Review of “The Toll-Gate” by Georgette Heyer

This Regency romance by Georgette Heyer employs a great deal of “flash-patter” slang, which apparently actually originated in Derbyshire, a county in the East Midlands of England and the setting for this novel. [There is an interesting history of how flash patter arose in An Analytic Dictionary of the English Etymology: An Introduction by Anatoly Liberman.] Heyer provides no glossary for this slang, but it’s easy enough to get the gist of the dialogue. I also remembered some from the books by Lyndsay Faye set in 19th Century New York, where flash patter was the street argot of the era, especially because Faye did include a glossary with her books.

This story is also unusual in that the focus is on the hero rather than the heroine. Twenty-nine-year-old Captain John (called Jack) Staple is tall, handsome, genial, and honorable. He was a Captain in the Dragoon Guards, but now is mustered out and is at loose ends, and loathe to be bored by the strictures of formal society. He is also bored by women who have no spirit and no interests broader than advancing in society, and so he has remained unmarried. But that is all about to change.

Jack, riding off to visit his best friend, gets a bit lost, and ends up staying at a toll-gate house manned only by ten-year-old Ben Brean, acting for his father, who has gone missing. Ben is scared, and Jack agrees to stay and help out, as much for a lark as anything. But before long he is called to take a toll from 26-year-old local Nell Stornaway, clearly as independent as possible for a woman to be at that time, and with no care for propriety. They are both tall, but Jack is taller. It’s love at first sight.

So Jack decides to stay longer, and soon gets embroiled in “an excellent adventure” related to the disappearance of Ben’s father, that is not, however, without mortal peril for Jack. There are some fun side plots involving the humorous character of Jeremy Chirk, who is a highway robber but a good man, and who is in love with Nell’s former nursemaid Rose. There is also the delightful character of Nell’s grandfather, and the rather less savory characters of Nell’s cousin Henry and his friend Coates. But they are all entertaining, each in his own way.

Jack devises a way to fix everything aright – that is, unless he is killed.

Evaluation: This book, like others I have read by Heyer, is very fun, and reminiscent of the “screwball comedy/romances” of old movies. My only quibble with this book is that Jack’s declaration of love for Nell was so swift I thought he was having another of his larks. Besides being heralded as the true source of “Regency Romances”, Heyer should definitely receive notice for making “InstaLove” a plot feature as well.

Rating: 3.5/5

Originally published in 1954, and published by Sourcebooks Casablanca, an imprint of Sourcebooks, Inc., in 2011

Image of an 1835 Flash Dictionary from the British Library

Image of an 1835 Flash Dictionary from the British Library

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Review of “Scars of Independence: America’s Violent Birth” by Holger Hoock

Hoock aims to tell the story of the American Revolution by using violence as his central analytical and narrative focus. He argues that the story of the revolution has been subject to “whitewashing and selective remembering and forgetting.” Americans have chosen to portray the revolution as “an uplighting, heroic tale, as a triumph of high-minded ideas….” But as Hoock ably demonstrates from his well-researched account, the reality was much messier, marked by violence “in ways we don’t remember, and perhaps can’t even imagine, because they have been downplayed – if not written out of the conventional telling altogether.”

Why was this so? In all wars, narratives of one-sided violence (that is, violence by the “other” side) help to mobilize allegiance and support. Having a “moral” claim helps legitimize a nation both at home and abroad. And of course, with Americans averring that their primary interest was freedom, they needed a compelling message to counter the many ways their hypocrisy could be exposed – not only because of their enslavement of blacks and treatment of Natives, but because of the way the Patriots terrorized the Loyalists. Anglican churches and clergymen were singled out for even more abuse, because they prayed for the British king. Churches were smashed and priests tarred and feathered or covered with excrement. Some were killed, including one who was lynched by a mob in Charleston, South Carolina with his body subsequently burned on a bonfire. (Hoock writes that different regions in America “specialized” in different types of abuse.)

Lynching of Loyalists

Lynching of Loyalists

One of the worst places to be punished for Loyalist leanings was in Connecticut, where the accused could be taken to an underground prison located in a converted copper mine. This hell on earth (or in earth, as it was 60-80 feet underground) was dark, damp, squalid, with limited air circulation, and exceedingly unsanitary. Prisoners could not stand upright, and the political prisoners were mixed in with dangerous felons. Many of them went mad. As Hoock observes: “Psychological torment and physical violence played a far greater role in suppressing dissent during America’s first civil war than is commonly acknowledged.”

Connecticut's notorious Newgate Prison

Connecticut’s notorious Newgate Prison

There were also “political” punishments. Hoock reports on extralegal Patriot “committees of safety” that policed members of their own towns, encouraging neighbor to turn against neighbor, and not discouraging vigilante and/or mob violence. Other Patriot actions against Loyalists included enactment of treason laws, confiscation and banishment acts, test laws (to test loyalty), and the banning of Loyalists from voting, holding office, practicing their professions, trading, serving on juries, acquiring property, inheriting land, or even traveling at will.

Confiscation of property affected tens of thousands of Loyalists during the war, allowing the states to accrue assets and condemn traitors to a social death without engaging in widespread executions.

But the Patriots in general, and George Washington in particular, were well aware that “in order to win the war on the moral front, with both American and international audiences watching, [they] must out-civilize the enemy.” Thus, not only were stories of American violence suppressed, but stories of barbarity by the British, while rare – particularly at the beginning of the war, became pivotal pieces of the Patriot atrocity narrative: “In their print media, the Patriots presented such atrocities as part of a broader pattern of British excessive violence.”

George Washington during the Revolutionary War

George Washington during the Revolutionary War

The American Congress published numerous reports of any British atrocity in order to persuade the population of “Britain’s moral inferiority and the righteous urgency of America’s cause.” The most effective propaganda took the form of charges of sexual predation. As Hoock observes, “The high proportion of references to girls and teenagers being raped does not correspond to verifiable data…” But of course, as he admits, “As is the case in most wars, and in most societies, the incidence of rape in the Revolutionary War is impossible to quantify.” Rape victims were intimidated by threats, social ostracizing, and humiliation. They lacked witnesses to corroborate their stories.

Regardless, the “Americans deployed rape as a political tool to discredit the British Empire…” (Sadly, Hoock points out, narratives of rape from the period highlight the injured reputation of dishonored fathers and husbands, and were said to symbolize the violation of the body politic. The abused women themselves didn’t seem to matter as much.)

Cartoon showing metaphorical rape of colonies by British

Cartoon showing metaphorical rape of colonies by British

Hoock also devotes a considerable amount of time to the problems of prisoners of war. Observing the conventions related to prisoners created a dilemma for the British: if they called captured combatants thusly, and agreed to be bound by conventions re prisoners, they would ipso facto be recognizing the U.S. as a sovereign state. [Lincoln faced the same issue during the Civil War vis-a-vis captured Confederates.] It is estimated that between 16,500 and 19,000 American prisoners died in British captivity – roughly half of all the Patriots under arms who died in the war.

Hoock also shows the way racism fed the violence of the war, not only against blacks, but against Native Americans. America used the mobilization of the war to wage a simultaneous campaign against the Iroquois Confederation. Washington himself laid out the Continental Army’s objective in the campaign against the Six Nations to Major General John Sullivan as “the total destruction and devastation of their settlements and the capture of as many prisoners of every age and sex as possible. It will be essential to ruin their crops now in the ground and prevent their planting more.” ….. As Hoock remarks, “Today we would consider this a form of genocide.”

Major General John Sullivan

Major General John Sullivan

Finally, Hoock reports on the period after the war was over, when treatment of former Loyalists was quite punitive. While 60,000 or so white Loyalists went into permanent exile after the war, several hundred thousand wished to stay in their homes. But animosity ran deep, and violence was often employed against them.

Alexander Hamilton realized that while the physical fighting was ended, the war for hearts and minds was not over. He urged tolerance, warning of “the diplomatic, political, economic, and moral costs of persecuting the Loyalists.”

To that end, Americans “scrubbed” their own Revolutionary war record, which they celebrated as “untarnished with a single blood-speck of inhumanity.” For their part, Loyalists remaining in the States had no choice but to hide their trauma, or there would be severe repercussions. In any event, no American publisher would spread their version of events. The Patriots controlled the history.

The Spirit of '76, originally entitled Yankee Doodle, painted by Archibald Willard in the late nineteenth century, an iconic image relating to the patriotic sentiment surrounding the American Revolutionary War

The Spirit of ’76, originally entitled Yankee Doodle, painted by Archibald Willard in the late nineteenth century, an iconic image relating to the patriotic sentiment surrounding the American Revolutionary War

Discussion: Hoock uses multiple lenses to ferret out the real story of the American Revolution without the obfuscation of socially-constructed myth. In addition to accounts of American Patriots, he examines those of American Loyalists, the British, Native Americans, Black Americans, and German mercenaries. He also illustrates the ways in which the history of of the American Revolution was interpreted – first of all to serve the social and political agendas of the combatants at the time, and second, to readjust the understanding of the conflict in light of WWI, when it became especially important to minimize the legacy of violence between “kindred Anglo-Saxon peoples…”.

Hoock’s emphasis on the historical reconstruction of the war – i.e., the deliberate formation of the collective memory of the war – is critical to an understanding of how narrative was used by America to reshape what happened into a suitable foundation story. Not only do “the victors write the history,” but they tend to do so in a way that is more self-serving than accurate.

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Evaluation: This book is a much-needed corrective to the many histories of the founding of America that only show the “noble” aspects of the struggle. It contains details of many violent incidents of the war that haven’t made it into other accounts. As historian James Young famously observed, “Memory is never shaped in a vacuum; the motives of history are never pure.” As we now combat the divisions of the country after an election that emphasizes our divides rather than our commonality, we would do well to remember how easy it has been for this country to succumb to violence, discrimination, and cruelty, and then use “alternative facts” to cover it up.

Rating: 4.5/5

Published by Crown Publishers, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of penguin Random House LLC, 2017

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Kid Lit Review of “Miss Mary Reporting: The True Story of Sportswriter Mary Garber” by Sue Macy

This book tells the true story of Mary Garber, who successfully pursued her dream of being a sportswriter in spite of huge obstacles for women in that field. She was so beloved and respected that she was inducted into the Hall of Fame of the National Sportcasters and Sportswriters Association in 2008 at the age of 92.

The author begins her story when Mary was a little girl. She loved playing sports, watching sports, and reading all about them. She wanted to report on them too, but did not get an opportunity until the U.S. entered World War II. Many men joined the service, including all the sportswriters at the Winston-Salem, North Carolina “Twin City Sentinel.” Finally, women could get a chance at some of the jobs that employers were now unable to fill by men.

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As the author writes: “She wrote about baseball, football, basketball, tennis, track and field, and just about every other competitive contest including marbles.” She covered games whether at white schools or at the segregated African-American schools. She coped with the discrimination against women in the press box and locker rooms by drawing inspiration from Jackie Robinson, who showed “quiet dignity in the face of taunts and jeers.”

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For more than fifty years, Mary continued to write, not stopping until 2002, when she was in her eighties!

Over the years, many people came up to Mary and told her what a difference she had made in their lives by writing about them, and by showing girls that they, too, could be sportswriters.

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The back of the book contains an Author’s Note, a timeline, and a guide to additional resources.

You probably have seen the illustrations of C.F. Payne before; his Norman-Rockwell-like artwork has been featured on the covers of such magazines as Time, Readers Digest, Sports Illustrated, The New York Times Book Review and Sunday Magazine, and MAD Magazine, to name a few.

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He uses mixed-media artwork to create a soft, hazy effect that suggests a historical quality. He also is known for a caricatured rendering of characters that emphasize salient features. In this case, Mary’s diminutive stature and large owl glasses stand out. He also often shows Mary alone, in both a metaphorical reference to her status and a real depiction of how singular and isolated she often was.

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Evaluation: This is a great book to show girls that it is possible to do anything they want to do if they have enough perseverance and determination (well, and a world war….).

Rating: 4/5

Published by Paula Wiseman Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing, 2016

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Review of “The Light We Lost” by Jill Santopolo

The dedication for this book reads “For New York City” and in fact, September 11, 2001 is a seminal moment in the story, and a turning point in the life of the main protagonist, Lucy. Lucy narrates this book in the form of a letter to Gabe, whom she met 13 years earlier at Columbia University in New York on 9/11; she was 21.

Gabe was an aspiring photographer, and Lucy admired that about him; that he knew how to find beauty everywhere and in everything. “You notice things other people don’t.”

At that time, Lucy didn’t know what she wanted to do yet; she was trying to figure out for herself the answer to the question “What makes a life well spent?” She told Gabe:

“I think it might have something to do with making a mark – in a positive way. Leaving the world a little bit better than it was when you found it.”

And on that day, 9/11, given what happened, she vowed to herself that she would live her life in a way that would give back.

Gabe felt that way too.

Gabe and Lucy eventually got into a relationship; Gabe was the first man who ever said “I love you” to Lucy. They were together fourteen months, living together for five of them, and for Lucy, they were life-changing. She told him, “I’ve never felt as alive as I did those five months we lived together.”

Lucy liked to think of the two of them as “a binary star,” orbiting around each other.

But Gabe had demons from his childhood that controlled his choices, and battling them took precedence over everything else in his life. He also felt he couldn’t just sit back and not try to contribute, by way of the candid images he captured, to an increase in compassion and caring in the world. Without consulting Lucy, he decided to take a job with the AP, going to war-torn countries and documenting what was happening to civilians.

In addition, Gabe thought that there was some sort of karma operating in the world by which people only get a finite amount of happiness, so that the joy he felt with Lucy had to be balanced somehow with suffering and sacrifice. Lucy didn’t agree, but she never could convince Gabe.

So Gabe left, and he and Lucy went their separate ways, at least physically. They each met others, and Lucy even got married to Darren – steady and reliable, who metaphorically provided her with a “hearth fire” instead of a “wildfire” as when she was in a relationship with Gabe. Darren “wasn’t dark and complicated – being with him was fun and easy,” even if sometimes less than exciting.

But Lucy missed how Gabe saw her, understanding her without wanting to change her. In her letter she says to Gabe: “You wanted me because of. Darren wanted me in spite of.”

Still, she had responsibilities, including, eventually, children. She would never have changed having had her children even if it meant never again feeling “infinite and invincible” as she did with Gabe.

Nevertheless, Lucy and Gabe remained connected in many ways. So what happened to them and why is Lucy writing this letter in which she confesses so much? We don’t find out until nearly the very end.

Discussion: I felt Lucy was drawn better than the male characters, who seemed much more cardboard-like. We only get small glimpses of them, reflected by Lucy’s complaints or occasionally praise. Darren was a bit chauvinistic and controlling, more committed to Lucy as (ironically) a cardboard construct than to the person she really was. Gabe was passionately engaged with life and with Lucy, but so emotionally conflicted it disabled him. As a reader, however, I never felt like I “knew” either of them, nor did I fully understand them. As for Lucy, she complained about Gabe being too much about Gabe, but she was pretty much all about Lucy, and neither of the two of them – not just Gabe, as Lucy charged – were good at communicating their wants and needs.

Evaluation: While I liked the story a lot and it was very affecting, I thought some aspects of the plot and characters were a little under-developed and/or too ambiguous. On the other hand, a book club might have good discussions about this book for those very reasons.

Rating: 3.5/5

Published by G.P. Putnam’s Sons, an imprint of Penguin Random House, 2017

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Review of “The Outsider” by Anthony Franze

This legal thriller was intellectually stimulating, well-paced, and sufficiently suspenseful to keep me riveted.

There are a number of underlying themes. One is a series of unsolved, ongoing murders that seem tangentially related to the Supreme Court. A second is the book The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton, to which there are a number of references. The main character in this book, Grayson “Gray” Hernandez, evokes one of the protagonists of The Outsiders. And on a meta level, there is also the theme of the obvious fondness of and appreciation for the Supreme Court as an institution by the author, who shares with readers much of its culture and lore via the main characters, who work at the Court.

Statue of Contemplation of Justice by James Earle Fraser on the main steps of the Supreme Court Building

Gray, in his late twenties, graduated from a lower-tier law school, and while he loves the Court and constitutional law, he just serves as a messenger in the Court building; it was the only work he could find. He feels like an outsider there. The Supreme Court has 36 law clerks – four per justice – but they are almost all white, from affluent backgrounds, and graduates of Harvard or Yale, “or institutions that, unlike Gray’s law school, had ivy instead of graffiti on their walls.”

Gray’s luck changes however when he thwarts a murder attempt on the Chief Justice, who then asks Gray to serve on his own team as the “thirty-seventh” clerk. This is not only a fantastic opportunity for Gray to learn and contribute to Court decisions, but a great career move: “It was an internship like no other, promising young lawyers . . . a ticket to any legal job in the country. . .” Gray eagerly accepts, although his four fellow clerks aren’t quite as enthused.

The Great Hall of the Supreme Court with double rows of monolithic marble columns that rise to a coffered ceiling

Gray quickly proves his worth; he is hard-working and loves what he does, and tries to go the extra mile to compensate for his less-than-stellar academic background. The Chief Justice seems to take him under his wing too, even arranging for Gray to stay at his fabulous apartment he keeps in Georgetown, and letting him drive the fancy car he keeps there.

But Gray is a natural helper/superhero kind of guy, and one of the FBI agents working on the murders takes advantage of Gray’s desire to save everyone around him by asking for his help with the case. Eventually not only he is in great danger, but so are his two best friends – the rest of “The Outsiders” gang.

Evaluation: I really enjoyed this book, even though the references to famous Supreme Court cases that served as “clues” might be obvious to anyone who has studied constitutional law. And the insights into what goes on inside the Court on a day-to-day basis were very interesting. (The author is a lawyer in the Appellate and Supreme Court practice of a prominent Washington, D.C. law firm.) Gray is a great character – very smart and brave, but human enough to do some really dumb things.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Minotaur Books, an imprint of St. Martin’s Press, a division of Macmillan Publishers, 2017

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