Tag Archives: World War I

World War I and the Power of Story

I planned to write quite a different blog post, but then the Internet reminded me that today is the hundredth anniversary of the start of World War I, so that other post will have to wait.

All I can really remember about how I came to my interest in World War I is that sometime in middle or early high school, I saw a picture of some soldiers and thought that was the last time guys looked truly hot in uniform. Tell me, who doesn’t love a man in puttees? My mom told me my great-grandfather, who fought in France and spoke of the war only in reference to French girls in order to annoy my great-grandmother, would have appreciated that.

Also, I think it partly came down to a question of fairness. I’m an American. Americans can talk World War II all day long, but we’re kind of lost when it comes to World War I. That’s partly because we weren’t in it very long, but I think there’s more to it than that. World War II calls up more emotions Americans are comfortable with: clarity of purpose, a solid win. As a culture, we don’t like to dwell on the past, no matter how much it affects us. And what’s the use of a war no one could really win? I became interested in that neglected war because I saw that it was neglected, overshadowed by its bolder, more triumphant offspring. All wars are sad, but World War I seemed to me especially so, not as if the events were sad, but as if the war itself—insofar as wars have a consciousness—were sad.

World War I will always appeal to storytellers because it’s such a perfectly constructed tragedy, almost too perfect to have occurred naturally, as if it were scripted to wring the audience’s hearts. For a century, World War I has provided the raw material for excellent works of literature. It’s sometimes called the most literary of all wars, and maybe that also piqued my interest, because the military and diplomatic history of the war doesn’t interest me any more than military and diplomatic history ever does. (Not much).

I’ve grown out of my high school belief that F. Scott Fitzgerald was The Best Writer Ever to Live (Sorry, Dr. Bruccoli. Please think I am still smart.), but his take on the war in Tender is the Night rings truer to me than any other:

“This western-front business couldn’t be done again, not for a long time. The young men think they could do it but they couldn’t. They could fight the first Marne again but not this. This took religion and years of plenty and tremendous sureties and the exact relation that existed between the classes. The Russians and Italians weren’t any good on this front. You had to have a whole-souled sentimental equipment going back further than you could remember. You had to remember Christmas, and postcards of the Crown Prince and his fiancée, and little cafés in Valence and beer gardens in Unter den Linden and weddings at the mairie, and going to the Derby, and your grandfather’s whiskers.”

“General Grant invented this kind of battle at Petersburg in sixty-five.”

“No, he didn’t—he just invented mass butchery. This kind of battle was invented by Lewis Carroll and Jules Verne and whoever wrote Undine, and country deacons bowling and marraines in Marseilles and girls seduced in the back lanes of Wurtemburg and Westphalia. Why, this was a love battle—there was a century of middle-class love spent here. This was the last love battle.”

You see what I mean about why World War I appeals to writers and other artists? Half the work is done for you before you get there. I’d love to write about World War I, but I don’t know if I could do it right. Perhaps I am too American, too ready to grin into the sunlight, too unwilling to look back and grieve properly, to walk purposely into the darkness of a time which brought no real triumph—and indeed no satisfying conclusion.

What period of history draws you back time after time? Why do you think that is?




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Rereads and Reviews

Here is my review of Amazon Prime, if you care what I think about Amazon Prime: it’s okay. It’s totally worth it for the free two-day shipping, especially since the minimum order amount for free shipping has gone up to $35. If you’re in it for streaming TV and movies, get something else. Very little of it is free, and if you live with a streaming legalist like I do, get used to having to prepare an argument to spend that $2.99 on a movie that came out in the last five years, even though it would have cost you twenty bucks to see it in the theater. (However, Downton Abbey is free, and I have rewatched the first two seasons while doing some tedious tasks. Man, I forgot about all those dangling plotlines. Whatevs. I love you anyway, Downton Abbey, though I don’t see how Julian Fellowes got away with totally ripping off the plot of Rebecca. I play a little game with the show: How many British novels are in the mash-up this week?)

Also, if you’re in it for the Kindle Owners’ Lending Library, where Prime users can borrow a book for free each month, save your money and spend it on the books you actually want to read. Yes, there are thousands of books you can borrow for free each month. Are some of them bestsellers? Well, they might have been—in 1956. Here’s my advice: know which books you want to read and search for them instead of browsing. If you browse, all you will see is Vampire Porn and BDSM, all of which are cheap knock-offs of cheap knock-offs of what were bad books in the first place. (Yes, I totally believe in bad books. They do exist. I’ve even enjoyed the occasional bad books, but I knew they were terrible. It’s like boxed wine. You can drink it, but just know what you’re getting.) But if you’re into that kind of thing, by all means, enjoy.

I had to think really hard to figure out what book I could search for that had a chance of being available in the KOLL. Finally I hit on it: The Wingless Bird by Catherine Cookson. My relationship with The Wingless Bird spans over fifteen years. Sometime in high school, I caught the end of the Masterpiece movie and loved loved loved it. This was c. 1997, when we still had to tape things and On Demand didn’t exist, so I had to get to the library to check out a copy of the book so I could find out what had led up to this second half of a movie I loved loved loved.

And I loved loved loved the book and discovered that my Aunt Kaye, who was an Irish war bride, really loved Catherine Cookson’s work. Apparently, Catherine Cookson was very well known in Great Britain and Ireland, but never has really taken off in the U.S. I kind of love her story. And I love her for rejecting the London literary establishment and writing about her native North and I love her for being a regional writer who refused to be pigeonholed and wrote over ninety books and made a pile of money and received an O.B.E. anyway. And I love her for fighting back when her books were derided as “women’s romances.” (Not that there’s anything wrong with women’s romances, but her books are better than most of what falls into that bodice-ripping category. I’m totally resisting the urge to quote Virginia Woolf here on how themes that are important to women get maligned.)

The Wingless Bird is the only Cookson I have ever read. I hear it is one of the best and that she wrote some real duds. But I say anyone who wrote ninety books is allowed some duds. A couple of years ago when my mom was visiting and we had Netflix instead of Amazon Prime, we watched The Wingless Bird and The Glass Virgin. (The Glass Virgin stars a young Mr. Bates as the romantic lead, if you need another reason to watch. These are mostly available on Netflix. I’m starting a campaign to bring Netflix back to our house.)

I loved The Wingless Bird again when I read it last week. Is it a paragon of technical perfection? No. Are there some coincidences that stretch credulity? Perhaps. Is it a bit melodramatic? You betcha. Did I highlight loads of lines in which I felt Catherine Cookson spoke the truth? Yes. Could I stop reading it? No. Did I therefore spend way more time on my treadmill (where I do a lot of my reading) than strictly necessary to strengthen my thin little bird bones? Yes. See, literature is a good influence.

At least I know what to look for in the KOLL next month.

Also, if you’re into hilarious plot summaries by funny writers and don’t care about spoilers, which I am/don’t, check out The Wingless Bird here. Also, I promise you the book is worth reading. I take the time to laugh only at things I love.

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Home by Christmas

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m a sucker for anything Christmassy. The day after Thanksgiving I liberally sprinkle the surfaces in my home with Christmas books, so I can have them handy and remember all of them. I’ve read most of my Christmas books so many times that I have them memorized, so I can just look at them and recall what they have to say. I’ve been reading the same edition of A Christmas Carol for as long as I can remember. It’s a paperback that cost $2.95, so I know it’s at least twenty years old. The books are like relatives that come to visit for a month every year. Relatives I don’t have to feed or clean for or entertain.

I always keep room for new Christmas books. I can’t remember if I’ve ever mentioned that I’m also a sucker for books set during World War I. As is the case with my annual reading of A Christmas Carol, I can’t remember when my interest in World War I began, but I think it was as a quiet rebellion against all the World War II 50th Anniversary stuff that was happening in my childhood. If everyone else was going to be interested in World War II, then I was going to be interested in World War I. So there. I have always liked to be different for the sake of it. I think it might also be because I am a literary person, and World War I, perhaps more than any other, was a literary war. Also, World War I was the last time uniforms were seriously sexy. Just saying.

For a new book this year, I chose The Walnut Tree by Charles Todd, the pen name of a mother-son writing team whose World War I mysteries I’ve quite enjoyed as audiobooks on long car trips. The Walnut Tree is billed as “A Holiday Tale,” but frankly, I think that’s marketing more than anything else. Set in late 1914 and early 1915, it features one Christmas scene, but a better argument for its relationship to the holidays comes from the notion of being “home by Christmas,” which is what everyone was saying in the autumn of 1914: the war would be over by Christmas. It wasn’t, of course. It dragged on for four more long years, but the idea of “home by Christmas”—a longing, seeking sort of thought—entered our collective consciousness, where it has remained for ninety-nine years, popping up at odd places in all the arts from time to time. We have cherished the notion that the nightmare, whatever it is, will be over by Christmas.

I have so much to say about The Walnut Tree and how it makes me think about Christmas and reading and writing. I read it quickly, in a couple of days. I picked it up at lunch yesterday, and two hours later, I was still sitting at the kitchen table, shivering a little because the kitchen table is next to glass sliding doors, and it is by no means the warmest place in my house. I had other things to do three days before Christmas—my laundry still is not folded—but the only time I budged was to make myself a fresh cup of tea.

I’ve been trying to figure out why. I knew, from about a quarter of the way in, exactly how the story would play out. I didn’t know every detail, but roughly, I knew what was going to happen. And I was right. The Walnut Tree isn’t a mystery; I didn’t need to discover whodunit. I knew this story, so it wasn’t plot that kept me there. It wasn’t character, either. These, too, were characters I knew well. They did nothing that surprised me. They were true to themselves and didn’t try to pull the wool over my eyes or pull the rug out from under my feet. They were courteous people, and I appreciated such courtesy from them. I think what kept me in my chair, more than anything else, was that I knew this world, I knew these characters, I knew this story, and I wanted to be with them all. It’s as simple as that. It’s a book I wanted to be with. It felt like familiar, like home.

In one of his Father Christmas letters to his children, J.R.R. Tolkien writes, “—but after all you don’t want Christmas to be different each year, do you?”

I think it’s the same with stories. I appreciate a thick plot and a twist as much as the next person. Still, I think sometimes the value of “make it new” is overrated. So often, I hear people in publishing say they want a “twist.” Sometimes a twist is good. But sometimes we want to just be comfortable with a story we know, told with new details. Sometimes, we don’t want a book to trick us or keep us on the edges of our seats. Sometimes we want to be “home by Christmas” and a story can give us that, even when nothing else can.


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On the Prairie with HATTIE BIG SKY and Me

When Kirby Larson’s Hattie Big Sky won a Newbery Honor in January 2007, I had lived on the Midwestern prairie for less than two months, I was trapped in my house by three (three!) feet of snow and an ongoing blizzard that made it impossible to see the house next door, and I had no interest in hearing again how refreshing the stark prairie was going to be for someone who had spent twenty-five years being happily corrupted by the unconscious excesses of the East Coast. (Reflecting on this period of my life leads me to use lots of italics. They are part of this post. Deal.)

Like many a well-meaning and hyper-educated Eastern woman before me, I had followed a man. And if there had been a stagecoach to take me back east, I would have been on it. I had a car, of course, but I didn’t know how to drive in a blizzard, so there I sat, cursing Laura Ingalls Wilder for making me think this would be okay.

I might never have picked up Hattie Big Sky had I not (several years later) read an interview with Kirby Larson that contained those five little words I love: based on a true story. Larson based the main character on her great-grandmother, who homesteaded by herself in eastern Montana in the early 1900s. Why and how, I wondered, would a woman—or a man, for that matter—ever try to homestead by herself? Homesteading is hard work, and it seems unlikely that one person could ever make a go of it.

I looked at the cover: wide open sky, land so flat and clear you’d swear you can see the planet curve. After six years, I’d managed to conquer the feeling that the rotation of the earth was going to throw me off every time I looked across the prairie. Don’t laugh, prairie-borns. In my Eastern woodlands, you can hold on to the trees.

Moving to a city (albeit one that rises out of the corn), finding friends, and developing the simple acceptance that comes from long acquaintance meant I no longer hated the prairie. I could read Hattie Big Sky now.

I’m so glad I did because I loved this book. In the same interview, Kirby Larson said, “I wrote an ordinary book that even my lovely editor said, ‘You know, this is a quiet book'” (Imdieke 32). It has none of the whizz-bangs, none of the fireworks, none of the sexy makeup and packaging and marketing that make a blockbuster.

It is rare that I love blockbusters. Really love them, as in take-them-into-my-heart-and-let-them-sleep-by-my-bed-for-weeks-on-end-even-after-I’ve-finished-reading-just-because-I-like-to-have-them-near. I have brief, intense flings with them, but I don’t often trust blockbusters enough to love them.

I am hard pressed to tell you why I loved this book, why I couldn’t wait to get back to it when I had to put it down, why I felt welcomed into its world.

I think it had to do with Hattie herself.

Orphaned at a young age, “Hattie Here-and-There” (as she calls herself) has spent her sixteen years being shuffled from one relative to another, so when she inherits a homestead from her estranged uncle, she decides, almost without hesitation, to go. Alone except for her cat, Mr. Whiskers, Hattie sets out to prove her uncle’s claim.

Throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, the basics of homesteading were the same in most of the western United States: the government would give you “free” (after taxes and filing costs and closing costs and a lot of other costs) land with the condition that you had to make certain improvements on it within a designated period of time. If you didn’t hold up your end of the bargain, the land reverted to the government.

In January 1918, Hattie moves into her uncle’s claim shack. She has ten months left to prove a three-year claim. Her uncle has barely gotten started on the claim requirements, which include building, fencing, and cultivating one-eighth of the land. By November, Hattie must set 480 fence rods and plant and harvest 40 acres.

All of that sounds at once impossible and makes me feel like a real wimp for my feelings about yard work. (Hint: I don’t get the slightest bit of pleasure out of it.)

I liked simply being with Hattie as she discovered this new world and the people in it, as she both railed against the prairie and found her place on it, perhaps because she and I both managed simply to survive our first years. I didn’t have to prove a claim, but I did have to fight the soul-crushing isolation of being an outsider in a small town. Admitting defeat and beating a hasty retreat to the city is the best thing I could have done, so I understand and applaud the decision Hattie makes in the end.

I highly recommend Hattie Big Sky and can’t wait to read the sequel, Hattie Ever After, which came out only a couple of months ago. I didn’t want to leave Hattie, so I’m glad I can get back into her world soon.

What “quiet books” have you loved?


Work Cited

Imdieke, Sandra. “Newbies and Newberys: Reflections from First-Time Newbery Honor Authors.” Children and Libraries 10.1 (2012): 30-36. Print.


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In Which I Judge MOON OVER MANIFEST By Its Cover and Am Surprised

My second Spring 2013 Newbery Reading Challenge book was Clare Vanderpool’s 2011 Medal Winner, Moon Over Manifest. I wasn’t sure I was going to be writing about this book here because I didn’t really expect to like it, and as you’ll see in About AiMP, I post only on books I like/recommend. Trust The Horn Book and me to review only recommended books. I keep good company.

But what is a reading challenge for, if not to force us to read books we would otherwise pass over? I’ve been passing Moon Over Manifest by for a couple of years because the cover shows a girl in overalls balancing on a railroad track. I doubt it will surprise anyone to learn that I’m not really an overalls and train tracks kind of girl. This blog is not called Adventures in My Overalls, after all.

Moon Over Manifest is narrated by twelve-year-old Abilene Tucker, whose single dad sends her to spend the summer of 1936 in Manifest, Kansas. Abilene spends the summer trying to solve several mysteries: Why did her father send her away? When is he coming back? What is the significance of the box of trinkets and letters she finds under her bed?

Through her own investigative abilities and the stories told by Miss Sadie, the town fortune-teller, Abilene works out how World War I and the Spanish Influenza Epidemic made the people in the town who they are and made her father the man he is.

What I liked best about Moon Over Manifest is the way the narrative switches between Abilene’s narration of the summer of 1936 and Miss Sadie’s narration of the events of 1917-1918. I like books that switch like this because they allow readers to examine how the past shapes the present on a micro-level.

Also, many of Abilene’s observations called to me on the level of one historian to another: her realization that there are no universals, that if you look at them long enough, other people’s memories somehow become your memories, that the only way to repay the past is to be determined enough to hear the story through to the end, even if it hurts.

These are the challenges we face when we face the past.

So in the end, despite the fact that I do not own a pair of overalls and actually listened when I was told never to play on train tracks (because that rule made a lot of sense to me), I enjoyed Moon Over Manifest.

Have any books surprised you like this?

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