Reading List – March 2020

Last March, I took a weird turn and read a well-respected, seminal three-volume biography of Andrew Jackson by Robert Remini. It was one of my favorite reading months of 2019.

So we’re doing it again – Andrew Jackson month, go!

A Being So Gentle: The Frontier Love Story of Rachel and Andrew Jackson – Patricia Brady

51qsr2bcvtslBy far, the most gripping and emotional part of the Andrew Jackson trilogy was in the middle of the second volume when Rachel suffered a heart attack and died. The Rachel and Andrew Jackson love story is so rife with excitement that it has been shown in film and lionized during the earlier parts of the 20th century, back when Jackson was SUPER popular. What’s interesting about this book is it’s a well researched biography of Rachel Jackson, and based off what I know about her that had to be HARD. Most of Rachel’s writings burned in a house fire in 1835, which makes it even harder to tease this woman’s importance, influence, and life out from under her husband’s accomplishments. Even so, she’s super important in Jackson’s life, and her story is one of the most interesting of the time.

American Lion – John Meacham

519liaiuttlThis is a more recent biography than the trilogy I read last year, so I assume it will contain analyses and morals of people more similar to those alive today. With Remini’s important work coming at a time when opinions on Jackson were shifting, I find it important to read something newer and see what happens. American Lion, published in 2008, saw something of a renaissance when Trump invoked Jacksonian imagery in 2016. Interest in Jackson rose, and John Meacham’s opinion was sought. Meacham is quite possibly one of the most famous history writers today (the other competitor I can think of being David McCullough), so I’m looking forward to reading my first work by his pen.

Martin Van Buren and the Making of the Democratic Party – Robert Remini

41sqii0vf6l._sx331_bo1204203200_So, something I did last year after reading the Andrew Jackson books was write a fanfic. I’m not sorry. Either way, the Van Buren-based character became way more important in that book than I expected, and I considered his importance in the Democratic party and Jackson’s apex. Though Van Buren is mostly well known for being president during the crash of 1837 and only having one term, he’s incredibly important for his behind the scenes work as “The Little Magician” who ran political machines and many successful campaigns. 

Also this was written by Robert Remini, so can you blame me?

The Leftovers: Something from YOU?

Do you have a published book and a method of purchasing it that isn’t sketch as hell?  I need indie books to read!  Let me know if you have something you’d like me to peruse!

See my old reviews here

The Founding of Pewabic

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Horace Caulkins, owner of the local kiln, harrumphed when he saw her paint. “That’s a pretty pattern, but what an ugly color.”

Mary Chase Perry dipped the brush in the delicate glaze and swept the liquid over the plate. She formed a delicate circle, close enough to perfect that few would notice any off-center bits. “You own the kilns. You should know this olive-green will become the loveliest blue when it’s fired.”

“I make teeth, ma’am. I use only white glaze, not this frilly stuff.”

Mary dipped her brush back in the pot. “Would you like to change that?”

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This was written for the July 4th Carrot Ranch prompt, Keweenaw Microhistories. You can read some of the microhistories from the National Park website here. I chose to write about Mary Chase Perry because the idea of her and Horace forming their company was interesting to me. Also, if you follow the link to the kiln’s page, you can see the history of Pewabic Pottery and glean more info on how Perry founded her company.

Photo by Toa Heftiba Şinca on Pexels.com

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A Trip to the Well

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Sally lugged the bucket of water up from the well.  Her hands stung from the day of labor, but the taskmaster wouldn’t ease up.  She picked up the pail and carried it while the foreman fiddled with his whip.

Struggling to remain standing, Sally tripped and spilled half the water in the bucket.  She chanced a look at the foreman, hoping emptily that the foreman hadn’t noticed.

Scared of the whip, she dumped the bucket and ran towards the foreman.  She placed the empty bucket over his head, punched him in the gut, and took off for the Railroad.

***

This was written for the March 21st Carrot Ranch Prompt, ‘Bucket of water.’  I thought about how so many people, especially women, are enslaved to carry water – even today.  I chose to take a Southern slavery setting because it’s been most well taught to me, but it’s disturbing that so many people have to struggle and hurt for something I get to have so easily.

Picture by Hansben on Pixabay.

The Embalmists

“Disgusting, heathen practice.  They’re goin’ straight to hell.”  Clive bit into the muddy hard tack and pulled off a piece of the flavorless hunk of bread.  Everyone else dipped theirs in coffee to soften it first, but Clive had a bone to pick.

Johnny rubbed his hand over his fuzzy chin, fancying himself a much older and wiser man than the 16-year-old kid he really was.  “What you reckon they do it for?  Gotta be somethin’ in it for ’em.”

Hiram, a grisly 23-year old who’d been in the Army of Northern Virginia since 1861, poured a touch of a clear liquid into his coffee cup. He leaned over the campfire, and the light bounced threateningly about his sallow face.  “It’s ’cause they’s in league with the devil hisself.  I seen with my own eyes what they done.  Like Ezekiel, but God sure as shootin’ ain’t in it.”  He spat on the ground.  “If y’alld hush, I’ll tell y’all what I know…”

***

I was a new soldier.  Everyone thought the war would be fast, that we’d go home before the biscuits got cold, but they were wrong.  Satan laughs at our folly, and he probably drank the hatred in the rivers of blood.  Don’t y’all dare make the mistake and believe that our blood is cleaner than theirs.  It’s all red, all spilled for something none of us care about.

Most of you have seen a few battles.  You’ll remember the gunshots, the blood, the haunting faces that look at you as they die – both gray and blue – but you take a look-see at some of them Union boys next time, assumin’ the typhoid don’t getcha first.

I don’t remember ‘xactly what battle it was that the embalmists moved in.  They set up shop in a tent to the north, what with a big sign on the door and everthin.  Boy up yonder with the telescope seen it first, and I was still bright eyed enough that I wanted a peek.

But when I looked, I seen somethin’ weird.  Corpses – sometimes just pieces of bodies – would be brought into the embalmist’s shop.  I saw half as many corpses come back out.

I told my officer.  He thought I was crazy, but it was a lull in the battle, and it ain’t like a human life is worth much these days.  He let me take off behind enemy lines, sneakin’ round and figgerin’ up what I saw.  I could look after my embalmist’s ways, but I had to bring back some ideas on what the enemy movement was, too.

I suited up in blue.  Their uniform’s easy enough to come by.  I kep my mouth shut and walked right through their camp without as much as a sideways glance.  It still makes me shiver to think I look so much a Yank.

Anyway, I come up on the embalmist’s tent.  It’d grown since the first time I’d seen it. There were a pile of bodies just outside, and the doctors had nurses what come in and out on a regular basis.

One of the ladies spotted me, so she picked up her skirts and come over.  “One of your friends here?” she asked.  “I got all the paper work, if you want me to find him.  I just can’t have you skulking around so.”  Her Yankee words rung round in my brain a few seconds, stingin’ my thoughts with their harshness.

“No ma’am,” I said in my best Yankee imitation.  “I just never heard of this kind of place afore.  What you do here?”

She lifted a brow then crossed her arms.   “We’re helping our boys in blue get back home.”

“I don’t reckon I much care ’bout that,” I said, “But this place seems a mite weird.”

“I can take you in.  Show you what we do.”  She brazenly took me by the wrist and pulled me towards the embalmist’s tent.  “It’ll be an eye-opener.”   I follered without much thought.   The lady’s hands were sweet and purty, and I couldn’t stand the thoughts of breakin’ such a beautiful, fragile flower.

The tent smelled funny, like nothin’ I smelled afore.  It got stronger when I entered under the flap, but I didn’t ask about it.  Jars full of clear liquid hung from rafters in the tent, and lines ran down to hordes of corpses that covered dozens of cots all down the rows.  “Mercy sakes alive.”

She pointed to the only living man in the hospital as he stooped over one of the Yankee corpses.  “There.  He’s putting the fluid in that man’s body so the remains can be shipped back to New York.  The fluid has arsenic and kills everything it touches, so none of the bugs that eat bodies can make them rot.  Think of what a relief that must be for the poor young man’s family.”

I thought of all my friends who’d been killed.  They’d had no wake, no funeral, just been chucked in the ground often in unmarked graves so they wouldn’t rot and make such a stink.

“You’d like to get back home to your family too, wouldn’t you?  I mean, even you Southern boys must like that.”

“I ain’t no-”

“You are, and you’re a terrible spy.  But I don’t mind.  Me and the dead don’t see a problem with your interest.  You’re just another customer base.”  She snapped her fingers and waltzed alluringly as she went deeper into the tent.  At a certain bed she stopped, looked at the fluid level in a heavily-labeled glass bottle, and tapped the cheeks of a Yankee full of gunshot holes.  “Get up.  I need your bed.”

The dead man – dead, no life in his eyes at all – sat up without a breath.

“Lord have mercy!” I shouted.

A few other heads, both on tables and on the nurses, turned to look at me.

I started to run, but I realized that outside the tent I’d be killed by living men just as surely as the dead ones’d get me in here!

The nurse unhooked the needles from the naked corpse’s arms and legs then brushed off the table beneath him.  The dead Yank reached for a bloody uniform under the bed and started pulling on the trousers and shell jacket.

The nurse held up a needle.  “Like I asked earlier… you want to make it back home, don’t you?”  She smiled, her strangely white teeth glinting like dog’s fangs.  “Come on.  Sit a spell,” she said with sweet, Carolina tones.

I shook my head and started to back away, but one of the dead Yanks grabbed me by the leg.  His fingers were tight with rigor mortis.

“Don’t come adder me, you witch!”  I pushed off the one Yank, but several others got up from their beds to try and stop me.  Other nurses exchanged the fluid lines on their dead patients, and the doctor watched with ravenous excitement.  I remember the look on his face when…

Never mind that.  Eventually, I realized I needed to escape.  I punched the witch square in the face.  I know it ain’t right to hit a lady, but I was desperate.  I couldn’t do much of nothin’ to the Yanks, so I had to go straight to the source.

For all her misbegotten demons, it was like a punch to the gut.  I had to take my chance to escape, so I didn’t let my aches or the grabbing of the Yanks keep me down.  I stole several bottles of the magic liquid, hopin’ to bring a few pints with me to the Captain and prove what I’d seen.  I ran right outta that tent and through the God-forsaken Yankee encampment as fast as I could.

If they’s raisin’ their dead, ain’t nothin’ we can do to win.  Ain’t nothin’ you can do to kill a dead man.

***

Johnny, eyes bright and wide, leaned closer to the fire.  “And did the Captain believe you?”

“Yes.  But he was wise, and he knew no one else would.  Turns out the bottles were just full of arsenic, ‘corddin to our doctors.”  Hiram swallowed the rest of his coffee and put the closed bottle of liquid into his cup, then wrapped both carefully in a hemp sack.

Clive pointed at the practice.  “What you got there?  Moonshine, right?”

“You cain’t read the labels, I take it?”

Clive shook his head no.

“Prolly better that way.”  Hiram stood and stretched, his gaunt face frightening in the campfire, his eyes glinting like a demon.  “See y’all tomorrow.”

Dying With Taste – Southern Funeral Traditions

Tomorrow, I’m posting a story – the first of a series of unconnected tales – about dying in the South.  I was inspired to write that fantasy after a really strange, really interesting Sunday School lesson.

(Edit: Here are the four stories – The EmbalmistsThe Funeral Ribbon QuiltThe WakeThe Preacher’s Wife -)

On August 13th, my church had a speaker from the North Carolina Museum of History come to talk about Southern funeral traditions.  The speaker focused on the tradition of the funeral ribbon quilt, which I’ll include in this little snippit of an article, but other Southern funerary traditions found their way into the talk.  Most of the information presented here came from that lesson.

If you have access, you can read the paper here:

Bell-Kite, Diana.  Memorials of Satin: Funeral Ribbon Quilts in Context.  Uncoverings.  Volume 37, pp. 41-74.  2016.

Embalming and Cremation – Sins That Weaved Their Way In

The first story, the one that comes out tomorrow, speaks about the practice of embalming.  Though invented in the 1700’s as a method to preserve organ specimens for scientific study, popularization of embalming as a means of corpse preservation occurred during the Civil War.  Union soldiers with rich enough families would pay a battlefield undertaker to embalm their dead relative so that the corpse could be transported back home instead of buried on site.

100Once the war was over, the Northerners kept the tradition of embalming and started commercializing death.  Instead of handling a funeral in their home, they would outsource the work to the local funeral directors.  Cremation became an acceptable means of disposing the body due to cost, location, and other restrictions more common in the urbanizing North.

Back in the south, those luxuries were unaffordable.  Association with the North, those evil ragamuffins, served to make them seem evil.  After getting out of church on Sunday, I called my mom and talked to her about what I’d learned.  She audibly shuddered and said, “Cremation’s awful.  Everyone says you go to hell if you get cremated.”  She paused a minute while she thought on it a little more.  “It’s something from up North.  They don’t care about goin’ to hell as much up there.”

“Full of sinners?” I asked.

“Yeah, I reckon.”

That being said, both practices are making their way into the unique and customized traditions of the south.  Some people are even requesting cremation so they can be interred in their favorite mayonnaise jars.

The Wake

The Southern Wake is something I’ve never experienced but have known about.  Though embalming is now a legal requirement in most states, even those down here, the wake was a tradition in which the body rested in the house for the night (two, tops).  The family and those close to the deceased would keep a vigil, staying up through the night with alternating celebration and mourning.  People bring food for the bereaved to enjoy and help ease the moment.

Mr. Bill, one of the most outgoing and personable human beings at the church I attend, had something to say after Sunday School was done.

“I ‘member when Mama and Daddy used to take me to the old-style funerals.  They had all kind of food and it was the greatest.  I loved it.”

The wake preceded a long funerary service at the church, which is usually where I started my experiences with Southern Funerals.  At the church you enjoy even more food, listen to multiple hours of sermon, then the deceased are buried.  From death to dirt, it takes about a day.

Because I grew up in a poor, rural area of the south, the old-style funeral is the only one I’ve experienced.  People would bring an absolute trove of goodies to assuage the bereaved family members and throw a bit of a party.  You could bet there’d be banana pudding and deviled eggs.  Regional trends would determine exactly what kind of food appeared, but there’d always be plenty of it.

Flowers Of a Particular Kind (And Their Ribbons)

sweet-thought-standing-sprayA tradition killed by the recession, Southern funeral bouquets were a major part of dying.  Florists were able to equate the purchase of flowers with a moral obligation, and Southerners bought this line without question.  The more flowers a deceased party had at their funeral, the more well-loved and popular they had obviously been.  To not give flowers would be considered a grave (pun, get it) insult.

The subject of the talk in Sunday School was an offshoot of this practice.  In order to cheapen bouquets and ensure adequate flower supply, florists would tie in long, satin-acetate bows.  Southern ladies would take the bows off the flowers and sew them into a quilt.  The tradition of the funeral ribbon quilt died when the material for these bows changed from the satin-acetate to the weather-resistant polypropylene (short part of the story).

The practice of giving copious flowers at a Southern funeral still remained in many areas, at least the one I grew up in, until the Great Recession.  I remember the piles and piles of flowers at the funerals I’ve been to.  Once the Recession hit, though, people stopped being able to afford such frippery.  In the 10 years since the market crashed, I think the last vestiges of the floral funeral may have finally ended.  A few people remain who will insist on dying the old way, but the more modest and practical funeral of the North seems to have taken over.

Lord have mercy on us all.

 

History’s Full Circle

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Fannie patted off the birthing fluids with clean linen and magically peered into the boy’s eyes. She shivered and examined his future. This boy, born in a fort, was destined soon to die in a fort.

She handed the child to his mother and ran out into the woods. She cried, “Why bring this boy into the world for such suffering?”

The entire company of the fort looked for her, but she returned at her own pace.

She moved to Virginia where her vision directed. In twenty years, Fannie Hooe comforted a dying young man in a Union fort.

***

Thanks once again to Charli Mills of the Carrot Ranch for this prompt. I personally like to add a bit of magic to odd settings, and the Civil War and associated eras offer a great opportunity.  I hope I didn’t put in too much magic for such a serious sounding prompt!