Jacobs-the-activist end up editing this 193-page memoir? In a sense, she inherited the job. Hannah Breece was Jane Jacobs’ aunt. Late in Ms. Breece’s life, when she had retired to Oregon, acquaintances urged her to write about her experiences teaching in Alaska from 1904 to 1918. She asked friends and relatives to return her letters, and used them to assemble a memoir. It was not published. Jane Jacobs admits she was put off by the racism, sexism and colonialism detectable in her Aunt’s writing, though they were merely a reflection of the times.

Hannah Breece died in 1940, and Jane Jacobs published the memoir in 1995! She added detailed commentary that tremendously enhances the value of Ms. Breece’s record. Under the heading of “Puzzles, Tangles, Clarifications”, she addresses the social and political climate of Alaska, its relation to the rest of the US and numerous omissions in the memoir. (In fact, Ms. Breece had left out a great deal.) Jacobs offers seven brief essays clarifying various points. My favorite was #6, entitled “Miraculous Rescues”.

Make no mistake, Hannah Breece was very fortunate to have survived her time in the wilderness. Any newcomer to Alaska had to be smart, strong and LUCKY to deal with the hazards of climate, wildlife, topography and lack of government. Ms. Breece recounts two experiences that “should” have killed her, for which no “rational” explanation of her survival can be offered. Jacobs doesn’t back off from this complex territory. She assigns one experience (a near drowning) to the category of “intuition”. Before crossing a frozen bay, Ms. Breece felt “irrational” fear that was readily explainable after the fact. The second experience was more complex. Perhaps, suffering from hypothermia, Ms. Breece hallucinated. She was helped by a person who wasn’t there. In her dire need, did she remember someone strong and competent from her childhood?

Now that I’ve read it, I’ll pass this book along to the intended recipient. It’s a good thing he likes used books!