Most accounts of the Battle of the Plains of Abraham, also called the Battle of Quebec — a turning point in the history of North America, when Canada became British — focus on the two commanders, both of whom died in the fighting. However, in his 2016 book Northern Armageddon: The Battle of the Plains of Abraham and the Making of the American Revolution, D. Peter MacLeod takes a different tack. In the early morning hours of September 13, 1759, General James Wolfe sent his British soldiers climbing the face of the nearly 200-foot-tall cliff of the Quebec Promontory, a cliff that, to the French, had seemed unclimbable, especially with regular patrols along the cliff-edge. Nonetheless, through luck and energy, the British force got to the top and set up a battle line on the west side of the plateau, with some 2,100 troops. The French, once they realized that the British had snuck behind them, established their own battle line on the eastern edge of the plains, on and in front of the Buttes-a-Neveu. This was a raised mound that, MacLeod points out, would have provided the 2,000 French and Canadian militia troops with an advantageous higher-ground position […]
I was flabbergasted by Quebec: Historic Seaport, ostensibly a history of the Canadian city, published in 1944 by novelist Mazo de la Roche. And my flabbergastation only grew greater the more I read the book until it evolved, near the end, into out-and-out disgust. Of course, I knew going into the book that it might be a challenge. Novelists use different intellectual and artistic muscles than historians do, but, sometimes, this can result in a wonderful work, such as Son of the Morning Star, Evan Connell’s history of Gen. George Armstrong Custer at Little Bighorn. Not here. De la Roche writes her book as if it were a historical romance with manly men and daintily beautiful women. And it isn’t really about Quebec. It’s more a history of Canada in which Quebec plays an important-ish role. “Their own doom” That’s not the real problem, though. Ultimately, de la Roche’s effort is completely undercut by her deep and sharp prejudices. This reaches its nadir when de la Roche is discussing the Treaty of Versailles which ended the American Revolution, giving the colonies their independence. She writes: In that treaty the New Englanders wrote their own doom, for in their […]
The death penalty is wrong in all cases. That’s what Pope Francis proclaimed in early August, and that’s what the Church’s Catechism will be revised to say. It’s an important statement about faith and human rights. And its impact extends beyond those convicted of serious crimes and threatened with execution. The Pope’s order, culminating of an evolution in church teaching that goes back to St. John Paul II, is a lesson to you and me about how to treat those we see as sinners. Under the revision, the Catechism will say, “The Church teaches, in the light of the Gospel, that ‘the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person,’ and she works with determination for its abolition worldwide.” In 1992, John Paul II began to take strong stands against the death penalty. There was one exception as he saw it — “cases of absolute necessity” when the death penalty was needed to protect other lives. The announcement from Pope Francis closes that “last remaining loophole” in Church’s stand against executions, writes Sister Helen Prejean, a longtime opponent of the death penalty. “The dignity of the person” The Church […]
This is an expanded version of an article that appeared 8.29.18 in the Chicago Reader. Don L. Lee was ten years old when his mother Maxine took him and his younger sister to visit the minister of one of the largest black churches in Detroit. It was mid-20th century America, and, abandoned years before by her husband, Maxine, a beautiful, vivacious woman, had been trying to keep the family afloat with the odds stacked against her. Suddenly, with the minister, she was in luck. A man in his fifties, with a kindly demeanor, he offered her a job as a janitor at the four-story, twelve-unit building he owned next to his church — and free housing in a basement apartment. During the week, she’d be responsible for cleaning and dusting the public areas and hauling the garbage cans down the backstairs. Oh, and one other thing — as the interview came to an end, the minister leaned over and whispered something to Maxine. “I knew what was going on,” her son tells me. Thereafter, come Monday and Thursday afternoons, the minister would visit the family’s apartment “and she would service him.” She was what was known at the time […]
Julia Keller’s latest novel Bone on Bone is a story of misery and love. It is the story of people whose lives are full of misery. Sometimes, for them, love ameliorates the pain. At other times, it feeds the pain. Like Keller’s six previous books in this series focused on the fictional town of Acker’s Gap in West Virginia, there is a murder and mysteries in Bone on Bone. There is a search for truth amid the chaos and confusion of existence. Yet, this isn’t a whodunit. This is a literary work grappling with the existential pain of breathing, pain we all suffer. The misery in Acker’s Gap The misery in Acker’s Gap has to do with the loss of jobs and potential and with the increasing use of illegal drugs by young people who don’t see a future, even young people with advantages. Not only are the teens and young adults in this novel eaten up by their drug addiction, but the lives of their parents are grotesquely twisted by the suffering of watching their children suffer. So grotesquely twisted that one mother seeks release in the bed of a pick-up lover as her husband, out of […]
The Church’s understanding of what it means to live a Christian life has been evolving for 2,000 years and will continue to do so. For instance, the early Church accepted slavery as a permissible aspect of human society but later came to see bondage as immoral. Earlier this month, another step in the evolution of the Church’s teaching took place when Pope Francis announced that the death penalty is wrong in all cases. “Inadmissible” At the Pope’s order, the Catechism will be revised to say: “The Church teaches, in the light of the Gospel, that ‘the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person,’ and she works with determination for its abolition worldwide.” This shift in doctrine began in 1992 with St. John Paul II who took strong stands against the death penalty “except in cases of absolute necessity” to protect other lives. The announcement from Pope Francis closes “the last remaining loophole” in Church’s stand against executions, writes Sister Helen Prejean, a longtime opponent of the death penalty. “The dignity of the person” While the new step has many ramifications, the important lesson for most of […]
That great and silly American writer Christopher Moore, in recent years, has mined the Shakespeare canon for sources for his comic novels. You could call this thievery. Or you could call it homage. Either way, the results are hilarious — Fool (a rip-off, excuse me, homage to King Lear) and The Serpent of Venice (Merchant of Venice and Othello). (And, after all, the great Will stole all his plots from earlier writers, right?) Two decades earlier, that great and silly English writer Terry Pratchett did the same thing in Wyrd Sisters. This 1988 novel borrows a lot of the plot of MacBeth. It’s got an evil Duchess to play the Queen part, and a Duke who takes the hand-washing bit way too far. There’s a forest that moves, and a murdered king, and an unexpected heir. And, like many a Shakespearian effort, there are characters who are masquerading as other people. Quite a lot, actually. There’s a play within a play. And ghosts and “divers alarums” and witches. Ah, yes, Pratchett’s witches — the two old standbys, Granny Weatherwax, the crotchety uber-witch, and Nanny Ogg, an earth-motherish sort, as well as Magrat Garlick, the junior witch who’s still a […]
For Great Britain, the late 18th-century conflict with its North American colonies was a civil war. The colonists were in rebellion and needed to be policed. For the newly minted United States of America, the Revolution was a war for independence. The colonists wanted to control their lives and fortunes. Either way you looked at it, however, the armies, officials and common people opposing the mighty British forces were insurgents. They were the same sort of insurgents who, over the next 200-plus years, would rebel in France, Russia and Cuba, and in dozens of successful and unsuccessful attempts at achieving self-government. And, either way you looked at it, the time of the revolt, particularly in the early years, was a time of great chaos for new Americans. The history of the American Revolution, most frequently, has been portrayed as a story of great men who thought great ideas and brought about independence by the sheer weight of the righteousness of their creation — an early sort of manifest destiny. It was as if the new nation, as designed and proclaimed, made so much sense, how could anyone, except those dense Brits, ever think to question it? […]
Since 2000, British writer Sara Maitland has been investigating, searching for, reaching for silence. Eight years through the still-ongoing process, she wrote about her endeavor in A Book of Silence. As part of this journey, Maitland has done 40 days and 40 nights of something approaching complete silence in a remote, isolated house in the far north of England. She has looked at the stories of people who have experienced many versions of silence down through history. She has recognized two very different groupings of silence — one in which silence is a way to wall off the self from distractions in order to do creative work, and one in which silence is an openness to all of existence, a kind of praying. This is a complex book that will perplex many who are steeped in Western civilization’s values. Maitland herself is complex, a self-described Roman Catholic socialist feminist writer of fiction and non-fiction. Such a counter-cultural combination of beliefs and enthusiasms will also perplex many. Unless you’re searching You don’t want to read this book unless you’re searching. This isn’t the sort of book with warm and cuddly and/or humorous and/or entertaining anecdotes about some subject […]
The lost tribes for Haki Madhubuti I found the lost tribes in America, eating fries with city workers at the McDonald’s on Western Avenue. I found them sport-shopping at Gurnee Mills. I found them in the bleak hours on Ecclesiastes Road, in the cathedral’s unused confessionals, in the self-help section at the public library, after the wait, under the weight, over the rainbow, up the street, dedicated to the proposition, under the gun during the workshop on neighborhood crime. I found them with Colonel Mustard in the library with the rope. I found the lost tribes in that river bend where garbage collects, amid the splayed newspapers and dead fish and truck tires and basketballs and plastic bags and condom snakeskins and lost souls and bitter winners and empty milk cartons and broken rosaries and gasoline sheen and abandoned virgins and abandoned promises and a single shopping cart loaded with rusted chicken wire, sodden stuffed animals and my sins. I found them hiding behind the talking heads with the sound off. I found them in the purple noise of the laugh track, hellbent for distraction. I found them staring […]
For 2000 years, Mary the mother of Jesus has been a major figure in Christian theology, liturgy and art and a major inspiration to believers working to live their faith in daily life. Yet, in the Gospels, Mary doesn’t have many lines. In fact, she only speaks on four occasions: when Gabriel appears to her, when she visits her cousin Elizabeth, when the 12-year-old Jesus stays behind in the Temple and when she’s at the wedding feast of Cana with her son. The Feast of the Visitation, celebrated at the end of May, commemorates the event when, for me, Mary shines the brightest, singing the Magnificat, perhaps the greatest song in the Bible. It starts: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior…” Many modern translations begin, “My soul proclaims…” or “My soul praises…” But I like the earlier word “magnifies” because it’s kind of odd and mysterious. What Mary is saying is that she is like a magnifying glass. By looking at her — by looking through her — other people see God better. Isn’t this what we’re called to do as Christians? To be a magnifying glass — to help others see, through our actions, […]
War is violent, chaotic, destructive, deadly and, for the aggressor nowadays, morally wrong. Yet, how to fight war except with war? Two decades ago, in a series of radio addresses, John Keegan, the noted war historian, mentioned one weapon against war that many people would overlook — aid to needy nations in the form of anti-poverty and economic development measures. Since we know that poor states which have a fragile cultural identity are far more likely to engage in war-mongering or to experience inter-ethnic conflict as a by-product of insecurity, what then can be done to secure their identity and economic well-being? Can we somehow help those fledgling states to reach a more mature and stable condition of political security and economic autonomy? An essential weapon in our war against conflict must, therefore, be progress in aid and development programs allied to strong alliances with other nations which strengthen the economic structures of such states and help to neutralize the political insecurities against which their governments constantly battle. Only then can we help them also to reject, as we have done, Heraclitus’s belief that strife is the only just and corrective force. “Must be realistic” War and […]
Blood and flesh You tell me to crawl into the ragged slash in your side and pull the raw edges of flesh together to enclose me in the gory warmth of your heartbeat, like a babe at the breast, like a love flesh to flesh on damp sheets, like reentering the womb, like surrendering to the formless white at the heart of water, air, ore, sky, plant, sun, star, cloud, moon, blood and flesh. Patrick T. Reardon 7.25.18 “Blood and Flesh” was originally published by Ground Fresh Thursday 9.23.17.
The Book of Common Prayer was created in the 16th century as the prayer book of the Church of England. Originally, that institution had been part of the Roman Catholic Church, but it was separated from Rome by King Henry VIII and became a national church, constitutionally established by the state with the monarch as its supreme governor. Thus, The Book of Common Prayer, created to replace the Catholic prayers in religious services, was, in effect, a government publication. This led to complexities for the prayer book in England that it wouldn’t have in other nations, such as the United States, where the Episcopal Church, part of the Anglican Communion, is just one of many organized religions rather than under the sponsorship of the state. “Eternal Rest” For instance, as Alan Jacobs writes in his energetic look at creation and history of the prayer book The “Book of Common Prayer”: A Biography, there have been times over the past five hundred years when the book was seen not just as an expression of religious faith but also as a stand-in for the nation in some way. World War I was one such time. Indeed, Jacobs writes: One of […]
In 2005, Penguin Books published a new translation of Bardo Todol, the collection Buddhist texts that, in the West, has been known as The Tibetan Book of the Dead for three-quarters of a century, and touted it as “First Complete Translation” of a work dealing with life between a person’s death and reincarnation. Actually, as Donald S. Lopez Jr. points out in his 2011 book The Tibetan Book of the Dead: A Biography, “complete” here is somewhat inexact since Bardo Todol is a cycle of texts of which many versions exist. Even so, the Penguin book, Lopez writes, is an improvement over the original English edition, put forth by American Theosophist Walter Evans-Wentz. Many more texts of the cycle are translated [in the Penguin edition] for the first time, the translation is made from a better manuscript, and the translation is more accurate than that first published in 1927. Lopez, an American expert on Buddhism and Tibet who has edited books by the Dalai Lama, notes that the publicity for the Penguin book is overblown, asserting that the book “embraces the concept of enlightened living and the importance of being open to the wonders of the human experience while, […]
The 21 poems in John A. Griffin’s chapbook Absences: A Sequence appear very orderly. Each is 20 lines long. Within each poem, the number of syllables per line is roughly the same. So, even though some have longer lines than others, the appearance of these handsomely printed poems is very similar, like nearly rectangular blocks of type, sort of brick-like, building blocks, if you will. Yet, that appearance deceives. These are mournful — mourn-filled — poems, fevered with grief. Grief for the death of a father and grief for the death that is coming for each of us. Grief for absences. Indeed, the first poem in this collection, just published by The Esthetic Apostle and available at amazon.com, is titled “Caoineadh,” the Irish word for keening. More visually expressive of what’s in the poems are the four illustrations by Dutch collage artist Martine Mooijenkind. Her illustration for the cover is titled “Lost,” while the three that accompany the poems are “Water on the moon,” “Gentle,” and “Angst.” They are jagged, harsh and deliberately crude. “What ebbs withdraws” And, once you get into the poems themselves, you won’t be confused. In fact, it seems that Griffin, an Irish-born […]
One of the seven short essays in Gustaf Sobin’s final book Aura, published in 2009, is about the deep, unremitting darkness of medieval times. And about light, then and now. We can’t imagine how dark it was. We, with our street lights and electric light switches and automobile headlights and cellphone screens and television screens and flood lights and lighted sports stadiums. Not without Sobin’s help. The medieval night was very dark for anyone inside a home or castle or building of any sort. The only illumination was from one or more candles. The churches and the rich had wax candles, but not the rural French, as Sobin explains: In such humble surroundings, it was more likely that tallow candles were burnt, the tallow itself drawn from the fat of goats, sheep and bovines…. Even if such candles could be considered a marked improvement over oil lamps with papyrus wicks like those employed during the Merovingian [reign, roughly 450-750 A.D.], or the torches and firebrands of pine and birch bark during the Carolingian [751-814], the little rings of light that they shed remained, nonetheless, minimal. “Those wobbling, incandescent rings” So minimal were those “little rings of light” that they might, […]
I’ve never been to the Burren in western Ireland or, for that matter, to Ireland at all. But my curiosity was piqued when I heard about Gordon D’Arcy’s 2006 book The Burren Wall. It’s about the thousands of miles of stone walls that criss-cross the stark obdurate Burren landscape of grasslands and heath — human-made lines fashioned with unmortared rocks piled atop one another. When D’Arcy writes of the Burren wall, he’s referring to a general type of wall that’s found in the region, a very simple construction, built from human sweat and muscle, dating from just the other day to more than 5,000 years ago. As the photographs in his book show, these walls give the land a strikingly distinctive look. They also provide a home for a rich array of flora and fauna. No knowing Much about these walls is mysterious. There is, for instance, no knowing who put up what wall. Nor, aside from classifying a particular wall in a general era of hundreds or thousands of years, knowing when that wall was created. As D’Arcy notes, you might describe any of these walls as a land boundary, but there’s more to it than that. He […]
At the hill tomb At the hill tomb, she finds nothing. She tells the guys, and they run to find folded blooded linen. She sits on the grass of the garden, and the gnarled gardener is there, his sweat rich with grit- clumped dirt, his hair thisway andthat. She sees him take the innocent seed and thumb it into the maternal loam, and the bread is broken. Patrick T. Reardon 7.8.18 This poem originally appeared in Time of Singing, Spring, 2018.
The dainty Persian bells would jingle in the middle of the night when Alfred Busi’s wife Alicia would go downstairs to the larder for a snack. “What could it matter if she seemed a little plump, so long as she was well and happy with her life?” But, now, Alicia has been dead for two years, and, hearing the melody of the bells, Alfred, a 60-ish singer-songwriter near the end of his career as Mister Al, makes his unsteady way in the dark. As the open door of the pantry, suddenly, “something fierce and dangerous,” pungent with odor, barrels out at him: “Not a bad smell, actually. Not excrement. Not sweat. More a mix of earth and mold and starch. Potato peel. The creature’s skin [feels] as smooth, as damp, as lightly pelted as potato peel. Naked too. Naked as potato peel.” This creature — whom Alfred comes to believe is a child, a boy, living wild in the nearby thick woods — sinks his teeth into the singer’s hand and grabs his throat, tearing at his neck. And then is gone. Nature as a major character In The Melody (Doubleday, 225 pages, $26.95), the new novel from English […]
Well, when you get down to it, isn’t life a trick? You’re born and spend your whole existence on Earth trying to figure out what it all means. And then you die. The Big Trick. No wonder, then, that, throughout human history, culture after culture has developed a mythology that has included at least one character who is a trickster. This is especially true among Native Americans where the multiplicity of tribes has resulted in a multiplicity of tricksters. Tricksters of all sorts, some cunning in their deviousness, others hapless when their tricks backfire. Some who are responsible for the creation of certain rock formations or the stars in the night sky, and some whose tricks are the reason certain animals look the way they do. “The original people of this land” Trickster: Native American Tales, a graphic collection was put together by Matt Dembicki, a Washington, D.C.-based comics creator. He writes in an afterword that he got the idea for his collection when, at a local library, he came across the 1998 book American Indian Trickster Tales by Alfonso Ortiz and Richard Erdoes. He was enthralled by the variety of stories, featuring a wide range of animals. Although […]
Jack Finney’s 1970 time-travel novel Time and Again is a lot of things, including a cult favorite. It’s a science fiction novel inasmuch as it deals with time travel. The method for making such a trip, though, doesn’t have much snap. Here’s how it works: Simon Morley, a commercial artist and the novel’s central character, steeps himself in the history and daily life of 1882, then he lives for a time in a setting that hasn’t changed since then (the Dakota Apartments in New York City) and then he self-hypnotizes himself, falls asleep and, when he awakens, he’s back there in time. So, there’s no wormhole, no elaborate machinery, just auto-suggestion. As I said, not much snap. Suspense It’s a suspense story, at least for the first 40 or so pages, when Morley is being recruited for what he’s told is an adventure that can’t initially be specified and then for the next 70 pages as he’s tested, accepted and trained for his journey. That suspense dissipates somewhat when Morley makes the first two of four trips across 88 years. In part, that’s because he’s been warned not to do anything that might alter the course of […]
Comment te dire adieu How to say goodbye on a gray-blue morning? In the end, turn and walk out the door, carrying the room on your back in a bag filled with camera clicks and sound grabs, looking ahead, always looking ahead, to the last closing door. Patrick T. Reardon 6.20.18 “Comment te dire adieu” was originally published by Spank the Carp on June 1, 2017.
Abraham Lincoln by Adam I.P. Smith was published in 2014 by the Britain-based History Press as part of its Pocket Giants series of very short — 100 or so pages — biographies of great world figures. It’s a series that includes works about Jesus, Jane Austen, Napoleon, Queen Elizabeth II, John Lennon, King Arthur and Buddha, among many others. The idea, of course, is that these biographies are extremely concise, but there’s also a bit of a flair to them. They don’t read like a long encyclopedia (or Wikipedia) entry but take a point of view. For example, Nick Higham’s book on King Arthur focuses on the question of whether there was a real person at the heart of the myth and looks closely at how layers of story and anecdote were added to the legend throughout the centuries. Smith’s aim in Abraham Lincoln is to explain his subject to non-Americans who aren’t steeped in the vision of the 16th U.S. President as a civic saint, a martyr for the nation and a political and patriotic touchstone. Smith writes: Abraham Lincoln qualifies as a historical ‘giant’ not because of the ways his image and the stories about him have drawn […]