My book is now available on Amazon as a Kindle e-book and paperback:
Louisa May Alcott is famous for her children’s novels, especially Little Women. Without certain events in her childhood, however, Louisa might not have become a writer.
Louisa May Alcott was born in Germantown, Pennsylvania in 1832. Her father, Bronson Alcott, was headmaster of a school there, but left when the school’s patron died. He founded another school in Boston, Massachusetts. The family moved several more times due to Bronson’s inability to support his growing family. Louisa had an older sister named Anna and two younger sisters, Elizabeth and May. After Bronson’s failure to make money from a communal living experiment in 1843, he had a nervous breakdown. Louisa’s mother Abigail took charge of the family and taught her girls to work from a young age.
As soon as young Anna and Louisa could safely hold needles, they helped their mother with her work. In addition to sewing for neighbors, Abigail also become one of Boston’s first social workers. Food was often scarce and the Alcott family ate many meals of vegetables and apples.
Despite being poor, Louisa Alcott’s childhood was not entirely gloomy. As a toddler, Louisa played with her father’s books and scribbled on any blank pages she could find. Louisa said since she was little “books have been my greatest comfort, and scribbling a very profitable amusement.” When her father had a school, Louisa went there, and afterward had lessons at home. She disliked math and grammar but enjoyed reading, composition, and history. Even tasks like sewing were more enjoyable because Louisa’s mother read stories to the children as they worked.
Bronson Alcott was a friend of writer Ralph Waldo Emerson, and the family lived near him for a time. Louisa relished the opportunity to browse Emerson’s library. Her favorite books included Pilgrim’s Progress, fairy tales, and she read Charles Dickens and the Bronte sisters. When she grew older, Louisa tutored Emerson’s daughters and made up stories for them.
Abigail Alcott encouraged her daughters to journal to express their feelings. She thought it would help them work through some of the frustrations of having little money and moving frequently. When she noticed that Louisa enjoyed writing even more than the others, she supported her daughter’s interest. On Louisa’s tenth birthday her mother wrote, “I give you the pencil-case I promised, for I observe that you are fond of writing, and wish to encourage the habit.” At age thirteen Louisa was writing stories in addition to journaling. She dreamed of becoming a famous author so her mother wouldn’t have to worry about money any more.
Some of Louisa’s early stories appeared in the Saturday Evening Gazette under the pseudonym Flora Fairfield. Louisa was encouraged by the fact that her stories made some money, even if it was a small amount. In 1854, Louisa May Alcott’s first book, Flower Fables, was published. It was a collection of short stories she wrote for Emerson’s daughters. From these small beginnings, Louisa financially supported her parents and sisters by writing books.
The World of Louisa May Alcott by William Anderson.
Marmee and Louisa: The Untold Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Mother by Eve LaPlante.
Louisa May Alcott by Ruth K. MacDonald.
The Island of Sea Women is a story of friendship, heartache, and forgiveness. Young-sook and Mi-ja are childhood best friends. As they grow up on Jeju, an island that is now part of South Korea, Young-sook’s mother teaches them to dive. The girls became haenyeo–female divers who catch sea creatures like abalone, sea urchins, and even octopus to sell and help feed their families. Experienced haenyeo have no oxygen tanks but can stay submerged in the sea for twenty or more meters.
Lisa See’s novel covers both the friendship of the two girls and the history of Jeju from 1938 to 2008. Young-sook is the daughter of a respected haenyeo chief, but Mi-ja is an orphan. Though Young-sook’s mother shows Mi-ja kindness, others in their village do not. In 1938, the Japanese occupy Korea, and Mi-ja’s father worked for the Japanese. Thus Mi-ja is marked as a collaborator–a curse that haunts her throughout her life.
Early on, the girls learn the dangers of the sea. As Young-sook’s mother explains, “Every woman who enters the sea carries a coffin on her back. In this world, in the undersea world, we tow the burdens of a hard life. We are crossing between life and death every day.” Both Mi-ja and Young-sook will lose people they care about in the sea.
In the late 1940s, however, the young women learn that being on land can be equally dangerous. Young-sook and Mi-ja are now both married and have children. As they are living their lives, the Japanese are replaced by American occupiers. Eventually the desire for Americans and the Koreans they’ve placed in charge to root out communism causes unimaginable tragedy for the people of Jeju, and the friendship of Young-sook and Mi-ja is tested like never before.
I enjoyed learning about the non-traditional gender roles on Jeju. Men stayed home with the children while women dove or worked in the fields to gather food. As Young-sook’s daughters points out later in the book, in some cultures Jeju men would be called wives. I had not heard about the haenyeo before reading this book and have so much respect for their skills. Lisa See’s beautiful descriptions of the world underwater made me feel as though I was right there with the divers.
If you’ve read any of her other books, then you know that See is an expert at depicting female relationships. Young-sook and Mi-ja stand by each other through sorrows, such as the death of Young-sook’s mother early in the novel. Yet the events of history and their own actions/inactions begin to tear them apart. See explores the importance of forgiveness and what each woman loses without it.
Though I thoroughly enjoyed learning about Jeju and its history of strong women, I would not recommend this as a relaxing read. Pick up The Island of Sea Women if you are interested in the subject matter, but keep in mind that history is often ugly.
Most people remember Richard Nixon for being the only President of the United States to resign from office. Yet when I was researching this blog post, I realized that I knew almost nothing about his childhood and education. Like most leaders, his early experiences shaped what he did later in life.
Richard Nixon was born in 1913 in Yorba Linda, a small town east of Los Angeles. His father Frank planted lemon groves, but these failed and the family moved to Whittier, California. Here Frank ran a grocery store and gas station. Richard Nixon said of his childhood, “we were poor, but the glory of it was we didn’t know it.”
Although Frank and Hannah Nixon had five children, they lavished most of their attention and what little money they had on their oldest son, Harold. They bought Harold a Boy Scout uniform but couldn’t afford to get one for Richard. Richard and his other brothers stayed home while Harold was sent to a Christian boarding school in Massachusetts.
Harold and Richard were opposites. Harold was popular with other kids and girls “swooned over him.” In contrast, Richard felt uncomfortable around people he didn’t know well and the other boys teased him. Instead of fighting the bullies, Richard kept his anger bottled up. Realizing he would never be as popular as Harold, Richard threw himself into his schoolwork. He became his grammar school’s valedictorian and joined the debate team in high school. Richard also had big dreams. His grandmother gave him a framed portrait of Abraham Lincoln, which he hung over his bed.
While Richard Nixon could literately look up to Abraham Lincoln, his parents’ volatile personalities had the most influence on him. Frank Nixon had a terrible temper. Richard and his brothers were rapped on the head by their father at various times. At his grocery store, Frank subjected customers to his conservative political opinions whether they wanted to hear them or not. He also blamed others for his bad luck.
In contrast, Richard’s mother, whom he called “a saint,” smiled and bottled up her frustrations. Hannah Nixon had a gentle voice but punished her children by not speaking to them. Though deeply religious, she was not affectionate.
As a result of his childhood experiences, Richard developed a dislike of conflict and a sense that he was not good enough, especially when compared with Harold. When Harold died of tuberculosis in 1933, Frank Nixon said, “Why is it, that the best and finest of the flock has to be taken?” Richard, as the second oldest son, would always be trying to live up to his dead brother’s potential.
After high school, Richard was offered a scholarship to Harvard but ended up at Whittier College to save money on living expenses. Determined to distinguish himself, Richard participated in school debates and was eventually elected president of the student body. While he excelled in debates and in his studies, Richard remained somewhat of a loner. One former classmate recalled that “I don’t think he had anybody you would call a close friend.” He had an on and off relationship with a young woman which she described as “stormy.” Even she said she didn’t feel that she really knew him.
At the end of college, Nixon received and accepted a scholarship to Duke University Law School. He told his girlfriend that he hoped to do something important with his life. Clearly, Richard Nixon was ready to make his mark on the world.
Being Nixon: A Man Divided by Evan Thomas
The American President by Phillip B. Kunhardt, Jr., Phillip B. Kunhardt III, Peter W. Kunhardt
In the case of England’s Queen Jane Seymour, there is little evidence for historians like Alison Weir to go on since Jane did not leave letters behind. Jane is therefore the perfect subject for a historical novel like Weir’s Jane Seymour The Haunted Queen. In this novel, Weir makes a little-known and seemingly dull queen come to life.
We see Jane first at her beloved home, Wulfhall. From an early age, she learns that life for women in the sixteenth century is often unfair. Her father has an affair with his daughter-in-law, but the girl is the one who is sent away to a nunnery. Jane also sees how her mother suffers as she pretends that the affair never happened. Obviously, married women have few choices.
When Jane goes to court to serve Queen Katherine of Aragon, she learns that even queens have little power in their marriages. Katherine is putting on a brave front, but Henry VIII is in love with Anne Boleyn. He eventually breaks with the Catholic Church in order to marry Anne and puts aside Katherine and his daughter Mary.
Jane serves Katherine joyfully because they are both devout Catholics. Weir even has Jane consider becoming a nun, though there is no proof of this. Yet even the scant historical evidence suggests that Jane was sincere in her faith. When Henry tires of the reform-minded Anne and shows an interest in Jane, she hopes that she can use her influence to help the Catholic church as well as Princess Mary. “Was it presumptuous to wonder of God had appointed her, Jane, to put an end to these ills…By her means, true religion might be reestablished, and the rights of the Princess Mary recognized.”
Jane successfully urges reconciliation between Henry and Princess Mary. Jane welcomes the younger women to court and promises to make her first among her ladies.
Her efforts on behalf of the monasteries that Henry has ordered to be broken up are unsuccessful, however. Weir has Jane plead with the king, “Sir, I beg you, for the sake of peace and of those your loving subjects who regret the passing of the old ways, please think kindly upon the monasteries. I urge you to restore those you have closed.” Henry does not take kindly to her plea, but even broaching the subject with him demonstrates Jane’s courage and her religious convictions. In this novel, Jane loves her husband but does not, as her motto suggests, simply exist to “Obey and Serve” him.
Throughout the novel, Jane feels responsible for indirectly bringing about Anne Boleyn’s death. When Henry started to seek Jane out and profess love for her, Jane thought he might set Anne aside like he did with Katherine. Yet when Anne is charged with adultery and conspiring to kill the king, Henry insists on putting her to death. Jane has no idea whether all of the charges are accurate, and feels sick over her part in Anne’s execution.
During Jane’s marriage to Henry, she repeatedly sees a shadow on the wall of her bedroom at night. She believes the shadow is Anne, thus the reference to the haunted queen in the book’s title.
Days after she gives birth to Prince Edward VI, Jane sees the shadow again. “Moonlight shone through it [the window], illuminating a shadow on the wall. No! Not now! And then, for the first time, she could clearly see those unmistakable features: the narrow face, the pointed chin, the dark eyes flashing with menance, glaring at her malevolently. Now she could not doubt who it was who had visited her in the dark reaches of the night, or of what her appearance heralded. I am going to die, she thought desperately.” Of course, no one knows exactly how Jane reacted to Anne’s death, but she would have likely been surprised since there was no precedent for killing an English queen. Obviously we don’t know if she ever thought Anne was haunting her, though it does make for interesting reading.
I recommend this novel for readers who want the known facts about Jane Seymour to be accurate, but are also looking for an interesting interpretation of what the real Jane might have been like.
Let me start this review by explaining what Leadership in Turbulent Times is NOT. It is not a commentary on the current White House; Donald Trump’s name is never even mentioned. The book is also not as lengthy as Doris Kearns Goodwin’s other titles. Without notes, Leadership is 370 pages. In contrast, Goodwin’s previous book The Bully Pulpit is 752 pages without notes.
Now for what Leadership in Turbulent Times IS. It is a survey of four presidents who, though imperfect, displayed extraordinary leadership qualities during their time in office. The men included are Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, and Lyndon Johnson. Goodwin spent years writing about each of these leaders.
The book is divided into three main sections. In Ambition and the Recognition of Leadership, Goodwin shows how important early ambition and the desire to take charge are to successful leadership later in each man’s life. Abraham Lincoln’s famous thirst for knowledge helped him walk for miles to borrow a book. He got no encouragement from his father, who thought a strong young man like Abe should be helping with the family farm. Yet Lincoln was determined to get ahead of other young people. A contemporary recalled how Lincoln would devote himself to books while the other kids played. Years later, when a law student asked him for advice, Lincoln said, “Always bear in mind that your own resolution to succeed is more important than any other thing.”
The second section of the book, Adversity and Growth, demonstrates how each of these men became better leaders as a result of overcoming challenges. For example, Franklin Roosevelt came from a wealthy family and appeared to be living a charmed life until he contracted polio. Suddenly the pampered FDR had to work hard just to manipulate a wheelchair. He went to Warm Springs, Georgia after hearing about a man who gained strength in his legs by swimming in the warm mineral water. FDR invested money in a rundown hotel and turned it into a resort and treatment center for polio patients. He took an active interest in his investment and became known to other patients as Doc Roosevelt. Spending time listening and sharing his own struggles with others who had polio changed Roosevelt. According to his future cabinet member Frances Perkins, the experience made him “completely warmhearted, with humility of spirit and with a deeper philosophy.” FDR’s newfound empathy would later help him to understand what other people were going through as he worked to get the U.S. out of the Great Depression.
In the third section of the book, The Leader and the Times: How They Led, Goodwin shows how the ambition and personal trials of each man made him a better leader. She presents case studies from each of their presidencies to show how effectively they led their country at challenging times. For Lincoln, she uses the introduction of the Emancipation Proclamation during the Civil War. Theodore Roosevelt’s chapter discusses his response to The Great Coal Strike of 1902. For FDR, his first 100 days in office dealing with the Great Depression are examined. Finally, Goodwin discusses Lyndon Johnson’s work on behalf of civil rights.
I recommend this book for readers who want a relatively quick introduction to these four presidents and want to learn how they became great leaders. Leadership in Turbulent Times is also a good choice for people who may be hesitant about starting one of Goodwin’s larger tomes. If readers decide they want to learn more about a particular president, they can check out Goodwin’s other excellent books.
When historians discuss ancient Egypt, they often talk about how the pharaohs lived. Thanks to excavations at places like Deir el Medina, however, we know some things about the ancient Egyptian middle class. Deir el Medina was a village that housed craftsmen who worked on New Kingdom tombs of the Egyptian upper classes. Architects, carpenters, and other workers lived in this village with their families near the Valley of the Kings.
Houses in the village were made of adobe brick. The houses stayed cool because windows were built into small rectangles and were high up on the walls to keep out direct sunlight. Doors were made of wood, and some could be locked from the inside. A would-be thief could easily break the fragile locks, but most workers in ancient Egypt had few goods to steal.
If you could walk into one of the workers’ homes, you would enter the hall first. This was a place where visitors were welcomed. You might compliment the lady of the house on the colorful drawings and shapes painted on the walls. This room would also have an altar to Bes, the goddess who protected families.
If your guest invited you to come farther into the home, you would enter the family space. This was the central room of the house where family members gathered each day. Most ancient Egyptians couldn’t afford furniture, though some of the workers’ families may have had wooden tables or stools in their family rooms. The room also had long benches built into the walls which were used as sofas or beds. Mats used for sleeping might also be in this room.
The house also had a basement for food storage, though guests probably didn’t go in there often.
In the back of the house was the kitchen. In ancient Egypt, this was one of the most important and busiest rooms. Here you would find a built-in clay oven and spaces for cooking utensils. Some ancient Egyptians even had a primitive refrigerator. They placed pottery filled with beverages in a pit deep in the ground. A tiny roof was placed over it to keep the drinks cool. Since the most common ancient Egyptian drink was beer, your guest would likely offer you one from his pit on a hot day.
Privacy was an unknown concept for the ancient Egyptian middle class. Their houses were small and usually only one story. Kids and adults didn’t have separate bedrooms. Ancient Egyptians also lived very close to their neighbors. There were no “backyards” because the next home was just feet away.
The Great Sphinx is one of the most recognizable monuments in Egypt. Built during the Old Kingdom, an amazing period for Egyptian art, it is thought to represent the pharaoh Khaefre (c. 2555-2532 B.C.). The Great Sphinx guards the entrance to Khaefre’s mortuary temple and the second largest pyramid on the Giza plateau.
With the head of a human and the body of a lion, the Sphinx was the perfect symbol of Egyptian kingship. Lions were associated with the very first pharaohs. At Abydos, site of early Egyptian burials, lions were found buried with pharaohs. The Great Sphinx represented a combination of animal strength and royal power. It wore the pleated nemes head cloth often used by pharaohs, which provided a substitute for a lion’s mane.
Building the Great Sphinx was a massive undertaking, especially during an era when only stone and copper tools were available. The base of the sphinx was carved from hard limestone that stuck out of the surface of the Giza plateau. The middle section of the Sphinx was made of softer limestone, and the head was made of very firm limestone. When the workers finished, the Great Sphinx was approximately 240 feet long (about the length of a football field) and almost 70 feet tall. Though other pharaohs built colossal statues, Khaefre’s Sphinx remained the largest.
Though the Great Sphinx was impressive, by the New Kingdom (c. 1539 B.C.), it needed some major repairs. Since the Sphinx was built on a seabed, salt eroded parts of it, including the paws. In addition, its body was covered in sand. According to the legend carved on a stela between the Sphinx’s paws, a young prince named Tuthmosis IV came to the Sphinx’s rescue. One day while Tuthmosis hunted in the desert, he needed a place to rest. He fell asleep in the shadow of the Sphinx. By the New Kingdom a god named Horemakhet, whose name meant Horus on the Horizon, was associated with the Sphinx. The god appeared in the prince’s dream and promised him that if Tuthmosis helped to restore the Sphinx, Horemakhet would make him pharaoh.
Tuthmosis set about restoring the Great Sphinx. He had tons of sand removed from it and had its broken paw repaired. To top off the restoration, the prince had the Sphinx repainted in bright colors, including blue, yellow, and red. The god must have been satisfied with Tuthmosis’ project, since he became king despite not being first in line for the throne.
President Hoover and his wife enjoyed having dogs in the White House. They had some trouble keeping pets in the busy executive mansion, however.
Hoover’s favorite dog was a Belgian shepherd named King Tut. King Tut met the future US President while Hoover was on assignment in Belgium for President Wilson. Hoover adopted the dog and brought him back to the US.
When Hoover ran for president in 1928, his political advisors looked for a way to soften the public servant’s stiff image. Hoover fished wearing a full suit, so his advisors had their work cut out for them. Their solution was to photograph Hoover with King Tut. In the photograph, a smiling Hoover holds up the dog’s front paws, as if he were begging for votes. After Hoover autographed the photo, it was sent to thousands of voters. King Tut and his master became more popular as a result. The New York Times called it “one of the happiest photos ever made” of Hoover. With the help of man’s best friend, Hoover was elected president.
After he arrived at the White House, King Tut took on the responsibility of guarding both the president and the grounds around his new home. The White House security chief considered Tut “a sergeant, not merely a sentry” as Tut made his rounds each night.
Unfortunately, being on guard 24/7 started to stress the dog out. Tut sulked and stopped eating. Hoover sent him to a quieter residence in the hope that King Tut would improve, but he died in late 1929.
Hoover didn’t make the dog’s death public for several months. The stock market had already crashed and people were feeling the effects of what would be called the Great Depression. Under those circumstances, Hoover didn’t think it was appropriate to grieve publicly over a dog.
Like her husband, First Lady Lou Hoover also liked dogs. She received an Irish wolfhound from a breeder and school friend when she moved into the White House. The friend thought the dog’s enormous size would make him a good guard dog for the president and his family. Sadly, the dog, whose name was Patrick, passed away from an infection shortly after his arrival.
To compensate for this loss, Mrs. Hoover’s friend sent another Irish wolfhound named Patrick II. A contemporary newspaper reported that Patrick was “sensitive, shy, and shaggy.” Mrs. Hoover decided the dog was too shy for the busy White House and traded him for Shamrock, another Irish wolfhound. Shamrock was definitely not shy, but he wasn’t friendly, either. He bit one of the Marine guards at Camp Rapidan. The Hoovers eventually gave Shamrock to a colonel.
Ultimately, neither President Hoover or his dogs stayed long at the White House. In 1932, Hoover ran for reelection without King Tut and lost to fellow dog lover Franklin Roosevelt.
As mentioned in my last blog post, President Franklin Roosevelt showed little interest in the fate of Europe’s Jews until January 16, 1944. On that date he had a meeting with officials from the Treasury Department, including Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau, Jr. and a man in his thirties named John Pehle. These men presented to FDR a report which detailed the State Department’s attempts to “stop the obtaining of information concerning the murder of the Jewish people of Europe.” The report revealed that State Department officials blocked cables about Nazi atrocities that reliable informants tried to send to the U.S.
Fortunately for Morgenthau and Pehle, FDR was receptive to a report of State Department wrongdoing. A major reason for this was the recent testimony of Assistant Secretary of State Breckinridge Long. The House of Representatives was debating whether to ask FDR for a refugee rescue agency that would be separate from the State Department. Congress held private hearings with witnesses testifying for and against the new agency.
Breckinridge Long testified that another agency was not needed because “we have taken into this country, since the beginning of the Hitler regime and the persecution of the Jews, until today, approximately 580,000 refugees.” Most members of the House initially believed Long’s story. Then Long made a mistake by allowing his testimony to be published. A few news outlets and Jewish organizations pointed out the inconsistencies in Long’s statement. According to the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the number of Jews who came in under national quotas between January 1, 1933 and June 30, 1943 totaled only 166,843–far from Long’s claim of 580,000.
The press made Long a laughingstock, and members of Congress who supported the new agency were more determined than ever. The Senate planned to put the rescue agency to a vote, and polls showed it would pass.
FDR hated the idea of a scandal, especially in an election year like 1944. Long’s false testimony and the Treasury Department’s report on State Department duplicity were enough to convince FDR to create the War Refugee Board. He made his decision in his twenty minute meeting with Henry Morgenthau and John Pehle.