Back in November, I blogged about my trip to the Andrew Carnegie Free Library & Music Hall in Carnegie, Pennsylvania. The staff calls this library the “Carnegie Carnegie.” I travelled to the Carnegie Carnegie to hear author Marie Benedict speak about her historical fiction novel “Carnegie’s Maid.”
Benedict impressed me so much with her presentation that I vowed to hear her speak again. Well, lucky me. Benedict announced during her Carnegie Carnegie talk that she had a brand new novel – “Lady Clementine” – coming out in January. (This historical fiction novel is about Mrs. Winston Churchill.) Benedict planned to speak at the Barnes & Noble in Monroeville about this new book today – January 5.
So, I marked my calendar for January 5.
Now, I have a confession. Before today, I don’t think that I have EVER driven myself from New Kensington to the Monroeville Mall. I used to drive to Monroeville all of the time back when I lived in Johnstown. I knew how to hop onto the Turnpike in Somerset or else Route 22 and show up in Monroeville. But I had no reason to visit Monroeville after I got my job in downtown Pittsburgh.
Google Maps told me that I could drive from my house to the Monroeville Mall in less than 30 minutes by taking a whole bunch of back roads. I left my house two hours early and I ended up in Penn Hills.
I still showed up at the Monroeville Barnes & Noble about 1.5 hours early. I went into the mall’s Bath & Body Works, but this still left me with way too much time to kill.
This was a really long way for me to tell you that I was the very first person to sit down in the special section of folding chairs reserved for Marie Benedict’s book talk. Since I sat down first, I went for the gold and sat in the center of the very first row.
A lot of people showed up for the book talk, but NOBODY sat down in the first row with me. Maybe I scared everyone else?
At the book signing, I told Benedict that I marked my calendar to attend this talk because I enjoyed her November presentation about “Carnegie’s Maid” so much.
Then, I overheard a man telling somebody else that he was a journalist for the Trib (one of Pittsburgh’s online “newspapers”). So, I approached him and told him the same thing that I had just told Benedict. He didn’t ASK me for a quote; I GAVE him a quote. Then I made him write down my name and town.
So, yeah, I guess that I acted creepy today. My sisters should feel so relieved that they weren’t with me.
The talk was totally worth getting lost in Penn Hills. Benedict is a very good speaker. I learned all about the Churchill family’s life in Great Britain through two World Wars. I cannot wait to read the actual novel.
I want to attend Benedict’s future talks in Pittsburgh when she launches her next books. And maybe next time, I won’t act like a stalker.
Lochry’s Defeat started in 1781 when Archibald Lochry raised a militia unit in Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania. About one hundred men set off down the Ohio River from Fort Pitt (which later became Pittsburgh). A few weeks later, the entire group ended up captured or killed.
Archibald Lochry was a Westmoreland County leader during the American Revolutionary War. The British occupied Detroit. The American colonists in Western PA were at war with the British and their Native American allies. Many of these Native American allies attacked from the Ohio territory west of PA.
(The colonists referred to the British general in Detroit as “Hair Buyer Hamilton” because the British paid for the scalps of American colonists.)
Thomas Jefferson, then the governor of Virginia, promoted George Rogers Clark to the Virginia rank of Brigadier General. In 1781, Clark left Fort Pitt to navigate down the Ohio River into the Ohio territory.
Lochry and his militiamen followed in their own flotilla some time later. Lochry was supposed to meet up with Clark’s expedition downriver. Unfortunately, after a number of issues including supplies, communication, and the threat of desertions among Clark’s men, Lochry missed Clark several times. Lochry never caught up to Clark.
In August 1781, Joseph Brant and George Girty led Native Americans allied with the British. (George Girty was Simon Girty‘s brother.) This group set out looking for Clark.
Brant and Girty instead surprised Lochry, who had stopped on the banks of the Ohio River in present-day Indiana. Brant and Girty ambushed Lochry and killed him. They killed dozens of his men and took the rest prisoner.
The families back in Westmoreland County didn’t learn about this until a significant time later.
The Wikipedia entry for this event also refers to it as the Lochry Massacre. I chose to not use the word “massacre” because indignenous people were involved in the victory. I explained my choice of semantics in this other blog post.
If you want a much more detailed account of Lochry’s Defeat and Clark’s expedition, by all means go read the Wikipedia entry on this. The Wikipedia page includes a photo of the Lochry’s Defeat site in Indiana. I also saw in this photo some military equipment that I believe came from a 20th century war. To be honest, at first glance I mistook this equipment to be an empty boat trailer. (This is IS along the Ohio River banks.)
I wrote today’s blog post for all of the people who, like me, don’t remember learning about this in high school history class. In fact, I never even heard this story from my Westmoreland County family members who first told me about Simon Girty. I learned about Lochry’s Defeat from the historical fiction novel “The Day Must Dawn” by Agnes Sligh Turnbull.
Just to keep this in context with other local history, Lochry’s men from Westmoreland County set off from Fort Pitt in the summer of 1781. Lochry’s Defeat happened in Indiana in August 1781. The Crawford Expedition set off down the Ohio River in May 1782. (William Crawford led this expedition. Most of his militiamen came from Westmoreland and Washington counties.) The British and their Native American allies captured and executed Crawford in Ohio in June 1782. Simon Girty was present at Crawford’s execution. Then, the British and their Native American allies attacked and burned Hannastown in Westmoreland County in July 1782. The Revolutionary War ended in 1783.
According to Wikipedia, Joseph Brant allegedly got into a violent, drunken brawl with Simon Girty over the issue of whether Brant or George Girty deserved the credit for Lochry’s Defeat. Brant was a Mohawk military leader and Girty (who was himself raised by Native Americans) has an infamous reputation in frontier America. At least one Canadian monument refers to Simon Girty as a British Loyalist. Keep this in mind when you read such tales.
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. ******
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.
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.
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.
I went to a lecture at a Carnegie Hall last night.
No, I didn’t travel to THE Carnegie Hall in Manhattan.
Jonathan drove me to the Andrew Carnegie Free Library & Music Hall in Carnegie, Pennsylvania. I heard an author speak about her historical fiction novel about the industrialist Andrew Carnegie and his (fictional) Irish maid, Clara Kelley.
I learned that the staff at this library refer to the place as the “Carnegie Carnegie.”
Andrew Carnegie gifted the community of Carnegie with this library since they named their hometown after him. Most of the other libraries named after Andrew Carnegie in Greater Pittsburgh required community contributions to build. Not so with the Carnegie Carnegie. Andrew Carnegie funded this himself.
I came there for the talk by author Marie Benedict about her novel Carnegie’s Maid.
Benedict created the character of Clara Kelley based in part on her own Irish immigrant ancestors who worked as maids during the Industrial Revolution. She cast Clara Kelley as the fictional lady’s maid for Andrew Carnegie’s strong-willed Scottish mother, Margaret Carnegie. The book took place during the years 1863 – 1868. At this point in time, Andrew Carnegie was rich enough to pay for a lady’s maid for his mother. He was rich enough to pay an immigrant to take his place as a Civil War soldier. He was not yet one of the richest men in American history.
I enjoyed reading Carnegie’s Maid. I enjoyed the book talk even more. This was one of the best book talks / author visits that I ever attended. The author brought a slide show with photos of Andrew Carnegie, Margaret Carnegie, and historically significant buildings that figured into the novel. She taught us about her research process.
Here’s something that I noted when I read the book, but that Benedict came out and said: Pittsburgh’s dirty air occupied a role as “its own character” in Carnegie’s Maid. Benedict’s narrator mentioned the dirty air often. Now, the book took place in the 1860’s. However, my own husband’s late Babcia (the Polish word for grandma) worked in downtown Pittsburgh in the late 1940’s / early 1950’s. In that time, the woman wore white gloves as they travelled and worked. Babcia brought TWO pairs of gloves with her each day. She had to change her gloves partway through each day because the original pair became dark with soot. She did this every work day. And she worked in an OFFICE.
Pittsburgh’s air was DIRTY for a century or more. In fact, as I mentioned last week, I wonder often about the role that Pittsburgh’s air played in my own mother’s death from lung cancer.
I was born before Pittsburgh’s steel industry imploded and took a lot of American dreams with it. I visited my grandparents in Pittsburgh (Carrick) during my early years. I remember how the city smelled of sulfur from the mills on a late December night.
Pittsburgh was built on the backs of Americans and future Americans who ingested this filthy air.
Now I work in downtown Pittsburgh. My downtown Pittsburgh is much cleaner than Babcia’s downtown Pittsburgh. I hear the hype about Pittsburgh’s exciting renaissance. I visit some of the trendy, gentrifying “hipster” neighborhoods in Pittsburgh. And I remind myself that people suffered – still suffer – from Pittsburgh’s gritty past.
I brought much of myself and my past into this book as I read it.
Carnegie’s Maid showed Andrew Carnegie as a complex human being. As a hungry opportunist who also built libraries and defined philanthropy.
I want to attend another talk by this author after she releases her next book.
What’s it like to be the real-life great-great granddaughter of a famous ghost? A ghost that prime time television featured?
I just learned all about this from reading American Ghost, by Hannah Nordhaus.
This is a non-fiction / travel/ family memoir. Julia Staab, a Jewish German American who died in 1896, allegedly haunts an upscale hotel in Santa Fe, New Mexico. The author Nordhaus is Julia’s real-life great-great-granddaughter. (The book referred to her as “Julia” so I will as well.)
Julia died in the Santa Fe mansion that her husband, the merchant Abraham Staab, built for their family. She was 52 years old and the mother of eight children. Her youngest child passed away a few years before Julia’s own death. Julia allegedly spent a significant part of the end of her life shut up in her bedroom. She did not attend her own daughter’s wedding.
Decades later, this mansion became the La Posada de Santa Fe, a hotel and spa.
In the 1970’s, a La Posada hotel employee reported seeing a ghost. More ghost claims followed. Rumors and local folklore spread regarding Julia’s “real” cause of death and her existence in the spirit world.
Nordhaus researched family documents, letters, diaries, immigration records, etc. She interviewed family members who had personally known Julia and her children. Nordhaus is a direct descendent of Julia’s daughter, Bertha. She obtained Bertha’s diary, written during the final years of Julia’s life. She travelled to Santa Fe and to Julia’s childhood home in Germany. She discovered that although Julia died in Santa Fe in 1896, Julia’s younger sister, Emilie, perished (at the age of 81) in a Nazi concentration camp in 1943.
Years ago, I watched the NBC primetime show Unsolved Mysteries each week. This show’s season 7, episode 2 (which aired October 2, 1994) included the story of Julia Staab’s haunting at La Posada. The show included coverage of an actual “scientific” ghost hunt, complete with EVP recordings! (If you have an Amazon Prime membership, you can watch this episode on Prime at no additional charge. The episode is SO CHEESY!)
If you listen to the Spooked podcast by Snap Judgment, note that Season 2, Episode 14 (The Intruders) told Julia’s story. The podcast included an interview with Nordhaus and promoted her book. I actually found out about American Ghost from this podcast episode.
Now, to be honest, the “tragic story of Julia Staab,” as the general internet presented it, reminded me very much of the internet rumors about the Lemp family of St. Louis. (Here’s a good podcast about the Lemp family.) The patriarchs of both families were extremely rich self-made German immigrants in the mid 1800’s. Both had matriarchs named Julia. Both families included significant amounts of children. Rumors of unexplained tragic deaths followed both the Staabs and the Lemps. Both families struggled with mental illness. Both families lived (and died) in Victorian mansions that fell into decline, underwent renovations, and then became upscale “haunted” hotels.
Dark tourism industries (including ghost hunts, etc.) sprang up around both the Staab and the Lemp family tragedies.
How refreshing to read about Julia in American Ghost, a family memoir written by her own great-great granddaughter!
Now, on a more personal level, I thought about my own personal travel experience to Santa Fe in 2009 when I read American Ghost.
Jonathan and I rode an Amtrak from Pittsburgh to Chicago, and then in Chicago we switched trains and rode to Lamy, New Mexico. The train didn’t go to Santa Fe. In Lamy, an Amtrak contractor picked us up in a cargo van and drove us 18 miles to a car rental in Santa Fe. We did a reverse of this route for the trip home.
We went to Santa Fe that weekend for a wedding. The other guests from Pittsburgh all flew into Chicago, and then flew from Chicago to Albuquerque, and then rented cars and drove to Santa Fe.
We joked that a city that had a RAILROAD NAMED AFTER IT didn’t actually have direct access to the railroad.
I learned from reading American Ghost that Abraham Staab fought to have the railroad build a spur from Lamy to Santa Fe. American Ghost even remarked on the irony that Santa Fe had a railroad named after it, and yet Staab struggled to have the railroad come to Santa Fe. A few decades later, Santa Fe lost its railroad spur.
Speaking of the reference to “Lamy, New Mexico,” American Ghost devoted over a chapter to that town’s namesake, the Catholic Archbishop Lamy. Abraham and Julia Staab apparently fostered a very close relationship with Archbishop Lamy.
American Ghost explored the claims that Abraham Staab’s money helped to build Santa Fe’s Cathedral Basilica of Saint Francis of Assisi (St. Francis Cathedral).
We actually toured the cathedral when we visited Santa Fe.
American Ghost has a copyright date of 2015. I wish that I could have read this before I toured Santa Fe in 2009.
I didn’t grow up in a “boating family.” Neither did my husband. We both grew up in middle-class families with multiple kids and multiple priorities. About once a summer or so, my own parents rented for me and my sisters paddle boats, a rowboat, or perhaps a canoe from a PA State Park boat concession. My dad eventually purchased a used canoe from a boat concession auction.
When Jonathan and I were on our honeymoon, he purchased a kite. He flew his new kite on the beach. He told me that wind power fascinated him. He later confessed to me that sailboats and sailing actually fascinated him since childhood but that he was too shy to mention this to his parents.
We took a few sailing lessons on a Flying Scot at Lake Arthur at Moraine State Park in Western PA. We borrowed my parents’ canoe once. We purchased our own canoe / kayak hybrids.
Jonathan monitored Facebook for postings about boat sales. I learned that prospective boat buyers have no problem finding boats for sale at the end of summer, before prospective boat sellers need to store their boats for the winter. So, on one October Friday, Jonathan drove through several counties to meet the man selling a Flying Scot. By the end of that day, we owned our first sailboat.
That weekend gave us “hot” October weather. We took our “new” Flying Scot to Lake Arthur that Saturday. We rigged our new boat in the parking lot of Moraine’s public boat launch. We sailed and sailed. We noted that the sun started to set and that other boaters headed to shore. We headed to shore. Then . . . the wind died down.
Did I mention that our Flying Scot had no motor? Yeah, this is important. The wind powered our boat. After the wind died, we sat in the middle of the lake.
We sat there for about an hour. Then, Jonathan grabbed the boat’s sole oar and “paddled” us to shore. In the twilight. Then, we had to de-rig our sailboat in the dark, assisted by one flashlight.
That next summer, we returned to Lake Arthur with our Flying Scot and rented a slip at the marina’s dry dock. We sailed again. And again, the wind died on us. We found ourselves becalmed on Lake Arthur, with no motor, again.
Except, this time the wind died due to a very impending, severe thunderstorm. We saw the lightning as we sat, stationary, on the lake. Mother Nature mocked us.
I said a few angry things to Jonathan. He grabbed the oar and, once again, paddled us back to shore.
The storm’s downdraft actually pushed us the last few feet to the dock. We jumped off of the boat and ran through the rain to our truck. Then, we realized that our truck keys were still on our boat! So, Jonathan had to run back to the boat before we found shelter inside of our truck.
Jonathan is very lucky that I sailed with him again after this.
This summer we now have a sailboat docked in Erie, PA, on Lake Erie. I sailed with Jonathan ON THE OPEN LAKE. I have the experience of sitting becalmed on Lake Erie, covered in bug spray and swatting at biting flies. Thank destiny that we now own a motored boat!
After I first sailed, I collected the sailing mishaps noted in historical fiction AND nonfiction.
For instance, Aaron Burr’s only child, Theodosia Burr Alston, boarded the schooner Patriot in 1812. The ship sailed from South Carolina. It never arrived in New York City. History noted Theodosia Burr Alston as “disappeared” or “lost at sea.” Theories and folkore (see Wikipedia) abounded on the fate of “Dear Theodosia.” One famous legend involved pirates. In fact, one storyteller described Theodosia walking the plank to her death.
Now, for the promised 1779 sailing mishap, here is a passage from Chapter Five of “Founding Mothers: The Women Who Raised Our Nation” by Cokie Roberts. This recounts John Jay and his wife Sally’s voyage to Spain after Congress named John Jay as Minister to Spain during the Revolutionary War:
“ Two months later, still aboard the ship and nowhere near Spain, Sally recounted their adventures to her mother. After being at sea a couple of weeks, she heard a terrible noise on the deck in the middle of the night: “We had been deprived of nothing less than our bow-spirit, main-mast and missen-mast . . . however our misfortunes were only begun, the injury received by our rudder the next morning served to complete them.” The ship was dismasted and rudderless, the seas were high, and winter was on the way. A council of ship’s officers concluded tht there was no way to reach Europe under those conditions, so they set course for the island of Martinique. It took a couple of weeks for the winds to get them going in the right direction, but, Sally cheerfully reported, “we are now in smooth seas having the advantage of trade winds which blow directly for the island . . . while our American friends are amusing themselves by a cheerful fireside, are we sitting under an awning comforting ourselves with the expectation of being soon refreshed by some fine southern fruits.” . . . What she didn’t tell her mother was that she was pregnant. Stranded at sea, Sally and John threw a party, surprising and delighting fellow passengers. Finally, at the end of December, the ship limped into port in Martinique, where Sally was able to send off her letter home.”
Cokie Roberts, “Founding Mothers: The Women Who Raised Our Nation.”
Just imagine drifting around for several weeks on the ocean in a ship that lost most of its sails. And its rudder. Just hoping that the trade winds would blow the ship to Martinique before winter. With a navigation system from the late 1700’s. And no motor!
Maybe, if this happened in 2019, Sally Jay would tweet a selfie of herself on the disabled ship. “Can’t believe where I ended up. LOL.” Followed by an interview with Anderson Cooper. (Or Cokie Roberts.)
This spring, author Jennifer Chiaverini released Resistance Women, a novel about the German Resistance in World War II. The protagonists in this novel included Mildred Fish Harnack, a Wisconsin native whom the Nazis arrested for spying. Adolf Hitler personally ordered Harnack’s execution. Resistance Women reached bestselling lists and garnered accolades this summer.
I didn’t read Resistance Women (yet). Instead, I read Chiaverini’s 2016 historical fiction Fates and Traitors: A Novel of John Wilkes Booth.
In case you’re not an American, actor John Wilkes Booth assassinated President Abraham Lincoln at Ford’s Theater in Washington, DC, in April 1865.
“Fates and Traitors” told the story of Booth and these four women who “loved” him (according to the book jacket):
1.) his mother Mary Ann Booth;
2.) his sister Asia Booth Clarke;
3.) his secret fiancée Lucy Hale (the daughter of an abolitionist Republican senator from New Hampshire); and
4.) boardinghouse owner Mary Surratt. The United States government executed Surratt over her alleged role in the Lincoln assassination.
Now, before I get into too much detail about Fates and Traitors, I want to use Chiaverini’s work to explain one reason that I love historical fiction so much.
Chiaverini’s published historical fiction highlighted these families (among others): the Booths, the Lincolns, the Chases (Salmon P. Chase and daughter Kate Chase Sprague), the Grants, and the Byrons (Lord Byron and daughter Ada Lovelace).
The historical characters in Chiaverini books discussed the characters from other books.
For instance, several of the historical figures from Chiaverini’s other books (including Abraham Lincoln) went to see the Booth brothers perform prior to the Lincoln assassination. Several of the historical figures from these books enjoyed reading Lord Byron’s poetry. Several of the historical figures from these books gossiped about Kate Chase Sprague’s political ambitions for her father. Several of the historical figures from these books observed Mary Lincoln’s fine wardrobe. In Fates and Traitors, John Wilkes Booth stalked both the Lincolns and the Grants prior to the Lincoln assassination. In another Chiaverini book, Mrs. Grant observed John Wilkes Booth stalking her.
I learned from my reading that nobody’s family dynamics are perfect.
I personally enjoyed Fates and Traitors. However, the first part of the book moved slowly. I learned about the large Booth family. Family patriarch Junius Brutus Booth Sr. was named after one of the assassins in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. Junius Sr. established a highly successful Shakespearean stage acting career in London and Europe. Junius Sr. and Mary Ann fled to the United States to avoid a scandal. Junius Sr. reestablished his acting career in America to great fanfare and acclaim.
The Booth family struggled with one family crisis after another. (Pardon the cliché, but the Booth family created a lot of family drama!)
Three of Junius Sr.’s sons (Junius Jr., Edwin, and John Wilkes) followed their father into acting. I’m under the impression that historians considered Edwin to be a more accomplished actor than his famous father.
Asia raised her own large family and also established herself as a writer and poet. She produced several memoirs about the Booths.
I recommend this book to readers of Civil War historical fiction.