Tag Archives: recent history

The Use and Abuse of Fiction – personal opinion

Why write fiction about real events? Why make up stories about World War II, or Ireland or the Great Depression? Why not stick to imagined worlds, like JK Rowling’s delightful, magic permeated version of England?

Consider the wild popularity of the “Humans of New York” Facebook site. There are SO MANY tales to be told. Why not tell them, as is done with Holocaust survivors and military veterans (to name a few) in oral history projects? I offer The Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline as an example of a book written about events that, I believe, have been extensively documented. More about it below.

Sometimes the truth is just too painfully awful to bear.

  • Warriors Don’t Cry by Melba Patillo Beals, who participated in the battle for school desegregation as a high schooler, is a non-fiction account so harrowing I couldn’t read it.
  • The truth behind Beloved by Toni Morrison is even worse than that portrayed in the book/movie, in which an enslaved woman kills her child to keep him from slavery.

Fiction represents a selection of what is (or isn’t) “meaningful” or important about an era or event. I’m convinced that “meaning” is assigned, not inherent. The meaning that an author assigns to an event may be very different from what participants experienced. If the people are available (or left records), I would rather listen to real voices than read a fictionalized account.

I think fiction represents a consensus (of sorts) on what we are going to remember, emphasize and/or construe about events.

Fiction has its conventions. Usually major characters stay alive for most of the book. I was truly shocked when Vikram Seth killed off a major character in the middle of The Golden Gate. That’s what happens in life, not in novels!

Stephen Dunn (poet and professor) says that southern New Jersey (where I live) “hasn’t been imagined yet”. Very little fiction or poetry about this region has been written. To me, that means there’s no consensus about what we will or won’t discuss about South Jersey. Fiction sets boundaries. No one has decided what South Jersey means.

Means to whom? Our local poet? We the residents? Scholars somewhere else? (Will South Jersey Studies be invented one day?) We will surely choose to keep the sun and sand. What about the past? How long will it take to digest Boardwalk Empire by Nelson Johnson? Will we study slaveholders or the underground railroad?

So how did Peter H Davies, author of The Welsh Girl, (a novel about WWII) decide what (and who) to keep and who to discard? Why did he include ONE historical figure (Rudolf Hess) in this work of fiction?

Maybe studying history is just TOO MUCH WORK, too intellectually challenging. The Orphan Train was selected as a Common Reading (for a college, with the emphasis on the Freshmen) because it was “accessible”. Translate that to mean not too long, not too complicated… (I found it didactic.) Serious study of the events and historical period was apparently not considered. (I get it, but are we underestimating student intelligence?)

I was surprised, when I checked, to find out that I split my reading almost 50/50 between fiction and non-fiction. I thought I was leaning more towards fiction.

I very much enjoy “fantasy” fiction, but I would guess it’s a small fraction of what I read, maybe 10%. I LOVE a good alternative world.

My point? Does anyone else have a problem with fictionalized accounts of real events? Do you worry that you might be misled? That an author might be biased? How should fiction be incorporated into education? If a book pops into your mind when you consider this, I’d particularly like to hear about it.

Advertisements

“The Woman Who Smashed Codes – A True Story of Love, Spies, and the Unlikely Heroine Who Outwitted America’s Enemies” by Jason Fagone

This book was recommended to me by someone who said she couldn’t put it down, that it made her cry. I was equally entranced.

The life history of Elizebeth (sic) Smith Friedman (1892 – 1980) was an example of truth being stranger (and WAY more interesting) than fiction.

This is one of the “lost” stories of recent American history.

We are now, finally, as decades pass and TOP SECRET ULTRA documents from World War II are declassified, learning what our relatives/ancestors were doing during World War II. My family is turning up some surprises. Has this happened to you? Do you need to ask your grandparents (quickly!) for the whole story?

The book Code Girls by Liza Mundywas an excellent example of this.                                                                                                                     I blogged about it on December 2, 2017.

What made Elizebeth Smith Friedman’s life more interesting than fiction? Elizebeth was so entirely self made! She was the youngest of nine children growing up on an Indiana farm, and was only the second of them to go to college. Her unsupportive father loaned her the money, and charged interest. She majored in literature and studied several languages, then worked briefly as a high school principal.

One crucial, strikingly odd (and sometimes threatening) character in Elizebeth’s life was George Fabyan, a rich eccentric who patronized and cultivated an eclectic coterie of scientists and other intellectuals, many of whom lived at his Riverbank Estate outside Chicago.

At Riverside Estate, Elizebeth met William F Friedman, also a Fabyan protégé. The two were married in 1917. Friedman had studied agriculture (at my alma mater, Michigan State University!) and later genetics, at Cornell.

Fabyan employed Smith as a literary researcher and code breaker and Friedman as a plant geneticist.

Elizebeth and William developed into groundbreaking cryptographers. The science of code breaking had barely been invented when they began to work together. Cryptanalysis is a science, but also a highly intuitive endeavor. Success depends on the ability to see patterns in letters, words or numbers that appear random. After World War I, during Prohibition, Elizebeth broke codes used by criminal bootleggers and rumrunners, and testified against notorious mobsters in court. This brought her a measure of  public attention.

World War II raised the stakes on cryptanalysis. Successful code breaking contributed greatly to the Allied victory. WHAT IF THE US AND GREAT BRITAIN HAD NOT BOTH BROKEN ENEMY CODES AND KEPT THEIR INTELLIGENCE CAPABILITIES SECRET?? This book caused me to wonder what my life would have been like if the Allies had lost WW II. Would I have grown up in an occupied country? How long would Facism have persisted? Was the Cold War inevitable? The nuclear arms race?

Ironically, during World War II Elizebeth and William worked in different military agencies and were prohibited from discussing their assignments with each other. Loneliness was added to the other terrible wartime stresses they faced. William suffered from “nerves” (probably depression) at a time when little professional/medical help was available. Elizebeth “covered” for him and went to extremes to protect, support and encourage him. They loved each other devotedly for 52 years, until William died in 1969.

After WW II, Elizebeth received much less attention than William. Only recently have historians paid serious attention to Elizebeth’s incredible genius and military contributions.

Read this book! I predict it will be one of your favorites.

“The King’s Speech” by Mark Logue and Peter Conradi

This book has TWO subtitles. On the cover it says BASED ON THE RECENTLY DISCOVERED DIARIES OF LIONEL LOGUE, but the title page reads HOW ONE MAN SAVED THE BRITISH MONARCHY. I find the second of these more interesting. Was the British monarchy really in that much trouble? Hard to imagine as we watch Queen Elizabeth II, ruler since 1952, move serenely through her seventh decade on the throne.

Perhaps you have heard the expression referring to the British royal family: “the heir and the spare”. Prince Albert (later King George VI) was born and raised to be the “spare”. His handsome, outgoing older brother came to the throne as King Edward VIII when their father died in 1936.

However, Edward VIII abdicated (resigned!) to marry American divorcee Wallis Simpson.

The English and the rest of the Commonwealth could have decided the monarchy was a luxury they couldn’t afford. If  “the spare” was an unpopular King, the monarchy might have been trimmed back to match what we see today in, say, Netherlands or Scandinavia.

The “man” of the title was Lionel Logue, and the monarch he served was King George VI, who ascended to the throne in 1936 after the “abdication crisis”. Prince Albert suffered from a severe stammer. Some people mistook his hesitance for unintelligence. He never expected or wanted to be King.

How did Logue and the future King get together? In 1926, young Prince Albert had suffered terrible public embarrassment when, in the middle of a live radio broadcast, he stammered and paused repeatedly. Humiliated, he consulted another in his long string of “experts”.

Unlike the previous disappointments, the Prince was told his problem could and would be resolved. The profession of speech therapy did not exist at that time. Australian specialist Lionel Logue had elevated the teaching of elocution into a medical type specialty, and greatly improved the speech of many stutterers. After intensive work with the Prince, his role became that of coach and friend, and Logue supported King George through many milestone speeches, especially during World War II. The King’s speech was never perfect, but with hard work it was excellent.

This reminds me of a young woman with lilting, elegant speech whom I met at a workshop. As we were getting acquainted, someone asked the origin of her “accent”. She explained that she had a speech impediment. It had been beautifully “corrected”.

This book helped me understand how the British subjects feel about their royalty. Logue was a “commoner” from Australia. British subjects want a leader to admire, and they want to know that their leader CARES about them. What better way to convey that than by radio? Broadcast radio was just coming into it’s own. As a head of state, King George VI could not avoid addressing his people publicly.

Interestingly, no one can explain how Logue improved the King’s speech. Much of the change was undoubtedly psychological. Confidence can overcome a great deal.

This book is also the account of a unlikely friendship. Crossing class lines and the client/expert barrier, the warm relationship between King George VI and Lionel Logue lasted until the King’s death in 1952.

This is an excellent book, especially for people who like to watch royalty.

“The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements” by Eric Hoffer

This book was published in 1951, when the world was struggling to understand what had led to World War II and the Holocaust. The “true believers” Hoffer analyzed were Nazis and Fascists, with some discussion of early Christians and other movements. He believed all mass movements shared a definable set of characteristics.

Full disclosure: I didn’t read this book! I attended two 2-hour seminars on it, sponsored by my husband’s alma mater, and I read ABOUT the book and the author.

A subtext to our discussion was the election of Donald Trump. We’ve all suffered from shock. What does this mean about our country? Are we headed towards fascist type authoritarianism? Who voted for Trump, and why? As far as I know, the fourteen people (total) who attended the two seminars did not vote for Trump.

We decided that Trump’s supporters were not “true believers” in the same sense as Nazis and Fascists. There’s no reason to believe they would die for Donald Trump.

Hoffer believes certain segments of a population are vulnerable to demagogic leadership, namely those who feel angry and powerless. He speaks of spoiled or damaged lives, and mentions “failed artists”. I can’t parse that category.

Our discussion veered to other groups that offer up their lives. Suicide bombers. The Arab Spring protester who burned himself to death. Kamikazi pilots.

Though often described as a philosopher, Hoffer was not an academic. Wikipedia lists his occupations as “author and longshoreman”. He may not have graduated from high school. He was fluently literate in both English and German, and read voraciously. The US military refused to enlist him due to medical condition and possibly his age – he was 40 at the start of WW II. How he managed to publish “The True Believer” while laboring as a dockworker in San Francisco puzzles me.

A great deal of Hoffer’s writing was never published, but is available to scholars. I hope more of it will be extracted for publication. Now is the time for public dialog on the issues he studied.

“The Bremer Detail – Protecting the Most Threatened Man In the World” by Frank Gallagher and John M. Del Vecchio

Let me make two things clear from the start. I think the Iraq War was a tragic mistake, and I think Presidential Envoy L Paul Bremer made some very bad decisions during his management of the occupation of Iraq.

I read this book because of its scale.

I’ve thought a good deal about scale lately. Some things scale up or down well. I could give technological examples. But sticking to books, some topics are too big (the meaning of life) and some are too small (what I ate for lunch today).

The nature of WAR is something I want to understand, but the topic is too big. This book is about one small aspect of war, one man’s experience in a particular time and place. At this scale, I can learn something.

Gallagher was a bodyguard, responsible for the personal safety of Bremer in Iraq after the invasion and before a new civil government was installed. Iraq was unstable and violent, growing worse as the months passed. Gallagher worked for the now infamous contracting company, Blackwater.

The use of contractors to do “military” tasks is a relatively new wrinkle, presumably a result of the switch to an all volunteer military. It seems unlikely that any money is saved by the use of contractors, but a different labor pool is activated. Contractors are disparaged by many (especially in the military) for being “mercenaries”. Their relationships to military and government are often strained.

Gallagher was hired by Blackwater solely to protect Bremer, originally for a period of just 30 days. He is by no means an apologist for Blackwater. By his standards, the Blackwater managers stateside had no idea what was going on in Iraq or how to protect Bremer. Eventually Gallagher managed a team of three dozen specialists (many formerly in the military) to protect Bremer 24 hours a day.

Any notion that the “private sector” always does things better than government is certainly dispelled by this book. Blackwater had its share of pointy headed bureaucrats and sometimes made very strange decisions.

Bremer was not an easy man to protect. He left the safety of Baghdad’s “green zone” almost every day, meeting with Iraqi leaders in many different settings. His schedule couldn’t be known accurately in advance. Most of the time, he worked 16 hours a day. As his tenure in Iraq progressed, he was targeted for assassination, and the Iraqi insurgents got better and better at making bombs and organizing attacks. As the man closest to Bremer in public, Gallagher was also an identified target.

By dint of very hard work and a certain amount of luck, Gallagher and his team managed to keep Bremer alive, AND avoided any injury or death of civilians.

What did I learn from this book? Some people are adrenaline junkies, and the rest of us should be grateful (in most cases) for the work they do. Armed conflict brings out both the best and worst in people. Our governments policies are implemented in ways that can astonish and sometimes disappoint us as citizens.

War is hell.

Book Source – Recent History (Mine!)

I just recognized an important category of books for me! These are books about the “history” of my lifetime.

Insight: Just because I lived through something, that doesn’t mean I understand it in any depth. Yes, I may have memories, but they are fragmentary and I should be careful of using them as a basis for conclusions. I was a child in the fifties, a teenager and college student in the sixties, etc.

This insight was triggered by reading Hellhound on His Trail by Hampton Sides, about the manhunt for James Earl Ray, who murdered Martin Luther King in 1968. I’ll post a review shortly, with some comments on my (personal) memories of that terrible event.

Here are some reviews in this blog that cover history I “experienced” first hand:

  • “The Eve of Destruction – How 1965 Transformed America” by James Peterson. Blog post dated June 3, 2013. Current commentators treat the sixties as some kind of joke! But serious things happened.
  • The John F Kennedy Presidential Museum and Library, in which I saw the exhibit on the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, an event that scared me half to death. Blog post dated January 1, 2014
  • “War Journal – My Five Years in Iraq” by Richard Engel and “Where Men Win Glory” by Jon Krakauer (posts dated November 15 and November 21, 2013). I’m trying to understand the wars we have been (and are) fighting in the Middle East.

Now that I’ve recognized this need, I will be watching for books that explain the world I lived in, and which (for better or worse) I leave to my children.

“A Fierce Green Fire” – a documentary history of environmentalism (part 2)

Another friend got into the discussion (also very slightly edited):

I won’t argue with Kant or Chomsky (since I haven’t studied them in great depth) but I see a few problems with your hypothesis for the lack of engagement in activism, namely the Sierra Club, among the young. The brain may not lack an organizing capacity for historical reflection. Just because we’re “hard wired” as it were for immediacy doesn’t mean we aren’t also predisposed for reflection; we just shouldn’t try to do it all the time like when we’re escaping predators. But historical reflection will allow us to cut down on encountering predators.

I’m not sure if you mean the perceived lack of engagement is for the local chapter of the Sierra Club or if they are having a national crisis for membership. I can see alternative explanations for either case. Let me address your points more directly.

1. “Possibly related is the blandness of recent history.  Technology may be roaring ahead, but great upheavals that engaged most of the public (world wars, depressions, natural disasters) have not occurred in the lifetimes of most people living today.  So the disturbing events that might gravitate people toward a consciousness of impending climate (and other) disaster aren’t happening.”

Our recent history has not been bland. Our students are well aware of economic depression, since 2008 they have lived during one. They have also lived through three different US wars in the Middle East, two of them lasting almost their entire lifetime. The impact of natural disasters such as hurricane Katrina and more recently Sandy also affects them. They are also concerned with other global issues such as genocides in Darfur, wars in Georgia, Syria, and now Ukraine.

2. “A proposed explanation is the difficulty in CONNECTING with young people – since they have lost the ability to read/listen/study: an effect of media overload, media dumbing down and the technological poisons of background music, electronic games, texting and face-booking.”

This sounds like the charge Socrates made against the youth of Athens. There have always been distractions from what other people consider important. So let’s look at what today’s youth considers important. It’s not always entertainment as your hypothesis claims. Locally, I know our students have a great concern for employment. They seem genuinely disinterested in anything I have to say until I connect it to them getting a job. This isn’t unreasonable since they have just started on their careers during the worst depression the US has seen since the 1930s. They don’t come from affluent families so the current trend in higher education of graduating students with a crushing debt is an ever present worry for them. They are also the first ones in their family to go to college. For many, especially the women, this is in itself is a form of activism. They are fighting a cause more dear to their hearts than the environment — class struggle and freedom of education. 

The media outlets you bemoan are not the problem in and of themselves. It’s who else is using those media outlets. Most news sources and networking sites inundate youth with worrying messages about their future in terms of jobs and debt. The environment is drowned out as a long term worry while economics is presented as an immediate problem; this triggers the part of the brain that deals with “escaping the predator.” What does an 18-22 care about the earth dying in the next 100 years if he has no idea where he will live or how he will eat when he turns 23?

Many environmental organizations do use these digital and social media outlets to get their message across and the youth do respond. I think the 5th point of the movie, globalization, underscores this. Perhaps the lack of interest isn’t about the environment but just the Sierra Club. Youth may be looking for more global platforms. How does youth membership in Green Peace and World Wildlife Fund compare to Sierra Club? Or other types of political activism such as Amnesty International? 

3. You used the phrase “my generation.” An important point to keep in mind is that in terms of just numbers, your generation and the baby boomers simply outnumber Generation Y and the Millenials (today’s youth). So what may be perceived as a drop off because people aren’t engaged may just be a drop in young people even existing. Can’t engage what doesn’t exist. 

You really want to engage the youth in political and environmental activism, connect it to them earning a living. Occupy Wall Street is a good example. Many young people are starting non-profit corporations that target environmental issues (such as installing solar panels at low cost) rather than joining huge public protest movements. Perhaps your perception of what constitutes political/environmental activism needs to change.