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.

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

One less book

I threw a book away today. A new hardcover. Normally, I would donate a book I didn't want to keep to the library sales, but this book had some pages where the print was faded and there were odd splotches of color obscuring what little text could be read. If I had wanted to keep the book, I might have tried to return it for a clean copy. I didn't feel I could donate it in the shape it was.

On some level it feels wrong to throw a book away, particularly a new one in such outwardly good shape. But I didn't want this book in my house. I was enjoying it until it turned very violent at the end, in a way that I found deeply disturbing. The backstory of one of the main women characters was gradually revealed over the course of the story, with an episode of psychological abuse that involved a severed body part (someone else's). A minor female character was tortured and sexually assaulted for hours, and then left to die alone. This is presented from her point of view, though at least not in extreme detail. Forty people, whom we are told are bad though we never see them in action, are burned alive.

The book is Wild Country by Anne Bishop. It is the latest in her series of books about the Others, powerful predators who in an alternate reality control the world and allow humans only so much space in it. I really liked the previous books in the series, though I don't seem to have written about them before. If there are any further books in the series, I won't rush to read them.

Now I feel like something soothing and comforting, where absolutely no one dies, not even a mouse.

Tuesday, March 5, 2019

The Old Gentleman (The Masqueraders, by Georgette Heyer)

   When the black page announced my Lord Barham next morning, both Mr and Miss Merriot were with my lady in the morning room. My lord was ushered in, very point-de-vice, with laced gloves, and a muff of miniver, and a long beribboned cane. The muff and the cane were given into the page's charge; the door closed behind this diminutive person, and my lord spread wide his arms. 'My children!' he exclaimed. 'Behold me returned to you.'
    His children maintained an admirable composure. 'Like Jonah cast up out of the whale's belly,' said Robin.
    My lord was not in the least put out of countenance by this coolness. 'My son!' He swooped upon Robin. 'Perfect! To the last detail! My Prudence!'
    Prudence submitted to a fervent embrace. 'Well, sir, how do you do?' she said, smiling. 'We perceive you are returned to us, but we do not understand the manner of it.'
    He struck an attitude. 'But do you not know? I am Tremaine. Tremaine of Barham!'
    'Lud!' said Robin. 'You don't say so, sir!'
    He was hurt. 'Ah, you do not believe in me! You doubt me, in effect!'
    'Well, sir' - Prudence sat on the arm of Robin's chair, and gently swung one booted leg to and fro - 'We've seen you as Mr Colney; we've seen you as Mr Daughtry; we've even seen you as the Prince Vanilov. You cannot altogether blame us.'
    My lord abandoned his attitude and took snuff. 'I shall show you," he promised. 'Do not doubt that this time I shall surpass myself.'
    'We don't doubt that, sir.'
    My lady said on a gurgling laugh, 'But what will you be at, mon cher? What madness?'
    'I am Tremaine of Barham,' reiterated his lordship with dignity. 'Almost I had forgot it, but I come now into my own. You must have known' - he addressed the room at large - 'you who have watched me, that there was more to me than a mere wandering gamester!'
    'Faith, we thought it was just deviltry, sir,' Prudence chuckled.
    'You do not appreciate me,' said my lord sadly, and sat him down by the table. 'You lack soul, my children. Yes, you lack soul.'
The children who lack soul are, like himself, fugitives from the losing side of the Jacobite rebellion. They are in disguise, Prudence as "Peter Merriot" and Robin as his sister Kate, staying with Lady Lowestoft, who knows the whole story and their many years ranging across Europe in their tempestuous father's wake. Now he has appeared in London, claiming to be the lost Viscount Barham.

I know this isn't a favorite with some Heyer readers, who find the Old Gentleman as irritating as his children sometimes do. I think he is one of her most entertaining characters, and I love watching him stir up trouble. The reactions of his more conventional children - even in their cross-dressing disguises - always make me laugh. Prudence is also a favorite character, one of Heyer's calm, sensible women, with the saving grace of humor. She actually deals better with their wayward father than her brother does, as she navigates through male society. At least growing up with a "wandering gamester" has taught her to play cards, and to best cardsharps out to fleece the young man she appears to be. And she gains the support and friendship of another lovely character, "the mountain" Sir Anthony Fanshawe, whose keen grey eyes watch not just the outrageous Lord Barham, but also the Merriots, Peter in particular.

Published in 1928, this is one of Heyer's earlier books. The language is ornate, rather self-consciously "period," but it still fizzes with humor. And it's quite an exciting story, between the disguises and the lost heir - not to mention a runaway bride, and a compromising document that may undo them all.

Monday, March 4, 2019

Sir Roderick Glossop

I really enjoyed the first book in this series, The Frangipani Tree Mystery, and I've been looking forward to this second. It starts off in the wake of the Abdication, with a high-profile wedding in Singapore between an American widow and her upper-class English fiancé. Chief Inspector Le Froy, Su Lin's boss at the new Detective and Intelligence Unit, has been asked to provide security for the Glossop-Covington wedding. That's in part because he is an old friend of the groom's father, Sir Roderick Glossop. I almost dropped the book when I read that.

Sir Roderick Glossop is of course a recurring character - and frequent antagonist - in some of my favorite P.G. Wodehouse novels, including Uncle Fred in the Springtime. He has two children in those books, neither of whom apparently went out to Singapore.

Now in addition to watching the mystery play out, I'll be on the loookout for more PGW connections. And I see there is a third book coming out in June, at least in the UK, The Paper Bark Tree Mystery.