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The Bess Crawford series by Charles Todd

A Duty to the Dead by Charles Todd. In which we are introduced to nurse Bess Crawford as she becomes a survivor of the sinking of HMHS Britannic in the Kea Channel off the Greek island of Kea on the morning of November 21, 1916. Upon her return to England to convalesce, Bess carries a cryptic message to the family of a soldier who died while under her care. The message begins a chain of events which lead to Bess’s involvement with a man who is possibly an escaped lunatic, but also possibly a wronged man.

An Impartial Witness by Charles Todd. This second book in the series featuring World War I nurse detective Bess Crawford uses good, solid storytelling and slow, careful character development to hold readers’ interest. Upon Bess’s return to England from the trenches of France, she witnesses a tearful parting between a woman, Mrs. Evanson, and a soldier who is not her husband but possibly her lover. When Bess recognizes Mrs. Evanson from her picture that was carried by her pilot husband and when the woman is later murdered, Bess becomes enmeshed in the family’s affairs and in the resolution of the mystery of her death.

In both of these books, the mystery and the characters were intriguing and entertaining. Bess Crawford is an independent young woman, and yet she doesn’t come across as a twenty-first century feminist artificially transplanted into the soil of the World War I-era. Instead, she has a family to whom she listens and she allows herself to be protected to some extent by the men in her life, especially family friend Simon Brandon. (I think Bess and Simon are headed for romance, but at least by the end of the second book in the series, the romance is completely unrealized.) And still Bess does what Bess feels obligated or drawn to do, and she meddles in things that are not really her concern.

In fact, that would be my only complaint about these books. For the purpose of furthering the plot, the authors (a mother-son team using the Charles Todd pseudonym) have Bess ask all sorts of questions and become over-involved in the lives of strangers with very little justification for her visits and intrusions. However, I can overlook the lack of warrant for Bess’s interference in the lives of her patients and their families for the sake of a good story.

Lots of comparisons are made at Amazon and Goodreads between these books and the Maisie Dobbs series by Jacqueline Winspear. I liked these two, at least, better than I liked the books about Maisie. Maybe I just liked these books set during the Great War better than those set just after.

The Foreshadowing by Marcus Sedgewick

The Foreshadowing tells the story of a girl, Alexandra, who is a sort of Cassandra: she can foresee the imminent death of people with whom she comes into contact. But of course, no one wants to hear her predictions, and no one believes her.

I just read the following article at the BBC website, before reading Marcus Sedgewick’s story of World War One horror and supernatural intervention. And the essay definitely colored my reading of the book.

First the article: World War One: Misrepresentation of a Conflict by Dr Dan Todman. Dr. Todman asks the question: “Is the traditional tale of ‘stupid generals, pointless attacks and universal death’ a fair representation of a war celebrated in 1918 as a great national deliverance?”
His answer: “Sassoon and Wilfred Owen could be used to evoke an emotional reaction against war which engaged students and satisfied teachers, but which utterly misrepresented the feelings of most Britons who lived through the war years.”

If Dr. Todman is right, then Marcus Sedgewick’s book, The Foreshadowing, totally buys into that misrepresentation, as does most of the fiction I’ve read about World War One and its aftermath. The protagonist, Alexandra, who has disguised herself as a nurse in order to rescue her brother from her vatic vision of his impending death in battle, speculates about a Tommy she meets along the way: “Presumably he had killed at least one man. Maybe several. He was a friendly man, he seemed very ordinary, kind even, but he didn’t seem to be bothered by what he’s done. And when he got to the German trenches he must have met German soldiers, who would have killed him too, if they could. I wondered if either Englishman or German had the slightest idea what they were killing each other for.”

All of the characters in the book seem to have little or no motivation for going to war other than honor and the desire to “do my bit”. Alexandra’s father tells her brothers Edgar and Tom that they must”do their bit”. And Tom later tells Alexandra that he came to war to die, no purpose at all except slow suicide.

Alexandra is the only one with a purpose: to change the future that she has already seen in a vision and to save Tom’s life. She pursues that purpose with single-minded determination and with the help of a friend, Jack, who hares her gift/curse of prophetic vision. The picture of what World War One was really about and how the soldiers who fought there really experienced it may be flawed—apparently one can re-write the past–but the story about whether one can or should try to change the future is suspenseful and intriguing with a surprise ending that made me gasp and appreciate.

Recommended, but the pace is slow at first. And the chapters are very short, a page and a half or two, a device I found annoying. Others probably won’t notice. I did become impatient with Alexandra way before she became impatient with herself.

1916: Art and Entertainment

On May 20, 1916, artist Norman Rockwell publishes his first cover for the magazine Saturday Evening Post. The picture was called Boy With Baby Carriage., and it shows a boy who is having to push a baby in her carriage while his friends go off to play baseball.

Also, during 1916 and until his death in 1926, Claude Monet continues to paint his murals of water lilies even though he develops cataracts on his eyes and is unable to see as clearly or paint in such detail as he was in his earlier work.

Christina Bjork (b. 1938) is author of the beautiful book, Linnea in Monet’s Garden. In the book, Linnea, a young girl, and her neighbor, Mr. Blom, get to visit Paris and Giverny and see the places where Monet created his paintings. The book is a wonderful introduction to impressionist art and to the work and life of Claude Monet.

1916: Books and Literature

Seventeen A Tale of Youth and Summer Time and the Baxter Family, Especially William by Booth Tarkington; illustrated by Arthur William Brown, published by Harper and Brothers, 1916, is a humorous novel about a seventeen year old boy’s first love. Mr. Tarkington’s novels were very popular in the first part of the twentieth century.

Listen to W.B. Yeats’ poem, Easter, 1916 about the Irish Uprising that occurred in Dublin, Ireland on Easter Monday of that year. The rebels proclaimed Irish independence and an Irish republic, but they were forced to surrender to superior British forces on April 29, 1916. Over 300 Irish died, and over 2000 were imprisoned by the British.

Here’s the last verse of the poem which celebrates those Irish heroes who died in the Easter Uprising:

'Thomas MacDonagh - Easter Rising 1916' photo (c) 2008, William Murphy - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/Too long a sacrifice
Can make a stone of the heart.
O when may it suffice?
That is Heaven’s part, our part
To murmur name upon name,
As a mother names her child
When sleep at last has come
On limbs that had run wild.
What is it but nightfall?
No, no, not night but death;
Was it needless death after all?
For England may keep faith
For all that is done and said.
We know their dream; enough
To know they dreamed and are dead;
And what if excess of love
Bewildered them till they died?
I write it out in a verse –
MacDonagh and MacBride
And Connolly and Pearse
Now and in time to be,
Wherever green is worn,
Are changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.

1916: Events and Inventions

January, 1915. Austro-Hungarian forces overrun and take the small country of Montenegro.

February 21, 1916. German guns fire on the French positions near the fort of Verdun in the beginning of a major assault on the French line. The French, who have concentrated their armies elsewhere along the front, retreat before the German onslaught.

March, 1916. The Austrian War Dog Institute and the German Association for Serving Dogs begin training dogs as guides for the blind.

'Villa, Raoul Madero (LOC)' photo (c) 1914, The Library of Congress - license: http://www.flickr.com/commons/usage/March 15, 1916. 4000 U.S. troops under the command of General John Pershing cross the border into Mexico in pursuit of Mexican rebel leader Pancho Villa. Villa and his Villistas have been raiding towns along the border in Arizona and New Mexico. Some say he is purposely trying to draw the Americans into the continued civil war in Mexico. The picture on the right is Pancho Villa and some of his men in 1914.

April 24, 1916. The Easter Rising. Irish nationalists in Dublin stage an uprising against British rule on the Monday after Easter Sunday. The Irish Republican Brotherhood and Sinn Fein, two nationalist organizations, lead the rebellion and attempt to declare Ireland to be an independent republic. The British government sends reinforcements to the army in Dublin to fight and capture the rebels.

May 31, 1916. British and German Dreadnoughts clash at Jutland off the coast of Denmark. Called the battle of Jutland, the fight ends in a German retreat but greater losses of men and ships for the British.

July 1, 1916. The Allies launch an attack on the German lines near the Somme River in northern France. Over 57,000 Allied soldiers and 800 Germans die in the first day of the offensive. The Battle of the Somme will end in November after more than a million deaths on both sides.

August, 1916. Romania, neutral until now, joins the Allies and invades Austria-Hungary.

September 15, 1916. Great Britain’s army reveals its new secret weapon: the tank. 32 tanks are deployed on the Somme, and German machine gunners scatter in their path. 2000 Germans are taken prisoner.

December, 1916. Cutex, the first liquid nail polish, is introduced in the U.S. by Northam Warren.

December, 1916. The ‘turnip winter’ in Germany and Austria sees food shortages caused by the Allied naval blockade and a high mortality rate among the civilian population.

Reading about World War I

Nonfiction for children and young adults:
Truce: The Day the Soldiers Stopped Fighting by Jim Murphy. World War I and the Christmas Eve, 1914 spontaneous cease-fire. Reviewed by Betsy at Fuse #8.
The War to End All Wars: World War I by Russell Freedman. Reviewed at Bookish Blather.
Primary Source Accounts of World War I by Glenn Sherer and Marty Fletcher. From a series on various American wars published by MyReportLinks.com (Enslow Publishers).
Remember the Lusitania! by Diana Preston. A children’s/young adult version of the adult nonfiction title by the same author. The books includes lots of personal anecdotes about individuals who survived the sinking of the Lusitania and stories of some of the people who did not. It’s a solid, brief (89 pages with pictures) introduction to the subject, but it felt a little rushed. I hardly had time to get to know the characters that the author spotlighted before the entire episode was over and done with.
Unraveling Freedom: The Battle for Democracy on the Home Front During World War I by Ann Bausum. Reviewed by Betsy at Fuse #8.

Adult nonfiction:
The Proud Tower: A portrait of the World Before the War, 1890-1914 by Barbara W. Tuchman. I’m working on this one–about halfway through. The author spent about 200 pages on the Dreyfus affair in France, and if nothing else, I feel as if I know a lot more about French modern history than I did before. Reviewed at Resolute Reader.
The Guns of August by Barbara Tuchman. I started this book once but didn’t finish. I think after I get through with The Proud Tower, I’ll be ready for guns. The Guns of August won Ms. Tuchman a Pulitzer Prize for history. Reviewed at Resolute Reader.
The Zimmerman Telegram by Barbara Tuchman.
Nicholas and Alexandra: The Classic Account of the Fall of the Romanov Dynasty by Robert K. Massie. I read this classic biography/tragedy back when I was in high school or college, and I remember it as fascinating. It’s since been updated with new discoveries made about the bodies that were found and from information found in Soviet archives.
Castles of Steel: Britain, Germany, and the Winning of the Great War at Sea by Robert K. Massie.
Dreadnought by Robert K. Massie.
To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918 by Adam Hochschild. Semicolon review here.
The Great Silence: Britain from the Shadow of the First World War to the Dawn of the Jazz Age by Juliet Nicolson. Semicolon review here.
Lusitania: An Epic Tragedy by Diana Preston.

Children’s and young adult fiction:
Fly, Cher Ami, Fly!: The Pigeon Who Saved the Lost Battalion by Robert Burleigh. Based on a true story about carrier pigeons used by the U.S. Army during World War I.
War Game: Village Green to No-Man’s Land by Michael Foreman. A longer picture book story of a soccer game during the Christmas truce of 1914.
Winnie’s War by Jenny Moss. Semicolon review here.
The Best Bad Luck I Ever had by Kristin Levine. Semicolon review here.
When Christmas Comes Again: The World War I Diary of Simone Spencer, New York City to the Western Front, 1917 by Beth Seidel Levine.
Rilla of Ingleside by L.M Montgomery.
Betsy and the Great World by Maud Hart Lovelace. Betsy travels through Europe instead of going immediately to college after high school, and she sees the arms build-up and the beginning of World War I. Reviewed at Library Hospital.
Betsy’s Wedding by Maud Hart Lovelace. Reviewed at Reading on a Rainy Day.
Kipling’s Choice by Geert Spillebeen. I read this book a couple of years ago, but never got around to reviewing it. It’s a fictional account of the death of John Kipling, son of Rudyard Kipling, near Loos, France in 1915. Here it is reviewed at Chasing Ray.
War Horse by Michael Morpurgo. Joey, the farm horse, is sold to the army and sent to the Western front. Reviewed at Another Cookie Crumbles.
Without Warning: Ellen’s Story, 1914-1918 by Dennis Hamley. Ellen Wilkins becomes a nurse to follow her brother to war.
A Time of Angels by Karen Hesse. In 1918 Boston, Hannah Gold must face her own wartime suffering as the influenza epidemic sweeps through her family and town.
Eyes Like Willy’s by Juanita Havill. A French brother and sister, Guy and Sarah Masson, and their Austrian friend Willy are separated by the war.
After the Dancing Days by Margaret Rostkowski. We read this YA novel for my English/History class at homeschool co-op last year. Annie is a thirteen year old girl living in a small town in Kansas at the end of World War I. As she begins to visit the returning soldiers at the veterans’ hospital where her father works as a doctor, Annie is at first repulsed and frightened by the severely injured men. However, she comes to be friends with them, one in particular, even though her mother is opposed to Annie’s hospital visits and wants her to forget about the war and its consequences.
My Brother’s Shadow by Monica Schroder. This YA novel is brand new, published in September by Farrar Straus Giroux, and I got an ARC from the publisher. It’s about a German boy, Moritz, towards the end of the war in 1918 and how he comes to see the war and its results differently as he grows up in its aftermath. Moritz’s brother comes home severely wounded from the front, and Moritz must choose between his loyalty to his brother and his mother’s new socialist way of seeing politics and the world. I thought the story was good, but the fact that entire books is written in present tense distracted me. I suppose the intent is a “you are there” feel, but I would have preferred the distance and objectivity of past tense.

Adult fiction:
All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque.
To the Last Man: A Novel of the First World War by Jeff Shaara.
No Graves As Yet by Anne Perry is the first in her World War I mystery/suspense series. I don’t like her writing in these books as much as I did the Victorian Charlotte Pitt mysteries, but if you’re interested in the time period, they’re worth a try.

Of course, there are many, many more books about and set during World War I, but these are the ones with which I have some familiarity.

To End All Wars by Adam Hochschild

To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918 by Adam Hochschild.

Mr. Hochschild also wrote Bury the Chains, a history of the British campaign against the African slave trade that I read and found fascinating in 2007, about the same time the movie Amazing Grace came out. Of course, I was drawn to that book because of the connection to Mr. Wilberforce’s story and because of the Christian history elements of the story. To End All Wars, which focuses on conscientious objectors and anti-war activists in Britain during World War I, didn’t have the Christian element going for it. Most of the anti-war crowd were socialists, labor unionists, and atheists or agnostics. However, it was an absorbing look at attitudes and political alliances in England during the war, and it applies directly to the beginning of the twentieth century, the history I’m going to be teaching very soon to eight high school students at our homeschool co-op.

Here’s sampling of facts and quotes I found whilst reading the book:

“A star of the literary war effort was the novelist John Buchan . . . For Thomas Nelson, an Edinburgh publisher, he put his agile pen to workwriting a series of short books that constituted an instant history of the war as it was unfolding. They downplayed British reverses, emphasized acts of heroism, evoked famous battlefield triumphs of times past, scoffed at pacifists, predicted early victory, and overestimated German losses. The first installment of Nelson’s History of the War appeared in February 1915; within four years, with some assistance, Buchan would produce 24 best-selling volumes, totaling well over a million words—by far he most widely read books about the war written while it was in progress.” p. 149.

I found this account of Buchan’s prolific activities interesting because I have tried to read several books by Mr. Buchan, with mixed results. The Thirty-Nine Steps was somewhat melodramatic, but O.K. (Here’s a good review of The Thirty-Nine Steps by Woman of the House.) Greenmantle had lots of rather obscure historical references and geographical details and early twentieth century slang, and I found it rather tough going. (Eclectic Bibliophile’s thoughts on Greenmantle.) I think I started a third book by Buchan, but couldn’t get through it.

“In the trenches, the Christmas season was anything but merry “A high wind hurtled over the Flemish fields, but it was moist, and swept gusts of rain into the faces of men marching through the mud to the fighting-lines and of other men doing sentry on the fire-steps of the trenches into which watercame trickling down the slimy parapets . . . They slept in soaking clothes, with boots full of water . . . Whole sections of trench collapsed into a chaos of slime and ooze.” ~journalist Phillip Gibbs.

“No war in history had seen so many troops locked in stalemate for so long. The year 1915 had begun with the Germans occupying some 19,500 square miles of French and Belgian territory. At its end, Allied troops had recaptured exactly eight of those square miles, the British alone suffering more than a quarter-million casualties in the process. Still an endless stream of wounded flowed home, and still the newspapers were filled with list of those killed or missing.” p. 173.

All of the descriptions of conditions in the trenches are horrific. I do not understand how men continued to live and fight in such conditions, and then with nothing to show for their time and effort except more injured and dead soldiers.

1917: “In the previous two years, despite the millions of soldiers killed and wounded, nowhere along its entire length of nearly 500 miles had the front line moved in either direction by more than a few hours walk. Military history had not seen the likes of this before, and the Germans were no less frustrated than the Allies.” p. 246.

“In early April 1917 the German government provided what later became famous as the ‘sealed train’ to the Bolshevik leadership. It carried them across Germany, from the Swiss border to the Baltic Sea, where they could embark for Petrograd and make their revolution. The 32 Russians in threadbare clothes who took the journey would, within a mere six months, leapfrog from penniless exile to the very pinnacle of political power in a vast realm that stretched from the Baltic to the Pacific. . . . In Churchill’s words, Germany had sent Lenin on his way to Russia ‘like a plague bacillus.'”

And so Lenin and his comrades went back to Russia, and so began the Communist takeover of Russia and the transformation of much of Europe and Asia into a Communist gulag.

From a book (ghost)written by atheist Bertrand Russell in support of freeing conscientious objectors who were imprisoned in Britain:

“They maintain, paradoxical as it may appear, that victory in war is not so important to the nation’s welfare as many other things. It must be confessed that in this contention they are supported by certain sayings of our Lord, such as, ‘What shall it profit a man if he gain the whole world and lose his own soul?” Doubtless such statements are to be understood figuratively . . . They believe . . . that hatred can be overcome by love, a view which appears to derive support from a somewhat hasty reading of the Sermon on the Mount.”

Russell was an anti-war activist himself, and he was subtly making fun of Christians who become involved in war fever and go to war in spite of the “blessed are the peacemakers” of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. How would you answer him? Is pacifism the obvious message of the New Testament? I have been a pacifist and am now a reluctant supporter of defensive and “just war”, but I must admit I have qualms. I do believe that hatred will ultimately be overcome by love (“love wins”), but in the meantime the innocent deserve to be protected. The slave should be freed if it is within our power to do so. On the other hand, in retrospect, World War I seems to me to have been neither just nor necessary, but it is hard to know what could have be done to stop it once it had begun. Difficult stuff.

Z-Baby’s Audiobooks: Understood Betsy by Dorothy Canfield Fisher

We downloaded this classic story in audiobook form from Librivox, and Z-baby listened to it last night and today. The narrator was Lee Ann Howlett.

How was the narration on this story?
I hate when old men do the narration, and for girls they make the voices sound really high and annoying. The narrator for this book was good.

What was the story about?
Well, it was about a girl named Elizabeth Ann whose parents had died, and she lived with two of her aunts and another lady. One of her aunts was middle-aged, Aunt Frances, and the other one was old. Aunt Frances and ELizabeth Ann were best buddies, and Aunt Frances basically babied her. Then her old aunt got sick, so the doctor came and said that Elizabeth Ann needed to go somewhere else. They sent her to her one of her other aunts that didn’t really like her. So she went to another aunt and uncle and cousins, the Putneys.
At first, they didn’t baby her and they acted as if she was nine years old, which she was. She thought they didn’t even care about her. But then she got used to it, and . . . well, you just have to listen to or read the rest of the story to find out what happens.

How did the story end?
You have to listen to it. I can’t tell you how it ends!

What did Betsy learn in the story?
She learned to act her age. She also learned how to cook a little and how to make butter and other stuff, too.

In addition to the audio version, you can get this 1916 book in Kindle format for free, or in a paperback edition for about $10.00.

Poetry Friday: Carl Sandburg

Tomorrow, January 6th, is Carl Sandburg’s birthday. So I thought today would be a good Friday to post something by and about Sandburg. I’ve already posted my favorite Sandburg poem, Arithmetic, here. I found this poem tonight:

“Joy” (1916) by Carl Sandburg

Let a joy keep you.
Reach out your hands
And take it when it runs by,
As the Apache dancer
Clutches his woman.
I have seen them
Live long and laugh loud,
Sent on singing, singing,
Smashed to the heart
Under the ribs
With a terrible love.
Joy always,
Joy everywhere–
Let joy kill you!
Keep away from the little deaths.

I like those last two lines.