Review of Jane Seymour The Haunted Queen by Alison Weir

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.”

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Jane Seymour, Queen of England, 1536

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.

Book Review of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Leadership in Turbulent Times

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.”

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Abraham Lincoln, Feb. 1860 by Mathew Brady

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.

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Gubernatorial portrait of FDR, Dec. 1940

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.

Book Review of Holocaust Memoir Dry Tears by Nechama Tec

In contrast to other Holocaust memoirs that describe what it took to survive the concentration camps, Dry Tears is the story of a Jewish young girl with blond hair and blue eyes trying to pass as a Christian in Nazi-occupied Poland. At the beginning of the book, Nechama’s father worries that she and her sister will fall behind in school. Of course, her learning cannot take place in a traditional school since the Nazis have closed them to Jews. Even private tutoring becomes impossible.

Yet Nechama acquires different kinds of knowledge during the war years. Nazis made it extremely difficult for Poles to find enough to eat because of the activities of the Polish underground. Jews were not supposed to be in Poland at all, so there were no food rations for them. Since she looked Aryan, Nechama could pass for a Pole and venture out of her family’s hiding place. She learns to bargain for the cheapest food prices on the “black market.” Later, she learns to sell her mother’s rolls at the same market when the family finances are low.

Child vendor in ghetto during the Holocaust

Child vendor in ghetto during the Holocaust (Nechama is not living in a ghetto, but she still sells food illegally to other Poles)

Nechama also acquires knowledge about human nature most eleven year olds do not. The Christian family that takes her and her family into their small home in the Polish countryside do not do so out of charity, but out of their own self-interest. Poles were unpopular with the Nazis as it was, and hiding any Jew was punishable by death. However, no one could survive on the wages that Nazis provided to Poles, so families like the Homars decide to “keep cats,” meaning that they took in Jews in return for handsome sums of money.

Some of the members of the Homar family treat Nechama very well. Helena, the family matriarch, even encourages the girl to call her Grandma. Yet despite her affection for Nechama, Helena says that she initially disagreed with having Jews come to stay in her home because Christian blood should not be spilt for Jewish blood. The Homars, like most other Polish families, are anti-Semitic. They emphasize that Nechama and her family are “not really Jewish” because “real Jews were greedy and dishonest”–qualities that Nechama’s family abhors.

Nechama cannot understand how the Homars could like her family and still think bad things about Jews. Her father tells her that the Homars’ anti-Semitism comes from hating an abstraction, a caricature of Jews that does not exist. Soon Nechama discovers that adults are not the only ones who think Jews are evil. Children that she socializes with in the small Polish village of Kielce also make anti-Semitic remarks. She says, “in a sense, they were unconsciously telling me that I was their friend only for as long as they thought I was one of them.”

As Nechama gains knowledge, the reader learns that a trying to pass as a Christian in Poland during World War II is fraught with almost as many dangers as trying to survive a concentration camp. There are random raids on Poles that threaten to deport even Aryan looking Jews. Certain members of the Homar family are less trustworthy than others, making their hiding place precarious. Nechama’s efforts to get food and money for her family place her in special danger since Nazis hate the Poles’ black market activities.

The fact that her looks give her the opportunity to pass does not ensure her survival or her family’s. Nechama’s unique struggles make this memoir a must-read for anyone with an interest in the Holocaust years or students of human nature.

Book Review: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

As an English and History major, I was not particularly inclined to read a book about science. However, one of my Goodreads friends read it and enjoyed it, so I decided to give the book a chance. I found that I not only understood the book’s content, but I also couldn’t put it down.

The book discusses the cells that doctors at Johns Hopkins took from an African American woman with cervical cancer (Henrietta). These cells, called HeLa, grew successfully in culture. In fact, they grew so successfully that scientists all over the world wanted to use them in experiments. Among other medical advances, HeLa cells helped develop the polio vaccine, identify chromosomal disorders like Down syndrome, and test the effectiveness of chemotherapy and other drugs.

HeLa cells infected with adenovirus. Inset--HeLa cells in the process of dividing.

HeLa cells infected with adenovirus. Inset–HeLa cells in the process of dividing.

While Henrietta’s cells are an important aspect of the story, author Rebecca Skloot also sought to find out who Henrietta Lacks was. The reader discovers that many of Henrietta’s children wanted to know the same thing, since most were very young when she died. Despite her illness, Henrietta continued to cook and clean for her husband, neighbors and family. Her oldest son remembered that she was fair, but had strict rules about where her children could play.

Most interestingly, the book makes the reader think about how patients, particularly African Americans, were treated in the early 1950s. Henrietta went to Johns Hopkins because it was one of the few hospitals that agreed to treat African Americans who couldn’t pay their bills. Of course, Johns Hopkins had separate entrances for “white” and “colored” patients. Henrietta and her family had no idea that white doctors were taking samples of her cervix for their private research. Would Henrietta would have been treated any differently or given more information about the samples being taken if she was white? These are questions that the author allows the reader to decide.

During Skloot’s research, however, it is evident that the actions of Johns Hopkins researchers created distrust between Henrietta’s family and any white person who inquired about HeLa cells. For years, members of the Lacks family refused to talk to Skloot. Then one or two of them decided she could be trusted and they began sharing stories about Henrietta. Even after trust had seemingly been established, Henrietta’s daughter Deborah would accuse Skloot, who was paying for her research via credit cards and student loans, of secretly working for the hospital. Then Deborah would call Skloot as if nothing had happened and research would resume.

I finished this book with knowledge of the lengths to which scientists sometimes go to conduct their research. I also felt and better understood the distrust of some African Americans toward white people, particularly in the South. Finally, I admired Skloot’s determination to interview Henrietta’s family members and even scientists who were often less than enthusiastic about talking to her. This book will make people think about the American medical system’s treatment of patients of all colors. Highly recommended.