What I’ve Been Reading: “The Huntress”

Last summer, Jonathan gave me a copy of “The Huntress” by Kate Quinn for my birthday. World War II novels aren’t really my thing, so I put it in my stack of “to be read” books.

I’ve been sick since the day after Christmas until yesterday, so I read “The Huntress.” It was so good! I could not put it down. This is a historical fiction novel about a British Nazi hunter in the 1950’s mixed with flashbacks from a female Soviet fighter pilot (a member of the Night Witches in World War II) and also the tale of a Boston teenager whose father married a German war refugee with a shadowy past.

Here’s a random scene that pleased me to read: the British Nazi hunter walked into his office and saw his team member, the female Soviet pilot, reading the 1950’s British Regency romance novel “Regency Buck” by Georgette Heyer.

The Brit asked the Soviet woman, “Why do you read that tosh?

She responded, “I come to library my first month in Manchester – need books to learn about England, practice my reading. The librarian, she says, “Georgette Heyer is England.” Is not much like the England I see, but maybe is the war?

I personally didn’t read “Regency Buck” by Georgette Heyer, but I DID read “The Spanish Bride” by Georgette Heyer. Now, romantic historical fiction doesn’t have a very good reputation for literary snobs. However, it fills its own role in a nation’s culture. Georgette Heyer researched her historical fiction. She wrote the book “The Spanish Bride” about the adventures of real-life army wife Juana Smith during the Napoleonic Wars, and she based the tale partly on the memoirs of Smith’s husband, Lieutenant-General Sir Harry Smith. (Sir Harry served as a junior British officer during the Peninsula Wars. He was at the White House when the British burned it down during the War of 1812. He was at the Battle of New Orleans when Andrew Jackson defeated the British. He was at Waterloo. He commanded his own victory in India. He became a governor of British South Africa.)

Now that I think about it, the fictional character in “The Huntress” who read Georgette Heyer novels was a war refugee who spoke no English when she entered into a marriage of convenience with a British man who could keep her from starving to death. Real-life Juana Smith was also a war refugee, and she did the same thing.

I like to think that back in the 1950’s, a British librarian really DID tell war refugees to improve their English and learn about England by reading Georgette Heyer romance novels.

******* This last paragraph contains spoilers: Most of the English Regency romance novels (and also most of the non-English Regency romance novels that are STYLED after English Regency romance novels) that I read include the following story line: a woman marries a man because she HAS to marry him. She needs to have a husband so that she doesn’t get raped, so that she isn’t labeled as promiscuous, so that she can get her papers to emigrate to England. Whatever. The man agrees to the marriage of convenience out of the goodness of his heart because he sees himself as the woman’s protector. Both parties agree that it’s a paper marriage. However, as the story progresses, the couple falls in love with each other. The exact same thing happened in “The Huntress” between the British Nazi hunter and the female Soviet fighter pilot. ******

The Christmas Tree Ship; Podcast Episode from Haunted Places

Chicago Skyline
Chicago Skyline. Chicago, Illinois. June 2017. (Photo: Jenny Gaffron Woytek)

I found a new podcast episode that I really enjoyed this week.

As I mentioned on this blog, my in-laws once lived on the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. They deeply loved the Great Lakes. They shared this love with their kids and also with me.

I really wish that I could bring back my mother-in-law, Fran, and then transport my sisters’ appreciation for a good ghost story podcast into her soul. Then, I would have someone who would be as excited to listen to this podcast as I was:

The Christmas Tree Ship episode from Haunted Places from Cutler Media and part of the Parcast Network.

To quote the Episode Info from the podcast website:

The Rouse Simmons, or “The Christmas Tree Ship,” was a 205-ton, three-masted schooner. In 1912, the beloved ship met an untimely demise when it sank to the bottom of Lake Michigan. Today, locals have reported seeing the ghost of the ship and its crew sailing the waters it used to call home. 

I posted above a photo of the Chicago lakefront because the Rouse Simmons delivered trees to the Navy Pier in Chicago each year.

On another note, I’m still learning to podcast myself. I don’t want to post anything that I didn’t enjoy creating. Stay tuned for future podcasts from me.

Finally, I cannot thank you fantastic readers enough for reaching out to me in support of the Parnassus Pen.

Intergenerational Wealth

So, U.S. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez tweeted something this morning that I myself tried to correctly word for years:

A lot of people who struggle with imposter syndrome haven’t realized yet that what they’re actually competing with is intergenerational wealth.

Be patient and kind to yourself.

I want to blog here about history and folklore, especially the history and folklore of Western Pennsylvania. However, Western PA’s economic and class struggle strongly defines us. The economic and class struggle strongly defines me and my family. So, I just shared a quote that now resonates with me very strongly.

Extremely Rich People in Alcohol Caves

A cave / railroad tunnel. NOT a wine cave or a beer cave!
An abandoned railroad tunnel. NOT a wine cave or a beer cave!

This week, I learned about modern-day billionaires in wine caves.

Last year, I learned about the 19th century Lemp family in St. Louis, Missouri. This family owned a brewery empire. They integrated caves into their beer making process. They also entertained and socialized in a cave.

I learned about the Lemp family and their caves on Season 2, Episodes 6 – 11 of the American Hauntings podcast. Be sure to check out the second episode in this Lemp series (Season 2, Episode 7 on the website) to learn about the Lemp caves. Here is the podcast, hosted by Troy Taylor and Cody Beck. Just type “Lemp” into the search bar.

Growing Up With Sarah Vowell

Sarah Vowell will celebrate a birthday next week. Perhaps I already gave her age more attention than I would if she were a man. But, I’ve thought about her work as a writer and historian very much lately.

Vowell edited for and appeared on This American Life, wrote several nonfiction books about American history and culture, and acted as the voice of Violet Parr in The Incredibles series of animated movies.

Years ago, my sister K. gave me a book of Vowell’s essays for Christmas. This was my introduction to Vowell. (Podcasts didn’t exist back then, and I didn’t listen to This American Life on the radio.)

I don’t remember seeing any political essays in our local rural newspaper that included (positive) pop cultural references. I didn’t see any syndicated political columns written by young women, or even women.

Vowell WAS a young woman when I first read her work. She wrote about American history, politics, and current events. She also wrote about pop culture, travel to historical landmarks, and her family in these same essays.

I digested Sarah Vowell’s work at the very same time that I myself became a young adult woman.

I didn’t agree with every single thing that Vowell wrote. In fact, I disagreed with her a healthy amount. Her one essay about her reverence for Theodore Roosevelt caused me to roll my eyes more than I usually roll them.

I even gave one of her books three out of five stars on Amazon. (I discovered that some Amazon reviewers actively argue with reviews critical of Vowell’s books. Who does that? Who are these people who devote time and energy arguing with negative book reviews? I’m going to give Vowell the benefit of the doubt and assume that she does not recruit her friends and family to do this.)

Vowell wrote her most recent book in 2015. I can’t find anything online that Vowell wrote since 2015. Ever since the 2016 United States presidential election, I sometimes ask myself, “What would Sarah Vowell say about this?”

I have to guess the answer. I don’t have Sarah Vowell around to tell me how to think about things.

Why did Sarah Vowell go silent? Is she working on another book? Did she retire forever on her royalties? Did she get tired?

So, Sarah, wherever you are, I hope that you are healthy in every way. I hope that you are happy. I hope that your cult following makes you proud. I hope that you have a happy birthday.

Lock Him Up: An Election Story

I own a signed copy of Pittsburgh: The Story of An American City, written by Stefan Lorant with several contributors. I purchased it for $5 from a used bookstore. The book came apart in several places at the binding. The book contains almost seven hundred pages of Pittsburgh history and photos.

This book’s Chapter 3 The City Grows by Oscar Handlin includes a sidebar titled Pittsburgh in the News. This sidebar includes the following item:

Joe Barker, a colorful street preacher, was arrested in 1849 when he was involved in a riot while delivering one of his many tirades against Catholicism. He was thrown into jail and while in prison he was elected as mayor of the city. After serving for one year he was defeated for re-election and sank into obscurity. He died in 1862 when run over by a train.

(Wikipedia taught me that the train decapitated Mayor Joseph Barker. He is buried in Allegheny Cemetery.)

Horne’s Department Store

Horne's Department Store Christmas Tree. Highmark building. Downtown Pittsburgh.
Horne’s Department Store. Pittsburgh, PA. December 28, 2015. (Photo: Jenny Gaffron Woytek)

Pittsburgh had a department store chain called Joseph Horne’s, or Horne’s Department Store, or simply Horne’s.

An electric Christmas tree decorated the building’s corner each holiday shopping season.

Horne’s merged with another chain in 1994. Then, the building which housed Horne’s downtown flagship store became offices for an insurance company (Highmark).

However, this tree still graces the building each year from the week before Thanksgiving until New Year’s.

Here is a photo of the building and its tree.

Horne’s Department Store. Pittsburgh, PA. December 18, 2014. (Photo: Jenny Gaffron Woytek)

Everything that I know about Horne’s Department Store came from “American Elegy: A Family Memoir” by Jeffrey Simpson. This particular book detailed the author’s family’s experiences in Parnassus, a sort-of Pittsburgh suburb. In the Chapter titled “Parties (Quint and Ruby),” the author wrote the following about his step-grandmother Ruby’s affinity for shopping at the downtown Pittsburgh Horne’s:

When my mother and Ruby were young women in the late 1920s and 1930s, there was a lounge on Horne’s mezzanine where you could wait for friends. The lounge had a book in which you could leave messages for your chums if you had to leave early or had dashed up to Lingerie for a quick purchase while you were waiting; it was an amenity that seemed to belong to a period of orange minks and nose-tip veils, when girls fresh from college, eager with their first salaries, met “in town” for lunch on Saturday.

Simpson wrote that Ruby grew up “poor” and thus as soon as she received her first very own paycheck, she spent it at Horne’s. Ruby referred to Horne’s as the “good” store. She relished the chance to be seen shopping there. Simpson noted that the Parnassus community and Ruby herself thought that Ruby had married up (to a widower with a good family and a good job). That Ruby’s clothes, purchased from Horne’s, helped her to achieve this marriage.

Simpson concluded:

The Horne’s boxes, cream-colored pasteboard with Jos. Horne Co. in light, bright blue on the lid, represented for Ruby the life she had made for herself.

My own maternal great-grandma worked for Horne’s. However, I don’t have any stories about her retail career.

I myself work directly across the street from the old downtown Horne’s building. I never shopped for clothes there. I grew up in rural Pennsylvania. I started working in Pittsburgh years after Horne’s closed.

When I interviewed for my job, the building housed an Old Navy store.

By the time that I started my job, the Old Navy was a Rite Aid.

Remember the End: Greensburg Historical Fiction

Greensburg Station. Greensburg, Pennsylvania. Photo taken November 3, 2019. This is now the Greensburg Amtrak station. This was originally a Pennsylvania Railroad station. The station opened in 1912. (Photo: Jenny Gaffron Woytek)

I have family who lived in the Greensburg-ish, Pennsylvania, area in the early 1900’s. A bunch of them died young and / or poor, so I can’t tell you much about them. However, because of them, I got stuck on Western PA history.

I read this historical fiction novel titled “Remember the End” by Agnes Sligh Turnbull. Turnbull was a New York Times bestselling writer from New Alexandria, PA. How sad that Turnbull didn’t have a snappier pen name! Like Mark Twain. T’would be easier for me to blog about her.

Turnbull graduated from Indiana University of Pennsylvania (IUP). (My sister, a double IUP grad, told me that IUP used to have a Turnbull Hall. This got knocked down and replaced with a parking lot.)

Anyway, Turnbull wrote Remember the End. This novel began in the late 1800’s in Scotland, then moved to the Greensburg area, then ended in Greensburg around 1917.

(The book didn’t actually list dates. I only knew that the book ended around 1917 because at the end of the story, several of the characters talked about fighting in the War (World War I). The War started in 1914. The United States entered the War in 1917. As an FYI, my own great-grandfather did actually fight in this War. He got captured by the Germans and lost the use of his arm in this same War. He returned to his farm in Westmoreland County, and he named one of his mules after the German kaiser.)

At the very beginning of Remember the End, (the very poor) Alex McTay left his home in Scotland. He emigrated to Pennsylvania. He fell in love with Maggie, a (poor, but not quite as poor) Westmoreland County horse trader’s daughter.

Alex married Maggie. He opened coal mines. He became a millionaire before his 35th birthday. He built a fancy home for Maggie in Greensburg.

I think that Turnbull based the protagonist on a hybrid of Andrew Carnegie and Henry Clay Frick. At one point in the story, McTay referred to Andrew Carnegie as his hero or his role model or something.

Unlike Andrew Carnegie, McTay didn’t become a philanthropist.

McTay deliberately ruined his business rival’s life after the rival humiliated him at a fancy Greensburg party.

Remember the End haunts me because my family lived in Western PA during this same time frame. Fictional Alex McTay’s fortune could very well have been built upon my family’s backs.

I posted above a photo of Greensburg’s train station. The Pennsylvania Railroad built this station in 1912. So, if Alex McTay existed in real life, he and his family could have travelled through this station. Did Turnbull visualize Alex McTay in this station?

Turnbull is now buried in New Alexandria. Remember the End is now out of print. I purchased my copy (used) from Amazon this month.