Comic Book Review: Alexander Hamilton

Comic Book Review: Alexander Hamilton written by Jonathan Hennessey, art by Justin Greenwood.

Alexander Hamilton (1757?-1804) was born in the West Indies, immigrated to the mainland American colonies in his teens, fought in the American Revolution, and served as the first Secretary of the Treasury under George Washington.  He was killed in a duel with the then-Vice President, Aaron Burr.  Controversial during his lifetime, Hamilton was eventually honored by being placed on the ten-dollar bill, and has recently had a musical based on his life become a Broadway hit.

Alexander Hamilton

That musical has done much to revive interest in Alexander Hamilton, and there have been a number of books about him published in the last couple of years.  This volume is a graphic novel biography.  It takes advantage of that format by opening with a quotation about the dangers of liberty, and introducing the visual motif of Adam and the Serpent, here portrayed by Benjamin Franklin’s segmented colonies.

While the use of the visual format was good overall, the actual art often is not up to par.  It’s often hard to tell that a particular person is supposed to be the same person from a few pages before without the captions, and the artist often draws faces with misaligned eyes.  (I will admit that less than stellar art is a tradition in biographical comics.)

It’s a “warts and all” biography, which goes into some detail about Hamilton’s extramarital affair with Maria Reynolds.  (Which we know more about than some Founding Fathers’ affairs because Mr. Hamilton overshared information in an attempt to prove himself innocent of fiscal wrongdoing at the Treasury.)

The book goes into some detail about how Hamilton’s childhood in poverty and difficult family circumstances, and the political climate of the time, may have influenced his views on things like slavery (personally opposed, but willing to compromise), centralized government with a strong executive, and fiscal policy.  It’s worth remembering that the Founding Fathers often disagreed (sometimes violently) about the right direction for the young United States, and the interpretation of the Constitution.

There’s an index, but most of the supplementary material has been outsourced to a website.  This is a good choice for people whose curiosity on the subject of Mr. Hamilton was aroused by the musical, but aren’t ready to tackle an 800 page formal biography.  It should be suitable for junior high readers on up, but parents of younger readers should be available for discussions on the more difficult topics raised, such as slavery, marital infidelity and class struggle.  Check your local library!

Disclaimer:  I received this volume from Blogging for Books to facilitate this review.  No other compensation was offered or requested.

Book Review: Rad Women Worldwide

Book Review: Rad Women Worldwide by Kate Schatz

Right up front, I have to say that the title is the most annoying thing about this book.   Did anyone ever use “rad” as an adjective unironically?  That said, “radical” is not an unfair term to apply to many of the women whose short biographies are written in this volume.  There are forty stories set around 30 “countries”, starting with Enheduanna of Mesopotamia, the first named author that we have records of, and wrapping around the globe to Emma Goldman, born in Russia, anarchist and advocate for worker’s rights.

Rad Women Worldwide

This is a sequel to Rad American Women A-Z by the same creators; the greater scope allows them to have more variety.  There are scientists, athletes and entertainers, politicians and even a princess!  The book is written for middle-grade girls, but some of the subject matter may be difficult for more sensitive readers.  (A couple of these biographies moved me to tears.)  Many of the women covered I had heard of before, but a few were new to me.

The papercut illustrations by Miriam Klein Stahl give the book a distinctive, rough-hewn look; it also ties the appearance of the volume together better than a mix of photographs and paintings might have, as there are both historical and contemporary women covered.

This book also wears its politics on its sleeve, obvious in the selection of women to write about.  Politically conservative parents might find it uncomfortable that Kasha Jacqueline Nagabasera (fights for gay rights in Uganda) and Buffy Sainte-Marie (anti-war activist) get full entries while such right-wing icons as Margaret Thatcher and Mother Teresa don’t even make the 250 honorable mentions in the back.  The poem about “the stateless”, refugees, exiles and others torn from their homelands includes the line “No human being is illegal.”

As is common in collections of short biographies, only the highlights of any given woman’s life are included, and edited according to the author’s intent.  Many of these women were controversial during their lifetimes, and some of them are still controversial now.  A reader who takes a particular interest in one of the subjects would be well advised to seek out more complete biographies.  I’ve previously reviewed biographies of King Hatshepsut http://www.skjam.com/2016/01/20/book-review-the-woman-who-would-be-king-hatshepsuts-rise-to-power-in-ancient-egypt/ and Queen Lili’uokalani http://www.skjam.com/2014/02/21/book-review-lost-kingdom-hawaiis-last-queen-the-sugar-kings-and-americas-first-imperial-adventure/ , for example.

I expect that this book will end up in  a lot of elementary school libraries.  I’d also recommend this volume to parents of middle-grade kids (yes, boys too, to go with their many books about famous men) with the caveat (or bonus!) that you might want to sit down with them to discuss some of the topics that will come up.

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of this book from Blogging for Books for the purpose of writing this review.  No other compensation was offered or requested.

Book Review: The Naturalist

Book Review: The Naturalist by Darrin Lunde

Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919), 26th President of the United States of America, was big on nature.  Specifically, he had a strong interest in natural history, and wanted to become/be known as a naturalist.  This new biography focuses on that part of Roosevelt’s life, from his boyhood collection of stuffed birds to his African expedition for the Smithsonian Institute.

The Naturalist Theodore Roosevelt

The author is himself a museum naturalist, so the narrative is perhaps a bit biased in favor of those who go out to collect specimens for natural history museums.  Roosevelt considered himself a “hunter-naturalist”, someone who went out, observed nature carefully, then killed animals for scientific study.  Sickly as a boy, with bad asthma, Teddy had to re-invent himself several times in his youth.  He worked hard to build up his body and mind, engaging in outdoor activities and especially learning about animals in nature.  His family was involved with the founding of the New York Museum of Natural History, which gave him a head start.

Interestingly, Roosevelt’s choice to go to Harvard seems to have doomed his ambition to become a full-time naturalist–according to this book, the college’s natural history program was dominated by laboratory work, not the field expeditions Teddy favored, and he met his first wife and realized that a naturalist’s pay wasn’t going to keep them in the style they were used to.

Instead, Roosevelt studied law and got into politics, with the results I mentioned in the first paragraph.  While he certainly made some headway as President, including creating America’s first wildlife reserves and other environmentally friendly actions, Teddy chafed at not being able to hunt properly and the last months of his term were largely taken up with preparations for his African expedition.

There were many bits of knowledge in this book that I either had not known before or had long forgotten.  Theodore Roosevelt’s poor vision meant that he was a bad shot, and often had to use far more bullets to bring down specimens than was ideal (and sometimes this meant he wound up killing more animals than he wanted!)

I found the literary feud between Roosevelt (and other scientifically-oriented naturalists) and the “sentimental” nature writers as exemplified by the Reverend William J. Long interesting.  Dr. Long heavily anthropomorphized the animal behavior in his “non-fiction” stories, and often depicted events that were so unlikely that naturalists accused him of just making things up.  (Side note:  I looked up Dr. Long’s work and among other things he penned an entirely serious book on the subject of animal telepathy-not just non-verbal communication, telepathy.)  In response, Dr. Long said that President Roosevelt could only touch the hearts of animals…with bullets.

The book stops with the aftermath of the successful African expedition-the less happy Amazon expedition does not get mentioned at all.  As is common with these specialized biographies, any parts of Roosevelt’s life that did not have a bearing on natural history get short shrift, and the serious student should also read a more general biography to get a balanced picture.

A heavy emphasis is placed on how Roosevelt’s practical experience with hunting influenced his ideas on conservation.  He could see with his own eyes how over-hunting was wiping out game animal populations, even within the span of a few years.

There’s a center section with black & white photos, and a few more scattered through the book.  There are extensive end notes, a bibliography and index.  Bright senior high students should be able to handle the material and language.

I enjoyed this book, and would recommend it to those interested in Theodore Roosevelt, natural history and the role of hunters in nature conservation.

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of this book through Blogging for Books for the purposes of this review.  No other compensation was requested or offered.

Book Review: Age of Daredevils

Book Review: Age of Daredevils by Michael Clarkson

This book covers two generations of the William “Red” Hill family of Niagara Falls, Ontario.  They were river men, swimmers, rescue workers, boat handlers–and some of them were driven to perform dangerous stunts.  And around Niagara Falls, the most daring stunt imaginable was to go over the Horseshoe Fall in a barrel.  The Hills, father and sons, were involved in most of the attempts at this feat until the 1950s.

Age if Daredevils

Parts of the story are fascinating; the first survivor of a deliberate attempt to go over the falls was a woman in her sixties, Annie Taylor.  And there’s quite a bit of family drama, particularly in the sibling rivalry of Red’s sons “Junior” and Major.  I found the contrast between the acceptance of ultimate risk and the careful shaving off of every bit of lesser risk that could be managed a fair assessment of the character of a daredevil.

The author is a local newspaper reporter who knew the Hills in his youth and has extensively interviewed several of them over the years.  This means that certain details are covered in great depth (and often repetitively), but others are given short shrift–later attempts to go over the falls alive that didn’t involve the Hill family are summarized in a paragraph or two, despite sounding just as fascinating in their backgrounds.   The book also engages in mind-reading from time to time, reporting what a person who did not survive likely felt during certain events.

There’s an extensive sources section and chapter notes, but no index.  This is more of a memoir than a formal history.  I should note that there is discussion of suicides related to the Niagara River.

Recommended for those who have a fascination with daredevils and especially those who have an interest in the Niagara Falls phenomenon.

Book Review: Famous Nathan

Book Review: Famous Nathan by Lloyd Handwerker and Gil Reavill

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of this book through a Goodreads giveaway for the purpose of writing this review.  No other compensation was requested or given.

Famous Nathan

Nathan’s Famous was the number one hot dog stand in the world for several decades, and synonymous with the Coney Island experience.  It was the creation of Nathan (originally Nachum) Handwerker, an immigrant who worked his way up from grinding poverty to being a successful businessman.  This book is primarily his story, told by his grandson.

According to the book, Nathan was born in a Jewish shtetl in Galicia (now part of Poland) in 1892.  At the time, the region was occupied by Austria, and was proverbial for its inhabitants’ poverty.  His father Jacob was a shoemaker who was usually unemployed and his mother sold vegetables as a sideline whenever the chance came up.  Nathan grew up constantly hungry and early on decided he wanted to be in the restaurant business.  Over time, his hard work and good business sense got him enough money to buy passage to America in 1912.

To make it in business, you need a strong work ethic, canny business sense…and a walloping dose of good luck.  Nathan had all three, and by 1916 had learned enough English and accumulated enough savings to open his own “grab joint” selling frankfurters and lemonade from a tiny storefront on Coney Island.  His initial partner backed out when initial sales weren’t good, but Nathan found a good price point and soon became able to stay open all year, expanding the store and his menu bit by bit.

After a year or so, the initially nameless joint became “Nathan’s”, and then “Nathan’s Famous” as business boomed.  Nathan used a business philosophy of fast service, a limited menu and consistent high quality to grow his enterprise.  (This was later independently discovered by the McDonalds brothers, though the highness of quality is debatable.)

A big believer in family, Nathan brought over almost all of his clan from Europe as well as marrying and having children of his own.  He didn’t let nepotism stand in the way of good business practice, though, once firing his older brother the same day he hired him for failure to follow procedure.  He was a very hands-on manager, and ran a tight ship; his contentious personality meant that he often fought with his top workers, but it also bred loyalty.  He integrated his staff very early on and was generous with benefits, but was firmly against unions.

Nathan’s Famous was huge, and the book describes its interactions with American history.  But by the time Nathan’s sons Sol and Murray moved into management positions under him, times were changing.  The brothers had clashing ideas about where the store and its brand should be going, and did not work together well.  Coney Island was losing its place as a tourist attraction, helped along by a city planner who wanted to gentrify the area.  (Unfortunately, his plans had the opposite effect, crashing the local economy and increasing crime.)  And chain fast food places became the standard.

The original Nathan’s Famous has never closed, but is no longer in family hands, and in the modern day, it’s more famous as a hot dog brand than as a destination.

Most of the material about Nathan’s early life is derived from a single interview done with him by another of his grandsons, so should be taken with a grain of salt.  The book also talks about some Nathan’s Famous legends and whether they are based on truth or the result of a public relations campaign.

There’s quite a bit of time spent on the logistics and mechanics of running a grab joint in the early part of the Twentieth Century, which will be useful to people who have always wondered about that sort of thing.  There’s also family drama, as well as details about some of the long-time employees.

To be honest, the book never really grabbed me, but I think it will be of great interest to hot dog aficionados and those who are nostalgic for the Nathan’s Famous of yore.  Each chapter has a black and white photo heading.  Also, there are end notes (functional but lackluster) and a bibliography for further reading.

Book Review: The Woman Who Would Be King: Hatshepsut’s Rise to Power in Ancient Egypt

Book Review: The Woman Who Would Be King: Hatshepsut’s Rise to Power in Ancient Egypt by Kara Cooney

Hatshepsut lived about 1500 B.C.E. to circa 1458 B.C.E.  The daughter of Thutmose I, she was married to Thutmose II, her half-brother, when he ascended the throne of Egypt.  As the God’s Wife of Amen-Re (king of all the Egyptian gods) and King’s Great Wife (like many kings of the period, Thutmose II had several wives, of which she was the most important), Hatshepsut helped run the country.  But Thutmose II was sickly, and died young.  Hatshepsut had only produced a daughter, and Thutmose III, her nephew and the crown prince, was only a toddler.

The Woman Who Would Be King

Hatshepsut was made regent for the infant king, and seems to have done a good job.  But she realized it would be many years before he was ready to rule, even if he lived, and the Egyptians did not at that time have a word for “queen.”  To keep the country stable, Hatshepsut had to become king.  Even if that meant transforming her public identity to match the masculine image the job seemed to require.

Kara Cooney is an Egyptologist and associate professor at UCLA who has done extensive research on the subject of Hatshepsut, with the result being this book.  According to this volume, early Egyptologists took the destruction of many of Hatshepsut’s statues and the erasure of her name to indicate that she was an usurper who abused her power, fitting a narrative that women are unfit to rule.  But more recent research has shown that the erasure mostly took place a good quarter-century after her death, towards the end of Thutmose III’s reign.

Professor Cooney attempts to build a narrative of Hatshepsut’s life; this is difficult because the ancient Egyptians had a strong tendency not to mention anything personal or negative about their rulers; even regicide was only referred to obliquely.  Plus, of course, most of the records vanishing after a couple of thousand years.  What does seem to emerge from the available information is that Hatshepsut was a competent ruler, faithful to her gods, and adding to the prosperity of her kingdom with many building programs.

She seems to have tried as hard as possible to adapt to the role of king, rather than trying to make the role of king fit her, as seen by her statues slowly taking on more masculine attributes.

Mind, by modern standards, the conquering and enslaving of neighboring countries would be considered a negative character trait.

If there were any difficulties between her and Thutmose III, her co-king, they did not enter the records.  What seems to have prompted her later erasure was that Thutmose III wanted to ensure that the male line of succession was maintained, so rewrote history to make it seem that he had become king immediately after his father with no woman at the helm.

Her chief steward, Senemut, on the other hand, seems to have fallen from grace immediately after Hatshepsut’s death.  The remaining traces of him suggest that he was one of those people who boasts in public about how tight he is with the king, and once she was gone, his enemies made their displeasure known.

There’s a lot of “might” and “maybe” and “probably” in the text here, and the extensive footnotes cover alternative interpretations of the evidence.  This makes the narrative rather dry, and best suited to college-level readers.  There is a chronology of the Eighteenth through Twentieth Dynasties, an (incomplete) family tree of Hatshupset, a center section of black and white photos, a bibliography and index.

One interesting tidbit from the notes:  apparently, the word that would become “Pharaoh” came into use about this time to mean “the person in the palace” for those who didn’t want to use the male “king” for Hatshupset.

This book is recommended to scholars interested in ancient Egypt, and people who want to read about another woman who ruled Egypt besides Cleopatra.

Disclaimer:  I received a free copy of this volume from Blogging for Books for the purpose of this review.  No other compensation is involved or requested.

Book Review: Seeds for Change

Book Review: Seeds for Change by Marly Cornell

This is a biography of Surinder “Suri” and Edda (nee Jeglinsky) Sehgal, the founders of the Sehgal Foundation.  That foundation helps rural villages in India achieve clean water, improved agriculture, better education and more honest government, as well as funding conservation and ecological efforts around the world.

Seeds for Change

Both of them were refugees as children, Suri when his family wound up on the wrong side of the border during the partition of Pakistan and India, and Edda when her home in Silesia was about to be overrun by the Soviet Army during the end of World War Two (and then was attached to Poland in the post-war process.)

Suri grew up to become a crop scientist, specializing in hybrid corn, and came to America to pursue his graduate studies.  Edda was invited to the U.S. to serve as the au pair for the Henry Kissinger family.  They met and fell in love.  Suri got a job with Pioneer, creating their first international research station in Jamaica, and the couple got married.

They settled down in Iowa and raised a family, and with a combination of hard work, diplomacy and good management  skills, Suri rose to eventually become the president of Pioneer’s overseas operations.  Unfortunately, there was a management change at the company, and the new CEO felt uncomfortable with the decentralized nature of Pioneer at the time.

According to this book the new management of Pioneer fired Suri and attempted to frame him for stealing trade secrets, as well as gutting a joint venture in India that Mr. Sehgal had an independent interest in.   (A book from the perspective of the Pioneer management  might tell the story differently.)  The ensuing lawsuits were settled in Suri’s favor, and the independent company he rebuilt was successful enough to create the Foundation.

There’s a lot to like about this book.  Suri and Edda’s life experiences are interesting and shed light on areas not often brought to the attention of most Americans.   Edda is very much depicted as Suri’s partner who he could not have succeeded without.    If the text sometimes seems overly flattering, this is understandable due to it being written specifically to promote the Sehgal Foundation.

I found  the writing style a little flat.  A discussion of the children’s part-time jobs is given the same tonal feel as Suri’s trek  across India as a shoeless refugee  to find a relative whose location he only knows by a general region, which could use a bit more emotional weight.

There are genealogical charts at the beginning of the book (there are a lot of relatives that come in and out of the story) and a color photograph section in the middle.  Citations are done in footnotes, and there is no index.

Proceeds from the sale of this book go to the Sehgal Foundation, so that might influence your decision whether or not to purchase.

I would especially recommend this books to readers with an interest in immigrant stories.

Disclaimer: I was provided with a free copy of this book by the author for the purpose of undertaking this review.  No other compensation was involved or requested.

Book Review: The Good, the Bad, and the Mad

Book Review: The Good, the Bad, and the Mad by E. Randall Floyd

American history is full of offbeat people, some downright weird.  The author was (like many a lad) fascinated by their stories when he was young.  Then he got to interview Erich von Daeniken (Chariots of the Gods) and decided to make writing about unusual people a full-time hobby.  This book is one of the results.

The Good, the Bad, and the Mad

It contains 37 mini-biographies of interesting people in American history, arranged alphabetically from Jane Addams (social worker and pacifist) to Wovoka (Native American mystic and the leader of the “Ghost Dance” movement.)  There are the really obvious candidates, like “Emperor” Joshua Norton of San Francisco and Nikola Tesla (eccentric inventor.)  But there are also more obscure figures, like Giacomo Beltrami, who didn’t quite discover the source of the Mississippi, and Bernarr MacFadden (health nut.)

The writing is okay, but these are very short biographies, and some of the subjects have had entire (and much better) books written about them.  There are no illustrations, no citations or bibliography, and no index.  Your college professor isn’t going to accept this as a source!

While written for adults, I think this book would best serve as a gift to a bright teenager who can then look further for more information about any person that catches their fancy.  It’s a good book for a quick read, and some interesting historical moments.

Book Review: Our Man in Charleston

Book Review: Our Man in Charleston by Christopher Dickey

One of the great things about reading history books is learning about obscure people whose lives illuminate a corner of time.  In school history classes, the emphasis tends to be on larger stories, a few “great men” (possibly a woman or two) and lots of dates to memorize.  But a book that focuses on just one minor figure can tell you a lot about the time and place they lived in.

Our Man in Charleston

This volume concerns Robert Bunch, who was the British consul in Charleston, South Carolina from 1853-63.  For our younger readers, a consul is a diplomatic official that handles the interests of a country and its citizens in an area of a foreign land less important than the capital, which is covered by an ambassador or minister plenipotentiary.  The big issue when Mr. Bunch arrived in town was the Negro Seaman Act.  In South Carolina and several other states of the southern United States, if a ship landing in a port had free black people in the crew, those crew members would be imprisoned for the duration of the ship’s stay.   That meant those crew members couldn’t do the work necessary to get the ship ready to leave, as well as suffering the privations of prison.  What was more, the ship’s captain was charged for the expense of imprisoning his crew, and if he couldn’t or wouldn’t pay, his ship and cargo would be seized by the government, and the crew members enslaved to pay the debt!

Since Great Britain had freed its slaves in the West Indies in the 1830s, and any British merchant captain operating in the West Indies hired locally, this meant that British citizens were being imprisoned, ran the risk of being enslaved and having their business prospects dampened.   Her Majesty’s Government was not well pleased.  On the other hand, the previous consul had been indiscreet about saying so, and was too forthcoming about the evils of slavery, so had been forced to leave town in theoretical disgrace.   Mr. Bunch would have to be more discreet.

Meanwhile, South Carolina and its fellow Southern states were facing their own economic crisis.   Their biggest crop was cotton, and their method of producing it demanded a steady supply of slaves.  Back when the U.S. Constitution had been signed, it had been agreed to stop importing slaves from other countries (especially African ones) after 1808 as by that point, domestic production should be sufficient.  They hadn’t realized just how heavily cotton would take off.  Worse, the Northern “free” states were expanding their territory and economies faster than the slave states, and getting more disgruntled with slavery by the year.   So the Southerners wanted to guarantee their right to have slaves forever, expand into places like Cuba and Mexico to increase their territorial power, and re institute the slave trade.

The British government was not thrilled with any of those plans, but they were well aware that their textile industry depended heavily on Southern U.S. cotton, which at the time had no viable substitute.  So Mr. Bunch’s instructions were to be as subtle as possible about opposing such things.

What emerges is a remarkably sympathetic account of the two-faced behavior required of diplomats.  In his interactions with the South Carolinians, Mr. Bunch was pleasant and friendly and non-committal, slowly working behind the scenes to accomplish British goals (it took several years, but the Negro Seaman Act was repealed.)   But in his diplomatic correspondence and secret messages to his superiors, Bunch revealed his true horror about the practice of slavery and his belief that the people around him had gone insane in a fundamental way.

(Lest Northerners get too smug, most of the ships practicing illegal slave trading with Cuba and Central America at the time were built and funded by people in New York City, using their American flags to bluff their way past British anti-slavery patrols.)

When the American Civil War came, Mr. Bunch was the only competent British consul in the Confederacy.  He was required to carry out secret diplomatic missions to try to get the Confederate government to pledge not to revive the slave trade–without ever making a solid promise to have Great Britain recognize the Confederacy as a separate nation.   Meanwhile, his dispatches were part of the reason the United Kingdom held off on recognizing the CSA, despite the foreign policy blunders of U.S,. Secretary of State William Seward, who seemed ready to provoke war with Britain if that’s what it took to show the Union would not be intimidated.

Mr. Seward was also completely taken in by Mr. Bunch’s smiling facade, and decided he was in cahoots with the rebels, pulling his diplomatic credentials.  When Mr. Bunch was evacuated from Charleston by a British ship in 1863, the South Carolina newspapers hailed him as a friend of the South.

The book comes with a center section of photographs, an extensive bibliography by subject (the book was vastly helped by Bunch’s diplomatic correspondence now being declassified), endnotes, acknowledgements and index.

Some thoughts:  this book is very clear about the way the South Carolinians’ dependence on slavery and their doubling down on it being the only ethical mode of life led them in a death spiral that could only result in economic destruction, even if the Civil War had not come about.  Make no mistake; at least for the elite of Charleston, the secession was all about keeping and expanding slavery (though their diplomats in European countries quickly resorted to all the other explanations you’ve heard, because slavery was a hard sell.)

Also, the peek behind the curtains of diplomacy makes me wonder what our own diplomats are up to around the world, and other countries’ diplomats are up to here.  How much double-dealing is acceptable in a good cause?  How can we ever be sure what an ambassador is really thinking?  Was that really the best treaty we could get, or is something entirely different going on behind the scenes?

Highly recommended for American Civil War buffs, history fans and those who want to know more about how diplomacy works.

Disclaimer: I received this book from Blogging for Books for the purpose of writing a review.  No other compensation was involved.

Book Review: Better than Bullets: The Complete Adventures of Thibault Corday and the Foreign Legion Volume 1

Book Review: Better than Bullets: The Complete Adventures of Thibaut Corday and the Foreign Legion Volume 1 by Theodore Roscoe

The Légion étrangère was created in 1831 as a way to remove disruptive elements from French society, primarily foreigners of all sorts, and put them to good use fighting far away.  Their first and primary posting was in Algeria, but the French Foreign Legion has fought in all of France’s wars, even to the present day.

Better than Bullets

Fiction created a romanticized version of the Legion as a haven for lost men, criminals escaping their pasts and disappointed lovers.  Most influential in this field was Beau Geste by P.C Wren, about a trio of brothers joining the unit.  Naturally, the pulp magazines also loved the Legion, especially during the 1920s and ’30s.  One of the most popular series of stories appeared in Argosy from 1929 to 1939, the tales of a retired Legionnaire named Thibaut Corday.

Corday is an elderly man, though his beard is still a rich cinnamon hue.  He served in the Confederate army during the American Civil War before enlisting in the Legion, and has seen many strange things, which he is willing to tell to people who will listen as he smokes at an Algerian café.  This first volume has six stories.

“Better than Bullets”, the title story, introduces Corday and his buddies, Yankee Bill the Elephant and Christian(ity) Jensen the Dane.  They’re stationed near Casablanca and out of edible food, so Bill suggests they go on an unauthorized forage expedition.   They have to leave their weapons behind, so when the trio is cornered by fanatical Muslim enemies, there’s not a bullet or blade to be had.  Thus they must improvise!  As might be suspected, through all of these stories Corday shows a strong prejudice against people of color and Muslims.  He does admit from time to time that as the French are an invading/occupying Army, the locals do have good reason for their hostility.

“The Dance of the Seven Veils” has Yankee Bill get into an altercation with a handsome rake over a dancing girl.  The real trouble starts the next morning when our heroes discover the rake is their new commanding officer, who’s taking them on a seemingly doomed mission into the Sahara Desert.   The fortress they’ve been assigned to crack seems impenetrable…until a ghostly dancer appears in the desert night.  Pretty obvious twist, but evocative imagery.

“An Eye for an Eye” tells the tale of feuding cousins Hyacinth LaDu and “La Carotte” who are students at the military school of St. Cyr.  They are already furious with each other when a lovely young woman comes along and provides an excuse for a duel.  Hyacinth puts Carrot’s eye out deliberately.  Years later, the two men meet again in the Foreign Legion.  One of the twists is slightly hidden by the tradition of joining the Legion under an assumed name.  A chilling tale of revenge.

“The Death Watch” changes things up with a horrific tale set at sea as the few Legionnaires aboard a troop transport have to deal with a mutiny by native soldiers.  Massive coincidence plays a part in the outcome.

“The Bearded Slayer” is a tale of a quite young Corday, who was inordinately proud of his fearsome beard.  Unfortunately, this same beard made him the primary suspect in a series of murders in a remote Legion outpost.   The tension ratchets with each killing, and the mounting evidence against our hero.

“The Mutineer”, which closes out the volume, features both the secret origin and final fate of Yankee Bill the Elephant.  He loudly declares his love for the beautiful daughter of the commander, in public no less.  While pursued by military police for his insolence, Bill and Corday must also deal with a native uprising.   The streak of sexism that was a minor point in other stories comes to the fore here, as it uses the old “if a woman says ‘no’, and ‘go away’ and ‘I hate you’, that means you should totally keep pestering her until you can prove your manliness and she falls in love with you” plotline I know many readers despise.  Exciting story though.

There’s a nice introduction to the series, and two biographical sketches of Theodore Roscoe, one printed in Argosy at the time, and a more recent one.

While this is sterling pulp writing, full of excitement and twists, some readers may find the period sexism and racism too much for their tastes.  On the other hand, if you loved other French Foreign Legion stories, this is a good selection.

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