Book Review: The Patient Ecstasy of Fraulein Braun

This was a sneak peek at The Patient Ecstasy of Fraulein Braun, a novel by Lavonne Mueller, (Opus Books, 304 pages) originally posted in December 2012. It is now in print, having been released on April 30. The April 30 date is important, as it was on April 30, 1944 that Eva Braun and Adolf Hitler were married in the bunker beneath the streets of Berlin. The next day, they would both be dead.


But said Virgilius ‘What dost thou still gaze at?
…I made answer thereupon….’In that cavern where
I held mine eyes with such attention fixed,
I think a spirit of my blood laments
The sin which down below there costs so much.’

Dante, The Inferno, Canto XXIX, Longfellow translation

Was there anyone in history worse than Hitler? Probably. Our ally against him, Josef Stalin is one of the best candidates. But my generation, though once removed, still finds Hitler difficult to approach from any objective point of view. This may be because by seeking objectivity  we somehow neutralize the unspeakable horror that the man unleashed on the world. That horror still haunts from grainy photographs of young men and women that adorn bookcases and fireplace mantels; spectral images of human beings who died fighting him or who succumbed in the showers at Dachau to then have their ashes blacken the sky with the thick, choking reality of death.

What can we say, therefore, about someone who loved Adolf Hitler? Does loving a monster make of you a monster?

Playwright Lavonne Mueller has written a novel that would seem to answer the question, but which actually raises as many questions as it answers. Eva Braun, a young woman who fell for Hitler–whom she calls “Adi”–when he was a rising star, and then spent 12 years as his mistress hidden away from the public eye. After all, the Führer’s image was as one married to Germany, and it wouldn’t be fitting for people–women especially–to see the man on whom the nation was fixated to be romantically linked. So Eva spent many lonely years tucked away in the Berghoff, Hitler’s posh estate in the mountains, or sitting the back row at main attractions while Magda Goebbels, wife of propaganda chief Josef Goebbels, appeared publicly with the Führer as Germany’s informal “first lady.” Why would she subject herself to such a life?

The simplest answer, and the one that comes through int his novel, is that Eva Braun loved, idolized, adored Adolf Hitler. With apologies to Jerry Maguire, Hitler “had her at hello” the first time he met her at Heinrich Hoffman’s photography studio in Munich, where she worked as a young model. After that, there were no more men in her life. Even though she would have to share him with Germany, she was content to do so.

Well, there were times when it got to her. She attempted suicide twice, once with a pistol (she was a bad shot), once with pills. Were these pitiful cries for attention? Perhaps. If so, they worked to some extent. Hitler was moved, and soon began to be more attentive to her needs.

But Hitler had experience with suicidal women. The woman whom many–even Eva–thought was the real love of his life was his niece, Geli Raubel. Though she was 25 years his junior, Hitler was obsessed with the young woman, eventually controlling her movements and possibly subjecting her to deviant sexual acts. Her only escape from him was suicide, which she committed in 1931.

So, when Eva took the pills, the Führer came to comfort her with flowers.

The novel’s time frame is the last two weeks of Eva’s life in the Bunker, that Danteesque cavern where HItler finished out his career as Germany’s chancellor. She narrates, and it becomes apparent that this time beneath the streets of a devastated Berlin is the happiest time of her life. She now has “Adi” close. Oh, yes, the meetings with generals and advisors continue on late at night, but “Adi” is only separated by a wall and will come to her eventually. One quickly surmises that Hitler is living in a state of denial, hoping for a miracle that will never come, unable to accept the fact that it is over.

The narrative is not kind to Magda, the wife of Josef Goebbels. In fact, if we are to believe Eva, Magda spents a great deal of time rutting with this or that visiting officer, perhaps in retaliation for her husband’s much publicized affairs with German actresses. Magda’s shamelessness even extends to allowing herself to be mounted by a staff officer in a shelter while her oldest daughter is in the room. Eva covers the daughter’s eyes and tries to distract her from the grunts and moans.

Eva herself, though ardently devoted and faithful to Adi, suffers from a deep frustration that stems from Adi’s–shall we say–unusual style of lovemaking which leaves her totally unsatisfied. She sometimes finds ways to compensate in the fashion of a good Catholic schoolgirl (which, incidentally, she had been) who knows how to push then envelope just far enough with men so as to maintain “technical” fidelity.

These portions of Eva’s narrative strain credulity, as I am unable to recall any such allegations regarding Magda Goebbels other than an affair she had with one of Hitler’s henchmen, and “rumors” of others. It is doubtful that Magda was the kind of woman who would engage in table top sex in one room while her husband met with staff in an adjoining room.

Eva and “Adi” in happier times. Source: Wikipedia

Yet, there is a sense that I get from this story, and such orgiastic inclusions, that the women in the bunker were perhaps not as much in denial as were Hitler and some of his henchmen. Perhaps the point is that they knew all too well that the end was but days away so the irrepressible life force expressed in a few moments of sexual pleasure was hungrily sought as a means of dealing with the threat of extinction. There is a scene in the streets of Berlin later wherein Eva and an officer come upon two naked SS men engaged in sex with one another on a discarded mattress. They are desperately seeking a few minutes respite from what is certain–Russian tanks but two block away–to be their last few minutes on earth.

The best thing that this novel does is to point up the moral ambivalence, or perhaps the amorality or even moral perversity, of Eva, Magda, and many of the followers of Hitler. Magda and her husband would sooner die than live in a world without their Führer, and so they commit suicide after Hitler and Eva do–only they take the lives of their six beautiful children before doing so. Eva herself achieves her dream to be united with her beloved Adi on the night before they will die, in spite of the fact that her brother-in-law was executed two days before by henchmen of her beloved.  Her chief concern in the last hours is what she will wear for their wedding, while humans are being burned, shot, exploded and ground into asphalt in the streets above them.

Throughout, Eva blames anyone she feels isn’t loyal to the Führer, even his niece and former lover Geli, for letting the man down. People who did not serve him well or rightly simply didn’t understand what or who he was.

This book takes you into a cavernous hell that summons the ghost of Dante, one which attempts answers to some difficult psychological questions, but still leaves you wondering how a man like Hitler could inspire such devotion, even when that devotion clashed with conscience. As a general rule, people aren’t attracted to monsters.

Hitler’s secretary, Traudi Junge, a Braun lookalike who was with the Führer until the end, expressed this conundrum best in a journal written several years following the last night in the bunker:

“I was 22 and I didn’t know anything about politics, it didn’t interest me…. I…was fascinated by Adolf Hitler. He was a pleasant boss and a fatherly friend. I deliberately ignored all the warning voices inside me and enjoyed the time by his side almost until the bitter end. It wasn’t what he said, but the way he said things and how he did things.”

Six million or more human beings would undoubtedly have a very different take on “how he did things.”

Copyright Isaac Morris 2013

The Paris Wife: You marry the man, not the myth

Hemingway and Hadley in Paris – “I wished I had died before I ever loved anyone but her:” JFK Presidential Library and Museum – Ernest Hemingway Collection

On July 2, 1961, author Ernest Hemingway took his favorite shotgun, shoved the barrel into his mouth, and pulled the trigger.

Thus ended the life of one of the most iconic and mythologized authors of the twentieth century. His father had also shot himself, as had one of his brothers. Years later, his granddaughter Margot Hemingway would also take her own life.

Was it something in their genetic makeup?

Hemingway was always larger than life, and the real man behind the mask was not quite the macho figure that he cut for the press. Had his life been irrevocably set on its eventual course by the horrific wounds he suffered as an ambulance driver in Italy during the first world war? Or was he, rather, the spoiled son of a wealthy Oak Park, Illinois doctor and his domineering wife? A boy who grew into a man who wanted it all and to whom nobody could say “No.”

What was it like to be married to this man, who changed writing forever and forged a myth that is once again beginning to captivate us in the twenty-first century?

Some of the answers can be found in a very fine novel by Paula McLain, The Paris Wife (Ballantine Books, 2011), a novel of historical fiction narrated by Hemingway’s first wife, Hadley Richardson.

I am just now getting around to reading this novel, largely because I am suspicious of so-called biographical works of fiction. Many I find contrived and not worth the time. However, Paula McClain is a woman steeped in Hemingway lore, a woman who has written and lectured on the man for a number of years. Her inspiration for this novel is Hemingway’s own A Moveable Feast, a collection of memoirs about his early years in Paris during his first marriage to Hadley, the mother of his first son John, or Jack (father of Mariel and Margot).

In A Moveable Feast, Hemingway wrote of Hadley, “I wished I had died before I ever loved anyone but her.”

Then why did he leave her? He and Hadley experienced poverty together, loved each other, and he was a tender and loving spouse and father. It was Hadley who saw him through his years as a war correspondent and struggling writer of special interest pieces for the Kansas City Star which barely paid the bills. It was Hadley who traveled with him to Spain, saw the running of the bulls, and watched as his inspiration led to his first famous novel, The Sun Also Rises.

They were among those young people who were caught up in the “lost generation,” a generation fueled by alcohol, newfound freedom for women, and a feeling of dejection following the war that would end all wars. Free loving couples and women who thought nothing about chasing down another man’s husband were the sexual hallmark of the age, and it was just such a woman who would result in the end of their marriage.

Through it all, Hadley is seen as the stable influence in Hemingway’s life, his North Star in a sky filled with literary luminaries like John Dos Passos, Sherwood Anderson, Gertrude Stein, F. Scott Fitzgerald and a host of others whose names will thrill English majors around the world. Art was their life’s blood, and their art demanded sacrifice. Ernie’s wife and son would become the sacrificial lambs on the altar of his career. Something he would later regret.

In the end, the man could not sustain the myth. Shortly before his suicide he spoke with her (she had for some time been happily remarried), and his mind was filled with memories of times past that he now seemed to cling to in order to overcome his despondency. Apparently, it didn’t give him enough to hold on to. Halfway around the world from Paris, two-score years after he left Hadley for Pauline, and after his books told the story of a generation, the tough guy, the great white hunter and hard-drinking, two-fisted man of many women, reached for a gun. And he remembered the first woman–possibly the only woman–he ever really loved.

That’s the way McLain tells it. And, who knows? Maybe she got it right.

Copyright 2013 Isaac Morris

REPRISE: “Nobody expected this kind of . . . mess.”

He felt a quiet manhood, nonassertive but of sturdy and strong blood. He knew that he would no more quail before his guides wherever they should point. He had been to touch the great death, and found that, after all, it was but the great death. He was a man.

Stephen Crane, The Red Badge of Courage

THIS WAS ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED ON JUNE 13, 2012.

A mother’s son lies dead. Source: http://civilwarresources.net/

War is hell.

War is personal.

These two points hit you like a sledge hammer in Jeff Shaara’s novel, A Blaze of Glory: A Novel of the Battle of Shiloh (Random House, 2012). A Blaze of Glory is to the battle of Shiloh what Saving Private Ryan is to D-Day—a shocking dose of reality for anyone who clings to romantic notions about war in any age.

It began 2 months after the union army and navy under General Ulysses S. Grant took out Forts Henry and Donelson, thus opening up Tennessee to northern armies and driving confederate forces to the south. General Albert Sydney Johnston took his army south towards Corinth, Mississippi. Grant’s army moved south, intent on besieging the rebels there. But General Johnston had other plans.

Johnston was one of the South’s most lauded generals, and historians to this day debate what might have been the outcome had he and General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson not died early in the war. Our country might be a very different place today.

Johnston wasn’t going to wait for the union army to hit him in Corinth. Instead, he marched some fifty thousand of his men north and surprised about the same number of Grant’s men while they were camped around a little building known as Shiloh Church, a few miles from the Tennessee River and a place called Pittsburg Landing.

The attack caught the union completely by surprise, and during the first day soldiers under Generals Sherman and Grant were brutally driven back to the river and nearly overcome. It was only the death of General Johnston that saved them: his successor in the field, Pierre Beauregard—the “hero” of Fort Sumter—decided as dusk fell that he could rest his men, so certain was he of victory. He was reviled ever after for snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. During the night, union forces were reorganized and reinforcements arrived. The following day, the rebels were driven back to Corinth over the remains of the thousands who died the day before.

To say “war is hell” is almost a cliché . We know that already, right? No. We think we do—but unless you have been there you can’t possibly understand. The American civil war is one of those engagements we think of as shoot ‘em up Westerns on television—exciting, romantic, colorful, and filled with adventure. Every summer, hundreds of civil war re-enactors in their blue or grey wool uniforms, accompanied by a bevy of belles in their hoop skirts, travel around calling forth the atmosphere of the 19th century. Even central Illinois, where there was never a battle fought during the war, is host every year to Civil War encampments such as General Grierson Days in Jacksonville, which feature mock battles with deafening cannon, cavalry charges, and infantry engagements. All in good fun.

But as Shaara clearly conveys, there was nothing fun about it. Nothing Dante conjured in his Inferno could approach the horror of Shiloh.

About one hundred thousand Americans faced off along the Tennessee River on April 6-7, 1862. The battle moved towards the river on day one, and then on day two the union drove back against the confederates. Body parts lay in the field, men lay screaming and moaning. On the second day, soldiers were forced to walk over the dead and dying, and the smell made many retch as they walked on piled up corpses, slippery adipose tissue, and insect-covered carcasses to kill even more men. When the smoke cleared, about four thousand were dead, sixteen thousand had been wounded (horrifically, many with the loss of limbs), and several thousand were simply unaccounted for (a good number skedaddled!). In all, one quarter of the armies was dead, mutilated, or missing.

There were not a lot of photographers there to capture what took place at Shiloh: had there been, readers around the country would likely have clamored for an end to it the way we did when we saw pictures of what was occurring in Vietnam. As it was, the horror became little more than headlines for most of the country—so mothers never pictured what their children went through and the slaughter continued for three more years. By the time it ended, about six hundred thousand Americans would be dead.

Shaara makes this hell personal.As he did with Gods and Generals,Shaara tells the story from the point of view of the participants—among them Generals Grant, Sherman, and Johnston, a cavalryman who rode with Nathan Bedford Forrest, and an infantryman with the union army. Each man could only see a small part of the battlefield, could only see the man or men immediately in front of him, men who threatened, men they shot or sliced with bayonet or saber. The omniscient view of battle was for Gods and generals alone—but even the generals couldn’t fathom what was going on in time to stop one of the most horrific slaughters in American warfare up to that time.

In the people whose points of view we encounter we sense fear, confusion, rage, hunger, and an idealism that is hard for us to understand today. An idealism that would allow men to march into fusillades that would decimate their lines, only to line up again and continue on. The stakes were of the most radical and epoch changing. North and South were, truly, two different cultures and the civil war was, in the eyes of many in the South, a battle to see which culture would survive. Shaara sums up this attitude in a speech by an officer named Isham Harris, formerly Tennessee governor and, at Shiloh, an officer in the confederate army:

The South is one nation. We share so much, our beliefs, our culture, and we are willing to wage war for the right to hold to that, to preserve everything that we are. The North . . . they are mixed breeds, a mongrel dog beside a purebred hound. They share nothing that we share, no identity, no culture. They farm in Illinois and they run factories in Boston. If I go to Charleston or Atlanta, I know what I will find, how the people will regard me. I am the same as the man I see. But if a man in Minnesota travels to New York or Boston, he is in another world, isolated. What cause do they share? It is not possible they have a common bond. And now, because they outnumber us, they elect a president who does not represent anything of the South, and instead of reaching out and finding common ground . . . instead of being a leader, he orders his generals to bring their soldiers to our towns, to force us to become . . . them.

It has been a while since I have read four hundred plus pages with such intensity, and I can’t recall reading a book that made me cringe over descriptions of the horrors of the battlefield as this one does. But along with the horror, we witness the humanity. We are touched by these young men who launch headlong into fire and smoke, touched when they turn in terror and run, touched when they are forced to kill and then regret having done so. When Albert Sydney Johnston falls from his horse and exsanguinates from a wound that a tourniquet could have prevented, his aides find in his pocket a half-eaten sandwich that had been fixed for him by a woman in Nashville who admired him as a Southern gentleman. We sense the panic as soldiers from Sherman’s divisions drop their weapons and flee for the river, some never to be seen again. And we look on with admiration as Nathan Bedford Forrest leads a cavalry charge to stop pursuing Yankees, only to find that he is suddenly alone facing several thousand infantrymen. Still, he rides on—and lives to talk about it.

Some might complain that this isn’t history–it is fiction. Perhaps. Shaara’s voluminous research notwithstanding, one has to admit that the dialogue is the stuff of imagination. But it is plausible. It is grounded in original sources. History only tells us the facts. For the humanity of it all, fiction is the most viable vehicle.

A Blaze of Glory is to be the first in a trilogy. I eagerly await the next installment.

Rating (4/5)

Copyright Isaac Morris 2012

The Alamo: “Here heroes died….”

In 1983, I visited the Alamo. The only part of the old mission that remains is the church–which is considered a “shrine” by Texans–and the long barracks, part of which served as a hospital and once saw horrific slaughter in its darkened rooms. As you enter the building, you immediately become aware of how serious Texans are about the place: a sign near the main entrance reads, ““Be silent friend here heroes died to blaze the trail for other men.” If there is anything in the United States that could be thought of as a temple of liberty, it is this place where, in 1836, around 200 Americans died fighting a dictator who, at one time, threatened to march his army all the way to Washington, D.C.

The truth about what happened during the 13 day siege quickly dissolved into myth after news of the massacre spread across the United States, and the myth has taken root in the hearts and minds where it still resounds today. Movie makers have fed the myth (what baby boomer doesn’t remember Fess Parker swinging away with Old Betsy, or John Wayne swinging away with a torch?), and books have been written and continue to be written about this American Thermopylae, all of which suggests that the issues underlying the occurrences in South Texas in 1835-36 are still very much alive.

And, indeed, they are. Today, as the furor over immigration and what to do about our porous southern border continues, some have latched onto the story of this country’s history with our neighbor to the south, some with revisionist intent and others with the hope of restoring the glory that we once perceived in our battle for liberty. In the process, more truths are forthcoming, some of which suggest that the battle of the Alamo wasn’t so much about glory than about something less honorable, other of which suggest that–just as we suspected all along–it was something heroic waged in the face of tyranny.

The newest entry into the literature of the Alamo, The Blood of Heroes – The 13-Day Struggle for the Alamo–and the Sacrifice that Forged a Nation, (Little, Brown and Company, 2012, 500 pages) by James Donovan, revisits the story and leaves us once again proud of what occurred and of the men who gave their lives.

I couldn’t find a lot of information about author Donovan, who lives in Dallas, TX, other than that he is a literary agent and historian. I have, however, read his previous work about another battle-turned-myth, A Terrible Glory: Custer and the Little Bighorn–the Last Great Battle of the American West (Little, Brown and Company, 2009). I was impressed with his scholarship there, and am likewise impressed with his more than 100 pages of appendices, notes and bibliography in The Blood of Heroes.

Revisionist historians have claimed that the myth of the Alamo was fueled by racism, that Americans who lost to the Mexicans got back at them by painting Santa Anna and his troops as vicious and largely unworthy of our respect. Only sheer numbers made it possible for them to overcome the likes of Jim Bowie, Davy Crockett, and William Barrett Travis, and the 200 or so other frontiersmen who could shoot the fly off a branch with their long rifles.

Wayne’s libertarian vision of the historic battle was only occasionally historically accurate. Yet, it captured the spirit of what the Alamo was all about. Image credit: Wikipedia (low-res).

Not so, says Donovan. While it is true that the Americans did not fear the regular army, it had nothing to do with the fact that they were Mexicans. It was because many in the army were poor men, or convicts who were pressed into service and whose level of dedication was poor at best: many were but one snowstorm away from desertion. But Americans knew full well that it was nigh near impossible to defeat Santa Anna’s feared cavalry who, with their seven-foot lances, were well capable of taking out any number of men with long rifles–and in fact did just that at the Alamo. The Mexican army was filled with men who were as patriotic as were the men inside the fort, men who were decent, who fought for principle, and who lived and died with honor.

Inside the Alamo, there was a score of Tejanos–Mexicans descended from the original Mexican and Spanish inhabitants from the 1600s–who died fighting for the same reason as their American counterparts: they chafed at the attack on their liberty that Santa Anna represented. The famous knife fighter, Jim Bowie, was known in Mexico as Santiago Buy, the Anglo who had married into one of the foremost Mexican families in San Antonio, was a Mexican citizen by choice. Another defender at the Alamo, who left as a courier and later fought at San Jacinto, was a prominent citizen of Bexar named Juan Seguin. Seguin would be regarded later as one of the heroes of the Texan Revolution.

This wasn’t about race. It was about liberty.

Residents of Texas at the time were citizens of Mexico. Most of them were content with that arrangement, and few wanted to rock the boat. Santa Anna’s rise to power, and his increasingly tyrannical posturing, drove more and more to rebellion, and the taking of San Antonio de Bexar in December 1835 by the Texians was a challenge that Santa Anna could not let stand. Still, before, during and after the 13-day siege and massacre at the Alamo, only a handful of men would come to the aid of the embattled garrison of the old mission. In truth, it wasn’t the Alamo that tipped the scales in the Texas revolution, but the subsequent slaughter of nearly 400 Texans by Santa Anna in Goliad. The men there had surrendered and were promised parole. His excellency ordered no quarter, any promises made notwithstanding. Many–if not most–of his officers vehemently disagreed with the executions but eventually had to follow orders. It was this slaughter of helpless men, as much as the tragedy at the Alamo, that made inevitable the slaughter of Santa Anna’s men at San Jacinto and the birth of the Republic of Texas.

Some authors have argued that the freedom that the Alamo defenders died for was the freedom to own slaves, after the emancipation of slaves by the Mexican government in 1829 made the practice illegal. True, Mexico had outlawed slavery, and many negroes were enlisted among the fighting men who attacked the Alamo. But if the Texas Revolution was about slavery, then so too was the Revolution in 1776, since among the freedoms anticipated by many of our founding fathers was the freedom to continue the practice of slavery. Since many of the Alamo defenders came from the South–Bowie, Travis, and Crockett among them–slavery was a part of their culture. Still, only a small number of the Texicans who fought against Santa Anna owned slaves themselves. If anything, what brought Americans to Texas in droves was the possibility of obtaining land. Generous grants of land were made available–and there was plenty of it in Texas–to any who would come and servie the provisioal Government. Land equated to liberty, and that liberty (and all that it entailed, not just slavery) was being threatened by a ruthless and dangerous man who fancied himself the “Napoleon of the West.”

Donovan points out the hypocrisy of the Mexican government which, while it outlawed slavery, did nothing to change its peonage system. Peons in Mexico were treated as harshly as slaves, and were virtually the property of their overseers, yet nothing was done to alleviate their suffering. Peonage in Mexico was integrated into their economic system as slavery never was, so the concern for human rights by the Mexican government was selective at best, and opportunistic at worst. Peons in Mexico continued to live in slavery, and no one seemed to care.

Donovan addresses some other controversial topics in his book. Did Crockett surrender, or die fighting? Did Travis draw a line in the sand? Did a man named Louis “Moses” Rose fail to cross that line, and leave before the battle? And did a large number of men actually try to escape from the fort during the attack, only to die in the open field southeast of the mission walls?

Billy Bob Thornton’s role as David Crockett in the 2004 movie “The Alamo” was probably as close as anyone has come to depicting the frontiersman as he was: simple, kind, determined, and decent. Image credit: Entertainment Weekly

Donovan cites considerable evidence in support of the fact that Crockett did die fighting, and that the basis for the story of his surrender is suspect. And yes, Travis probably did give a speech and draw a line in the sand, over which all but one crossed. And Moses Rose? He was a real person, he escaped from the mission, and was taken in by a family who cared for him and corroborated the story years later. Finally, a large number of men did leave through the picket wall on the southeast side of the mission, hoping to make it to the nearby Alameda and make their way to Gonzales. Unfortunately, Santa Anna had anticipated this and had his lancers waiting. All of the defenders who left–some 60 to 80 men–died at the hands of the cavalry. Were these men cowards? Hardly. They were frontiersmen who knew that staying penned in was certain death, and who decided it best to take their chances in the open. Actually, it was the smart thing to do. Unfortunately, they were outnumbered and outgunned.

The Alamo is rightfully a shrine to those who sacrificed, fought and who died in defense of liberty, but we can’t forget that many of the supporters of Texan independence were Tejanos who were as opposed to tyranny as the Americans alongside whom they fought.

Texas would cease to be Republic and be granted Statehood in 1845, and the subsequent war with Mexico (1846-1848) would gain for the Unites States the rest of what is now the southwest United States, establishing a border along the meandering Rio Grande. Yet, echoes of a time when the Mexican flag flew over Texas are still present in our not-too-distant memory, a time when values clashed and freedom beckoned, a time when people were willing to suffer and die in their pursuit of happiness. The shoe is on the other foot: in the 1830s, Americans were flocking to Mexico in search of a better life. Now, hundreds of Mexicans sneak across our border in search of the same thing.

Would it help for us to hearken to the cries of the men who fought at San Jacinto, and “Remember the Alamo!” or “Remember Goliad!” Revisionist historians say no, that’s the worst thing you can do. But James Donovan would probably disagree. In the walls of that mission lived–and died–some of the finest that America had to offer–Mexican and American alike. They found something they could agree on, something that transcended race.

Freedom.

Copyright 2012 Isaac Morris

Lincoln again, but without vampires

Timothy L. (“Tim”) O’Brien went to work for The Huffington Post in January 2011, and today serves as executive editor. Prior to that, he worked as an editor for the New York Times in charge of the Sunday business section. He is a published author or non-fiction books, most notably of Trump Nation – The Art of Being Donald (Grand Central Publishing, 2005). Now, however, he has contracted with Random House to produce a series of fictional novels dealing with the Lincoln assassination, the first of which—The Lincoln Conspiracy will be released in September 2012.

This novel caught my attention because—well, because I live in Springfield, Illinois, where we eat, sleep, and drink everything Lincoln and because I walk past the tomb of this, our greatest President, at least twice a week on my walks through Oak Ridge Cemetery. Sadly, however, I don’t think O’Brien’s first novel will add much that is distinctive to the catalog of fictional works that Mr. Lincoln has inspired for all these many years.

There is a cinematic quality to O’Brien’s writing (does he anticipate a movie contract?) reminiscent of the quick and ready action and dark ambiance we have experienced recently in the Sherlock Holmes franchise. In the first chapter, President Lincoln has but recently been assassinated and the city and the nation are in turmoil. We meet Temple McFadden, an Irish detective with the District of Columbia Metropolitan Police, who is on his way to the train station to assist a friend who is unloading some stolen goods. Yes, that is what I said. It appears that Detective—or “Defective” McFadden (as his wife calls him, for reasons I shall explain: it has nothing to do with his character or his lovemaking) has a gambling problem and has to find ways to finance it on the side so as not to inconvenience his wife, whom he dearly loves (and who reciprocates that love and devotion in spite of the man’s many shortcomings).

While at the station, he watches in horror as a man gets his throat cut by some ruffians, and charges into the fray. Here is where the action begins. It seems that Detective McFadden has a bad leg, and has had since he fell from an orphanage window in Dublin severely breaking it. He carries a cane: hence, his wife’s title of “Defective” McFadden. The cane is to McFadden what Lincoln’s silver-bladed axe is to Lincoln the vampire slayer, a very effective weapon. He finds he is too late to help the bleeding man, but finds something in the man’s coat—a notebook. He grabs it, and finds that he is running for his life from a group of men who are out to kill him and get that notebook back. Then, another group of men arrive and start shooting at the first group of men. He barely escapes with his life.

He soon learns that he actually has two documents. One is a diary belonging to Mary Todd Lincoln. The other, an encrypted document that he quickly surmises belongs to none other than John Wilkes Booth, the assassin who has since been killed by agents of Secretary of War Edwin Stanton. But who are the men who were shooting at him, and at one another, and what was in these documents that they were willing to kill for? This is the crux of The Lincoln Conspiracy.

With the help of his friend, a free Negro named Augustus, he begins to unravel the secrets of Booth’s diary and to identify a series of actors who are given code names—all except for one. Who is Maestro? Finding out that information will result in several deaths, and endanger both Detective McFadden and his loving wife, Fiona before it is all over.

Temple and his wife are progressives in a world that, by comparison, is playing catch up (post-war D.C was clearly not a place where the black man was welcomed, Emancipation or no!). His wife, Fiona, is trained in medicine, works in the hospital along with male surgeons, and flouts convention in her dress and manners. Both she and Temple were active in the underground railroad (they are acquaintances of Sojourner Truth, who makes a cameo appearance and gives a little speech that—while inspiring— does nothing to advance the plot). In short, O’Brien has projected all of the modern sensibilities onto his protagonist the way most other writers today do when portraying the Old South (did it strike you as odd, in the movie The Patriot that the South Carolina landowner played by Mel Brooks owned no slaves?).

O’Brien has researched the ambiance of 19th century D.C., and provides fascinating detail of drawing rooms, mud-soaked streets, and police precincts even down to the badges worn by the D.C. police which show a complete Capitol building—even though cranes stand over the not-yet-completed structure that dominates the city. His eye for detail is nothing short of fascinating and the reader can almost feel that he is in the District in the weeks following Lincoln’s assassination.

There is something off-putting about the appearance, at various times throughout the novel, of snippets of disembodied verse. Temple is a poet at heart, and perhaps this is to show his affinity for verse even in times of trial. A little research (which takes a curious reader away from the action) reveals that these verses are from contemporaries like Emerson, Whitman, and Thomas Moore (the Scottish poet–not the man who lost his head over Anne Boleyn—his name is spelled differently). Okay. So much for the “Who.” But I am still left to puzzle about the “Why?” I think he could have left these out and done no damage to the well-paced story, which is clearly an action adventure more than a history lesson or a primer on 19th century versification.

But the thing that I found most frustrating was the fact that, after all the shooting, running, and fighting, when we finally do encounter Maestro, and learn all of the things that are supposed to shock us about the whereabouts of Booth and of John Surratt (son of the ill-fated woman who will hang for conspiracy), we don’t know or understand much more about the “conspiracy” than we did starting out. The only message that comes through is that the villains are nasty, capitalistic railroad barons who want to sacrifice all of the President’s altruistic efforts for—dare I say it?—profit. Ugh! Lincoln got rich representing the railroads in Springfield, after all.

The story ends in a violent conflagration which will, undoubtedly, provide a big finish if this is made into a film. And, if action is what we’re after, we frequently don’t bother too much about whether the explanation makes sense. At the end, we still don’t know who Maestro is—but I have a feeling we will be meeting him again in some of the novels to follow.

It seems we can’t let poor Mr. Lincoln rest, judging by all of the novels and films that are out or in the planning stages about him. The Lincoln Conspiracy is well-written (as you would expect from O’Brien), it is a fast read, and it’s not a bad one if you are into exciting chases and shootouts and secret diaries. It has elements of Sherlock Holmes, National Treasure, and The Conspirator, all of which are designed to compel. To that end it is enjoyable. But if you are seeking something deeper, this well isn’t the one to drop your bucket in.

Rating 2/5

Copyright 2012 Isaac Morris

Murder in the Tower of London

“The Princes in the Tower” (1878), John Everett Millais. Source: Wikipedia

One of history’s greatest mysteries involves the death of two royal children in 1483, Edward and Richard, the sons of England’s Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville, aged 13 and 10 respectively. Young Edward was brought to England to wear the crown, but within a few months he was declared a bastard by Parliament leaving the way to the throne clear for Richard of Gloucester, the boys’ uncle and Edward IV’s brother, who would rule as Richard III. The skulduggery leading to their disappearance and presumed murder is the subject of Phillippa Gregory’s latest novel, The Kingmaker’s Daughter (Touchstone, 2012).

Gregory’s fascination with the history of English monarchs has given us more than twenty well-crafted works of historical fiction. One of them, The Other Boleyn Girl (Touchstone, 2002), tapped into the fascination so many have with the randy court of Henry VIII and was made into a major motion picture. I don’t see motion picture quality in The Kingmaker’s Daughter, but it is quite a good read.

The protagonist-narrator here is Anne Neville, one of two daughters of Richard Neville, the Duke of Warwick, whose manipulations of those seeking the crown gained him the moniker which supplies the novel’s title. Two titled houses are tilting for power, the houses of Lancaster and York. Due to the long history of royal pairing for the purpose of political advantage, it is an internecine struggle, sometimes known as the “Cousins War,” but history remembers it best as the “War of the Roses” (so called because the emblem of the Yorks was a white rose, that of the Lancasters a red rose).

We meet Anne when she is a child of 8, a pawn of her father’s destined for his machinations, matchmaking, and kingmaking efforts. A short-lived marriage of convenience is followed by a love match with young Richard of Gloucester, one of the three sons of York and the one who will wear the crown after his brother Edward’s death.

This Richard is nothing like the misshapen and brooding man we meet in Shakespeare (remember, Shakespeare was pandering to the daughter of Henry VIII, whose father defeated Richard III ending the War of the Roses). He is a kind, gentle warrior who truly loves Anne, even though he has ambitions towards his brother’s crown.

Was he the kind of man who could have murdered, or ordered the murder of, two innocent young boys? History’s verdict has long been expressed in the affirmative, but the question remains open as far as Gregory is concerned. Indeed, she plans to give us her answer in her next novel.

One thing becomes clear: Anne Neville, who starts our story as a kind and innocent child, is a very different person after the years of intrigue and warfare. By the time Edward dies, she has become a woman who could do whatever was necessary, and the degree to which she may have encouraged the death of those children is deliciously suggested, though never confirmed. She is an older, more hardened woman by the time the novel nears it’s end, so who knows? She is quite clear concerning the threat to Richard, her husband, that the boys pose if they remain alive:

They will always be a danger to us. They will always be a focus of any discontent, for anyone who wants to question our rule.

It is now almost certain that the children were, in fact, murdered. A box containing the bones of two children was discovered buried in the Tower of London in 1674 during a renovation, and while conclusive scientific evidence is lacking the evidence that has been amassed is too striking to rule out the awful conclusion. But the question of who did it, thought closed by many, lends a eerie edge to Gregory’s novel that will leave you waiting for the next installment.

A Most Dangerous Woman

This is an advance review of Parlor Games, by Maryka Biaggio (Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group). The novel will be released January 22, 2013.

In college, I found myself enjoying a type of novel classified as picaresque. The word comes from the Spanish word picaro, meaning a “rogue” or a “scoundrel.” These novels are typically narrated by the anti-hero, a person who chooses to live by his or her wits rather than make an honest living; they take us to many places and through different classes of society; and they are frequently humorous, and quite entertaining. Some of the more memorable ones include Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders; Henry Fieldng’s Tom Jones; and William Makepeace Thackery’s The Luck of Barry Lyndon. The picaresque novel most familiar to Americans, however, is probably Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

Maryka Biaggio’s breakout novel, Parlor Games, is a novel of this sort. One difference: it is an historical novel. The anti-heroine, May Dugas, is based on an historical personage whose reputation garnered her the moniker of “a most dangerous woman.”

Dugas was not a serial killer. The “danger” faced by those who encountered her was financial. She had a long history of separating male admirers–and one female one–from their money. However, the “victims” were not all that innocent. They all wanted something from her.

Biaggo has a Ph.D. in psychology, and as such has sound insight into her character. She has also researched the late 19th and early 20th century exhaustively, and has written a book that speaks the language of that time, complete with its politeness and well-thought out syntax. This is not an easy thing to do.

Dugas, born in Fox River Grove, Illinois, moved with her mother and two brothers to Menominee, Michigan after her father’s sudden death. She loved her father, and enjoyed the times when he would take her to his favorite bar and have her do pirouettes on the bar to the delight of his drinking buddies. “Some people claim I hate men. Such nonsense. How I loved the sound of the men clapping and hooting.”

A beautiful girl, Dugas soon learned how her feminine charms could control men. Her first dalliance was with the handsome son of the town’s wealthiest citizen, which ended in a pregnancy scare. Not wanting to marry the boy, she talked him into supporting her on a trip to Chicago, ostensibly to find a family to take the child and spare her lover’s family the shame. They could, afterwards, begin their life afresh without the taint of scandal. At least that was what she told him.

In fact, she wasn’t pregnant, and instead found a life for herself in the big city which was everything she had ever dreamed it would be. In time, the boyfriend realized he was being taken and this forced her to find other means of employment. Which she did, without hesitation, in one of Chicago’s finest bordellos.

From there, she went on to enchant well-to-do men on several continents, and was soon the quarry of a Pinkerton detective named Dougherty, who plays Javert to her female Jean Valjean for the rest of the novel.

At one point, she pairs up with a hired “assistant” who is every bit as scheming as the lady herself. Together, they pull of a scam involved a diamond necklace that was allegedly stolen and rip off Lloyd’s of London for a large sum of money.

Her undoing is a woman she befriends, a manly woman named “Frank.” Frank is drawn to her friendship, and soon we understand why. She is in love with Dugas. When the book begins, Frank has filed suit against May–who now goes by “Countess DeVries” after a failed marriage with a Dutch nobleman–and the narrative goes back and forth between the 1917 trial (which is based in fact) and May’s travels through time and across the globe.

Will our heroine overcome the odds? Will she evade the wily Pinkerton man and find happiness? Oddly enough, those questions kept me reading. Biaggio made me care about the characters I was encountering. That’s a real skill for a writer.

I enjoyed this novel immensely. It is not what I thought it would be, just a “chick” book (although women would no doubt enjoy it, since it is about a woman in a time when wits were just about the only thing women had going for them). It is an entertaining romp across the globe, through bedrooms on several continents, and a fascinating insight into a very complicated, and perhaps totally amoral woman.

Copyright 2012 Isaac Morris