I do not think that there can ever be enough books about anything and I say that knowing that some of them are going to be about Pilates.The more knowledge the better seems like a solid rule of thumb, even though I have watched enough science fiction films to accept that humanity’s unchecked pursuit of learning will end with robots taking over the world.-Sarah Vowell

Monday, November 16, 2015

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

I eventually do get to books on my list.  This one has been on it for at least thirty years.  Better late than never.  I last saw the movie years ago and remembered virtually nothing of it, so I was reading it with basically no knowledge of what was going to happen, except that there was a trial.  It says a lot that this book still holds up since it was first published in 1960.  Perhaps because things have not changed as much as we would like to think they have.

The book opens up with Scout and her older brother Jem  meeting their neighbor Miss Rachel's nephew, Dill, who has come to spend the summer visiting from Mississippi. Dill is Scout's age and the thee take to each other immediately.  Dill has a habit of exaggerating.  They spend the summer playing out movie roles and such and Dill asks lots of questions about the Radley place.  The Radley place is a mysterious place.  The family has always been odd.  They would spend lots of time indoors and were very religious.  The children ended up getting into trouble and the judge was going to send them to a correctional school, where they would get an education.  The parents let them send all of the kids but Arthur.  The other kids grew up to have successful careers and Arthur was locked up in the house and not seen, until in his thirties he stabbed his father in the leg with a pair of scissors.  His father convinced the sheriff not to put him in the asylum and he was locked up in the basement of the jail. Eventually the sheriff told his parents they had to take him back or put him in the asylum.  So back to the house he went.  When his parents died, his brother Nathan came to take care of him.  Dill became obsessed to try and see what was going on in the house and see if they could get Arthur "Boo" Radley to come out. 

Soon the summer ends and Scout is faced with entering school for the first time.  Her teacher, Miss Caroline is "not from around here".  Scout ends up on the wrong foot with her right off when Miss Caroline learns that she can read and write already when she is not supposed to .  Then when its time to go to lunch one of the kids, a Cunningham, does not have a lunch, so Miss Caroline offers him a quarter and tells him he can give it back to her tomorrow, but he refuses.  The class looks to Scout to explain things to her.  When she does, she rather botches it.  The Cunninghams do not take anything that they cannot pay back.  She learned from her father about entitlements that people pay for services with what they can and she explains to the teacher that the boy can't pay her back and she doesn't need stovewood.  The teacher raps her knuckles with a ruler for that.  Scout and Jem have the boy over for lunch.  When they come back from lunch one of the poor, trashy, evil Ewells is leaving.  They only show up for the first day of school then leave.  When Miss Caroline tries to make him stay he is cruel to her and she puts her head on the desk and cries.  The children come up to her and explain things to her. In this world who you are means something about you. 

Scout and Jem would continue to have an obsession about the Radley house and one day they would notice that things were being left in the tree trunk nearby and since no one was claiming them, they took them, not knowing who put them there.  Then one day, Nathan poured concrete and filled the whole, which broke their hearts, because by then they suspected that Boo was the one leaving the items.  That summer they would become more stupid than brave and go out at night and sneak onto the property and try to peak into the window, but they are heard and when they run back across the backyard a gun goes off near them.  Jem's pants get caught in the fence and he has to leave them, which is hard to explain to his father and the neighbors who have gathered in the street when they heard the gun shot.  Later that night he goes back to get his pants and the rip had been mysteriously sewn up. 

Atticus is assigned a case by Judge Taylor, that he accepts, to defend Tom Robinson who has been accused of raping Mayella Ewell.  Now, no one likes the Ewells. They look down on them as the lowest of the low.  The father Bob Ewell drinks the government money he gets that he is supposed to use to support the many children he has and illegally hunts (which is considered a felony in Maycomb County) but gets away with it because no one wants his kids to go hungry.  No one can seem to make his kids go to school for more than one day a year, the first day.  They eat food out of the dump next door to their shack. But they're still white, so their word is still worth more that a black man who goes to church and is an honest worker and married with children.  A man whose left arm is withered and useless from a farm accident.  Scout and Jem  begin to hear things like that their father is a "nigger lover" and other such horrid things. Scout's first reaction is to fight, but then her father tells her she must not, for his sake.  He also tells her that it is true.  He loves all people, but not to use the word nigger, because it is "common". 

The night before the trial there is a heart-stopping scene when Atticus is at the jail sitting in a chair by himself reading a paper and watching over Tom when a mob shows up.  Jem, Scout, and Dill are hiding in the bushes watching when things start to go ugly and then something totally unexpected happens.

Atticus's sister, the dreaded Alexandra, decends upon them that summer.  She is forever trying to get Scout out of her overalls and into dresses.  She tries to teach her and Jem the importance of being a Finch and the various traits of the other families of Maycomb County.  Of course, the thing about Maycomb County is that it has always been so isolated that for centuries people have intermarried and everyone is related to everyone else in someway.  Atticus reminds Alexandra that the Finch trait until this generation was incest. Soon Alexandra is the Queen bee of society.

Not everyone is cruel or yells horrid things to Atticus and the children.  One of their neighbors, Miss Addie, loves to spend her time outdoors obsessing over her flowers.  She loves having the kids over.  She's fifty, Atticus's age, and bakes cakes for them to eat and talks to them about important things they need to know, like why their father is so important to this town and that he really is good at quite a lot of things they don't know about.  Miss Addie also has a way of putting the women of the Missionary group in their place when they get out of line. She is not afraid of anything. While she is a good Baptist, she is constantly yelled at by the "foot washing" Baptist who come by once a week who tell her she is going to hell for working in her garden and not staying indoors reading the bible.

Tom, of course, has no hope of an acquittal.  Atticus knows this.  He does know that there is a good possibility of having it overturned on appeal.  Its rather sad that in a court of law, where every person is supposed to be equal, you find that they are not.  I wish I could say that has changed, but it hasn't.  We're just as bigoted today as we were in the 1930s when this book took place.  We're doing a bit better with relations with African Americans, but we are having a very hard time with other races, religions, other sexualities, etc.. As humans we will always find something to be prejudiced about.  It is in our nature.  Toni Morrison wrote a book fifteen years ago called Paradise. It was about a city that was founded by former slaves.  Soon a hierarchy was formed and prejudice reared its head, as lighter skinned blacks saw themselves as better than the darker skinned blacks.  It is a sad fact about us and shows how this book is so important and needs to be read, and often, to remind us of the ugliness of our nature. 

***Addendum..First, I forgot to mention something that had nothing to do with the story of the book, but which struck me strongly.  In this book, Tom, if found guilty of rape, will be sentenced to death. Any man at that time in Alabama who raped a woman would receive that sentence.  It is sad that today it is extremely hard to get a rape case to trial, and even if you do, to get a conviction. If you manage to get a conviction, chances are the rapist won't spend much time in jail, much less get a death sentence, which maybe he should. After all, he took a life.  When someone is raped, their old life is gone. It is shattered and in pieces.  If they are lucky, they are able to find a way move forward.  I think John Irving had it right when he wrote in his novel the Hotel New Hampshire that rape is the worst thing you can do to a person because you can't survive murder.

Second, I like to think of myself as a realist, but perhaps I sometimes slide into pessimism.  My friend pointed out to me that a vocal minority was the ones who were promoting the hatred and prejudice in this country and that most people are not  generally like that. Perhaps I was influenced by the incident a few years ago when a mosque opened up close to the Twin Towers and people were up in arms about it.  Also, someone told me that they believed in freedom of religion in schools, but then turned around and said that we needed Christian prayers to said in schools and if they had a problem with it, they could stand in the hall.  It also did not help that the night before I wrote the review I watched an episode of Oprah's series Belief where they talked of two men in Africa: one a militant Christian pastor, the other a Muslim.  When the Muslim's Imam was murdered, he believed that the pastor's group was responsible, even though they were not, and they burned down their church and attacked them. The pastor lost his hand. The two men became very bitter and angry.  A journalist tried to bring the two men together in an attempt to bring peace, but was unsuccessful.  But after a few years, the men came to realize that this is not what their God would want them to do and they forgave each other and joined forces and began traveling into Muslim areas to teach forgiveness and try to heal the land.  The pastor would show that he had been affected by this, as he had lost a hand, but he would always be countered by others who had lost a loved one.  He often met Muslims who had been forced from their homes from the Christians.  Most of the Muslims would turn their backs and walk away from these men.  I paid attention to that and failed to notice those who stayed behind and listened.  So maybe things are not as bad as they seem.  I don't know.  I can only hope that we will continue to march forward and progress toward loving our fellow brothers and sisters no matter what.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Our Man In Charleston: Britain's Secret Agent in the Civil War South by Christopher Dickey


I began on my journey of studying the Civil War my junior year in High School.  Mrs. Williams asked us when in U.S. history we wanted to start. We chose to begin in the middle.  We spent a month on the Civil War (To my Yankee friends, historians will tell you that the Civil War was a huge turning point in history.  Besides, all but two of the battles took place in the South, so we have a vested interest.)  Over the years I have read books (both fiction and non-fiction), seen movies, and documentaries.  I thought I had viewed the War from every possible viewpoint.  I was wrong.  Apparently the British had one.  To my knowledge, the only role the British played was that the Southerners were desperate for weapons and money and knew that England and France were dependent on them for cotton.  They believed that they could convince them to help them win the war based on this, but began losing so many battles that the countries decided not to back a losing side.  This was rather far off from the truth.

This book begins in 1853, when a man named Robert Bunch arrived in Charleston, South Carolina to be the British consul position.  The consul is a paid government job that involves doing passports, looking after British citizens and British interests, especially the Negro Seaman Act, which allowed South Carolina to take black British sailors off their ships when they dock and put them in jail as long as the ship is in port.  Now, sometimes these men did not always stay in jail.  Sometimes they ended up being sold into slavery.  The United Kingdom began, for the most part, abolishing slavery in 1833, so they took a very dim view to this practice.  Bunch's main objective, while there was to put teeth into a law stopping this.  He was also sent to spy.

Bunch and his new wife were not too happy to be in the South, but Bunch was ambitious and thought that a job involving anti-slavery acts, which the British government were fiercely against, might grant him a position as a diplomat.  The British had just finished battling Spain to end the African Slave Trade to Brazil in 1850. Morality, however, was not the only reason the British were against the African Slave Trade.  With slave work, the Spanish were able to sell sugar and coffee much cheaper than the British.  Now the British were working to stop the Slave Trade from going to Cuba.  America, who had abolished it in 1807, according to the constitution.  Though Bunch despised slavery and the people who owned them, he was able to fit in immediately, mainly because those from Charleston thought of themselves as being from Britain.  Also, he hid his feelings well.  Too well, as the case will turn out years later. 

Bunch was not the only spy.  The consul in New Orleans and New York were also spies.  The Foreign Minister was Clarendon, a cautious man, but a smart one and a man Bunch had worked with before and trusted.  Palmerston was at that time, the Prime Minister, though he would shuffle around between Home Office, Foreign Office, and Prime Minister during his lifetime.  He was also known as "Lord Cupid" for his many affairs.  He was once even named as the cause in a divorce when he was in his seventies (He was Irish.) It is rather confusing keeping track of who is in what position when what occurred.  There is also Lord Russell who also hopscotched back and forth with Palmerson as Prime Minister. The main difference between the two was that Palmerston was actually interested in the Civil War because he could see how it was going to affect Britain and Russell was busy with all the many other things Britain was involved in around the world and just wanted the whole thing over with, and quite frankly, did not know as much about America or have as much faith in Bunch as the other two. 

Anyhow,  Bunch would find that some people were actually quite nice and good, especially James Petrigru, the one man who be left standing when war began who would still be a "Unionionist".  He was a rather stubborn, well respected man who came from a nice family so no one bothered him about his views.  Bunch also was able to, after three years, get the Negro Seaman Law passed.  Things seemed to be better, but the exact opposite was true.  "Fire-eaters" were beginning to stir things up.  They wanted the South to start importing slaves from Africa again and expand west and farther.  This was something that the British were definitely against.  Soon, rumors of slave ships arriving start circulating and one does indeed get caught by the British and brought to Charleston for trial, but the jury, even though there is an abundance of evidence, refuses to even hear the case, and it is thrown out.  The remaining Africans who haven't died on the way there, or in the Fort while the trial was going on, mostly died on their way back to Africa. The Officer in charge of the Fort who had been in favor of the slave trade said that after what he had saw, changed his mind.  This would not be the last ship.  The problem was that British ships could not board a ship with an American flag. So the slaver ships (which originated from ports north, such as New York where they were financed, with captains from Boston) would fly hoist up an American flag if a British one came near and the American ships who were supposed to be stopping the slave trade ships were doing nothing. 

Soon the fire-eaters were whipping up a fervor in South Carolina, which wasn't all too hard in a state that has been threatening and trying to secede ever since it signed the Declaration of Independence and Bill of Rights.  They are quite a contrary group of people, I have to say.  This time, though, the fire-eaters succeed in convincing even the sensible people after the election that the North is out to get them and will attack them and that they need the African Slave Trade.  In a way the war was not exactly started over slavery precisely, because Lincoln said the South could keep their slaves, but they could not import slaves from Africa and they wanted to do just that.  In their constitution they would have to leave that out in order to try to court Virginia and Maryland who bred slaves to sell and  if a the slave trade was opened back up the prices of slaves would drop like a stone and they would go broke.  Of course, they had no intention of doing this.  The South would send people to Britain and France to gain support.  They readily assumed that they would have it.  They would be in for a rude awakening. As Bunch would tell one of the fire-eaters if you plan on importing slaves from Africa, this would be against British interest.  Bunch, by the way, predicted that the South would be importing slaves from Africa and that they would eventually break away from the North because the price of slaves had leaped up a few years before the War. 

The first minister to the U.S. from the U.K. (today seen as an Ambassador) was much more interested in Washington society than in this job. When he was  replaced by a little known man named Lord Lyon, a man Bunch gets off on the wrong foot with but who becomes fast friends, quickly turns things around.  He supports Bunch and gives him all the help he can.  By this time the mail is compromised, even mail marked with a foreign government seal, so Bunch has to depend on some not quite so upstanding characters to carry the mail north to Lyon.  They also use code when they can.  The funny thing is that eventually Bunch will come under scrutiny by Secretary of State Seward, who really is an idiot, that I am grateful he went on a nine month trip to Europe right before the election, which gave the Presidency to Lincoln.  Lincoln was forced to give Seward his position because of his high appeal in the Republican Party, but the truth he did more harm that good.  Lincoln really should have sent him to China.  All Seward did was to keep threatening to go to war with Britain and France.  He pushed things with Britain so far that we came within a  hairs breath of being at war with both the South and the U.K. at the same time, if it had not been for a sad quirk of fate.  South Carolina, however, firmly believed Bunch to be one of their own, even though he had a Yankee wife and his sister-in-law, though married to a South Carolina plantation owner, was very vocal about her anti-slavery views.  I guess you really can be too good at your job.

This book will tell you things about the War that you never learned in Ken Burns great documentary.  It also gives you a look into England during this time in history.  I have to say, I've always meant to look up the Crimean War and learn more and this book discusses it  and what its resolution has to do with the Civil War.  Britain was in a delicate position.  It did get most of its cotton from the South.  It also abhorred slavery and was looking for other places to get its cotton. When the War began it had a surplus of cotton so they were not concerned with needing the South.  But as the War waged, people began to lose jobs and the government began to question if maybe they should sacrifice their principles.  But people like Bunch and Lyon kept reminding them what was at stake and that eventually good would win out and not give in.  Its something worth remembering. 

Link to Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Our-Man-Charleston-Britains-Secret/dp/0307887278/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1464358767&sr=1-1&keywords=our+man+in+charleston+britain%27s+secret+agent+in+the+civil+war+south