Monday, November 30, 2015

All On Fire, by Henry Mayer

I will be as harsh as truth, and as uncompromising as justice. On this subject [slavery] I do not wish to think or speak, or write, with moderation. No! No! Tell a man whose house is on fire to give a moderate alarm . . . but urge me not to use moderation in a cause like the present. I am in earnest - I will not equivocate - I will not excuse - I will not retreat a single inch - AND I WILL BE HEARD.  - William Lloyd Garrison, in the first issue of The Liberator (January 1, 1831)
The subtitle of this book is "William Lloyd Garrison and the Abolition of Slavery." I knew something of Garrison from studying the Civil War. I knew that his newspaper, The Liberator, was one of the first in the United States to call for the abolition of slavery, and the most influential. I knew that he was hated and feared in the South, where he and his radical ideas, published in his paper, were blamed for the Nat Turner slave insurrection, which came just months after his first issue in 1831. (The State of Georgia put a price of $5000 on his head.) I knew that he refused to vote in elections, because it would mean participating in a government that condoned slavery. I thought of him as a John Brown figure, a man of violent words (if not deeds), fueled by deep anger at the injustice of slavery.

From this massive biography, I discovered that what I knew about William Lloyd Garrison just skimmed the surface of a complex and compelling man. I came to agree with what the author wrote of him in his Preface:
William Lloyd Garrison (1805-1879) is an authentic American hero who, with a biblical prophet's power and a propagandist's skill, forced the nation to confront the most crucial moral issue in its history. . .He inspired two generations of activists, female and male, black and white - and together they built a social movement which, like the civil rights movement of our own day, was a collaboration of ordinary people, stirred by injustice and committed to each other, who achieved a social change [abolition of slavery] that conventional wisdom first condemned as wrong and then ridiculed as impossible. . . Garrison did not shrink from the realization that the assault upon slavery would require a direct confrontation with American assumptions of white supremacy. He boldly coupled his demand for immediate emancipation with an insistence upon equal rights for black people, a principled stand that eluded every prominent political figure of his era.

The people of his own time understood his role in ending slavery - some loved and honored him, others continued to despise him. He was a polarizing figure, even in the northern states. But somehow in the 20th century, Garrison got pushed to the sidelines of history. Henry Mayer, an independent historian, wanted to right that, to put him back at the center of the story where he belongs, while recognizing the activists who worked alongside him in the decades of struggle.

I found this book mesmerizing (to the point that I was dreaming about it). Garrison himself is such an interesting character, with a childhood miserable enough to rival Anthony Trollope's. He was apprenticed in a printing shop, where like Benjamin Franklin he began writing as well as setting type. Despite a pugnacious personality in print, he was a sweet-tempered man, a little shy, a loving husband and father to seven children (two of whom died young). And he was a cat person. As a young man, he met in Boston Benjamin Lundy, a Quaker working to free individual slaves, and to open people's eyes to the evils of slavery. Lundy found a ready convert in Garrison. The disciple went forward faster and farther than the teacher, however. He saw clearly, and preached tirelessly, against the virulent racial prejudice in the northern states. Unlike many, he believed that African Americans were citizens, entitled to the same rights and privileges as whites (and therefore he opposed attempts to remove free and freed persons of color by "colonization" in Africa or Central America). He had close ties to the black community, who supported The Liberator in the first difficult year of publishing. African Americans also frequently wrote for the paper, as did women (black and white).

I don't think I ever understood before how deeply the abolitionists were hated in the beginning, in the north. White Americans did not want to hear about the wrongs of slavery - they didn't want to hear about it at all - and they did not want to hear that they were to blame in any way for it. That abolitionists held mixed-race meetings was another strike against them. In 1835, a crowd in Boston gathered to harass a meeting of the Boston Female Anti-Slavery Society. When they found out that the hated Garrison was in the building, they tracked him down, with calls to lynch him, and he had to be jailed for his own protection. Another anti-slavery editor, Elijah Lovejoy, was murdered in Illinois, in 1837, and his printing press destroyed. The next year, a white mob in Philadelphia burned a hall in Philadelphia where black and white abolitionists had been meeting, while firemen stood by. Yet through all this, Garrison kept publishing, and the abolitionists kept organizing, handing out tracts and copies of The Liberator, speaking out on the sufferings of the enslaved people - and slowly, a consensus began to develop in the northern states that slavery was wrong. I also feel like I never fully appreciated the role that the abolitionists played in rousing the conscience of the north against slavery, and in advocating for equal rights. Once this consensus grew strong enough, politicians began to act on it.

I did not know, or had forgotten, that Garrison was also an early supporter of women's rights. Women in the United States first found their voice in reform movements like temperance and abolition. Garrison welcomed them to abolition work from the start. His concept of natural rights wasn't limited to one race or one sex. Others in the movement were less tolerant, and the movement would split into two groups over the participation of women. After the Civil War, with emancipation and black suffrage guaranteed by constitutional amendments, Garrison would turn to the fight for women's suffrage. He joined the American Women's Suffrage Association, headed by Lucy Stone, an old colleague from the anti-slavery campaigns.  Drawing on his decades of experience, he helped them edit and publish a journal. (Susan B. Anthony was another anti-slavery campaigner, who was close friends with Garrison's wife Helen and "Aunt Susan" to their children.)

The fight over women's participation in the movement was not the only one, and Mayer covers the issues in great detail. He also spends considerable time exploring Garrison's very unorthodox spiritual life. He grew up in the evangelical Baptist faith of his mother, which shaped his language and in many ways his vision. But he moved away from organized religion, in part because the churches condoned slavery. I didn't know that in the 19th century, "coming out" meant leaving the institutional church, and the "come-outer" was a recognized religious identity. I was sometimes a bit lost among all the details of the different religious movements, and with the conflicts that frequently broke out among the abolitionists - leading to schisms in both groups. Mayer tracks them in exhaustive detail, in relation to Garrison. That detail accounts in part for the bulk of the book (over 700 pages with notes and index).

This book has inspired me to some additional reading, including a Penguin edition of essential abolitionist writings (from Garrison, Frederick Douglass, Lucretia Mott and other leaders). I also have my eye on a six-volume biography of Garrison, written by two of his sons in 1885. Mayer used it extensively in writing this book, and he says that "the personal reminiscences that dot the pages are invaluable." Perhaps that is what gives this book such life, despite its bulk. Henry Mayer manages (in the words of  historian Paul Murray Kendall) "to elicit, from the coldness of paper, the warmth of a life being lived." And what a life.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

My Sue Barton collection is finally complete


The other day, after I finished Dorothy Canfield's Her Son's Wife, I was trying to make a list of other books set in Vermont, the home of so many of her characters. Of course I thought of Shirley Jackson's Life Among the Savages and Raising Demons, and the American adventures of the Von Trapp family. I was also thinking of the later books in this series. But when I sat down with Sue Barton, Rural Nurse and Sue Barton, Staff Nurse, I was reminded that they take place in rural New Hampshire instead. In Staff Nurse, Sue goes back to work while her husband Bill is in a sanitarium for TB treatment. There was a little summary in the first chapter, Sue "transporting herself back a year in order to enjoy the feeling of having second sight..." That made me realize that I was missing the book where what she remembers take place.

I was lucky enough to find a copy of the book, Sue Barton, Neighborhood Nurse, on-line. When I first started looking for these books, some of the titles were very hard to find. I remember when the only copies of Sue Barton, Visiting Nurse were going for hundreds of dollars. There certainly seem to be more copies available now, at much more reasonable prices. There have also been some modern reprints, from Image Cascade Publishing, with nicely retro covers.

I have written before about how important these books were to me, growing up. My mother was a nurse, as were two of my aunts and several glamorous older cousins. I wanted to go to nursing school, to earn my cap and wear my crisp white uniform (with the white nylons). I devoured books about nursing schools the way others did boarding school stories. (I wish now I could remember the title or author of the book where a young African American woman desegregates a nursing school.) I didn't question why there were no women doctors in these books, nor did I ask myself if my extreme reaction to blood might perhaps disqualify me from nursing. Eventually, I fell in love with studying French and decided to become a translator at the United Nations instead - but I never lost my love for nursing school stories. I checked the Sue Barton books out of libraries well into adulthood, until they disappeared from the shelves. I was so happy when I was able to find copies on-line.

They do of course read a little differently to me now, at my advanced age. I still enjoy the two books about Sue's training, Student Nurse (1936) and Senior Nurse (1937), though the second book is as much about her romance with Bill as it is with nursing (the course of true love can't run too smoothly). It's interesting that Sue asks Bill to delay their marriage, because she wants to work as a visiting nurse in the Henry Street Settlement program (Visiting Nurse, 1938). In the next book, Rural Nurse (1939), Bill has to postpone their marriage after his father dies, but Sue joins him as a community nurse in New Hampshire. After their marriage, they work together at a new local hospital, donated by a rich neighbor (Superintendent of Nurses, 1940). Sue is the director of the tiny nursing school that they open, but with this book, the stories become as much about their marriage and (later) family.

I hadn't re-read Neighborhood Nurse (1947) in years, but from the title I was expecting something about community nursing. Instead, though Sue spends one day filling in for the district visiting nurse, this story is about marriage, family, and motherhood. Sue does wonder at the beginning if she is wasting her nursing education and experience, but in the end she has come to realize that her children are her most important work. This might fit in with the times in which Helen Dore Boylston was writing it, when women had been encouraged to return to the home after the war-work of the Second World War (which plays no part whatsoever in these books). Boylston herself never married, however, nor did she have children. (She lived for several years with Rose Wilder Lane, in Albania and at the home of Lane's parents, Almanzo and Laura [Ingalls] Wilder, but everything I've read dodges the question of their relationship, whether partners or friends.) In the last of the series, Staff Nurse (1952), Sue escapes back to the hospital work she loves, partly to cope with her anxiety, though she doesn't neglect her motherly duties.  It's interesting that Boylston wrote another series of books about a career woman, the actress Carol Page. I wonder if they end with Carol retiring from the stage for the domestic life.

These are by no means great books, but they're part of my literary DNA, and still comfort reads for me. I'm probably likely to re-read Neighborhood Nurse least often, because I don't find Sue's kids that interesting, and it has almost no nursing in it, but I'm still glad to have a copy. And maybe I will re-read Visiting Nurse for next year's 1938 Club!

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Sunday miscellany: progress in bookish projects, and the TBR Triple Dog Dare

I don't want to jinx anything, but when I took a look recently at two book-related projects I've been working on, I was pleasantly surprised to see some real progress.

First, my TBR number has shrunk to 237. That is the lowest it has been since I started tracking it back in 2008. Considering I started this year at 305, I am pretty happy with that number. I'd like to get it down to 200 by the end of the year, and then under 100 in 2016. (My ultimate goal is around 25.) I just need to stick to my "one in, one out" rule for unread books. I've also been focusing on the oldest books in the stacks. I'm currently looking at those I've had unread since 2002. Teresa of Shelf Love just wrote about her TBR pile, and she mentioned that she has a 5-year expiration date for unread books. I'm tempted to try that sometimes, a clean sweep of the old books, but there are still some I want to read - including a lot of Anthony Trollope. Next up from the 2002 section: his Orley Farm.

Second, I have finally hit the half-way mark in my "Mid-Century of Books." This is a project to read one book from each year between 1850 and 1949. I knew I'd never been able to complete this in a year, as others have done. I'm now in my second year, and it could well take me another two to finish. Jane from Beyond Eden Rock, who started the "Mid-Century" project, has made hers more challenging by limiting herself to one book per each author. I on the other hand have included multiple books by Anthony Trollope on my list, as well as Dorothy Canfield Fisher, E.O. Somerville and Martin Ross. I need to write something about (re)reading The Last Chronicle of Barset, and then I can cross 1867 off the list as well - and Orley Farm will take care of 1862. I was thinking the other day that it would be interesting to read through the years in order, rather than randomly as I have done, but I'm not sure that would have been practical, particularly given how many years are still blanks on my list. I need to start looking for books from the 1850s, to start with.

Speaking of book-related projects, James of James Reads Books has just announced the final round of his TBR Dare - a Triple Dog Dare. This is a dare to read only from your TBR shelves for the first three months of the new year. Last year, my fourth time taking the Dare, I gave up half-way through - not to read new books, but because of an irresistible temptation to re-read (Dorothy Dunnett in particular). Still, I managed to clear quite a few books off the TBR shelves. So I am signing on again, but this time with a goal: three months or 35 books, whichever comes first. I'm also going to claim my usual exemptions, one for Lois Bujold's latest Vorkosigan novel, and one in case Deborah Crombie publishes her new book in those months. I think the last Elizabeth Peters book is scheduled for posthumous publication in April, but just in case I'm putting that on the exemption list as well. I'm glad that James is hosting this again - hopefully it won't really be the last round.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Her Son's Wife, by Dorothy Canfield

I think it will be a story which women will be interested in, (I hope which they will feel deeply) but I don't believe it can interest any man. They have for too many generations had the possibility and the habit, of putting on their hats and melting away out of the house, when family relations got too uncomfortably tense. I rather imagine they will put on their hats and melt from the book at about the third chapter. But I hope that women who have had, for generations, to stick it out with no escape, may have a certain horrified interest in the story. (Dorothy Canfield Fisher to Paul Reynolds, 3/28/1925)
Reading this book made me realize that I was starting to think of Dorothy Canfield as a "cozy" writer. Not that she didn't write about difficult themes, such as unhappy marriages and the damage that parents can inflict on their children. But the last three books of hers that I read have been about young people finding their way, growing into themselves, through the challenges of their families and backgrounds. They haven't been fairy stories, but the characters have struggled through to happy endings (which are themselves new beginnings). I knew before I started this book that it was about a family in conflict, as the title certainly suggests. I just wasn't prepared for the way that the story twists and turns - and my sympathies with it. I certainly read the last third or so with the "horrified interest" that the author hoped to invoke.

In the first chapter, we meet Mary Bascomb, holding court after school in her fifth-grade classroom. The mothers of her students wait their turns, to appeal, even to beg. She grants their requests - or doesn't - with a full appreciation of her power, and something of disdain for her subjects. We learn that she was widowed young, left with a son to support through teaching. Her son Ralph is about to graduate from college, and Mrs. Bascomb is ready to support him through law school. But she is tired, already looking forward to the day he will be established in his law office, independent. He has been in a nearby town, looking for summer work, and probably (his mother thinks) wasting time watching baseball games. Instead, a letter arrives, telling her that he has gotten married. "Just went before a justice of the peace with no fuss about it at all." In a scrawled postscript, Ralph adds, "Mother, Lottie's not your kind, but she's all right."

After a sleepless night, Mrs. Bascomb steels herself to walk out of the house and send a telegram: "Mother's home always yours. Bring Charlotte home and we will talk things over and make plans for the future..."  Then she steels herself to go to work, where people will have seen the announcement of the marriage in the paper. Ralph and Lottie arrive that afternoon, and from the first moment Mrs. Bascomb knows that her new daughter is most definitely "not your kind." But Ralph is completely under his wife's spell, physically in thrall to her. When Mrs. Bascomb can bring him down to earth enough to talk of practicalities, they agree that Ralph will return to college, finish his degree, and then look for work. Meanwhile, Lottie will live with Mrs. Bascomb.

Mrs. Bascomb now has two to support, and it soon becomes clear that another member will be added to the family. Lottie does no work, even to keep her own things in order. She and her mother-in-law are the proverbial oil and water, both quick to anger and to hard words. They try to wage their campaigns through Ralph, who when he cannot melt away out of the house tends to take his wife's side, to his mother's disgust. But everything changes for Mrs. Bascomb the night her granddaughter is born.
The baby girl was lying on her back, her face as calm as that of a Buddha, her eyes wide open, gazing up fixedly. As their gaze met, John Bascomb's widow woke from her long nightmare. The eyes were the eyes of John Bascomb, set under John Bascomb's brow.
From that moment, her grandmother's life begins to revolve around the baby, named (to her despair) Gladys and nicknamed Dids. Mrs. Bascomb wants desperately "to protect her darling, to work for her as she is doing now, to fight for her." She wants Dids to have opportunities and choices, more than her mother or even her grandmother did. Lottie resents her mother-in-law's "interference" with her child, asserting her place as Dids' mother as much as Ralph's wife.

Their struggle plays out over the years, as Dids grows up, and it is not a happy story. In the later years, Mrs. Bascomb figures out a strategy that made my jaw drop, and I read on in horrified fascination, to an unsettling ending. As I was reading, I was thinking that in different hands, Mary Bascomb would have been insufferable. In the beginning, she is a petty tyrant with a martyr complex, who would have fit right in with Margaret Oliphant's self-sacrificing mothers - though Mrs. Bascomb does not suffer in silence. We learn more about her in the course of the story, and we also see how her love for her granddaughter transforms her life, not in an instant, happily-ever-after fairy tale way. There is still conflict and anger and pain. But there is also satisfaction particularly in her work. Mrs. Bascomb is a good teacher, and inside her classroom she is the Teacher, free from the tension and anxiety of her life as Mother and Grandmother. And while I didn't like Lottie much more than Mrs. Bascomb does, she is not just a caricature or a monster either. Eventually we learn something of her life before Ralph, of what shaped her, and in the end I found her a genuinely sympathetic character, particularly in the turn her life takes. I would love to meet these characters again, say four or five years after the book's ending.

As different as this book felt, I did note some familiar Dorothy Canfield touches. For several years Mary Bascomb attends a summer teaching institute at Columbia University, which both Canfield and her husband John Fisher attended, as do many of her characters. The Great War plays no part in this book, though key events take place in 1914. But at one point Mrs. Bascomb is likened to "the driver of a war-ambulance over a shell-swept road." I think John Fisher's experiences as an ambulance driver in France must have gone into the description of "peering blindly ahead into a darkness which was lighted only by terrifying explosions; and from one alarming moment to the next [she] could only try to hold out yet a little longer..." Like many of Dorothy Canfield's characters, at least in the books I have read, Mary Bascomb realizes "How long it took her to understand anything." It seems to me that her central characters always have more to learn. Their lives and their characters are not static. However, none of those I have met so far has faced the bleak sentence of one in this book: "leisure and self-respect she was never to know again..."

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Together Tea, by Marjan Kamali

Iran is on my list of places to visit one day. I am fascinated by its ancient history as well as its more recent. But I am pretty much an arm-chair traveler these days, making my visits via books and films. I'm always on the lookout for stories about Iran, fiction and non-fiction. A description of this book mentioned a mother and daughter returning to to Iran for a visit, which was enough to add it to my reading list.

The story opens in New York in 1996. Mina gets a call from her mother Darya announcing that she has found the perfect gift for her daughter's twenty-fifth birthday: a very eligible Iranian American bachelor (the latest in a long line). Mina, who is studying for her M.B.A., doesn't want to sit through another awkward introduction, she doesn't want to get married, she doesn't even want to be in business school. She wants to be an artist, but her parents expect her to follow her older brothers into a successful career. Mina finally agrees to meet the perfect-on-paper Mr. Dashti. But later she surprises her parents by announcing that she is going back to Iran, to the country they fled eighteen years ago.
Part of her had always been hovering in midair over the place that she had left. What if the country and history her parents loved was still buried there? What if she could find it? Could Mina go back and see what Darya meant when she said she wanted Mina to have "everything she had"? Mina had always wished that she could have known the Iran Darya had grown up in, instead of the Iran that she herself had escaped from. Could she find it and piece it together if she went back there as an adult?
Her father Parviz tells her no, absolutely not. "What you are suggesting is ludicrous," he tells her, turning to Darya for support. Instead, her mother not only agrees, but tells her daughter, "The answer is yes . . . of course I will come with you." Mina, who had no idea of inviting her, is left as speechless as Parviz. She doesn't know that her mother has her own reasons, her own restlessness.

The story then shifts back to 1978, in the months before the Revolution began. We meet the Rezayi family in their Tehran life, the children in school, Parviz in his medical practice, rooted in their extended family. We see the events of the Revolution mainly through Mina's eyes, as her life becomes more and more bound by rules, and by the constant fear of police raids. Soon after Mina's tenth birthday, tragedy strikes their family, and her parents make the difficult decision to leave. We then follow the family to New York City, as they make a new life in America - only to face hostility from Americans who know Iran only through hostages and war. The story then shifts back to Mina and Dayra's visit in 1996, and their eventual return home.

I am drawn to stories of emigration, of the courage that it takes to leave one's home and family for a new world. It was interesting to read one from the perspective of an Iranian family. It was even more interesting to read about immigrants returning home, finding their place again in the world they left behind, observing the changes. I enjoyed seeing Iran through Mina and Dayra's eyes, particularly Tehran. It was fascinating to watch the transformation in Daryra, coming back to her home and extended family after so many years. She seems to find her place so much more easily than her daughter, who had the idea in the first place. The relationship between mother and daughter is complicated, in ways any mother or daughter would find familiar.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Dispatches from the chaise-longue - some quick reviews

I've had bronchitis for over a week now, and it has really knocked me out. I can't remember the last time I felt this enervated and exhausted. Though I managed to stagger back to work at the end of the week, I generally feel like an overcooked strand of spaghetti. I do have quite an impressive cough, which causes some germ-conscious co-workers to back out of the room. On the positive side, I have had lots of time for reading, though I haven't been able to focus on anything really challenging. I've built up a little stack of books to talk about, so I thought I'd write a quick post before I need to go lie down and watch more "N.C.I.S." episodes (Netflix isn't quite as good as cable for mindless sick-bed TV, I've found).

Keeping the Feast, Paula Butturini

I found this on the library sale shelves and was intrigued by the back cover blurb:
When Paula Butturini's husband was shot and nearly killed twenty-three days after their wedding, it marked the beginning of a phase of life neither had planned. John would recover from his injuries, but the psychological toll lingered long after his physical wounds had healed. . . [This book] is a gorgeously crafted portrait of a marriage and partnership touched by depression, but even more, it is a testament to the extraordinary sustaining power of food and love, to the healing that can come from simple rituals of life, and to the stubborn belief that there is always an afterward, always hope.
The author met her husband John Tagliabue in Rome, where both were working as journalists (she for UPI, he for the New York Times). Two years later, in 1987, he was named the bureau chief in Warsaw, and Ms. Butturini went with him, working then for the Chicago Tribune. Both were injured covering the 1989 uprisings in eastern Europe. Ms. Butturini was savagely beaten by police in Czechoslovakia, while Mr. Tagliabue was shot while traveling in a car with other journalists in Romania. His injuries brought him into a deep depression that left him unable to work for many months. The couple, only recently married, returned to Rome to live, hoping the familiar place would help.  I expected this book to be a memoir of coping through cooking, with recipes, like Adrienne Kane's Cooking and Screaming. Though it is very much about food, it is not a cookbook, a choice the author deliberately made. It is a family memoir, of growing up in Italian immigrant families, of carrying food traditions forward, and of coping with depression (the author's mother also suffered from it). I found it a moving story.  I also found the couple's work and travels interesting, particularly the adjustment of transferring from Rome to Warsaw.

The Blotting Book, E.F. Benson

The author's name caught my eye one day at Murder by the Book. I've never read any of E.F. Benson's work beyond the Mapp and Lucia series, apart from some of his ghost stories. This short book from 1908 is a mystery, set in Brighton. Morris Assheton, just turned twenty-two, has fallen in love. Under his father's will, his marriage will end the trust that has tied up his inheritance. His trustee, old family friend Edward Taynton, has been making some rash investments, and he needs time to set things right. He gets his partner Godfrey Mills to tell the young lady's father some lies about Morris, hoping to break off the match. In return, Mills demands a very substantial amount of money, to cover his own gambling habit. Learning of Mills's lies, Morris sets out to confront him. When Mills disappears, Morris becomes the prime suspect.

This was an interesting little story. It isn't a mystery in the "who-done-it" sense, because the villains are clear from the start. I had a pretty good idea of what was going to happen, but the fun was in watching it unfold, and in the Brighton setting. I also enjoyed the smiling villain at the center. However, this doesn't have the fun of the Mapp and Lucia stories. It reminded me more of Benson's ghost stories, without the macabre.

Time Enough, Emily Kimbrough

This book from 1974 is an account of a cruise the author took with several friends along the Shannon River in Ireland. By this point, she was in her 70s, so she was content to leave the work of the trip to the crew of the boat. As in her other travel accounts, she and her friends spent their time squabbling a bit, watching the scenery, touring local sights of interest, and buying souvenirs. I've found that I enjoy her books more when they focus on the places she is visiting, and less on the "wacky" adventures or quirks of her fellow travelers. This was a pleasant-enough read, and I learned something about the geography of Ireland, particularly the Shannon, which stretches through the center of the country. Kimbrough took particular note of the small town of Banagher.
I found that [single wide main street] very poorly lit, but even in the darkness, interspersed among the shops, I saw several houses that seemed to me to have both substance and style. I doubt he lived in one of those, the young man of twenty-six who came in 1841 to fill the post of clerk to the district surveyor. His name was Anthony Trollope. He lived ten years in Banagher and began his writing there.
If I ever get to Ireland, I want to visit Banagher as well.

Greenery Street, Denis Mackail

Lyn at I prefer reading recently mentioned the acronym "HIU," or "Have it unread." Many of my TBR books are "RTO," or "rushed to order" - usually after reading a blog review. I'm not sure where I first read about this 1925 novel, but I remember the excitement of learning that Angela Thirkell's brother was also a writer. I knew from reading reviews that this book was about the first year of a young couple's marriage. Unlike his sister's Barsetshire books, it is set in London, in an idyllic street "of thirty-six narrow little houses." Ian and Felicity Hamilton move into No. 23 Greenery Street after their marriage. Ian goes off to his work at an insurance office, while Felicity tries to cope with servants and a budget. It is a domestic story, based according to the editor of my Persephone edition on Denis Mackail's own early married life. There are some dramatic elements involving Felicity's older sister Daphne, and a venial trustee, as well as a plot twist that echoes "The Gifts of the Magi." And speaking of echoes, Greenery Street has "little gods" who lurk in rooms and sometimes provide commentary on the action. I wondered if Angela Thirkell borrowed that idea for her angels that do the same, particularly around Mrs. Brandon. (The editor says that Mackail was bullied by his older sister, their parents' favorite!)  I see there are two sequels to this book, which are long out of print and apparently impossible to find. I will have to try inter-library loan, I'd like to read more about the adventures of Ian and Felicity. I also learned from the introduction that Denis Mackail was a close friend of P.G. Wodehouse's, and I found a picture of them in a biography of PGW that is still "HIU" on my shelves.

Monday, November 2, 2015

Touched by the Thorn, by Maura Laverty

The other day, while I was browsing on-line for copies of more of Kate O'Brien's books, I thought to check for Maura Laverty as well. And it was serendipitous, because that day there were two I didn't have: this one (published in the UK as Alone We Embark), and Liffey Lane (Lift Up Your Gates in the UK). I knew that Liffey Lane is set in Dublin (in the slums no less), so when I saw that Touched by the Thorn is set in the country-side, I decided to read it first.

What I hadn't realized is that it is set in Ballyderring, the small town in County Kildare that is also the setting for Laverty's Never No More. This story takes place later, so to my disappointment we don't meet Delia Scully or her loving Gran again. But at the heart of the story is someone a bit like Gran. Julia Dempsey had gone away from Ballyderrig to become a cook in Dublin, but she came home to care for her parents, and to inherit their little shop. She sells home-baked treats as well as sweets and cigarettes, and she makes a bit of money keeping lodgers. She "was the only landlady in the place who would board Balties," traveling show people. It is the arrival of "The Bohemian Concert Party, fresh from their successes in all the principal towns in Ireland," which sets the story in motion. "Julia Dempsey said afterwards that it was an unlucky day for a great many people when the Balties came to Ballyderrig in 1928." The most unlucky is a young woman who falls in love with one of the performers and breaks her engagement to a local farmer. That step sets off a chain of misfortune and pain for three families that stretches over many years.

The second section of the book jumps forward almost a decade, into the early years of World War II (the book was published in 1943). I don't think that I have ever read an Irish novel set in this period. It was an interesting contrast with what I've read of Great Britain and the U.S. There are shortages, particularly of food, and what they have is of poor quality - a problem for Julia's baking. No one seems to be queuing for rations, however. There is an exodus of workers over to Britain, for jobs in the defense industries. The more nationalistic citizens of Ballyderrig strongly object to this. Unlike Never No More, there is a political element to this book. One character is an active member of the IRA, which at least in this area is busy drilling and recruiting rather than carrying out any kind of actions. However, the young man argues frequently with Julia about the group. He and Julia disagree about patriotism, and about Irish workers helping the British war effort. "Do you want Hitler to win then?" Julia asks him. "We mightn't be so much better off if we had him over here. I didn't hear that the people in the countries he took are delighted with him." A page later the authorial voice speaks of "two classes of Irish patriots."
In the first class are men who find it possible to love their own country without hating another. Their dreams are too full of gladness for what is good in Ireland and of sorrow for what is bad to have room for the ghosts of past wrongs. And their days are too busy with doing what they can to better their own small corner of the land to leave them time for gunning. In the other class are those whose love for Ireland is deep and sincere, and whose hatred for England is equally so. They are the fighters, and many men think that hatred is necessary to a soldier. . . A blow when he is sore, an injustice when his heart is raw, and the hatred comes suddenly to him, changing him from a mild, fairly contented being into a gunman.
Maura Laverty understood both groups, but she made it clear which she thought was right.

But the heart of her story is people, not politics. As with Delia's Gran, Julia Dempsey's neighbors come to her for her listening ear and her advice. Some of their stories are dark ones, full of pain and anger, and Julia does what she can to help. She is a lovely character. "Perhaps it was because Julia never married that she gathered loves and friendships as Johnny Dunne gathered pound notes." She is particularly concerned about Mary, her goddaughter, and Molly, her young shop-assistant. There is also Teedy, the daughter of her friend Nora in Dublin, who comes to live with Julia after her mother dies and her father remarries. In another echo of Never No More, Julia finds her way to the girl's heart through cooking. When Julia tells her about a "golden web" of spun sugar, to put over a "flummery when you want it to look extra fancy," which her mother used to make for birthdays and Christmas, Teedy begs her for one. Julia can't make it with the beet sugar that is then available, but fortunately someone shares some loaf sugar. The adventure that Maura Laverty spins out with Julia's sugar! Then too, Ballyderrig itself is at the heart of her story, and she writes movingly of its beauties in the different seasons.

Maeve Binchy wrote an introduction to the Virago edition of Never No More, which made it clear how much she admired Maura Laverty's work (including her iconic cookbooks). This book in turn reminded me of Binchy's novels, set in small Irish towns. I know that Liffey Lane, set in Dublin's slums, will be a very different book, but I know it will be written with the same clear-eyed affection and empathy for the people living there.