Posts Tagged ‘American History’

Regulated for Murder by Suzanne Adair

September 9, 2013

The time is February of the year 1781. In Wilmington, NC, Lieutenant Michael Stoddard of His Majesty’s Eighty-Second Regiment is given an assignment. He must find General Cornwallis, rumored to be somewhere in the North Carolina backcountry between Cross Creek (modern day Fayetteville) and Hillsborough. He must deliver a message telling the general that he cannot count on Cross Creek for supplies, but must travel all the way back to Wilmington to resupply his men.

Stoddard’s journey will be difficult and dangerous. The people of Hillsborough have not forgotten the memorable day ten years previously when British governor Tryon hanged six local men and buried them in an unknown grave. This incident of the “Regulators,” who were rebelling against crooked tax collectors and land agents, still stirs the desire for revenge in many.

In addition to the local patriots, Stoddard must beware his fellow redcoats. With king and country—and any real accountability—far away across the ocean, some of them have deserted and begun swindling and framing their fellow soldiers and civilians. Others use their position within the army to line their own pockets and satisfy their crooked whims.

Stoddard makes his way to a designated “safe house” in Hillsborough, only to find its occupant dead upon the floor, his throat slit. Discovered at the scene of the crime moments later, he has trouble proving his innocence since no one in town knows him and he cannot reveal his true identity or purpose. Now, with General Cornwallis still to find, he has to solve the murder or be hanged for it himself.

Suzanne Adair evokes the confusion and conflicting loyalties of these times in our history. Her attention to detail helped me to see, hear, and even smell revolutionary-era Hillsborough. She exploits a historical fact—that in 1781 Major James Henry Craig of His Majesty’s Eighty-Second Regiment in Wilmington sent three separate messages to General Cornwallis regarding the unsuitability of Cross Creek for his supply depot. None of these messages were received.

Cornwallis’ difficulties with supplies turned out to be a deciding factor in the war. With his troops exhausted and depleted after their long march through hostile North Carolina, the general decided to join the British forces in Virginia, where he surrendered in October 1781.

Adair couples these historical details with a fascinating murder mystery and has created a story that will have readers wanting more. Fortunately for us, the sequel, A Hostage to Heritage, continues the story of Michael Stoddard’s adventures during this turbulent time in North Carolina history.

Suzanne Adair along with several other local authors will be at North Regional Library and Cameron Village Regional Library this month, visit our website for more details.

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Boone: A Biography by Robert Morgan

August 8, 2013

Boone: a Biography is well researched and well written, by a poet and novelist. The author, Robert Morgan, a native North Carolinian, became interested in Daniel Boone (who came of age in North Carolina) when he wanted to write a poem about the intersection of Native Americans and Colonial American cultures. That interest morphed into Morgan’s first work of non-fiction.

Boone was nicknamed the “Columbus of the Woods”. Lord Byron writes of Boone in his epic poem “Don Juan”. Parts of James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans are based on Boone’s experiences.

Morgan demystifies Boone, the prototypical American folk hero. Far more than a frontiersman, Daniel Boone was at times a hunter, trapper, explorer, land speculator, debtor, surveyor, elected politician, horse trader, and tavern keeper. He served in the French and Indian War, the Seven Years War, the Cherokee Uprising, Dunmore’s War, the Revolutionary War, and the Northwest Indian War. All of this is explored in Morgan’s biography of Daniel Boone, while chronicling America’s westward expansion.

Most interesting though, and back to the author’s motivations, is Morgan’s focus on Boone’s relations with Native Americans. Boone was raised a Quaker and sought to befriend Native Americans all of his life. This was in spite of many encounters that were tragic. The book documents the manipulations of Native Americans, by the French and the British, to make war with settlers, first in the French and Indian War and then in the American Revolution. Perhaps without that manipulation, relations between the cultures might have been very different.

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Train Dreams by Denis Johnson

July 2, 2013

traindreamsIn 2012, the Pulitzer Prize board declined to award a prize in fiction as the members of the board simply could not reach a majority vote. Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams (originally published in a slightly different form by The Paris Review in 2002) was one of the nominees.

Robert Grainier is a day laborer – a logger, a hauler – born in 1886, dead in 1968. His origins are not known and he is essentially an orphan. Some claim that he spoke French as a child, and his parents may have been Canadian. But Grainier is raised in the U.S., and he is part of the epic changes the country goes through. As a young man, his eyes fall upon forests that “white” men and women have barely ventured into. Later on, in the 1950s, he almost catches a glimpse of Elvis Presley on his touring train. However, Grainier lives on the periphery. He leads an anonymous life and he will not be remembered after his death. He comes, he sees, and then returns to non-existence without leaving a lasting imprint on the world.

Quietly the novel describes a simple and intriguing life. Grainier can be described as a decent man, yet he tries to kill an alleged storeroom thief, a “Chinaman” who Grainier thinks puts a curse on him. His wife and young daughter bring happiness, but life is as fragile as the flickering light of a candle. Packs of wolves fill the night with their howls, and nature and local legends permeate his existence. And the ancient tales of the Bible are also part of Grainier’s world view. So when an all-consuming fire sweeps through the valley where Grainier lives he instantly makes biblical connections: “He saw no sign of their Bible, either. If the Lord had failed to protect even the book of his own Word, this proved to Grainier that here had come a fire stronger than God.”

Yes, Grainier inhabits an untamed wilderness far removed from the culture the settlers bring with them. And this meeting between nature and culture gives rise to something new. Even though men like Grainier were born, lived, and died without leaving much behind, they all helped create something that was (in a way) larger than them and that survives to this day: the legend of the American pioneer.

In Train Dreams, Denis Johnson breathes new life into this legend, and it’s easy to understand why this book was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in fiction.

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Hellhound On His Trail by Hampton Sides

April 26, 2013

I stumbled across Hampton Sides while looking for a new audiobook. This is one of the best audiobooks I’ve ever listened to. He writes nonfiction in the most vivid, engaging style that makes this a page turner of a book, as good as the best novel with plenty of suspense.

This is the story of the hunt for Martin Luther King’s killer. The name James Earl Ray never comes up because Ray used many different aliases. Sides painstakingly depicts Ray as a habitual petty criminal and extreme racist from a family of the same kind whose motivation appeared to be to commit the perfect crime and prove to himself that he was a master of the game. Ray seemed to think that he could outsmart all the people who were looking for him.

The manhunt began immediately based on where the witnesses said the shot came from. There is a famous photo showing the men pointing toward the rooming house from which Ray fired the fatal shot.

All of King’s associates, J. Edgar Hoover, the other FBI agents, family and others are part of the story. Suspense mounts as Ray stays just ahead of efforts to apprehend him. Just as he was about to sail from England to Africa on a forged passport, he was captured and the brought to justice. It was a supreme achievement for the many law enforcement agencies that were on the hunt for him.

Ray eventually confessed, was sentenced to prison, managed to escape and was recaptured. He attempted to recant his original confession in order to gain a trial, but was not successful. Even if you have read the newspaper accounts, there is so much more to be learned from this book. I highly recommend it.

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The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

March 13, 2013

The Great Gatsby is the quintessential novel of the Roaring Twenties.  It is a story about the promise of wealth and privilege turning to ashes, about the American Dream gone awry.

James Gatz is a penniless Midwestern youth who comes back from the Great War determined to become somebody important.  His dream is fueled by his devotion to Daisy, a breezy socialite who is secure in her inherited wealth, whose enchanting voice is “full of money.”  Through various shady business deals in New York City, he succeeds in transforming himself into Jay Gatsby, who buys a lavish mansion across Long Island Sound from the equally imposing mansion of Daisy and her husband Tom Buchanan.

Another penniless young man from the Midwest, Nick Carraway, lives in a small bungalow next door to Gatsby’s estate.  Nick commutes into New York each day to work his somewhat aimless job in the “bonds business” and to gaze wistfully at the lives of the rich and famous.  He is a distant cousin of Daisy, who likes to invite him over for tea so she can have a handsome young man to flirt with in front of her husband (who is rumored to “have a woman” in the city) and so she can confide in him all her romantic sorrows.

When Gatsby discovers Nick’s connection with Daisy, he seizes this chance to display to her all the splendor of his new identity and lure her away from Tom.  With Nick as a go-between, he arranges to meet Daisy and to rekindle the love they shared before the attractively wealthy Tom came on the scene.

These bare details make the characters sound coldly calculating, but what makes this novel so compelling is all the romantic illusions they have about themselves and each other.  At times Nick, who is the narrator, is completely charmed and taken up into the dream, and at other times he has a razor-sharp insight into the meagerness behind the façade.

The reader’s experience is similar.  Fitzgerald’s prose is so beautiful and Gatsby’s almost boyish hopefulness is so absolute that we really want to believe it will all work out for him.  He flashes his smile and for a moment we see him as Daisy did when she first met him—a handsome, charming young man in a soldier’s uniform who pays her the irresistible compliment of placing her at the center of his world.

When reality comes crashing down, we can no longer deny that Gatsby’s romantic longing is prettified adultery, that wrenching apart people’s lives to satisfy your hopes and dreams has a rebound effect.  Gatsby and Tom’s mistress Myrtle pay the price, and it seems that Daisy and Tom come away unscathed, protected by their money and their unabashed devotion to selfishness.  The one last hope we are left with is that Nick, who is in many ways like James Gatz once was, has learned the cost of at least one version of the American Dream.

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True Grit by Charles Portis

March 5, 2013

True GritTrue Grit is a great comic Western, a genre that does not usually include a lot of comedy.  One of the problems I have with Westerns is that they tend to take themselves too seriously.  You might say that there is not much to laugh about in the lawless brutality of the Old West, but there must have occasionally been some funny characters and comic relief.

Mattie Ross is one of those people who takes herself rather seriously, but then she is on a serious mission—to avenge the murder of her father.  No one else in her family can or will undertake the task, but 14-year-old Mattie is more than up to it.  She hires the toughest US marshall she can find—battle-scarred, one-eyed Reuben “Rooster” Cogburn—and together they head for the Indian territory, where Tom Cheney, her father’s murderer, is said to be hiding out.

Crusty old Marshall Cogburn is not happy about having a “kid” along (and a girl at that) and neither is his new sidekick LaBouef of the Texas Rangers, who is on a mission of his own to catch the same man, wanted for the shooting of a Texas senator.  LaBouef and Cogburn try every trick they can think of to shake Mattie off their trail, but she is even more doggedly determined than they are.  Finally, they reluctantly agree to take her along.

Mattie Ross is a tough character, but she recites Scripture and aphorisms like a school marm and turns up her nose at the men’s drinking and uncouth behavior.  However, she is all heart and incredibly brave, though her inability to handle her father’s horse pistol finally lands her in serious trouble.

LaBouef turns out to be nearly as much trouble for Cogburn as Mattie is.  He’s conceited, full of self-importance, and packs a big rifle that blows away whatever game he tries to shoot with it.  Still, Rooster later has good reason to thank LaBouef’s excellent long-range marksmanship.

The action moves swiftly, and there is never a dull moment.  The posse discovers that Chaney has joined up with “Lucky” Ned Pepper, whom Cogburn has tried unsuccessfully to kill on several occasions.  There is a fine line between the lawman and the outlaw, and there is a sense of grudging respect between them.  The climactic battle between Ned and Rooster is one of the highlights of the novel.

The original movie with John Wayne and Kim Darby is one of my favorites.  I have not seen the remake, but I hear it is good.  However, don’t miss reading the novel; it’s got all the great scenes from the original movie but with more insight into the characters.

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The Idea Factory by John Gertner

November 9, 2012

In John Gertner’s wonderful The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation, he mentions a comment made by Bill Baker: “…all of human experience can be expressed in binary digital terms”.  As far back as the 1950’s, or so the story goes, there were several scientists, truly brilliant minds, who were working on what we call cell phones. They also worked on and invented many more gadgets that currently shape our world. This book is the story of how all of this happened. The tome is quite fascinating and written at a caffeine injected speed. Many stories or biographies could be written with this book as an original source of inspiration. Gertner tells us that these are the people who invented our present.

But this reader was left with the question: is all of this a good thing? To be sure, all of the technology that we currently live with has certainly made many things in our lives more convenient, but I am not convinced it has made them wholly better. I realize that I am not a young man anymore, and that it could very well be true that I am an old fuddy-duddy. However, it is strange to see groups of people sitting together not conversing but staring at their smartphones. Manners seem to have also disappeared with the ubiquity of these devices. Alas, I am beginning to obscure the lines between observation and judgment.

Read The Idea Factory if you have any nascent interest in science, technology, ingenuity, industry, and people with vision. I left this volume with a little bit of hope. I felt that if people can create and reconstruct reality just out of sheer will and imagination, then surely we can solve the seemingly overwhelming problems of our own time. Maybe people in the future will look back at what we do, the way we look at Bell Laboratories, and become inspired, not discouraged, maybe not.

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Nowhere Else on Earth by Josephine Humphreys

April 9, 2012

This lyrical novel tells a little known story of North Carolina during the Civil War.  The inhabitants of Scuffletown are mostly Lumbee Indians and “free men of color”, who have not joined either side in the war but are still affected by it.  The turpentine factories have closed so they have no work; the Union Army keeps coming through and taking everything which is not nailed down; and the local Confederates keep kidnapping the young men to work as slave labor in Wilmington.  The population of Scuffletown generally sympathizes with the Yankees even though they don’t treat them much better than the Confederates.  But mostly they would like to just be left alone.

Sixteen year old Rhoda Strong’s brothers have joined a band of young men living in the swamps, hiding from the macks (the local white landowners, who are all a McSomething).  The outlaw band is made up of not only the local men, but also deserters from both armies.  As the war nears to an end, the residents of Scuffletown are getting desperate. The macks are losing the war and are blaming it on the outlaws instead of the Yankees.  There is very little food available for anyone, and violent acts committed by both the macks and the outlaws are increasing. Rhoda falls in love with the leader of outlaws, Henry Berry Lowrie and then becomes a target for the macks when it becomes known that Lowrie returns her feelings.

Humphrey’s novel has a basis in history.  Henry Berry Lowrie was actually the leader of an insurgent group in North Carolina.  To tell you his fate would give away the ending, though. I would recommend you read the novel, which not only tells a fascinating story but is also is beautifully written.

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Thomas Jefferson: Author of America by Christopher Hitchens

January 19, 2012

“Enlightenment,” Immanuel Kant said, “is the triumph of the human being over his self-imposed immaturity.”

The American Revolution was not the first revolution with roots in the Enlightenment. In the 1760s, Denmark had gone through a revolutionary transformation, but eventually the events were reversed. In due course, the ideas would return to the Scandinavian kingdom, but by then the American Revolution and the Founding Fathers were well underway to become not only history, but also legend.

It can, for obvious reasons, be difficult for our time to view the American revolutionaries as mere humans, but that is what they were – wonderfully complex human beings with great minds and determination, frailties and massive contradictions.

Christopher Hitchens’ Thomas Jefferson: Author of America, is an essay on a man whose absence in our history “simply cannot be imagined.” The man doubled the size of the U.S through the Louisiana Purchase; he was the initiator of The Lewis and Clark Expedition – the Apollo program of its day – and he helped put an end to the enslavement of Americans and Europeans by “Muslim autocracies on the north-west coast of Africa.” (It has been calculated that between 1530 and 1780, a million and a quarter Europeans were kidnapped and enslaved because of the notions of the rulers of Algiers, Morocco, Tripoli, and Tunis, so, yes, it was a bit of a quandary.)

And these examples are, of course, just a small part of Jefferson’s immense list of life-time achievements. But Hitchen’s – known for his keen, critical eye – is not blinded by the light of Jefferson. He writes about the man, not the legend, and he covers a lot of ground in 188 pages. “[I]t would be lazy or obvious,” Hitchens states, “to say that he contained contradictions or paradoxes. This is true of everybody, and of everything. It would be infinitely more surprising to strike upon a historic figure, or indeed a nation, that was not subject to this law. Jefferson did not embody contradiction. Jefferson was a contradiction, and this will be found at every step of the narrative that goes to make up his life.”

Hitchens’ book is a sharp account of Jefferson, written in a prose that is clear and easy to grasp. Thomas Jefferson, a man who believed in the redeeming qualities of education and discovery, may have saluted it.

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The Death Instinct by Jed Rubenfeld

January 10, 2012

It’s New York City, the year is 1920. The Great War is over and people are trying to get their lives back to normal. The economy is extremely  weak, when two old friends meet. They are Dr.  Strathan Younger and Captain James Littlemore. Dr.  Younger has just returned from the war and has brought with him a French refugee by the name of Colette Rousseau and her young brother, Luc.  Littlemore  is a Captain in the NYPD.

But all their lives are about to drastically change in a matter of  moments , when a tremendous bomb goes off in Wall Street. The damage is terrific, many lives are lost as Strathan attempts to treat the injured and Littlemore tries to get the police to regain control of the situation. In the  middle  of the chaos, Colette goes off for more supplies for the wounded but doesn’t return. By the time some order is restored , Littlemore and Younger go to find Colette but she has vanished…..and so has Luc. A clue to the disappearance may lie in the explanation that Younger gives to Littlemore.

Younger and Rousseau’s history starts back in Europe during the war.  Younger is treating the wounded when he meets Colette who is traveling to the front with one of Madame Curie’s latest inventions…..the X-ray machine. Working together, they are  more  quickly able to diagnose injuries and therefore improve the survival rate of the wounded soldiers. Colette has been studying with Madame Curie at the Sorbonne in Paris. Colette lost both her parents in the war and the only other family  survivor is her 10 year old brother, Luc.

It is this developing friendship that brought Colette, Luc and Strathan to New York, but there is one more factor that may be at play in her disappearance. Rousseau brought to New York a small amount of radium that she obtained before leaving Europe…….and this may be the key factor in her disappearance!! Someone is after the radium, plus two strange  red-headed women are also pursuing Colette. Come along  for  an exciting trip of historical fiction in  Jed Rubenfeld’s  latest thriller.

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