Archive for the ‘History’ Category

Although she doesn’t know this, Agnes Magnusdottir will be the last BurialRites convict executed in Iceland. This occurred in 1830. Burial Rites by Hannah Kent is her story. Convicted in 1828 of killing two men, Natan Ketilsson and Petur Jonsson, burning down Natan’s house and stealing his property, Agnes, along with a young girl, Sigridur Gudmundsdottir and a seventeen year old man, Fridrik Sigurdsson, were imprisoned. Sigga won an appeal and spent her remaining lifetime in a Danish textile prison. Fridrik and Agnes, at some point prior to their execution, were moved to different households to serve out their pre-execution days in servitude. Agnes was housed with District Officer Jon Jonsson, his wife Margret and their daughters Lauga and Steina. Each was allowed to choose a priest to provide spiritual guidance, get them to admit and repent their crimes and seek the Lord, prior to their execution. Agnes chose Thorvardur Jonsson (Toti), an Assistant Reverend who had provided a kindness to her years before.

Burial Rites is really two stories in one novel. There is the historical aspect of the book. In the 1800s, Iceland was under Danish rule. There was abject poverty in the country, as evidenced by the primitive living conditions that Agnes suffered in her assigned home. The weather was harsh and people’s basic needs of food and shelter was barely met. The conditions at prison were inhumane. Prisoners were beaten at whim, had little food, lacked clothing for warmth and rarely bathed, if at all. The description of Agnes as initially seen by Margret, is beyond belief. The Danish monarchy took an active interest in the case and handed down verdict and decrees, which Iceland was bound to carry out.

The second story in Burial Rites is Agnes’. Her history as an abandoned illegitimate child, intelligent but poor, forced to find work wherever she could pulls at the heartstrings. Naïve, a person who has had no close friends or relatives, who has been shown no love or tenderness, Agnes misunderstood people’s motives, not recognizing true affection rather than manipulation. Her changing relationship with Margret, especially, after the initial shock that they must harbor a murderess, is gripping and touching. The bond that arises between Agnes and Toti, his caring, compassion and steadfastness, are remarkable.

Burial Rites is not my genre of book, therefore, you can guess Susan recommended it to me. Once I got into it, I didn’t want to put it down. Kent’s writing is descriptive…the bleak landscape of Iceland, especially in winter. The characters are intriguing, District Officer Jonsson and his family, Natan, Fridrik, Sigga, Toti all evolve skillfully through Ken’s lens. Kent juxtaposes man’s inhumanity to man against man’s compassion to his fellow man.

Burial Rites is a great book discussion book as well as a good book for your own enlightenment. It can be a fast read or you can slow down and savor the language and think about humanity. That choice is yours.

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SevenStoriesUpWhile there is a necessity for realistic fiction and fantasy in young adult literature, whether it be middle grade or high school, there is also a tremendous need, in my opinion, for readable fiction that doesn’t delve into issues or take you on unimaginable flights of fantasy. While Seven Stories Up by Laurel Snyder has a touch of fantasy (time travel), it is the heartwarming story of two young girls.

I’ll start by saying that I’ve been Facebook friends with Laurel Snyder for a while, but I don’t know how I got there…probably through some other author Facebook friend. We’ve never met, but I did see her at the Kids Author Carnival at the Jefferson Market Library where she played Pictionary with a group of middle grade kids. She was lively and animated and, based on that alone, I bought Seven Stories Up. I certainly wasn’t disappointed.

It is 1987 and twelve year old Annie and her mother, Ruby, who live in Atlanta drive to Baltimore because Annie’s grandmother, Molly, is dying. Molly lives in the old hotel that her parents owned, way up on the 7th floor. Molly and Ruby have not gotten along for quite a while.

It’s late and while Ruby is in with her mother, Annie gets ready for bed. Under her pillow she finds an old sleeping mask, the elastic all stretched out and the beads falling off. She puts it on and, magic, she wakes up in her grandmother’s bed in 1937, when Molly herself was twelve.

Now we all know that when a time traveller interacts with a past time, it changes the present. But that’s not the main part of this story. The story is about two 12 year old girls becoming friends, living life and leaving an everlasting impact on each other. It’s about someone from the 1980s learning what the ’30s were actually like, while leaving a 1930s girl with a little taste of the future.

Annie and Molly are charming characters and they act like true 12 year olds…they get into mischief. Snyder’s portrayal of 1930s Baltimore is startling in many respects. She brought to mind things I hadn’t thought about and will certainly provide food for thought for readers.

So, if you want to sit back and smile while reading, Seven Stories Up might just be the means to do that.


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BetweenShadesOfGrayI began reading Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman at the suggestion of my kids. A book about good and evil and the Apocolypse, Satan at one point basically says that people have dreamed up more horrid and inhumane ways of torturing each other than even Satan could come up with. Between Shades of Gray, Ruta Sepetys’ haunting debut novel is testament to this fact.

While much has been written about the atrocities of Hitler during World War II, little has been written about the atrocities of Stalin in the early 1940s as he annexed the Baltic States of Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia. Lina, a fifteen year old Lithuanian, her ten year old brother and their mother are startled one evening by the NKVD, the precursor to the KGB, pounding on their door and telling them they have twenty minutes to pack their things. Thus begins a brutal 10 year journey that only some will survive, taking them across Russia to Siberia and ultimately to the Arctic Circle.

Man’s inhumanity to man is evident on every page as Lithuanians are categorized as “thieves and prostitutes”, beaten up, spit upon, made to work long hours with little nourishment; made to endure extreme cold with no wood for a fire or warm clothing. As I read this, I couldn’t imagine the joy the NKVD derived from taunting their captives who had nothing. I couldn’t fathom how the Lina and the other prisoners persevered under such dire circumstances, how they maintained their faith in returning home and how any of them survived at all.

Sepetys also describes how some of the captives were so self-centered as to do nothing for their comrades while others were so selfless, doing for everyone, even those who would not return the gesture.

Although it is impossible to feel Lina’s pain without having experienced her journey, readers will come as close as possible to living alongside the characters. Despite the stomach churning atrocities being described, I couldn’t put the book down because of the way Sepetys describes how people bolstered each other, how Lina drew her surroundings at first to keep up her spirits and later to document her life. I was amazed to find out from the Acknowledgements that even when finally allowed to return to their homelands, merely discussing their deportation was cause for imprisonment or a return to Siberia.

Between Shades of Gray is a must read. We all must hope that reading and talking about the atrocities of the past will eliminate them in the future.

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StillLoveIf you were to ask me what Still Love in Strange Places is about, I’d think for a minute and tell you it’s a family saga, a la James Michener’s Hawaii, but shorter and more succinct. I’d tell you it’s about a wife’s attempt to understand the pull of her husband’s native land, a war-torn, volcano/earthquake prone El Salvador, on him, his present, past and future. I’d tell you it’s about a mother’s desire to leave her son a legacy from a far off place, stories, relatives, knowledge. I’d also tell you it’s about the good people, people who care about others less fortunate, loyalty, and humanity. And I’d tell you that most of all, it’s about family.

I, like Ms. Kephart, grew up in suburban America and the family stories and history I can leave my children are scant. They never really knew their grandparents who were born here, let alone my grandparents who were eastern European transplants. There were never stories passed down to me that I can pass along to the next generation. So I understand Ms. Kephart’s desire to give herself and her son something more. And it’s quite a family that Ms. Kephart married into: extensive, successful, caring, loving.

Still Love provides some history for context, but it’s mostly impressions and feelings. Being a shy person myself, I can’t imagine her first visit to El Salvador, plunked in the midst of a group of Spanish speaking family she’d never met and not understanding the language. Add onto that, its violent history and abject poverty, and any suburbanite would be  ‘out of his/her element’, to say the least.

Beth brings all this together in a wonderfully written, entrancing memoir. El Salvador becomes real. The family becomes real. Ms. Kephart’s photos at the beginning of each chapter add vision to what the mind imagines as you read the book. However, there are photos one would love to see that aren’t there. She mentions a time when she and Bill are sitting in a tree and someone took their picture. Or the beautiful girl, Ana Gabriella, Beth’s niece by marriage, whose mother has disappeared.

The one thing I can understand is the El Salvadorian’s ties to the land. She describes the painstaking process her in-laws went through to buy farmland and get it ready for planting coffee. I can understand the draw of growing crops, the beauty as they mature and bear fruit. Spending a lot of weekends in farm country, the beauty of rolling hills, of black dirt, of row upon row of growing things is overwhelming and, were I to own a piece of that, I would do everything in my power to keep it. So it is no surprise that after an earthquake destroys their farm, the first thing Bill’s mother thinks about is rebuilding.

I just realized how much I’ve rambled, so I’ll end by saying Still Love in Strange Places will take you to far off places and bring you back home again, all the wiser for the journey.

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Flow by Beth Kephart

If you have never read a memoir of a river, then Flow: The Life and Times of Philadelphia’s Schuylkill River by Beth Kephart is a must. In my mind, Kephart is known for two things: writing wonderful Young Adult novels and loving Philadelphia and its surroundings. (Just took a break to sit outside under the porch overhang, listening to the rain and Natalie Merchant, sipping Kahlua. Very enjoyable! I’m back now.)

Although not novels in verse, her books have a poetic quality to them. So it is with Flow, which is not classified as YA, but may appeal to teens. The River begins its memoir by describing its youth. “Blueback herring and eel, alewife and shad muscle in to my wide blue heart, and through… The stony backs of snapping turtles on the shore, muskrat, shrew, and from the unlanterned forest, the bark of a fox, the skith skith skith of snakes over leaves…..” Poetry in motion, literally, as the River winds its way from it source to the Delaware River.

The River conveys to the readers the joy it feels as people stroll its banks and see their reflections in its clear, blue waters. It conveys its frustration and dismay as its waters get diverted to Philadelphia homes, as it becomes the receptacle of all the detritus and refuse from the stockyards, smelters, anthracite processors that supported the Philadelphia populace. It is angry as its route gets altered to serve the needs of the population. As if human, it is disheartened with its inability to save a drowning person and becomes joyous when it, indeed, does get a struggling swimmer to the opposite shore.

Emotions are a funny thing. The beauty of nature can elevate us and the ugly results of our neglect can deflate us. The River is perplexed that something man-made can be seen as more beautiful than what nature has provided us. (I would feel the same way.)

Flow is not only a tribute to a beloved river but it is a tribute to Ms. Kephart’s writing ability. She has truly brought a river to life. I’m tempted to tackle her book Ghosts in the Garden next. Hmmm!

P.S. Ms. Kephart has put footnotes at the bottom of many pages so that you get a sense of historical context of the region as you read the memoir.

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I spoke earlier about the impending sale of our historical Warwick church and schoolhouse, the latter of which dates back to 1873. And I mentioned the cemetery across the street. Susan and I have discussed the virtues of cremation vs. cemeteries, she in favor of the former and I the later.

Last summer we strolled through the local cemetery, amazed at the age of some of the tombstones. I vowed to come back with my camera and take pictures. It took a year, but I finally did it and was shocked at how ill kempt the place is. If this is the fate of a cemetery I may be burried in, I may reconsider my stance. The tombstone on the right dates from 1878. The one on the left is broken but looks like William was a soldier in an unreadable division; others are covered in weeds.

As I was walking among the tombstones and weeds, my foot fell into a hole. I hope it was merely the hole made by the marker and not a grave. I shudder to think about that.

Warwick is an historic town and the cemetery contains tombstones from soldiers who died during the Civil War, children who died too early, women who supported their men at war. There’s a current tombstone commemorating soldiers who took part in the Revolutionary War. It is a shame to envision a time when these monuments to our past are destroyed either intentionally or through neglect.

I know I’m pontificating here, but for some reason the neglect of the cemetery really got to me. I’m almost tempted to systematically take pictures of every tombstone vs. my random wanderings. This way at least there will be a record.

I’ll post more photos on Facebook shortly, since I took about 30 of them, each more interesting than the previous one.

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History for Sale

Warwick is an old town. The cemetary across the street from the Presbyterian Church in Amity (which I’ll talk about in another post) has original headstones dating back before the Civil War and newer ones commemorating deceaseds from the 1700s. The current Church itself dates back to 1868 per the sign shown here and the associated one room school house began in 1873.  History. Once lost, never retrieved.

So, imagine my shock when I saw that the Church and  schoolhouse are up for sale through a commercial real estate agent. The Church is smack dab in the middle of a residential neighborhood. Short of an Arlo Guthrie-esque redo of his Alice’s Restaurant friends buying a church to live in, this can’t be good.

It is disheartening to see another piece of history go by the wayside. It’s what makes Warwick and Amity quaint. Every time I pass by now, I’ll wonder what monstrosity will replace the beautiful spire and stained glass. I hope someone comes to his/her senses and preserves our heritage.

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