Archive for the ‘History’ Category

Book Review: We Were the Lucky Ones

We Were the Lucky Ones by Georgia Hunter is based on the true story of the extraordinary holocaust survival of an entire Jewish family from Radom, Poland. Well-off and assimilated, they seem too pampered when we first meet them to endure the hardships that will come their way – especially knowing (as we do now) that fewer than 300 Jews of the 30,000 that lived in that town in 1939 survived WWII. As the family is separated and sent to different parts of the globe, each member has to find a way to survive the particular circumstances that come their way. 

It is a compelling story, and one that deserves to be told. This telling of it, however, is lacking in several ways.

Each family member (2 parents, 5 children + spouses, and a grandchild) has several chapters dedicated to their experience. While I understand why the author chose to use multiple perspectives, it did not allow enough time with each character to develop a connection with them.

It also did not allow the full story of any of them to be told. Chapters often ended with a “cliffhanger” but by time the story got back around to that character, time had passed and there was no follow through of the action. For example, (slight spoiler) in one place Mila hides her young daughter Felicia in a sack of fabric when the SS show up at her workplace. Mila has to leave Felicia when all workers are ordered outside. In the hiding place, Felicia hears the boots of the soldiers all around her. They start kicking the bags around her. The chapter ends here, and the story doesn’t get back to them for ten chapters. By then, it’s almost a year later and we join Mila and Felicia on a train. So obviously the soldiers didn’t find Felicia, but we don’t get the rest of that scene. Most chapter are that way.

In addition, the omniscient point of view created distance between me as a reader and the story, so that I could never feel immersed in it; I was being told the story rather than experiencing it with the characters.

The lack of any faults among the characters also made them unrelatable. Every one of them was beautiful, smart, brave, patient, selfless—none of them ever fought or even complained. No one is that perfect, especially in such trying times.

The story tries to be told in present tense, but there is so much remembering and backstory that there is just as much past tense, and the switch was jarring at times. And there were several instances of anachronism.

I give it three stars.

Ma’s Lemon Pie

“Now for the lemon pie,” Ma said… “Laura you wash the lemons carefully and cut off any dark spots, while I make the crust.”

Ma added a pinch of salt to some flour. With her fingers she crumbled lard through it, until the particles would pact [sic] together when pinched. Then she added a little cold water as she mixed it in lightly to make a dough.

Now she rolled the dough out thin and lined a pie-tin with it. She cut the lemons into very thin slices and laid them on the crust until the pie-tin was nearly filled. Then she covered them with sugar – Oh lots and lots of sugar. Over this she placed the top crust, with its small pine-tree cut in the center, and she baked the pie until the flakey crust was a delicate light brown.

From the manuscript of Little Town on the Prairie (this scene didn’t make it into the published book)

The lemon pies I always knew had a smooth filling topped with meringue, so when I first discovered the above passage, I was fascinated. Could one really make a pie that way? Turns out, it’s a popular way to make them!

The recipe was originally created by the Shakers, who considered lemons important to their diet. They believed it was a sin to be wasteful; thus they used the entire lemon.

An authentic Shaker lemon pie (also called Ohio lemon pie, as the Shakers who developed the pie were from that state) would use only true lemons, white sugar, and eggs in a double crust. Today, Meyer lemons are most often used. This lemon-orange hybrid is not only sweeter than a true lemon, but it also has a thinner skin.

Other changes have crept into modern recipes, too. Some people add vanilla or spices; others thicken and smooth the filling with a little butter and flour. Some even cream the ingredients (including lemons) together in a blender.

What everyone agrees on is that the lemons must be sliced as thinly as possible, and left to macerate in the sugar as long as possible – at least a couple of hours and up to overnight.

Here’s the original recipe:

2 large lemons

4 eggs, beaten well

2 cups sugar

2 pie crusts

Wash lemons and slice them thin as paper, rind and all. Combine with sugar; mix well. Let stand at least 2 hours, stirring occasionally. Stir in beaten eggs and mix well. Turn into 9” pie pan lined with one crust, spreading lemon slices evenly. Cover with top crust; pinch closed around edge; slit to vent. Bake at 450 for 15 minutes, then reduce heat to 375 and bake another 20 minutes, or until knife comes out clean. Cool before slicing.

For a more modern taste, you might try adding 1 teaspoon vanilla, 4 tablespoons melted butter, and 3 tablespoons all-purpose flour with the eggs. You could also bake without a top crust, or with a lattice top.

Have you ever had a Shaker lemon pie? Did you enjoy it? And what would a lime pie – or an orange pie – made this way (but with adjusted sugar amounts) taste like?

We went to DC for a presentation at a conference

Thought I’d share a few photos of our recent trip to DC. I was invited to give a presentation at a conference on fraternalism, so we took the opportunity to see a few things we didn’t get to the last time we were there.

Belmont House: This historic was built c. 1911 by Perry Belmont as a place to bring his wife. She had been previously married to a homebody, who made the mistake of letting her attend social events with their single friend Perry. When she divorced her husband and married Perry only five hours later, the new couple was ostracized in their hometown of New York City. So Perry moved them to DC and built this house. However, news of their history found them, and when they threw their first large ball, only one couple attended. Luckily for them, the couple was President and Mrs. Taft; after that, they were suddenly back “in” society.

Entry way

 

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This is not an umbrella stand but a cane safe. Back in the day, society men’s canes were adorned with lots of gold and other precious metals, so these lockable holders kept them safe at large gatherings.

 

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Family dining room. See the desk in the back corner?…

 

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This is a closer view. Snazzy, isn’t it? Now see the books on top? The second one is mine (Little Lodges)! No one knew I was coming for a tour, and the guide didn’t know me, so it wasn’t “planted.” Hubby asked, and the guide said those are the books always kept on the desk.

 

The grand ballroom. Notice the mirror over the fireplace on the right. When this mirror was installed, it was the largest single-piece mirror in the world.

 

The formal dining hall. I love the old candelabras in front of the far wall.

 

The microwave is modern, obviously, but the cabinetry and warming oven in the kitchen are original. You need a ladder to reach the top cabinets.

The House of the (Scottish Rite) Temple: Built in 1915, this building houses an old research library and museums in addition to meeting rooms.

One of the meeting rooms.

 

One of the research libraries.

 

I wrote about this in Little Lodges!

 

Another library, because you can never have too many books.

George Washington Masonic Memorial: The GW monument is closed for repairs (it was closed for repairs last time we were in DC, too; wonder if I’ll ever get in that one) so we went to the GW Masonic Memorial instead. Constructed between 1923 and 1932, this memorial was created to “inspire humanity through education to emulate and promote the virtues, character, and vision of George Washington, the Man, the Mason, and Father of our Country.”

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The man himself.

 

Replica of the lodge meeting room in which GW met. The altar (in center), bible on it, and Master’s chair (under portrait far wall) are all original from that lodge. Other artifacts from GW’s life are preserved in the wall cubbies, like the clock from Mt. Vernon seen to the left.

The grounds as seen from the top floor observation deck.

And finally, a pretty terrible shot of me beginning my presentation – hubby took it with a zoomed in cell, in a room with dimmed lights (for the slides), which is always a disaster.

“Just as I am, without one plea…”

I caught a cold the day before the conference began and presented this paper with a wicked sore throat. Must have done okay, though, because two academic presses asked to publish it, and a third organization asked about hosting me in a few months. But my next gig is in July, at the Story Circle conference. I’ll be leading a workshop on how to turn your passion into a book. Come join us!

Happy Valentine’s Day

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Isn’t this a pretty valentine? It’s a handmade “puzzle card” from 1790, on display at the Postal Museum in London. The verse around the edge reads,

My Dear the heart which you behold
Will break when you the same unfold
Even so my heart with love sick pain
Sure wounded is and breaks in twain

But that’s not all of it. You can see where the heart unfolds. Here is the unfolded paper:

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Before printing became economical, greeting cards were made by hand, like the one above. The ancient Egyptians sent affectionate notes on papyrus scrolls; the Germans made woodcarvings; and the Chinese sent New Year blessings on paper, which they invented. Sending greetings on Valentine’s Day came along later, probably in the fifteenth century.

You’ve probably heard the story that this holiday celebrates a priest named Valentine, who was imprisoned for secretly performing wedding ceremonies of Roman soldiers who had been forbidden that act because it took their mind away from their duty. It’s a nice legend, but purely fiction. Roman soldiers were never forbidden to marry, so there was no need of secret ceremonies.

There were actually at least 3 Saints named Valentine (or Valentinus), but the most well-known was a Christian who was said to have passed out hearts cut from parchment paper, with Bible verses about God’s love, forgiveness, and salvation written on them. He was arrested and interrogated, but instead of confessing, he tried to convert his interrogator. For this he was sentenced to death; but, he supposedly performed the miracle of healing the blind daughter of his jailer before his execution, which caused her and 44 others to convert to Christianity. Legend says he had fallen in love with this daughter, and wrote her a farewell letter signed “from your Valentine.”

The earliest known reference to Valentine’s Day comes from a poem written by Geoffrey Chaucer (he of Canterbury Tales fame). The poem, titled Parliament of Foules (Assembly of Birds), was written in 1382 to celebrate the one year anniversary of King Richard III’s engagement to Anne of Bohemia. It describes a dream in which a man is taken into the netherworld, where Nature has assembled all the birds and they are choosing mates. The pertinent lines read,

For this was on seynt Volantynys day
Whan euery bryd comyth there to chese his make.
(For this was on St. Valentine’s Day
When every bird cometh there to choose his mate.)

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Parliament of Foules

It ends with a separate poem welcoming spring which contains these lines:

Saint Valentine, who art throned aloft –
Thus sing the small birds for your sake –
Welcome summer, with your sunshine soft,
That this winter’s tempest does off-shake.

Three other poets mentioned birds choosing mates on Valentine’s Day around the same time as Chaucer, so it was evidently an established tradition; but, there is no record of how this idea began, although some claim that it dates back to the early Roman spring festival of Lupercalia. It was long believed that birds mated for life. Ma Ingalls even told her daughters that, as Carrie later related in a letter of memories. Today, we know that while a feathered couple may bond for a season or longer, monogamous mating for life is pretty rare among them.

The earliest known narrative of a Valentine’s Day celebration is in Charter of the Court of Love issued by Charles VI of France. It describes feasting, music, dancing, poetry, and jousting; but the highlight was the “court” held by royal females, who heard “cases” of lovers’ disputes and ruled on them. There is no official record of such festivities, and it is believed that Charles’ wife, Queen Isabeau, may have created the Charter from her own imaginings.

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Court of Love festival

The earliest known surviving valentine is a farewell letter written by Charles, Duke of Orleans to his wife while he was imprisoned in the Tower of London. The original is written in French. Below is the best translation I could find:

I am already sick of love,
My very gentle Valentine,
Since for me you were born too late,
And I for you was born too soon.
God forgives him who has estranged
Me from you for the whole year.

I am already sick of love,
My very gentle Valentine.
Well might I have suspected
That such a destiny
Thus would happen this day,
How much love would command.

I am already sick of love,
My very gentle Valentine.

Personally, I think the “sick of love” (which is also often translated “tired of love”) would be more accurate as “love-sick” or “sick with love.” That may not be the literal meaning of his words, but there are entire books written about how Charles’ works and words are so stylistically unique that they are virtually un-translatable. Love-sick is defined as “missing the person one loves, so much that one is unable to act normally,” and that fits the meaning of the poem more, I believe.

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Charles writing in the Tower of London

The earliest extant English-language valentines are two letters written in February,1744 by a young lady letting her suitor know that she was anxious to marry him. Margery Brews wrote to John Paston,

Ryght reverent and wurschypfull, and my ryght welebelovyd Voluntyn…

I said it was English, but not that it was modern English. 😉 She goes on to tell him that she’s unwell from anxiety over him, and asks him not to leave her but to come settle the matter with her father, ensuring him that she would still want him even if he had only half his livelihood, and that she would always be true to him.

His reply to her letter is not preserved, but we know he did answer because her next letter, which begins, as before, to Right worshipful and well-beloved Valentine, thanks him for it, and for his promise to “have a conclusion” with her father. She writes that she would be “the happiest creature alive” if it “comes to effect,” but will be “most sorry and full of heaviness” if not.

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She also tells him to be prepared that her father will not increase her dowry: “I let you plainly understand that my father will no more money part with in that behalf,” but if he “could be content with that good, and my poor person, I would be the merriest maiden on the ground.” She begs her “good, true, Valentine” to be satisfied so that she may be his “true lover and bedwoman during her life,” and signs it “by your Valentine, Margery.”

Pretty forward for a fifteenth-century lady. Luckily for Margery, her Valentine did have a conclusion with her father.

Here’s another handmade Valentine, from about 1800.

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The note around edge says,

My Dear the heart which you behold
Will break when you the same unfold
Even so my heart with love sick pain
Sure wounded is and breaks in twain.

Like the first one in this post, this card also unfolds, and a pinwheel gives more love:

My dearest dear and blest divine
I’ve pictured here thy heart and mine

But Cupid with his fatal dart
hath deeply wounded my poor heart

And has betwixt us set a cross
Which makes me lament my loss

But now I hope when this is gone
That our two hearts will join in one.

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But wait – there’s more! Unfold further, and the following is revealed.

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The center verse, around the circle and ring of flowers, says:

My heart is true to none but you
My heart I hope you will pursue
The roses and the lillies twine
Since you became my Valentine.

Round is my ring and has no end
So is my love unto my friend

Think of the work it took to make this token of affection!

Here is the oldest extant commercially-printed Valentine’s Day card.

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From 1797 London, the verse (see it along the edge of the garland?) reads,

Since on this ever Happy day
All Nature’s full of Love and Play
Yet harmless still if my design
‘Tis but to be your Valentine.

I’ll conclude with this unusual way to let one’s beloved know of one’s feelings – a handkerchief, with love verses printed onto it. It was made in France in 1793.

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Wilder Wednesday: Drinking from the Saucer

Eliza Jane was more bossy than ever. She said Almanzo’s boots made too much noise. She even told Mother that she was mortified because Father drank tea from his saucer.

“My land! how else would he cool it?” Mother asked.

“It isn’t the style to drink out of saucers any more,” Eliza Jane said. “Nice people drink out of the cup.”

“Eliza Jane!” Alice cried. “Be ashamed! I guess Father’s as nice as anybody!”

Mother actually stopped working. She took her hands out of the dishpan and turned round to face Eliza Jane.

“Young lady,” she said, “if you have to show off your fine education, you tell me where saucers come from.”

Eliza Jane opened her mouth, and shut it, and looked foolish.

“They come from China,” Mother said. “Dutch sailors brought them from China, two hundred years ago, the first time sailors ever sailed around the Cape of Good Hope and found China. Up to that time, people drank out of cups; they didn’t have saucers. Ever since they’ve had saucers, they’ve drunk out of them. I guess a thing that folks have done for two hundred years we can keep on doing. We’re not likely to change, for a new-fangled notion that you’ve got in Malone Academy.”

That shut up Eliza Jane.

~From Farmer Boy, by Laura Ingalls Wilder

 This was the first, and for a long time, only, reference to drinking from a saucer that I’ve ever come across. Mother Wilder’s history was a bit faulty: Europeans first explored China in the 1516, when the Portuguese explorer (and cousin of Columbus) Rafael Perestrello landed on the southern coast of mainland China and traded in Guangzhou. I think what Mother Wilder had in mind was the United East Indian Company, a Dutch-chartered trading company that had a trade monopoly with China in the 1600s.

 Another reference to drinking from the saucer can be found in Tom Brown’s School Days, a British novel written by Thomas Hughes in 1857:

“Well, I wish I were alongside of him,” said Tom. “If I can’t be at Rugby I want to be at work in the world, and not dawdling away three years at Oxford.”

“What do you mean by ‘at work in the world’?” said the master, pausing, with his lips close to his saucerful of tea, and peering at Tom over it.

“Well, I mean real work; one’s profession; whatever one will have really to do, and make one’s living by. I want to be doing some real good, feeling that I am not only at play in the world,” answered Tom, rather puzzled to find out himself what he really did mean.

“You are mixing up two very different things in your head, I think, Brown,” said the master, putting down his empty saucer, “and you ought to get clear about them.”

 Cups and saucers have been used since the Middle Ages, and I could find no definitive answer about whether they drank from the saucer as well as the cup, or when that habit began. But it certainly was common in Russia and Scandinavia for many years. In fact, in Sweden, they not only sipped from the saucer after purposely overfilling the cup, but sipped the beverage through a lump of sugar held in the front teeth, a custom called “dricka på bit” or “drink with a lump.” While there are people who remember their elderly, usually rural, ancestors drinking this way, it seems to have fallen out of favor in the 20th century. It was still a common enough practice in 1914 to be portrayed in a painting by Konstantin Makovsky.

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Drinking from the saucer was not confined to Europe. There is a story that when Thomas Jefferson returned from France to find Congress organized into two parts, he asked George Washington why there needed to be a Senate. Washington answered with another question: “Why do you pour tea into your saucer?” Jefferson answered, “To cool it.” “Just so,” responded Washington, “we pour legislation into the senatorial saucer to cool it.” See, the Federal Convention felt that the members of the House were too emotional, so the Senate was formed to have “cooler heads” prevail. This story is anecdotal, but does show that using the saucer to cool the tea was a familiar custom here in America.

I’ll leave you with a poem by John Paul Moore:

 Drinking From The Saucer

I’ve never made a fortune,
And I’ll never make one now
But it really doesn’t matter
‘Cause I’m happy anyhow

As I go along my journey
I’m reaping better than I’ve sowed
I’m drinking from the saucer
‘Cause my cup has overflowed

I don’t have a lot of riches,
And sometimes the going’s tough
But with kin and friends to love me
I think I’m rich enough

I thank God for the blessings
That His mercy has bestowed
I’m drinking from the saucer
‘Cause my cup has overflowed

He gives me strength and courage
When the way grows steep and rough
I’ll not ask for other blessings for
I’m already blessed enough

May we never be too busy
To help bear another’s load
Then we’ll all be drinking from the saucer
When our cups have overflowed

Masonic Monday: French Chefs

A friend sent me this link recently. It’s an article that looks into the claim that all the best French chefs are Freemasons, and they keep non-Masons from advancing in the culinary field. It’s a good example of some of the rumors that abound about Freemasons. As the author of the article discovers (spoiler!), although some top chefs in France and around the world are Masons, many others aren’t, and some won’t say either way. Whatever their status within or out of the fraternity, it has no bearing on their culinary skill or whether they support those attempting to rise in the industry.

There are other theories about Freemasons that are a bit more ambiguous. For example, history-inspired friends have told me that after reading Little Lodges, they began noticing how many founders – of cities or counties, states, and even our country – were Masons. Sometimes they wonder if that’s evidence that Freemasons want to take over the world.

picture1Picture6.pngIt’s true that many founders belonged to the fraternity, but in a way that’s like saying, “Most of the founders had brown hair, so brunette men must want to take over the world.” During the peak of Masonic membership, most men did belong to the Lodge. It was an opportunity for working-class men to become acquainted and socialize with those who were powerful and influential. So belonging to that ancient organization was almost as common as having brown hair (among men, that is – no women allowed).

But in another way, it’s not entirely coincidental that Masonry counted in its membership so many men who were also men of power and influence. The tenets of the fraternity focus on improving society as well as self – ideals that one wanting to establish schools and law and other necessities of civilization would naturally be interested in. Add in the fact that a man beset with scandals could have neither joined the Lodge or advanced his career, and it’s not surprising that movers and shakers were often Freemasons – whether they had brown hair or not.

Wilder Wednesday – Color-coding Children

Wilder Wednesday posts are inspired by the Little House on the Prairie book series by Laura Ingalls Wilder.

Then Laura saw her own pink ribbons on Mary’s braids. She clapped her hand over her mouth before a word came out. She scrooged and looked down her own back. Mary’s blue ribbons were on her braids! She and Mary looked at each other and did not say a word. Ma, in her hurry, had made a mistake. They hoped she would not notice. Laura was so tired of pink and Mary was so tired of blue. But Mary had to wear blue because her hair was golden and Laura had to wear pink because her hair was brown…“Oh dear!” Ma exclaimed. “I put the wrong ribbons on Laura’s hair!” “It’ll never be noticed on a trotting horse!” said Pa. So Laura knew she could wear the blue ribbons.  ~On the Banks of Plum Creek, by Laura Ingalls Wilder

A friend recently turned me on to Sarah Albee’s blog, which I’ve been enjoying. Not long ago, she posted about the trend of gender-specific colors, which you probably know is a relatively recent development. I wanted to know why these trends developed, and found some interesting theories.

It was around the mid-1910s that colors were “assigned” to specific genders. Before that, both genders were usually dressed the same. Same styles and same color – white, for a very practical reason: the inevitable stains could be bleached out. But some market-minded person realized that if mothers could be persuaded to dress their children in colors, there would be more sales; and if the genders had different styles – including different colors – that would be even more sales (succeeding children of a different gender couldn’t wear the older sibling’s clothing). For some time, there was no consensus on what those colors should be, but eventually pink and blue took over.

Pink was designated as the color for boys, and blue for girls. It is supposed that this selection was influenced by Renaissance art, which usually depicted the Virgin Mary in blue and the Christ child in pink. Blue has traditionally been associated with the heavens and purity, and thus appropriate for females, who were viewed as more virtuous. Pink is a derivative of red, a bold and aggressive color, so it was suited for masculinity. Trade publications of the fashion industry promoted these choices, along with other differentiations such as that blue was flattering for blue-eyed blonds and pink for brown-eyed brunettes. This encouraged more sales among even same-gendered children.

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Timing begs the question, did Laura’s story of the ribbons actually happen? Or was it inspired by the fashion of the day that she was writing? Perhaps it could be read as an indictment of silly fashion trends – why on earth shouldn’t she enjoy ribbons of blue, or any other color, just because her hair was brown? Or perhaps the opposite: showing children that there have always been social norms to which they should conform. This scene in On the Banks of Plum Creek could be polysemantic. Or maybe it’s just a fun scene. What do you think?

So when and why did pink and blue switch genders? Theories abound, ranging from nursery rhymes to Hitler. Some believe that verses such as “Little Boy Blue” brought the change. Others claim that the purple triangle assigned to homosexuals under the Nazi regime led to the color being thought of as feminine, and then lightened to pink for female children. Still others mention the influence of “battleship gray” and “navy blue” in World War II in identifying blue with boys. There is no real evidence for any of these theories.

During the 1940s, an advertising company surveyed sales of several large department stores across the country. They concluded, based on what customers chose, that boys preferred blue and girls preferred pink. (It would probably be more correct to say that parents preferred blue for boys and pink for girls, but this is not definitive since we don’t know to what extent parents let the children do the choosing.) Manufacturers adjusted accordingly.

After a time of mostly unisex clothing during the ‘70s, coinciding with the women’s lib movement, the pink-for-girls-blue-for-boys came back with a vengeance in the ‘80s. It seems this stems in part from the homophobic idea, now understood to be incorrect but for centuries held as incontrovertible, of gender as binary.  The phobia was (is?) so deep-rooted that it was deemed insulting not to know at a glance whether an infant or young child was male or female, but of course one can’t know without some added contrivance – like color-coding.

Recently, there has again been movement away from “gender-appropriate” color. I wonder what Laura would think.