Weirdly enough – and this apparently happens to authors at random – I had a dream about the plot of a new book late this past summer and woke up just in time to remember it all. A novel set in WWII, which is at least half a century or more out of my fictional headspace; I like the 19th century. Got all the reference books, the books or art, a grasp of the vocab and the look of the whole 19th century universe and outlook. (The costumes, too; yes – I dress in late Victorian or Edwardian garb to do a book event. No, the corset isn’t that uncomfortable, and yes, how people react to me in this get-up, hat, reticule, gloves and all … it’s amazing. Last time out in all this, I had a guy tip his hat to me and say, ‘Howdy, ma-am’ and that is just freaking amazing!)

But – WWII. For me, it is just enough close in time that I knew a lot of people personally involved, from Great-Aunt Nan, who was one of the first-ever women recruited for the WAACs, to any number of high school teachers (some of whom were more forthcoming about their service than others) to the Gentleman With Whom I Kept Company for about a decade, to a neighbor of Mom and Dad’s who had been a prisoner of war in the Far East and fortunate enough to have survived the experience. In short, the books, the movies, even the TV shows that I watched as a kid and teenager, were all marinated in the memories of the Second World War. I was born a bare decade after it was all over; shows like World at War were in the ‘must watch’ category at our house, as well as any number of now slightly cringe-making series like … never mind. Just take it for granted that WWII was inescapable for a person of my age. I also scribbled some bad and derivative juvenile fiction with a WWII setting. (Which I found in a box in the garage during the most recent turn out … yep, it was bad. Supposedly, one must write a good few millions of words to get the bad out of your system. Just about all of that is in a box in the garage, against which are orders to the Daughter Unit to burn in future.) And I had a self-directed exploration into the 1930s-1940s in college, when I had access to a college library with microfiche scans of a certain newspaper; I read every issue from 1935-1945, which was like seeing a whole decade of history’s first draft narrowly through a key-hole.

Anyway – enough of the throat-clearing. As is my wont when working out the fine details in a plot, I set up an Excel spreadsheet broken out by month and year, marking events in various theaters, all the better to work the travails of my fictional characters against. It struck me all over again that 1942 was the year That Everything Happened. For Americans, it was the first full year of war on two fronts; for Britain and her colonies and the governments-in-exile of her allies, it was the start of a third year of a war formerly limited, more or less, to Europe and North Africa. And then all merry old hell broke out in the Far East. Possessions, colonies, independent small countries began falling like nine-pins to the Japanese war machine. British Malaya and Fortress Singapore, Dutch Indonesia, the Philippines, Guam and Wake Islands, a good chunk of New Guinea and other islands all across the South China Sea – all fell in the first few months of 1942. It would have been a depressing thing, reading any major Western newspaper during those weeks; weeks where Allied confidence in their own ability to fight a balls-to-the-wall war and win took a considerable beating.

The Allies reeled … but in May, the fortunes of War began to smile on the Allies. A naval clash between Japanese, American and Australian naval forces in the Coral Sea checked Japanese attempts to take Rabaul in New Guinea. In the next month, another sea battle – again between dueling aircraft carriers in the defense of Midway Island – blunted further Japanese advances in the Central Pacific. In July and a world away – the Germans were blocked and turned back from Egypt at the first battle at El Alamein, and then again three months later, in the same place. In the month of August, the Americans began landing on Guadalcanal and the Australians began taking back New Guinea. The Axis tide was checked, and slowly began to retreat. In November, the Allies (American and British with Canadian, Australian and the Free Dutch naval backup) opened a second front with the Torch Landings in French-controlled Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco – this not quite a year after Pearl Harbor. In barely a year, the Allies went from disaster and defeat on practically every front, to regroup and to begin effectively striking back. It would take another two years and more to completely defeat the Axis Powers, but it is striking to look at the timeline for 1942 and to see how the war situation turned from humiliating defeat, through resolve, and then to begin the long march back.

Discuss as you wish.    

Sometimes, long after first reading a book or watching a movie and enjoying it very much, I have come back to re-reading or watching, and then wondering what I had ever seen in that in the first place. So it was with the original M*A*S*H book and especially with the movie. I originally read the book in college and thought, “Eww, funny but gross and obscene, with their awful practical jokes and nonexistent sexual morals.” Then I re-read after having been in the military myself for a couple of years, and thought, “Yep, my people!”

The movie went through pretty much the same evolution with me, all but one element – and that was when I began honestly wondering why the ostensible heroes had such a hate on for Major Burns and the nurse Major Houlihan. Why did those two deserve such awful, disrespectful treatment? In the movie they seemed competent and agreeable enough initially. In the book it was clear that Major Burns was an incompetent surgeon with delusions of adequacy, and that Major Houlihan was Regular Army; that being the sole reason for the animus. But upon second viewing of the movie, it seemed like Duke Forrest, Hawkeye Pierce and Trapper John McIntyre were just bullying assholes selecting a random target for abuse for the amusement of the audience.

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18. March 2020 · Comments Off on Pottering Around · Categories: Domestic, Random Book and Media Musings

Well, I have to say that social distancing – or even more pronounced social distancing than is normal for me – is letting me get stuff done around the house. The Daughter Unit has work obligations, and a social life of sorts, which the Great Wuhan Coronavirus Panic of 2020 has not yet impacted to any degree. We stocked up at the beginning of the month, topped up over the weekend, so there is nothing I particularly need for projects at the moment. The gym has closed for two weeks – and here was a place which routinely sanitized for your protection anyway. We walked the dogs energetically this morning, in place of an hour on the elliptical, and then the Daughter Unit went off to her place of work, assisting her employer with sorting out their personal and professional expenses for the year. It turns out today that the IRS will generously grant us another ninety days to file, due to the Great Wuhan Coronavirus Panic. Well, it’s a very ill wind indeed that blows no one any good.

I may eventually have to go to Lowe’s for wallpaper paste, and some more paint rollers. The new back door awaits installation now, being painted on all sides, so I moved on to the trim around the hallway doors, and the underside of the attic space access ladder. When the new and toweringly efficient HVAC system was installed some years ago, replacing the decrepit and leaking original contractor-grade system, they put in a brand new ladder and a heavy wooden panel covering it into the hallway ceiling – and I never got around to painting it. So that is done, and tomorrow I will haul in the tall ladder and do the trim around it. I watered the garden, and planted some lettuce, and an assortment of basil seeds. We already have garden tomatoes, by the way – from some starts in 2-inch pots that I bought last fall and protected through the winter, and a wayward plant left over from last year – and the first couple of cuttings of spring salad greens, from seeds I planted early last month. It’s been that warm, you see.

Laundry – done sheets, and blankets. What an onerous chore was lifted off the shoulders of women, with the invention of electric washing machines and dryers? What might have been the weekly-occurring project taking up several days of brutal labor over a boiler, wringer, and clothesline now takes a turn in the washing machine and two hours in the dryer. Listen, you could never sucker me into going into one of those ‘history-house’ projects. I know very well what doing household laundry in the 19th century involved – at the very best, sending it all out to an industrial laundry in the big city and hoping that you got all your stuff back again in one piece, or at least, the pieces you sent it out in. Plus having to sew on all the buttons again, unless you had a maid to do all that needlework. The late 20th century to start of the 21st is the best century ever, thanks to household electricity and plumbing (not to mention air conditioning!) and don’t ever you let some freak afflicted with nostalgie de la boue a la The Life Primitive tell you any different. (An all-over bath once a week. Indeed – spare me. The ancient Romans had the right idea, as far as frequent bathing went.)

And – I processed the bag of small sweet apples through one of those patent apple-peeling/slicing gadgets, dropping them into a bath of water acidulated with a little lemon juice, and put them into the patent dehydrator that I am supposed to do a review of, when all those little apple slices are dried. And only then, did I turn to writing…

There is a lovely little classical piece by Maurice Ravel – Le Tombeau d Couperin, composed shortly after the end of the war, five of the six movements dedicated to the memory of an individual, and one for a pair of brothers, all close friends of the composer, every one of them fallen in a war of such ghastliness that it not only put paid to a century of optimistic progress, but barely twenty years later it birthed another and hardly less ghastly war. Maurice Ravel himself was overage, under-tall and not in the most robust of health, but such was the sense of national emergency that he volunteered for the military anyway, eventually serving as driver – frequently under fire and in danger. Not the usual place to find one of France’s contemporarily-famous composers, but they did things differently at the end of the 19th century and heading all wide-eyed and optimistic into the 20th. Citizens of the intellectual and artistic ilk were not ashamed of their country, or feel obliged to apologize for a patriotic attachment, or make a show of sullen ingratitude for having been favored by the public in displaying their talents.
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So – Luna City Lucky Seven is finished, changes suggested by the Beta readers have been incorporated – and the latest installment of the Luna City Chronicles is ready to roll, pending arrival of the final cover. Which should happen over the weekend, or perhaps early next week. While I wait on that happy event, I’ve been scribbling away on the first couple of chapters of the Civil War novel, and mentally mapping out a few plot points. This novel, tentatively entitled That Fateful Lightning, follows Minnie Templeton Vining, a Boston lady of certain years. She is a die-hard Abolitionist in the years before the war, and a volunteer nurse during it, as outlined in Sunset and Steel Rails, in which she was a secondary or even tertiary character.

This new project requires me to really begin reading up on contemporary accounts and memoirs – of which there exists a large number. Many of the lady volunteers who took up this heartbreaking task of nursing soldiers under desperately primitive conditions wrote about it all afterwards; after all, the Civil war was the pivotal event of 19th century America. For better or worse, the issue of free-or-slave roiled politics and intellectual life for twenty years before, and the aftermath of the fighting left scars which, as of a century and a half later, are still vivid and raw. Thanks to having been a devoted reader of American Heritage as a tween and teen, thanks to Mom’s life-long subscription, I have always known this in outline, and in small tableaus – but not in such depth and detail that I could write convincingly and authoritatively about it from the point of view of a woman completely immersed, day to day, in both these issues.

So – another long, deep immersion in memoirs and letter collections – facilitated by the fact that most of the women who penned accounts of their heroic labors in field hospitals, in organizing fairs and markets to fund the purchase of medical supplies and comforts, and the rounds of public speaking and article-scribbling – are mostly obscure these days; their memoirs, letters and diaries are mostly in the public domain and free. Which is another nice benefit, since I am not anywhere near the income level of those authors who can command huge advances from a publisher, a guest shot on the Today Show, or The View, or a carefully-engineered position on the New York Times best-seller list.

Me at a recent Halloween market, as Queen Victoria

The other nice benefit reading this kind of material is that one is able to absorb the vocabulary, those thought-patterns and attitudes of the time. To me, there is no bigger crime in the historical-novel-scribbling set than that of ‘presentism’ – that is, basically dressing up modern characters in period clothing and having them walk through a 21st century plot. The past is a foreign country – they do things differently there. One might as well start with reading the authentic words of the residents. Histories are a useful adjunct to all this, but the problem with that is that the professionals all have their own biases and perceptions – and since so many of the female Civil War memoirists were concurrently, or later involved in various feminist crusades … I do not want to be put through the necessity of fighting my way through a bramble of biases. The original biases of the ladies involved is quite sufficient, thank you. The third nice benefit is that I can count on running across events, characters, small exchanges which will inspire plot twists and secondary characters for That Fateful Lightening. This turns up interesting things as a result. Well, interesting things to me, hunting scavenger-like for interesting bits of fact, turns of phrase, coincidences, and personalities – I swear, most of the plot turns in the Adelsverein Trilogy came about because I ran into something in the research reading and thought, “Ohhh! This has to be in The Book!”

The first such volume I have begun reading is a collection of letters, letters from and to a once-notable Quaker activist named Abigail Hopper Gibbons; who campaigned for various worthy charities benefiting women and orphaned children, the elderly, abolition of slavery, the Sanitary Comission (which provided medical care for soldiers during the war) the welfare of veterans and woman’s rights. She was happily married, it appears, and raised six children with her husband. Alas, one died as an infant, another at the age of five years old, and a third while in college after an accidental fall. She was a good friend of Lucretia Mott, who was also a very good friend of Elizabeth Cady Stanton – all these people tended to know each other, I gather – or at the very least, knew of each other. These ladies and a dozen others of whom I have collected up their memoirs would appear to have been very far from being meek, submissive, conventional image of a Victorian lady, sitting passively in her parlor embroidering and murmuring, “Yes, dear,” while her husband pontificated.

In fact, these ladies, in their corsets and bonnets, and skirts to the toes of their high-buttoned boots, threw themselves into battle-field nursing, operating field kitchens, fund-raising to purchase supplies, and personally overseeing the delivery of those supplies to hospitals. They were real fire-crackers, these ladies – and it’s going to be an adventure, exploring their world and their words.