The Converse Announcement

by Melissa Walker

A number of people have asked me to comment on Converse’s announcement that it is studying the options of changing its name to “university” and admitting men to undergraduate residential programs. I may have retired from teaching at Converse, but I remain committed to the institution and its students and alumnae, and I’ve never been one to shy away from offering my opinions, so here you go. . . .

I’ll begin by saying that yesterday was a sad day.  I did not set out to teach at a women’s college (any more than I would have considered attending a women’s college when I was 18); I set out to teach at a college or university that emphasized the liberal arts and undergraduate education. But I landed at a women’s college, and I came to realize the power and value of the experience for many young women. And so I will just say it: it feels like a loss to imagine Converse becoming a co-educational institution. When we face loss, it’s important to grieve.  And all of us who love Converse are grieving right now.

But I also have to say that the announcement did not surprise me.  I knew it would come some day—unless the college closed first.

I had the privilege of serving on President Fleming’s cabinet for two years—from 2012-2014. In that capacity, I learned more than I ever wanted to know about the complexities of the finances of colleges and universities, especially small colleges and universities. I learned about accreditor and federal requirements related to financial management. I learned about the enormous cost of running colleges campuses.  I learned about depreciation and deferred maintenance. I learned about discount rates and bond ratings and much much more. And I came to understand that Converse was struggling hard and that it had been struggling for twenty years.

Under the leadership of Nancy Gray, Betsy Fleming, and Krista Newkirk, Converse College fought like crazy to evolve in ways that would allow the college to remain a single-gender institution while also remaining financially viable.  But the forces arrayed against Converse are overwhelming.

I know you’ve heard about the first part of the problem endlessly.  That is the single gender piece—the fact that women’s colleges are trying to attract students from half of the available college-age population and that only 2% or so of them are actively considering women’s colleges.  When I came to Converse in the fall of 1996, there were about 70 women’s colleges in the U.S. Today there are 37. I won’t belabor that point since I know you’ve heard it before.

But there’s a bigger piece of the puzzle you may not be considering.  Lots of small colleges have been struggling just like Converse and for just as long. Small colleges are closing in droves all over the country. At least 20 have closed since the fall of 2016 and many more have merged.  (And that’s just on the non-profit side.) Not all of these colleges were small, and not all were private; some state schools have closed and others have merged for financial reasons.  If you want to learn more about the reasons for these closures, read this article.  I won’t reiterate all the points here.

And then there is the demographic cliff that Converse and every other institution in the country is facing. To put it simply, in the wake of the 2008-2009 recession, a lot of people didn’t have babies. In the year 2024, there will be a steep drop-off in the number of 18-year-olds in the population. That translates to a steep decline in the number of people enrolling in college. That simple fact has profound and sobering implications for colleges and universities, as you can read here.

So Converse is not alone.  A Harvard prof who specializes in education estimates that 50% of ALL colleges in the U.S. will close in the next decadeI can’t seem to lay my hands on the evidence at the moment, but I have seen estimates from an analyst at one of the big bond rating agencies that that figure might even be as high as 75%. Mega-universities are thriving and elite private colleges are thriving, but the rest of colleges and universities face formidable odds.

Most alums and most students do not realize how lean times have gotten at Converse. Converse has been a lean institution for years, and frankly, I only remember two or three years in my 21 years there when we were not facing budget problems of one kind or another. There were several years during my time there when we did not receive raises, and retirement matching was cut four times in my time there—down to zero in my last year.  The current faculty and staff have not had raises or retirement matching for three years running.

Many of you are young people trying to raise families in this economy, and you can imagine how very difficult that is. It’s very hard on morale, and it carries real costs for the people who are devoting their lives to educating Converse students. To put it bluntly, many of them are sacrificing their future financial security to the college. What’s more, Converse is facing difficulty in attracting the brightest and best faculty and staff, and I have no doubt that the college is losing good faculty and staff because of the financial constraints. We can’t offer students the best in curricular and co-curricular programming because there is simply not enough money to do so.

The accrediting agencies that oversee colleges and universities keep a close eye on institutional finances. They want to be sure that colleges and universities have a healthy enough bottom line to continue offering quality higher education to students. So far, Converse has managed to meet accreditor standards, but I know from seeing the numbers myself that the college will not be able to meet them for many more years.  By my back of the envelope calculations, Converse might need an endowment 4 or 5 times the current size and an enrollment of 400 new students a year to do that. And the bottom line is that Converse doesn’t have a donor base that can raise that kind of money, and given the current demographics, the college won’t be able to recruit that many students. One of our sister colleges down the road, Bennett College, just lost its accreditation because of financial issues.  Converse is not at quite this dire a point yet, but it’s coming.

Then there’s the Sweet Briar example.  In spite of an injection of major alumnae money, their enrollment is still only about 300.  Last fall, it was placed “on warning” by the same accrediting agency that oversees Converse. In short, Sweet Briar is living on borrowed time.  It simply can’t support a large enough faculty and staff to offer the diverse curricular and co-curricular programs that its students need.

I know you feel blind-sided, and I know that many of you are angry, and I know that all of you are deeply grieved. So I’d encourage you to do three things:

  • Let your voice be heard in the forums that Converse has provided.
  • Grieve together. Life is rife with change, and we often need to grieve those changes.
  • Educate yourself thoroughly before you form any final conclusions.

And then, if you are so inclined, step up and ask how you can help Converse survive and thrive to educate your daughters AND your sons. Ask how you can help the college maintain its commitment to empowering young women even as it broadens its mission.

And if you are not so inclined, I hope you’ll at least wish Converse well.  Lots of institutions have changed and some are the better for it.  I daresay, as my friend and former student Amy Cetone Vaz has pointed out, that a lot of alums of a lot of institutions initially believed that it might be better to close the doors of colleges before desegregating or before admitting women.

So that’s my two cents worth for what it’s worth.  I know that many of you will disagree with me, but I hope you’ll at least educate yourselves on the complex situation facing your alma mater.

Educating young women at Converse has been the greatest privilege of my life (so farJ). And it grieves me deeply to think that Converse may have to begin admitting men to the regular undergraduate program. Many things about the college will change. But I believe that Converse has also done important work in educating generations of male graduate students, and I’m proud of that work, too. My former male students are also out there changing the world. I believe that Converse can continue educating good citizens for the future. But I have sadly concluded that Converse will have to change in order to do so.

And I am so proud of all of you for your impassioned commitment to making the world a better place.

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A little bit of magic on the page: Magic City Gospel


I molded you

from red clay, sweet cornbread, 

the slow drip of a lemon 

squeezed over sugar and ice.

Ashley M. Jones

“God Speaks to Alabama”



In the nineteenth century, poetry was a widely-read genre in America, but these days, poetry has gone out of fashion.  That’s too bad because poetry is perfect for reading in the bits of time snatched here and there available to most of the reading public.

I always have a collection or two on my nightstand, and on nights when I’m not too sleepy, I like to dip in and read a poem or two or six.  I love some of the old American masters (Frost and Dickinson, in particular), but I also have favorites among more contemporary poets including Billy Collins, Natasha Tretheway, Elizabeth Alexander, Charles Wright, Maxine Kumin, and Mary Oliver (who could almost be considered an old master, I suppose.)

Still, I’ve never loved a poetry collection so much that I was inspired to write about it in my book blog.  Until now.

Last night I finished Ashley M. Jones’s collection Magic City Gospel,[1] and I think you should read it even if you think you don’t like poetry.  Jones, a recipient of the prestigious Rona Jaffe Foundation Writer’s Award for 2015, has produced a beautiful book that explores issues of race, gender, social justice, and history.  The titles of these pieces hint at the rich imagery and complex emotions evoked in the verses: “Sam Cooke Sings to Me When I Am Afraid,” “Addie, Carole, Cynthia, Denise” (the four little girls killed in the 1963 Birmingham Church bombing), “On Martin Luther ashley-jones_1King Day, A Noose is Hung on Tree in Blount County.” Other poems focus on her deeply personal journal through the landscape of the modern South. There’s an homage to her firefighter father, her own version of the listing of Biblical “begats” (I Chronicles 1), and multiple poems about food.

This is a stunning prayer of a book. Jones writes:

Nothing good in life comes without stirring–

the promise of butter, the salty whirring

of pressure in a pot.

The poems in Magic City Gospel stir the pot of history and memory to create word paintings of great beauty and power.

You can find Magic City Gospel at your favorite indie bookstore or buy it on-line from Hub City Book Shop.

[1] In the interests of full disclosure, I am on the board of directors of Hub City Writers Project, the parent organization for the non-profit Hub City Press which published this book. But I’ve only reviewed one other Hub City title in my book blog. 🙂


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Marriage, Government Folks, and the Devil: Over the Plain Houses


I feel like I know Irenie Lambey, the main character in Julia Franks’ novel Over the Plain Houses. That’s because I grew up on a farm in Southern Appalachia and I knew many women from Irenie’s generation. I have also spent most of my career as a historian writing about the struggles of early twentieth century Southern Appalachian farm women like Irenie. Franks has done a beautiful job capturing the cadence of mountain speech and the rhythms of farm life and farm women’s work in this exploration of a disintegrating marriage.

It is 1939, and Irenie lives with her teenage son Matthew and her stern evangelical preacher husband Brodis in the mountains of western North Carolina. The couple has built a prosperous farm, replete with lush tobacco fields and a fine garden, and Brodis believes that their prosperity is God’s reward to the righteous Lambeys.

But things are not as they seem. Irenie and Brodis’s first-born child, a little girl, died only weeks after birth, and Irenie is haunted by the loss. She also believes that Brodis is too hard on Matthew. Tensions have developed between the couple. Irenie has taken to leaving her bed in the middle of the night and wandering the dark mountainside.

Then one Sunday, Alice Furman, an agricultural extension agent from the US Department of Agriculture, shows up at church to invite the congregation’s women to a home demonstration meeting where they can learn improved techniques for housekeeping. Mrs. Furman also suggests to Irenie that Matthew, an academically gifted boy, could attend the advanced boarding school in Asheville on scholarship.

Over the ensuing weeks, Irenie convinces Brodis, a controlling man who sees evil in most outside influences, to allow Matthew to attend the new school and to permit her to attend the home demonstration meetings. Irenie and Alice Furman become friends, and Alice plays her beautiful upright piano for Irenie, a pleasure forbidden by Brodis who believes that instrumental music is a product of the devil. Soon Brodis becomes convinced that Irenie has been possessed by angels of Lucifer and that government officials with their interfering advice are sowing the seeds of ruin for mountain farmers, setting in motion a chain of events that will end in tragedy.

Franks’ well-crafted novel explores a historical time and place I know well, and she does so with an accuracy and a sensitivity to the dignity of mountaineers that is sometimes absent in fiction about Southern Appalachia.

To read more about real-life farm women like Irenie and home extension agents like Alice Furman, check out my books from your local library or your favorite indie bookstore.  Or buy them on-line from Hub City Book Shop.

all-we-knew-was-to-farm                      country-women-cope


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The Summer Before the War

the-summer-before-the-warHelen Simonson has a gift for dealing with deep issues with a light, deft hand that draws you irresistibly into a story that you suspect might break your heart but also promises hope. Her novels begin as comedies of manners and then evolve into complex, tightly crafted compelling explorations of the messy business of human relationships as they play out in a larger social and political context.  In her first novel, the 2010 Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, the characters grapple with personal grief and loss and the challenges of parent-child relationships  as well as the pain generated by anti-immigrant sentiment in contemporary Britain.

In The Summer Before the War, the challenges include the destructiveness of everyday small-minded, small-town gossips, discrimination against the Roma people (aka Gypsies), intolerance of homosexuality, and the limited opportunities for educated, respectable single women. These ordinary challenges are rendered more urgent by the changes that are set in motion when Germany invades neutral Belgium in the summer of 1914, sending desperate refugees into a small Sussex town and plunging England into war, upending the lives of young and old, rich and poor

The novel centers on two cousins, the newly minted surgeon Hugh and the sensitive poet Daniel. The young men are the apples of their Aunt Agatha’s eye, and they have practically grown up at her country home near the village of Rye. Agatha, the wife of a high level official in the Foreign Office, sees herself as a force to be reckoned with in the village, and as the novel opens, she has been triumphant in her efforts to convince the school board to take the unprecedented step of hiring a female Latin teacher. Beatrice Nash, the spinster daughter of a recently deceased itinerant scholar, arrives to fill the position, and soon her life becomes entwined with that of Agatha and her nephews and with the other colorful members of the community.

Then the heir to the Austrian throne is assassinated in Sarajevo, and Europe’s fragile alliance system plunges the whole continent into war. The village of Rye quickly mobilizes to do its duty for the war effort, taking in a number of Belgian refugees and organizing a regiment of soldiers. Beatrice shelters Celeste, the beautiful daughter of a respected Belgian scholar who harbors a dark secret, and Agatha maneuvers to keep her nephews out of harm’s way. Inexorably, the citizens of Rye find their lives torn apart by the horrors of the Great War.

This is a beautiful book and a sad one, but one that offers hope that humans can survive great loss and move forward. I learned about several topics. I’ve read about the presence of the Roma in England and about the discrimination they faced there, but I never knew that England had taken in a large number of Belgian refugees in the war. Through the character of Daniel, the novel illuminates the toll that the Great War took on a generation of English poets and artists. And Beatrice’s experiences highlight the way the war opened opportunities for British women.

For additional reading, you may want to check out these titles from your local library or your favorite indie bookstore.  Or buy them on-line from Hub City Book Shop.

guns-of-augustThe classic account of the coming of World War I in Europe is Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August.  





the-roma-cafeIvan Pogany’s book, The Roma Cafe: Human Rights and the Plight of the Romani People, explores the discrimination that generations of Romani have faced throughout Europe:







all quiet on home front.jpg


All Quiet on the Home Front: An Oral History of Life in Britain During World War, edited by Steve Humphries and Richard van Emden, offers rich first-person accounts of home front life during the war.




home-fires-burningGeorgina Lee’s diaries have been published as Home Fires Burning: The Great War Diaries of Georgina Lee, 1914-1919. 





penguine ww1 poetry.jpg

Finally, Penguin has published a collection of poetry from the First World War that includes many of the poets featured in Simonsn’s novel.




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Britain Between the World Wars:  The Maisie Dobbs Books        

journey to munichI met Maisie Dobbs in the stacks at Spartanburg County Public Library in 2003, and she’s been a treasured friend ever since.  Or at least, I’d like to think she’d be a friend if she were a real person and not the protagonist of one of my favorite series of mystery novels.  I just finished Journey to Munich, the twelfth installment, and I love how Maisie’s character has grown and developed over the course of the series.  She and author Jacqueline Winspear have taught me a lot about Great Britain during World War and in the two decades after.

The series open in London in the years before World War I.  Maisie, age 13, has just lost her mother, and financial circumstances have led her working class father to find Maisie a job in household service. (Think Daisy on Downton Abbey.)  Maisie joins the Belgravia household of Lady Rowan Compton.

Maisie had been a serious student before her mother’s death, and she has an insatiable thirst for knowledge, a thirst she slakes by sneaking into the Compton library and reading until the wee hours of the morning.  Eventually the family discovers her secret.Impressed by Maisie’s intelligence and her ambition, the progressive Lady Rowan arranges for the girl to receive private tutoring from a family friend, Dr. Maurice Blanche. Ultimately Maisie enrolls in Girton College, the women’s college at Oxford.

Then the Great War intervenes. Like many women in England, she leaves the university to do her bit for the country in the face of the national emergency. She becomes a nurse behind the front lines in France, treating men wounded in the trenches. Maisie witnesses all the horrors of the fighting, her first love is killed, and she is wounded.

Upon returning from France, Maisie apprentices with Dr. Blanche, a man best described as a forensic psychologist who works for both Scotland Yard and British intelligence. Dr. Blanches teaches Maisie the finer points of investigation, and she subsequently hangs out her own shingle as a “private inquiry agent.”

The rest of the series explores Maisie’s investigative adventures. We follow her through years of cases, many of which require unearthing secrets buried during the Great War. We see the toll that the war has taken on ordinary English people. We watch Maisie and her family and friends struggle to cope with the Great Depression, and we observe the rising tensions among European nations as Hitler comes to power in the 1930s. The novels touch on all kinds of historical issues from women’s suffrage to labor strife, from eugenics and the treatment of mental illness to business ethics and class struggle.

Eventually Maisie marries Lady Rowan’s son James, and the two are blissfully happy until James is killed test piloting an experimental fighter plane. In her grief, Maisie makes her way to Spain where she gets caught up in the Spanish Civil War. She comes full circle, nursing Spanish fighters.

In the latest installment, Journey to Munich, Maisie is back in England and beginning to find her footing when she is recruited by British intelligence officers for a dangerous undercover mission. Maisie poses as the daughter of a British businessman who was arrested in Germany on charges of publishing anti-Nazi literature. He has been held in Dachau for more than two years, and after extensive negotiations (not to mention a little financial incentive) with British diplomats, the Germans have finally agreed to release  him, but only to a family member. Maisie is recruited to collect him in Munich.

She is immediately plunged into a world of intrigue where even the spies are spying on each other. (She even has a brief encounter with Hitler himself.) Maisie witness firsthand the terrifying and growing power of the totalitarian Nazi regime. While in Munich, Maisie also tries to convince Elaine Otterburn, the woman she blames for her husband’s death, to return home to England.This effort leads to some unexpected complications.

Along the way, the act of living in disguise forces Maisie to question who she has become in the wake of her husband’s death. With her life on the line, she realizes that she wants to live, something she had doubted in the first months of widowhood. And she must decide what she wants to do with the rest of her life. Journey to Munich is a gripping, well-crafted tale with deftly drawn characters. I could barely put the book down until I reached the last page.

For additional reading, you may want to check out these titles from your local library or your favorite indie bookstore.  Or buy them on-line from Hub City Book Shop.

the morbid agetwilight years

For more on Britain between the wars, see two books by Richard Overy:  The Morbid Age:  Britain Between the Wars and The Twilight Years: The Paradox of Britain Between the Wars.

testament of youth coverTo learn about the experiences of a real-life Maisie Dobbs, check out Vera Brittain’s Testment of Youth. Like Maisie, Brittain left the university to become a battlefield nurse. (Now also a major motion picture.) My colleague uses this book in his history courses, and students find it gripping.


what we knewTo learn more about the lives of ordinary people in Nazi Germany, see Eric A. Johnson and Karl-Heinz Reuband, What We Knew:  Terror, Mass Murder, and Everyday Life in Nazi Germany.




the secret warAnd to learn more about British intelligence gathering efforts during the 1930s, see Kevin Quinlan, The Secret War Between the Wars: Mi5 and MI6 in the 1920s and 1930s.

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The World the Young Folks Wish For and the World that Is: Everyone Brave is Forgiven

everyone-brave-is-forgiven-9781501124372_hrBritish writer Chris Cleave is aptly named.  Reading his books will cleave your heart right in two.  I learned this about seven or eight years ago when I read his novel Little Bee.

 I wouldn’t normally have opened a novel about a Nigerian asylum seeker scarred by the violence of the oil conflict in the Niger Delta and a British couple whose lives became entangled with hers, not because I didn’t care about the fate of Nigerian asylum seekers, but because at that point I was reading enough depressing stuff about man’s inhumanity to man for my work as a history professor, so I gravitated to lighter fiction for my pleasure reading.*

At the time, however, my friend Niki was working for a New York literary agent, and she posted regular Facebook updates about books that she loved. I had learned from experience that when Niki recommended a book, I was likely to love it. When Little Bee came out in the U.S., Niki happened to be working for Cleave’s agent, and she flooded Facebook with posts about the book.  “You MUST read this book,” she wrote almost daily for weeks.  Knowing my love for good fiction, she sent me a private message saying that I HAD to read Little Bee.

And so, with trepidation, I bought Little Bee and began to read. From the opening page, I was captivated by the voice of Little Bee. I could not stop reading, even as the book became grisly beyond belief, even as it broke my heart.

When I saw reviews of Everyone Brave is Forgiven, Cleave’s new book, I knew I had to read it, especially after Niki reviewed it for Parnussus Books, the Nashville indie bookseller for whom she now works. And at the risk of sounding like Niki, you just HAVE to read this lovely book.

Everyone Brave is Forgiven follows two pairs of lifelong friends as they endure the first years of World War II in England. Mary and Hilda are high-spirited and privileged girls who leave finishing school behind when war breaks out. Hilda flails about at first, preferring to pursue handsome men in uniform rather than join the war effort. Fearing that she’ll miss the grand adventure that the war is sure to be, Mary signs on straight away for home front service. She is startled to be assigned as a teacher to replace some young man gone off to fight and even more startled to discover that she loves teaching. When she is fired for insubordination just as her young charges are evacuated to the countryside, Mary badgers Tom, an education official, into allowing her to teach the children who did not find refuge in the countryside:  those with physical and mental disabilities and children of color.

Tom and his friend Alistair are young bachelors in their early thirties who had been enjoying single life in a garret apartment until the war broke out. Alistair, an art conservator at the Tate Museum, helps spirit British art treasures to safe locations in the hinterlands before signing up for His Majesty’s Army. Soon Alistair finds himself commanding an artillery unit, first in the French countryside and then on the British-controlled island of Malta, while Tom agonizes over whether he should enlist.

child in blitz

The novel offers up a gritty, bleak picture of life in London during the Blitz. Mary and Hilda become ambulance drivers and witness firsthand the carnage created by the relentless German bombing attacks. They sink into depression, and Mary realizes that London during the bombing has become a landscape of unrelieved gray.  At one point, she reflects that “perhaps life would turn out to be like this.  Not an effortful ascent to grace. . . , but rather a gradual accretion of weight and complexity. . . .”

London during the Blitz

The war aggravates tensions between the friends. Mary has a bad habit of stealing the attentions of every man in whom Hilda shows an interest, and Alistair’s experience of combat creates a divide between him and Tom that proves difficult to cross.  The war also aggravates tensions between Mary and her mother, a former suffragette who now devotes herself to advancing the career of her M.P. husband. Mary’s mother disapproves of her daughter’s ongoing efforts to teach a group of black orphans, in defiance of the racial boundaries so clearly drawn in 1940s British society.  Mary sees her mother as someone who has sacrificed her own dreams and gifts in service of a man and as hobbled by prejudice. In one of the most memorable scenes of the book, Mary’s mother says, “The young see the world that they wish for. The old see the world as it is. You must tell me which you think the more honest.”

Indeed the discrepancy between the world the young folks wish for and the world that is emerges as one of the major themes of the book. Another is the bitter reality of war and the way it chews up the lives of ordinary people.

The novel also highlighted an aspect of the war that I knew nothing about: the two year siege of Malta first by the Italians and then the Germans.  Alistair finds himself posted to the island in the middle of the siege, and Cleave depicts the utter starvation endured by British troops and Maltese citizens alike as the Nazis cut off supplies hoping to force his majesty’s garrison to surrender the nation’s last outpost in the Mediterranean. Thankfully the British prevailed, but at a high cost for soldiers and civilians. For a good overview of the siege, see the BBC website.

Cleave’s real gift is to render the voices of his characters unforgettable. In the early chapters, I began to think that maybe this book wouldn’t break my heart like Little Bee because the voices were so carefree and bitingly funny. Yet as the war unfolds and the characters witness war’s brutalities, the characters evolve and so do their voices.

Readers of my blog know that I’ve been on something of a World War II fiction binge lately (see this review and this one, for example). And like the other books I’ve reviewed, this novel will cleave your heart in two, but it will be worth it.

To read more about Chris Cleave and how he came to write Everyone Brave is Forgiven, see his author page.

For additional reading about the history behind the novel, you may want to check out these titles from your local library or your favorite indie bookstore.  Or buy them on-line from Hub City Book Shop.

For more on the Siege of Malta, see British historian Ernle Bradford’s book Siege: Malta 1940-1943.   siege malta



the war on our doorstep

Throughout the novel, Mary reminds the reader that London’s tonier neighborhoods were relatively untouched by the Blitz, while the city’s poor East End was devastated.  To read more about that, check out Harriet Salisbury’s The War on Our Doorstep: London’s East End and How the Blitz Changed it Forever.

blitz diary.jpgCarol Harris offers a first-person account of life under the Blitz in Blitz Diary: Life Under Fire in World War II.




* “Man’s inhumanity to man” is a phrase that first appeared in Scottish poet Robert Burns’ poem “Man Was Made To Mourn: A Dirge.”

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Some Reflections on Europe, Totalitarian Rulers, and the Destruction of War

I just returned from Europe.I love Europe. I love the varieties of its landscapes and its lively and diverse cultures.I love the deep sense of human history preserved in architecture dating back two millennia or more.I don’t whether it is my reading–Heidi and Hans Brinker and the Silver Skates in childhood, the romance novels that I indulged in my teenage years, or the British detective novels that I have devoured as an adult—or maybe just a lifetime spent as a student of history, but I am deeply attracted to Europe and I seize every opportunity to travel there.

Rhine valley cathedral and chapelLast week, my husband and I enjoyed a cruise down the Rhine River.Departing from Amsterdam, we saw windmills and wind turbines, castles and nuclear plants, cathedrals and container ships. Everywhere the old is preserved and restored and adapted to coexist alongside the new and modern. Everywhere there is a material record of thousands of years of human innovation.

And everywhere there are reminders of wars.War after war after war, fought over territory and prestige, religion and resources.Time after time, European societies rebuilt themselves after wars. People persevered in the face of the devastating losses that armies inflict upon each other and upon civilians.

cows and barge on rhineIn Strasbourg, France, the heart of the region of Alsace, our guide put a human face on the history I learned in history courses thirty-five years ago as she described the way her city and region had changed hands from the Germans to the French and back, over and over again. She described the blended culture that had developed in Alsace as a result. The cuisine, the customs, and the dialect all contain elements of both nations’ cultures.

rhineland vineyardsAlsace is definitely a region that has been marked by war. Our guide, Patricia, explained that her grandmother had been forced to flee the city with her young son and the belongings she could carry on three days’ notice when World War II broke out in the fall of 1939. The family lived with relatives in the interior of France until the German invasion in 1940 when they returned to Strasbourg where they endured the German occupation for the better part of five years.

Patricia’s story was a reminder that in Europe, one war in particular remains imprinted on the landscape: World War II. There’s scarcely a spot in Europe untouched by World War II. In 2000, as my husband and I hiked through remote Alpine villages in France, we came upon several monuments to French resistance fighters and Allied troops who had participated in the liberation. In 2007 in London, we stopped to read dozens of historical markers commemorating the blitz and passed through interactive exhibits at the Britain at War Museum that recreated elements of life during the Battle of Britain.[*] In Amsterdam, we toured the Jodenburt (Jewish Quarter) of Amsterdam and the Dutch Resistance Museum. We strolled along a stretch of the Herengracht Canal and read the brass plaques containing the names of more than 200 Jews who lived along the canal before they were deported and perished in the Holocaust. The Nazis kept good records; the plaques recorded the name of the camp where each one died along with the month and year of death.

Reminders of World War II were everywhere. On this trip, we spent most of our time in western Germany. I had never been to Germany, and I must confess that I have spent relatively little time thinking about the destruction rained on Germany in the last three years of the war. Yes, I knew there had been destruction. I’ve seen the photos of the rubble in postwar Berlin. In college, I read Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Slaughterhouse Five with its vivid depiction of the Allied firebombing of Dresden.But if I thought at all about what the German people endured during the war, I dismissed it in the vein of “they got what they deserved.”

On this trip, I found myself unable to think so cavalierly and simplistically about the wartime destruction in Germany. In part, that was because I had just read Anthony Doerr’s fine novel, All the Light We Cannot See, which provides a nuanced view of the complex reasons Germans became complicit with the Nazis and a sympathetic portrayal of the difficulties in resisting. (Read my review of the novel here.) In part, the constant reminders of the scale of the destruction in the Rhine Valley made me think more carefully about the damage in Germany.

Everywhere we encountered historical markers containing photos of bombed out cities.When I paused to think about it, I realized that of course the Rhine Valley would have been a target of Allied bombers. The river was a key transportation artery, and the cities and farms of the Rhineland produced supplies essential to the Nazi war machine including timber from the Black Forest, grain and dairy commodities, industrial products, and yes, evern wine. The Rhine was also the gateway to the Allied invasion of Germa


Photo of Ludendorff Bridge at Remagen courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

ny. On March 7, 1945, Allied forces were able to take control of the last remaining railway bridge over the Rhine at Remagen, and they used it to transport six divisions across the river into Germany, probably shortening the war by months. We rose in the middle of the night to watch as we passed the towers of the bridge at Remagen. (The bridge itself collapsed ten days after the Allies captured it.)

In Breisbach, “before” photos showed churches, a wallpaper factory, and a market in the 1930s, structures replaced by open spaces and rubble in “after” photos taken a decade later. Wherever we went our guides told us: “85% of the city was destroyed in World War II.” Or “Only 15% of the city was destroyed in World War II.” And in every city, the guides explained that cathedrals suffered some damage, but were not directly targeted because the Allied pilots used the steeples as navigational markers. I was struck by the irony that a house of worship became an essential tool in waging war.

As we toured, I’d think about what it would mean to live in a town where 15% or 50% or 85% of the built landscape was reduced to rubble. I thought about the exposure to the elements, the hunger, and the suffering that would have been the inevitable results.

I suppose you could say that the German people reaped what they sowed. That had always been my attitude. But as we cruised down the Rhine River, it struck me that my thinking had been callous and simplistic. Maybe the current political climate in my own country helped me to see World War II era Germans in a new light.Indeed, the German people did bear responsibility for launching World War II. After the humiliating defeat the Allies imposed upon them after first World War, after the crushing inflation and political and economic instability of the 1920s, they followed an evil, egomaniacal, and charismatic leader who made them promises about restoring Germany to greatness.Ordinary Germans’ embrace of Adolf Hitler was sometimes whole-hearted and sometimes reluctant, but embrace him they did. And they paid dearly for that mistake.

under the bombsI’d like to learn more about homefront life in Germany, so I just added a new title to my reading list:  Under the Bombs:  The German Home Front, 1942-1945, by Earl R. Beck.  You may want to be able to find it at your local library or your favorite indie bookstore.  Or buy it on-line from Hub City Book Shop.

[*] This museum closed in 2012 when its building was torn down to make way for a redevelopment of the London Bridge railway and tube station.


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Coming of Age in World War II Europe: All the Light We Cannot See

Last summer, I read Kristen Hannah’s luminous novel The Nightingale (read my review here) about two French sisters enduring the Nazi occupation of France. At the same time, many of my friends were raving about another novel set in occupied France, Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot Seeall the light coverAfter The Nightingale, I decided I needed a break from the horrors of World War II, so I moved on to some lighter fare.

This summer, my book club selected All the Light We Cannot See for our July reading, so I steeled myself for another wrenching read. And wrenching it was. Doerr tells the story of two young people who come of age during the war.  Marie-Laure LeBlanc, a blind girl, is twelve years old when the Nazis march into Paris. Her father, a lockmaster for the French Museum of Natural History, is dispatched to spirit one of the museum’s priceless treasures to safety. He flees with his daughter, and after several dead ends, they make their way, mostly on foot, to Saint-Malo, a walled city on the Brittany coast where Marie-Laure’s great uncle lives.  Uncle Etienne suffered profound psychological damage while serving in World War I, and he has become an agoraphobic recluse, huddling in the family’s six-story house with a large collection of radios.

Upon arriving at Saint-Malo, Etienne’s loyal and capable housekeeper Madame Manec takes in the ragtag pair and becomes a mother figure to the motherless Marie-Laure, whose mother had died in childbirth.  The LeBlancs settle in to the calmer life of a small port city, and the war seems very far away for a time. Marie-Laure’s father carves an elaborate scale model of Saint-Malo which he uses to teach Marie-Laure how to navigate the streets on her own, just as he had done for their neighborhood in Paris.  After a few months, he receives a summons to return to Paris, and he leaves Marie-Laure in the care of Madame Manec and Etienne, only to be arrested as a spy and sent to a German prison camp. As they struggle to survive the war, Marie-Laure and Etienne grow close, and both are forced to accept challenges well beyond their comfort zones.  Like the characters in The Nightingale, Marie-Laure and her uncle wrestle with the dilemma of whether to collaborate or resist the Nazis, and they choose a startling range of actions.

The other protagonist in the book is Werner Pfennig, an orphan boy living in a dreary German coal-mining town at the outbreak of the war. Werner is something of a scientific child prodigy. He is curious about everything related to science and technology, reads voraciously, asks endless questions of all the adults in his life, and tinkers with every mechanical device he can get his hands on. After finding a broken radio in a garbage dump and figuring out how to return it to working order, fourteen-year-old Werner becomes known around town as a radio repair genius, and he is summoned to repair sets for many neighbors. Eventually he is called upon to repair a radio belonging to a German officer stationed in town. Impressed by Werner’s intelligence and mechanical acumen, the officer arranges for Werner to take the entrance exams for an exclusive Nazi secondary school. Werner was elated to be admitted, believing the education would be his ticket out of the mines that had taken his father’s life.

Profoundly uncomfortable with Nazi indoctrination and particularly with the bloodthirsty culture of his school where weak boys are targeted mercilessly, Werner nonetheless ignores the warning bells in his head. He helps Army officials develop a transceiver which can locate the short-wave radios used by resistance fighter, and he soon becomes a key member of an elite Nazi team that roams the countryside finding and killing resistance fighters in Poland, Russia, and Austria. Eventually Werner is sent to Brittany with instructions to root out a team of effective resistance fighters who are communicating via radio and wreaking havoc on Nazi occupation forces there. And it is here that his life and Marie-Laure’s will collide in August 1944 when Allied forces begin bombing the walled city on France’s Northwest coast.

saint-maloIndeed the beautiful city of Saint-Malo, with magnificent buildings dating to medieval times, was almost completely destroyed by the bombardment from planes and ships and the fires triggered by the bombs. Fully eighty percent of the city’s buildings were destroyed and most of the rest were damaged. Historian Philip Beck has argued that this destruction was unnecessary (and that the Allies ignored accurate intelligence from two resistance fighters) because the city was occupied by only two Luftwaffe anti-aircraft units at the time. (The city would be rebuilt between 1948 and 1960.)

Doerr told NPR that the book was inspired, in part, when he observed a man on a commuter train who became angry over the dropped cell phone call, provoking Doerr to think about how astonishing the radio wave technology that allows for cell phones really is. Doerr said, “So … originally, the real central motivation for the book was to try and conjure up a time when hearing the voice of a stranger in your home was a miracle.”

All the Light We Cannot See is a finely crafted tapestry of a book.  Short chapters keep the action moving, and I fell in love with all the main characters, each of them (with the exception of Marie-Laure) complex, flawed, and basically good. The research is excellent, and a real strength of this book is the way it illuminates why ordinary, decent Germans found themselves drawn to participate in the diabolical Nazi war machine. If you’re looking for historical fiction that will keep you engrossed for hours, check out All the Light We Cannot See.

For additional reading, you may want to check out these titles from your local library or your favorite indie bookstore.  Or buy them on-line from Hub City Book Shop.


9781118104644_cover.indd                              living and fighting with the French underground

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For your summer reading pleasure: three women from history you’ll want to get to know

It’s been some time since I posted on this site, and I have lots of catching up to do.  For now, I’ll make do with flash reviews of three fictional accounts about notable women from my spring reading. A common thread among all of them is their focus on these women’s relationships with men and on the way all three women chafed against the limitations that were placed upon them as females in a particular time and place.

circling-the-sunI’ve never had the slightest interest in learning to fly a plane, but I’ve long been fascinated by women like Harriet Quimby, the first American woman to become a licensed pilot, and Amelia Earhart, an aviatrix who accomplished many firsts.  That’s why I was drawn to Paula McClain’s novel, Circling the Sun, based on the life of English-born Beryl Markham.  I knew about Beryl Markham as the first woman to cross the Atlantic east to west–nine years after Lindbergh did it in the other direction. Amazing enough, but reading this beautifully researched fictional account of her life gave me some sense of the woman she must have been–of her longing for autonomy and how difficult it was for a woman to achieve that autonomy in her time and place—early twentieth century Africa.

Markham’s father moved his family from England to Kenya when she was only four. Here he established a farm and became a well-known racehorse trainer while Beryl enjoyed a free-spirited childhood in the African bush. Abandoned by her mother around the time she was eight, Beryl grew fiercely independent. Her father lost the farm after a prolonged drought and moved to South Africa with his new wife while Beryl was a teenager, and the young woman stayed behind, disastrously marrying  an abusive drunkard from a neighboring farm. The two eventually divorced.

Beryl ran with the rich and famous among the European ex-pat set in Kenya including Karen Blixen, the Danish writer most of us know as Isak Dinesen, and the wealthy Mansfield Markham, who became her second husband and father of her only child. She was linked to a number of high profile men over the years, and her love life was always complicated.

Self-sufficiency was also essential to Markham, and she struggled to make her way in the harsh world of the African bush.  While still in her twenties, she became the first woman to become a professional race horse trainer in Africa, a career in which she found considerable success. markhamLater, she became a bush pilot, and she achieved a number of airborne “firsts,” most notably her trans-Atlantic flight.

McClain’s novel brings Markham and her Kenyan world to life with beautifully drawn landscapes and richly textured character studies.  Drawing on Markham’s own beautiful memoir, West With the Night, McClain created that rarest of things: a book that kept me thinking about it for days after I turned the last page.

the paris wifeAfter reading Circling the Sun, I couldn’t wait to read McClain’s The Paris Wife, a fictional account of Ernest Hemingway’s courtship of Hadley Richardson and their time together in Europe.  Hemingway was only twenty when he met Richardson, a St. Louis woman eight years his senior.

Hadley’s childhood had been a trial. She endured an overprotective mother who restricted her every move and the suicide of her father after financial reverses. Hadley left Bryn Mawr after a couple of years at her mother’s insistence, and she spent her early twenties nursing her ailing mother even as she tried to develop a career as a concert pianist.

Shortly after her mother’s death, she met Hemingway while visiting a friend in Chicago. The two embarked on a sometimes tortured but relatively quick courtship, much of it carried on via correspondence, and they married in 1921.  Soon after, they sailed off to Paris where Hemingway doggedly pursued his writing career.

McClain brings to life this marriage of two tortured souls. Already, Hemingway was engaged in the heavy drinking and the fiercely competitive relationships with other writers for which he became famous. We see him repeatedly alienate friends, including Gertrude Stein and John Dos Passos, and flail against his feelings of literary insecurity. richardson and hemingwayAnd we see Hadley try desperately to be the kind of woman Hemingway needed her to be, a losing proposition to be sure.  Hadley Richardson is not the fiercely independent woman that Beryl Markham was, but in McClain’s hands, we see a woman who manages to summon considerable inner resources to leave her troubled marriage and build a contented life.

One of McClain’s particular skills—recreating the landscape of another time and place—is on bold display in The Paris Wife. I could almost feel the rainy dreariness that overshadowed most of Hadley’s days in the Hemingways’ grungy Latin Quarter apartment and the reckless Bacchanalian world of Spain’s sunlit bullfighting  circuit.

georgia cover.jpgDawn Tripp is also adept at recreating landscapes, inner as well as outer.  Her novel, Georgia, explores famed American painter Georgia O’Keeffe’s relationship with famed photographer and art promoter Albert Stieglitz.  O’Keeffe met Stieglitz in 1916 after a friend of hers shared some of Georgia’s abstract charcoal drawings with the gallery owner. Struck by the purity of form and line, Stieglitz arranged a showing of them. The two met when O’Keeffe arrived unannounced to view the show, and the chemistry between them was unmistakable.

In spite of the fact that Stieglitz was married and more than two decades older, O’Keeffe proved unable to ignore her deep attraction to this powerful and influential man, a man who seemed to understand her as an artist in a way no one else had. Within a year, O’Keeffe gave up her teaching job in Texas to move to New York where Stieglitz set her up in a tiny studio and supported her work as a full-time painter. He also slowly but surely built her reputation as an artist, launching her wildly successful career. Inevitably, O’Keeffe’s patron became her lover, and after a messy divorce, Stieglitz married her.

Tripp’s O’Keeffe is a compelling woman, one who is at first equally motivated by her passion for art and her passion for Stieglitz.  Okeeffe handsOver time, however, Stieglitz’s controlling ways and his wondering eye erode the connection as O’Keeffe struggles to shape her own reputation and her own life. This novel is a raging, feverish book, populated by characters moved by mighty desires and extraordinary talents. (Added bonus: it’s a bit of a bodice-ripper!)

I had the pleasure of meeting Dawn Tripp at a Hub City Book Shop writer’s luncheon a couple of weeks ago.  Tripp described becoming drawn to understand O’Keeffe after seeing an exhibit of the artist’s abstracts—the very same abstracts that attracted Alfred Stieglitz. Tripp explained that she felt compelled to understand the kind of woman who could create such compelling compositions of line and shape at a time when abstraction was beyond avant-garde on the American—and world—art scene. I enjoyed hearing about Tripp’s journey into the mind and heart of Georgia O’Keeffe, so I had to read the book, and Georgia quickly found its way to the top of my reading pile.

So there you have it:  three great reads about notable women from history to add to your summer readings list.  If you want to read more about the authors and the subjects of these fine books, here are some places to start.  As always, you can order these books online at Hub City Book Shop.

west with the night.jpg


West With the Night, Beryl Markham’s memoir




moveable_feastA Moveable Feast, Ernest Hemingway’s account of the Paris years





Georgia O’Keeffe:  A Life, by Roxanna Robinsonokeeffe robinson






Aviator Beryl Markham Soars Again In ‘Paris Wife’ Author’s New Book

The Heningway Project interviews the author of The Paris Wife

Beyond “the eternal feminine”: Novelist Dawn Tripp reimagines the life and work of Georgia O’Keeffe



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Sisters are Doing It For Themselves: Girl Waits With a Gun, by Amy Stewart

girls watis with gun“Our troubles began in the summer of 1914, the year I turned thirty-five. The Archduke of Austria had just been assassinated, the Mexicans were revolting, and absolutely nothing was happening at our house, which explains why all three of us were riding to Paterson on the most trivial of errands.” So begins Amy Stewart’s satisfying new novel. The “three of us” are the Kopp sisters, Constance, Norma, and Fleurette, and they are delightful companions on a romp through the landscape of early twentieth century northern New Jersey in the days when the area was more industrial center than New York City suburb. The narrator of this delightful novel is Constance Kopp, and on the July day in question, she and her sisters embark from their little farm to the big city of Paterson in search of mustard powder and a new claw hammer. That afternoon, as they drove along listening to Norma read sensational headlines from the local newspaper, an automobile rams them. Luckily the sisters and their horse Dolly escape unscathed, but their buggy is shattered.

A crowd gathers as the driver and his friends, all reeking of alcohol, prepare to make their escape. The driver of the car turns out to be none other than Henry Kaufman, head of the nearby Kaufman Silk Dyeing company. Constance, an imposing woman who stands almost six feet tall, confronts the man, demanding compensation for her family’s buggy.  Kaufman refuses and eventually beats a retreat, but Constance is not to be deterred. She soon turns up on the doorstep of the Kaufman Silk Dyeing plant in pursuit of damages, launching her family on an odyssey of justice-seeking that will consume the next year of their lives and bring the sisters, who have been living alone on their farm since their mother’s death a year before, into contact with a cast of colorful characters. And along the way, we learn some surprising things about the Kopp sisters even as they discover deep wells of self-reliance and resilience within themselves.girl waits clipping

I loved this female quest novel, and I didn’t want it to end. Stewart pieced together newspaper stories, court records, and other historical documents about an actual case of intimidation and extortion from 1914 to give us an engaging picture of the challenges facing middle and working class women trying to make it on their own in early twentieth century America.

To read more about women in this time period, check out these titles, available at your local library, through your favorite indie bookseller, or online via my favorite independent bookstore, Hub City Book Shop.

if all we did was weep at homeIf All We Did Was To Weep At Home:  A History of Working Class Women in America, by Susan Estabrook Kennedy

The Rising of the Women, by Meredith Tax

the rising of the women

The Anchor of My Lifethe anchor of my life: Middle Class American Mothers and Daughters, by Linda W. Rosenzweig

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