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.


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.


“Give-’em-hell-Harry” The Presidency of Harry Truman

Future president Harry Truman had a difficult childhood. A kid wearing glasses was a rare thing in the farm town of Independence, Missouri, and his schoolmates teased him. Since he was not very tall, they nicknamed him “little four eyes.”

Young Harry Truman also had different goals than most other children. He loved music and hoped to become a concert pianist. As a result of his father’s bad investments Truman could no longer receive piano lessons or even apply to college. Although he hated it, he worked the family farm until his father died. Truman then tried his hand at various business ventures, all of which failed.

Despite his poor eyesight and the fact that he was past the draft age, Harry managed to serve as a combat artillery captain in World War I. He discovered his ability to lead other people and gained the respect of his men. The experience boosted his confidence. He returned to Missouri as a war hero and married his sweetheart Bess Wallace.


Official Presidential Portrait of Harry Truman

Truman needed to support his family and had to find work. After another business failure, he decided to try politics. It helped that he had kept in touch with the other veterans he served with during World War I. With the help of his friends and Democratic Party boss Tom Pendergast, Harry got elected first as a judge and later to other county offices. Despite his association with Pendergast, who had criminal ties, Harry became known for his honesty and his desire to help the common man during the Great Depression.

In 1934 Truman was elected to the U.S. Senate. He served as chairman of a committee that uncovered the Defense Department’s wasteful spending. The public found Truman’s honesty and even his swearing so refreshing that they nicknamed him “Give-’em-hell-Harry.”

During the 1944 presidential election Truman was selected as President Franklin Roosevelt’s vice-president. Only a few months after he became vice-president, Roosevelt died and Truman had to take over. At the time he thought, “There must be a million other men more qualified for the presidential task. But the work was mine to do, and I had to do it.”

Chief among Truman’s tasks was to bring World War II to a successful conclusion. Even after Germany surrendered, the fighting with Japan dragged on. Truman believed that if the war in the Pacific continued, up to 100,000 American soldiers could die. He decided that if Japan refused to surrender, he would use the new atomic bomb.

On July 26, 1945, Truman warned Japan that it would be destroyed if it continued to fight. The Japanese Emperor still would not give up. In August, the U.S. dropped two atomic bombs, one on the town of Hiroshima and one on Nagasaki. Finally, the Japanese Emperor surrendered and the war was over.

Truman received criticism in later years for using the atomic bombs, which mostly killed Japanese civilians. He never regretted his decision, however. As Truman put it “The greatest part of the president’s job is to make decisions…he can’t pass the buck to anybody.”

After World War II Truman turned his attention to stopping the spread of communism. The start of a nuclear arms race with the Soviet Union worried voters, and Truman’s popularity suffered. In 1948 he was probably the only person who thought he would be re-elected president. He took the campaign seriously and made hundreds of speeches throughout the country on his “Whistle-stop campaign” tour. Truman’s confidence proved to be prophetic when he won.

Truman’s second term was dominated by his decision to support South Korea when it was invaded by communist North Korea. He never asked Congress for a declaration of war because he feared the public would be reminded of World War II. As the war went on, Truman’s popularity took a nosedive.

Even though he had a poor approval rating, the public was still shocked when he announced that he didn’t plan to run for president again. He took delight in returning to Missouri and becoming “Mr. Citizen.” Truman lived to see much of his reputation restored. He became known not only for overseeing the end of World War II but also for desegregating the military and banning racial discrimination in the federal government.


Before the Great Depression: President Herbert Hoover

Herbert Hoover was born in Iowa, which made him the first president to be born west of the Mississippi River. Though he was orphaned at age nine, he managed to get a geology degree from Stanford University. When he was evaluating mines in Australia, he sent a telegram with a marriage proposal to his future wife and Stanford graduate Lou. Lou had always wanted to marry someone who appreciated the outdoors, and Hoover did. Even as president he took time to go fishing.

During World War I, Hoover headed a relief effort for starving Belgian citizens. In Europe he was known as “the food czar.” Back in the states he also organized a relief effort after a massive flood along the Mississippi River. As secretary of commerce under Harding and Coolidge, he opened up new markets for business and helped standardize products like car tires.


Official Presidential Portrait of Herbert Hoover

Hoover was so popular that he easily won the presidential election in 1928. Even he seemed to realize the possible dangers of people viewing him as “some kind of superman”, however. He worried that some catastrophe would occur during his time in office. When the stock market crashed and left many Americans unemployed and hungry, Hoover had the catastrophe he feared.

One of Hoover’s errors was his belief that local governments and volunteerism could stop the Great Depression. He opposed direct federal government aid for most of his presidency, though he did authorize loans for state and federal government projects in order to create jobs. Hoover also made some poorly thought out statements to the press that gave people the impression that the multimillionaire didn’t care about them.

To be fair, the depression continued for eight more years even with Franklin Roosevelt’s federal aid. Despite mistakes, Hoover’s administration introduced some progressive ideas. For example, he invited prominent black leaders to the White House, something his predecessors avoided. He also supported tax reductions for the poor.

Though he knew he would not win another term, Hoover’s love for America never wavered. After all, he had signed a law making The Star-Spangled Banner America’s national anthem.

The Presidency of Warren Harding

Although his presidency was marred by scandal after his death, Warren Harding was a popular president in his day. Even as a young boy Harding avoided conflict in order to please his peers. That habit caught up with him when he became president.

Before he got into politics Harding was a successful businessman who bought a bankrupt newspaper and made it profitable. His wife Florence served as his business partner. He called her “The Duchess” and feared rather than loved her. Their complex relationship pushed him into politics. His new profession allowed him to be away for long periods. It also enabled him to have affairs with other women. He had a magnetic personality and a great speaking voice.


Official Presidential Portrait of Warren Harding

During the Republican national convention in 1920, the party could not decide on a candidate. Party leaders looked for a compromise, so they asked Harding if there was any reason they shouldn’t nominate him. Though he didn’t actually want to be president, Harding told them there was nothing in his past that would prevent him from running. In the first presidential election in which women could vote, Harding won.

Harding promised voters that his presidency would mark a return to “normalcy,” or to the days before World War I. Fortunately the country didn’t face any major crisis during his presidency.

Unlike President Wilson who always thought his opinion was the right one, Harding was indecisive. After listening to both sides of an issue he often thought that each side was just as right as the other. Even Harding admitted that he was in over his head as president. Later historians would agree with him when he remarked, “I never should have been here.” Still, Harding remained a popular president until he died of food poisoning during his third year in office.

After his death rumors about his private life and corruption in his cabinet came out. Harding had always been a womanizer, and one woman claimed he had fathered an illegitimate son. His desire to be popular had caused him to cover up rather than publicize the scandals that plagued his administration.

An illegal oil-rigging scheme led to the eventual arrest of his former secretary of the interior. It was the first time a cabinet member had been convicted of a crime. Ironically, the president who wanted to be loved by everyone became one of the country’s least respected presidents.

U.S. President Woodrow Wilson

Since I did a post on Teddy Roosevelt’s successor and friend William Howard Taft last year, I decided to skip to Taft’s successor President Wilson.

Woodrow Wilson, whose real first name was Thomas, had an impressive rise in politics. He had only been governor of New Jersey for two years when he was approached by Democrats to run for president.

In another time period voters might have thought that the former president of Princeton University was a snob. Wilson always thought he was right. When a friend told him that there were two sides to every issue, he replied, “Yes, a right side and a wrong side.” His stubbornness would lead to trouble during his second term.

In the election of 1912, however, voters thought his commitment to high ideals refreshing. It also helped that Republican support was split between Taft and third party candidate Theodore Roosevelt.


Official Presidential Portrait of Woodrow Wilson

Wilson hoped to focus on domestic issues while president. His New Freedom programs included restraints on banks and big business as well as child labor laws. Yet in other ways he resisted change. Born a Southerner, Wilson gave cabinet positions to Southerners. He violated the rights of black workers by allowing several racist members of his cabinet to segregate their offices. Wilson was also slow to support women’s suffrage, though he eventually did so.

When World War I began in Europe, Wilson wanted to maintain peace. He was re-elected as the man who kept the country out of war. In 1917 Wilson finally decided that America needed to join its allies to “make the world safe for democracy.”

After the war ended, Wilson worked hard to ensure that the First World War would also be the last. He proposed a League of Nations in which countries would pledge to protect each other in the future. He travelled to Europe for the peace talks, making him the first president to visit that continent while in office. Wilson was not happy with the peace treaty and he still needed more support for the League.

Returning to the U.S., Wilson embarked on a speaking tour to promote the League of Nations. While on his trip Wilson suffered a stroke. Wilson became an invalid for the last year of his presidency, though he communicated with lawmakers by writing letters. Unfortunately, the Senate was still debating the League of Nations. His stroke made the stubborn president even less willing to compromise, and he refused to make any concessions on his beloved League. Though the Senate rejected the League of Nations, Wilson’s ideals live on in the United Nations.


7 Great U.S. War Websites

5ea86-6a0128764e57aa970c01538e4fcdba970b-800wiFor this week’s post, I decided to share some of the best websites I’ve found on wars in which Americans fought. The list includes the websites themselves as well as the reasons that I chose them. My list is by no means comprehensive. If you have a favorite website that covers one of America’s wars, please feel free to add it in the comment section.

Note: I have not included blogs here; perhaps I’ll add those in a future post.

U.S. Civil War

Civil War

This site is most helpful for finding information about battles. It includes a description of each battle and lists other pertinent information. Its most unique feature is that it allows users to search for battles by state as well as name.

The Spanish-American War

The World of 1898: The Spanish-American War

This site from the Library of Congress has an extensive list of non-American participants in its subject index, as well as a section on the literature of the period. Primary documents such as maps of Cuba and the Philippines at the time of war and the papers of Theodore Roosevelt are online.

World War I

First World

This extensive site includes battlefield maps, a day-by-day timeline, primary documents, a complete listing of battlefields with descriptions, an encyclopedia (people, places, events, and terms), photographs, and first-hand accounts. The Prose and Poetry section is also an interesting place to learn about authors affected by World War I.

World War II

The World at War

The World at War is a nearly day-by-day history of World War II. It also includes extensive information about the events leading up to the war.

Generals of World War II

This detailed site offers information on the military careers of generals in WWII from all participating nations.

Vietnam War

The History Place Presents the Vietnam War

This site offers a detailed timeline with quotes and analysis. Information on My Lai, Gulf of Tonkin, Kent State, and other war-related topics is included.

The American Experience: Vietnam

This site provides a glossary of important figures in the Vietnam War, maps, and basic U.S. government documents relating to the war. The Weapons of War section makes the site an especially good resource for details about the weapons the combatants used.

What is your favorite U.S. war website?

The Origins of American Symbol Uncle Sam

World War I Uncle Sam Recruiting Poster

World War I Uncle Sam Recruiting Poster

When Samuel Wilson moved to Troy, New York in 1789, he had no idea that he would become the inspiration for an American symbol. Four years after arriving in Troy, Samuel and his brother started a meatpacking business called E. and S. Wilson. They also produced the barrels that transported the meat. In Troy, Sam Wilson was known for his pleasant personality and his jokes. Since he was so likeable, the townspeople called him Uncle Sam.

During the War of 1812, the Wilson brothers were under contract to send food supplies to northern troops stationed in Troy. Every barrel of meat bore the stamp “U.S.” Sam Wilson meant the abbreviation to represent United States, but back then the only abbreviation for the country was “U. States.” Troy residents joked that the U.S. stood for Uncle Sam Wilson, who was supplying the army with food. The joke was told so often that all rations sent to the government were called Uncle Sam’s.

In 1813 references to Uncle Sam as a nickname for the United States appeared on local broadsides and in the Troy newspaper.

Images of Uncle Sam were drawn as early as 1830, but his physical traits varied with each artist. Some historians believe that a key factor in the development of Uncle Sam’s likeness occurred after the assassination of President Lincoln. Like Lincoln, the new Uncle Sam was tall, skinny, had a beard, and wore a top hat.

Cartoonist Thomas Nast gave Uncle Sam red-and-white-stripped pants and stars on his coat. In 1914 James Montgomery Flagg created the most famous version of the American icon. Flagg’s Uncle Sam has a stern face and points at observers. Beneath Uncle Sam are the words “I want YOU for U.S. Army.”

Samuel Wilson, the original Uncle Sam, became a wealthy businessman after the War of 1812. He remained popular in his community until his death in 1840. Eventually, Congress made Wilson’s connection with the symbol of Uncle Sam official. Congress signed a Joint Resolution on September 15, 1961 recognizing “Uncle Sam Wilson of Troy, New York, as the progenitor of America’s national symbol of Uncle Sam.”

The American Soldier in World War I

When the U.S. joined forces with Britain and France against Germany and Austria-Hungary in 1917, it had a small army. Unable to get volunteers to fight in World War I, President Woodrow Wilson instituted the draft so that the army would have more soldiers. In July, a drawing was held to determine which men would go to the warfront. By the end of the day, over 1 million men were chosen to fight. Despite being the largest army in American history, the new recruits didn’t know much about twentieth century warfare.


New technology led to a new kind of warfare during World War I. During the Civil War, hundreds of men charged toward the enemy in battle. The invention of the quick firing machine gun made traditional warfare impossible. With the use of machine guns, the charging soldiers died within minutes. In order to defend themselves against these weapons, the European armies dug trenches, or holes in the ground, to defend the territory they gained. The trenches got so big that they accommodated both the armies and their supplies. When U.S. soldiers arrived, however, they quickly learned that the trenches and new equipment that were supposed to protect them from bullets also caused problems.


Living in the dirt of the trenches made it impossible for soldiers to keep clean. Without regular baths, disease spread through the army. Parasites, referred to as “the cootie” by soldiers, caused fevers. One soldier described the parasite, “The vermin were about the size and color of small grains until they would gorge themselves on the blood of their victims…It was a standing joke that there was no point in scratching since the little buggers had legs on both sides.” Unsurprisingly, seventy percent of the time that soldiers spent off duty was caused by illness.


Another hazard for World War I soldiers on both sides was the invention of mustard gas, a poison chemical fired in a shell at the enemy. It was called mustard gas because of its scent. Exposure to mustard gas produced blisters on the skin and lungs. A nurse described the suffering of these soldiers, “[they were] burnt and blistered all over with great mustard-colored blisters, with blind eyes, all sticky and stuck together, and always fighting for breath.” Soldiers exposed to mustard gas often became blind or died.


In addition to being shot at or gassed, soldiers also died by getting stuck in mud. Much of the western front in France was low-lying land, and rain turned the trenches into pools of mud. Wounded soldiers fell into the mud and drowned. Soldiers also got “trench foot” by standing in the water for hours or days. The soldier’s toes numbed and his foot rotted. To save the soldier’s life, medics amputated, meaning cut off, the foot.

One soldier tried to explain the hazards of World War I this way: “Have you ever fought half madly through days and nights and weeks unwashed, with feverish rests between long hours of agony, while the guns boom…and the bullets zip-zip-zip ceaselessly along the trench edge that is your skyline—and your deathline, too, if you stretch and stand upright?”