You Don’t Need Historical Fiction to Get a History Lesson in Fiction

Fiction offers readers many things: emotion, excitement, entertainment, etc. (The four “e’s”!) It also can offer readers a bit of a history lesson.

I’m not just talking about historical fiction (which I covered in this 2011 post) but the way many other novels can give us clues about the past in passing. The plot and characters are often in the forefront, but nuggets about the past (which might be the books’ present) are part of the background. Those nuggets can include references to inventions, social mores, and more.

An example would be some of the content in Nevil Shute’s On the Beach, a wrenching post-apocalyptic novel I read last week. Published in 1957, the excellent book reflects Cold War fears of nuclear disaster as it focuses on how its Australia-based characters psychologically deal with the knowledge that a bombing-caused wave of radiation from the north will soon kill them all. But we find here and there, amid the main story line, tidbits of 1950s behavior and “values”: casual sexism (one male character frequently calls a female character “honey”), gender constraints (a highly intelligent woman’s only work opportunity seems to be secretarial), constant social drinking, etc. Kind of the Mad Men mentality.

There’s also some authorial sexism, racism, anti-Semitism, and/or other “isms” in certain works by Charles Dickens, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, James Joyce, Jack London, Margaret Mitchell, and other writers of many years ago. (Sometimes casual background “isms,” sometimes not-so-casual background “isms” — even while the authors might be very enlightened in other ways, as Dickens was with his anger at poverty.)

Occasionally, novelists of bygone decades and centuries expressed clear opposition to those negative “isms” — as did George Eliot in Daniel Deronda, Kate Chopin in The Awakening, Harriet Beecher Stowe in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Alexandre Dumas in Georges, Richard Wright in Native Son, and Harper Lee in To Kill a Mockingbird.

Of course, there are still negative “isms” in today’s world, but authors tend to be more careful about not allowing the biases they might have to overtly appear in their writing. A case in point is Orson Scott Card, who has publicly been quite homophobic in his opposition to same-sex marriage but has not really shown that in his novels. And authors can obviously have their fictional characters be biased while they (the authors) are not biased themselves.

Then there’s interracial marriage being portrayed as not unusual in the background of relatively recent novels such as Octavia Butler’s Kindred and Zadie Smith’s On Beauty — showing that times are changing somewhat for the better in certain ways.

Also in the tapestry of many novels are references to inventions, the urbanization of society, and other signs of progress or alleged progress. For instance, the railroad age is the canvas on which Emile Zola’s The Beast in Man is painted, horse-and-buggies are being replaced by cars in Booth Tarkington’s The Magnificent Ambersons, and a long plane ride in aviation’s relative infancy is part of the mosaic in James Hilton’s Lost Horizon.

And novels from the 19th-century or earlier often show (as secondary elements) characters devoting whatever leisure time they have to reading, painting, playing a musical instrument, putting on shows, engaging in outdoor games, and/or doing other low-tech things when radio, TV, movies, and/or the Internet had yet to be invented. That can be seen in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, Leo Tolstoy’s The Kreutzer Sonata, Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth, L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables, and countless other works.

Meanwhile, the use (and sometimes abuse) of computers and other digital tools is a prominent background presence in more-recent novels such as Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy.

A poignant background element in some of James Fenimore Cooper’s “Leatherstocking” novels (which include The Last of the Mohicans) is the encroaching of “civilization” on the verdant woods of 18th-century America. The way-back stirrings of feminism are felt in works such as Anne Bronte’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. The U.S. as a nation of immigrants is a subtext in novels such as Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex. And America’s increasing Hispanic presence is felt in many novels — including some, such as John Steinbeck’s Tortilla Flat, published many decades ago.

What are your favorite fictional works in which you learn a bit about long-ago social mores, inventions, and so on — even though the focus is on the plot and characters?

(The box for submitting comments is below already-posted comments, but your new comment will appear at the top of the comments area — unless you’re replying to someone else.)

I’m writing a literature-related book, but still selling Comic (and Column) Confessional — my often-funny memoir that recalls 25 years of covering and meeting cartoonists such as Charles Schulz (“Peanuts”) and Bill Watterson (“Calvin and Hobbes”), columnists such as Ann Landers and “Dear Abby,” and other notables such as Coretta Scott King, Walter Cronkite, and various authors. The book also talks about the malpractice death of my first daughter, my remarriage, and life in Montclair, N.J. — where I write the award-winning weekly “Montclairvoyant” humor column for The Montclair Times. You can email me at dastor@earthlink.net to buy a discounted, inscribed copy of the book, which contains a preface by “Hints” columnist Heloise and back-cover blurbs by people such as “The Far Side” cartoonist Gary Larson.

55 thoughts on “You Don’t Need Historical Fiction to Get a History Lesson in Fiction

  1. I thought Jules Verne’s character Nebuchadnezzar (Neb) in The Mysterious Island, a former slave, was portrayed unusually well. Considering the period the story takes place, the Civil War, and the date the book was published (1874), he was presented in a more respectful way, I think.
    It’s a favorite book, so I’ll have to read it again and focus more on him, how he’s presented, and his relationship with the other characters. – Great Post, as usual, Dave.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, VocareMentor, for the kind words and great comment!

      It has been many years since I read “Mysterious Island,” but it’s heartening to be reminded that at least some 19th-century authors treated people of color somewhat respectfully. Similar approach in Wilkie Collins’ “Armadale,” another novel from roughly that time period (1866).

      Interesting to think that Jules Verne was not only ahead of his time in dreaming up futuristic devices and scenarios, but in being relatively tolerant in the racial-depiction realm.

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  2. I am horribly late this week! I must mention (again) John Hersey’s “A Single Pebble” which is an outstanding historical novel about the damming of the Yangtze River’s Three Gorges which actually wasn’t completed until 2008. He wrote his outstanding novel in 1956, I believe. It’s a fascinating, mesmerizing read! This is the way Amazon describes it: “A young American engineer sent to China to inspect the unruly Yangtze River travels up through the river’s gorges searching for dam sites. Pulled on a junk hauled by forty-odd trackers, he is carried, too, into the settled, ancient way of life of the people of the Yangtze — until the interplay of his life with theirs comes to a dramatic climax.”

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    • Greetings lulubelleharris!

      Will be on the lookout for this Hersey book, as it covers an area of the world to which I was made acquainted (though the story takes place in 1926) by Richard McKenna in his book The Sand Pebbles, published in 1962. A movie was made from this novel starring Steve McQueen.

      The Sand Pebbles deserves more readers, as it well-written and moves nicely.

      According to wikipedia,
      “Richard McKenna served aboard a Yangtze River gunboat in 1936 but set the novel a decade earlier, during the Nationalist Northern Expedition of 1925–1927, aboard the fictional USS San Pablo, a gunboat left from the Spanish–American War. The phrase “sand pebble” is a pun on the boat’s name; thus, the sailors who serve on her are the sand pebbles.”

      The descriptions of the San Pablo’s engine room are lovingly done, and fine, and the complexities of social relationships on-board and off are treated with insight and compassion.

      Richard McKenna was a friend of my father’s, one of the writers who lived around the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in the ’50’s– they were introduced by Manly Wade Wellman, another writer working there.

      McKenna worked on this book for many years in obscurity and on his Navy pension. He died less than a year after selling the movie rights, but so far as I know, he wrote no other novel.

      But what I don’t get– the pebbles– Hersey’s and McKenna’s. It certainly seems like a remarkable coincidence that two American books covering the same river should employ the word in their titles, especially given the origin of McKenna’s use of the word.

      On my 6th birthday, McKenna gave me a pencil with a Confederate flag on it and the slogan “Save your Confederate money, boys. The South will rise again!” I never did get a grip on any rebel money, but I saved that pencil for years….sadly, the inscription remains evergreen.

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      • Thanks, lulabelle and jhNY, for the mentions and great descriptions of those two books with “Pebble” or “Pebbles” in their titles!

        lulabelle, the only John Hersey book I’ve read is his nonfiction “Hiroshima,” so I’d be very interested in trying his fiction.

        jhNY, fascinating personal memories of an author!

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                • Weapons designed for the purpose of killing humans work only too well– by design.

                  By reading in the Federalist Papers, and some related history, one learns that the Second Amendment, the only part of the Constitution too many hold dear, was designed to serve three purposes, since the Founders were set against any sort of a standing army except after a declaration of war:

                  1) to provide a militia for border states, in case of foreign invasion, so as to defend the nation before federal forces arrive.

                  2) to provide a militia to respond rapidly to local attacks by Native Americans.

                  3) to provide a militia to put down slave rebellion– this was especially important to the southern Founders, who, knowing several of their fellows in the NE would be slow to respond and unenthusiastic to send federal troops to put down such an event, wanted to be sure such militias would remain under the control of each state.

                  So 1) existed to make sure what we took would not be taken from us
                  2) existed so that those from whom we took everything would be prevented from taking it back
                  3) existed so that those we took from their homes and made to work to make our own would be beaten back should they rebel.

                  Our nation’s great fear of retribution by the wronged has animated concerns over the restriction of firearms since forever. I doubt I will see serious gun rights restriction enacted in my lifetime– and I figure I’ve got 15-20 years ahead of me. So far,over the course of my 65 years, gun rights have expanded, almost without any curtailment.

                  We will, therefore, be treated periodically to slaughter. Where and when will by a matter of the gunner’s choosing. I am afraid I’ve been numb on the subject since the Amish children, who were killed before the Sandy Hook children, which was the same year that guy in Colorado shot as many as he could in a movie theater. What happened last night in Miami was mass murder– one in an ongoing series. Awful.

                  I sincerely wish I believed we were capable, as a nation, of better outcomes– but that would require the retiring of race hate, and another sort of politics than the sort we are content to practice here.

                  Liked by 2 people

                  • Yes, bebe, a devastating day in a nation of NRA-controlled politicians who sickeningly won’t pass adequate gun-control laws.

                    And yes, jhNY, the Second Amendment — sort of perverted to begin with, as you devastatingly explain — has taken on new perverted dimensions as an excuse for America’s gun insanity. I also don’t see much improvement in the rest of my lifetime. If the slaughter of innocent children in middle-class Sandy Hook didn’t move the needle, what will? 😦

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                    • After writing my reply, I was struck by the fact that there have been so many shootings so many places that in the din and heartbreak and upset of it all I managed to leave that terrible church massacre off my list. And probably at least one other one.

                      One cannot legislate what goes on the minds and hearts of one’s fellows, but…

                      I remember some years ago, and precisely where the killings took place escapes me– Ethopia? Somalia?– but the local history of the place was such that for millennia young men, on approach of manhood, would band together according to clan and search out their hated rivals over the next hill, to fight them in battle. And for millennia, when sharp sticks and and throwing stones were the only weapons at hand, a few busted heads and bruises later, everybody went home, mostly in one piece. Then machine guns mounted on the backs of light trucks were introduced to the region. The hatred between clans had always been with them, but not the capacity to make good on their dreams of annihilation. Suddenly all the dreams could come true, and many, many thousands died.

                      For too many reasons, murderous fantasy flits across the minds of too many. Having the tools of murder easily available only facilitates the fantasizer– whatever his fevered dreams– to act out his terrible wishes. Lots of people hate lots of people. But not everybody has an assault weapon. Wish no one did.

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                    • So well said, jhNY. Yes, murderous intent will probably never be eliminated from the human race, but modern weaponry — including assault rifles — increases the carnage by many degrees. (As you note in your very apt scenario.) And, yes as well, so many terrible massacres that one can’t easily remember them all.

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                  • Good morning jhNY and Dave…I am there with you in my life. This information is something I will save in my special file and I appreciate both of your friendship and also the rest of the amazing folks posts in Dave’s blog. I offer my gratitude. I will post a music top of the page.

                    Liked by 1 person

                    • Good morning, bebe, and a sad morning as well. 😦 I agree that jhNY’s comment was VERY informative. And your friendship is much appreciated, too — as are everyone’s comments. 🙂 I look forward to seeing your music post here or under the new column that went up last night.

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      • How absolutely fascinating, jhNY!!! I actually used to have a Confederate bill, but it “went missing” somehow through the years ……… I love the treasures of childhood!

        The use of the word “Pebble” in both books about the Yangtze river is also intriguing! I have friends who made the journey to China a few years back to travel through the Three Gorges before the water swallowed them up.

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        • Not only have nearly all my childhood treasures ‘gone missing’ (excepting Edward my teddy bear, recently returned after being on loan for a decade to two small children of a friend), but also my childhood! Or perhaps it’s merely become obscured by wrinkles….

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  3. Afternoon Dave, off topic again but about books.
    Today was the third day annual book sale for the Public Library at the middle school nearby. So much efforts by so many volunteers.
    No ” Low Land” by Jhumpa Lahiri, no one has even heard her name there.

    Anyways spend 18 dollars and bought five books one by Atwood ” Madd Adam”, one by Scottoline, Steve Martini and a coupe of Grisham`s i have not read. Also 5 CD`s..three classical, one Rod Stewart the another Frank Sinatra.
    Now thoroughly pleased with my purchasing skills 🙂 . some young ” special ” boys and girls were tending different tables. Sale ends tomorrow when one can buy a bag full for $15.00.
    They want to get rid of most so they did not need to drag everything back again.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Wow! Great book and CD purchases, bebe — at a bargain price!

      Sorry Jhumpa Lahiri isn’t better known there. She certainly deserves to be.

      I’ve read only one Lisa Scottoline novel — “The Vendetta Defense” — and liked it a lot. (Kat Lib recommended that author to me.) And I’ve gotten to most of Margaret Atwood’s excellent novels, but not the recent one you mentioned.

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      • Back to Truman Capote Dave, I have not turned a page of a book at least a week or more. Always something , walking with my pup, doing unnecessary things that I didn’t need to do. Then watching results of election against my better judgement . The last one was exhausting.

        ” The Early stories of Truman Capote ” , after Als forward ( how do I adress this person, Mr. Ms. What would be the proper ?) .

        The first story ” Parting of the Way” so tender and beautiful , as I read more I will keep you posted.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Glad the first Capote story was excellent, bebe!

          There IS so much to do in addition to reading. And this depressing election campaign does command a lot of our attention.

          I’m now heading out to a party for my daughter’s softball team. Back in about three hours. 🙂

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  4. Stendahl’s Lucien Leuven, a novel he left unfinished (though at great length), offers the reader a look at life in a French provincial garrison town, most especially as lived by a young enlisted man of means among the provincial social set of his day, the first third of the 19th century. There are few opportunities for private conversation between the sexes, fewer for romance, and thus, many subterfuges and strategies to overcome opportunity’s lack.

    But, for the purposes of the week’s topic, there is also a sub-theme of corruption in high places– the French king (an anachronism reintroduced in France after the revolution and Napoleon) may have made a stock market killing by way of insider knowledge and the use of the telegraph. Stendahl describes a farcical regime founded on nostalgia and desperation, which has at its head a manipulative hypocrite who employs the most modern methods available to facilitate his own greed, and that of his allies.

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    • Great example of this theme, jhNY, from the impressive mother lode of Stendhal’s canon!

      It’s of course no surprise when the rich and powerful act in all kinds of corrupt ways, but, as you allude to, the corruption can have a different “feel” depending on the time period and place.

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      • Royalty, armed with its ancient symbols and powers and status and employing them to access the latest technology for the purpose of facilitating a most modern sort of crime (market manipulation) for the most ancient of motivations (greed)– sort of reminds me of another criminal, OBL, who spoke in the phrases of an ancient holy book and incited his followers to dream of the return of an empire vanished from the earth for a thousand years, with himself as its head– while communicating on cell phones, and by email, and employing modern weapons of mass destruction purchased by means of returns on international financial investment– the decadence and corruption of conception underlining, in that case, the madness of its leadership and the incoherence of its agenda.

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        • Excellent observations, jhNY. Yes, Osama bin Laden mixed the old and the new when it came to ideology, weaponry, communications, etc. Same could be said for ISIS in its way.

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  5. Hi Dave,

    I’m sorry that I haven’t commented here for a while. I’ve wanted to, but you know how it is. I really wanted to take a photo of a great collection of short horror stories that I have so I could share it, but never got around to learning how. I’m sure there will be other opportunities. I couldn’t really think of any Post-Relationship novels, except maybe “Middlemarch” which you mentioned. And though I wanted to get in early this week, somehow it’s nearly the end of the week again, and I still haven’t commented. But anyway I have a few minutes now, so will finally share some thoughts.

    Your post this week made me think of Frank Moorehouse’s “Grand Days” about a young Australian woman relocating to Geneva to work for the League of Nations. Definitely not what I’d call historical fiction, but a real eye opener (for me anyway) about the early days of the UN. Set in the ‘20s, it kind of had to be sexist, however it was only ever her workplace and environment that were sexist, not the characters, and clearly not the author.
    I will also mention John Jakes’ “Kent Family Chronicles”. Not the best books ever, but they must be memorable as I feel like I mention them a lot. I guess technically they are historical fiction, however I think of them more as drama as it’s mostly about fictional characters, and their interactions with each other. Having said that, I learned a lot about American history from reading them. Well, about American wars anyway, (it’s kind of sad how much history is made up of wars) mostly the War of Independence, and the U.S. Civil War. Though most of my knowledge of the Civil War would come from “Gone with the Wind”.

    Dave, I just read the Huffy People page that you linked to which reminded me of Stephen King’s “11/23/63” which I recently read. Didn’t love it, but the stuff on Oswald was kind of fun. I’m not sure how much research King did, or how much was accurate, but Oswald obviously wasn’t a good guy, and it was interesting to take a bit of a voyeuristic look at his life.

    Liked by 1 person

    • No problem, Susan! People get busy!

      That collection of horror stories is by one author or various ones? I am “horrifically” happy that I have two Poe collections on my bookshelves, and Ambrose Bierce’s ghost/horror stories are pretty darn good, too.

      “Middlemarch” is almost a textbook-perfect example of how to depict a troubled marriage and its more positive aftermath.

      As for this week’s topic, thanks for mentioning and very nicely summarizing those other works. “Grand Days” sounds especially intriguing to me, and I put it on my list. Would also like to get to “11/23/63” one of these days. I haven’t read a Stephen King book in over a year (last one was “Rose Madder”), which of course is unacceptable. 🙂

      “…it’s kind of sad how much history is made up of wars” — unfortunately so true.

      “Huffy People” — ha! 🙂

      Have you read the “On the Beach” novel I mentioned in the column? It has a very detailed description of Australian life (post-apocalyptic version) in the 1950s. I’m assuming Nevil Shute got the details right because he lived in Australia during the latter part of his life.

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      • It’s a collection of about 40 short stories by different authors such as Poe, Ray Bradbury, Daphne Du Maurier, Ian Fleming, HG Wells and Arthur C Clarke. I couldn’t believe how cheap it was when I found it in a second hand store, and read a bunch of stories that night. Some were very memorable, but I couldn’t remember which ones, so I decided to space the stories out a bit more. Sadly, I put the book away and never picked it up again, but I think I’ll have to. Especially as I’m now more familiar with some of the authors mentioned above.

        I haven’t read a lot of new King, and “11/23/63” isn’t one that I’d say HAD to be read. “Under the Dome” is probably his only book from this century that I’ve really enjoyed.

        “Grand Days” was an interesting read. A big, clunky book though, and unfortunately, though it starts out great, I think it slows down and becomes less interesting as it goes on. I hope your experience is different 🙂

        I’ve not read “On the Beach” though I’ve heard a lot about it, and I think it’s on my list. I kind of feel like I have to read it just because it’s set in the city that I grew up in. Though it’s set 20 years before I was born, so I might not recognise too much.

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        • Now that’s an impressive short-story collection, Susan!

          Would love to get to “Under the Dome” at some point. But I guess my priority lately has been trying various authors for the first time. My latest “discovery,” thanks to recommendations from commenters here, is Lionel Shriver. Her (she’s a she) 2010 novel “So Much for That” absolutely floored me — brilliant.

          Thanks for the added take on “Grand Days.” Will think about whether to read it or not.

          Yes, any country is going to change hugely from the 1950s until today. (Given the theme of “On the Beach,” I’m glad there’s a today anywhere on Earth. 🙂 )

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  6. Hi Dave…I found a book at the library just other day ” The Early stories by Truman Capote” as I was sitting today outside reading the forward by ” Hilton Als”.
    I have not read any books by Mr. Capote and now simply blown away by Mr. Als introduction. No wonder he is a highly respected writer and.critic.

    I cringe every time as I am reading the word ” Negress” as I just started reading the book and how frequently and freely those words were used decades ago.

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  7. Mark Twain’s Pudd’nhead Wilson qualifies for mention this week for two reasons.

    1) Certain of the quaint intricacies of the Peculiar Institution (slavery) are laid out for the reader’s consideration, by which a man with a fraction of black blood may be counted black entirely for the purposes of the perpetuation and enforcement of said institution. Consideration of the Institution and its consequences causes a slave switches her son (1/32 black) with that of her master out of fear he might be lost to her otherwise in a sale down-river. Her boy is raised white and her master’s son is raised black.

    But Twain does not quite escape the prejudices of his times, in that the Tom, the boy raised white, grows into a dissolute and haughty young man of low character, who, in desperation for money, commits murder.

    2) In the course of his trial, Tom’s actual race status (and guilt) is revealed by the lawyer Pudd’head Wilson by means of a comparison of fingerprints, which was in its day, a revolutionary and new means of positive identification. I believe Twain’s may be the first American book to make use of fingerprints in a criminal trial context, or possibly, any other.

    Twain the ironist is very much present here. The murderer Tom, imprisoned, is released thanks to a petition made by his creditors. Being now legally black, he may legally be sold off, down-river, of course– the proceeds going to the creditors.
    And Chambers, the boy raised black though white, his rights and race re-established can find no happiness, shunned by those among whom he grew up, and uncomfortable indeed in the presence of those he spent a lifetime believing were his superiors.

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    • Thanks for the great comment, jhNY!

      “Pudd’nhead Wilson” is a very uneven novel — I’ve read that Twain wrote it quickly because he needed money at the time — but it’s also a very interesting book that does indeed (as you say) reflect the 19th-century in its references to racism, newfangled fingerprinting, etc.

      Twain really did get into some heavy stuff with that boyhood switch, reminiscent of his earlier “The Prince and the Pauper” but more searing and contemporary.

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    • An excellent author, Bill! I’ve read all her novels, and they really do contain a lot of historical info — about America’s Great Plains (“My Antonia,” etc.), bringing the Catholic religion to the Southwest (“Death Comes for the Archbishop”), what’s now known as World War I (“One of Ours”), etc.

      BTW, I took out a collection of Bret Harte’s work — which you had recommended — during my library visit yesterday. 🙂 Looking forward to reading it!

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  8. What an excellent column Dave…last week I allowed myself too emotionally involved with Harambe`s death to save a little boy in my town.
    Then there is Trump and the election cycle I found myself giving off my 2 cents in the NYT`s opinion and going off in circles.A few are no longer they used to be reminds me a bit like the other place . Just like Trump people go way past their veneer which they don`t find necessary any more.
    One said “Racism is alive and well under the watch of the man who owns it OBAMA! You wanna still blame Bush for this too? Teflon Barack is the one to look at”.
    Sorry to be so off topic 😦

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    • Thank you, bebe! Glad you liked the column!

      Yes, the shooting of that gorilla was heartbreaking. As is (in a different way) this crazy election. And I hear you about that comparison between NYT and HP — some commenters disappearing, some ranting in awful ways, and it’s all really about big media trying to make as much money as they can while often twisting the news in favor of the rich and powerful.

      Anyone calling President Obama racist is nuts. (And I have mixed feelings about Obama.)

      Off-topic is always welcome! 🙂

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      • Racism exists in every race Dave…but openly bashing others only for their ancestors for a Presidential Candidates is beyond belief. Now Trump not only was able to beat 11 other Candidates and has received the maximum number of votes.
        It is like going through a bad dream.

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        • “Racism exists in every race” — very true, bebe. I guess racism from the rich and powerful (a la Trump) bothers me more than racism from the non-rich and less powerful. And, as you note, to hear this overt racism from a presidential candidate is shocking — usually the Republican (and some Democratic) candidates are a little more circumspect in their racism. I’m still kind of amazed that Trump won the nomination, but, then again, he ran against some candidates almost as awful (Bush, Christie, Cruz, Rubio, Carson, Kasich, Fiorina, etc.). A bad dream indeed.

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  9. Hi Dave, another great column. The first thing that came to mind were some of the books I devoured as an almost ‘tween, such as Nancy Drew and The Bobbsey Twins. My best girlfriend pointed out to me way back in 1969 that many of the Nancy Drew books were racist. I did read a few of these books when I was visiting her at that time, and agreed she was right. However, I think most of those series that have been reissued many times through the years have been “cleaned up” so to speak, which is a good thing. I think I mentioned not too long ago that the two of the dramatic versions of “Emma” made her out to be more tolerant in her attitude to the socially inferior Harriet Smith and her husband.

    I hate to bring up the same characters over and over, but one of favorite and tragic heroines is Lily Bart from, “The House of Mirth.” It’s somewhat unfathomable to me how a woman had no worth if she weren’t born into a socially acceptable family or one of great wealth. I just deleted an entire sentence because it sounded like I was bragging, but on my own I was able to just settle on my SFD home a few weeks ago. It galls me that women like Lily Barth didn’t have anywhere the resources I did, even without a society or wealthy family. I used to be in thrall with the British aristocracy with all the novels I read. It sounded like such a great life — one just had to read all day, take walks, visit other socially acceptable people, and attend the occasional ball. At some point, I know not when exactly, I realized that people back then died of so many things that are now curable, had much better hygiene, and were most likely bored most of the time.

    I didn’t make this just about me, but as bad as things are these days (think TRUMP), I’d rather live when things are better for women, if not the best it could or should be!

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    • Thank you, Kat Lib! Glad you liked the column!

      Excellent observation about how “the good old days” — while good in some ways — were awful in other ways. Women as second-class citizens, terrible racism, primitive medicine, etc. No nostalgia for stuff like that — though I suppose that Trump guy you mentioned and his followers seem okay with blatant sexism and racism. 😦 The patriarchal barriers faced by Lily Bart — and, to give another of many examples, Maggie Tulliver in George Eliot’s “The Mill on the Floss” — are just heartbreaking.

      And, yes, some old books do get “cleaned up” (sanitized?) in newer editions and/or in screen adaptations. I’m not totally fond of that when it’s done to adult novels (we should be able to see the less-tolerant past), but I guess I can more readily understand the rationale for kid and teen books.

      It’s also interesting that the cast can get diversified when kid or teen books published decades ago are turned into TV series. For instance, one of the two kids in “The Cat in the Hat” animated TV series is African-American!

      By the way, I’m finally well into “So Much for That” — the novel by Lionel Shriver, who you were one of the people to recommend. She (as you know, this Lionel is a she 🙂 ) is an absolutely brilliant writer — I’m eagerly reading the outstanding “So Much for That” every spare second I have. It will be part of my June 12 column.

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      • I ‘m glad you are reading “So Much For That,” by Lionel Shriver, which was one of her best. I feel confident in that because my sister loved this novel that I loved, but I didn’t find superior to “We Need to Talk About Kevin, ” that she couldn’t read — perhaps being the difference between being a mother and not one is difficult for one to see and understand.

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        • I’m so impressed by “So Much for That” that I took out another Lionel Shriver novel today: “Big Brother.” Have you read that one? “We Need to Talk About Kevin” wasn’t there. The ultra-skillful way Shriver depicts difficult family dynamics (spousal, sibling, parent/child) in “So Much for That” is a wonder to behold.

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    • “I didn’t make this just about me, but as bad as things are these days (think TRUMP), I’d rather live when things are better for women, if not the best it could or should be!”

      So well said, KatLib. And in today’s world, for every Trump, there’s also a Michelle Obama. Women can be strong and powerful, and stay beautiful and graceful. There might still be some work to be done to achieve equality, but like you, I’d much prefer to live in this century with my independence, than to live In fancy dresses at important balls. Though the reading all day thing could sway me…

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  10. Hi Dave — Another wonderful thought-provoker; thank you! Henry James’ “Washington Square” comes to mind for several reasons: Catharine spent many hours cross-stitching/embroidering, almost as if it were her only purpose in life, her only allowance to even exist; she wasn’t respected by her own father because she didn’t possess beauty or social graces; her father’s position in the community saddled Catherine with the burden of not bringing shame or embarrassment to the family name. That said, I think Catherine surprised them all in the end 🙂 … and especially in the movie version! (“The Heiress”)

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    • Hi, Pat! Thanks for the kind words about the column. 🙂

      And that’s a great example, from “Washington Square,” related to this theme! While some people these days of course still knit, embroider, etc., it was much more prevalent in Henry James’ time before the mass production of clothing.

      Somehow I’m now also thinking of Madame Defarge (of Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities”), although she was villainous while Catherine was uncharismastic, unhappy, unlucky, and put-upon but not really a bad person. It was her father who was quite nasty in his way.

      Also, as you allude to, Catherine admirably became more assertive in the latter part of James’ excellent novella. Still not happy, but…

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