A grim reminder

A new audio version of a 2006 book offers some important lessons about our not-so-distant past.

Reviewed by Paul T. O’Connor

FIRE AND BRIMSTONE: THE NORTH BUTTE MINING DISASTER OF 1917. By Michael Punke. Read by Christopher Grove. Random House Audio. 9 hours, 17 minutes. $20.

fireWrite a novel that’s made into an Academy Award winning movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio, and the publishers of your previous works, even a local history, will rush to reissue and create an audiobook. That’s what’s happened to Michael Punke, author of The Revenant, and his 2006 history of one of America’s worst-ever mining disasters.

Just before midnight, June 8, 1917, a fire in the main shaft of the Granite Mountain mine set off a disaster that cost 164 lives. This is a history of the courageous men who tried to rescue their fellow miners, of those who died in the mine and of the families left behind.

But, as compelling as that narrative is, there is a bigger story here, one of corporate America, from the Gilded Age through the 1920s, with some strains continuing well beyond to the early 21st century.

Butte, Montana, was the home to some of the world’s best copper deposits and, as fate would have it, that copper was discovered about the time when world demand spiked because of the harnessing of electricity.

Punke begins his history just as prospectors are finding the copper, and he carries it through the vicious business and personal rivalries of the late 19th century and early 20th. The stories involve political corruption at its most flagrant and the rivalries of the national unions that sought to represent the miners.

As one fortune after another is made, corporate mine consolidation progresses. In the end, only Standard Oil remains after it has swallowed Anaconda Copper and brought with it harsh labor standards and one of the worst political oligarchies the U.S. has ever known. The power of that oligarchy is on full display when, after an unfavorable court ruling, Standard Oil shuts its Montana operations and throws the entire state into an almost instant Depression. The governor and legislature had no choice but to bend to the company’s demands.

Along with all of the bad guys, there are heroes. B.K. Wheeler is the local U.S. attorney who fights courageously for the miners and then surprisingly appears, years later, as a key player in one of the U.S.’s most significant political crises. There is also Maness Duggan, whose leadership in the mines allows more than 20 men to survive the fire.

Americans of late have forgotten the conditions under which their great grandfathers worked. Many don’t know why unions were needed, or why government safety and antitrust laws ever passed. This book is a grim answer, a painful one at times, to those questions.

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Down on the street

Reed Farrel Coleman, an established master of the hard-boiled detective genre, has a novel out that’s billed as the start of a new series, about Gus Murphy, a retired cop in Suffolk County, N.Y. Bob Moyer, an established fan of noir books, finds it a promising beginning.

Reviewed by Robert P. Moyer

WHERE IT HURTS. By Reed Farrell Coleman. Putnam. 353 pages. $27.

HurtsReed Farrell Coleman sure knows his way around Long Island.  Whenever he heads out, ex-cop Gus Murphy travels through a detailed landscape that gives context to his search for answers.  “Right around where Union Avenue turns into Long Island Avenue is one of those ugly patches we Long Islanders like to pretend don’t exist … where the dirty work gets done by brown-skinned men,” and Gus gets shot. He stops to talk to the owner of Harrigan’s Bar, where the “mutts” at the bar “…never know if the next guy coming though the door was there to collect on their debts or to extract late fees … as much matters of skin and bone as dollars and cents.”  A Christmas Santa mooning passersby on a neighboring roof illuminates an empty lot where T.J. Delcamino’s body was dumped.

The author’s Long Island is “…a place of demarcations:  some subtle and gradual, some obvious and ugly,” and a place that lets him demonstrate something else:  Coleman sure knows his way around the hard-boiled genre.

Gus drives a shuttle van for an airport motel people didn’t come to to stay, they “…came here to leave.” His career, his family, his life, all fractured by the unexpected death of his son, he lives in that limbo Where It Hurts.  Until Tommy Delcamino comes along, and shakes Gus “…from (his) grief-stricken sleepwalk.”  When Tommy asks him to look into the death of his son TJ, Gus turns him down at first.  When he decides to talk to Tommy about it, he finds his body — and a bullet for himself.  That’s when the gumshoe hits the ground.

Gus gets shoved around, shot at again, and shunted off even by his old police buddies, letting him know somebody doesn’t want him snooping around.  In true fashion of the genre, that intent only increases Gus’ intent.  He gets a light back in his eye, and then hits that point in any good Private Eye book, when “a flurry of images … flashed through my head.  And suddenly things had fallen into place.”

Coleman takes us “…down on the street where the violence and dark magic was done,” and brings both the reader and Gus back into the light with more answers than when we started.

  • Robert Moyer is a Renaissance man who lives in Winston-Salem when he’s not traveling the world.

 

 

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Learning to fly

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

THE ATOMIC WEIGHT OF LOVE. By Elizabeth J. Church. Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. 333 pages. $25.95.

atomic-weight-of-loveMeridian Wallace’s father, a high-school teacher, died when she was 11, but not before he had instilled in her a love for learning and a determination to succeed. Her widowed mother worked hard to make sure that Meri would have the opportunity for a good education, even though that was hardly the goal of every girl growing up in 1940s America.

When she starts at the University of Chicago at age 17, Meri is book smart but socially naïve. She doesn’t quite know how to deal with the fraternity boys and their clever chatter. Other girls at her boarding house offer her tips on clothes and guys. Meanwhile, she immerses herself in her studies and excelled in her classes.

So it’s no wonder that she’s vulnerable to the attentions of Alden Whetstone, a brilliant physics professor who is 20 years her senior and divorced. The first thing Alden does to win her heart is to excite her mind, by helping her to understand how birds fly. Birds are Meri’s passion; her dreams are of pursuing a Ph.D. and being an ornithologist.

But all this is taking place against the backdrop of World War II. Pearl Harbor is bombed not long after Meri starts at Chicago, and not long after she and Alden begin a relationship, he leaves for Los Alamos, New Mexico, where he’s working on a very important, top-secret project.

The story of Meridian Wallace becomes, in a way, the story of a brilliant young woman who sacrifices her ambitions to become a scientist when she marries an established scientist whose work is deemed much more urgent and important. In a way Meri’s story is a cliché, but only in the sense that variations of it have been told many times – because it’s so true.

This is a coming-of-age story that grows into a life story. When we first meet Meri, she’s 87, long widowed. Through her eyes, we follow what often seems one woman’s largely unremarkable life, against the backdrop of the development of the first atomic bomb, and then the changes in American society when life moved on, often tumultuously, after that war’s end.

Meri’s story is that of so many women who came of age in the 1940s and for several decades after that. Young women struggled to balance their ambitions with society’s indoctrination that marriage was the ultimate goal – if, indeed, those young women even had their horizons opened sufficiently to have ambitions besides those of marriage and family. It’s the story of how women had to struggle against not only prejudices but also laws that made it difficult for them to be truly independent. It’s the story of a struggle that still goes on in the life of many women today, despite changes wrought by the women’s movement and other societal changes.

And yet, this book is also much more. The background of life at Los Alamos is fascinating, even though we, like Meri, see only glimpses of what was really happening. And, although Meri’s dreams of graduate studies at Cornell are deferred again and again until they die, she pursues her observations and studies of crows on her own, out in the canyons and cliffs of New Mexico. Elizabeth Church’s descriptions of these intelligent birds and the landscape they inhabit are fascinating.

Eventually, after years of frustration and pent-up resentment, years of fitfully trying to fit in with the other Los Alamos wives, Meri has a love affair, with a younger man who’s been marked by another war, the one in Vietnam.

Then her struggle changes to that of balancing her desires, her hopes, with the bargain and the commitments she made when she was very young. Women are supposedly liberated now, but what does that mean?

Church writes in an understated way. Much of the book proceeds quietly, much like Meri’s days when her solitary crow-watching is her main diversion from the life of a homemaker. Yet, like Meri, the book has depths and richness, and sometimes, a surprise.

The story does not offer a too-easy, fairy-tale sort of happy ending, but it does move to a believable, ultimately satisfying conclusion. Meri may not have had the career she envisioned, but she does discover a need that she’s remarkably suited to fill, and the way to make things happen.

Elizabeth Church’s debut novel is wise but never preachy, one woman’s story that is likely to speak to many other women.

 

 

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Fighting tyranny, fighting the elements

Tom Dillon, who’s been known to ski more than a little himself, finds much to like in a new book about a little-known saga of World War II.

Reviewed by Tom Dillon

THE WINTER FORTRESS: THE EPIC MISSION TO SABOTAGE HITLER’S ATOMIC BOMB. By Neal Bascomb. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 378 pages. $28 hardback.

The-Winter-FortressThe history of skiing is a history of warfare. That’s shown in the earliest Norse sagas, the defeats the Finns inflicted on the Russians in the Russo-Finnish War, even in the exploits of America’s 10th Mountain Division in World War II.

There’s no more compelling story, however, than in the little-known work of a small band of Norwegian saboteurs and skiers to deny Adolf Hitler the chance at an atomic bomb in 1943.

That’s the story that Neal Bascomb tells in this new book, already optioned to become a major motion picture, and it makes this a rare find – a serious book about atomic energy that is also an absolutely gripping outdoor and winter survival tale.

The saboteurs’ target is a heavy water, or deuterium, plant at Vemork, deep in an inaccessible part Norway. Deuterium was thought at the time to be a necessary moderator of an atomic reaction, and the Norwegian plant was the only one in the world.

The Nazis who took over Norway (and the deuterium plant) may have thought its hard-to-reach location safeguarded it. But they reckoned without the skill and daring of Norwegian skiers and patriots accustomed to living in the wilds.

Much of the action takes place on the Hardangervidda, a cold and high plateau in the Telemark region between Oslo and Bergen. It’s here that one familiar with survival can hide out in the winter, and that’s what the skiers/saboteurs did.

For months, they had to survive alone in the “vidda,” hunting reindeer, foraging for moss, building snow caves, suffering blizzard after blizzard. Then, on the night of the mission, they had to ski for miles, climb a steep cliff, and then escape, all the while under threat of German attack.

It was a mission from which few expected to return. Indeed, the Norwegian and British officers who put together the mission warned them often of that. But few if any backed out.

Neal Bascomb is a New York Times best-selling author of such books as Hunting Eichmann, The Perfect Mile and Red Mutiny, who says he had wanted for years to write about atomic energy. When he happened on the Vemork story, he said, he was thinking about historical fiction. But that changed.

He realized that the story was “a tremendous mix of important history and survival/hunting adventure,” with daring characters, commandos parachuting into enemy-held territory in winter, and high drama. Kompani Linge, as the saboteurs were known, was perhaps a forerunner of U.S. Navy SEALS.

The leading character of this tale is a brilliant academic and reserve ordnance officer named Leif Tronstad, at the time of the German invasion a professor at the Norwegian Institute of Technology in Trondheim. After the invasion, Tronstad worked briefly with the Norwegian resistance, but he was eventually forced to escape to neutral Sweden and then Scotland.

There, he brought the Allies word of what was going on at Vemork, the importance of the plant to the German military – and crucially, how to infiltrate it.

Tronstad recruited countrymen for and eventually became a leader of Kompani Linge, named for a Norwegian Army captain who had been killed in an earlier attempt to wrest part of Norway back from the Germans. And it was Tronstad’s leadership that oversaw everything his saboteurs did – though he had to operate from Scotland and England.

He longed during the entire operation to be on the ground in Norway, instead of directing things from afar, and in the end his hopes were rewarded, as he was able to parachute into Norway and lead resistance toward the end of the war.

But the heart of the book is the work of the commandos on the Hardangervidda and in the small towns around it, surviving in the wild, dodging Gestapo manhunts and risking their lives for their country.

The book’s extensive research involved everything from top-secret documents to old family diaries and letters – as well as much time with the descendants of the men whose exploits Bascomb recounts. And it also included a long interview with the last surviving saboteur, a team leader named Joachim Ronneberg, 96 years old this year.

There’s not space here to go into the many different people who made up Kompani Linge, the details about their families and how they and Norway suffered under German occupation. Indeed, most of the main characters have passed on, and what Bascomb learned was almost invariably second-hand knowledge.

But there is this from Ronneberg, which might well stand as a memorial for all of these little-known patriots: “You have to fight for your freedom and for peace. You have to fight for it every day, to keep it. It’s like a glass boat; it’s easy to break. It’s easy to lose.”

  • Tom Dillon is retired journalist in Winston-Salem.
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The remarkable story of the second First Lady Adams

Here’s an outstanding biography of an often-overlooked woman.

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

LOUISA: The Extraordinary Life of Mrs. Adams. By Louisa Thomas. Books on Tape. Read by Kirsten Potter. 15 ½ hours; 13 CDs. Also available in hardcover from Penguin Press.

LouisaLouisa Thomas has applied her skills as a journalist and an author ably to the fascinating story of a First Lady who deserves the attention: Louisa Catherine Johnson Adams, the wife of John Quincy Adams, America’s sixth president, and daughter-in-law of the second president, John Adams, and of the much better known Abigail Adams.

Like, I suspect, many people, I had barely heard of John Quincy’s wife and certainly had given her no thought before I read this book. I now learn that in 2014, Yale University Press published a biography called Louisa Catherine: The Other Mrs. Adams by Margery M. Heffron, who unfortunately died while writing the book. That biography, I read, ends rather abruptly about the time that the younger Adamses moved into the White House.

Thomas’ book follows Louisa from her privileged if somewhat unorthodox childhood in London until her death in 1852 at age 77. And what an unusual, interesting life she led!

Louisa and her siblings were brought up to think of themselves as Americans because their father was from Maryland, but she was reared as an upper-class English lady and never set foot on United States soil until after she was married. In many ways, as Thomas makes clear, she felt an outsider all her life, no matter where she was

She and John Quincy, who’d been brought up to believe that service to country came first and personal pleasure was always suspect, were an unlikely match. They almost did not marry, and the pattern of discord mixed with strong attraction persisted through much of their long life together. Both struggled with depression at times, and though they were close in many ways, they often seemed not to understand each other.

Almost as soon as they married, her father returned to the United States in disgrace, having suffered a business failure that meant, among other things, that he never paid Louisa’s promised dowry, a development that profoundly affected Louisa’s image of her position as wife.

Her story includes living with John Quincy in foreign cities, mingling with royalty, as he pursued his diplomatic career, finding favor at court even though her husband was not socially inclined and she had to improvise to fit into their surroundings on his meager salary. When they lived in the newly independent United States for brief periods, she found herself profoundly unprepared for the role of an American wife, who was expected, among other things, to manage the household accounts and be able to milk a cow. No one did much to teach her, and John Quincy often made important decisions about their lives and the rearing of their children without consulting her.

One of the most amazing things she did was travel with their third son, a young child, and a few servants of questionable loyalty and ability, some 2,000 miles from St. Petersburg, Russia, to Paris to rejoin her husband. It was late winter, and her carriage alternately moved on runners across snow or wheels through mud. While they were traveling through areas devastated by the Napoleonic wars, Napoleon escaped from Elba and returned to Europe. When she finally reached Paris, her husband seemed unimpressed by what she had accomplished.

Louisa, however, either understood then or came to understand how remarkable her feat had been, and years later she wrote an account of the journey. That account is only one of a wealth of documents that Thomas drew upon to write this book. Louisa grew and changed throughout her marriage, and as her self-confidence increased, she found her voice, and a great outlet for her emotions in writing letters, journals, memoirs and even satirical fiction.

Thomas does an admirable job of combining the great amount of historical and personal information available with her insights into Louisa’s thoughts and actions. She is sympathetic to Louisa, but not blind to her faults. She also does a masterly job of placing the events of the Adamses’ lives into the greater story of what was going on as the new nation moved forward, with its many challenges and the realities of its evolving political system. And yet, although she often deals with what the men who held the power were doing, Thomas always keeps Louisa at the heart of her story.

There is so much of interest in this book. For one, it makes painfully clear how difficult it was in that era to be a woman, even a woman of some position and privilege. Louisa suffered at least a dozen miscarriages; there may have been more that were simply written off, by John Quincy and even by herself, as more of her frequent illnesses. She was also subject to other illnesses and fainting spells, and the treatments for her ailments tended to be such things as bleeding and the application of leeches. Of the four live children to whom she gave birth, only one outlived her. Her daughter died as a toddler while they lived abroad, and two of her three sons died as young adults. She did what she could – mostly behind the scenes, of course – to advance her ambitious yet stubborn and rather haughty husband’s political career, always having to worry about gossip and the suspicions of other women, many of whom considered her a snobby foreigner.

It may be some comfort to those who are dismayed by the political climate in the United States in this election year to read Thomas’ descriptions of the vicious nature of politics in the early to mid-19th century, when John Quincy was in the White House and then for many years in the House of Representatives. Andrew Jackson, who defeated John Quincy for re-election, blamed the Adamses and their supporters in the 1828 election for the death of his wife Rachel, but Louisa Adams also suffered from her share of malicious attacks.

Slavery is an important theme, and Thomas makes it abundantly clear that slavery was widespread in the nation’s capital. Although John Quincy became an important abolitionist voice, even his reactions were complex, and Louisa, whose father’s family were slaveholders, had conflicting emotions and opinions. The rumblings that presaged the Civil War were growing ever louder during the Adamses years in Washington.

It’s also interesting to realize that we aren’t the only ones who live through rapid changes. When the Adamses first began traveling between Massachusetts and Washington, for example, the arduous journey could take weeks, but later in their lives, steamboats made it possible to cover the distance in a few days. And when John Quincy first began working as a diplomat, some Europeans were mystified as to what entity he was representing.

Fittingly, one of the most compelling aspects of the biography is the account of how Louisa grew from an insecure, dependent young wife into the strong, respected woman for whom both houses of Congress took the unprecedented step of adjourning in mourning on the day of her funeral. Thomas does not make the mistake of imposing too much of a 21st-century perspective onto a 19th-century woman’s life. She does, however, draw on the ample material available to her, including much written by Louisa, to bring alive the story of one woman’s journey through life.

This biography, beautifully read by Kirsten Potter, is a good choice for an audiobook. The facts, research and historical context are there, yet all comes together to be as captivating as most novels.

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A man of his times

Paul O’Connor found more than he expected in a new biography of General Custer.

Reviewed by Paul T. O’Connor

CUSTER’S TRIALS: A LIFE ON THE FRONTIER OF A NEW AMERICA. By T.J. Stiles. Books on Tape. Read by Arthur Morey. 23 hours, 42 minutes. $95. Also available in hardcover. Knopf. $30.

CusterAuthors of historical fiction often use a central character who, through benefit of position or chance, can be in place to witness the most important events in the story’s sweep.

Herman Wouk, for example, created Admiral Pug Henry and through both Henry and his family swept us along the Winds of War and War and Remembrance.

T.J. Stiles uses this mechanism in recounting American history from shortly before the Civil War through 1876. But Stiles uses a real character, and his book is nonfiction, not a novel.

Gen. George Armstrong Custer, known mostly for his demise on the Little Big Horn, serves as a splendid vehicle for telling the American story of the era. This is a biography of one exceptionally successful Civil War and Indian Wars general. But it is also the story of a liar, gambler, racist, philanderer, stock market sucker and writer, a man who repeatedly proved to be one step behind the evolution of America in his lifetime.

This is the story of mid-century America’s attitudes on race and gender, on westward expansion, the spread of railroads, the growth of railroad companies and the manipulations that led to the Panic of 1873.

Better than any other writer of the period I have read, Stiles explains the political system under which the U.S. Army and Navy appointed officers. And, in the contraction of the two forces after the war, he explains how both branches became more professional and merit-based in choosing officers.

Stiles also explains the financial dealings that grew Gilded Age monopolies and nearly bankrupted Custer.

Through the expanse of this nearly 24-hour listen, Stiles was telling Custer’s story.

An undisciplined cadet at West Point, Custer was fortunate not to have been thrown in prison upon graduation. He entered the war in summer 1861 as the Army’s lowest-ranked officer, but through a series of fortunate bounces, he was soon on the staff of Gen. George McClellan. Luck, Stiles says, was always on Custer’s side, until the day he died, that is.

Given a chance to lead men in battle, Custer excelled. He lacked as a manager and administrator, but when a battle started he was brave, brilliant and lucky. Any number of times, rebel soldiers came within a hair of killing him only to be killed themselves by Custer or one of his men.

Custer was a political animal from a Democratic family in Michigan who openly opposed President Lincoln. His politics were politically correct for McClellan but not for his personal advancement after McClellan’s fall from grace. To prop up his own career, therefore, Custer lied repeatedly about his own positions and actions, hoping to advance in a now Republican-dominated Army. But once it served his purposes, he switched back to the Democratic side, once again lying as to his previous positions. At each turn in his career, he depended on favoritism to advance and he played favorites when advancing those under his command.

His personal side was no more honorable. He cheated on his wife; he tried to cheat in finance but was himself snookered. He gambled himself into a dreadful debt, one that surfaced only after his death and which fell on his widow.

To be honest, when I downloaded this audiobook, I asked myself if I wanted to commit 24 hours to a man about whom I’d already read several books. In the end, I’m glad I did, because this is so much more than a Custer biography. It is a history of how America worked in that crucial quarter century.

 

 

 

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The real pursuit of truth

A series has taken a new turn, and Bob Moyer hopes for a course correction.

Reviewed by Robert P. Moyer

THE CROSSING. By Michael Connelly. Little Brown. 388 pages. $28.

thecrossingusHarry Bosch has been banging around the Los Angeles Police Department for a lot of years.  He’s a unique creature, a badge-carrying paean to the private-eye tradition of Raymond Chandler.  For years, he made life unbearable for killers — and his superiors.  Now, after years of not following police protocol, practice or politics, he’s a civilian.

And he doesn’t like it.

Now (in the latest installment in the series, published late last year) he’s just banging around Los Angeles, not caught up in the traffic he watches wend down through the hills below his house.  Killers are still out there, and he can catch them, quote.

Enter The Lincoln Lawyer, Harry’s half-brother, Mickey Haller.

The opposite of Harry, he doesn’t give a hang if the guy is guilty, he’ll get him off.  This time, however, he needs Harry’s help, because he actually has a client he doesn’t think did “it,” that is, murder anyone, in spite of ironclad DNA evidence.  He baits the hook, and Harry goes for his line.

Of course, Harry finds clues that other investigators don’t count as important — the sound of car doors slamming, a broken wristwatch and other small pieces of a puzzle that won’t go together to prove the guy did it.  The one thing Harry can’t find is The Crossing, the point where the victim and the supposed murderer met.  Meanwhile, Harry becomes a marked man the closer he comes to the real killers.  Before long, Harry has a solution, but the way Haller handles it makes him uncomfortable with being on the “dark side,” as he used to call it.

And he doesn’t like it.

We don’t either.  Harry and Haller working together doesn’t quite make it: Haller’s a glorified cameo to give Bosch a reason to do his thing, it takes too long to get into the story over Bosch’s backpedalling, and Haller’s bad habits don’t hold up well in the light of Harry’s hard-boiled pursuit of truth.  Let’s hope Harry can work his way back into the real pursuit of truth through the Police Department — or a reasonable facsimile thereof.

 

 

 

 

 

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Putting down roots

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

AT THE EDGE OF THE ORCHARD. By Tracy Chevalier. Penguin Audio. Read by Mark Bramhall, Hillary Huber, Kirby Heyborne and Cassandra Morris. 9 hours; 7 CDs. $40. Also available in print from Viking.

edgeI regret to say that I have not read any of Tracy Chevalier’s previous novels, a situation I intend to remedy. If you’re hoping for a review that places her latest novel in the context of her others, weighing against, say Girl With a Pearl Earring, you won’t find that here.

I had to judge At the Edge of the Orchard solely on its own merits, and this novel has plenty to recommend it.

This is a historical novel divided into two distinctly different parts, separated by a gap of 15 years and most of the continent that was growing into the United States. Both settings – the Black Swamp of northwest Ohio in the 1930s and the California Gold Rush country in the 1850s – are frontiers, though in very different ways, and Chevalier does a fine job of describing ways of life that most of us don’t learn much about in history classes.

Part one is the story of James and Sadie Goodenough, who left Connecticut with their brood of children and headed west. A younger son, James was not destined to be able to make much of a living back home. They set down roots where their wagon got stuck in the mud, and there they tried to establish themselves as farmers so they could claim the land they were homesteading. One of the requirements was to establish an orchard of at least 50 trees, something that James dearly wanted anyway. He loved apples with a passion, and had even brought cuttings from trees that his family back east could trace to England.

The Goodenough family found life in the swamp harder than they had ever imagined. The swamp always seems to be trying to reclaim the land, and in summers, it becomes such an unhealthy place that the family expects the death of a child or two each year. One of their few outsiders they ever see is John Chapman, also known as Johnny Appleseed.

Frustrated by struggles they have no hope of escaping, James and Sadie sink into a pattern of battling each other. Things only get worse as Sadie increasingly finds solace in drinking applejack. Ulimately, a bad situation becomes much, much worse.

Fast-forward 15 years to California, where the Goodenough’s youngest child, Robert, is a 24-year-old making his way in life. Robert is mostly a loner, a man of few words, and Chevalier’s story reflects the way he keeps things to himself. For a while, this second part of the book seems unconnected to the first. We don’t know why Robert left home at such an early age or why he has never tried to return. We learn that he has written occasional letters to his siblings, and that he has not heard back from them.

Gradually, we learn bits and pieces about where he has been and what he has done. He’s worked various jobs before finally lucking into one that suits him: collecting seeds, seedlings and saplings of trees – especially redwoods and giant sequoias – for a naturalist who sells them to people in England who want to create exotic gardens.

Even more gradually, we learn what happened when he left the Ohio swamps. Slowly and carefully, Chevalier brings the two parts of the story together, until an unexpected visitor arrives and the pace picks up.

This is not an easy book to read. Chevalier has done her research thoroughly, and she writes a grim and sometimes violent story.   But the novel grows on you and takes hold, until you must know what happens to Robert and the few people he lets himself care about.

The history in this novel is fascinating, especially the story of how those who “discovered” the giant trees in the 1850s dealt with their find.

Trees – first apple trees, then the giant trees of California – are central to the story, in themselves and also as metaphors. Ultimately, the book has much to say about human families, and, to use one of those metaphors, how something fresh and good can be grafted onto what has come before.

This audio presentation of At the Edge of the Orchard, with four readers presenting different points of view, works especially well.

 

 

 

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Overcoming great odds

World War II continues to be an endlessly fascinating subject for those who love history. Paul O’Connor takes a look at a new book about the last major Nazi offensive.

Reviewed by Paul T. O’Connor

ARDENNES 1944, THE BATTLE OF THE BULGE, By Anthony Beevor. Penguin Audio. Read by Sean Barrett. 14 hours, 35 minutes. $22.50. Also available in hardcover. 480 pages. Viking Adult. $35.

ardennesWith the exception of only the Normandy landings and the battle to break out of the beachhead there, no American battle in the European theater of World War II remains as much in our contemporary discussion as The Battle of the Bulge.

How were the allies so unprepared for the massive German counterattack through the Ardennes Forest on Dec. 16, 1944? How did allied intelligence miss the presence of such a large German force? How could U.S. 1st Army Gen. Courtney Hodges have been so clueless both before, and for many hours after, the attacks began, and why were allied forces to miserably thin at exactly the spot where German forces had invaded the Low Countries in 1914 and 1940?

And, finally, how did Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower restrain himself in dealing with British Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery?

Into all of those questions wades noted WW II historian Anthony Beevor with a book that makes the description “spectacularly detailed” seem wanting.

Beevor can’t answer the intelligence questions. No one has been able to do so since the battle. Extraordinary German efforts to keep their secret worked only to a degree, but the allies missed key clues. He does, however, lay out in precise detail the predicament the allies faced at the end of 1944.

The allies controlled a Northern European front from the Swiss border to the North Sea. Although American replacements were flowing across the Atlantic and the French were back in the battle, there still weren’t enough men, especially in battle-tested divisions, to give each mile of the front the manpower it deserved. In addition, Hodges was churning up U.S. lives at an horrendous pace in the Battle of the Huertgen Forest, and Gen. George Patton was doing the same along the U.S. 3rd Army’s Front.

The intra-allies war for supplies, which had to be trucked hundreds of miles, also meant that no commander had the resources he said he needed.

Beevor writes mostly from the macro viewpoint. His is mostly a history of generals and large units. But “mostly” is the key word there. If this history is to stand out from others it will do so on the strength of the author’s details for smaller operations.

The Battle of the Bulge was won because small groups of American forces held key pockets of real estate during the initial German onslaught. Here and there, they blocked crossroads, bridges or fords fit for armor just long enough for the Americans to reorganize in the rear. It seems that every skirmish, in every hamlet, gets a rich accounting. We don’t learn many of the stories of the individual soldiers who fought these battles, not in the way we would in a Stephen Ambrose history, but we do learn how many Panzers they destroyed, how they did it and what it cost the Germans in their desperate race against time.

This presents a problem in the audio format. Unless one memorizes the geography of the Ardennes region, visualizing the relative placement of each such town and villa, the listening is confusing. If you listen, as I do, on long drives, it is near impossible to see the broader battle as it would be seen in a hardcover with maps.

Beevor makes two points that I had not read before. The first is that the battle, which turned out to be the bloodiest of the war in terms of U.S. casualties, significantly weakened not only Hitler’s ability to defend his western front, but also his eastern defense. Stalin launched his winter offensive just as the allies were relieving Bastogne and reasserting their offensive. German forces that had been moved from east to west, and then been chewed up by the Americans, were not available to slow the Soviet drive to Berlin.

His second point is more a suggestion. It is possible, Beevor posits, that Montgomery suffered from Asperger’s disease. We didn’t know much about it in 1944 but we do now, and Montgomery demonstrated many of the symptoms.

Regardless of his condition, by the end of 1944 Montgomery was a danger to the allies. He’d nearly failed at Normandy, did fail in Operation Market Garden, and he was a dangerous distraction to Eisenhower at the Bulge. It was delightful hearing Sean Barrett’s British voice say as much.

  • Paul T. O’Connor, contributing editor, is a university lecturer who is available for freelance writing assignments. Contact him at ocolumn@gmail.com.

 

 

 

 

 

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Lifestyles of the rich and criminal

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

FAMILY JEWELS. By Stuart Woods. Penguin Audio. Read by Tony Roberts. 7 hours; 6 CDs. $35. Also available in hardback from G.P. Putnam’s Sons.

stoneStuart Woods cranks his Stone Barrington thrillers out pretty quickly. This one is, if I count correctly, No 37. Family Jewels, with some interesting plot twists and a fascinating historical object at its center, should please Woods’ fans.

For detective/thriller fans who somehow are not familiar with this best-selling empire: These books are pure escapism, in the midst of settings most of us can only dream about. Barrington, a former New York police detective, is now a lawyer who’s incredibly wealthy and incredibly well connected – emphasis on incredibly. He’s friends with many people in high places, including the president of the United States. In his private plane, he jets around the world, able to stay at his choice of his own posh houses and estates or those of his friends. Beautiful, accomplished women fall into bed with him at a moment’s notice, all in a civilized and sophisticated way, of course, with rarely a hint of complication. And although he’s now a lawyer rather than a cop, his travels and associations regularly take him into the midst of crime, intrigue and danger.

If you enjoy reading not just a mystery/thriller but also one that describes the rich and famous living lives that even they rarely experience, you will enjoy these books. If you want something a little closer to reality, or with more depth and character development, you need to look elsewhere.

For what they are, these books are entertaining. This one, as is often the case, works especially well as an audio book, an amusing distraction when, for example, traveling. The plot moves quickly, from the time a very wealthy woman, Carrie Fiske, shows up at his law office wanting protection from her ex-husband. Oh, and a new will might well in in order, too.

Naturally, Stone must spend a weekend with Carrie at one of her mansions, all in the name of getting the job done, and there he stumbles upon a murder. That’s only the first murder in what becomes a complicated plot that’s not nearly as predictable as it first appears. As the action mounts, Stone uncovers interesting secrets as well as valuable treasures.

 

 

 

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