Book Review: Fallen Skies by Philippa Gregory

In her historical novel Fallen Skies Philippa Gregory takes the reader to 1920s England. We meet Lily Valance, a chorus girl with ambitions to become a singer. She meets Capt. Stephen Winters, a World War I veteran, at one of the clubs where she performs. Stephen hardly knows Lily, but believes he is falling in love with her because she seems so unspoiled by World War I. Haunted by his experiences in Belgium, Stephen wants nothing more than to forget the war. He believes Lily’s insistence that no one talk about the past will help him to move on.

Lily enjoys his attentions. She especially likes when he takes her and her mother out in a car driven by his chauffeur. Yet she is also attracted to Charlie, her director. Charlie has a physical injury from the war that will not allow him to have children. Although he loves Lily, he thinks he is doing the noble thing by letting her go.

When Lily’s mother dies, she just wants someone to take care of her. She is convinced that Stephen will do this, so she accepts his marriage proposal.

Soon, however, there is trouble in their marriage. Lily is embarrassed by Stephen’s behavior when a car backfires during their honeymoon. Convinced he is in a war zone, Stephen hits the ground and starts rolling. Onlookers tell Lily he is shell-shocked. She gets him back to the hotel and when he feels more like himself, he acts as though nothing has happened and violently insists that Lily do the same. He pays off the hotel staff with money, and Lily finds herself trapped with a man she fears rather than loves.

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British army at Battle of Ypres, Aug. 1917

When they return home to Stephen’s parents’ house, Lily discovers that she is expected to sit at home with her mother-in-law or to pay boring calls on other ladies while Stephen goes to work. One day she manages to slip out of the house and audition for a production that Charlie is directing. When he realizes what Lily has done, Stephen tries to rape her. With a little help from an unlikely friend, Lily is both saved from rape and allowed to continue performing at the theater. She decides she will let Stephen do what he likes with her at home but lives for her work—at least until she discovers that she is pregnant.

With a baby on the way, Lily and Stephen both have to confront their past. Stephen cannot avoid his war memories and the knowledge of what he and his chauffeur did while at a farmhouse in Belgium. He has to decide what is more important: keeping his past secret or keeping his family together. Lily also has to decide what is most important in her life: her baby or her career. Ultimately the decisions they make will have live-or-death consequences for themselves and their son.

Overall I would recommend the book, especially to anyone who wants to learn more about how World War I affected soldiers when they returned home. The novel also does a good job of describing gender expectations in the 1920s, which basically involved men working and women staying home. Given some of the subject matter, however, I would recommend it for ages 12 and up.

 

Limited Time Book Sale for Holocaust and U.S. History Buffs!

My book Passionate Crusaders: How Members of the U.S. War Refugee Board Saved Jews and Altered American Foreign Policy during World War II is ON SALE until Christmas here: http://amzn.to/2gBVVD8

It’s the story of a few good men who tried to save Jews and others from the Holocaust at the last minute. These ordinary people had hope in the face of impossible odds, and isn’t that what we could all use this holiday season?

Available for $0.99 on Kindle and $8.99 paperback. Happy holidays to my readers.

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Making Sense of Election 2016

For the past week I have been trying to process what happened in last week’s presidential election. I apologize for the misleading title, but I haven’t been able to make sense of it. For those who study history, the past 9 days have seemed like we stepped into a time machine and traveled to the 1960s, and that’s on a good day.

I know people in their 90s who voted for Hillary Clinton, and people in their 30s who voted for Donald Trump. I also know people who didn’t vote at all. Now I’m not suggesting that everyone in their 90s supported Hillary, but of those who did, I think I understand why. They lived through the women’s rights movement, the civil rights movement, World War II, and plenty of other wars. Having lived through so much history, they don’t wish to relive it. As one senior citizen told me, the good old days sucked.

America currently offers more freedoms to more people than ever, regardless of gender, race, class, religion, or sexual preference. More than ever, people feel that these rights are threatened since the election.

I can only encourage people who support equal rights for all to put their money or their time into organizations that will protect these rights. There are more comprehensive lists of organizations that other writers and bloggers have put together, but I will mention a couple of examples. If you’re concerned about First Amendment rights, visit the ACLU website at https://www.aclu.org. To combat anti-Semitism, visit the Anti-Defamation League www.adl.org; for African American rights, visit the NAACP www.naacp.org. Call your representatives to support or oppose legislation. Online petitions are great, but old fashioned phone calls stand out.

For those of you who feel that America is in crisis, remember John F. Kennedy said, “When written in Chinese, the word crisis is composed of two characters–one represents danger and the other represents opportunity.” Take the opportunity today to give someone who is hurting hope.

 

More Abraham Lincoln Pets and the First Presidential Turkey Pardon

Despite the fact that they left their dog Fido behind in Springfield, the Lincolns had other pets in the White House. Tad and Willie had two goats named Nanny and Nanko, both of whom had the run of the White House. The goats drove the staff crazy by chewing almost everything in sight and eating the flower bulbs in the garden. In addition, the Lincoln boys would hitch the goats to either chairs or carts and have the goats pull them around. On one occasion, Tad scared White House visitors by driving one goat-pulled chair through the East Room while shouting, “Get out the way!”

Lincoln told Elizabeth Keckley, his wife’s seamstress, “I believe they are the kindest and best goats in the world.” According to Keckley, Lincoln and the boys would play with the goats in the yard “and when he called them they would come bounding to his side.” The White House staff was so frustrated with Nanny, however, that she was taken to the Soldiers Home. Unfortunately, she also chewed up the garden there and was sent back to the White House. Nanny, probably confused by the move, disappeared one day. Lincoln reported the loss to Tad who was on a trip with Mrs. Lincoln. “Poor Nanny goat is lost,” he wrote. By the next spring, Nanny was either found or replaced by another goat. Lincoln sent his wife a telegram saying “Tell Tad the goats and father are very well– especially the goats.”

If goats made for unusual White House pets, Tad managed to find yet another exotic friend. In 1863 the Lincolns were sent a live turkey. It was to be eaten at Christmas dinner. Tad became attached to the turkey and named him Jack. When Tad found out his new friend was going to be cooked for Christmas dinner, he interrupted Lincoln during a cabinet meeting to plead for the bird’s life. Lincoln stopped the meeting and wrote an “order of reprieve” for the turkey. Jack continued to live at the White House.

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Lincoln and his Cabinet. William Seward, who gave Lincoln kittens, is seated in front of the desk.

The tradition of presidents pardoning turkeys was thus started by Lincoln even though his turkey was for Christmas dinner. The presidential turkey pardon did not become an annual tradition until years later. John F. Kennedy was the first modern president to let a Thanksgiving turkey go.

Lincoln himself seem to derive the most comfort from the company of cats. When asked if her husband had a hobby, Mary Lincoln might’ve answered cats.  Lincoln received two kittens as a gift from Secretary of State William Seward. He named them Tabby and Dixie. He reportedly spent quite a few hours of his time talking to them. At one point he exclaimed that they “were smarter than my whole cabinet.” During one White House dinner, Lincoln had Tabby seated next to him. This embarrassed Mrs. Lincoln but did not seem to trouble her husband.

Lincoln was also fond of stray cats, but he didn’t bring them home too often because Mary didn’t appreciate it. While visiting Gen. Ulysses S Grant at army headquarters in 1865, Lincoln spotted three stray kittens. He scooped them up and petted them. Before he left he made sure that someone would look after them. Grant aid Horace Porter stated that it was a “curious site at army headquarters upon the eve of a great military crisis” to watch the president “tenderly caressing three stray kittens. It well illustrated the kindness of the man’s disposition, and showed the childlike simplicity which was mingled with the grandeur of his nature.”

Presidential Pets: Abraham Lincoln’s Dog Fido

Abraham Lincoln’s dog Fido was the first presidential dog to be photographed. Lincoln had the photo taken in 1861 just before he left Springfield, Illinois for his presidential inauguration. He told his sons Tad and Willie that they could take the photo with them to Washington, but not the dog.

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Official Portrait of Fido, Abraham Lincoln’s Dog

During his time in Springfield Fido was a great companion to Lincoln. The yellow-and-brown mutt accompanied Lincoln on errands and often waited outside the barbershop for him. Unlike his master, however, Fido wasn’t meant for public life. After Lincoln’s presidential nomination, local politicians came to the house and tried to greet Fido, who retreated under the family sofa. Fido also was less than enthused about the fireworks and cannons going off when his master won the election.

Mary Lincoln was not a big fan of dogs and she was probably happy not to have to clean up after Fido anymore. Lincoln, however, loved dogs and made sure that Fido had a good home. Lincoln gave the dog to the Roll family who were friends and neighbors of the Lincolns and their children.

Before giving away his pet, Lincoln gave the Rolls strict instructions about Fido’s care. For example, Lincoln insisted that Fido never be punished for coming inside with muddy paws. He also wanted the dog to be allowed in the dining room where he could beg for table scraps. The Rolls were also given the Lincoln family sofa to make Fido feel more at home. It was his favorite place to sleep. Finally, the Rolls promised to give the dog back when the Lincolns returned to Springfield.

Fido was never reunited with his master, though he did watch the funeral procession in Springfield after Lincoln’s assassination. Several months later Fido ran away from the Roll’s home. John Roll wrote, The dog in a playful manner put his dirty paws upon a drunken man sitting on the street curbing. In his drunken rage the man thrust a knife into the body of poor old Fido. So Fido, just a poor yellow dog was assassinated like his illustrious master.” The Roll children buried Lincoln’s beloved dog in their yard.

 

Presidential Pets: Ronald Reagan’s Dogs Lucky and Rex

President Ronald Reagan didn’t immediately bring a dog with him to the White House. During his second term, however, Reagan got a Bouvier des Flanders puppy named Lucky. First Lady Nancy Reagan named the dog in honor of her mother, Edith Luckett (Lucky) Davis. Bouviers are high energy herding dogs that grow to be very large. As Nancy Reagan put it, Lucky grew from a black “ball of fluff” to “be the size of a pony.”

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Official Portrait of Lucky the Dog, 1985

The petite First Lady was quickly overwhelmed by Lucky’s size and strength. Hugh Sidney, a correspondent for Time Magazine, said that when the press saw Lucky and the First Lady on the White House lawn, “we would all wait for the lunge because the dog would drag Nancy along for a few feet as they raced to the helicopter.” Mrs. Reagan got no help from the president, who invariably laughed at Lucky’s antics.

To be fair, Lucky also did a good job of “walking” President Reagan when he was trying to have a conversation with Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Neither leader seemed to mind, though.

Though Lucky was affectionate, she never adjusted to life in the White House. After a stint in obedience school, the Reagans sent Lucky to their ranch in California where she could roam more freely.

Despite having little luck with Lucky, the Reagans got another dog. This time they selected a smaller breed, a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel. They named the dog Rex after retired White House usher Rex Scouten. Like Lucky, Rex pulled on his leash, but his small size made him easier to handle.

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The Reagans with Dog Rex at Christmas

The name Rex means king, and Rex lived up to his name. A colonial-style dog house with red velvet curtains and pictures of his owners on the walls was designed for him by Theo Hayes, great-great grandson of President Rutherford B. Hayes. After President Reagan’s second term, Rex went with the Reagans to their California ranch.

Lucky and Rex had long lives—ten and thirteen years respectively. They both were buried at the Reagan ranch.

Presidential Pets: Gerald Ford’s Golden Retriever Liberty

President Gerald Ford arrived in the White House without a dog. The family had owned golden retrievers before, so daughter Susan Ford and White House photographer David Hume Kennerly decided to surprise the president with a puppy. After contacting a breeder of golden retrievers in Minneapolis, they soon realized that it would be tough to keep the puppy a secret.

The breeder wanted to make sure the dog had a good home and asked a lot of questions. For example, the breeder insisted on knowing where the puppy would live. Kennerly said that the couple “lives in a white house with a big yard and a fence around it.” The breeder also asked if the couple owned or rented their home. Kennerly said, “I guess you could say they live in public housing.”

Unimpressed, the breeder refused to ship the dog. Finally Kennerly and Susan said the dog was for the president and explained that they wanted it to be a surprise.

In his memoir A Time to Heal, President Ford wrote about the day he first met Liberty. “I was in the Oval Office…when Susan walked in. ‘Daddy,’ she said, ‘if we ever get another dog, what kind are we going to get?’ ‘A female golden retriever about six months old,’ I said. At that moment, David entered with a copper-colored pup who raced around the Oval Office yelping excitedly. ‘Whose dog is that?’ I asked. ‘It’s yours.’ Susan and David laughed. ‘Her name was Streaker, but we’ve changed it to Liberty.’ Delighted, I grabbed the pup, put her on my lap, then got down on my hands and knees and played with her on the rug.”

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President Ford and Liberty in the Oval Office

Liberty spent much of her time in the Oval Office next to Ford’s desk. If visitors came in, she would check them out. After they met with her approval, she returned to her rug beside her owner.

Other presidents enjoyed the company of their pets, but President Ford often personally took care of Liberty. They went on long walks together. According to Betty Ford, the pair even got locked out of the White House together!

At three in the morning, Liberty licked the president’s face, indicating that she needed to go out. Ford took her on the south lawn, but when they came back the elevator was turned off. They tried the stairwell, but the door to the hall was locked. After much pounding by the president and a lot of barking from Liberty, the Secret Service finally let them in.

Liberty became a national celebrity when she gave birth to puppies. The public was so eager for pictures of the new mom that a rubber stamp with Liberty’s paw print was made. This way, Liberty could “autograph” photos of her and the puppies.

The Fords kept one of Liberty’s puppies, a blond one named Misty. Another named Jerry went to the Leader Dog School for the Blind. The others were given as gifts or bought by friends.

Even though President Ford only served one term, his fondness for Liberty increased the popularity of the golden retriever in America. To this day the breed remains a popular choice with dog lovers.

 

 

 

 

Letters from the Past: Back to School in Ancient Egypt

Hi, I’m Rahmose, and like many of you, I’ll be starting school soon. I’m nine now, which means that I have three more years to go before I can be a scribe for the pharaoh. This year I’ll learn to write hieroglyphics.

As a young boy, I watched my father perfect his hieroglyphic writing before chiseling the final copy on the walls of royal tombs. He dipped his reed pen in ink and drew tiny birds, sheaths of corn, and odd looking lines on papyrus. Sometimes I copied what he wrote, or tried to, on pieces of ostraca. My mother says I used to break her pottery on purpose so I could have something to write on! She was relieved when I turned five and she could send me to the House of Instruction in the Royal Palace.

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Name of Ramesses II in hieroglyphs at his temple Abu Simbel

 

 

I was so excited to start school. Finally, I would learn what the symbols in the tombs and temples meant. Imagine my disappointment when the teacher told us we weren’t learning hieroglyphs right away. Instead, we had to master hieratic. In case you haven’t seen it, hieratic is a curly looking script that reads from right to left. Most Egyptians who can write use hieratic because it’s not as time consuming as hieroglyphics. It’s not as beautiful, either.

 

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Example of hieratic writing. Document known as Papyrus Sallier

 

 

Our teacher gave us reading assignments from the Kemyt. The assignments were hard and boring. The Kemyt was filled with advice for young students and included Egyptian phrases.

When we finally finished the Kemyt, the other boys and I moved on to the Wisdom Texts. I thought that with a name like the Wisdom Texts, this new text must be more interesting. Maybe I would become as wise as my father after I read it. But no, we’re just reading about how much better off scribes are than men in other occupations. I had to memorize and copy out this passage: “there is no worker without an overseer except the scribe, who is his own boss.”

Sometimes I wonder if other jobs are as bad as our teachers say. It might be fun to work outside and grow crops. My father says that farming would make me dependent on the flooding of the Nile, though. As a scribe, I’ll rely on my knowledge, not nature.

Even if I get bored sometimes, I still want to become a great scribe like my father. Writing has so much power in Egyptian culture. When someone dies, their mummy is buried with their possessions. Still, the objects in the tomb aren’t as important as the hieroglyphics. If the tomb is robbed but the name of the owner is still carved on the wall, the spirit of the dead person can live on. The worst thing that could happen to anyone is to be forgotten by the living and have their name disappear from the earth.

I am so proud that someday soon I will be preserving the spirits of the pharaoh’s family.

 

 

After Dallas: Searching for Peace in a Violent World

In the wake of the Dallas shootings and others across the United States this week, I have felt at a loss for words. This is not a good feeling for a writer, but so much senseless violence, whether motivated by racism or fear or just hate has made me stuck.

I did find this quote from Shakespeare, however.

“How oft the sight of means to do ill deeds / Make deeds ill done!” –Shakespeare, King John.

We need to make it more difficult for people to do ill deeds. I believe that people have a right to own guns to protect themselves and their families from people who would harm them. However, I don’t think the Founding Fathers could have envisioned semi-automatic weapons or rogue police officers. The proliferation and misuse of weapons isn’t our only problem, though.

We also have racism.

The Founding Fathers didn’t envision a society where people who did not look exactly like them would rightfully demand equal rights under the law. All men are created equal? The fine words of the U.S. Constitution didn’t remotely ring true in the 18th century. This week’s events, among others, has made it clear that we still fall short of thinking that everyone is equal.

Many of the Founding Fathers committed “ill deeds” by owning slaves. Sometimes the slaves escaped or even managed to revolt and use weapons against their masters. In many ways, our country still suffers from the evils of slavery.

White and black people too often look at each other with distrust. And when a gun is handy for either side, the results are often disastrous.

Babies aren’t naturally born with a racist gene. They have to be taught to distrust someone who looks different from them. Laws that limit the sale of weapons that only need to be used in war and require background checks are all well and good. However, if children continue to be taught by their families or by their everyday experiences to hate people who are not just like them, ill deeds will be perpetuated.