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Colson Whitehead’s latest novel The Nickel Boys is set during the civil rights movement in Florida. Though his work is fictional, Whitehead says he was inspired to write it after learning about the Dozier School for Boys which operated in Marianna, Florida from 1900-2011.
Elwood, the book’s main character, is an idealistic black teenager. His prize possession is a record of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s speeches. Even though Elwood tries to do the right things–get good grades, stay away from troublemakers in the neighborhood–it seems that society is out to get him.
Besides his grandmother who raised him, almost no one else in the black community wants Elwood to succeed. The staff at the hotel where his grandmother works resents him sitting around reading comic books and the Hardy Boys so much that they trick him into “winning” a dish washing competition. His prize is a set of encyclopedias a salesman left at the hotel. After lugging the volumes home, Elwood realizes that except for the first volume, all the others have blank pages.
The ultimate betrayal of Elwood by another black man occurs when he tries to hitchhike on his way to his first college class. Though Elwood doesn’t know it, the driver stole the car and when they are stopped by a white policeman Elwood is also assumed to be guilty. He’s sent to Nickel Academy, a so-called reform school for young men.
At Nickel Elwood learns that the words of Martin Luther King, Jr. mean nothing in society’s corrupt justice system. Listening to Dr. King, Elwood has come to believe that he is “somebody” and that he “must walk the streets of life everyday with this sense dignity and this sense of somebody-ness.” At Nickel, the boys, especially the black ones, are nobody.
Elwood’s attempts to treat others with dignity makes him step in when he sees a smaller boy being beaten by two bigger ones. All the boys involved are sent to the “White House,” a shed on the academy grounds where one of the supervisors, a white man named Spencer, beats each boy. Elwood is beaten so badly that the beating embeds parts of his denim pants in his skin and he’s sent to the academy’s hospital. Elwood tells one of the other boys in the hospital that he still thinks blacks can stand up for themselves thanks to the civil rights movement. The other boy, named Turner, replies, “that sh-t barely works out there– [in the outside world] what do you think it’s going to do in here?”
Despite the injustice the boys at Nickel experience, author Colson Whitehead also shows that friendship and community can survive in horrible circumstances. Spencer and Elwood become friends while in the hospital together, where Spencer cheers Elwood up with jokes. He also helps Elwood out by recommending him for a job that allows the two boys to get out of Nickel for a while to deliver supplies that are supposed to go to the black boys but are resold. Spencer describes Elwood as “sturdy,” and trusts him far more than the other boys. He shares things he’s heard with Elwood, like the fact that Spencer has fixed a fight with a white boy against a black one so the white boy has to win. Unfortunately the black boy Griff forgets to throw the match and is taken to a special spot for black boys only where two oaks have iron rings stabbed into their bark and boys are horsewhipped. Griff never returns. Whitehead emphasizes the sense of community the black boys have for each other: “He [Griff] was all of them in one black body that night in the ring, and all of them when the white men took him out back to those two iron rings.”
In addition to the novel’s great themes of injustice and community, I really admired Whitehead’s writing style. I loved how he managed to convey an important story without wasting one word. Many authors seem to feel like they have to write 500 pages whether or not all those pages are necessary. The Nickel Boys is an example of what I want my own writing to be–both succinct and profound. The ending was so powerful that I needed tissues. I highly recommend this book.
Anna of Kleve is the fourth book in Alison Weir’s Six Tudor Queens series, and the most controversial. In the novel, Weir suggests that Anna had a child before her marriage to King Henry VIII. The author bases her conclusion on the words of Henry VIII, who told his advisors “I have felt her belly and her breasts, and thereby, as I can judge, she should be no maid.”
Yet Anna professed to have no knowledge of how children were conceived. We know also that Henry became displeased with the portrait upon which he based his decision to marry Anna. He claimed that the portrait (see below) flattered her too much. Did he suspect that she had borne a child and used this as another reason for setting her aside? There is no way to know for certain. What is certain is that whatever he may have suspected, Henry VIII placed more emphasis on a precontract of marriage Anna’s father had made with the Duke of Lorraine’s son. He claimed that the contract was not resolved, so the marriage had to be annulled.
Although there have been protests about Weir’s choice to make Anna a mother before her marriage, I feel that Weir exercised a historical novelist’s prerogative to speculate on what might have happened in the past. I would not use this interpretation of Anna as absolute fact. As Weir states in her author’s note at the end of the novel, she wondered what Henry VIII’s comments meant and decided to use her imagination.
Even without the controversy, Anna is a fascinating character. Growing up in Germany, she received no formal education except reading and writing. Most of her time was spent with devotions and needlework. Unlike some of Henry’s queens who spoke multiple languages, Anna spoke only German. Obviously, this put her at a disadvantage at the English court.
Despite her lack of education, Anna displayed remarkable intelligence throughout the novel. When the king fell in love with Katheryn Howard, Anna privately grieved that she would no longer enjoy the privileges she had as queen, but she publicly agreed that the marriage was invalid. By going along with what Henry VIII wanted, she literally kept her head and protected her homeland which might otherwise have warred with the much richer country of England. Anna was richly rewarded for her cooperation. She received 4,000 pounds per year and four houses of her own from the king. In addition, she was referred to as the king’s sister.
Anna enjoyed a certain amount of freedom for a sixteenth century single woman. She delighted in playing hostess to visitors, including the king, at her various residences. When rumors circulated that Henry might remarry Anna after discovering Queen Katheryn’s adultery, Anna was dismayed. “She did not want to be restored as queen, especially after what had happened to Katheryn Howard, or be be the wife to a prematurely aged man who was not in the best of health, fond of Henry as she was.” Of course, Anna was not made queen again and the king married Katharine Parr instead.
After the death of Henry VIII, Anna became much more preoccupied with money. Neither King Edward VI nor Queen Mary I were nearly as generous with her as Henry VIII was. Until the end of her life, she had to cut back on expenses and sometimes struggled to pay her staff.
I recommend Anna of Kleve to fans of the Tudor period. Anna is an interesting and relatable character. Even though I knew that she would be cast aside by Henry VIII yet manage to live, the writing was so compelling that I was on the edge of my seat whenever a major event occurred. Author Alison Weir provides a fascinating glimpse into the thoughts and feelings of one of the wisest Tudor queens.
Note: English sources refer to Anna as Anne of Cleves. Yet she signed her name Anna and Kleve is the German name of her hometown. Katheryn Howard is also referred to in other sources as Catherine Howard.
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.