Who Am I?

When the results from my ancestry.com DNA test came in, I wasn’t too surprised.  According to them, my mother is my mother and my siblings are my siblings.  I am mainly derived from English/Welsh people, with some German and Scots Irish mixed in.

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I had secretly hoped that a recessive gene would pop up that hadn’t with my brother or sisters.  We’ve been told the story that an 18th Century grandfather married a Native American, and there are those in our family who have darker complexions and near-raven hair.  But no.  The same ingredients figure into all of us in different amounts.

We had a head start on many heritage hunters, however.  Both my parents enjoyed researching their side of the family tree.  My cousin is an expert geneaologist, judging projects and hand-drawing beautiful charts of those we don’t have photographs to associate with, who lived before the invention of the daguerreotype and the bulky equipment required to produce it.

I’ve come to realize which of my dimensions could be attributed to my city boy father and country girl mother.  I just didn’t separate where they got them from, specifically the countries of their ancestors.

British traits include apologizing automatically, finding queue jumping the ultimate crime, maintaining a stiff upper lip, and being sarcastic.  Yep, I have all of those.  Welsh — on the shy side, introverted, and a bit emotionally unstable.  I don’t think I said more than two words in public until I was a junior in high school.  Oh, and I mistakenly googled Welsh Terrier traits, which include aggression toward others, digging holes, intelligence and a friendly spirit.  Those who know me can take what they want from that.

From the German side, I acquired organization, punctuality, and efficiency.  I always arranged my classroom to a T (but can anyone blame me for losing a bit of it after daily skirmishes with the kids?).

The Scots Irish connection is most interesting to me.  Historically, when British lords took over their land in Scotland, they moved to the Ulster area of Ireland.  Then en masse (150,000 to 200,000) Presbyterian Protestants emigrated to Pennsylvania in the mid 1700s.  They spread to  Appalachia, then on to Ohio, Indiana and westward.  They (we) hold to loyalty, family pride, and tradition.  And some paranoia.  You can’t be too careful, can you?

I chose not to dwell on my inherited physical characteristics, although I like that I share the my mom’s nose and my dad’s blue eyes, fair skin and light hair reminiscent of my aunts, and so forth.  That stuff changes with age anyway.  In this life, the things that matter are what you’ve got in your heart and soul.  Some are inherited; many are chosen; I hope I have chosen wisely.

The Summer Before the War

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.

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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.



Looking for the Great War


What do you remember about World War I?  Obviously you weren’t there, but what comes to mind from earlier studying or reading?  Are there stories about someone in your family who was a soldier?

A century ago Great Britain and France were in a stalemate with Germany and Austria-Hungary.  After a year’s combat, trenches zigzagged across France from Belgium to Switzerland. “No Man’s Land” waited ominously between the fences of barbed wire for men to try to break through the enemy’s line.  They were mowed down by machine guns, time after time.

The United States was officially neutral at the time, but many were involved in a preparedness campaign.  We joined the Allied Powers in April 1917.

When I looked for resources about it, I found few in comparison to those of the Civil War and World War II.  Why is that?

Probably the best recent book I’ve seen is The Last of the Doughboys by Richard Rubin (Mariner Books, 2012).  A dozen or so years ago, he searched for remaining American veterans of the “Great War”  and interviewed them.  They all had lived past the age of 100, and all had remarkable reminiscences. The result is a treasure of information uncovered in a sliver of time which is now gone.

Maybe, with the centennial of the United States’s entrance into the First World War coming up, there will be more books, articles and TV documentaries.  I know of one book, which I’m just about finished proofreading, and will be sharing some of what I’ve found here.