Author: Alyssa Cole
Title: An Extraordinary Union Publication Info: New York, NY : Kensington Books,  Summary/Review:
Set in the early days of the American Civil War in Richmond, Virginia, this historical romance tells the story of two spies for the Union working undercover behind enemy lines. Ellen Burns is a freed woman with a photographic memory who disguises herself as a mute slave and is hired out to the estate of a Confederate Senator. Malcolm McCall, a Scottish immigrant, works as a detective for the Pinkertons and poses as a Confederate soldier. Together they uncover a Confederate plot to build an ironclad ship that could break the blockade of Southern ports.
Upon meeting and discovering that they’re working on the same side, the pair find a mutual attraction. Malcolm is more overt in trying to act on that attraction, getting quite rude and handsy, which makes this book uncomfortable. I appreciate that the author clearly will not let Malcolm coast as a “noble abolitionist” but calls out the power and privilege he has as a white man and how that is a threat to Ellen even when he has good intentions. Both characters are well developed and interesting people. Even a major antagonist, a loathsome Southern Belle named Susie McCaffrey, turns out to be more complex than she initially appears.
Of course, Ellen and Malcolm have lots and lots of sex, which I find awkwardly worded, but that may be just me. Nevertheless, this is a well-written and engaging novel touching upon mystery, adventure, history, and social change.
“Malcolm’s mind got muddled with anger thinking of how, in these lands, institutionalized sin was seen as a way of life that needed defending.”
Author: Edmund S. Morgan Title: American Slavery, American Freedom Narrator: Sean Pratt Publication Info: Gildan Media, LLC (2013) Summary/Review:
This book is not so much a history of slavery as it is an economic history of Colonial Virginia. In a sense, understanding the conditions of Colonial Virginia is important to understanding how this English community came to adopt chattel slavery based on race. But reading the book the topics vary far and wide from the concepts of slavery and their contrasts with the American ideals of freedom. In short, it’s an interesting book albeit not necessarily the one I expected. Recommended books: The World They Made Together by Mechal Sobel and Colonial Virginia : a history by Warren M. Billings Rating: ***1/2
Tony Horwitz, one of my favorite authors, presents a compelling history of John Brown and his followers and the keystone event of their raid on Harpers Ferry. Brown’s life and family are discussed from childhood, to his involvement in Utopian abolition movements, and their targeted assassinations of pro-slavery advocates in “Bleeding Kansas.” It’s eerie that the rhetoric and tactics of Brown and his followers while targeting the noble cause of abolition still resemble those of today’s Tea Party/2nd Amendment activists.The raid on Harpers Ferry took considerable planning and secrecy, although curiously it is uncertain what result Brown expected. Did he really expect it to spark a nation-wide uprising, or did he intend a blood sacrifice? Similarly, his changes in tactics during the raid itself contradict the planning. What’s interesting is that while the raid was widely condemned, even by ardent abolitionists, Brown’s real influence came in his words and letters while in jail and on trial. Even people who despised Brown and all he stood for came to admire his bravery and determination. Horwitz’s book is an interesting account on this key event in American history and the ripples it would have throughout the country.
Recommended books: Cloudsplitter by Russell Banks Rating: ***1/2
Some of my favorite photos from our recent trip to Virginia are below. See the complete photo album on my website.
For Spring Break, my son Peter and I traveled to Virginia to visit my mother and play tourist at Colonial Williamsburg, Historic Jamestowne, and Go-Karts Plus. It was three-day trip but it felt like we saw and learned a lot. Now, I once lived in Williamsburg. I attended the College of William & Mary, worked on an archaeological site as part of a field school, studied 18th-century furniture at the art museums, and then was an employee of Colonial Williamsburg for four years during my senior year of college and the years immediately afterwards. So, these places are familiar to me. But this was the first time I’d visited as just a plain old tourist in close to 25 years, and the first time I visited as a parent, sharing my enthusiasm for history with my son.
We actually visited few of the sites I actually worked at in my time as a historical interpreter as Peter was drawn more to the historic trades (which, ironically, I rarely had time to visit when I actually worked there). For a place rooted in history, a lot has changed at Colonial Williamsburg. The Charlton Coffehouse was reconstructed in recent years and we enjoyed the unexpected treat of a free serving of hot chocolate of an 18th-century recipe. There’s also a daily event called Revolution in the Streets where the last block of Duke of Gloucester street is open only to paying guests and character interpreters perform a drama right in the middle of the crowd. The story we witnessed was about a slave couple deciding to “jump the broom” to marry before the man was taken away to Richmond (for some reason I never learned). We were among the witnesses to the jumping the broom ceremony which involved everyone participating in song and dance. It is kind of cheesy and probably not 100% authentic, but I think it gets across the point of what daily life and choices were faced by ordinary people of the past. I liked it better than the military reviews and speeches by great men that are more typical of living history performance.
The waiter at Chowning’s Tavern is a beer aficionado and set me up with a sample of another AleWerks beer (I left him a generous tip). Old Stitch is brown with a cream-colored head. The nose is sweet and chocolatey, while the taste is nutty and well-balanced. This is a tasty brew and I wish I’d had time to sample more.
Beer: Dear Old Mum Brewer: AleWerks Brewing Company Source: Draft Rating: *** (7.6 of 10) Comments: Visited Chowning’s Tavern at Colonial Williamsburg and enjoyed a mug of this locally-brewed, 18th-century recipe beer. Dear Old Mum is unfiltered with a honey-color and not much head. The scent is grainy and the flavor is spicy with a sweet, malt finish. There’s an effervescent tingle on the tongue and the flavor grows stronger the more you drink. Nice to see Williamsburg making a strong addition to the craft beer revolution.
Author: Reynolds Price Title:Kate Vaiden Publication Info: Scribner (1986) ISBN: 0689117876 Summary/Review: This story set in rural North Carolina and later in Norfolk, Virginia is told from the perspective as a memoir titular character. Kate’s parents die in a murder-suicide leaving Kate to be raised by relatives and to get involve in self-destructive sexual relationships at a young age. The tone of the book is one of distance and indifference, perhaps appropriate to a narrator who has shut her self off from the world, but at the same time it is difficult to read a story that the narrator seems uninterested in telling. What could be a good story of an interior struggle comes off as dull and unconvincing.
The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation. Volume II: The Kingdom on the Waves (2008) by M.T. Anderson continues and completes the young adult Revolutionary War saga. I read the first volume, The Pox Party, earlier this year and it was by far one of my favorite books of the year so far. This volume picks up with Octavian escaping a death sentence and with his tutor Dr. Trefusis make it into besieged Boston. There he is a violinist performing to entertain the British regulars. Octavian yearns for something more and answers the call of Virginia governor Lord Dunmore who has created a Royal Ethiopian regiment for slaves of rebellious masters willing to take up arms to put down the rebellion in exchange for their freedom.
The majority of the book is in the form of Octavian’s diary (interspersed with a few letters written by other actors in this drama). He describes the hope and optimism of slaves gaining freedom and learning to fight. His reunion and developing relationship with the older, wiser slave Pro Bono. He tells the stories of his fellow slaves and how they made their escape. He describes in grim detail the loss of Norfolk and the plague of smallpox the decimates the regiment. Eventually Octavian’s spirit is all but crushed and he comes to the conclusion that Dunmore has no desire to free slaves other than for tactical purposes.
I have to admit that this book dragged at times. There was too much verisimilitude in a day-to-day diary of the mundane life of a foot soldier. I also admit that with the reality of Octavian’s life already established in the previous volume that it loses the unique science fiction edge and reads more like a straight-forward historical novel. The novel does follow real historical events and recreates them in an admirable way. Yet, and it may just be due to flashbacks of working at Colonial Williamsburg, I had trouble getting into this book. If you enjoyed the first volume as I did, I would definitely recommend completing Octavian’s story.
Author Anderson, M. T.
Title The astonishing life of Octavian Nothing, traitor to the nation. v. #2 The kingdom on the waves / taken from accounts by his own hand and other sundry sources ; collected by M.T. Anderson of Boston.
Publication Info. Cambridge, Mass. : Candlewick Press, 2008.
Edition 1st ed.
Description 561 p. : maps ; 24 cm.
I had to wake up early to make sure I made it to Heathrow Airport on time so I got promises from my French dormate Nadja and a Danish woman that they’d wake me before they left for work. I was so keyed up I didn’t need any waking and woke long before I needed to. While checking out of the hostel, I had a very friendly conversation with an Australian woman checking in. In the “go figure” department, it may have been the most promising initial conversation I had with a member of the opposite sex in the entire 6 weeks.
Earl’s Court is conveniently on the Piccadilly Line to Heathrow, and the Tube whisked me to the airport (something Londoners tell me is not typical). The flight home on Virgin Atlantic was festive. The flight attendants gave out shots of Bailey’s and brandy (I had one of each). I watched the James Bond flick Goldfinger and the Muhammad Ali documentary When Were Kings on the Virgin TV. I distinctly remember drunken women singing “Brimful of Asha” in the rows behind me.
My sister Barbara met me at Dulles. My first impressions on being back in the States is that all the green money looked odd, and it was weird to see cars driving on the right. Barbara had taken my car in for repair while I was gone, but it had problems. “It’s the darnedest thing I ever saw,” said the auto mechanic. So my travels extended to one more night in Richmond before I made my triumphant return to Bastardsville on March 3.
This is probably where I should list my favorite parts and lessons learned, but I think I’ve bored you enough with my travelog. Thanks for reading, and if you enjoyed this maybe I’ll tell you about some of my other trips one day.
The end of the journey: rain jacket, passport, journal, and otter with Otto the Cat.