Category: Book Reviews

A Privileged Perspective: On Escaping A Stricken Field

Photo of the book cover of Martha Gellhorn's novel, A Stricken Field

Cover of 1940 edition of Martha Gellhorn’s A Stricken Field

In January, reading Anne Boyd Rioux’s review essay of Martha Gellhorn’s A Stricken Field,  I was intrigued enough to order a copy. Rioux had written for LitHub that Gellhorn’s 1940 novel delivers “a gut-punch” as it “powerfully illustrates how Western societies fail in their duty to protect the most vulnerable among us: stateless and homeless refugees.”[i] I didn’t really want a “gut-punch” from reading about refugees. Instead, the novel’s setting in Prague, where my husband and I were headed in March, prompted me. I thought Gellhorn’s account would help me prepare for our planned spring break trip to the Czech Republic, where we would visit our son who was studying abroad. Put another way, we’d be escaping the late-winter doldrums of life in the isolated Ozarks.

Put another way, we’d be escaping the late-winter doldrums of life in the isolated Ozarks.

Gellhorn’s best-selling fictional account of the Nazi regime’s rise in power would be more interesting and engaging than Count Francis Lützow’s The Story of Prague (1902), another historical volume I had begun in hopes of educating myself. (The volume’s illustrations by Nelly Erichsen, a professional expatriate artist from England, had caught my eye—but she’s the subject of another article). I soon set that history aside, as Gellhorn’s journalist heroine sucked me in to her relationships—relationships both with young political activists she had befriended and her fellow journalists.

Martha Gellhorn during the Spanish Civil War, c. 1937-1938. Ernest Hemingway Collection. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston.

Described in heart wrenching and soulful scenes, without one bit of sentimentality, A Stricken Field provides a story of an occupation that arrived gradually—creeping in like a virus—until suddenly it has ravaged the entire city and destroyed those the journalist (and sensitive readers) have come to hold dearly. As the one character jokes nervously upon her arrival, “What, no pictures of Adolf in the windows yet?” But within a matter of days, the ancient city has been turned upside down.

Gellhorn’s account differs from Anne Frank’s famous diary,  not only because it’s fiction, but also because it captures the interiority of adults—more mature characters as they move about the city—even as they hide in isolation or huddle in quickly established “quarantine” housing for recently arrived exiles from Germany. Most notably, Gellhorn’s account differs from Frank’s in this mobility.

Mobility through Privilege

The mobility emerges through the movement of the journalist’s and the narrator’s privileged eyes, blurred by the perspectives Gellhorn’s crafting creates. She allows readers to witness scenes of passionate lovers in hiding—clinging to each other in moments of unknown futures; abuses of resistors, victimized by German authorities; and slight fears of news-following journalists. As readers, our eyes move from scene to horrific scene, often with the eye of the American journalist, Mary Douglas, who generally feels her position provides her safety.

The journalist’s choice, finally, like Frank’s, is to use writing as a tool. She will tell the story of her experience, as she smuggles documents in her suitcase so that the records will remain. Yet the journalist’s experience, she tells herself throughout the account and especially as she flees Prague in fear, is an experience of privilege, from a privileged position. The horrific life she witnessed in Prague, under Hitler’s regime, was not her own. She has credentials that will help her to escape it–and she has the documents that will help her tell the story.

Yes, journalists were traveling by plane in 1940, and the plane becomes the most fraught symbol of her mobility and privilege.

Culminating the novel’s numerous nerve-wracking scenes, the narrator moves through intimidating customs clearance questions at the airport. Yes, journalists were traveling by plane in 1940, and the plane becomes the most fraught symbol of her mobility and privilege. In fact, the novel opens inside a plane, where the narrator and journalist recognize that “the land looked the same as when they flew across France, summer green and rich.”  Were they “looking for . . . maybe a swastika painted on roof?”

Fertile fields in the plain of Forez, Les Massards, Loire. Wikimedia Commons : Hélène Rival / CC BY-SA

By the circuitous return to the plane setting in the novel’s closing, the book title’s meaning emerges. Here the journalist and other travelers who have escaped the horrors of the occupied Czech terrain observe once again from the plane window, happy to have crossed the Rhine and be over France.

View from a plane of fields in Sicily

Fertile fields of Sicily in late summer–one of my privileged views

Photo from an airplane of fields near coast of Rome, Italy

Fertile fields along the Italian coast near Rome–another privileged view

Yet as the journalist gazes “down at the neat fields, brown and green, purple brown, yellow” she recognizes even more than she had months before—“the land doesn’t look any different . . . the land doesn’t look different at all.” What has “stricken” the “field” are the behaviors of people within it, and those infectious actions might happen anywhere. As she returns to France, where the fields are not stricken, she struggles with what she will choose to remember and what she will easily forget.

A False Sense of Security and Privilege

The irony for readers today, of course, is that we recognize the travelers’ and the journalist’s false sense of security and privilege—for France soon will be occupied as well. A Stricken Field becomes a metaphor not merely for the Czech’s land but for almost all of Europe. The journalist’s privileged escape is only temporary and in a physical world rather than in her emotional state.

Gellhorn’s tale resonated even more with me a month after I read it—by mid-March—and now. When my copy arrived in February, news of the corona virus outbreak in Wuhan was becoming more on our radar, as the virus had made its way to western Washington. But I was reading with plans of my own privileged spring break trip yet ahead. A month later, when my trip had been cancelled and I couldn’t even enjoy a pizza out at a local pub with friends, as I reflected on Gellhorn’s Stricken Field, I realized that China’s virus outbreak had become Italy’s and Italy’s had spread to Prague and other parts of Europe. Soon the outbreak would become our own. Our son was headed home, with thousands of other American university students, and we would not be traveling.  No perspective of privilege would prevent the impact.

Anne Hampton Brewster: Another Perspective of Privilege

In a few days I’ll be discussing another mistaken “perspective of privilege.” This time it will be an American journalist in 19th century Rome who wrestled with cholera and Roman fever as she shared the news with readers in the US. My discussion of Anne Hampton Brewster‘s writings is part of a webinar series sponsored by the Library Company of Philadelphia. The webinar is FREE, but you do need to register through the web page for the series.  I hope you’ll tune in to have your thinking piqued about quarantine and our relationships with those around us. History continues to speak. It teaches those who are willing to listen.

[i] Rioux’s phrase has since been picked up by Amazon and by the University of Chicago Press, who published a reprint of the 1940 novel in 2011.

A Valentine’s and Presidents’ Day Book: Precious and Adored

Cover of book Precious and Adored

Cover of Laskey and Ehrenhalt’s book, Precious and Adored

Here’s a book suited for both Valentine’s and Presidents’ Day. No, it’s not about Abigail and John Adams. Nor is it yet another account of Honest Abe and Mary Todd. But it is about a First Lady.  Melania? Michelle?  Hillary? Their love and marriage stories are certainly intriguing. But no, the story is not one of recent years. The First Lady was Rose Cleveland (1846-1918).

Rose served as First Lady in 1885-86, although she never was legally married. So what’s the story?

Lizzie Ehrenhalt and Tilly Laskey give the account in Precious and Adored: The Love Letters of Rose Cleveland and Evangeline Simpson Whipple, 1890-1918. The book appeared a year ago, but the story remains new and engaging–even though it speaks of a woman and a relationship that began in the 19th century.

Authors and historians Lizzie Ehrenhalt, of the MInnesota Historical Society, and Tilly Laskey. Outreach Curator, Maine Historical Society

Rose became the official First Lady when her brother, the unmarried Grover Cleveland, became US President. (It was essential that the White House have a “First Lady,” of course). She remained in the position until he married. Not long after, Rose began writing to a “wealthy widow,” then Evangeline Marrs Simpson, whom she had met in Florida, sometime in the late 1880s. The rest, as they say, is history–and a fascinating love story. It includes the widow’s second marriage to Episcopal Bishop Henry Whipple in 1896 and Evangeline’s life with him in Minnesota.

Before that marriage, Rose and Evangeline had traveled to Europe and from north to south along the East Coast. (Both women owned property in Florida, where they wintered). And they frequently wrote to each other. The letters serve as a record of their changing relationship.

The letters serve as a record of their changing relationship. . . .

After Evangeline’s marriage to the Bishop, not surprisingly, the women’s relationship changed. Evangeline became engaged in Minnesota with women of indigenous tribes–the Dakota and the Anishinaabe, in particular. Rose occupied herself with writing and real estate. She wrote of strong female figures–such as Joan of Arc and the popular author George Eliot (a pseudonym for Mary Ann Evans). At one point she owned property in Maine, Florida and New York, and she was managing two businesses, as well as writing.

After the Bishop’s death in 1901, the women began seeing each other once again. In June of 1910, they left the US together for Italy. After a short period with Evangeline’s brother in Florence, the two settled in the Tuscan resort village of Bagni di Lucca. Rose died there in 1918, when the influenza epidemic (“the Spanish flu”) spread through Europe and the US. She, Evangeline and their friend Nelly Erichsen had all been involved in helping victims of World War I and the epidemic. (Biographies of Erichsen and of Rose and their activism and deaths at Bagni  are available here and here.) Although Evangeline did not die until 1930, and she then lived in London, she had already made plans to be laid to rest next to Rose in the English Cemetery at Bagni di Lucca.

Whipple’s and Cleveland’s graves in the English Cemetery, Bagni di Lucca, Italy

This brief synopsis does not do justice to the story of the women’s lives. Erhenhalt and Laskey provide an excellent and thorough overview in the 56-page introduction to their book. The remaining pages are the love letters between the two women–a remarkable “inside view” of a near-thirty-year romance. Precious and Adored also includes about a dozen photos, a list of “characters” mentioned in the letters, and a Foreward by historian and scholar of sexuality Lillian Faderman.

Not the story many readers are likely to have imagined about a US First Lady,  Precious and Adored  reminds us that history holds many surprising pictures. We need only take the time to look at them to think differently about the past–as well as about the present situations that surround us.

Timothy Miller on Communes in America, 1975-2000

Book cover Timothy Miller's Communes in AmericaFor anyone interested in alternative communities in the US, Tim Miller’s book on the last quarter of the 20th century is a thorough and accessible read. Miller started studying and writing about communal life as a young scholar of American religious history. No one can delve into that topic without encountering such groups.
(I am a case in point–I first published on New England Puritans, then the Shakers, followed by the Quakers. More recently, I have written about two spiritual communities in Italy’s Piedmont, Damanhur and Villaggio Verde.) Miller made his way into 1960s communes as a sub-specialty, and this book reflects that work.
Communes in America is the last in a trilogy, though. The first two focus on the earlier parts of the 20th century. With a broad foundation in America’s past, Miller writes authoritatively, accurately and accessibly.  This final volume is a fine example of his work.
Yes, Miller writes about Jim Jones and People’s Temple, the Branch Davidians near Waco, and Fundamentalists Latter Day Saints, among many other groups you likely never knew about.
My longer review of the book appeared last week in Religion, State and Society. The journal is allowing free access for the first several viewers, so I’m providing the link below to anyone who is interested in reading more. It may help you decide whether to buy the book.

Here’s a little bit of my review:

“For readers interested in church–state relations, Miller’s final chapter ‘Communities in the Media Spotlight: Crisis and Controversy’ is the richest. Here he explains that the communities that have made the media spotlight have done so because of crises, which are not the norm but rather the exception. The reasons for these crises, he explains, are both internal and external issues and differ little from crises that occur in US culture outside of communities. . . .

One example of an internal crisis that bled into an external one was the leadership of People’s Temple. Jim Jones (1931–1978), a charismatic Protestant minister initially in Indiana, eventually led followers to California and Guyana, where they established the community known as Jonestown. Many of them later drank Fla-Vor-Aid laced with cyanide in 1978. Increasingly disturbed by mental illness and drug abuse, Jones’ behaviours included involvement in the death of California Congressman Leo Ryan and several reporters, who had arrived at Jonestown to investigate the community following a child custody case with defectors. Behaviours such as Jones’ are the exception rather than the rule, Miller asserts.”

Read the entire review here.

Mark Sundeen, The Unsettlers & The Good Life

Mark Sundeen Unsettlers: In Search of the Good Life

Mark Sundeen’s book, The Unsettlers: In Search of the Good Life in Today’s America

Mark Sundeen’s The Unsettlers: In Search of the Good Life in Today’s America ranks among the most interesting new books I read in 2017.  Here are some highlights from my  review of it, which appeared in Communal Societies a few months ago. Perhaps these lines  will intrigue you, if you’re looking for a few more titles for your winter reading list.

In this piece of “immersive journalism,” Sundeen explores three contemporary couples  whose searches for “the good life” took them down paths to lifestyles different from those of most Americans. His intensive interview time with the Possibility Alliance in La Plata, Missouri, Brother Nature Produce in urban Detroit and Lifeline Farms in Montana’s Bitterroot Valley, contribute to a story that is both personal and engaging.

The Unsettlers Tradition

With echoes of Henry David Thoreau’s apology for his two years at Walden Pond, Sundeen explains his motivation:

“I wanted to see if living along lines of radical simplicity brought a deeper, truer relationship to land, livelihood, economy, and spirit. . . . What I wanted to learn was how to lead a good life.”

Sundeen’s past experiences–before journalistic authorship–also pushed him toward this topic. With years of outdoor work experience, plus lots of travel, he, too, had been often in search of something other than a career “tethered to a screen”  and enslaved by capitalism.

With this personal background revealed. Sundeen places himself, his humor, and his occasional skepticism into the immersive experiences. These occur primarily in the three featured sites of the diverse American landscape. But other locales, such as Brooklyn and rural France, emerge as well.  And he sinks the stories of Sarah, Ethan, Olivia, Greg, Luci and Steve into the larger context of America’s many utopian and communal experiments. Their personal histories with alternative agricultural practices, in particular, come to life within this larger context. Sundeen discusses movements as diverse as the celibate, religious Shakers of the nineteenth-century and Stephen Gaskin’s the Farm, a latter-twentieth century enclave that continues today as an educational site.

This larger context of communal, utopian practices is what drew me to his book, of course. (It also explains why my review appeared in the latest issue of the Communal Studies Association journal.) Sundeen’s interviews should interest others, however. Those skeptical about or interested in urban agricultural practices should be enlightened by Brother Nature Produce and its history in Detroit.  They should find fascinating the longstanding but changing organic practices in Montana’s Bitterroot Valley. And the Possibility Alliance in northeastern Missouri draws interest because of its attempts to live off the grid.

Past Heroes, Present Purposes

Sundeen and his subjects have certain heroes whose names continually resurface. Chief among them: Wendell Berry (his The Unsettling of America influenced this book’s title) and Mahatma Ghandi. Their beliefs capture a spirituality, self-discipline, and social activism that Sundeen believes many liberals don’t quite understand.

Many liberals talk a good talk, but when it comes to walking the walk, well, they’d rather drive.

By contrast, his subjects make sacrifices in order to share their visions of how the world might become a better place.

Stylistically, The Unsettlers reverberates with the tone of J. C. Hallman’s In Utopia (St. Martin’s). Also like Hallman’s book, Sundeen’s study provides a broad historical context for this topic of living intentionally.  It, too, is worth a read.

An American Woman in 19th-Century Palestine

Occasionally I read a not-recently-published book that moves me so that I wonder how I missed it when it first appeared.

Book Cover of Divine Expectations An American Woman in 19th-Century Palestine

Book cover of Barbara Kreiger’s Divine Expectations: An American Woman in 19th-Century Palestine.

 Divine Expectations is one such book. Since it was published fifteen years ago, interest in the Mid-East has certainly increased. Although now the US war against ISIS complicates language of Israeli-Palestinian conflicts, themes of religious differences in this ravaged zone continue to loom large. Add to these contemporary interests the fascinating story Barbara Kreiger tells in this book. Her focus: American Clorinda Strong Minor (1809-55), who spent the last five years of her short life in Palestine.

Devoted to a utopian vision of agricultural improvements and spiritual development, Clorinda Minor traveled as a married female without her husband. While on journey she wrestled not only with cultures and languages new to her but also with new technologies. A neophyte to rural farm life, she believed in a future heaven on earth–an ushering in of Christ’s kingdom–in the crescent of the world that has interested Americans and Europeans for centuries. The role of the Jews there, she believed, was essential to the divine kingdom that had been prophesied.

For those who know nothing of Americans in Palestine in the nineteenth century, the expedition in which Minor was  a part opens up views of global relations that go beyond typical evangelistic missions and economic imperatives. By zooming in on specific individuals, Kreiger brings to life the realities of loneliness and personal hungers. In addition to Minor, for example, Kreiger tells the story of John Meshullam, a convert from Judaism to Christianity. Dedicated to farming although also a hotel proprietor and successful businessman, Meshullam was crucial to Minor’s successes. The life experiences of both these transnational travelers included strong desires to achieve. At the same time,  their driveness sometimes contributed to conflicts in their utopian efforts and communities.

Firmly grounded in research and well-documented, Divine Expectations contains clear prose. Approximately a dozen illustrations from nineteenth-century publications recreate what Americans then were envisioning as they read about the Holy Land. Kreiger gives readers a story whose narrative arc demonstrates dreams, struggles, triumphs and failures, both large and small.  Overall, this American woman’s journey included engaging those around her in a vision of social improvement.

I loved this book so much that I bought it for my mother-in-law! Her interest in travel, history and religion suggests Kreiger’s work will engage her as much as it did me.

View all my reviews at Goodreads

Transitions in Gender and Spirituality: Michael Dillon/Lobzang Jivaka

In the spring of 1962, within a month of my birth and just before his death, Lobzang Jivaka finished composing his spiritual autobiography in India. Almost fifty years before and half-way round the world, he had been named at birth Maude Laura Dillon in the Ladbroke Grove neighborhood of Kensington, a now-posh borough of greater London.

Cover of Michael Dillon/Lobzang Jivaka's memoir of transgender and spiritual life

Cover of Michael Dillon/Lobzang Jivaka’s memoir

While my young parents were adjusting to life with a third child in suburban New Orleans and wrestling with a cultural change from rural Arkansas, this Buddhist monk was revisiting his life’s journey. Writing this memoir of “transitions,” from declared female at birth, to living through one of the first medical sex changes in history and re-registering as Michael, was the last of his many accomplishments. These and his transformations–through undergraduate studies at Oxford and medical school at Dublin’s Trinity College, serving as a naval physician and finding his way to Tibetan Buddhism–are the focus of Out of the Ordinary: A Life of Gender and Spiritual Transitions (Fordham UP, 2016).

Although completed more than a half-century ago, the account of this “evolution,” as he shared it, has only been published recently. What kept Dillon/Jivaka’s story from the light? Continue reading

Savory Bites

“Savory Bites: Books on Eating in Early America,” appeared in Early American Literature 50.2 (2015).  On the hot topic of food and literature, it considers three books on American literature and culture from colonial exploration through Reconstruction:  Ann Chandonnet’s Colonial Food (Shire 2013); Michael A. LaCombe’s Political Gastronomy: Food and Authority in the English Atlantic World (U Pennsylvania P 2012); and Kyla Wazana Tompkins’s Racial Indigestion: Eating Bodies in the 19th Century (New York UP 2012). The essay places these books within the context of American food studies and the teaching of American literature.

As the first two volumes discuss, for Native Americans and European colonial explorers and settlers, food exchanges were not only crucial to survival but also highly symbolic. Hospitality among strangers is key among food practices that identify cultures.  Tompkins’s book takes a more grim approach to cultural differences. Consuming the other appears figuratively and frequently in American literature and culture, from the post-Revolutionary era through the 19th century.  In sum, what we share indicates who we are, just as what we eat determines who we are.

In Other Words by Jhumpa Lahiri  (Knopf 2016)

Jhumpa Lahiri begins her memoir of two years in Italy with a water metaphor. Rather than thirst in Rome’s heat or a watery rebirth, the imagery of swimming around a lake seduced me. So starts Lahiri’s story of writing in a language neither her parents’ Bengali nor the English she learned easily in pre-school in the U.S. While English is the language in which she writes most proficiently, deftly carving her Pulitzer-prize-winning fiction, Lahiri chose to write this first-person account of living abroad in Italian.

. . . no gelato, nary a glass of wine

Likely my love of swimming—especially in natural mountain lakes like the one she describes in her opening—as well as my love of Italian, drew me in to Lahiri’s tale. But the story itself kept me reading. Rather than the typical travel or expatriate narrative of recent years (think Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love or Frances Mayes’s Under the Tuscan Sun), Lahiri’s journey is not one of an American consuming food, drink and culture. There is no gelato, nary a glass of wine. Continue reading

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