Saturday, March 29, 2014

Random thoughts

The S.O. coming from the woodshed about a month ago. The snow has
since melted off the trees so pruning should be easy. 
It's Saturday morning and once again I'm considering donning snowshoes, grabbing the lopping shears, and attacking the overgrown and snarled apple trees. They're kind of a mess because they're all feral and were ignored for years. Now is the time of year to do it -- the snow is more than three feet deep so it's like having a ladder without having to actually use a ladder. Then again, it is awkward maneuvering around the trees while wearing snowshoes. Only in the U.P.

Speaking of snow and apple trees, I was also thinking I should prune the dwarf Wolf River tree I planted last year. Only one problem: the tree is totally buried except for about three inches sticking out of the snow. Perhaps dwarf trees aren't such a hot idea up here after all.

The sun is shining today so I may spend the afternoon in the Woman Cave working on quilts or doing some other puttering. Or I may go down to the museum. For some reason, I just haven't felt the urge to sew as much this winter as I have in some years. Usually I'd have two quilts in progress; this year there's only one and it's going slow. Not sure why; I'll blame the long, cold winter. There were too many days when the woodstove just wasn't up to chasing the chill out of the cave. It's hard to sew when you're wearing mittens. Maybe I should jettison the computer and turn this porch into my sewing space. I'm always up a couple hours before the S.O. I could use his laptop. I'm a morning person; he's not. I'd probably get more done. For sure I'd be less likely to waste as much time as I do wandering around the murkier areas of cyberspace.

As for the museum, there's the usual cataloging and filing. It's not going to end for a long, long time. I'm almost done with the filing cabinet mess, but there's still the gazillion boxes of miscellaneous crap in the "attic" and the storage building. And I do mean crap: one of the little gems I found in the attic was a bizarre mangled papier mache model of something unidentifiable. For sure it's going on the Vappu bonfire. I also need to clean out a storage closet so the S.O. can help me put in decent shelves (the existing shelves were poorly installed, aren't deep enough, and sag) sometime next week. Lots to do, and never enough time or bodies to do it all.
Feral apple trees, March 28, 2014

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Ethical qualms, moral dilemmas, counterfactuals

In the long tale of the world most of us are the recipients of stolen goods and the fruits of murder, just by happening to be alive after they happened, and atrocities cannot be undone later.  – John Barnes
I did a blog post the other day on one of the things we denizens of the United States seem to have gotten right: as a general rule, we don't go around trying to figure out ways to kill each based on where someone's great grandmother was born or what language some distant ancestors spoke. We've got various alliances, networks, cliques, and cults that might despise each other, but if we accuse each other of not being true Americans it's not going to be because someone's great grandparents spoke Hungarian or Tagalog when they got off the boat 100 years ago. There's a reason for this: assimilation. Some of it was voluntary, but quite a bit was forced. 

Which brings up the issue of ethical qualms and moral dilemmas. I once read a statement attributed to Lenin in which he said that in order for the end to justify the means, you have to have an end you can justify. Which strikes me as being a tad tautological, but it does make sense. If you're going to break eggs, you better be planning on ending up with an edible omelet. So today we Americans are the fortunate beneficiaries of a policies instituted decades or centuries ago that in retrospect do not seem to pass the smell test. Taking Native American kids away from their parents and shipping them off to boarding schools where they were forbidden to speak their native language was barbaric. Punishing the children of immigrants for speaking Italian or German or Slovenian in an American public school was almost as cruel. People were stigmatized, treated horribly, for displaying any signs of foreignness. The end result was a populace unified by a language and common culture, but obtained at the cost of losing their past. Was this a good thing or a bad thing?  And was it necessary to use force? Would assimilation and adoption of a common language have occurred as rapidly if official policies hadn't pushed for both? Is there even a way to decide questions like that decades later?

As for counterfactuals, there is the intriguing question of whether or not assimilation, forced or otherwise, would have occurred among the non-Native groups if they had all felt like they had someplace to go back to, i.e., that there was a motherland just waiting to be reclaimed. Although some immigrants came with the intention of just working for a few years, making a fortune, and going back to the old country to buy a farm or start a business, the majority recognized this was it. There was no going back. Once they got off the boat from Europe, Africa, or Asia, most were here to stay. 

In contrast, in the Soviet Union, Stalin tried shuffling various population groups around in an attempt to Russianize everyone (which was, come to think of it, pretty bizarre, given that he wasn't Russian himself) and eliminate non-Russian languages within the borders of the Soviet Union. It didn't work. Once the Soviet Union fell, the former Soviet republics discarded using Russian as a language pretty rapidly and different ethnic groups that had been sent off to colonize in eastern Siberia started moving back to where their grandparents had lived. It's a lot easier to keep the idea of repatriation alive when you know you can walk there if you're determined enough. 

Would the Russianization have worked given a few more generations to oppress and coerce people? Again, an unanswerable question. Borders have shifted numerous times, nation-states have risen and fallen, and populations have shifted in response to wars, famines, and plagues. Some cultures and people vanish as though they had never existed; others endure. 

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

A rose by any other name

“A nation is a society united by a delusion about its ancestry and a common fear of its neighbors.” – W.R. Inge

The Blog Fodder has been doing a series of posts about Russia and Ukraine, their shared history, the differing perspectives, depending on whether you're Russian, Ukrainian, Tatar, Galician, whatever, about that shared history, the different ethnic groups, and the different languages spoken in Ukraine. The official language is Ukrainian, but many people speak Russian as their first language. When the Soviet Union fell apart, there was apparently a half-hearted attempt to make Ukraine an officially bilingual country, but everyone -- even the ethnic Russians -- hated Russia too much to let that happen. It's all very interesting. Also very depressing, of course, but definitely interesting.  

This whole Ukrainian mess got me to thinking about one of the things that does distinguish the United States from the rest of the world. The Blog Fodder mentions that historically in what is now the U.S., English was the language of the colonizers and in most cases indigenous populations hate the colonizers and want nothing to do with their language. He draws parallels between Ukraine and the despised Russian colonists and the American Revolution and the revolutionaries deciding between English and German. It is an interesting analogy, but with one big difference. Yes, it's true there was, in fact, a brief attempt at not using English in the nascent United States. There was a movement to make German the official language because English was the language used by the despised English king George III and his minions. Pennsylvania had a zillion German colonists, so there were a lot of German speakers. 

Well, German would have been the language of the colonizers, too. Not only was the English king a member of the German house of Hanover, all the colonizers -- German, French, English, whatever -- did a really nice job of wiping out the local languages. A noncolonial language back in the 18th century would have been one of the Algonquin or Iroquoian languages common on the East Coast and in Canada. If I wanted to go back 300 years and speak a language native to North America, I'd be signing up for classes at the wemowin wadiswan over in Baraga. 

And if for some bizarre reason I felt compelled to speak the language(s) of my ancestors, my assorted grandparents and great grandparents who emigrated from Europe, I'd have to draw straws or flip coins to decide between Cornish, English, Finnish, Swedish, and possibly Russian. My mother used a lot of Russian terms for common objects instead of the more usual (for this area) Finnish ones so I'm willing to bet her mother grew up in a household where Russian was spoken almost as much as Finnish was. 

I am, in short, a typical American, a product of our cliched melting pot. I engage in symbolic ethnicity much the same way persons of Irish or German or Italian descent engage in symbolic ethnicity relating to their ancestry: I like certain traditional (albeit Americanized) Finnish foods, like pulla, cheer for the Finnish hockey team during the winter Olympics, think the movie "Leningrad Cowboys Go America" is a work of genius, and listen to Finnish bands like Nightwish. I will also remind people that the Cornish invented pasties, not the Finns (as many misguided Yoopers seem to believe), because, after all, I did have a Cornish grandmother. Like a lot of people, my immigrant ancestors were primarily monolingual (their native language with just enough English to get by) and tended to cluster in ethnic enclaves, but their descendants are widely scattered, married into different ethnic groups and religions, and any nationalist fervor they may possess is for the U.S. as a whole, not just a part of it or for a country they've never seen. 

And you know what? Much as I despair sometime about my fellow Americans and their belief in American exceptionalism, this is something we've gotten right. There are still clusters of ethnic enclaves but they're not nearly as rigidly defined or as common as they were 100 years ago. With a few rare exceptions, none of us (the descendants of the colonizers) give a rat's patoot about what languages our grandparents spoke or what happened when someone redrew a border 20, 50, or 100 years ago. Yes, there's some paranoia among right-wing fringe groups about Mexico trying to reclaim what we stole back in 1845, but I'd be willing to bet 99% of the U.S. population neither knows nor cares about that particular long ago war. The more generations away we are from the "old country" and old conflicts, the less anyone cares about the past. One of the same things that can be a weakness is also one of our greatest strengths. Americans as a whole live in the present. Granted, some fringe groups seem determined to return us to an earlier decade (or century), but they're a minority. (There are also major ethical issues with forced assimilation, but that's a subject for a different post.)

In any case, I look at how messed up the former Soviet bloc countries are and find myself thinking, come on, people, stop obsessing about stupid stuff like whose great grandparents were forcibly removed to Siberia by a tyrant who's been dead for over 60 years or what language your granny spoke and focus on the stuff that counts, like eliminating corruption. Which is more important? Having the guy at the DMV (or its equivalent) speaking the language of your ancestors or being able to register your car or being able to get a driver's license without the process taking multiple days, a zillion forms, and requiring a bribe to get the paperwork you need? 

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Okay, where's the mud?

The vernal equinox has come and gone. Where's the mud? This is the time of year when the driveway is supposed to turn to soup while retaining its snowbanks for a few more weeks. Well, the snowbanks keep growing but the mud seems to be a tad late this year. Got up this morning and it was almost 10 below at our house. Ten below! on March 23. Subzero is normal for us from December through February, but at the end of March?

I am not a happy camper. I want to see some mud on my car, not icy stalactites formed by the weird slush, the mix of snow and MDOT chemicals, that gets kicked up on the highway. We drove to Hurley, Wisconsin, and back yesterday. By the time we got home, my poor little Focus was covered with mutant icicles. It's hard to see clearly in the photo, but the solidified slush on the side of the car isn't smooth. The car is covered with a zillion lumps, warts, nascent stalactites, whatever, ranging in size from fairly small bumps to protusions a couple inches long. It was bizarre.

Between the sun and the chemicals, the snow on the highway was melting, but the air temperature (especially on a moving vehicle) was low enough that as soon as that crap hit something, it started freezing. We passed a semi that had stalactites creeping out from the lug nuts on its front wheels that were long enough that the wheels looked like something off a Roman chariot armed with blades to disable its opponents. This is not normal. I want mud.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Why I don't worry about the NSA

Yesterday was a museum day for me. I spent a good chunk of it doing data entry in PastPerfect, but when I'd get up to stretch I did the usual digging around in filing cabinets and other spaces as I slowly figure out just what all we have. I'm a volunteer and only go in one or two days a week for a few hours at time so my efforts at cataloging and organizing are not moving particularly fast. Well, one of yesterday's discoveries was a box of 5-1/2 inch floppy disks. They were all neatly labeled and appear to have some interesting material stored on them: family trees, notes on local history, etc. There must be a couple dozen. Depressing.

Why is it depressing? Well, among other things, when was the last time you saw a 5-1/2 disk drive on a computer? Unless someone took the time to print out hard copies of whatever is on those disks, that work is gone forever. Not only are 5-1/2 inch drives a historical curiosity, odds are that whatever program was used at the time no longer matches up with its many generations later descendant. When the disk drives evolved from 5-1/2 inch to 3 to compact disk, I transferred various files. Not long ago I tried looking at some of the stuff I wrote 25 years ago, back in the days of WordPerfect 4.2. I had the latest version of WordPerfect, but it could no longer open files written in the multiple generations earlier version. The same thing happens with files done in early versions of Word.

Long, long ago, back when dinosaurs roamed the earth (the early '80s), I worked at a daily newspaper that used a Compugraphic typesetting system. The files were stored on 8-inch floppies. I wonder if there's a machine left on the planet that can read those disks now. Probably not.

And this is why I don't worry about the NSA or other government snooping a whole lot. As a society we tend to live in the Now with no thought of past or future. The guys working for the NSA are every bit as inculcated with that mindset as the rest of us. I think we can take it as a given that they're going to be just as gung ho as everyone else when it comes to constantly updating and getting the latest version of their various spyware programs and data storage systems, possibly more. After all, it's the techno-geeks who always want the latest version of anything. Back when the government spies were typing out transcripts of conversations and filling file boxes with hard copies, information would live forever -- or at least until silverfish and roaches got into the boxes and ate the paper. Well, information may still live forever, lurking in some NSA "cloud" (aka server farm in Utah), but I'm willing to bet that the more time that elapses, the less retrievable that information will be. Some programmer will have a bright idea, she'll tweak a couple lines of code, and decades of snooping will disappear behind a software wall. And, yes, the data will still be there and theoretically retrievable but will anyone bother? If you run a query and get a null result, how would you know that the null result is an artifact of the software and not an actual reliable answer?

So what happened to the 5-1/2 inch disks I found? The circular file, of course. Technology has moved on; the disks aren't usable. I kept a couple as artifacts to include in a display at some point in the future, but most got tossed. I felt the usual twinge of guilt about throwing away someone's hard work, but you can't win them all.

It was, however, a nice reminder that I need to periodically do hard copy reports of the data I've entered in PastPerfect. If we're going to have an inventory, it needs to be in an old-fashioned paper-filled notebook as well as on the computer.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Lies, damned lies, and interpretations

History, in the end, is only another kind of story, and stories are different from the truth. The truth is messy and chaotic and all over the place. Often it just doesn’t make sense. Stories make things make sense, but the way they do that is to leave out anything that doesn’t fit. And often that is quite a lot. -- Paul Murray, Skippy Dies
What is history? The lies the winners tell about the losers? One damn thing after another? Back when I was a temporary historian with the Historic American Engineering Record, I knew it was just one dam after another -- Newhalem, Diablo, Gorge, and Ross (chronological order of construction in what is now North Cascades National Recreational Area). I should know -- I wrote the HAER history of the Skagit Hydroelectric Project. At the time, I viewed it as an engineering triumph. I loved those dams. Would I write the same history today? No.* Would someone else write the same history I did? Again, no. I was fascinated by the controversy over the evolution of the mathematical modeling involved in designing a constant angle (aka variable radius) thin arch dam; another HAER historian might have emphasized the nitty gritty details involved in building the dams, like hauling supplies in to a difficult to reach site in a mountain canyon. Someone reading my version would be treated to a discussion of paradigm shifts and the debate in civil engineering over empirical versus theoretical knowledge. An alternative version might leave the reader with an appreciation for innovations in pouring cement. Would one version be better than another? Who knows? Who cares?

I still tend to refer to myself as a historian because that's been my official job title more than once, but I'm not sure that what I think of as history (philosophically? epistemically?) matches up with the way other people would define it. I tend to lean towards the Calvin and Hobbs definition.

Data and interpretation do not automatically add up to a universal truth. We might know that a battle happened on a certain day or that a politician got voted in or out of office, but the data alone do not tell us what anything means. We tell stories to try to make sense of events, but how well those stories match up with reality is always subject to debate. In the case of the Seattle City Light dams on the Skagit, reality was being defined one way at the time they were built and another by the time the licenses started coming up for renewal. Back in the 1920s, high dams and humongous powerhouses were viewed as progress; today they're environmental rape and an aberration. So whose story gets believed when talking about them: the engineers', the power company's, or the environmental activists'?

One definition of history is that it's the stories the winners tell about the losers. It is true that a lot of simplistic nationalistic history tends to be told that way: the winners brought civilization to the savages, liberated the oppressed peoples, fought off an evil invader, successfully rebelled against a tyrannical monarchy, or triumphed over corruption. It's also true that quite a bit of "history" is written as retroactive justification for various actions. However, the losers (or at least the ones that survive) are perfectly capable of telling their own stories, and if they tell them loud enough and long enough their narratives can drown out the winner's tale. Who decides who the winners were? It doesn't take long, and you have competing narratives, interpretations, and meanings. The more time passes, the more competing narratives you have, some based in fact and some in wishful thinking. Everyone might agree on dates and names and where things happened, but no two stories are ever going to be the same.

*For sure I wouldn't start it off with a cheesy poem about "At every waterfall two angels stay/One clothed in rainbows, the other in spray/The first the beauty of the scene reveals/The last revolves the mighty waterwheels."

Grasshopper, grasshopper, go away

Ooksie kooksie coolama vee
Santia Urho is ta poy for me!
He sase out ta hoppers as pig as birds
Neffer peefor haff I hurd does words!
He reely told dose pugs of kreen
Braaffest Finn I effer seen!
Some celebrate for St. Pat unt hiss nakes
Putt Urho poyka kot what it takes.
He got tall and trong from feelia sour
Unt ate culla moyakka effery hour.
Tat's why day guy could sase does peetles
What crew as thick as chack bine needles.
So lets give a cheer in hower pest way
On this 16th of March, St. Urho's Tay!

I really hate dialect, so I have no idea why I'm succumbing to it on St. Urho's Day. Maybe it just feels appropriate to fell back on Finnglish when remembering St. Urho.

St. Urho is, of course, the well-known Finnish saint who expelled the grasshoppers from Finland and saved the wine crop.

Alternatively (and closer to reality), St. Urho is a totally fictitious character made up as a joke by some guys in Minnesota back in the 1950's. Urho means "hero" in Finnish so the name makes sense. Then again, maybe only a hero would be able to stomach eating fish stew (kalamojakka) once an hour.

And, for anyone curious enough to wonder about that first line, if it were actually in Finnish, it would read yksi, kaksi, kolme, viisi (one, two, three, five).

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Remember, in the winter

far beneath the bitter snows . . . h/t to Ol'Buzzard for reminding me of this song.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Anyone know any corrupt election board officials?

I have a voting machine I need to break into.

First, though, I need to clean off a remarkably thick layer of diesel oil smut. The machine was donated to the museum yesterday. It came, if I've got the provenance straight, from L'Anse Township, although I could be wrong. It could also have been the Village. I need to do a little more research before formally accessioning it.

In any case, it's been stored for quite a few years in the same building the local tourist and recreation association uses for housing the snowmobile trail groomer. It's been exposed to a lot of diesel fumes. When the guys first wheeled it in yesterday, I thought it was black. After I started cleaning the device I discovered it's actually a pale gray color on the top part and a darker color on the bottom. The black was just built-up diesel smoke. I stopped cleaning after going through half a roll of paper towels -- I'll bring in a bag of rags from home to finish it rather than burn through our paper towel allotment for the year. As far as I can tell, the machine has been closed up tight enough that there isn't too much dirt on the inside, but so far all I've been able to see is a compartment at the top in the back. That part doesn't lock; it flips open so you can get at the storage space for the crank that raises and lowers the machine.

I cranked it up to confirm that the main lock, the one on the front, was indeed locked. It was. So are the other locks. It's still got the seal on it from the last time it was used in an election, which is kind of neat. It's also kind of a nuisance. The key to the machine and the machine itself apparently parted company over a decade ago. I'm not sure when L'Anse Township switched to using optical scan machines, but I have a vague memory of using one in 2000. We either need to track down a locksmith (aka spend real money) or drill the locks out. I'd rather not destroy the locks if we can avoid it.

I did email the township clerk to ask if he had any keys kicking around the Township Hall that might fit the machine, but that's a really long shot. I'm willing to bet when I get a response email from him, the answer is going to be No.

Once the machine is clean and the snow is gone so we can actually get at our storage building, that's where the machine will go to gather dust for two years. When 2016 rolls around, though, it's going to be a star player in an exhibit on voting, voting rights, and politics. Maybe we'll even dress one our mannequins to match the picture shown above. For now, though, I just want to get it cleaned up, documented, and make sure the curtains don't need repairs.

This donation is, incidentally, one of the fun things about volunteering at a museum. You never know just what's going to come rolling through the front door.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

What if it was Texas?

The news lately seems to be all Ukraine all the time. If there ever was a time and place for the U.S. to just keep its collective mouth shut and back away slowly, this is probably it. Ukrainian and Russian history have been intertwined for centuries, Ukraine was part of tsarist Russia before it was a Soviet Republic, its history as an independent nation is brief, and we Americans are notoriously bad at understanding what's actually going on in any foreign country. Instead of trying to provoke Putin into doing something that make him look even better in Russia, the Obama administration should be as mealy-mouthed as possible and hope something else pops up someplace else in the world to distract the news media. Tempting though it always is to meddle, this is one of those no-win situations.

Ukrainian internal politics are twisted, to say the least. Various politicians in the past have seemed quite willing to switch sides at the drop of a hryvnia, Ukraine itself has an ethnically mixed population, you can't always tell by the language spoken (i.e., Ukrainian vs. Russian) just who is who when it comes to loyalties, and the reason for the current unrest seems murky at best. There's a lot of talk in the media about "freedom" and cleaning up corruption, but it actually seems a lot more like one group of special interests was lusting after the opportunity to make money by aligning with the European Union while the other group was lusting after the opportunity to make money by sticking with Russia. In other words, one group of wannabe corrupt politicians decided to boot the already corrupt politicians out. No matter who gains control in the end, the average Ukrainian's everyday life is unlikely to improve much, at least not in the short term.

Besides, why on earth would we want to be stupid enough to do anything remotely provocative right on the Russian border? Anyone willing to do some mental role reversal can see how insane that could be. How would we react if Mexico had a revolution and the Russians or Chinese decided to help out one side or the other in that conflict? If the Russians put boots on the ground or poured massive amounts of aid into Chihuahua or Tamaulipas, we'd freak out. It would be, holy fuck, the Russians are massing on the Texas border! They're coming after our oil!! They're going to destroy our refineries on the Texas Gulf Coast. I mean, we went ballistic when the leftist government on the island of Grenada starting building a bigger airport with Cuban help; imagine several thousand Russians hanging out just south of Brownsville or El Paso. Or, even better, over on the West Coast in Baja California just south of San Diego. So how do you think the Russians would react if the Obama administration was stupid enough to listen to John McCain or Lindsey Graham and do something even remotely aggressive in Ukraine?

As for the billion dollars in aid that John Kerry just promised the Ukrainians, why does the above image immediately come to mind?

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you enjoy the play?

Reading a biography is always kind of interesting. It's pretty common for the reader to discover that the biographer really did not like his or her subject matter. In fact, some biographies are born out of a writer or a historian's strong antipathy towards a subject; the writer wants to prove just what a flaming asshat the person was.

I'm not sure just what motivated Jennifer Fleischner to write Mrs. Lincoln and Mrs. Keckly, but, wow, Fleischner definitely despised Mary Todd Lincoln. She basically concludes that Mary was a totally self-centered harridan who made Lincoln's life hell and deserved to die crazy and alone. On the other hand, Elizabeth ("Lizzy") Keckly, the former slave and dressmaker who wrote a tell-all about her association with the Lincolns, was one step away from sainthood because of her pluck and business skills. Doesn't matter what Mary does, Fleischner figures out a way to put a negative spin on it. Doesn't matter what Lizzy does, Fleischner turns it into a positive. I don't think I've ever seen a biographer before who even seemed to begrudge the fact her subject managed to have a decent burial. Fleischner manages that neat trick by contrasting Mary Lincoln's current resting place (next to her husband in an elaborate tomb in Springfield, Illinois) with Elizabeth Keckly's (unknown) in a way that makes it seem like it's Mary's fault Elizabeth didn't end up in a high dollar mausoleum, too.

I read a couple reviews of this book in which the reviewers seemed to think Fleischner painted Mary Lincoln in a sympathetic light. Well, maybe it's just me, but I don't see where calling Mary Lincoln self-centered or a narcissist when she breaks down with grief over the death of a child is a particularly sympathetic move on the part of a biographer. Her suggesting over and over that Abraham Lincoln never really loved his wife, that he was pressured into marrying her because he'd started courting her and couldn't figure out a way to extricate himself, also struck me as bizarre. It is true that Lincoln loved another woman before he met Mary. All his biographers agree he truly loved Ann Rutledge and was devastated when she died. That doesn't mean he was incapable of ever loving anyone else. I couldn't figure out just why Fleischner was so insistent on portraying the Lincolns as being trapped in a loveless marriage, especially when there's a fair amount of documentation showing that wasn't true. Not many letters between the couple survive (their son Robert burnt most of them in the 1890s), but the ones that do have been described by other historians and biographers as affectionate.

It is true Mary had a volatile personality. It is possible, if one wanted to indulge in retroactive psychoanalysis, that she suffered from bipolar disorder. She did seem to go through manic periods. Another possibility Fleischner suggests is that Mary had untreated diabetes. Both hypoglycemia and hyperglycemia can affect a person's behavior. On the other hand, in Team of Rivals Doris Kearns Goodwin described many of the same situations Fleischner does and put an entirely different spin on them. According to Kearns Goodwin, Mary's spending spree on furnishings for the White House wasn't a mindless spending spree to feed her own ego but an attempt to refurbish the President's residence after several decades of neglect. She wasn't indulging in shopping for her own gratification but in attempt to make the White House worthy of its public role. Unfortunately, she was unbelievably bad with money. She never met a budget she couldn't destroy. She'd grown up in a household where money was never an issue, and, once Abraham Lincoln became a successful lawyer, hadn't had to worry about a budget before getting to the White House.

For that matter, Kearns Goodwin describes a number of incidents that Fleischner glosses over. Fleischer describes Mary as visiting wounded soldiers once; Kearns Goodwin notes that Mary volunteered at the hospitals many times and would spend hours talking with and comforting the soldiers. She wrote letters for them, read to them, put in long hours, and avoided having her visits publicized, which is hardly the behavior of a self-centered harridan.

The parts of the book that focused on Elizabeth Keckly tended to tilt the other way. Elizabeth is the plucky heroine coping with adversity, she endures the hardships of slavery as well as the indignity of being owned by people who are just unbelievably bad with money -- Virginia planters who by birth are the closest thing this country would have to an aristocracy but through incompetence and over-breeding (when you have a zillion children, a family fortune can disappear pretty fast) are the equivalent of the impoverished vicars and down-at-the-heel landed gentry in 19th century English novels. In a Bronte novel, the daughters would all end up as governesses. In the real world of antebellum Virginia, the women struggled as poorly paid schoolteachers trying to operate private academies out of their own homes and the men became lawyers with not enough clients to prevent them from continually falling into debt. One of the ongoing features of Elizabeth Keckly's early life is that her owners, the Burwells, seem to be perpetually dodging bill collectors or bankruptcy.

The fact that Elizabeth manages to avoid being sold down the river is fairly notable in itself, slaves being one of the easily liquidated assets impoverished Virginia planters had, but she does. The Burwells take great pride in not ever selling any of "their people." Of course, how much of that determination not to sell was moral fortitude and how much was reluctance to try untangling a legal entailment to the Burwell estate that prevented selling slaves easily is debatable. They may have just been reluctant to spend money on attorney fees if challenged by another family member. In any case, instead of being sold, slaves were lent or bequeathed to family members. Elizabeth goes from one member of the Burwell family to another; eventually she ends up in St. Louis, Missouri. The city has a sizable number of slaves who are rented out by their owners; Elizabeth persuades her master to do the same: let her work for wages in the city while returning a portion of those wages to him. She's a skilled seamstress; she quickly builds a reputation for being able to do the difficult fittings the fashions of the time dictated. Her clientele grows and eventually help her buy the freedom of herself and her teenage son. For reasons that were unclear in the book, she decides to leave St. Louis and moves to Washington, D.C. It is in Washington that her path crosses that of Mary Lincoln.

Once Elizabeth Keckly becomes Mary Lincoln's dressmaker, they see a lot of each other. Elizabeth becomes Mary's confidante; she's in the house with the family when Willie Lincoln dies from typhoid, and she's there almost continuously comforting Mary when President Lincoln is shot. She even accompanies Mary back to Illinois to help her get settled there. She had a thriving dressmaking business in Washington, which she neglects in order to help Mary Lincoln. She behaves, in short, more like a close friend or a family member than as a paid employee. She continues to be close to Mary until she makes a fatal mistake: in 1867 she publishes a memoir.

According to Elizabeth, her book was intended to counter all the harsh things being said about Mary in the press. She wanted to show Mary in a good light. Mary doesn't see it that way; the two women never speak to each other again.

This was an interesting book, especially with Team of Rivals still fresh in my mind. There was a strong contrast between Goodwin's nterpretation of events and Fleischner's. One thing that struck me as odd was that some of the social events that one would think would be particularly interesting to describe in talking about Mary Lincoln were barely mentioned in Fleischner's book but were detailed in Goodwin's, which was ostensibly a book about Abraham Lincoln, his Cabinet members, and other men in politics. It truly felt as though Fleischner deliberately omitted anything that would make Mary look good.

The details about Elizabeth Keckly's early life and her relationship with the Burwell family were intriguing, too. She was a slave, but was allowed to learn to read and write. As a young woman, she was sent to North Carolina with one of the Burwell daughters after that daughter married sons and his new wife. While living there, she wrote letters back to Virginia to one of the daughters still living at home. The behavior was more like that of a sister (which she in fact was; she shared a father with the Burwell girls) than that of a slave and a household servant. After the Civil War, Elizabeth returned to Virginia to visit the Burwells several times and was a guest in their home; when one of the Burwell daughters visited Washington, D.C., she stayed with Elizabeth. It was apparently fairly common after the war for former slaves to visit their old masters, but usually it was a one shot deal. It didn't turn into a continuing relationship complete with friendly letters back and forth. It does highlight that the personal dynamics in any Southern household were a lot more complex than we can imagine today.

As for the usual question, would I recommend this book? Yes, with the caveat that a reader not take Fleischner's simplistic portrait of Mary Lincoln as the last word on the subject. I don't think either of the subjects of this particular book led lives that were quite as neatly defined as the author would have us believe.  

Update: Corrected to reflect the fact I made a mistake. The first time Elizabeth Keckly leaves Virginia it's with one of the Burwell sons and his wife, not with one of the daughters. 

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Winter guano

Another author I cannot read

Joyce Carol Oates. The woman is one of the most prolific American authors around. She's published a gazillion short stories, been featured on Oprah's Book Club, and received multiple awards. I'm not sure how I had managed to avoid knowingly reading anything by her until this week, but I had. So the last time I was at the library I decided it was time to remedy that deficiency. I checked out a recent collection of her short stories, Dear Husband.

Okay. She can write. She is really good with a pen, a master wordsmith. But depressing? Words fail me. I don't expect every book I read to be super upbeat or have a formulaic happy ending. After all, I like Russian novels. I read the short stories in The New Yorker. I even have a subscription to The Sun. But there are limits. The characters in the stories in Dear Husband don't lead lives of quiet desperation. They lead lives of such total despair that the reader finds herself wanting to join them in a warm bath while chugging a whole lot of Xanax and Jack Daniels with a nice old-fashioned cut-throat razor on the side.

You know, this baffles me. "This" being the gazillion publications. If Dear Husband is typical Joyce Carol Oates, why on earth would any reader ever buy more than one of her books? Do people think that if a book makes them feel horrible it is somehow great literature? Do they view reading as punishment, some sort of penance they endure to prove to themselves they're smart? Are they trying to impress the librarian or the Barnes and Noble cashiers when they pick up something by Joyce Carol Oates instead of Janet Evanovich? It's a mystery.

Okay. It's time to go read something light and escapist to purge the memory the Oates book. Maybe I'll re-read Crime and Punishment. After reading Oates, Dostoevsky will seem like P. G. Wodehouse in comparison.