Remembrance by Theresa Breslin

I read Remembrance for my journey to Scotland last month because it was the only book by Theresa Breslin, Carnegie medal winning Scottish author, that my library system had. And it was set during World War I, a favorite time period. There were definitely echoes of Downton Abbey in the book.

Seventeen year old John Malcolm Dundas, son of a Scottish shopkeeper, can’t wait to enlist and fight the Huns. His sister Maggie is eager to do her part, too, or at least to do something more exciting than working her father’s store, and she goes to work in a munitions factory. Little brother Alex Dundas is only fourteen, but he longs to get into the fighting before the war ends. Then, there’s the other family in the book, the Armstrong-Barneses, consisting of mother, son Francis, and daughter Charlotte. Charlotte trains to become a nurse so that she can contribute to the war effort, even though her mother does not approve of girls in her “station of life” (the upper class) working in hospitals, particularly not her teenaged daughter. Francis, old enough to be a soldier, tries to avoid the war, reads lots of newspapers, and draws. He’s the sensitive, artistic type, and he’s opposed to the war and the way it’s being fought.

The book follows the histories of these five teens as World War I impacts them, fills their lives, and changes them and their families and their village. It would be a good fictional introduction to World War I for high school age readers and for adults. The details of life in the trenches and in the hospitals are harrowing and gritty, but I would much prefer this book as an accompaniment to the study of World War I over the one that’s often assigned, All Quiet on the Western Front. I found the plot of All Quiet on the Western Front very nearly as confusing as the battles of the war itself must have been. Remembrance with its more straightforward plot leaves out none of the horror of the war, but it tells the story of World War I in a much more approachable and understandable manner.

Two for Typhoid Mary

Fatal Fever: Tracking Down Typhoid Mary by Gail Jarrow.

Terrible Typhoid Mary: A True Story of the Deadliest Cook in America by Susan Campbell Bartoletti.

Gail Jarrow’s book on Typhoid Mary was well-written and informative, but I didn’t care for the tabloid style of the page layout, typography, and artwork. Tastes may vary, and kids may lap it up or at least be drawn to the yellow chapter titles on black background pages and the all-caps section headings.

I learned a lot from the book. For example, did you know that typhoid fever and typhus are two very different diseases with differing symptoms and disease-spread mechanisms? I think I used to know that, but I had forgotten. And I didn’t know that Mary Mallon, aka “Typhoid Mary” spent the rest of her life (mostly), after she was traced and found, on North Brother Island, living alone and convinced that she was not a carrier of typhoid germs and had never harmed anyone. I also didn’t know that only a very few people who have typhoid fever become lifelong carriers. Apparently the germs remain inside these particularly susceptible people (perhaps multiplying on gallstones in the gallbladder) for years and years and are excreted in their feces and sometimes urine to infect others. Most people are no longer carriers a few weeks or perhaps months after their encounter with typhoid fever germs.

The other book Terrible Typhoid Mary by Susan Campbell Bartoletti had the better layout and narrative flow. However, I learned more from Jarrow’s book. And there’s a feminist slant to Bartoletti’s book that does a disservice to accurate historical analysis. The book indicates that Mary Mallon (Typhoid Mary) is good and justified in her belief that she is not a carrier, even though she was wrong and infected others. It’s implied that the male public health officer who forced Mary Mallon into quarantine was a bad guy, prejudiced and arrogant. (Maybe he was something of an intellectual snob.) However, the female Dr. Josephine Baker, also instrumental in finding and confining Ms. Mallon, was a heroine in Ms. Bartlett’s book.

Either of these titles, or one of the other multitude of books about Typhoid Mary and the spread of typhoid fever and the civil rights questions involved in the confinement of Mary Mallon, would lead to some good discussion and historical study among middle school and high school students. Also, comparison and contrast to the current handling of the AIDS epidemic and the Ebola virus would be appropriate and and ripe for analysis and even debate.

Christmas in Germany, 1915

Richard Hannay, the narrator in John Buchan’s spy novel Greenmantle, is an English spy inside Germany at Christmas, 1915, World War I.

“It was the 23rd day of December, and even in war time one had a sort of feel of Christmas. You could see girls carrying evergreens, and when we stopped at a station the soldiers on leave had all the air of holiday making. The middle of Germany was a cheerier place than Berlin or the western parts. I liked the look of the old peasants, and the women in their neat Sunday best, but I noticed, too, how pinched they were.”

Pinched because they were hungry. The British blockade of Germany in the North Atlantic meant that Germans were short of cloth, machinery, raw materials, and even food that was removed from ships sailing to Germany before the ships reached a German port. Germany responded to the British blockade with its own policy of “unrestricted submarine warfare,” and we all know what came next. The Americans entered the war.

My head was beginning to swim, but I made one more effort.
“There is food in my rucksack—biscuits and ham and chocolate. Pray take it for your use. And here is some money to buy Christmas fare for the little ones.” And I gave her some of the German notes.
After that my recollection becomes dim. She helped me up a ladder to the garret, undressed me, and gave me a thick coarse nightgown. I seem to remember that she kissed my hand, and that she was crying. “The good Lord has sent you,” she said. “Now the little ones will have their prayers answered and the Christkindl will not pass by our door.”

1915: Art and Entertainment

On March 3, 1915 the D.W. Griffith film The Birth of a Nation premiered in New York City. It was three hours long, a silent movie about the Civil War and Reconstruction, and many critics thought then and many still do that the film itself was a masterpiece of cinematic art.

However, the film is also racist and glorifies the Ku Klux Klan while portraying black people as foolish at best, violent and sexually predatory at worst. The movie’s heroes are Klansmen who rescue the innocent young Lillian Gish, daughter of the Confederacy, from the evil black men, played by white actors in black-face make-up, who intend to despoil her.

Film critic Roger Ebert: “Certainly The Birth of a Nation (1915) presents a challenge for modern audiences. Unaccustomed to silent films and uninterested in film history, they find it quaint and not to their taste. Those evolved enough to understand what they are looking at find the early and wartime scenes brilliant, but cringe during the postwar and Reconstruction scenes, which are racist in the ham-handed way of an old minstrel show or a vile comic pamphlet.”

I find it difficult, if not impossible, to separate a work of art from its message. If a piece of music or a painting or a film or a book, says something that is evil or depraved, then it may well be worth viewing or reading in order to understand how some people think—if the person consuming the art is able to remain untainted and unswayed by the message. However, a work of art cannot be truly “good” if its intent is evil, no matter how technically adept and talented the artist.

What is your opinion about “good” art with an evil intent or message?

1915: Events and Inventions

February 4, 1915. In response to the British blockade of Germany, the Germans announce that they will begin to attack any vessels, neutral or not, sailing in the waters of the British Isles. Although the British navy controlled the ocean’s surface and the british were already searching for and confiscating any goods bound for Germany that could possibly be helpful in the war effort, German U-boats (submarines) and their policy of unrestricted submarine warfare would prove to be a valuable weapon for Germany.

'A trench in the low flat country near La Bassee Ville' photo (c) 1918, National Media Museum - license: http://www.flickr.com/commons/usage/April 22, 1915. The Germans introduce the use of poisoned gas as a weapon in the war in the Battle of Ypres on the Western Front. The first poisoned gas is not very effective, but the Germans promise that “more effective substances can be expected.” Anti-chlorine gas masks are issued to British troops.

April 30, 1915. Allied forces, mostly British, Australians, New Zealanders and French, land on the Gallipoli Peninsula in Turkey in an attempt to force an entrance through to the Black Sea and supply weapons and goods to Russia through her ports there.

May, 1915. In spite of a German warning that “a state of war exists between Germany and her allies and Great Britain and her allies”, the Lusitania leaves New York bound for Liverpool, England. The Germans advertise in the New York newspapers, “Vessels flying the flag of Great Britain, or any of her allies, are liable to destruction . . . travelers sailing in the war zone . . . do so at their own risk.” Passengers filled the ship anyway, and on May 7, just off the coast of Ireland, a German U-boat fired on the Lusitania and caused it to sink. 1,198 people died, and 128 of them were Americans. Many Americans advocate war against Germany, but President Woodrow Wilson continues to counsel and pursue peaceful negotiations with the Germans.

May 23, 1915. Italy leaves the Triple Alliance (Central Powers) and goes to war against Austria-Hungary, joining the side of Britain, France, Russia, and Serbia.

June, 1915. Armenians, a Christian minority in a mostly Muslim Turkey, are seen as traitors and potential rebels. So the Turkish government begins a program of deportation and secret genocide for the Armenians. The Road from Home by David Kherdian tells the story of the author’s mother, Veron Dumehjian, who was a 15 year old survivor of the Armenian holocaust. It’s an excellent book.

July 29, 1915. 400 U.S. Marines land in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, to protect American lives and property as revolution and civil war rage throughout the small island country in the Caribbean.

September, 1915. Bulgaria enters the war on the side of Austria and Germany and moves its troops eastward toward Serbia.

November 14, 1915. Tomas Masaryk, a professor of philosophy exiled by the Austrians, calls for a free Czechoslavakia —combining the two parts of the Austro-Hungarian Empire into one free country.

December 20, 1915. After eight months of fighting, Allied forces retreat from Gallipoli Peninsula leaving it in Turkish hands. Newspapers call the retreat the biggest setback of the war so far for the Allies.

December, 1915. German physicist Albert Einstein publishes his new Special Theory of Relativity.

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.

1915: Books and Literature

Trench Literature: Reading in Word War I by Richard Davies, Udo Goellmann & Sara Melendre. What were the doughboys reading? Rudyard Kipling, H.G. Wells, John Buchan, Nat Gould, W.W. Jacobs, Captain R.. Campbell, and anything else they could get their hands on to alleviate the boredom of the trenches.

This writer thinks that the Most Influential Poem of the Twentieth Century was published in 1915. Can you guess the poem, or at least the poet, before you look?
HINT: “Do I dare disturb the universe?”

John Buchan’s spy novel The Thirty-nine Steps was published in 1915. Here it is reviewed by Woman of the House. There’s a Hitchcock movie version of this adventure story, and also a Masterpiece Theater movie adaptation that has been recommended. Has anyone here seen either one?

The Good Soldier: A Tale of Passion is a 1915 novel by English novelist Ford Madox Ford. It is set just before World War I and chronicles the tragedy of Edward Ashburnham, the eponymous soldier, and his seemingly perfect marriage.

Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis was first published in 1915. The original German title was Die Verwandlung. We read this classic horror novella for our 20th century class, and Brown Bear Daughter called it the “cockroach book.” She refused to look at the cover which had a picture of a giant bug on it. I don’t blame her. Herr Kafka would have not liked the picture either since he told his publisher in a letter: “The insect itself is not to be drawn. It is not even to be seen from a distance.” I looked at Amazon, and most of the covers do have a picture of some kind of bug. This one is one of the few that I found that Kafka might have approved.

Also in 1915, W. Somerset Maugham published his most famous book, Of Human Bondage. I’ve heard of the book all my (reading) life, but I’ve not read it. Recommended or not?

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.