Saturday, May 25, 2019

An English Governess in the Great War, the diaries of Mary Thorp

I came across this book while looking for more accounts of nursing in the Great War. The subtitle caught my eye: "The Secret Brussels Diary of Mary Thorp." As the introduction explains, it was secret because anonymous, and because keeping a diary in occupied Belgium during the Great War was dangerous. In her first entry, in September 1916, Mary Thorp writes
Several times, in the beginning of the war, I wanted to start a diary, but was dissuaded from doing so, because it was considered dangerous; a Jesuit father was shot during the tragic Louvain days of August 1914, for having written a few impressions.
A footnote explains, "MT refers to the well-known fate of Eugène Dupiéreux, a young Jesuit student executed during the invasion of Louvain for keeping a diary of the 'atrocities.'"

What I have read on the Great War has focused mainly on the war itself, the experiences of soldiers and nurses. With the Second World War, I have read more about life on the home front, both in the United States and Britain, and under Nazi occupation in Europe. It was through Dorothy Canfield's short stories that I first saw the European home front in the Great War, written of course from an American perspective and focused on France and Belgium.

Mary Thorp lived most of her life in Belgium. Her parents moved there from England when she was nine, in part because of family conflict over their illegal marriage (her father married his deceased wife's sister, and only four months before Mary's birth at that). Mary took her first position as a governess in a Belgian family at age 24. The editors note that she was well-educated, speaking and writing French superbly. She had also converted to Catholicism at some point, which was an asset for an English governess. "By 1910, she was working for one of the wealthiest families in Belgium, the Wittoucks." Paul Wittouck owned one of the largest sugar refineries in Europe. Catherine de Medem Wittouck was a Russian aristocrat who "propelled the household to the center of Brussels social life..." Thorp had charge of their three sons, Pavel, Micha, and Serge. The family moved between their townhouse in Brussels and their summer residence, La Fougeraie, which Paul Wittouck had remodeled in the style of a Louis XIV chateau.

Mary Thorp's life with the Wittoucks was a comfortable one, and it certainly cushioned her against the worst effects of the German occupation of Belgium. She was very aware of her privilege. She volunteered with two organizations, the Assistance Discrète and the Union Patriotique des Femmes Belges, that provided food and other assistance to the needy. She visited clients, bringing them food and clothing, helping them with appeals to the German authorities, trying to find work for them. One 1917 diary entry records, "Mr. W. gave everyone in the house 5 kilos of delicious sugar," a very expensive gift at a time when sugar was heavily rationed. Thorp goes on to say "I have made 20 1/2 lb packets to give to the needy..." She could presumably do so because the Wittoucks' house was stocked with sugar, but I was still struck with her immediate generosity.

Mary Thorp kept her diaries in small notebooks. The editors, Sophie De Schaepdrijver and Tammy M. Proctor, have kept the divisions between the notebooks, with short introductions to each new volume that provide context both to Thorp's life at the time and the larger situation with the war. They also include a very helpful discussion at the start of the book on "Life in an Occupied City: Brussels," as well as many explanatory footnotes. I learned so much from this book, which gave me a completely new perspective on the war. It was sometimes difficult to read, as the war dragged endlessly on. The winter months were particularly hard, because the German authorities commandeered food to be shipped to back to Germany while also cutting fuel rations, to the point that civilians were dying of hunger and cold. There were also massive drafts of forced labor sent to Germany, devastating families. Again, Thorp was cushioned against these dangers, but she saw and recorded them among her friends and her voluntary work.

Mary Thorp remained with the Wittouck family after the war, eventually retiring with a pension to a home they provided. She lived through World War II in Belgium, dying in December of 1945. If she kept any diary of those years, it hasn't been found. I can only imagine what she felt in September of 1939.

The superb interlibrary loan services in our Harris County libraries found me a copy of this at Arkansas Tech University. However, they want it back, so I have found my own copy to add to my small but growing collection on the Great War.

Saturday, April 20, 2019

The Left Hand of Darkness, by Ursula K. Le Guin

I have written before about Ursula Le Guin's Earthsea books, which are deep in my literary DNA. I read others of her books as I came across them, never seeking them out or adding them to my shelves. I think I was comparing them all to Earthsea, and found them wanting.

As I've been reading more science fiction and fantasy, I've come to understand better Ursula Le Guin's place in the canon. I've also learned that some of the books I read along the way are part of her "Hainish Cycle." I decided that this was the year I would read the Cycle (it's not a series, as I understand it, more a loosely-connected cycle of stories). Her Hainish books have just been republished in two fat Library of America volumes. I was tempted by them, because they include stories and articles as well as introductory materials, but I find those kinds of heavy compendiums hard to read. That's true, but it was also an excuse to start collecting the individual books, which has substantially increased my TBR stacks and decimated my book buying budget.

I decided to start with The Left Hand of Darkness, first published in 1969, purely because I came across it first in a bookstore. I read an article that Charlie Jane Anders wrote about it for the Paris Review, as well as a post she wrote about the Cycle on the Tor website. The articles convinced I'd made a good choice, but also suggested I'd been too quick to dismiss those other books of hers (and added more books to my shelves).

I have been slowly reading The Left Hand of Darkness over the past week, stretching it out, both because it is such an amazing book, and because I didn't want it to end. It is the story of two men. Genly Ai has been sent as the First Envoy from the Ekumen to the world of Gethen. The Ekumen are something like Star Trek's Federation (and written years before the TV show) or the United Nations, a collection of planets bound together by treaty, to share knowledge. They seek other inhabited planets to join them, but again like Star Trek they only invite and offer - they have their own Prime Directive. Ai has spent two years in Karhide, one of Gethen's established countries, unable to make much progress despite the support of the prime minister Therem rem ir Estraven. Estraven has tried to help Ai understand both the local politics and the fraught situation with the neighboring country of Orgoreyn. It is collectively governed, unlike Karhide with its monarchy. If Karhide is not interested in an alliance with the Ekumen, perhaps Orgoreyn will be.

The narration of the story alternates between Ai and Estraven. There are also interspersed short chapters of Gethen stories, history, myths, even a section from the first Ekumen Observer to Gethen. This is to me one of Le Guin's greatest strengths as a storyteller: she creates worlds with the weight of history, tradition, language, which feel real and three-dimensional. They have a past as well as a present. She never overwhelms the reader with information, we discover it - and she trusts us enough not to explain everything. Here Ai is learning about Karhide, and then Orgoreyn. But he is human, he judges things and people through his own perceptions. I appreciated that Le Guin made him fallible, imperfect. There are fundamental misunderstandings, on both sides, which cause enormous problems for both Ai and Estaven. It takes Ai much longer to realize his own mistakes.

The Left Hand of Darkness won both the Hugo and Nebula awards, and I can absolutely see why. So did one of the later books in the series, The Dispossessed. I think there are some stories that return to Gethen, but I am looking forward to discovering the other worlds that Ursula Le Guin created for the Ekumen.

Saturday, April 13, 2019

A Nurse at the Front, The First World War Diaries of Sister Edith Appleton

August 13 [1915]

Last night was remarkable for two terrific explosions which woke us at 2 a.m. and frightened us out of our wits. People have various theories of what they were - Zep[pelin] bombs, mines being exploded or our own guns a field or two away. The whole building trembled and rattled with the vibration. Have been feeling thoroughly nervy all day, silly fool that I am.

August 14

Evacuated nearly all patients, so had half day off duty and spent it at Mont des Cats with Miss Congleton. Delightful sunny day with splendid views all over Pop[eringhe], Ypres, Vlamertinghe. A Roman Catholic padre left his binoculars us, so we had a wonderful clear view beyond La Bassée, and the colours of the sky at sunset were glorious. As it got dark we saw them sending up coloured rockets from the aerodrome. . . Shells were bursting over our trenches south of Ypres. The picture was vivid, and the huge volume of smoke and muck shot up into the air gave a suggestion of what was happening to our Tommies. All the time the khaki-coloured ambulances were creeping to and fro, bringing the wounded in. 

This was one of the books that Mary Robinette Kowal cited as background reading for Ghost Talkers, and I put it straight on to my reading list. I've read only one other diary from World War I (as opposed to memoirs), and it was also from a nurse, the American Helen Dore Boylston's "Sister." Like Boylston, Edith Appleton was a trained nurse, though she had years more experience before she joined Queen Alexandra's Imperial Nursing Service Reserve. A month later, she was at her first posting in France, and by February she had moved to the front. She served in hospitals and casualty stations across France and Belgium. After the Armistice, she remained to help with the transport of convalescent soldiers. The diary she kept was apparently sent home on a regular basis to her mother. In 2008, her family built a website to honor her memory, and the publication of her diaries followed.

It is clear from the entries just how hard Appleton and the other nurses worked, and how exhausted she often was. The exhaustion wasn't just physical either. Appleton took every chance she could to get away from the work, noting long walks and picnics, and writing about the "splendid views" and the scenery around her - as well as the contrast with the columns of "smoke and muck" and the long lines of wounded and dead. She appreciated simple comforts where she found them, sharing biscuits and chocolate with a friend on a walk, relaxing with a book for a few minutes. When she was assigned to a unit temporarily housed in a wing of a "lunatic asylum," the director offered the nurses the use of the patients' bathroom.
I don't fancy bathing in company, but since I have not sat in water deeper than an inch since last year, the temptation is great. . .Three of us went up to another part of the asylum at 7 a.m, and had a deep BATH! Up to our necks in water - glorious! A dear old nun came trotting in when I was in my bath and felt to see if the water was the right heat. She thought the bath was too full and pulled the plug by a patent in the floor. I was sitting on the hole where the water runs away and was sucked hard into it!
Even more than a century later, it is difficult to read about the suffering of Appleton's patients. She didn't go into gruesome detail, perhaps because she was writing for her mother, but she didn't gloss over things either. She recorded the first use of gas in the trenches, and its effects on the men coming in to her ward. She noteed the deaths of individual patients who somehow stood out amidst all the carnage. She tried to give them all a clean handkerchief, because that small thing brought them great comfort. This is not a comfortable book to read - and it shouldn't be - but it is a wonderful record of one part of the Great War by a brave, observant and compassionate woman.

Sunday, April 7, 2019

Take Out, by Margaret Maron

When Margaret Maron announced that she was retiring from writing, it finally motivated me to try her first series, police procedurals centered around Lt. Sigrid Harald of the New York Police Department. I have for many years been a big fan of the Deborah Knott series set in the fictional Colleton County, North Carolina. I re-read the books regularly, and I was sorry when Maron announced that the 20th, Long Upon the Land, would be the last. I've gotten very attached to Judge Deborah Knott and her extended family.

I had already read Maron's two stand-alone novels, Bloody Kin and Last Lessons of Summer, both set in North Carolina as well. The events in Bloody Kin take place before the first Deborah story and though it doesn't feature the Knott family, it introduces people who play important parts in the series. I also tracked down two books of her short stories, the covers of which I find unsettling:

I remember picking up one of the Sigrid Harald books at the library at some point, but it was late in the series and concerned the death of a major character. That didn't seem a good place to start, but it also didn't inspire me to look for the earlier books. I finally "met" Sigrid in Three-Day Town, where Deborah and her husband Dwight spend a belated honeymoon in New York (and of course stumble into a murder case). Sigrid, whose grandmother lives in Colleton County, then comes to North Carolina in the following book, The Buzzard Table. When Margaret Maron wrote a final book for Sigrid's series, I decided it was time to complete my collection of her books and finally read those stories.

I enjoyed the series, if not quite as much as the Knott books. I appreciate a police series with a woman lead, and these also include minimal gore. However, Take Out is not the place to start the series, if anyone were inclined to start a nine-book series with the last book (I couldn't, myself). It begins with One Coffee With, where Sigrid and her team are called to investigate a murder in the art department of Vanderlyn College. They follow the familiar police procedural format, as different members of the team follow up leads under Sigrid's directions. There are personal asides as well, such as Sigrid's relationship with her mother, a Pulitzer-prize winning photojournalist. Sigrid's father, also an NYPD detective, was killed in the line of duty when she was a child, and we gradually learn more about his death and her parents' lives.

I don't know if this counts as a spoiler, but I'll leave a couple of extra lines just in case.

We also see Sigrid's slowly-developing relationship with Oscar Nauman, whom she meets during the investigation at the college. He is the chair of the department and also one of the leading artists of the 20th century. Sigrid is a prickly loner who doesn't want to get involved with Nauman, but he gradually wins her over (and not in a creepy demanding way). But then, just as they settle into their relationship, he is killed in a car accident in California. Sigrid collapses into grief, and that book (Past Imperfect) was really hard to read. She also learns that Nauman has left his entire estate to her. With the paintings alone she is suddenly rich, yet also responsible for his legacy.

Take Out opens about a year after his death - though oddly before the events in Three-Day Town (and as a reference to "the Towers" makes clear, before 9/11). The case involves two men found dead on a bench, with containers of take-out food between them. The lasagna and fettuccine they shared turn out to be laced with coumadin, a blood thinner. One of the victims was a homeless man, Matty, a drug addict whose godmother (a Mafia widow) regularly sent boxes of take-out to the park bench. There seems to be no connection with the other man, Jack, a retired stagehand. The investigation plays out against a background of disturbing news for Sigrid: a young man has arrived from Germany, claiming to be Nauman's biological son and therefore entitled to his estate. There is also a neat little subplot linking back to Corpus Christmas, set in a not-very-exciting historic house museum. Maron writes in an "Author's Note" that "those pictures that had been left stashed in the basement of the Breul House...kept begging to be taken out of that trunk," and partly inspired this book.

Like the other books in the series, Take Out feels a bit old-fashioned to me, and not just because Maron deliberately set it in the 1990s. I think I will pick up these books when I am in the mood for a police procedural. I re-read the Knott books for the setting and the characters, as much as for the cases that Deborah and Dwight investigate. Actually, writing this makes me think it may be time for another visit back to Colleton County.

Monday, April 1, 2019

Death by Dumpling, by Vivien Chien

This mystery is set in an enclosed shopping area called Asia Village, in Cleveland, Ohio. It is narrated by 27-year-old Lana Lee, who impulsively quit her job one day. "You know in the movies where someone says, 'You can't fire me, I quit!' . . . maybe don't do that in real life. Unless you don't mind working a a server in your parents' Chinese restaurant for the rest of your life." Her parents are thrilled to have her back at the Ho-Lee Noodle House. Lana isn't, but she needs to pay rent on the apartment she shares with her best friend Megan and her other bills.

I liked Lana's voice from the start. "Things to know about me: I'm half English, half Taiwanese, and no, I don't know karate. I'm definitely not good at math and I don't know how to spell your name in Chinese. . . Oh, and I have a problem with doughnuts."

On the day the story opens, Lana takes a lunch-time delivery to Asia Village's owner, Mr. Feng, in his office. As she arrives, another tenant named Kimmy Tran storms out and informs Lana that he is raising rents on the stores by 15%. Her parents won't be able to afford that. Lana takes the bag of food in to Mr. Feng and chats with him for a few moments, then returns to the restaurant. A couple of hours later, her mother's best friend Esther Chin rushes into the restaurant to find Mrs. Lee. She brings the shocking news that Mr. Feng was found dead in his office. Even worse, he died from an allergic reaction to the shrimp dumplings that Lana delivered to him. But everyone in the Village knew of his deadly allergy. Peter, the cook at the Noodle House, was always very careful in preparing and cooking his food. Lana took Mr. Feng his usual order of pork dumplings, so where did the shrimp dumplings come from? When the police arrive, Peter is taken into custody. But Lana finds that fingers are also pointing her way, since she delivered the food to Mr. Feng. She and her roommate Megan decide that the police are on the wrong track, especially in suspecting Peter, so they decide to do some investigating on their own. Megan even buys Lana a book about how to become a private detective. The actual detective in charge of the case, the dark and brooding Lt. Adam Trudeau, takes a very dim view of this.

I enjoyed this story very much. It was interesting to explore the Village, with its community of owners running a variety of stores, and some of their loyal customers. As in any community, there are alliances and sometimes hostilities. There is also history between the members, which plays a big part in the story. It was fun too following Lana and Megan's detective work. At one point, Lana starts the kind of "motive, means and opportunity" list that comes up so often in Golden Age mysteries. However, she and Megan quickly lose control of it, with additions and deletions scribbled all over the place. Mine would look the same, I'm sure. And I enjoyed the family dynamics between Lana and her parents, and her over-achieving older sister Anna May as well (a law student).

This was a very satisfying mystery, with a vivid sense of place. Despite the restaurant setting, there is no food porn here, but people are always eating, and I did find myself thinking of noodles more than once. I am pleased that there are two more books in the series, Dim Sum of All Fears and Murder Lo Mein (that one published just last week).

Friday, March 29, 2019

Ghost Talkers, by Mary Robinette Kowal

I loved the cover of this book, and the story caught me from the first page:
16 July 1916

    "The Germans were flanking us at Delville Wood when I died."
    Ginger Stuyvesant had a dim awareness of her body repeating the solder's words to the team's stenographer. She tried to hold that awareness at bay, along with the dozens of other spirit circles working for the British Army. Even with a full circle supporting her, she ached with fatigue, and if she weren't careful that would pull her back into her body. It wouldn't be fair to force Helen to assume control of the circle early. The other medium was just as exhausted. Around them, the currents of the spirit world swirled in slow spirals. Past events brushed her in eddies of remembrance. Caught in those memories, scent and colour floated with thick emotion. The fighting at the Somme had kept the entire Spirit Corps working extra shifts trying to take reports from the dead, and the air was frigid with souls.
In this Great War, the British Army has a secret weapon. Mediums have worked out a way to route the souls of the soldiers who die on the battlefield away from The Light long enough to report what they saw just before their death. "Spirit circles" linked through the mediums help them take these real-time reports while anchoring them firmly in this world. The information collected by the reports shapes British tactics and strategy. The crucial work of the Spirit Corps is camouflaged by the Women's Auxiliary Committee and its hospitality centers. Ginger's aunt, Lady Penfold, is the head of the Spirit Corps, reporting to the Army - though she usually skips all meetings, leaving Ginger to make the actual reports to the sometimes difficult Brigadier-General Davies.

On the same day that Ginger is taking reports from Delville Wood, she has a visit from her fiancé, Captain Benjamin Hartford, an intelligence officer. He brings bad news: "We've received reports that the Spirit Corps is being targeted by the Central Powers. . . The last thing [one dying soldier] heard was, Noch ein gespenstiger Spion . . . Another ghost spy."

I enjoyed this story on several levels. The work of the Spirit Corps is fascinating, with its circles of mediums and "mundanes," and the sensitives in between, each with her or his part to play in the work. Ginger's circle includes a soldier who lost a leg on the battlefield but chose to stay to work with the Corps rather than being invalided out. I enjoyed the interviews with the soldiers reporting in, as sad or difficult as they sometimes were. After drawing out the military information, the mediums encourage them to leave messages for family or friends. The magic of the story is grounded in the realities of the First World War. It was clear to me that Ms. Kowal had done her research, even before I read the "Historical Note" at the end of the book.

This being a story of the Great War, I was braced for a lot of deaths. I began to suspect early on that one character was doomed, and I decided to skip to the last chapter to check. Sure enough, this person was dead. I was a little put out by that, since I liked them. When I went back to my place in the story, I turned the very next page and read about their murder - which surprised me. So the story shifted to become a murder mystery, alongside the intelligence work both through the Corps and the officers like Captain Hartford, assessing in particular the risks to the Corps. But here those investigating the murder have the assistance of the victim, though their memories may be fragmentary and incomplete. And the recently-deceased become difficult to work with over time, even for experienced mediums.

I would happily read more stories of the Spirit Corps. In the meantime, I went looking for some of the books Ms. Kowal cited in the "Historical Note," starting with A Nurse at the Front: The First World War Diaries of Sister Edith Appleton. I'm also hoping interlibrary loan can find me a copy of Kate Adie's Fighting on the Home Front: The Legacy of Women in World War One.

Saturday, March 23, 2019

Bringing Down the Colonel, by Patricia Miller

When I saw this on the new book shelves at the library, I assumed from "A Sex Scandal of the Gilded Age" in the subtitle that it was about the Woodhull sisters, whom I do find fascinating. I had never heard of Madeline Pollard, the "powerless" woman on the cover, but I found her story equally fascinating. It is one that played out in the newspapers across the country in 1893 and 1894, but has since been forgotten. Patricia Miller, a journalist, spent more than a decade researching and writing it. It has a particular resonance in 2019, particularly with the "MeToo" movement.

In June of 1893, Madeline Pollard took the unusual step of announcing her engagement to Col. Willie Breckinridge, a Confederate veteran and member of Congress whose wife had died the previous year. A month later Breckinridge, part of a powerful Kentucky political dynasty, married another woman in Louisville. In August, he was served with papers for a breach of promise suit that Pollard had filed. It wasn't just the suit, though, it was the explosive details that made the story front-page news. Pollard claimed that Breckinridge seduced her when she was a seventeen-year-old school girl, that she had been his mistress for more than ten years, that she had borne him two children, and that he had frequently promised to marry her when his wife died. He had even introduced her to a prominent Washington hostess, asking her to chaperone Pollard as his fiancée. Her suit demanded $50,000 in damages (well over a million dollars in today's rates - a fabulous amount in 1893).

Pollard was far from the first to make such claims. But she was the first to publish the details, and to appear publicly as a "Fallen Woman" who had broken the strict code of purity that late 19th century women were held to (white women at least, as Miller acknowledges). "I'll take my share of the blame. I only ask that he take his," Pollard said. That was a revolutionary statement: as Miller explains, the prevailing double-standard meant that women in cases like this bore all the blame, and they never prevailed in legal cases. In fact, women weren't allowed to even attend the trials, nor were the cases discussed in detail in news reports, to protect their delicacy and their purity. I had no idea that the future president Grover Cleveland was accused of sexually assaulting a woman, Maria Halpin, who then became pregnant. He was also accused to taking the child from her and having her committed to an asylum, while refusing her any other support or assistance. His supporters painted her as a wanton woman, blaming her pregnancy on other men. Miller also instances the senator and former member of Abraham Lincoln's cabinet, Simon Cameron, who was sued for breach of promise by Mary Oliver. Because Oliver had had other lovers, and was therefore a "bad woman," Cameron was under no obligation to marry her and her suit was dismissed.

Breckinridge and his supporters expected that Pollard's suit would be dealt with as easily. However, as Miller writes,
the emergence of Madeline Pollard "startled the whole country." This seemingly powerless woman from a backwater in Kentucky took on one of the nation's most powerful men - and by extension much of Washington - and won. By having the nerve to tell her story in public, she broke the conspiracy of silence that allowed powerful men like Breckinridge to prey on younger and less powerful women. She led Victorian America on a front-row tour of the various subterfuges - the lying-in homes, the orphan asylums, the homes for fallen women - that men used to maintain an underclass of "ruined" women. She showed how men like Breckinridge manipulated their power and social conventions to ensure that it was women, and their unwanted children, who took the fall for men's behavior. In doing so, Madeline inspired a generation of women to demand change and presaged conversations about powerful men and sexual privilege that resonate into the twenty-first century.
According to Miller, Pollard's case had a major impact on women in the South, where white men had been exploiting black women for centuries. White women had chosen to ignore it in their own families, as the diarist Mary Chestnut and others pointed out. This case broke that silence. It also started a conversation about women's rights that finally moved southern women to the suffragist cause.

Miller's account is filled with fascinating women: journalists, activists, society leaders, doctors, servants, nuns, and women running "assignation houses." The testimony of Sarah Guess, a former slave who kept one in Lexington that Breckinridge and Pollard used, was particularly damaging to his case. I was especially interested in Breckinridge's daughter Nisba, who managed a college degree but couldn't study law as she wanted. For white women of her class, who didn't marry, the only acceptable jobs were teaching and working in the new department stores. She wanted more, and it took her years to break free from family obligations. Towards the end of her long life, she began making notes for an autobiography that she never completed. That's too bad, I'd be interested to read more about her.