Book Review: Behind a Mask: The Unknown Thrillers of Louisa May Alcott

Book Review: Behind a Mask: The Unknown Thrillers of Louisa May Alcott edited by Madaleine Stern

Louisa May Alcott (1832-1888) is best remembered for her Little Women series of books for girls, but had quite a few other works to her name.  And some that were written under a pen name.  The latter included several short works published in sensational periodicals of the time, considered too spicy to be attached to her reputation as a schoolteacher.  The Alcott family suffered from poverty, and sales of “blood and thunder” stories were a nice way to earn emergency cash.

Behind a Mask: The Unknown Thrillers of Louisa May Alcott

According to Ms. Stern, many of these works were lost for years because of the psuedonym and the ephemeral nature of the periodicals they appeared in.  She first became aware of them in the 1940s, but due to wartime conditions was unable to pursue the matter to a conclusion, and it was only in the 1970s that enough clues could be found to allow this collection of four representative stories.

“Behind a Mask ~or~ A Woman’s Power” leads off as the well-off Coventry family engages nineteen year old Scotswoman Jean Muir as a governess.  It seems that for various reasons, the sixteen year old youngest daughter Bella has had her education neglected, and she needs her basics down before her social debut.  Jean turns out to be a multi-talented young woman and quickly wins the hearts of most of the family.  However, when she retires to her new bedroom, Jean removes her makeup, wig and false teeth to reveal that she’s actually thirty–and a very skilled actor.

Jean Muir uses her wiles to entice the family’s two brothers, turning them against each other.  But in fact her ambitions are even higher.  And in the end, despite some setbacks, Jean succeeds in her primary goal!  This makes the story one of the relatively rare “bad guy wins” pieces of fiction.  On the other hand, it’s hard to be unsympathetic to Jean; she’s been dealt a bad hand by life, and in a pre-feminist society, her options are limited.  And to be honest, the ultimate outcome only leaves the Coventry family sadder but wiser.

One bit that may confuse younger readers–the elder brother buys the younger brother a “commission.”  At the time, the British Army allowed rich people to simply buy a lieutenant’s rank.  This worked out about as well as you’d think.

“Pauline’s Passion and Punishment” brings us to Cuba.  Pauline is a woman scorned; the handsome but financially embarrassed Gilbert wooed her, then went on what he described as a short trip–to marry another woman!  She comes up with a scheme to get revenge, and the handsome and wealthy Manuel is willing to marry her to help her get it.  They catch up with Gilbert and his new bride Barbara at a resort hotel.  Gilbert married “Babie” for money, only to find out it was tied up in a trust.  Pauline happens to be an old schoolmate of Babie’s, so she and Manuel have a social “in” to hang out with Gilbert and his wife.

Quite honestly, Pauline dodged a bullet when  Gilbert dumped her; he’s a gambling addict, heavy drinker and bad-tempered (warning for domestic abuse.)   Pauline could have just left it at showing how much better a couple she and Manuel were, living well as the best revenge.  But she just can’t resist twisting the knife, and that leads to tragedy.

There’s a bit of ethnic stereotyping of the “Latins are hot-blooded” type.  This story is illustrated with woodcuts from the original publication.

“The Mysterious Key ~and~ What It Opened” brings us back to Britain.  Lord Trevlyn and his wife are about to have their first child when a messenger arrives.  We do not find out immediately what message was brought, but at the end of the night, Lord Trevlyn is dead of a heart attack, Lady Trevlyn is prostate with shock (and her health never entirely recovers) and Lillian is born.

The story skips ahead to Lillian’s early adolescence, when a mysterious but very polite boy named Paul turns up and becomes a servant for the Trevlyn family.  He and Lillian get on quite well, but it’s clear that he has secrets, and then vanishes one night.

Several years later, Paul turns up again with the name Paolo Talbot.  He has made his fortune in Italy, and has returned to Britain with his cousin Helene.  Helene is blind (at one point mistaken for mentally handicapped by an uneducated person, who uses what was at the time the polite term, but “idiot” is no longer acceptable.)  Lillian thinks Paul is honor-bound to marry Helene, but the truth is far more convoluted.

This story is the weakest of the set, and could have used some punching up.

“The Abbot’s Ghost ~or~ Maurice Treherne’s Temptation” is a Christmas story.  The noble Treherne family has several guests staying over Christmastide.  Love triangles abound as a result.  Maurice has been confined to a wheelchair due to an accident, and it is deemed unlikely that he will ever walk again.  He was also disinherited by his late uncle for initially unspecified reasons, and is dependent on the charity of his cousin Jasper, who inherited the title and money.

Christmas is a time for ghost stories, and the Treherne house happens to have a resident spook, an abbot who was turned out of his home by a distant ancestor of the Trehernes.  It is said that an appearance by the abbot’s ghost foretells the death of a male member of the family.  Sure enough, the ghost appears (or is it a hoax?)  Who will die, and who will get married?

There’s an ethnic slur hurled by one of the characters, who is portrayed as unsympathetic at the time.

Three out of four stories involve possible cousin marriage; I wonder if that was really such a big thing back in the 1860s in Britain, or if Ms. Alcott just had a thing for that storytelling gimmick.

The writing is clear and direct, with a few obscure words and outdated pop culture references.  While apparently pretty daring for their time, there’s little in here that will shock modern readers.

Recommended for more mature Alcott fans, and those who enjoy romantic thrillers.

 

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: Outlaws of the Atlantic: Sailors, Pirates and Motley Crews in the Age of Sail

Book Review: Outlaws of the Atlantic: Sailors, Pirates and Motley Crews in the Age of Sail by Marcus Rediker

Disclaimer:  I received this book as a Goodreads giveaway for the purposes of this review.  No other compensation was offered or requested.

Outlaws of the Atlantic

During the Age of Sail, the deep ocean sailing ship was one of the most advanced technological wonders of its time.  But such a complex device required many workers to keep it running smoothly and keep it from collapsing in times of danger.  So there rose the class of people known as the common seaman; sailors who were essential to the ship as a group, but entirely replaceable as individuals.

Often ill-used, to the point that they often compared themselves to slaves, sailors developed their own subcultures and began “resistance from below”; most notably creating the “strike” when an entire harbor’s sailors struck  (took down) the sails of the ships they were on and refused to work until they got better conditions.  Sailors became both the creators of and spreaders of rebellion against the cruel social order of their day.

Mr. Rediker is a professor of Atlantic History at the University of Pittsburgh, and this is a collection of short pieces he’s written on the general theme of “resistance from below” as it relates to the Atlantic Ocean in the Age of Sail.  He talks a lot about “antinomianism” (the idea that one is primarily saved by faith, rather than obedience to law), and “hydrarchy” (rule by the sea, often connoting rule of the lowly many as opposed to the official hierarchy).

The book begins with an examination of “the sailor’s yarn” and how it was used to spread information both useful and dubious, influencing Western literature among other things.  It moves on to the stories of two men that demonstrate that history also includes ordinary workers and castaways.

In an essay on pirates during the Golden Age of Piracy 1650-1730, emphasis is laid upon the efforts of pirates to democratize their ships; pirate captains were limited in authority, unlike merchant or military captains whose word was law, and whose punishments were untempered.  This indeed was one of the reasons pirates found favor in popular culture; for all that they were criminals, they also had a kind of freedom seldom seen at the time.

There’s another essay on how “motley” (multi-ethnic) crews of sailors helped spread the ideas that led to the American Revolution; though the wealthy stepped in to keep the Revolution from going too far towards mob rule as they saw it.

There is a chapter on slave rebellions aboard the ships carrying them to the New World, usually doomed, and a separate chapter for the case of the Amistad, which turned out much better than could have been hoped.  The latter chapter looks at how conflating the Amistad freedom fighters with pirates helped influence American attittudes towards the men from Sierra Leone.

There are several black and white illustrations, copious endnotes and an index.

This book very much feels like an introduction to the theme of rebellion in Atlantic Ocean history, and as such I would recommend it to the casual student looking for a quick read on various aspects of the subject.  Professor Rediker’s other books appear to go into much more depth on the individual subjects involved, such as slave ships and piracy.  Based on his work here, those should also be interesting.

If these sound like topics you’d be interested in, check your lending library system to see if they’ve got this book in stock.

Book Review: A Miscarriage of Justice

Book Review: A Miscarriage of Justice by Nicholas Carter

The quiet village of Tarrytown, New York (not far from Sleepy Hollow) is rocked by scandal when Bert and Adele Denore cut their honeymoon in Cuba short.  It seems someone sent poison pen letters to the hotels and casinos they had planned to visit, alleging unspeakable things about Mrs. Denore’s background.  (And you know it’s unspeakable when a Cuban casino feels obliged to ban you to protect its reputation!)

Miscarriage
No cover is available, so enjoy this vintage French image of Nick Carter.

Due to the unusual stationery the anonymous letters were written on, suspicion falls on Marjorie Ellsworth, a minister’s daughter that Bert had unsuccessfully wooed some time before.   More evidence piles up, and postal inspector Fraser thinks he’s made his case.  But Marjorie’s fiance Frank Dean is sure she’s innocent, and engages the famous detective Nick Carter.  Nick soon convinces himself that Marjorie indeed is not the author of the poison pen letters..but there’s not enough evidence to convince a jury of that–and seemingly no motive for anyone to frame her!

As mentioned in my previous Nick Carter pulp reviews, he also had a stunning career as a dime novel character, with over 1000 volumes of his adventures printed.  This one, originally published in 1914 a brought out in a “paperbound” edition in 1919, is one of them.  My copy is barely holding together, with the covers and some of the spine missing, but all the story pages are there, so I thought I’d better read it now before it disintegrates.

The story is…of its time.  Nick is easily able to discern good people from bad by their facial features (he’s a trained expert at this) and plays fast and loose with the laws of evidence.  (Some dodgy legality at a court hearing is handwaved by the judge declaring it “informal.”)  Marjorie is a “damsel in distress” who is pure and innocent as well as beautiful, and seems to have no skill set beyond being of good character.  Adele, being French, is a conniving woman of dubious character, but a much more dynamic person with considerable spine.

There’s a small amount of violence, surprisingly none of it by the hands of the hot-tempered Frank, but this is decidedly not a murder case and the villains have no wish to make it so.  There’s an unfortunate cameo by a black bellboy who speaks in heavy dialect.

Superwoman
Ad for Ainslee’s Magazine from the back of the book.

Nick could probably have solved the case much faster if he hadn’t stuck to some cultural assumptions, but evidence would still have been hard to find.

Overall, this book is a disposable, quick and enjoyable read for fans of light detective fiction.  It’s mostly valuable as a curiosity, but people who love old books should keep an eye out for other Nick Carter volumes.

Comic Book Review: Corpse on the Imjin! and Other Stories by Harvey Kurtzman

Comic Book Review: Corpse on the Imjin! and Other Stories by Harvey Kurtzman edited by Gary Groth

In later years, Harvey Kurtzman was better known  for his humor work, among other things being the first editor of MAD.  But while he worked at EC Comics in the early Fifties, Mr. Kurtzman was also known for some very impressive tales of action and warfare in Two-Fisted Tales and Frontline Combat.  He was a pioneer in the area of more “realistic” war comics, ones that didn’t treat the enemy as subhuman or inherently evil.

Corpse on the Imjin! and Other Stories by Harvey Kurtzman

This book reprints many of those stories, divided into two sections, those Mr. Kurtzman illustrated himself, and those done by other artists from his layouts.  (He was notoriously unhappy when those artists deviated from his vision, and as he was also the editor of the books, those artists usually didn’t get invited to work with him again.)

The volume opens with “Conquest!”, a story set during Spain’s expansion of its empire into Central and South America.  Captain Juan Alvarado and his conquistadors initially have great success against their under-gunned native opponents, but their lust for gold undoes them.

The final story (with art by Reed Crandall) is “Memphis!” about a battle between Union and Confederate gunships on the Mississippi River during the Civil War.  The enthusiasm of the spectators, especially the children, is contrasted to the horrific cost of the battle.

The Korean War was going on during the run of these comic books, and the majority of the stories concern that conflict.  Several of these are top-rate.  “Rubble!” is about a Korean farmer building a doomed house, with step-by-step coverage of the hard labor he puts in–the art in some panels reminds me of WPA heroic friezes.  “Air Burst!” is the tale of a Chinese mortar squad as they try to survive a UN attack, their numbers dwindling.  “Corpse on the Imjin!”  was one of Mr. Kurtzman’s favorites, about two soldiers fighting to the death near the title river, with narration that’s deliberately poetic.  And “Big ‘If’!” is a meditation on the randomness of death that focuses on one soldier considering the choices that have led him to this place, sitting facing five “devil sticks.”

Some of the stories are not quite as good–“Contact!” about a U.S. patrol looking for the North Koreans and finding them ends with a patriotic speech straight out of Hollywood propaganda.  And “Bunker!” (art by Ric Estrada) about two disparate units trying to take a heavily-defended hill, has some unfortunate exaggerated features on the black soldiers that would not fly today, despite the well-meant message of the story.  But overall, most of the stories are solid to excellent.

The stories are reprinted in black and white, which favors the strong inking skills of Mr. Kurtzman, but there is also a color cover gallery that shows off his sense of color design and the work of Marie Severin as a colorist.

The volume is completed with several essays about Mr. Kurtzman’s work and EC Comics in general.

While the violence level is high as you might expect from war stories, these tales don’t lean on the gore as some of EC’s horror titles did–even visible blood is rare.

Highly recommended to EC fans, war comics buffs and those studying the Korean War and how it was seen at the time.

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: A Curious Man

Book Review: A Curious Man by Neal Thompson

Disclaimer:  I received this volume free from the Blogging for Books program, on the premise that I would write a review.

This is a biography of Robert Ripley (nee LeRoy Robert Ripley), the cartoonist who created the Believe It or Not! feature.  I was fascinated by the paperback reprints of the cartoons back in my boyhood, but knew little of the story behind the creator.

A Curious Man

This volume covers Mr. Ripley’s life from barefoot poverty in Santa Rosa, California, to his early career as a sports cartoonist, through his discovery of a love for bizarre factoids and the creation of his famous comic strip to his worldwide fame.    He became a world traveler, a millionaire, star of radio and newsreels and knew many beautiful women, all for doing something he enjoyed immensely.

Of course, he also had his faults; Mr. Ripley was a heavy drinker, sexist, racist by our current standards (though progressive for his time), could not keep it in his pants, and had a tendency to fudge facts about his own life the way he didn’t the stories in his cartoons.  He also became a more difficult person towards the end of his life as his health failed and his drinking and overwork caught up with him.

The story of Ripley’s life is told in mostly chronological order,  with little “Believe It!” factoids about the people and places mentioned.  There’s also the story of various supporters of Ripley; most importantly, Norbert Pearlroth, Ripley’s main research person who found many of the factoids that appeared in the comic.  (He actually stayed with the strip longer than Ripley himself!)

There is a black and white photo section in the middle, but if you have a smartphone, you can download an app with audio and video clips from Mr. Ripley’s many public appearances.  For those of you with multimedia capability, this will make the book a much better value for money.  There are extensive end notes and an index as well.

This biography benefits from the very interesting person at its center, and I would recommend it to any Believe It or Not! fans.

Book Review: Mingo Dabney

Book Review: Mingo Dabney by James Street

Mingo Dabney is a Mississippi woodsman from Lebanon who falls in love with the lovely but exotic (white-haired) Cuban woman Rafaela Galbran when she comes to his hometown seeking money and arms for the 1895 Cuban revolution. Being a passionate young fellow, he winds up following her to Cuba and getting mixed up in the fighting.

Mingo DabneyThe story is based on real events and several of the people involved actually existed. Jose Marti, the author of “Guantanamera”, has a small but key role, for example. However, as the author admits in the foreword, he’s a storyteller, not a historian, and has rearranged things to make a better tale. In particular, one incident is moved from the 1868 revolution to 1895.

Racism is acknowledged in the story; while Mingo himself is surprisingly unbigoted for his time and place, the reputation of Southerners for racial prejudice works against him in the early part of the story. The revolutionaries’ fear that American intervention would result in a loss of sovereignty for Cuba is also mentioned.  Rafaela is the only woman with a substantial role in the book, and is primarily a symbol for the troops to rally around.

The book ends before the end of the revolution and the beginning of the Spanish-American War; it could easily have a sequel as there are several plot threads left loose, but Mingo Dabney’s character arc is complete, so it’s a satisfying ending.

You might have a little trouble finding this one–it appears that the most recent Cuban Revolution soured American readers on the topic, and it was not reprinted past the 1950s. But it’s a solid read about a period of history little taught in US schools.

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