Archives

Poetry Friday: The 20th Gift of Christmas in France, 1917

Christmas Eve in France by Jessie Fauset
“Jessie Redmon Fauset (April 27, 1882 – April 30, 1961) was an American editor, poet, essayist and novelist.
Fauset was the editor of the NAACP magazine The Crisis. She also was the editor and co-author for the African American children’s magazine Brownies’ Book. She studied the teachings and beliefs of W.E.B Dubois and considered him to be her mentor. Fauset was known as one of the most intelligent women novelists of the Harlem Renaissance, earning her the name ‘the midwife’. In her lifetime she wrote four novels as well as poetry and short fiction.” ~Wikipedia, Jessie Redmon Faucet

OH little Christ, why do you sigh
As you look down to-night
On breathless France, on bleeding France,
And all her dreadful plight?
What bows your childish head so low?
What turns your cheek so white?

Oh little Christ, why do you moan,
What is it that you see
In mourning France, in martyred France,
And her great agony?
Does she recall your own dark day,
Your own Gethsemane?

Oh little Christ, why do you weep,
Why flow your tears so sore
For pleading France, for praying France,
A suppliant at God’s door?
“God sweetened not my cup,” you say,
“Shall He for France do more?”

Oh little Christ, what can this mean,
Why must this horror be
For fainting France, for faithful France,
And her sweet chivalry?
“I bled to free all men,” you say
“France bleeds to keep men free.”

Oh little, lovely Christ—you smile!
What guerdon is in store
For gallant France, for glorious France,
And all her valiant corps?
“Behold I live, and France, like me;
Shall live for evermore.”

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.

Palace Walk by Naguib Mahfouz

“The alleys, the houses, the palaces and mosques and the people who live among them are evoked as vividly in [Mahfouz's] work as the streets of London were conjured up by Dickens.” ~Newsweek

I was struggling through Mr. Mahfouz’s epic novel, the first part of a trilogy set in modern Cairo, Egypt, and in the middle I read the above blurb on the cover. The comparison helped. I still didn’t like the people in the book, especially the men, nor did I ever, ever while reading this novel have any desire to visit Egypt in the twentieth century or even now. However, there is a Dickensian connection—or maybe a nineteenthe century connection since Mr. Mahfouz cites his favorite authors as “Flaubert, Balzac, Zola, Camus, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and above all Proust.” I can see a little of all of those men’s influence in the novel. Notice that Mr. Mahfouz, who “lives in Cairo with his wife and two daughters,” does not name any female authors among his influences. Therein lies a tale.

Of all the books I have ever read, this one is the most likely to turn me into a flaming feminist. The men in the novel, as in Islamic culture?, are self-centered, egotistical, hypocritical tyrants. If I had to choose between living in World War I-era Egypt, where Palace Walk takes place, and Victorian England, the home of those notorious tyrants Mr. Murdstone, Bill Sikes, and Wackford Squeers, I’d take my chances in jolly old England. At least in England I’d be able to leave the house on occasion.

The mother of the family in Palace Walk, Amina, leaves her home three or four times during the course of the novel, a time period of three or four years. She attends the weddings of her daughters, and she dares to go to a religious shrine once while her husband is out of town–with predictably disastrous consequences. Otherwise, Amina and her daughters are not allowed to even look out the window, lest they be seen by a man and become “fallen women.”

So the women in Palace Walk are firmly controlled, tyrannized, and abused by the central character of the novel (surely not the Hero), the father, al-Sayyid Ahmad Abd al-Jawad. This patriarch has a split personality: he is friendly, amiable, good-humored, and popular with his drinking buddies and paramours, of whom he has many, but at home he is a stern, grim, autocrat who rules his family with invective and fear. Oh, but they all love and respect him. Al-Sayyid Ahmad is a god in his own home, ruling over a collection of cloistered, intimidated women and three sons who are molding themselves in his image–when they are not cowering in his shadow.

The story also deals with the way the outside world impinges on the lives of the al-Sayyid (or al-Jawad?) family. As the novel begins it’s 1917, and the British are ruling Egypt although the occupation force seems to be mostly Australian. As World War I comes to a close, one of the sons, Fahmy, becomes involved in the anti-British independence movement. However, even when dealing with political and religious changes outside the home, the novel never loses its claustrophobic feel, always circling back to the home and the sense of imprisonment that each of the family members feels, even the men. After a while, it made me want to break out, screaming.

I’m glad to have read Palace Walk. I might, in a year or two, want to read the next book in Mahfouz’s Cairo Trilogy, Palace of Desire, in which novel I am told some women actually get to go to school! The main problem I had with this first novel is that I could find nothing attractive about the characters or the culture in this story, nothing with which to identify. I wanted the British “oppressors” to win and reform the country and let the women and servants out of their slavery. But none of the women in this novel would have had the spine or or imagination to take advantage of such a liberation, and the British didn’t seem to be headed in that direction anyway.

1917: Events and Inventions

February 1, 1917. Germany resumes unrestricted submarine warfare, announcing that any ships trading in Allied waters will be liable to be sunk without warning.

February 26, 1917. U.S. Congress, still reluctant to go to war with Germany, agrees that U.S. ships can be armed to counter German submarine attacks.

March, 1917. Food riots break out in St. Petersburg, Russia, and Czar Nicholas II is forced to resign and abdicate his throne. A provisional government takes control of Russia. Below is a picture of the czar’s Winter Palace.

'St. Petersburg - Winter Palace' photo (c) 1999, Roger Wollstadt - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/

April 6, 1917. The U.S. declares war on Germany. President Woodrow Wilson says that this war is a battle “to save democracy.”

April, 1917. Bolshevik (Communist) leader Vladimir Lenin returns to Russia from his exile in Switzerland, traveling with German assistance.

June 27, 1917. The first U.S. troops, called “doughboys”, arrive off the French coast under the command of Major General John “Black Jack” Pershing. U.S. troops will be sent to fight in northern France and in Belgium along the Western Front.

July, 1917. Lenin flees Russia after a Bolshevik uprising is crushed by the new Russian government led by Alexander Kerensky.

November 6, 1917. After months of fighting, the Allies capture what is left of the bomb-blasted village of Passchendale, Belgium.

November 9, 1917. British Foreign Secretary Arthur James Balfour sends a letter to Jewish Zionist organizations promising the British government’s full support for Jewish homeland in Palestine. The British hope that the declaration will gain the full support of the Jews in Europe for the Allied war effort.

November 17, 1917. The Bolsheviks, led by Lenin who has returned to Russia, stage an armed coup in Petrograd. They capture all the bridges and public buildings and seize control of the Winter Palace. The Communists, now in power, organize the Red Army to defend the revolution and set about fulfilling their promise of “Peace, Bread, and Land!” through communism.

1917: Books and Literature

The first Pulitzer Prizes were awarded in 1917. One of the first prizes awarded was for editorial writing, and the first winner was an editorial about the war and the anniversary of the sinking of the Lusitania.

This editorial by Frank J. Simonds appeared in the New York Tribune on the first anniversary of the torpedoing of the Lusitania cruise liner. Read the entire editorial and see if it reminds you of anything nowadays. Could you not have substituted the words “Islamic extremist” for “German” and “Germany” in this editorial and published it, almost unchanged except for a few references to contemporary events and specifics, on the tenth anniversary of 9/11?

“This war in Europe on terrorism is going on until the German the Islamic terrorist idea is crushed or conquers. The world cannot now exist half civilized and half German Islamic extremist. Only one of two conceptions of life, of humanity, can subsist. One of the conceptions was written in the Lusitania 9/11 Massacre, written clear beyond all mistaking. It is this writing that we should study on this anniversary; it is this fact that we should grasp today, not in anger, not in any spirit that clamors for vengeance, but as the citizens of a nation which has inherited noble ideals and gallant traditions, which has inherited liberty and light from those who died to serve them, and now stands face to face with that which seeks to extinguish both throughout the world.”

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.

The Best Bad Luck I Ever Had by Kristin Levine

Moundville, Alabama. 1917. Harry Otis Sims, nickname Dit:

“I’ve been wrong before. Oh, heck, if I’m being real honest, I’ve been wrong a lot. But I ain’t never been so wrong as I was about Emma Walker. When she first came to town, I thought she was the worst piece of bad luck I’d had since falling in the outhouse on my birthday.”

Dit is an engaging narrator, the middle child in a family of ten children, shaped by his culture and upbringing in rural Alabama, but willing to learn and to accept change. And change he does as he becomes friends with the new postmaster’s daughter, a girl, and what’s even more shocking, a “nigra” girl.

I liked the way this book was written with nuance and recognition of the complications of race relations in the Deep South. I wasn’t there (I’m not that old!), but this book describes the people of a small town in Alabama the way Harper Lee describes them in her classic, To Kill a Mockingbird. The people in Moundville are not all bad, not all racist to the bone, but they are crippled and held back by their heritage and their innate conservatism. Only Dit and his new friend Emma are able to see past the cultural racism that has ruled Moundville society since the Civil War, and they are able to right a wrong that could cost an innocent man his life.

This wonderful slice of life from the World War I era mentions several historical events and works them seamlessly into the story: the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918, the lynching of black men in the South during the 1910’s, the double standard for employing blacks even in the postal service, the young men going off to war to fight the Hun, a banana train from New Orleans, learning to drive a Model T, seeing one’s first airplane flight. I loved the way the history “lessons” blended into the story, and I can see this book being useful and beloved inside and outside the classroom.

Target ages: 10-14.
Could be enjoyed by readers age 10 through adult. Hey, I liked it.

Born September 20th

sinclair Upton Sinclair, b. 1878, socialist author of The Jungle, a novel about the meat-packing industry that resulted in passage of The Pure Food and Drug Act (1906) and The Meat Inspection Act (1906)).

Upton Sinclair, letter of resignation from the Socialist Party (September, 1917)

I have lived in Germany and know its language and literature, and the spirit and ideals of its rulers. Having given many years to a study of American capitalism. I am not blind to the defects of my own country; but, in spite of these defects, I assert that the difference between the ruling class of Germany and that of America is the difference between the seventeenth century and the twentieth.

No question can be settled by force, my pacifist friends all say. And this in a country in which a civil war was fought and the question of slavery and secession settled! I can speak with especial certainty of this question, because all my ancestors were Southerners and fought on the rebel side; I myself am living testimony to the fact that force can and does settle questions – when it is used with intelligence.

In the same way I say if Germany be allowed to win this war – then we in America shall have to drop every other activity and devote the next twenty or thirty years to preparing for a last-ditch defence of the democratic principle.

I wonder what Sinclair would say about the war in Iraq were he alive today? Also, just out of curiousity, did anyone else become a vegetarian for a week or two after reading The Jungle in high school? I would strongly suggest that you NOT read Sinclair’s muckraking classic if you are squeamish or if you wish to remain comfortable in your meat-eating habits. Then again, if you want cheap motivation for a healthier diet . . .