When I was growing up there was always a book with my name on it under the tree on Christmas morning. It might be a Nancy Drew (The Mystery of the Old Clock), a popular girls’ read (Donna Parker in Hollywood), or a classic from Louisa Mae Alcott, but no matter what it was, I spent holiday afternoons off school poring over a new story.
Later, one of the things I relished while Christmas shopping for our young daughters was choosing books for them, and these days I look for just the right ones for our grandchildren. I still try to find books for the adults on my list, though gift certificates to Barnes and Noble or Half Price Books also serve the purpose.
Here’s one I recommend for anyone who prizes history and biography. Edmund Morris, biographer of presidents and earner of the Pulitzer and American Book Award, compiled forty years of his work in 2012 in This Living Hand and Other Essays. Some of the 59 pieces were previously unpublished; they range from researching Roosevelt and Reagan to describing his own journey as a writer and a naturalized American citizen.
I gifted myself the book in 2014 before we heard him speak in New York City. I have been working on it since then, but admit I have not gotten to them all. Absorbing individual essays is quite a bit slower than taking a joyride through a novel which keeps asking you to finish just one more chapter before putting it down.
Arranged in chronological order of the dates they were written, the first is from 1972, about a boyhood experience in Kenya when he discovered an improbable and forbitten fruit called a bumstitch. The last is an explanation of his unorthodox point of view for Dutch, Ronald Reagan’s biography. An illustration or photograph heralds each chapter, squeezing out more of its intent.
Morris is a master of thoughts and an artist with the words to convey them. He writes of figures in history, music and literature: Oliver Wendell Holmes, Henry Adams, Ludwig van Beethoven, Mark Twain, Evelyn Waugh, James Gould Cozzens, Thomas Edison…
His time at work in the Library of Congress probably transcends that of any living writer. We read about the great institution, which he compares to Thomas Jefferson’s brain, in one chapter: serendipitous experiences like holding a William McKinley autographed piece of silk once meant for promoting a campaign, and the voluminous journals of Theodore Roosevelt. It is a place where he discovered original musical scores composed by the father of Clare Booth Luce, something Edmund’s wife Sylvia had dreamed of finding for her own book’s research.
Sylvia Jukes Morris, biographer of Luce and Edith Roosevelt, is also the subject of a chapter, but you have to read it yourself to get an idea of the admiration and respect her husband has for her. It is great. He paid her a high compliment in saying that if something happened to him while writing one of his books, she could finish it herself.
Edmund Morris’s writing is both serious and funny. It comes from many years of trying to get to the bottom of what made people do what they did. It is for readers of books, lifelong learners like himself; and not much like the noise of bits and pieces we get from electronic media today. This is one of those books that may be called just one thing: a gift.
In the predawn of the day before Thanksgiving when most people think about the food they’ll be smelling in 24 hours, I reflect with sweat on my brow and most other places on what it takes to get the house ready.
I’ve been sorting things for weeks. Books on shelves, knick knacks, dishes. If I don’t get these bags to Goodwill before the grandkids come, they’ll think Santa has paid an early visit.
The race to have presentable surroundings for those I most want to remember them so is on. I will therefore reveal cleaning tips you might not see elsewhere.
- You’ll be amazed how much faster your kitchen floor dries if you wear your thickest cotton socks while pushing the automatic steam thing across it.
- If you knock your head against a globe on the dining room chandelier and dust doesn’t fall like snow, you can probably skip wiping it down.
- Don’t worry about oven/dishwasher fronts – it’s what’s inside that needs attention.
- Squirt a little lemon juice over everything that’s not fabric-covered.
- Windows – I don’t have anything to say about them. You can either see out them or you can’t.
- Try not to think how many valuable small items have been sucked up by the sweeper when you’re vacuuming and hear “those” sounds.
- Every sheet and pillowcase in the house must be sent through the washer and dryer. This is one time a guest room should look like a magazine photo.
- Send a note of appreciation to the manufacturer of disposable toilet brushes, which should be named the invention of the last century.
I feel so much better when housecleaning is done. I’m thankful I don’t have to do it for another year.
Polished reviews I saw online for The Summer Before the War, Helen Simonson’s second novel (Random House 2016), did not wholly mesh with what I was thinking when I put it down. If I had based my decision to read the hefty 450+ page work of historical fiction about 1914 England on what they said, I may have opened it later than sooner. It’s a good thing my sister gave me a hardback copy for my birthday.
The war is World War I, of course, then known as The Great War. A young Latin teacher named Beatrice Nash leaves the clutches of her extended family to take a job in the small town of Rye in East Sussex. Because an aunt controls the trust left by her father, it has been next to impossible for the 23 year-old unmarried woman to live on her own.
Beatrice does break away, riding by rail to Rye. She is up against human walls on several sides: the mayor (and his farcical wife), the landlady, the town gossips, and the barrister who would take a percentage of her small income for himself. But her savior is Agatha Kent, a middle-aged woman who had pushed for her hiring.
Another protagonist of the story is Agatha’s nephew, Hugh, a young doctor; among several antagonists is a nobleman who blames the death of his son on Agatha’s other nephew, poet Daniel.
I suppose it was to engage more readers that reviewers of The Summer Before the War invoked the memory of small and large screens for comparison: Downton Abbey (at least three) and Star Wars (!) (one). This is an injustice to the printed page. Readers do not need wardrobe departments or special effects men to make them want to know about the world of the past. They count on authors like Simonson to draw them to it.
We do agree that Simonson’s exquisitely orchestrated word pictures equal those in her first book, Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, also set in her homeland but in modern times (She now lives in Manhattan). “The Wheaton’s garden could not be anything but a felicitous scene: the emerald of the lawn, the rightly pitched white marquee heads of summer flowers, nodding above the ladies’ linen and cotton dresses. The uniformed servants, a small navy, ferried trays of sandwiches and buckets of ice across a green sea…”
Most social remarks made by the critics about this book touched on discrimination of women of the time and a public oblivious to the horrors of modern warfare just ahead. “‘I avoid the papers altogether,’ said Daniel. ‘I’m pretty sure wars would be shorter if we weren’t eager to read about them.'”
But nobody mentions the father/daughter relationships key to the plot. Poignant but pathetic, it was/is often the way love is shown. I can’t understand it, having had a pretty fair-minded dad, but I know it exists. Beatrice’s father thought the best way to help her was by leaving older family members to control her inheritance, even though she capably took care of him in his last years. A Belgian refugee professor treats his young daughter with tenderness but abandons her at the worst possible time to save his university’s books. Mr. Tillingham, a character suggestive of Henry James and supposed surrogate father to both, is ultimately concerned most with his own writing.
Another very interesting part of the tale is the presence of the Romanies, commonly known as gypsies. From reading about the Edwardian Period in Indiana I also found news articles about these mysterious people. “In a small clearing, two lean dogs emerged barking from under a dark wooden caravan with a black tar roof. A shaggy horse tethered to a long rope looked sideways from one large eye but did not bother to take his mouth from the long grass. The old woman sitting on the caravan steps was as wizened as a dried apple and, though the day was hot, was wrapped in several shawls.”
The gypsy lady, an unlikely friend of prominent citizen Agatha, has a main role along with her great-grandson, a bright boy whom Beatrice tutors before school begins. The injustices he suffers are unnerving, tragic and catastrophic to the future of the town. The irony is that few people realize what he could have become and done for them. Doctor? Barrister? Scientist? Author? They will never know.
I appreciate Simonson’s notes about her research at the end of the novel. She was raised in the places she describes, so knows how to relay feelings her characters would have had and expressed. She read actual copies of hundred year-old newspapers; shortly afterward these were morphed into microfiche.
“Microfiche and searchable digital content cannot replace the thrill and serendipity of reading a full newspaper just as my characters would have done…” I feel the same way.
The sting of this year’s election lingers with those who know women are on an equal plane with men to lead, govern, and plan for the future. Beatrice’s summer before the war a century ago is a harbinger of the same.
After Theodore Roosevelt’s brief funeral service in January 1919, mourners followed pallbearers up a steep grade to the burial place in Oyster Bay, Long Island. The American flag was askew on the coffin, as Theodore’s clothes often were. Today there are twenty-six steps on the hill, one for every president until him. Descendants say one of their uncles used to make them recite the presidents from Washington to TR as they walked up.
We toured Youngs Cemetery on the day after the annual Theodore Roosevelt Association meeting. Theodore and Edith, as well as many of their family members, rest here. Since it was two days after the 158th anniversary of his birth, we were able to see the wreath from the White House. Did you know the sitting president sends one to all former presidents’ graves on their birthdays?
Close by is the first national Audubon bird sanctuary. Theodore’s cousin, Emlen, donated fifteen acres to honor the president’s efforts in saving America’s wildlife and their habitats. When they were boys, the two had had their own little nature collection, the “Roosevelt Museum of Natural History,” in their bedrooms. Only it wasn’t so small, growing to about 1,000 specimens! Now people of all ages come to enjoy the same peaceful woodsy surroundings, watch birds, and learn about things Theodore loved all of his life. Four hundred children a month attend camps here during the summer.
We watched as a group of kids learned about turtles in the crisp autumn air. Certainly Theodore would have liked the program when he was their age. When he grew up, he set aside almost a quarter of a billion acres of America’s land into national parks and sanctuaries so our children, and children’s children, would be able to see them. He left to us an amazing gift. It is left to us to continue conserving it.
Last weekend my husband and I crunched on falling leaves over an expansive lawn to a special open house. We’d been invited to tour Sagamore Hill, the home of President Theodore Roosevelt on Long Island, recently renovated over a three-year period.
The 28-room Queen Anne Victorian was built in 1884. Theodore’s first wife Alice had just died, but his sister urged him to carry out plans for it overlooking the bay so his little daughter would have a place to call home. Eventually, so did second wife Edith and five more children.
From the wide veranda the family had an unobstructed view of the water. Since their time trees have grown to block it. The family especially enjoyed adventures outdoors with friends and cousins, including young Eleanor Roosevelt.
Mrs. Roosevelt’s drawing room is decidedly different from the others in the home, but a polar bear rug presented to her by Admiral Peary does warm the floor boards.
The family’s 8,000 books were carefully wrapped and stored during the renovation. Sagamore Hill’s furniture and possessions were left virtually intact when Edith Roosevelt died in 1948. The property was given to the Roosevelt Memorial Association and later to the National Park Service.
An owl from TR’s amazing bird collection watches over the third floor gun room, where he liked to write. Below, in the North Room addition of 1904, are momentos of the Roosevelt presidency. The large book on the table was a gift from Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany before World War 1.
Chairs in drafty rooms often have a throw or two over their backs. Usually they don’t include tails, though.
A perfect end to the visit was sitting on a rocking chair on the porch, watching the flag wave against the sunset.
The last several years I taught fifth grade we had a wax museum in which each student researched a famous American and culminated the project portraying that person in costume. We organized a giant timeline around the school, and children in the younger grades came to see and talk with those who figured mightily into American History.
To give them an idea of what to do, I presented the story of Jane Addams. She isn’t as well-known as first lady Abigail of the previous century, and her name is spelled differently, but she had a great deal of positive influence in her time. Last week I had the chance to re-enact her life again for a class I volunteer with, and was reminded of just how great a person she was.
Born just before the start of the Civil War, Jane came from a well-to-do family; her father was a miller, farmer and banker who also served in the Illinois state legislature. He was a good friend of Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln would write, “Dear Mr. Double D’d Addams,” in letters to him.
She didn’t have an easy childhood, though. Her mother died when she was two. She contracted Pott’s Disease, tuberculosis of the spine, and was teased by other children for her funny way of walking. One day she told her father she was going to build a big house in the middle of the small ones in town so she could help the people in the neighborhood. And that is precisely what she did.
After graduating from college, unusual for a woman in those days, she studied medicine until her own health forced her to drop out. She traveled in Europe extensively. A visit to Toynbee Hall in London prompted her to recreate the settlement house on the Near West Side of Chicago in 1889. With part of her inheritance from her father, she rented Hull-House and fixed it up.
From the beginning, Hull-House was all about educating Italian, German, Greek, Polish and Bohemian immigrants in the neighborhood. Jane initiated day care for working mothers. She established an art gallery and theatre. Then a public kitchen, gymnasium, book bindery and sewing room. Frank Lloyd Wright and Susan B. Anthony were among many guest speakers.
To fund all this in the days before government social programs, Jane spoke to wealthy patrons. She lobbied for better working conditions in factories and against child labor. She was elected to the school board and served as garbage inspector, to help clean up nasty conditions that attracted rats to tenemant back yards.
Jane Addams’ first book, Twenty Years at Hull House, was widely read, and in 1912 she was the first woman to give a presidential nomination speech, for Theodore Roosevelt, in Chicago. They had similar views on reform, but split a few years later in the issue of going to war. Jane helped found the Women’s Peace Party, vehemently voicing her opinion that America should not participate in the Great War in Europe. She believed it would only be more destructive to the lower class. It goes without saying she campaigned for women’s right to vote, and was able to benefit from the 19th Amendment herself in 1920, unlike her friend Susan Anthony, who did not live long enough to vote.
In 1931 she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, the first American woman recipient. Peace was not just the absence of war, she said, but the presence of justice. Four years later she passed away from cancer.
Today you can visit Hull-House Museum on Halsted Street at the entrance of the University of Illinois – Circle Campus. The only building left of a once-thriving mega help center, it is a testament to what one person can do. We can only try to follow, in whatever small ways, the example she left.