Book Review: The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family


Gordon-Reed, The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family. W. W. Norton, 2009.

A couple of months ago, Sally Hemings meant nothing more to me than a political “distraction”—a woman who, like Monica Lewinsky in the 1990s, was used as a weapon to disparage the character of the sitting president. When allegations are made against a famous person, I never know who is telling the truth. Hype can be manufactured, facts distorted, words twisted beyond all meaning. All I knew was that Sally Hemings was a fallen woman—an unmarried slave, perhaps a temptress, in a scandalous relationship with Thomas Jefferson.

I recently listened to an episode of “The Way of Improvement Leads Home” podcast featuring historians Annette Gordon-Reed and Peter Onuf discussing their collaborative work in “Most Blessed of the Patriarchs:” Thomas Jefferson and the Empire of the Imagination. When I looked for the book at the library it was unavailable, but they had another by Gordon-Reed, The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family. I had seen the book cover before and assumed it was more of the speculative fiction I’ve seen on the topic. Finding it on the non-fiction shelf instead, I picked it up.

I did not make it far into the book before Gordon-Reed overturned all of my misconceptions about Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings. The parallels I drew off-hand between Sally and Monica Lewinsky broke down quickly in the light of Gordon-Reed’s interpretations. The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family humanized the players, both black and white, in the Hemings and Jefferson story and showed me several of my own historical blindspots.

According to Gordon-Reed, the story of Sally—the most well-known Hemings—is incomplete without telling the story of her family, beginning with her grandmother and ending with her own siblings and children with Thomas Jefferson. The family’s history shows how cruel and perverse American slavery was and how inextricably linked the black and white races were in the South, all the way down to the family level. Sally’s grandmother, an African brought as a slave to Virginia, had a child with a white man, a Captain Hemings. Their daughter Elizabeth lived for many years as her owner John Wayles’s “concubine,” bearing him many children, one of whom was Sally Hemings. Thomas Jefferson married Wayles’s white daughter Martha and, through their marriage, acquired Elizabeth and her children and moved them to Monticello. Put another way, Sally and her siblings were slaves owned by their half-sister Martha.

After Martha’s death, Jefferson’s political career took off and he served as Ambassador to France for nearly a decade. For part of that time, Sally lived in Jefferson’s household in Paris. At some point in Paris, Sally and Jefferson entered into a sexual relationship; Sally was pregnant with their first child when the household prepared to return to Virginia. Sally and Jefferson reached an agreement, a “treaty,” in which she would willingly continue in their relationship in exchange for Jefferson’s granting their children’s freedom when they reached adulthood. In time, Jefferson fulfilled the agreement.

This is only a brief glance at the family history, and the facts alone leave behind a bad taste. But beneath this outline lie layers of meaning and subtleties lost over time. Starting with the facts (including the DNA evidence that Sally’s children were Jefferson’s children), Gordon-Reed connects the dots, bridging the psychological gaps between known events and turning Jefferson, Sally, and all of the Hemingses back into real people with thoughts and emotions. It is hard to condense what takes Gordon-Reed hundreds of pages to say, but the central idea, I believe, is this: the relationship between Jefferson and Sally was, in all likelihood, not what it is (or was) popularly thought to be. And because they were two very real people, it is worth trying to discover the truth. There is, of course, a lot of extended conjecture involved, but in Gordon-Reed’s words, we can “reference what we know of human beings as we try to reconstruct and establish a context for their lives.”

According to Gordon-Reed’s construction, it is vital to remember the context of Jefferson’s relationship with the Hemings family. Jefferson, a man who was always torn between his enlightened ideals and his dependence upon slavery, found a middle ground at Monticello where he could live with the enslaved Hemings family in a way that did not injure his conscience. He treated them in what he considered to be an enlightened manner; we can assume he treated Sally the same way.

In Paris, where their relationship began, Jefferson allowed Sally to earn a salary and enjoy a freedom of movement unknown to her counterparts in Virginia. In France, she was free to leave slavery and continue her independence with the legal backing of the French government. At Jefferson’s request, she did not. This fact, coupled with Jefferson’s temperament and personality, makes it unlikely that he coerced her into a sexual relationship. It is likely, instead, that they formed a genuine attachment.

Jefferson and Sally created as conventional a relationship as possible, given the constraints of their eighteenth-century slave society. Sally used their attachment to bargain for her position in the household and the eventual freedom of any children they had together. Marriage, of course, was not an option between a master and a slave. Sally could never be the respectable society wife that Martha Jefferson had been. But she could fill many other “wifely” roles—lover, companion, mother, and housekeeper. So she requested a “treaty” (their son’s word for the agreement) to formalize their relationship in the absence of marriage. They then lived in a faithful marriage-like relationship for over thirty years until Jefferson’s death.

Jefferson prepared his children with Sally for a life of what we would call “middle class” independence. Knowing that they were only one-eighth African and would likely pass for white, he invested years in their training in respectable trades. Gordon-Reed points out the irony in Jefferson’s public belief in the impossibility of moving slaves to freedom in one generation, while accomplishing it for his own children.

The Hemingses of Monticello was an intriguing read for me. Not only did Gordon-Reed turn my expectations on their head, she told a great story about the people behind the facts. I found the narrative fresh because she avoided the many de-humanizing stereotypes about slaves and she wasn’t afraid to look at Jefferson’s character in a new way. It was interesting to think, for example, of Jefferson in Enlightenment Paris, where he was a relatively small-time provincial man trying to camouflage his dependence upon an antiquated labor system. Seeing him in that light knocked him down off of that “Founding Father” pedestal too often used in Revolutionary history. I was also impressed with how Gordon-Reed managed to walk a fine line between advocating for the humanity of slaves and turning the slaveholder Jefferson into a monster. 

The Hemingses of Monticello is not a perfect book. It took a long time to get through and sometimes it was repetitive. A few times I found Gordon-Reed to be overly suspicious of the white people in the narrative. And I could not agree with every conclusion she drew. But the bottom line is, she came across as a historian who listens to the people of the past and thinks deeply about what she hears.

Book Review: The Vicar of Wakefield

vicarAmong the earliest of enduring English novels is The Vicar of Wakefield, published in 1766 by Oliver Goldsmith. The English novel tradition had been up and running for nearly half a century by this time, producing, among other works, Robinson Crusoe and Gulliver’s Travels. I claim no extensive knowledge of literary history—I’m afraid that what I learned of it in college didn’t stay put for very long—but I am intrigued by it in certain historical contexts. What was going on in the world when The Vicar was published? Who would have been reading it?

In 1766, George III sat on the British throne and colonial Americans stewed over the Stamp Act—the Act which turned almost anything paper (newspapers, legal documents, playing cards—books were a notable exception) into an inconvenient expense for the colonists. Benjamin Franklin, the most well-known American at that time, was in London protesting the Stamp Act before Parliament. In March, shortly after his appeal, Parliament repealed the Act (only to replace it with another act shortly). I like to think that Benjamin Franklin was wending his way homeward after a day of international political machinations and saw a copy of The Vicar of Wakefield in a shop window and took it home with him, perhaps having heard about it from a learned colleague who suggested it to him for a good laugh. Franklin seems like the type to have found enjoyment in the farcical, moralizing novel.

I have no doubt that a great many Americans on both sides of the Atlantic gobbled up popular English novels, for in 1766 they had none of their own. It stretches the imagination to think that America, today the largest English-speaking country in the world, did not publish its first novel until 1789. [Read about the first American novel here.] Although there would have been a delay (even of years) in The Vicar’s arrival in America, the more cosmopolitan areas such as New York City, Philadelphia, or Charleston certainly read what the British read. So in the years when American liberty was born, with deprivation and destruction on all sides, Americans had for comfort and entertainment only British-English novels on their bookshelves, The Vicar of Wakefield perhaps among them. (Now, wouldn’t that make for a fascinating topic—colonial reading habits during the Revolution?)

The Vicar of Wakefield is the oldest novel that I have read. For me, the non-literary-historian, the novel truly shows its age. The premise of the novel is this: Dr. Primrose, the vicar of the country parish of Wakefield, leads a comfortable life until all of his money is lost in an investment gone bad. The vicar, with his wife and children, removes to a much smaller parish where extreme misfortunes—including fire, theft, imprisonment, kidnapping, and even death—befall them with astonishing (and highly improbable) regularity. The vicar’s two eldest daughters, Olivia and Sophia, now penniless, appear to be removed from all marriage prospects. The only eligible men of the area include the womanizing Squire Thornhill and the also penniless Mr. Burchell. But as these things tend to go, Olivia, of course, falls for the Squire and Sophia for Mr. Burchell. Every melodramatic twist of fate possible comes to pass before the novel is resolved. Through it all, Dr. Primrose solemnly moralizes on the highs and lows. As the non-literary scholar that I am, I did not realize until at least one-third of the way through the novel that it has to be a comedic satire. I am sure any English major could have told me this.

Although I could hardly stop rolling my eyes at the ridiculousness of the story, the novel held interest for me in other ways. The Vicar of Wakefield says, for instance, a great deal about the world in which it was written. In The Vicar’s world, women have no power over their own lives. Their financial resources, modes of daily living, and marriage dealings are held entirely in the hands of their fathers, brothers, and husbands (or husbands-to-be). When Olivia falls for the slick (and slimy) Mr. Thornhill, she, according to the dictates of the period, cannot tell Mr. Thornhill of her affections or make any suggestion of a deeper relationship. She is forced to (I say “forced,” but in real life I’m sure few would go to such lengths) manipulate an elaborate plot to make Mr. Thornhill declare himself to her. That women such as Olivia have no power over their own lives is a symptom of the general male view that women are weak, both physically and mentally, and easily victimized. Indeed, there are no heroines in The Vicar; the females are all victims of something or other. Dr. Primrose views his own wife as suitable primarily for domestic uses—“she could read any English book without much spelling, but for pickling, preserving, and cookery, none could excel her”—and although he loves her affectionately, he portrays her from time to time as having a definite silliness.

Goldsmith, using the voice of Dr. Primrose, also delves into the matter of liberty and sovereignty for the length of an entire chapter. “I am … for, and would die for, monarchy, sacred monarchy; for if there be any thing sacred amongst men, it must be the anointed sovereign of his people, and every diminution of his power in war, or in peace, is an infringement upon the real liberties of the subject. … I have known many of those pretended champions of liberty in my time, yet do I not remember one that was not in his heart and in his family a tyrant.” In Dr. Primrose’s view, having a king lessens the likelihood that rich men raise themselves as tyrants over others and gather servile people around them. This chapter of The Vicar taken by itself surely gave Americans a lot to chew on.

I will probably not revisit The Vicar of Wakefield. It lacks the polish of the later novels that I enjoy, although the form of those later works lies here in seed form. My biggest take-away was in thinking of the novel in an early-American context, in a way that highlights the “everyday” behind the famous events of history. Literature is just one of those cross-over areas.

★ ★ ★/5

Serendipity in Italy: Part Two

The second leg of our Italian vacation took us into small-town Italy. If you haven’t read about the first part yet, read up on Florence here.

The Cinque Terre

Our second stop in Italy was the Cinque Terre (cheen-kweh tare-eh), a strip along the Mediterranean where five small villages (“Five Lands”) cling to the coast. Again we suffered in the European transportation purgatory in order to get there, packed onto the train like sardines. We traveled from Florence, and the view from the train was lovely. Tuscany stretched around us, each hilltop boasting a farmhouse and olive grove. I faced backwards so I couldn’t see what was coming and spent most of my time reading and brushing up my knowledge of the Roman Empire. At one point I raised my eyes to discover an unexpected vista of alpine mountains stretched out on the near horizon. I knew these couldn’t be the Alps. I learned later that most of Italy is mountainous and that we were passing the Apuan Alps. The train passed by Carrara, the home of the famed marble and, sure enough, the mountains around that stop gleamed white. We also passed through Pisa and we craned our necks looking for that famed tower, but it remained hidden from sight.

After we made our final train switch at La Spezia Centrale station, the train plunged into tunnel after tunnel through the mountains on its way toward the coast. I became distracted by the nagging suspicion that my train ticket might not have been “validated,” a fact that our host in the Cinque Terre indicated via email would be a terrible thing. I imagined angry plain-clothes policemen storming into the compartment and fining me 100 Euros for neglecting to validate. There were four British ladies “on holiday” seated around us in our compartment, and they debated their ticket validation back and forth amongst themselves. We all eventually settled down, each to our separate thoughts, eyes glued to the windows even in the darkness of the tunnels.

With a rush of air, the train suddenly burst out into the blinding sunshine. All of us—myself, my husband, and the Britishers—gasped audibly. Spread across my side of the train was the Mediterranean, sparkling and wide, bracketed by two small outcroppings of the mountain holding the train. Nearly straight down from us, the water was of the purest, brightest blue, clear all the way to the rocks at the bottom. My beach experience so far in life had been of the wide, flat, and sandy South Carolina variety. This, the Mediterranean, was rugged and exotic.

With the strangeness and unreliability of Italian trains, we were abruptly deposited on one of these ocean-side mountain niches on an isolated platform and told by intercom that we had reached the end of the line. We would have to wait for yet another train. But at least this time we had something marvelous to look at.

Arriving in Vernazza, our base in the Cinque Terre, was a little bit like being dumped in a box of pastel crayons. The platform emptied right into the village’s one-and-only narrow street, which plunged steeply downhill and around a bend lined with tall, squeezed-together houses in all shades of pink, coral, orange, and red. The short street dumped right out into the harbor at its end. Our host, Ivo, a grizzled sailor type, greeted us in English with so thick an accent that I could barely make it out. He grabbed up our luggage and took off down the street. Our tiny room was right off of the street, across from his family’s ristorante, and up at least four flights of steps. My enduring memory of this little room is the miniature clothesline attached to the windowsill where I hung out our underwear for all of the Vernazza world to see.

Vernazza is a good place for wandering and watching because there really isn’t much to do. We climbed the maze-like steps—labeled like streets—up to the medieval tower guarding the village. Each turn in the “road” made for a discovery of a new little compartment filled with flowers and herby smells. Surprisingly, this seaside myriad of “streets” was the cleanest and freshest smelling corner of Europe I’ve been in (I was expecting it to smell fishy). From the top we had a grand view of the mountains and the sea and could see all the way to the next villages, Corniglia on one side and Monterosso on the other.

The “streets” of Vernazza.

The view from the guard tower.

On the morning of our second day we walked the seaside trail all the way to Corniglia. The trail was perhaps two miles in length, but I soon discovered that I was in shape only to walk horizontally and much of the trail was either steep ascent or descent. We followed the trail very slowly (thanks to me), but maybe that only means we were able to savor it that much more. The early morning air was muggy and a warm 70 degrees, but the views were spectacular. The trail wove in and out of old olive groves on the mountainside, magical places that tempted me to stop and indulge my imagination. Perched halfway between Vernazza and Corniglia was a lone farmhouse providing for the hikers’ need for refreshment. We stopped briefly (I could have stayed much longer) and had a fresh-squeezed lemonade. Entering Corniglia, we walked through vineyards stacked up the hillsides. Corniglia, being at least twice the size of Vernazza, had a different feel, as if normal life took place there, and was not quite so rustic. Old ladies with their hair done up in kerchiefs talked/yelled at each other across the narrow lanes and a tiny church’s clocktower chimed the hour. As I was not about to walk that two miles again, we rode the train back (and forth—we may have missed our station and/or gotten on the wrong train). I think we spent the rest of that day’s daylight hours asleep. Travel does take its toll.

Vernazza from above.

Corniglia in sight!

Our two days in Vernazza were filled with sun, color, and basil pesto. And gelato (Vernazza claims the distinction of being the home of my favorite gelato flavor—cinnamon). I did have a serendipity moment on our first night in Vernazza. By dinnertime that day I was feeling tired, sick with a bad cold, and a little disappointed that my restaurant of choice was filled up. We re-ascended the maze of steps halfway up to the tower to a different restaurant sitting atop a rock outcropping over the harbor. We were early (Americans are, of course!) and were seated under a big awning by the railing over the harbor. The sun was going down over the distant mountains and the water in the harbor sparkled. Vernazza grew quiet as the day-trippers departed. We ordered a platter with a little bit of everything from the day’s catch. There was a white fish and kalamari and several other things that I couldn’t name. 

Shortly after we’d started our meal, three men walked in from the entrance, one carrying a bass violin, and settled themselves in front of the bar. These wandering troubadours opened their show by singing Dean Martin’s “Amore.” It tickled my funny bone a bit to hear “When the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie” sung in Italy. Then followed a selection of cheerful popular favorites. They sang for most of our meal and then stayed for big hugs all around from the kitchen staff. We settled up with the “Mamma” sitting near the door with the money box—with not a word of English but with plenty of vigorous nods and the offer of a cookie on our way out.

Back down the steps we went and found a bench on the piazza beside the harbor. It was mostly dark and mostly quiet. A few lights twinkled down the coast, and a trickle of late sea-goers came and went silently in the water. Very few minutes passed before the troubadours came down the steps and set up at one of the piazza restaurants. The classic line from “Amore” started up once more. Two older American couples sat near us, and one of the women jumped up and pulled at her husband’s hand, begging him to join her. Only after many protestations and a lot of giggles on her part did they begin dancing around the square.

There is so much joy to be found in sitting quietly with someone you love and watching other people enjoy themselves. In Vernazza, the happiness was contagious. I didn’t have to be dancing around the square with them to be having just as much fun. Italy was special in this way; with its friendliness and colorfulness, it seemed always to be bringing out such happiness in everyone, no matter their nationality or native tongue. I remember thinking in this moment that Italy had ceased being a foreign country. It was just another place among many to feel a connection with people who are so much like us.

Book Review: News of the World

news of the world

Paulette Jiles, News of the World. William Morrow: 2016.

“Maybe life is just carrying news. Surviving to carry the news.”

Jefferson Kyle Kidd’s self-appointed purpose in life is to carry the news. In 1870, Captain Kidd has survived three wars and in each has found his place as a runner, courier, and printer. “He loved print, felt something right about sending out information into the world. Independent of its content.” Now, at seventy-one years, he travels the wild and violent roads of central Texas, stopping in each town and standing each evening at a lectern with newspapers from around the world spread before him, reading the best and most magical information aloud. At one point in his middle age Kidd believed, “If people had true knowledge of the world perhaps they would not take up arms.” Learning the hard way that this is an illusion, he settles for creating escapism. “What people needed, at bottom, was not only information but tales of the remote, the mysterious, dressed up as hard information … Then the listeners would for a small space of time drift away into a healing place like curative waters.”

Captain Kidd’s lonely and monotonous rounds are interrupted when, to help a friend, he takes on the job of returning ten-year-old Indian captive Johanna Leonberger to distant relatives outside of San Antonio. After four years as a Kiowa captive, Johanna appears not to remember her parents, who were killed in her sight, or any German or English language. Kidd is understandably somewhat resentful of this intrusion into his life and the great risk involved to him in crossing the state of Texas with her. He mournfully repeats to himself that he has already raised two daughters. Yet he accepts the fifty dollar gold piece in payment and buys a beat-up wagon with “Curative Waters” printed on the side to carry the girl home.

Their journey south to San Antonio is a journey toward purpose and rescue as much as it is a passage through Texas. The strange Indian/English/German girl pierces Kidd’s crusty old-man exterior. His heart is tender and empathetic; he starts to see life through little Chohenna’s eyes—not all American ways make sense, just as not all Kiowa ways do. In turn, Johanna’s shell-shocked heart opens just a little and she looks on the Kep-dun as Kontah—grandfather.

News of the World by Paulette Jiles ranks with the best fiction I have read in the last few years. In its tidy 209 pages, it shows—beautifully—so much more than it tells. Its words are poetic and vivid. Many scenes—a darkened barn during a downpour, a stream-side camp under the pecan trees, a wild and raging river at night—played in bright, sparkling images across my mind. Jiles has mixed the best parts of the Western with poetry and literary fiction to create a beautiful picture lesson of rescue, a life redeemed, and human compassion.

I cannot let this review pass without also pointing out the history work that Jiles has done with News of the World. She has brought to life two very obscure pieces of the past: the circuit news-readers and the captive children who lost all sense of their Euro-American identity. These children, floating fragmented in a no-mans-land of cultures, escaped all attention—“And the newspapers, they say nothing about this at all or about the poor at all. … There are great holes in your newspapers. Nobody sees them. God sees them.” And now we see them. I could only ever hope to teach so much history in such a powerful way.

“Maybe we have just one message, and it is delivered to us when we are born and we are never sure what it says; it may have nothing to do with us personally but it must be carried by hand through a life, all the way, and at the end handed over, sealed.”

★ ★ ★ ★ ★/5

*I think you will love this book, but note that it is a Western and as such has one scene of graphic violence.

Book Review: French By Heart

French by heart

Rebecca Ramsey, French By Heart: An American Family’s Adventures in La Belle France. Broadway Books: 2007.

Buckling up on an airplane with the prospect of spending a glorious two-week vacation in a foreign country is one thing—one thing I have done and long to do again. It is another thing altogether to buckle up and move your entire life overseas. Ready for that? Hmmm. That is just what the Ramsey family did in French by Heart: An American Family’s Adventures in La Belle France.

My reaction to this book was literally a physical one. I made the mistake of cracking the cover open one night after everyone else was in bed. Within five minutes, my heart rate and blood pressure were way up. Sleep was a long way off.

Why such a reaction to this book with the cute, happy cover? Well, perhaps I identify in too many ways with the author, Rebecca Ramsey. Rebecca lives somewhere in Greer, South Carolina, a few miles from me, and her husband works for Michelin like mine does. Michelin moved Rebecca’s family to Clermont-Ferrand, France, a town I’ve visited twice and which you may remember I have already written about here. I don’t know Rebecca, but I do know that “moving to France” has not gone unmentioned in my house (albeit in a hazy, “alternate reality” kind of way).

So when Rebecca mentions mountains of paperwork, whirlwind French lessons, packing her piano onto a shipping container, and dubious looks from airline attendants at the mention of Clermont-Ferrand, I feel like I am looking at an “alternate reality” of my life. When I read about Rebecca understanding only half of what the people behind the counter at the bank are saying while everyone else stares at her, yes, my head vigorously nods, yes (only it happened to me at La Poste). When she stares at the sausage on her plate, spotting unfamiliar little lumps, my head again nods. And when she wanders the aisles of the bookstore, I, too, wander the same aisles in my head and think, oh, if only I could remember more French!

Rebecca and her husband, their three children (one of whom was still a baby), and their cat lived, worked, and went to school as a “normal” family in Clermont-Ferrand for four years. French by Heart is the story of how Rebecca—wife, mother, and neighbor—experienced France. It moves for the most part chronologically in exploring the strangeness of it all—the lack of toilets, the startling doctor’s office experiences, the smoking teenagers, the odd social habits, the unsmiling strangers (coming from the South, this would be really strange)—all of which, I’m sure, she included in order to scare me to death. On top of this is the always-hovering figure of the elderly neighbor, Madame Mallet, who watches Rebecca’s every move and criticizes every fault. Other than Rebecca, Madame Mallet is a central figure and the progression of their relationship—delving deeper and deeper beneath the crusty French exterior—is, I think, a mirror of Rebecca’s relationship with France itself.

There are moments in the book that fire up my imagination. Can you imagine, for instance, living five hours from Normandy and just popping up there for the weekend? Or having a winter break in the Alps? Or going antiquing for French antiques? Then there’s the Sunday afternoon hiking among the sunflower fields and the châteaux—sigh.

After reading, though, I was left feeling that Rebecca never did become “French by heart,” for during most of the book she is feeling either awkward, uncomfortable, or frustrated. I did not get a true sense of France or the heart of the French people. I’m not sure whether to put France out of my mind or say “Bring it on!” In all fairness, however, I am probably not the best candidate for reviewing this book. Given the connection I have with it, I am tuned to picking up on everything scary.

I need one of you out there to read it and tell me how French By Heart strikes you!

★ ★ ★/5

History Matters

“What does the history major say?”

“Do you want fries with that?”

I remember my dad throwing out that old line about history majors years ago when I was choosing an area of study. At the time I am sure I just sighed and rolled my eyes at that “dad humor.”

Fast-forward fifteen years. My bachelor’s degree in history is not earning me any money at the moment. I never finished a master’s degree. And yet, a couple of months ago, in the midst of some kind of intellectual dialogue (I can’t remember the topic but in our house it’s usually either religion or, at that time of year, politics) I heard myself say, “It’s my job as a historian to bring history into the conversation.” Almost as soon as I said it I realized how pompous it sounded. I mean, major disclaimer, I don’t work in the history field anymore and I don’t have an advanced degree. (My inferiority complex about all of this is a discussion for another time.)

Yet I can probably claim that I am more historically well-versed and more historically aware than the average American. Is it my job, then, to bring up history, to correct the myths and misunderstandings I encounter or, even more to the point, to address the at-times willful ignorance of how we got here? Over the past couple of months and especially over the past couple of weeks, given our current political climate, I am starting to be convinced of it. Presidential personalities and precedents, immigration, women’s rights—each with a long and varied history of their own—are just a few of the hot topics du jour.

For a less politicized example, look at motherhood. The blogosphere is chock-full of women proclaiming how hard motherhood is. Just yesterday a “viral” article partially titled “Why Parenting Used to Be Easier” appeared on my Facebook feed (view the original here). The article features a struggling Australian mum with two children pondering how on earth her grandmother survived life with eleven. Her father’s response? In her grandmother’s day, mothers didn’t have as much pressure put on them. This explanation is easy to understand, for even I feel the societal pressure to avoid processed foods, buy organic, keep the TV off, make sure we spend 60 minutes outdoors, get involved in sports and music, teach my kids to read (but not TOO early!), never leave them alone in the car, have a Pinterest-worthy house, throw Pinterest-worthy birthday parties—you get the picture.

So if mothers even fifty years ago experienced motherhood somewhat differently than I do, how does my experience stack up to motherhood throughout history? Is my job harder than theirs? Through the lens of history, I have to look at this fairly. I have to admit I have myriad advantages over my foremothers; I have a house full of time-saving devices, I have virtually anything I’d ever want at my fingertips via the internet, my children are growing stronger and healthier than ever thanks to modern medicine, and, let’s not forget, I don’t have to grow my own food (vegetable or animal) and I don’t have to make my own clothes (unless I want to).

But on the other hand, mothers in certain times and places had great advantages over me. I believe that for hundreds of years, many mothers lived in tighter communities and had stronger support systems (please indulge a few generalities here). Men and women rarely moved away from the area they grew up in and, more often than not, had elderly or unmarried family members living with them. They really knew their neighbors and shared with them in experiencing childbirth, sickness, and death. They exchanged labor and services with each other. And we can’t forget the advantage of the elite and even middle class who regularly employed maids and nannies (obviously this is still an advantage for some today). This type of community brought several benefits—safety in letting children run around, built-in “babysitters” in the house, a division of labor, and the sharing of years’-worth of wisdom and timeless advice.

The modern American mother (even probably so far back as the mid-twentieth-century as the world began to change), however, is often isolated, hundreds of miles from her parents, living with society’s expectation that she be self-sufficient and independent. Many, many mothers add working outside the home and are still expected to do it all in both spheres. Modern mothers are solely responsible for their children’s care in a minute-by-minute way. Few are brave enough in our paranoid society and sometimes legitimately scary world to turn their kids out of the house in the morning and call them in again for dinner at night.

Looking through the lens of history shows me it’s dangerous to say my life is harder or easier or better or worse than a mother’s life one hundred years ago (or even fifty). Maybe it’s a wash—motherhood has and always will be hard. But the bottom line is, everything has a history. Even my day-to-day motherhood. And history matters insofar as we use it to think about ourselves and frame our circumstances. So the Australian mum with the grandmother who had eleven children? I’m sure grandma would say there were parts of motherhood that were terribly hard for her—diseases, cooking and cleaning, you name it. She might say her grand-daughter has it easy. We’ll never know. But thinking historically helps us to think empathetically and to be more willing to live with “grey areas.”

So what made me think through all of this? I’ve discovered a new podcast that has made me feel brave enough to bring history into the conversation. John Fea’s “The Way of Improvement Leads Home” podcast has been endlessly fascinating and thought-provoking. John Fea is the history chair at Messiah College and the author of such works as Why Study History? and Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? (the latter I recommend for anyone interested in the topic). His podcast is a little over a year old and has already covered a lot of territory. In his first episode, he lays a foundation for why bringing historical thinking to bear on the problems of today is so important. Historians provide, among other things, context, causality, and show us how complex any issue truly is (see all Five C’s of Historical Thinking here). In the words of Fea’s first guest, Executive Director of the American Historical Association Jim Grossman, “everything has a history.”

This is just the tip of the iceberg. If you’re ready to think in a fresh way about the world around you (and sound smart around the dinner table), I recommend “The Way of Improvement Leads Home.” You don’t have to be a historian to get something out of it. In the meantime, make room for history in the conversation.

Serendipity in Italy: Part One

My own photo, July 2016.

I’ve decided it’s time to finish writing up my European summer vacation memories before they start to slip away from me. And—eek—it will be summer again before we know it, especially here in South Carolina where the “winter” has been in the 60s and 70s.

A funny thing has happened to those vacation memories; where they used to be vivid and sometimes have rough edges (i.e., the angst of international travel), they have since smoothed out and I’m left with the highlights. I suppose I am now in the zone of rosy retrospect. In a way, I really regret not getting my thoughts—the good and the bad—down sooner. Lesson learned.

I still stick by my assertion that the best travel moments happen serendipitously. The things we planned to do and see were wonderful, but the memories that shine brightest are the unexpected vistas, the hole-in-the-wall places, and the plain old fun of watching other people have a grand time.


It is way more fun to say Florence as Firenze (frankly, it’s way more fun to say any Italian word as if you’re trying to be that “spicy meatball” guy). Anyway. Florence was our first stop in Italy after a week in France.

The feeling of flying into a foreign country for the first time is quite unlike anything else. There’s so much to discover, it feels as if the sky’s the limit. The fellow passengers are always part of the building anticipation. The first time we went to France, there was a French family waiting at our gate in Atlanta. It was almost more than I could handle. Real French people! A vrai père and mère and bébé! Flying into Florence was no different. There were Mediterranean-featured people at the gate and the flight announcements were in Italian! Ah—Italy!

Unfortunately our arrival in Florence marked the low point of our vacation. The airport is small and almost as soon as we disembarked the plane we were at the airport’s exit. I stopped in my tracks about ten feet back from the door and worried aloud, “Wait, where was customs? Why didn’t they ask for our passports? Are we here legally?” I was just plain ignorant; they don’t check passports within the EU, but for a few awful minutes I was convinced they would come after us for not having our passports stamped. In a haze we wandered around the parking lot until we came upon a bus heading to the center of town.

The outskirts of Florence, like those of any town, are not attractive; they’re industrial, congested, and run-down. But tourists must inevitably pass through them before reaching their reward. Soon enough, the architecture became more regular—Italian Renaissance!—and the landscape more picturesque. I spotted my first of those trees—the tall ones with no branches until the very top, where they fan out like an umbrella—which, appearing in any picture, immediately evoke Italy (I now know they are stone pines). The bus pulled up at the Santa Maria Novella train station and we were off on our own.

Walking down to the street from the train station, we were again immensely thankful that we had traveled with only carry-ons. The Florentine sidewalks are paved with huge stone pavers, irregularly shaped and uneven. There were wall-to-wall people and trying to get through those bumpy lanes was a sweaty job. How fortunate for us that our hotel was just at the corner of one of the avenues radiating from the train station.

The lobby of the hotel looked awfully posh—deep blue walls, white trim, sharp black and white photos tastefully arranged, and a fireplace with stylish chairs before it. It was like jumping into a pool of cool blue water. We stood in line at the desk long enough for me to be hooked. Unfortunately, this is the point where we found out it was not our hotel, because the travel agency had gone out of business the day before. I will spare you the angst. After frantically making phone calls, we found a place that could take us that night for the number of nights we needed. At the moment, I didn’t really care what kind of place it was, so long as I could know for sure I would have a place to sleep that night. We walked back out of that cool blue oasis assured that our new hotel was not far off.

Maybe that hotel wasn’t really far off, but it sure felt like it. Back onto those rough sidewalks, pushing through the people, I was powered by anger and adrenaline. But even that could not tarnish Florence. We turned a couple of corners and a huge dome appeared over the rooftops. I was convinced it was the dome, but I was wrong; it’s only that Florence is packed to the gills with churches. The streets became narrower, quieter, and blessedly shaded. We passed enticing little ristorantes where everyone had piles of pasta before them and leather shops where I’m convinced they blow the scent of leather out onto the street on purpose.

My own photo, July 2016.

My arms were throbbing and shaking from pulling my suitcase by the time we found our hotel. The Hotel Orto dei Medici was nice enough. It had high, vaulted hallways that had crumbling ceiling frescoes here and there. Compared to the posh oasis, this hotel evoked more of an economy hostel on the 19th century Grand Tour. Our room was small and outdated (or put another way, felt really European), but it was a gift after the adrenaline rush of the past couple of hours.

Before leaving the hotel again, we explored some of the empty common rooms. Pushing open the glass doors into the dining room, we discovered the back garden just beyond. The sight of this back garden worked a miracle on me; in that moment, it almost made up for losing out on that blue oasis. Over the next couple of days, it fully made up for the loss. The terrace was completely enclosed by the surrounding residences, but the back side was only two floors tall and above this roof were visible several tall, pointy cypresses and the facade of a very Florentine basilica. Flowering vines covered the golden walls of the terrace and miniature potted orange trees lined the patio beside the al fresco dining area. The hotel claims that it was built in the nineteenth century on the site of Lorenzo de Medici’s art school and that its garden is all that remains of that green space where Lorenzo discovered Michelangelo Buonarroti.

My own photo, July 2016.

For three mornings we breakfasted al fresco in the mild sunshine, enjoying fresh-squeezed orange juice and the satisfying clink of sturdy china coffee cups on the stone cafe tables, surrounded by a Babel of languages and feeling like citizens of the world. Breakfast on the terrace turned out to be one of the most luxurious vacation experiences and most probably my favorite part of Florence.

On our first night out in Florence we intended to get the lay of the land, to find out exactly how far it was to the major sights and how long it would take us to walk between them. Retracing our steps down the narrow street, the bustle began to pick up, the gelato shops appeared every twenty yards, and music and the smell of food floated through the air. Before I was expecting it, we flowed out of the street into the piazza surrounding the Duomo and its Baptistery. These iconic structures were far larger than I had imagined, both looming high overhead, although I think now that some of that sensation came from all of the buildings sitting so close together around the piazza. The Duomo reminded me of an extravagantly frosted cake with its intricate statuary and white stone inlaid with green and red designs.

My own photo, July 2016.

We sat for dinner on the piazza near the entrance to the Duomo. We ordered pizza because we were in Italy and we made a life-changing discovery—Italian pizza is nowhere near as good as American pizza. Friends, Italian pizza is boring. I had it a few more times in other towns and my opinion did not change. I have to admit this was a let-down. I had had such high hopes for Italian food. My expectations in this area were met later, in other ways, but I’ll never think of Italian pizza the same way again. But our night, like the rest of the trip always seemed to do, redeemed itself. A large brass ensemble with at least thirty members began to play on the steps of the Duomo. The bright tones reverberated in the enclosed space of the piazza, and we decided we were having fun.

My own photo, July 2016.

My own photo, July 2016.

The next few days in Florence are a blur in my mind. We walked so much, saw so much, and ate so much. We used our awesome tourist skills (thanks, Rick Steves!) and by-passed an hours-long line to climb the Campanile next to the Duomo—dark, tight, twisting steps up and up, each landing bringing an awe-inspiring vista which was only to be surpassed by the view another one hundred steps further up. The view at the top was one-hundred percent Tuscan. The red-tiled roofs stretched out to the hills, which were topped by cypress and pine and endless villas.

Ham sandwich, Italian style. My own photo, July 2016.

We ate ham sandwiches and bowls of gelato as big as mountains. We shopped in a leather goods store where we were treated royally by a consummate Italian gentleman. We saw sculptures and paintings with about ten million other people alongside. We went to the Galileo museum which turned out to not really be about Galileo. We stood on the Ponte Vecchio among the jewelry shops and watched the Arno river flow by.

I don’t know if I’ll ever see Florence again. I hope I will. If I do, you can bet I’ll sit on that Medici terrace again, remembering how it always turned out right in the end.

Good night, Florence. My own photo, July 2016.

Book Review: O Pioneers!

Nebraska prairie. 

“The history of every country begins in the heart of a man or a woman.”

I have to admit to being woefully behind in my reading of classic American literature. I read several of the traditional high school stand-bys in eleventh grade—volumes by Hawthorne, Hemingway, and Steinbeck—but I never loved any of them. I can appreciate the “art” value in them, but my heart has always been with British literature. I can’t even define what it is that I haven’t liked about American literature, except to say that a lot of it seems to be really depressing. But I am trying to fill this gap in my reading experience and I made myself read O Pioneers! by Willa Cather.


Willa Cather, O Pioneers! Originally published 1913.

Cather was a path-breaking female journalist of the early twentieth century, serving most notably as an editor for McClure’s Magazine. Her foray into fiction led her to be one of the formative authors of modern American literature. She found her niche in portraying regional America, particularly the prairies of Nebraska where she spent a great part of her childhood.

O Pioneers!, published in 1913, is the saga of the Bergson family, with the eldest sister Alexandra at its center. Children of Swedish immigrants, Alexandra and her three brothers inherit their father’s farm on the Nebraska prairie (circa 1880s). Their father knew nothing but struggle and failure on the harsh, unyielding land, but Alexandra determines that that will not be the case with her generation. She makes several daring, cutting-edge moves and, in less than twenty years’ time, her family is one of the most prosperous in the area.

In the novel, two things are going on, one being that the land itself is a powerful presence and yields only to the one that loves it. The O Pioneers! title is an ode to the men and women who work and love the land and earn their reward: “For the first time, perhaps, since that land emerged from the waters of geologic ages, a human face [Alexandra’s] was set toward it with love and yearning. It seemed beautiful to her, rich and strong and glorious. Her eyes drank in the breadth of it, until her tears blinded her. Then the Genius of the Divide, the great, free spirit which breathes across it, must have bent lower than it ever bent to a human will before. The history of every country begins in the heart of a man or a woman.”

But the success or failure to thrive on the land is not the only focus of the novel; the other is the fatalistic drama in the hearts of the people on the land. Cather sets up a Greek-like tragedy that, without giving out too many spoilers, just cannot end well. And while she’s at it, she paints a dark picture of what it was to be a pioneer and a woman at the turn of the twentieth century. Alexandra, having made the crucial decisions that led to her family’s prosperity, struggles to escape her brothers’ condescension toward her as a single female. She is a plain, sensible girl—“Her mind was a white book, with clear writing about weather and beasts and growing things. . . . She had never been in love, she had never indulged in sentimental reveries.” She always knew what had to be done and did it, very rarely letting her “self” have a say. Yet now in her middle age, she becomes a victim of how her middle brothers (and by implication, society) view women. Her desire to marry Carl Lindstrom, a penniless childhood friend, in order to find companionship in her loneliness is met with the response that she has no sense. Alexandra’s neighbor and friend, Marie Shabata, is trapped as well. She is hopelessly in love with Alexandra’s youngest brother Emil, the brother Alexandra raised to enjoy the freedom to choose between a life on the land and a life pursuing a career away from the prairie. But Marie and Emil have no freedom while Marie is married to a violent, insensitive man.

Although my impression that American literature can be depressing continues to hold true, in the end, my reading of O Pioneers! surprised me. It was certainly easier to read than I had thought it would be (sometimes I feel like the American classics can be cryptic). The prose is really pared back and is yet so immediate and realistic. Cather’s prose says exactly what it should say, almost as if there were no better way of saying it. In the introduction to my edition of the book, Cather’s work is called “cinematic,” and maybe that is the best way to describe how she shows us everything, all while saying very little. She makes evoking a certain time, place, and curious mixture of pioneer cultures look quite easy. There is a lot for a would-be writer to emulate in the way she crafted the book. Despite the tragedy, Cather’s writing is warm and welcoming and has inspired me to read her other novels, especially My Antonia.

★ ★ ★ ★ /5

“She had never known before how much the country meant to her. The chirping of the insects down in the long grass had been like the sweetest music. She had felt as if her heart were hiding down there, somewhere, with the quail and the plover and all the little wild things that crooned or buzzed in the sun. Under the long shaggy ridges, she felt the future stirring.”

“There are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before.”

“People have to snatch at happiness when they can, in this world. It is always easier to lose than to find.”

“Down under the frozen crusts, at the roots of the trees, the secret of life was still safe, warm as the blood in one’s heart; and the spring would come again!”

Book Review: Belgravia


Julian Fellowes, Belgravia. Grand Central Publishing: 2016.

Have you been missing Downton Abbey? It’s been a year since the last season aired. There hasn’t been a lack of great British television, but nothing seems to fill that Downton Abbey-shaped void.

In the intervening months the series’ creator, Julian Fellowes, hasn’t been idle. He hosted (from his armchair) a production of Anthony Trollope’s Doctor Thorne viewable on Amazon. Lord Fellowes was even spotted in the South Carolina low-country strolling the gardens of his New World counterparts at Middleton Place plantation (check it out here). Perhaps his most intriguing accomplishment was the release of a serial novel for digital download. Unbeknownst to me, Fellowes has already published several novels, but this revival of the modern interest in the serial novel is, to me, his most unique literary endeavor. It’s now available in one hardback volume as Belgravia.

The world of Belgravia is a familiar one for fans of Downton Abbey. It’s a society novel, with characters pulled from the ranks of the nobility down to the servants’ hall. Belgravia, however, is a story of London, rather than a Yorkshire estate, and takes place about seventy years earlier than Downton Abbey during the reign of Queen Victoria.

Belgravia follows two families from one of the wealthiest of London neighborhoods who are inescapably linked by a decades-old secret. Lord and Lady Brockenhurst, inhabitants of one of the grandest mansions on Belgrave Square, lead an aristocratic life but suffer the emptiness of a childless old age. Their only son and heir died years before at the Battle of Waterloo. On nearby Eaton Square in a not-quite-so-grand yet still luxurious mansion, James and Susan Trenchard live the up-and-coming lifestyle of the nouveau riche. They, too, have their share of sorrow as they continue to mourn the loss of their only daughter more than twenty years before. In 1840s London these two families, so close in proximity and lifestyle, would never have mingled, given that old money does not condescend to accept the new. But in this case, their paths cross, again and again, as both families display an immense and puzzling interest in the young entrepreneur Charles Pope. The relations and servants of the two families are left to discover just who this man is, and how his presence will affect them all.

Belgravia is reminiscent of the quintessential Victorian novel. There is a convoluted plot, extensive family connections and lost relatives, disgruntled employees, a little bit of romance, and a great deal of mystery and drama surrounding secret papers. More than once, I was reminded of a Dickens, Trollope, or Thackeray novel. But Fellowes doesn’t go as far as Dickens; Belgravia addresses the seamier side of Victorian London only in passing. And Belgravia does not have any of the long, descriptive passages typical of Victorian literature, either. It is much easier to read, if it is at times a little sluggish.

I admire Julian Fellowes’ work; I am appreciative whenever a novel or television show is able to make the past “come alive.” Fellowes says at the outset that he writes his stories to show that people living in the “foreign country” of the past are just like us in their hopes, dreams, temptations, and failures. He certainly succeeded in that aim with Downton Abbey. I am less sure that he succeeded with Belgravia. While I was not at all expecting it to be great literature, I suppose I was expecting it to have more “heart,” for what, if anything, was Downton Abbey but a dramatic emotional trip? Belgravia had all of the machinations of Downton Abbey, but it was missing something. I am convinced now that the actors made the show, putting flesh to the bones of a very good plot.

Perhaps, if you choose to read Belgravia, you should people it in your imagination with the actors from Downton Abbey and read it as a highly descriptive script. Or, imagine Julian Fellowes in his armchair reading it to you, teaching you about the Victorian period. You won’t be disappointed in the Victorian world he creates, but you may wish you could become more emotionally attached.

Book Review: Anne of Green Gables

anne “I’m so glad I live in a world where there are Octobers.”

I’m so glad I live in a world where there’s an Anne of Green Gables. Stepping into Anne’s world is always like wrapping up in a cozy, warm blanket. It’s like comfort food for the book lover.

The story of that spunky little redhead is, I imagine, familiar to nearly everyone. Who out there does not know about the slate breaking or the fateful afternoon tea, the dyed-green hair or the near-drowning? Anne Shirley’s youthful scrapes were a part of my childhood, Anne herself a beloved companion.

The other evening I finished listening to Anne of Green Gables on audiobook (one of my latest and most favorite things to do), performed by Rachel McAdams. I’ve read the book numerous times in my life, but I have to have something to pass the time on the treadmill or while house-keeping and Anne is just so hard to resist. So as she cried over Matthew’s death and healed up that bitter old wound with Gilbert Blythe, I sniffed and blinked away tears over the pasta I was making for dinner. I would have been happy had the book gone on for, say, another few hours—or 400 pages (whichever you prefer).



So what is it about this classic that gives it such timeless appeal? Although it’s categorized (unfairly, I think) as “children’s fiction,” this book just seems to get better with age—my age. I remember having the book in my hands as early as first or second grade, when the descriptions were too long and certain elements just went right over my head. I’ve revisited it several times, of course, and I always absorb more of what’s there. It always has more and more to say to the adult me.

Anne’s experiences and escapades, while certainly not what I would call typical of girls her age during her time-period or ours, were all made up of little things. By little things, I mean that ordinary life was dramatic for Anne. The more I read, the more I come to appreciate fine authors who can demonstrate the drama of normal life. Drama is always present, completely apart from a terrible, apocalyptic event. Anne didn’t have to be a girl with superpowers or a charmed life. That may have been what she wanted, but she was just Anne with an “e” from little old Avonlea. How dramatic to leave the pudding uncovered and find a dead mouse in it before dinner—to long for stylish clothes and finally get them—to get in a fight at school and have to be separated from your best friend—to accidentally wake up a scary old woman in her bed? In all of this, Anne is one of us.

In a similar way, Anne of Green Gables demonstrates Montgomery’s genius for characterizing real people. There are no saints or super-villains here. Instead we have a gossipy, know-it-all Mrs. Lynde, who is really rather kind on the inside, a stuck-up girl at school (we all know a Josie Pye), a boy who shows his “liking” by teasing, and a stiff old maid who really can’t help but laugh at her girl and cry private tears of pride and maternal affection. Matthew is the closest we may come to seeing a saint, although his chronic timidity gives us a sense of his real humanity. And then we have Anne, a little girl with a sweet spirit who desperately wants to do right, but who is forever being dragged into trouble by her run-away imagination and fiery temper.

Anne of Green Gables also boasts “all the feels,” yet unlike so many books out there, never leaves the reader feeling manipulated. One of my favorite things about Anne is her infectious emotions and love for beauty. She sees beauty everywhere and takes it to herself—in renaming the “Lake of Shining Waters” and the “White Way of Delight” and, of course, in the way she sighs over the sunset, the sounds of the sea, and the cherry blossoms at her window. She has a boundless love for all of her favorites, and in true adolescent fashion, an equally vehement dislike for her enemies. How deeply we feel with Anne that she did very wrong in rejecting Gilbert’s friendship that day at the pond, and how great the warmth at learning that Gilbert kept on caring anyway. We can’t help but love Matthew and silently cheer as he champions Anne’s cause by “putting his oar in” when he feels that she has been wronged. And I think you’d have to have the coldest heart out there not to crumble a little when Matthew dies and Anne and Marilla are left to cling to each other. While Anne may be quite the dramatic young girl, all of these feelings we walk through in Anne of Green Gables are the emotions of real life, neither melodramatic nor manufactured.

I somehow feel when I’m in Anne’s world that everything will come out right. Love, friendship, and self-sacrifice are all granted a place and a value. I think I’m going to have to go back to Green Gables soon.