In the 1930’s, the English novelist D.E. Stevenson wrote a warm, funny book about village life. The millieau of Miss Buncle’s Book is familiar to readers of E.F. Benson’s Lucia novels and the genre of village mysteries. There is no murder here, but the village is faced with the mystery of who wrote a novel that describes the village and some of its more prominent citizens all too clearly. Stevenson empathizes with the undisclosed author and her genteel poverty. The books’s humor largely lies with the reactions of some of the more self-absorbed and pretentious members of the community to their inclusion in the book. Their outrage is hilarious. There is an undeniably warm and cozy quality to this book, but it also has an interesting and sometimes surprising plot line and a brilliant take on how people perceive themselves and others. I recommend this book as a satisfying and clever read.
Ida B. Wells’s life is well-told in To Tell the Truth Freely – The Life of Ida B. Wells by Mia Bay. Ida B. Wells is one of those African American leaders whose name is familiar, but I didn’t know enough about her. Mia Bay’s excellent biography solves the that problem. Much of it is based on Wells’ own unfinished autobiography. This is a clear, focused book that fills a gap in civil rights history.
Wells was born a slave during the Civil War. Her parents were sort of middle class by reconstruction standards, and they made sure Wells received an education. Although she never received a college degree, Wells taught school for much of her early life. Her relatively secure life was shattered when her parents both died and left her an orphan at 14 with a bunch of younger siblings. Wells succeeded in keeping her family together and supported them by teaching school. All that is remarkable enough, but then her life gets amazing.
From he beginning, Wells had a firm sense of who she was and her own personal liberties, so she didn’t hesitate to sue a railroad that refused to allow her to seat in the ladies section despite the first class ticket she had purchased. The litigation was protracted and, although Wells prevailed at the trial court level, ultimately she lost on appeal. It is really hard to imagine an African American woman having the nerve to sue a railroad for not treating her as she deserved in the late 1870’s. Wells was tough and she was determined.
Wells was a writer and ultimately ran an African American newspaper in Memphis. At the same time she found her lifelong cause – anti-lynching. She called out lynching for what it was and never let go of the subject. It wasn’t a particularly popular topic, but she pushed it relentlessly and actually helped save some potential victims. Thanks to her anti-lynching activities she was run out of Memphis and her newspaper was burned out. Along the way she became friends with Frederick Douglass and knew many of the other civil rights leaders of her day. She and Booker T. Washington never got along — he was a sell-out in her view. As the NAACP and other civil rights organizations were formed, Wells was frequently left behind. She was female and she was not of the college educated African American elite of her day. When others saw promise in enlisting white allies, Wells blazed on with her pamphlets and her lectures. She never got the memo that she was supposed to sit down and shut up and let the men take the lead. In that light, she was a precursor of Diane Nash, the amazing civil rights activist of the 1960’s who never got her due as the likes of Martin Luther King, Julian Bond and Jesse Jackson took center stage. Unlike Nash, Wells refused to fade into the background.
Wells lectured all over the country and in Britain. She ultimately settled in Chicago where she married in her 30’s and had four children. Supported by her family, she kept up her political activities in Chicago and nationally, even as she had to take time out to make a living. As a last point, she also engaged in direct social services activity for her community in Chicago and stymied lynching in Illinois — she was no “mere” journalist and lecturer.
There is obviously much more to her story. I recommend this book about a strong, focused woman who was insufficiently appreciated in her day or in the years since.
Underground in Berlin – A Young Woman’s Extraordinary Tale of Survival in Nazi Germany represents a fascinating and important contribution to Holocaust literature. The author Marie Jalowicz Simon was a young Jewish woman who survived World War II by hiding in Berlin, often in plain sight. She survived to complete her education and become a professor in Berlin. Prior to 1997 Simon generally refrained from telling her story and angrily rejected requests for interviews. But finally, in 1997 during the last year of her life, she dictated her story onto 77 tapes (900 pages of transcript). Although she didn’t keep a written diary during her years of hiding, Simon had maintained a remarkable diary in her head. Marie Simon died in 1998, and approximately fifteen years later, after substantial research and editing, her son published this important book.
Every survivor’s story is unique, but Simon’s is really unusual, mostly because of her attitude. Simon was an educated woman in her twenties in Berlin. Her parents had died and she had no one depending on her. This gave her some freedom and mobility, but it also meant she had only herself to rely upon.
To survive in and of itself was noble, and Simon insisted on surviving. Apart from an unsuccessful effort to marry and relocate to Bulgaria, she stayed in Berlin and its environs. She kept her health and had tremendous ingenuity and nerve. Perhaps more importantly, she had just enough contacts to keep finding a series of short term places to stay. Simon was furious at her situation and furious at the German people, so she wasn’t particularly grateful to those who helped her. She never betrayed anyone, but neither did she waste much time mourning those who didn’t make it. Simon comes across as a difficult person who probably wasn’t the easiest houseguest or the nicest person to have around. But then, to hear her tell it, many of the people who took her in frequently weren’t very nice either. They seemed to have jumbled motives and were frequently unpleasant.
Not to digress, but an interesting study on what it takes to be a rescuer might be conducted just from looking at the lives of the people who stepped up to help Marie Simon. They were a very diverse group of odd personalities from a variety of socio-economic backgrounds. Unpleasant they may have been, but undoubtedly they stuck their necks out when they sheltered Simon. In the end, we see her rescuers only through Simon’s eyes, and she doesn’t dwell on how scared many of them must have been.
This book is particularly striking because of Simon’s strong voice. Simon absolutely rejects the fate the Naxi regime is determined to impose. At some level she holds all Germans accountable for the crimes implicated upon Jews and thinks that those helping her are only doing what they were supposed to do. Her rage is impressive and constant, even as she is always on her guard and looking for her next place to hide. The bottom line is that Simon was courageous and bold, and she succeeded in surviving for three years in Berlin during the last years of World War II. It is a great story.
This is a great book! For no particular reason except my obsessive alphabetical-by-author selection process, I recently picked up and devoured Carole Enahoro’s 2010 over-the-top novel Doing Dangerously Well. This chillingly funny book concerns the exploits and machinations of a sleazy bunch of characters determined to sew up and profit from monopolizing Nigeria’s water supply. There are the corrupt, paranoid politicians on the ground in Nigeria and then there are the corporate sharks of a huge, blatantly corrupt American conglomerate. On both sides of the ocean, the parties are so busy fighting among themselves that they fail to account for outside opposition to their overall plan. Mary and Barbara Glass, two sisters on opposite pages about everything except for the glee they each share in tromping the other, provide a crazy theme of family failure to complete this oddball satire about the deadly business of access to water. You really need to read this book. It is just amazing!
Carole Enahoro, the author, has a Nigerian father and an English mother, and has grown up in Nigeria, Britain and Canada. In addition to her parental and geographic diversity, Enahoro, has pursued a wide range of interests, including teaching geography at the the University of London and working in television. At the time this book was published, she was working on a PhD in spatial practice, power and satire in Nigeria’s capital. Her diverse talents are brilliantly employed in this novel and I really hope she writes another one. Soon. In the meantime, someone really needs to make a movie out of this. The part of over-the-top Barbara is completely made for Toni Collette, and Julia Roberts would have a blast as the evil corporate sister.
Thomas Keneally has written a memorable novel, Shame and the Captives. Set in Australia, away from the fighting during World War II, this novel focuses on prisoners of war held in a prison camp in Australia, as well as some Australians who have husbands and sons held in Axis prisoner of war camps. Apparently some Japanese prisoners of war actually did break out of their Australian prison camp during World War II, and this is a fictionalized account of that break out. As always Keneally focuses on what his characters are feeling and why they are doing what they do, and there are a wealth of personalities in play. The Japanese prisoners can scarcely believe they have been captured instead of killed, and basically feel their lives are over. Prisoners from Korea and Italy are more stoic about their present circumstances and ultimately more optimistic that they will have a future. Alice, the major female character is a young Australian bride whose husband went to war and was soon captured. She doesn’t know what to feel and is trying to find her way. The Australian officers running the camp seem uncomfortable with their situation and take an instant dislike to each other. Their hostility to each other is more intense than any feelings they might have toward their prisoners.
This book presents an odd juxtaposition of characters in an unfamiliar (to me) setting. People are doing their jobs and are careful to treat the prisoners carefully for a number of reasons: the prison officials in this book aren’t motivated by cruelty, they are acutely aware of the Red Cross’s requirements and they are particularly motivated to treat their Japanese prisoners well so that their own sons held in captivity won’t face reprisals. This makes for a very interesting book showing aspects of the “War at Home” that aren’t frequently addressed.
Finally, it is impossible to write about Thomas Keneally and a fictionalized novel based on wartime events without mentioning his epic novel Schindler’s List. To see the movie Schindler’s List is to focus on the horrors of the Holocaust and to recognize some of the heroic rescuers. To read the book, is to delve into why Oskar Schindler, of all unlikely people, was moved to take such imaginative and heroic actions. And then there is the next question, if Schindler did it, why were so few others similarly motivated. All this is by way of saying that if you haven’t read Schindler’s List, you really need to do that.