Saturday, November 6, 2010

John Adams

John Adams by David McCullough

Revolution. War. Independence. Republicanism. Democracy. Constitution. Federalism. Government. Freedom. Justice. Rights. Each of these words has been integral to our national dialogue ever since King George III decided that England was more entitled to wealth created in the American colonies than those who created the wealth. Anger and resentment in the colonies spawned this dialogue which eventually led to a war for independence in 1776. The decision to fight the King – an act of treason – was made by a group of men led by some of America’s, indeed, history’s, greatest thinkers. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin immediately come to mind but there was one more: John Adams, without whom the war for independence from England might have been lost before it began.

Of all the delegates to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, John Adams of Massachusetts was the most passionate about independence from Great Britain. Almost until the eve of war, the delegates were about equally divided on the question of declaring independence, with a few on the fence. Mr. Adams’ greatest accomplishment was obtaining a unanimous vote for going to war against England, hence the phrase “united we stand, divided we fall”. Of the 13 colonies, only Georgia did not send a delegation to the first congress because that colony depended on British soldiers to fight the Creek Indians who were preparing for a series of attacks. Fifty-five delegates of high social standing in the other twelve colonies journeyed to Philadelphia to convene the first Congress on September 5, 1774. A year earlier, Benjamin Franklin had tried unsuccessfully to call such a meeting; but it took the closing of Boston Harbor by the English in response to the Boston Tea Party to provoke a sense of urgency amongst the colonists.

The first session of Congress was aimed at gaining the respect of the Monarchy and Parliament which had recently established the “Coercive Acts”. These laws were intended to punish the Massachusetts Colony for dumping tea shipments into Boston Harbor, and were referred to in the colonies as “The Intolerable Acts”. England legitimized capital crimes in the name of the King, required colonists to provide quarters to English soldiers, intruded in the governance of Massachusetts, and closed the port at Boston to coerce payment for the dumped tea. Several colonies realized that King George’s treatment of Massachusetts was the beginning of a widespread crackdown on personal liberty and pursuit of wealth. “No taxation without representation” became a rallying cry in New England and beyond.

In order to get the attention of the King and Parliament, the First Continental Congress developed a “bill of rights” for the colonies defining what each citizen was entitled to by virtue of being alive. Additionally, this Declaration of Rights and Grievances explained specific objections to English laws infringing on the American colonies. Finally, the petition to the king stated that if the colonies’ demands for redress were not met, then there would be a boycott against all trade with Britain.

England responded by billeting solders in Boston and using punitive measures to quash the growing rebellion. As tensions escalated and Britain’s military became more aggressive, a Second Continental Congress convened on May 10, 1776. England was unquestionably determined to regain control of the colonies and considered the colonial militiamen to be traitors and therefore subject to execution. It took the better part of two months for the Congress to draft and unanimously adopt a Declaration of Independence, in which each delegate pledged his life, his fortune, and his sacred honor to the cause of liberty. Signing the Declaration was a deeply courageous act of faith and proof of the collective will necessary to move from winning liberty to creating a government reflecting the best of human ideals. Of all the signers, no one worked harder to build consensus than John Adams, and like all great statesmen he knew the value of compromise.

David McCullough, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and biographer, recognized that John Adams was a new type of man: an original American. He was the son of a farmer, studied law at Harvard College, practiced law on the court circuits, and maintained a farm in Braintree, Massachusetts. Mr. Adams, in addition to possessing great intelligence and a thirst for knowledge, was a passionate man whose love for his wife, Abigail, survives in hundreds of letters that passed between them. Only in America, where hard work and leadership were worth more than good breeding, could a man like John Adams rise from his humble origins to become one of the world’s great political figures. And only in America could a woman be a true partner to such a man.

History books are often not much fun to read, but John Adams is written with the passion of the subject himself as if Mr. McCullough somehow channeled President Adams’ spirit while researching and writing this book. His appreciation for Mr. Adams and the other delegates to the Continental Congress who sweated for weeks in Philadelphia as they argued about questions of slavery versus abolition, patriotism versus treason, negotiation versus war, Federalism versus states’ rights – divisive issues, all – shows in every sentence of this book. The men who defined the new nation and unique form of government came to understand that by every state giving up some autonomy in exchange for a strong central government, the whole would be much greater than the sum of the parts.

What is most fascinating about John Adams is how our nation continues to debate some of the same issues which threatened its formation in the first place. Slavery was critical to the plantation economies of the southern states and arguments over banning the practice sparked a long-running argument over states’ rights and Federalism. Modern politicians and political party machines keep this argument alive with the simplistic term “big government”, as if government “of the people, by the people, and for the people” is a bad thing.

Unfortunately what has happened in the United States of America is that we have become mired in polarizing disputes and thus have no understanding of our core values. Is basic healthcare a human right? Should every child receive an education, and if so what do all children need to know? Are senior citizens entitled to Social Security and Medicare? Is every citizen entitled to housing? Food? Work? Should citizenship be granted to people who work hard and pay their taxes even if they were not born here? Do we deny food, medicine, education, sanitation to those who are not citizens? Do we strip Constitutionally-granted citizenship from children born here whose parents are in this country illegally? If we don’t support a war, should we be required to pay for it? Can government agencies commit murder in the name of national security? These are complicated questions requiring serious, thoughtful analysis. What we get instead are shallow soundbites , labels, and signs – “Conservative”, “Liberal”, “Country First”, “Change”, “Maverick”, “Tax and Spend”, “Peace Now”, “No New Taxes”, “Illegals Go Home”, “Learn English”, etc. – which serve only to keep the public angry and anxious.

If only the political parties and lobbyists would disappear so that citizens could come to a consensus about our values as a nation. By agreeing on values and where the federal government ends and the state governments begin, we might find direction and our congressmen and senators could legislate rather than playing political games in an effort to get re-elected. This is all wishful thinking, unfortunately. The political parties and lobbyists are stronger than ever now that corporations can “buy” elections by outspending the opposition. Even though we need those great minds now more than ever, it is probably a good thing that John Adams and his contemporaries are resting comfortably in their graves. I am afraid the ignorance and ugly partisan politics which keep us from taking care of our country would make the “founding brothers” wish they hadn’t bothered going to war against the English.

Copyright 2010, Teresa Friedlander, all rights reserved

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Cry the Beloved Country

Cry the Beloved Country by Alan Paton

Book review by Teresa Friedlander, copyright 2010, all rights reserved

If the 2010 World Cup Soccer Tournament was South Africa’s “coming out” party, then the nation did herself proud; hosting 32 teams and as many as three million spectators in 10 venues. From June 11 through July 11, 2010, the world watched as elimination matches whittled the field down to Spain and the Netherlands, ultimately giving Spain its first World Cup title. Throughout it all, we heard the buzzing of vuvuzelas, the plastic horns blown by South African spectators in a new “fanfare for the common man”. How far South Africa has come since the days of Apartheid – constitutional racial segregation – and, before that, the so called “Pass Laws” which required Blacks to carry documents at all times. To see the smiling faces and to hear the joyful noises of the Black South African fans one could never guess that as recently as 1990, these good people were denied the rights and benefits of full citizenship.

The story of South Africa has many parallels to that of the United States of America: European nations colonized parts of it, marginalized the native population, and exploited the abundant natural resources. Civil unrest between various factions led to a unified government and the ruin of the native people, who lost their cultural and tribal identities. Where the stories diverge is in terms of civil rights. The southern United States’ economies were built on slave labor and after that was abolished in 1865, these states enacted so called “Jim Crow” laws to legalize segregation of the races. At no time in our history, however, has slavery or segregation been the law of the land. Indeed, the questions of slavery and whether Africans might be entitled to full citizenship vexed the attendees of the first Constitutional Convention of the United States of America. It took another century after slavery was abolished to invalidate state laws favoring segregation, and the better part of fifty years hence to make racial discrimination completely unacceptable.

South Africa’s story is also different from ours in terms of the dominant culture. The Netherlands was the first European nation to colonize southern Africa in the 1600s and descendents of these settlers , or the Boers, make up a significant part of the current population. Great Britain also established colonies in southern Africa by the beginning of the 1800s. The discovery of diamonds and gold fueled competition for dominance of southern Africa and a series of civil wars ensued. Great Britain won the second Boer War in 1902, after losing the first Boer War in 1881, and thus gained control. In 1909, the British Parliament created the Union of South Africa, giving it the same status as Australia and Canada, a dominion under the monarchy. The new government passed the South Africa Act which created a strong central government and facilitated laws severely limiting the civil rights of Black South Africans. The ruling majority was mostly English-speaking, but Afrikaans was widely spoken by both Black and white South Africans. Therefore, in addition to racial segregation, South Africa was divided by language.

Cry the Beloved Country by Alan Paton, tells the story of Black South Africans during this sorry chapter in that nation’s history. It is a tragic and beautiful novel about a Black minister who has watched the social fabric of his tribe disintegrate while the young adults migrated to shanty towns on the outskirts of the big cities to look for work. The Pass Laws Act of 1952 required that all Blacks over the age of 16 carry a pass book at all times, to prove their identity, residency, employment status, and permission to travel. Failure to produce the pass book on demand was grounds for immediate imprisonment. Alan Paton, a white South African, worked in the prison system and became intimately familiar with the degrading impact of the pass laws. He learned of the lost generation of Blacks who abandoned their tribes and families in search of employment in Johannesburg, Pietermaritzburg, Bloemfontein, and other large cities. He understood the devastating effect of these migrations on the women, children and old people who were left behind. As the main character, the Reverend Stephen Kumalo, laments “when people go to Johannesburg, they never come back. They do not even write anymore.”

In the story, the Reverend’s sister and son had both disappeared into Johannesburg and would have remained missing had he not received a letter from a fellow priest informing him of his sister’s ill health. This news caused the Reverend and his wife to acknowledge that their son, Absalom, would never need the money they had saved for his education in the tribal school, and so they decided to use that money to send the Reverend to Johannesburg to give aid and comfort to his sister. At the train station, a neighbor asked the Reverend Kumalo to ask after his daughter – another missing person – who was in the employ of the daughter-in-law of the local white landowner. In the end, the Reverend, the white landowner, the Reverend’s son, the missing girl, the white landowner’s daughter-in-law and grandson discover their lives are intertwined by a tragedy resulting from the tribal breakdown that sent Absalom and his peers to Johannesburg. Out of this tragedy, a beautiful friendship grows which promises to heal the land laid waste by overgrazing cattle and inappropriate land cultivation.

Cry the Beloved Country reads like an epic poem, with almost musical phrasing. The opening line of the book, “There is a lovely road that runs from Ixopo into the hills. These hills are grass-covered and rolling, and they are lovely beyond any singing of it.” is repeated several times like the refrain of a sad song. Mr. Paton understood the profoundly degrading effect that segregation had on both the people and the land as well as the deep sense of longing for things to be different on the part of so many. Those lush green hills of the opening line were off limits to the Black South Africans’ starving cattle, the traditional measure of a man’s wealth.

Mr. Paton’s dialog captures the essence of the Zulu language and its almost exclusive use of the present tense. This has the effect of bringing out the forgiving and compassionate nature of the Reverend Kumalo and the gentleness of the rural Zulu people. Once corrupted by the big city, however, the Blacks quickly become bitter and angry and lose all sense of morals. Life in the shanty towns is brutally ugly and crime is rampant, and the language reflects this.

In the decades since Cry the Beloved Country was published, South Africa has changed profoundly: the Pass Laws were replaced by Apartheid, officially consolidating political power and wealth in the ruling white minority population; Apartheid fell to global pressure; Nelson Mandela – a Black South African who had spent years in prison – was elected president; and the Fédération Internationale de Football Association, FIFA, voted to hold the 2010 World Cup in the Republic of South Africa. Life is still far from perfect in this nation of 50 million people, 80 per cent of whom are Black, but things are getting better. The 2010 World Cup was a celebration of progress, if not perfection.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Blandings Castle

Blandings Castle by P. G. Wodehouse

Book review by Teresa Friedlander, copyright 2010, all rights reserved

The only cure for the psychosis being caused by the looming mid-term election is a good laugh, and who better to supply this medicine than P. G. Wodehouse (1881-1975), best known for his Jeeves and Wooster stories. Blandings Castle is a loosely connected collection of short stories which reveals the last gasps of the British Empire, the generation that gave us Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth the second (whose progeny can be rather embarrassing at times). Mr. Wodehouse was a master of the short story form and possessed that understated and articulate humor only shared by classically educated Brits (of which he was not one due to economic hardship in the family business). He was, however, a keen observer of humanity with an excellent ear for dialog and, living as an expatriate for much of his life, developed a unique perspective on his mother country. Mr. Wodehouse particularly enjoyed the way generations of in-breeding in the upper echelons of society had eliminated any trace of higher intelligence in favor of the stiff upper lip and locked jaws characteristic of those with elite pedigrees. A true “blue blood” only has to utter a single word to let us know where he ranks on the social hierarchy.

Lord Emsworth of Blandings Castle, a lovingly rendered specimen, finds himself surrounded by annoyances the worst of which is his own son. Freddie Threepwood, the future Earl, has the intelligence of stick of gum, the self-control of a three-year-old, and the personality of a Jack Russell terrier. He was, wrote Mr. Wodehouse, “was one of those younger sons who rather invite the jaundiced eye.” The only skills Freddie possessed were racking up gambling debts in London and begging his father for money. Just the same he was harmless and innocent: an overgrown child who just wanted everyone including himself to be happy, even if it meant causing some very awkward situations. To the beleaguered 9th Earl of Emsworth, the only thing worse than having Freddie in London gambling away the family fortunes was having him at home, underfoot and creating havok.

When Lord Emsworth isn’t trying to avoid his son, he is troubled by his gardener, Angus McAllister, who wants to pave over the Earl’s favorite little patch of moss. Angus wields the real power on the estate and Lord Emsworth has no idea how to assert himself in order to save that moss. When Angus takes in a boarder, an unsuitable young girl to whom Freddie has taken a fancy, Lord Emsworth - in a rare moment of manhood - demands that the girl be sent away. Angus sends himself away instead, leaving Lord Emsworth to nurse Blandings’ best chance in years to bring a champion pumpkin to the local fair. When the pumpkin became depressed, yes depressed, Lord Emsworth realizes he has made a terrible mistake, and hat in hand, sets out to make it up to Angus.

These stories are pure entertainment and the characters are so human in their frailties that we can’t help loving them as they scheme against each other, and try to further their own agendas in the most inept and foolish ways. P. G. Wodehouse was not considered a great literary talent, his gift was in plot construction in that each of his best stories is perfectly set up, developed, and resolved in a way that satisfies a reader looking for a brief diversion from life. What makes Mr. Wodehouse’s stories so worthwhile is the humor woven into each situation. There are passages that are so funny you will laugh out loud and beg for mercy. (Hint: this is a book best enjoyed alone.)

If the sorry state of our political system – what with the dysfunctional Legislative Branch of government and the Tea Parties, Koran Burners, Birthers, Militant Vegans, Eco-Terrorists, and Pot Parties – is getting you down, just keep in mind that someone out there is watching and taking lots of notes. I predict that one day we will all laugh about these crazy days and wonder how we survived. In the interim Blandings Castle is a great diversion. Read it and take comfort in the fact that in the future there will be another crop of would-be politicians even less capable of running the nation than those we get to choose from today!

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Reading Lolita in Tehran

Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi

Book review by Teresa Friedlander, copyright 2010 all rights reserved

Two city blocks north of “Ground Zero” – the site of the 9/11 terrorist attacks – an Islamic group wants to build a community center and mosque and, understandably, many Americans are outraged. Feisal Abdul Rauf, the imam leading the project, is hardly a radical figure: for years he has been an important envoy for the United States in Islamic countries, working for peace and tolerance between cultures. The problem seems to be one of perception: because the wounds from the 9/11 attacks are still raw, many feel the project is insensitive at best and passive aggressive at worst. There is so much fear and misunderstanding surrounding Muslims in this country that it is virtually impossible to have a rational discussion about any aspect of the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque”. Whether or not the Islamic cultural center and mosque get built, this situation offers us an opportunity to learn more about Islam, the religion and the culture, so that we may differentiate between suicidal militants and devout followers of the Prophet Muhammad.

There are many excellent books, both fiction and non-fiction, which can help us understand the Islamic world. One in particular, Reading Lolita in Tehran, provides insight into the deep cultural differences that exist between Americans and Muslims. In addition, this book provides an inside account of life during the Iranian revolution of the late 1970s and early 1980s, and how a relatively small group of Islamic fundamentalists seized power from an American-backed monarch with an army at his disposal. The author, Azar Nafisi, an Iranian professor of English literature who was educated in Great Britain and the United States, returned to Iran in the midst of the revolution. Like many of her countrymen, she resented the Shah and his corrupt and brutal regime, despite benefitting from the cultural changes he implemented on behalf of women. The Pahlavi monarchy did have many faults, just the same it opened Iranian society to western culture and actively encouraged students to travel abroad for their education. As a student in the United States, Dr. Nafisi participated in protest marches against the Shah and hoped that Iran could become a nation of laws as opposed to men with absolute power. When she began teaching in Tehran, Dr. Nafisi believed that she was free to teach the literary works which she had studied in the United States, by authors such as Vladimir Nabokov, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gustave Flaubert, Jane Austen, and Henry James. Other than perhaps Nabokov and Flaubert, these authors are not particularly controversial, but to the Islamic fundamentalists who were slowly taking control of the society they were instruments of western decadence.

Iran’s civil troubles date back to the late 1800s when Great Britain received exclusive rights to that nation’s tobacco markets, through a series of opportunistic deals with the monarchy. Islamic leaders organized boycotts against this policy and developed into a formidable political force, eventually ending the British tobacco monopoly. Unified and energized by success with this boycott, these Islamic leaders recognized their ability to influence the population. In reaction, Shah Reza, a former general in the army who was supported by Great Britain, outlawed traditional Islamic clothing and sexual segregation. He further infuriated the mullahs by replacing ancient Islamic laws with secular ones modeled on those of America and western European nations. His police enforced the new laws by ripping chadors and burquas off women and requiring men to shave. Rather than marginalizing the Islamic extremists, the Shah’s policies only strengthened their resolve to save Islam from ruin. In 1941, the Shah was forced into exile.

Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, Reza’s son, became Iran’s ruler that same year, following an invasion by Great Britain and the Soviet Union. Like his father, the younger Shah continued to modernize the country, believing that once the nation tasted freedom from the stranglehold of Islam, the mullahs would finally lose their ability to call the populace to action. In an effort further to weaken the religious extremists in Iran, the Shah banned the headscarf and encouraged women to pursue education and careers. For the intellectual elite, especially those who had been educated in the west, this was a golden age. However for those who opposed the Shah’s effort to westernize Iran, it was a time of repression and tyranny. The tipping point came when the Shah’s policies resulted in economic hardship – inflation and shortages – which led to widespread protesting and demonstrations. Ironically, the Shah was undone by his own loosening of social restraints because liberal intellectuals joined the Islamic militants, finding unity in their anger. It wasn’t long before the revolutionaries became too numerous for the Iranian security forces to control. At the height of the uprising, a group of students seized the United States Embassy in Tehran, inadvertently creating a standoff that lasted 444 days. This action served to strengthen the radical wing of the revolution and to silence the voices of moderation. According to Ayatollah Khomeini, the hostage taking united the people of Iran and put the world on notice that they would no longer tolerate foreign intervention. The truth was that absolute power rested with the Islamic extremists and any Iranian voicing opposition faced torture and death.

While history was being made by protestors in front of the Iranian Embassy on Massachusetts Avenue in Washington, DC, and by the hostage takers in Tehran, Dr. Nafisi began teaching Iranian students how to read some of the great works of English literature. Because of her family’s stature and her impressive teaching credentials, Dr. Nafisi was more or less left alone for her first few months at the University of Tehran. Things began to change, however, as the balance of power shifted. Instead of teaching literature to students with a genuine interest in understanding works considered important by the developed world, Dr. Nafisi found herself defending Jane Austen, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Henry James to the polite but hostile Islamic fundamentalist male students who began populating the university. These young men were unwilling and unable to understand and appreciate the works for their literary or historical merit, and instead challenged the morality of any fictional character that questioned social norms or conducted her- or himself in ways that were at odds with their rigid beliefs.

Dr. Nafisi resigned her teaching position when she was ordered to wear a headscarf. Even though she had been part of the movement to overthrow the Shah, Dr. Nafisi began to understand that she and others had been naïve in thinking that a fair and democratic government would emerge. Bookstores closed overnight, free thinking went underground, and women once more became invisible. To an intelligent and educated professional woman, this was unacceptable, so Dr. Nafisi decided to start a revolution of her own by inviting a select group of her female students to study forbidden literature in her home.

Dr. Nafisi’s descriptions of her clandestine literature classes help the reader understand how things we Americans take for granted can be confusing and senseless to foreigners. Take The Great Gatsby, for example. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic novel describes a group of wealthy young wastrels and their decadent lifestyle during the “Roaring Twenties”. This era was uniquely American, a time of loosening morals and self-indulgence during a wild stock market boom and the gin-soaked prohibition years. With money flowing like water and sobriety on the wane, women could act like Daisy Buchanan and cheat on their husbands without fear of ruin. Additionally, the notion that a man would reinvent himself in order win the love of a married woman is absurd in a culture where marriages are arranged and women can be stoned to death for adultery. Even Dr. Nafisi’s most dedicated students had difficulty relating to this story.

Reading Lolita in Tehran sheds light on the fear and resentment that exist deep within many Muslims toward Americans while at the same time it reveals a silenced majority who are fascinated by all things American. The Islamic fundamentalist view of American culture is that our standards of modesty are quite low, we take our freedom to say what we will to extremes, and alcoholism and drug abuse are rampant. The biggest cultural division has to do with sex. American women are free to do whatever with whomever (as long as no one gets hurt), to dress provocatively, and to divorce and re-marry at will, whereas Islamic tradition values modesty, chastity, and obedience in women.

Dr. Nafisi, now an American citizen, wrote this book as a memoir, although the Iranian characters in the book have been completely changed so that no one could guess their identities. The young women took a risk to meet with Dr. Nafisi weekly, going so far as to lie to family members and friends. Initially, the meetings were all business, but as time went on bonds formed between the women which transcended personal biases and social stratifications. It was an enriching experience for teacher and students alike, except that in the end, when Dr. Nafisi and her family decided to leave Iran for the United States, she felt as if she done some of them a disservice.

Now that the United States is finally drawing down our forces in Iraq, many in Washington will start to focus on Iran. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad does not seem interested in joining the world community; in fact, he almost appears to be daring the United States to take military action. Meanwhile on the home front, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf and his wife, Daisy, who had genuinely hoped that their Islamic cultural center would foster tolerance and understanding between Americans and Muslims are finding that their good intentions have stirred up a tidal wave of controversy. Whatever the outcome, whether the project goes ahead as planned, moves to another site, or gets canceled, everyone would be well-served to become better informed about Islam. Reading Lolita in Tehran is an important book for Americans to read: not only will it help us understand Muslims better but also how, if we’re not careful, the ideals upon which our nation was founded could easily become irrelevant.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

The Dew Breaker

The Dew Breaker by Edwige Danticat

Book review by Teresa Friedlander, Copyright 2010

There are epic novels which educate the reader by integrating pages from history with captivating stories of people living through world-changing events; and then there are those by modern authors, which only hint at the larger historical context surrounding their characters. The Dew Breaker falls into the latter category, and does this by using discrete stories to describe how the actions of the powerful few can ruin the lives of the powerless many for generations, even centuries. To understand this book, to appreciate it fully, the reader owes it to him- or herself to learn the back story:

Once upon a time, on a small tropical island in the Caribbean Sea, a peaceful population of Arawak-speaking Taínos (Native Americans) lived in harmony with nature. The Taínos grew cotton, and from this crafted fishing nets; they harvested cassava roots and maize as well. The Taínos’ only enemies were the cannibalistic Caribs who invaded from time to time, requiring them to develop defensive weapons and strategies. Life on this island, which the Taínos called “Ayiti”, was idyllic and the people enjoyed feasting, worshipping, and procreating. One day, however, enormous boats filled with strange-looking men with light skin and heavy clothing arrived; and the world, as the Taínos knew it, ended.

The year was 1492 and the captain of the boats was the Spanish explorer, Christopher Columbus. The beautiful and fertile island on which Columbus found himself is a place that has endured almost endless hardship and suffering in the 500 plus years since. Spain controlled the island, then called Hispañola, for almost a century before leaving it vulnerable to pirates originally from England, The Netherlands, and France. The Taíno people, meanwhile, all but disappeared. By 1664, France had formally claimed the western half of the island as a permanent settlement and the French West Indies Company established vast tobacco, indigo, cotton, cacao, coffee, and sugar cane plantations. The plantations required a constant supply of slaves from Africa, in order to realize their full economic potential, because slaves were literally worked to death. In the 18th century, Saint-Domingue – the French part of Hispañola – came to be called the “Pearl of the Antilles” given its richness and productivity. As much as 60 per cent of the coffee and 40 per cent of the sugar consumed by Europeans came from this tiny colony, no bigger than the state of Maryland.

At its height, Saint-Domingue’s slave population numbered 500,000 while its ruling white population was a mere 32,000, or 16 per cent of the total. In order to maintain control, slave owners resorted to extreme brutality and coercion, and there was no limit to the degradation or cruelty imposed on slaves in service to the colony’s economic imperative. The French Revolution created fissures in the established social and political order; and in 1790 a civil war broke out when free men of color demanded full French citizenship as spelled out in the “Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen”, a document similar to the United States’ Declaration of Independence. A delegation of free black men travelled to France and received a grant of full citizenship from the Legislative Assembly there. The rulers of the colony, however, did not agree and refused to recognize free men of color as full citizens. The dispute was further complicated by racial stratification: mulattos were considered of higher status than Africans, and under French law freed slaves could themselves own slaves.

In 1793, an intelligent and charismatic free man, Francois-Dominique Toussaint-L’ouverture, led a slave rebellion which eventually succeeded in driving out the French forces and repelling the opportunistic British invaders, while vanquishing the colonial slave holders. Toussaint-L’ouverture then wrote a constitution for a new government and declared himself governor for life. He was not a despot; rather he was a visionary leader, similar to our own Founding Fathers. During his brief tenure, Toussaint-L’ouverture re-established trade with Britain and the United States of America. Meanwhile, Napoleon Bonaparte wanted the colony back under France’s dominion and resorted to treachery to achieve this end. In 1802, Toussaint-L’ouverture signed a treaty with France to return the colony to French rule on the condition that slavery would not return. Three weeks later, Toussaint-L’ouverture and his family were deported to France where he died in jail a short time later. Napoleon’s forces fought a brutal war of aggression against the freed slaves in order to reinstate slavery in the colony, however the brief taste of freedom which Toussaint-L’ouverture had achieved for the population unified them and by 1804, the French withdrew. General Jean-Jacques Dessalines declared independence and named the new nation, Haiti, which meant “land of mountains” in the Taínos’ language.

In order to survive economically, Haiti was obliged to repay France the price of so-called lost property (land, equipment, and slaves) in the amount of 150 million gold francs. France, supported by Britain and the United States, imposed a trade embargo against Haiti forcing the new and fragile nation to pay this debt which they finally did in 1947.

Haiti enjoyed a brief period of peace and relative prosperity from 1874 until 1911. During this time artists, writers, and musicians flourished and the nation developed a unique cultural identity, influenced by Voodoo, Christianity, and African traditions. A small community of German émigrés meanwhile established itself and slowly gained control of 80 per cent of Haiti’s international trade as well as its public utilities and port access. This did not sit well with the United States, given the hostile behavior of the Germans in Europe, and so a group of American investors bought control of the National Bank of Haiti, where the nation’s treasure was on deposit. In order to protect the financial interests of these American investors, President Woodrow Wilson agreed to send occupying forces. During this time, the United States exploited its role as Haiti’s legal protector and revived an old law requiring peasants to perform hard labor in lieu of paying road taxes. Between 1915 and 1918, these de facto slaves built 470 miles of paved road, among other projects. In 1919, the Haitians revolted and as many as 15,000 civilians died. To reestablish order, the United States installed a dictator. Then the Great Depression ruined Haiti’s already frail economy and the United States slowly withdrew its forces. From 1934 through 1957, Haiti suffered a prolonged period of political instability until a former Minister of Health and widely respected humanitarian, Dr. Francois Duvalier, was democratically elected president.

It didn’t take long before President Duvalier, “Papa Doc” as he liked to be called, established a dictatorship and intimidated the Haitian people through kidnappings, beatings, and murders by a “volunteer” army called the Tonton Macoutes (after a Voodoo monster). To those living in fear, the Macoutes were called “Dew Breakers” because they usually came in the early morning hours, leaving footprints in the heavy dew. Papa Doc aimed to rid Haiti of its mulatto elite population and this resulted in a mass exodus of the country’s best educated and most skilled people. At the same time, Papa Doc won the favor of many in the black middle class by providing services and utilities – such as water, sewers, and paved roads – to previously neglected neighborhoods. It was from this population that he recruited his “volunteer” Macoutes.

Papa Doc died in 1971 and his 19 year old son, Jean-Claude Duvalier, took power. “Baby Doc” was predictably inept and very corrupt. He pocketed vast sums of public money and foreign aid, and married a glamorous mulatto divorcee in a lavish ceremony. This did not sit well with anyone, including his own mother, so he allowed his wife to send his mother to live in exile. When Pope Jean Paul II visited Haiti in 1983, he was horrified by what he saw and condemned Baby Doc’s regime. Three years later, Baby Doc and his wife fled the country.

The dew breaker referred to in the title, turns out to be a loving father and devoted husband who, after moving to New York, tries to forget his past. The ghosts of his victims, however, follow him and refuse to grant him peace. Award-winning author, Edwige Danticat, evokes the world of denial and acceptance that many Haitian refugees found themselves living in following the brutal Duvalier years. She does this through a collection of interconnected stories, each of which could stand on its own, but together tell the tragic story of a little nation which seems eternally cursed.

Democracy and freedom have a hard time taking root in Haiti: for every good and legally elected president, there seem to be two or three despots poised to take control. In 2006, Rene Preval was elected and showed promise as a legitimate leader. And then the earthquake happened. Is Haiti the realization of Dante’s Inferno here on earth, or is this tiny nation a living, breathing example of the triumph of the human spirit? If we recognize that Columbus’ conquest of Ayiti set in motion 500 years of suffering, the answer, I think, is both, because the Haitian people have a reputation as some of the happiest, most generous people on earth. The bigger question posed by this book, is whether we all recognize that brutality and despotism are totally colorblind, kept at bay only by the rule of law.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Dreamers of the Day

Dreamers of the Day
by Mary Doria Russell

Book review by Teresa Friedlander, copyright 2010

According to “The Washington Post” the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is already five or six times larger than the Exxon Valdez catastrophe of 1989; and will continue to spew for at least two more months, or longer if the relief wells fail. We are starting to see the devastating and depressing pictures of fish, birds, and turtles coated with the sticky, slimy crude and could very well see entire ecosystems collapse. So who is to blame for this disaster?  BP?  The Minerals Management Service?  President Bush (2nd)?  Vice President Cheney?  President Obama?  To find the answer, we need to go back in time to the early years of the twentieth century, when the burgeoning automobile industry created a demand for petroleum that shows no signs of stopping. Today the United States is the third highest per capita consumer of oil, after Saudi Arabia and Canada. With China and India producing cars for their growing middle classes, competition for this dwindling resource could soon be as ugly as the Gulf oil spill.

Dreamers of the Day is not a great book. It is written well enough, but the story is a little silly as the narrator is speaking from beyond the grave. If you can tolerate a few clichéd plot devices, the reason to read this book is that the author, Mary Doria Rusell, provides a clear and succinct early history of the Middle Eastern oil industry as well as British efforts to retain control of Iraq and Jordan following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. It was this critical moment in history that set the stage for the world’s current addiction to oil and the consequences that continue to play out.

In the aftermath of World War I, western Europe, Specifically Britain and France, redrew the maps of eastern Europe, Asia Minor, and the Middle East.  British colonial secretary, Winston Churchill, called a meeting, in Cairo in 1921, with Middle East experts to decide how to re-organize newly liberated Mesopotamia and Transjordan. T. E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) was one of the attendees, given his knowledge of the Arabic world, as was Gertrude Bell, a woman of great stature who was also an expert on the Middle East. Colonel Lawrence and Miss Bell both acted as mediators between the various Arabs and the British, carefully winning the respect and trust of the former and educating the latter. The result of this meeting was the installation of Faisal bin Hussein as Iraq’s first king. Faisal was given this honor out of gratitude for helping the British during the first world war by entering Damascus, Syria, at the height of the Arab Revolt against the Turkish Ottomans. Churchill, on the advice of Miss Bell and Colonel Lawrence, recommended Faisal because they believed he could gain the support of Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds. This was a cunning choice as Faisal was from a prominent Sunni family and was also a direct descendent of Prophet Muhammad’s great-grandfather, Hashim ibn Abd al-Manaf. The Cairo Conference had expected Faisal to be more of a puppet than he turned out to be; and Faisal, for his own part, discovered that bringing different religious and ethnic groups together into a single government is much harder than it sounds. Further complicating matters was the on-going rivalry between France and Britain over the entire region known as The Levant.

Meanwhile, demand for petroleum and its byproducts grew exponentially as industry and technology evolved in Europe and North America. Oil producing and exporting companies formed and used Basra, Iraq, at the northern end of the Persian Gulf as their main depot. Britain retained control of Iraq until 1932, granting it independence in exchange for land and natural resources, Royal Air Force bases, and a coordinating role in foreign policy for twenty-five years. During this period Iraq suffered a series of coups d’état and a British invasion; and perpetrated a pogrom against its Jewish citizens. The opportunistic oil companies continued their messy business by lining the pockets of whoever was in power.

Following the second World War, the United Nations annexed Palestine, dividing it into Arab and Jewish States in 1948. The creation of Israel – a homeland for the Jewish people – was unacceptable to the Arabs in the region, especially the displaced Palestinians even though the land in question was mostly unpopulated, barren desert. Israel quickly became the Arab world’s main enemy and has been in a state of preparedness for war ever since. While the creation of Israel had no direct bearing on the production and distribution of oil, the fact that the region became dangerously unstable meant that access to that oil was constantly at risk.

After World War II, the strategically located Suez Canal became critical to the shipping of oil to consuming countries such as the United States. Britain maintained a military presence of 80,000 troops at the Suez Canal in order to protect its access under the terms of the Anglo-Egyptian Treaty of 1936. Across the next two decades, anti-British sentiments grew as Egypt struggled with inflation, unemployment, and an unstable economy. In October of 1951, Egypt decided to abandon the treaty and demanded Britain’s withdrawal from Suez. This led to increasing violence and rioting in Cairo and ultimately to a military coup d-état led by Muhammad Neguib and Gamal Abdul Nasser, who would one day be Egypt’s president. Before, during, and after this period, Egypt routinely intercepted cargo destined for Israel as it passed through the Suez Canal. In spite of harsh criticism from the United Nations Security Council, interference with Israel-bound ships increased steadily under Egypt’s new regime. During 1955 and 1956, Britain and Egypt engaged in a growing power struggle as Egypt sought total autonomy. In addition to direct conflict, Nasser engaged in negotiations with communist countries to obtain arms. Britain sought help from the United States but President Eisenhower decided to stay out so as not to offend Saudi Arabia, a key supplier of oil. In a series of chess-like moves, Egypt did the unthinkable and officially recognized the People’s Republic of China. This so angered the United States that Secretary of State John Foster Dulles revoked American financial support for the Aswan Dam project. With the United States out of the way, Nasser claimed that Suez belonged to Egypt and demanded that British forces withdraw.

In 1956, Britain, hiding behind Israel and aided by France, declared war against Egypt in a bid to regain control of Suez. Each of these nations had separate motives: Britain needed Suez to control its remaining colonies; France wanted to weaken Nasser so its North African colonies would not grow restless; and Israel wanted to use the canal for shipping. Britain calculated that Nasser’s alliance with communist countries would cause the United States to support the invasion once it began. In this, they were mistaken. Tension between the United States and the Soviet Union was growing and the threat of another global war, should the Soviets back Egypt, kept President Eisenhower from engaging militarily. In a surprise move, Nasser asked the United States for assistance in finding a diplomatic solution to the crisis. The United Nations then demanded an immediate cease-fire and the removal of the invading forces. Britain and France had no choice but to withdraw; and Israel had learned important lessons about waging offensive wars. In order to enforce the cease-fire, the United Nations stationed a peace-keeping force on the Sinai Peninsula.

This uneasy peace held for the next decade, but Egypt began a massive military build-up along its border with Israel and closed the Straits of Tiran to any ship flying the Israeli flag. With no access to the Indian Ocean, Israel began a parallel build-up of forces and arms. In spite of UN presence, Israel was continuously under attack by Syrian and Palestinian guerillas – or terrorists. Adding to the tension was the need for water for Israel’s growing population. The River Jordan delimits Israel’s eastern border with Jordan and Syria, and in 1964, Israel opened its National Water Carrier system to bring water to the arid central regions. This had the effect of reducing the water flow into Syria and Jordan. In retaliation, with financial support from Saudi Arabia and Egypt, Syria and Jordan began construction of canals to divert the River Jordan’s headwaters from the Sea of Galilee. Beginning in April of 1965, Israel launched a series of air attacks to stop construction of the headwater diversion projects, because Israel’s water supply would have dropped significantly and the salinity of the Sea of Galilee would have increased as well. On May 30, 1967, Egypt, Jordan, and Syria signed a treaty pledging mutual support should Israel attack again. President Nasser, who for years had tried to be a peace-maker in the region, said: “Our basic objective will be the destruction of Israel. The Arab people want to fight.”

On June 5, 1967, feeling that an attack by Egypt and other Arab nations was imminent, Israel made a preemptive strike on Egyptian forces amassed on the Sinai Peninsula. Within three days, Israel had succeeded in capturing Sinai. Meanwhile, Jordan and Syria made a series of attacks from the West Bank region. Israel, however, was fighting for its life and quickly decided to take the Old City of Jerusalem as well as the Palestinian West Bank territory surrounding it. Syria, acting on false reports that Israel was losing the war, began cautiously conducting air raids across their shared northern border. The Syrians, however, were caught off guard by the vastly superior and fully deployed Israeli Air Force. In spite of a cease-fire being called by Syria and Jordan, the Israelis attacked Golan in retaliation for the years of attacks sponsored by Syria and also because this area was difficult to defend, given its geography. Six days later, the war was over and Israel was in control of the Sinai Peninsula, the Gaza Strip, Jerusalem, the West Bank, and the Golan Heights. In addition to vastly increased territory, Israel also became home to approximately one million Arabs.

Israel’s military success only served to heighten the tension in the region and in October of 1973, members of the Organization of Oil Producing and Exporting Countries (OPEC), plus Egypt, Syria, and Tunisia, declared an oil embargo against the United States for providing supplies to Israel’s military during the Yom Kippur War of 1973. This caused gas prices to skyrocket and supplies to fall. Panic swept the United States and waiting in long gas lines became the national pastime. Bowing to pressure from the United States to negotiate with Syria, Israel agreed to give up the Golan heights. OPEC in turn lifted the embargo after a year but the threat remained.

President Jimmy Carter understood the long-term consequences of America’s dependence on foreign oil and put in place an energy policy designed to reduce our consumption of fossil fuels and to increase our use of renewable resources such as solar power. He was, unfortunately, several decades ahead of his time and his immediate successor, Ronald Reagan undid every one of President Carter’s innovative energy incentives almost immediately upon taking office. Three decades later, the Gulf of Mexico is dying from our oil addiction. While it might feel good to place the blame on a single president, CEO, or corporation, in reality we are all guilty. We Americans have known for a long time that our wasteful consumption would have to end and yet we failed to demand more fuel efficient cars and freedom from our oil suppliers. Instead, we demanded gas-guzzling sport-utility vehicles, high-performance sports cars, pick-up trucks, and Hummers.

At some point, the Gulf oil guyser will be plugged and the real work of cleaning up will begin. Will this catastrophe be the catalyst for our nation to break our oil dependence? Or, will we instead be like drug addicts who lie, steal, cheat, and kill in order to feed our disease until it kills us?

Copyright 2010 Teresa Friedlander all rights reserved

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Birds Without Wings

Birds Without Wings by Louis de Bernières

“A man is a bird without wings and a bird is a man without sorrow.” – Iskandar the Potter

From the very beginning of time, man has envied birds’ ability to fly free from the bounds of gravity and over insurmountable obstacles. It wasn’t until the 20th century, after thousands of years of dreaming and experimenting, that we conquered the skies and beyond. Looking at photographs of planet earth taken from outer space, one notices the significant absence of boundary markers. Other than land forms and bodies of water, the familiar continents and island nations, it is hard to tell where one country ends and another begins. The notion of national boundaries is a human invention and one that has been a source of conflict throughout history. Take the nation we know of as Turkey: one hundred years ago, it did not exist per se, but was part of the once powerful Ottoman Empire. Before the Ottomans, the Romans controlled this melting pot of western civilization and long before them were the Greeks. Viewed from orbit, this land shows no scarring from the wars fought over it, but on the ground, deep within the collective psyche of the people whose ancestors waged those wars, the scars are still there.

At its height, the Ottoman Empire incorporated Anatolia (Turkey), Armenia, the Balkans, the Black Sea, the western half of the Adriatic Sea, Greece, Syria, Palestine, Egypt, the Red Sea, the Persian Gulf, and most of northern Africa and the southern Mediterranean Sea. Of critical strategic importance was The Bosporus, where the Black and Aegean Seas connect, because it was eastern Europe’s and Russia’s gateway to the Mediterranean. On the Western side of this narrowing is one of the world’s great cities. This city, first called Byzantium, was an important Grecian port for almost 1000 years until it was seized by the Romans and renamed Constantinople in honor of the Roman Emperor, Constantine (ca 330 AD). Constantinople eventually replaced Rome as the center of imperial power due to its location at the crossroads of the world. For the next many centuries the Romans continued to expand their empire until it began collapsing under its own weight. In 1453 the Arabic Ottomans took Constantinople, and the remains of the Roman Empire fell like a row of standing dominoes.

Under Ottoman rule Christians, Muslims, and Jews, mixed and mingled with Greeks, Turks, and Armenians. Given the rise and fall of first the Byzantine and then the Roman Empires, tribal, religious, and ethnic loyalties became secondary to the multi-cultural communities which developed. Birds Without Wings is the story of one such community: the fictional village of Eskibahçe, located in south western Anatolia. In this village, Christians of Greek and Armenian origin celebrated holy days with great frequency and even greater quantities of wine, and welcomed their Muslim neighbors to join in. While drinking was frowned upon by The Prophet, it brought a certain festive quality which many Muslims tacitly appreciated. So integrated was this society that Muslims and Christians often intermarried. In the words of Iskandar the Potter, the villagers “were very much mixed up, and apart from the rantings of a few hotheads whose bellies were filled with raki and the Devil [everyone] lived together in sufficient harmony”.

Unfortunately, the good times did not last. Empire builders in Eastern Europe and Russia had their eyes on Anatolia and The Bosporus. This required constant vigilance on the eastern border and the Black Sea, taking attention away from Greece. Greece used the opportunity to wage a successful war of independence from the Ottoman Empire, sparking a nationalist movement which slowly spread across Asia Minor. From 1829 to 1908, the Ottoman Empire continued to weaken, and religious and ethnic intolerance began to flare up. Turkish Armenians were first to be persecuted by the Muslim Ottomans who formed a dangerous alliance with Germany in order to resist the hostile Balkan states and the aggressive Russian Empire. The presence of German troops on Ottoman soil ushered in an era of suspicion and distrust. Political instability during this period provided the opportunity for a Grecian Turk, Mustafa Kemal, to rise through the military ranks and lead the brewing jihad – the holy war – aimed at reclaiming Turkey for the Turks by driving out the Christian Greeks and Armenians.

Birds Without Wings is a tragedy and a love story with moments of comedy; in other words it is a very human story. This book is also a blistering critique of ideology and religious extremism and the hatred they spawn. Louis de Bernières, best known for his novel Corelli’s Mandolin, tells the story of modern Turkey from several perspectives. The main narrator is an illiterate potter named Iskandar who has a poetic soul and speaks in proverbs. Iskandar has a son named Abdul. Abdul’s best friend is a Christian boy named Nicos who is the brother of Philothei, a girl of legendary beauty. The two little boys give Iskandar so much delight that he makes them clay whistles in the shape of birds which, when filled with water, imitate the calls of the blackbird and the robin. Abdul and Nicos take to wearing red and black shirts, respectively, while running about making bird calls, and soon come to be called Karatavuk (robin) and Mehmetçik (blackbird).

Mehmetçik, being Christian, knows how to read and write Greek, as well as Turkish in Greek characters. Karatavuk’s education on the other hand is limited to memorizing verses from the Koran in Arabic, a language no one, other than perhaps the imam, understands. After a bit of boyish negotiation, Mehmetçik agrees to teach Karatavuk to read and write Turkish in Greek characters, a skill which will prove invaluable later in life. While the boys are busy learning and playing, one of their contemporaries, Ibrahim, falls so deeply and obsessively in love with Karatavuk’s sister, Philothei, and is so relentless in pursuit of her, that both families agree to the marriage when the two come of age, with the understanding that she will become Muslim.

Mr. Bernières tells many stories within the 551 pages of this epic novel. He illuminates the plight of women in an illiterate Muslim society, he describes how truly cosmopolitan and civilized the Ottoman Empire was, and reveals how easily civilizations can succumb to self-inflicted wounds. Woven into the fabric of the tales from Eskibahçe is the life story of Turkey’s iconic leader, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. Depending on whom you ask, Ataturk was either a liberating hero or a war criminal. Emotions aside, he was an opportunistic and charismatic leader with a talent for being in the right place at the right time. He was bold and courageous, frequently leading battle charges and miraculously surviving while all around him bodies piled up into mountains of rotting corpses. The ten year period following the Greek war of independence from the Ottoman Empire was when the western European nations were spoiling for war against the imperialistic Germans. The Ottomans, being aligned with Germany were therefore considered enemies of Britain, France, and Italy. Conflicts with the Balkans left the Ottomans weak and Greece, seeking to re-create its ancient glory by annexing Anatolia, attacked. Ataturk possessed a rare political genius that enabled him to play many factions against each other. He enlisted the Germans to help vanquish the Greeks and then used that relationship to re-equip the Turkish troops sufficiently to chase out the British and French who, like the Russians, wanted control of Asia Minor. The Italians wisely left of their own accord. Ataturk understood the threat posed by Germany and, had it not been so completely defeated in World War I, was prepared to fight to the death for independence.

A major theme of this book, and the one that makes it important to read, is the bitter hatred that still lies between the Turks and the Armenians. Each endured atrocities at the hands of the other which resulted in genocide nearly as horrible as that perpetrated against the Jews in Nazi Germany. Many Armenian soldiers volunteered to serve in the Russian army during World War I given how they were treated in the late Ottoman Empire, but the Bolshevik Revolution halted Russia’s western expansion leaving a population of Turkish Armenians at the mercy of the vengeful Turks. The horrific bloodshed between these two peoples went largely unnoticed by the greater world because, at the time, it was not important to the redrawing of European maps following The Great War.

In Birds Without Wings we see how ideology – big ideas which appeal to small minds – can take the heart and soul out of a society. Pursuit of ethnic purity – laced with nationalism, religious intolerance, and tribalism – caused suffering and hardship in Greece, Turkey, and Armenia. Turkey chased out the Christian Armenians and Greeks and in so doing lost the people who knew how to grow, make and do things, leaving only the consumers who then had nothing to eat or buy. A similar thing happened in Greece and both nations had huge refugee populations to absorb who had no possessions and did not speak the language.

In spite of the bloodshed and tears so viscerally described in Birds Without Wings, this book is also a celebration of the human spirit. In the same way we so often fail to learn from history, we also have the capacity to forgive and forget. Eventually, the Grecian Turks learned to speak Turkish and the Turkish Greeks learned to speak Greek. Turkey succeeded as an independent nation and Greece gave up on annexing it. A new normalcy settled on both nations and life went on. The Armenians, however, had no such resolution. United States President Woodrow Wilson redrew Armenia’s border with Turkey in Turkey’s favor, forcing hundreds of thousands of Armenians to flee. The resulting diaspora means that today there are more Armenians living outside of Armenia than within its borders. Armenians have neither forgiven nor forgotten.

It was the philosopher, Hegel, who said “the only thing we learn from history is that we learn nothing from history”. I am inclined to agree with him as rhetoric heats up in our own country about the problems we have with immigration control. Most of us don’t have sufficient understanding of the social and economic impacts of undocumented aliens – positive and negative – to suggest constructive ways to address the problems. Birds Without Wings is a cautionary tale, a lamentation over humans’ inability to absorb the lessons of history into our DNA so that we stop hurting ourselves by hurting each other. The lesson for us here in the land of the free, if we choose to learn it, is to be careful that we don’t create a flock of sad, angry, and resentful birds without wings by applying simplistic solutions to complex problems. Rather than being carried away by ideology, perhaps we can engage in a thoughtful discussion about how to secure our borders so that we don’t inadvertently lose what makes America the world’s beacon of hope.

Copyright 2010 Teresa Friedlander, all rights reserved.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Signal & Noise

Signal & Noise by John Griesemer

It is hard to remember that not too long ago wireless telephones were status symbols for the likes of Bill Gates and Hollywood moguls, out of reach for the rest of us. Today, most children carry phones in their backpacks and an increasing number of households have dropped land line telephones altogether. Twenty years ago, laptop computers weighed ten pounds, today a hand-held phone can manage appointments and contacts, find restaurants, give directions, and buy and sell stock; computers continue losing weight and bulk while gaining capability and utility. With Apple announcing innovations every couple of years and cars learning how to drive themselves, it is useful to pause and consider the story of communication technology.

Benjamin Franklin is credited with “discovering” that lightning is electricity by flying a kite in a thunderstorm and experiencing a shock. He was one of a long series of scientists bent on understanding and harnessing this mysterious, invisible force for some useful purpose. Meanwhile, semaphore code, a language using flags was the only form of distance communication, and that was limited by visibility. As the need for communicating over long distances became more critical, experimenters discovered that electrical signals could travel over a wire almost instantaneously. One of these innovators was Thomas Morse who refined the ability to send pulses, short and long, over a wire, leading him to develop a code representing the alphabet and numerals zero through nine. Morse became inspired to experiment with electric impulses as a result of his wife’s death. He was in New York painting a portrait of the Marquis de Lafayette when a courier informed him that his wife was ill. By the time Morse arrived in New Haven, his wife was in her grave. Morse channeled his grief into a study of speeding up long-distance communication and with his code, the commercially viable telegraph was born. The Marquis’ portrait remained unfinished.

Initially, telegraph signals could only travel short distances before degrading into noise, given the tolerances of copper wire; but innovations built upon each other and soon the pulses could span ten miles. Once that milestone was reached, the possibilities seemed limitless. Telegraph communications were successfully applied in the Civil War, enabling President Abraham Lincoln to communicate with his generals. The value of this new technology became clear during the battles of Bull Run and Manassas in Virginia where a gap in the wire required couriers to take messages from one telegraph station to the other. According to Tom Wheeler, the author of Mr. Lincoln’s T-Mails: The Untold Story of How Abraham Lincoln Used the Telegraph to Win the Civil War (HarperCollins, 2006), telegraph communications gave birth to the White House “situation room”, where to this day presidents monitor crises in real time.

Signal & Noise is an elegant and entertaining work of historical fiction about how a group of entrepreneurs, engineers, industrialists, and entertainers succeeded in stringing a telegraph cable from Europe to North America. While most of the characters are amalgams of real people, a few – Cyrus Field and Wildman Whitehouse – did exist and have secure places in history.

After a number of unsuccessful attempts and huge financial losses, Cyrus Field managed to overcome the constraints posed by the Atlantic Ocean, cable technology, and human folly, and by 1866 transatlantic communications happened at the breathtaking speed of eight words per minute. This marked the beginning of a new era in communications technology. The cable over which these words traveled consisted of seven parallel copper wires, coated with three layers of gutta-percha (a natural latex derived from the sap of the Malaysian palaquium gutta tree), and covered with tarred hemp fibers, over which a sleeve of twisted wire strands was laid in a close spiral. It weighed 1.1 tons per mile, was flexible enough to be wound on large spools, and could withstand a pull of several tens of kilonewtons (a measure of tension tolerance for cables).

At the same time that telecommunications technology debuted, magicians and vaudeville performers were also dabbling in the secrets of magnetism, electricity, and optics. Signal & Noise explores how this era was ripe for both discovery and for mystery. The main characters of this story are a married couple, Chester and Franny Ludlow, whose marriage came undone when their daughter fell to her death into the rocky waters of Casco Bay, Maine. Little Betty’s death haunts Franny and eventually causes her to turn to spiritualists in an attempt to contact her daughter. Chester, an engineer, finds himself cast in the role of the main salesman for shares in corporation Cyrus Field created to raise funds for the transatlantic cable. While this role is beneath him, Chester cannot say no and so he travels to London and back seeking investors by presenting a phantasmagoria, which was a show weaving together many themes and mysterious images in a dynamic format. The show, seemingly miraculous, created tremendous interest and excitement about transatlantic communications, and used the same technological innovations employed by magicians, spiritualists, and charlatans of the day.

The story of the telegraph cable exemplifies the ability of humans to pool our intelligence, strength, vision, and accumulated knowledge in order to do the impossible. First of all, the cable had to stretch 1,800 miles across the ocean floor and at 1.1 tons per mile, the total weight was close to 2,000 tons. So the engineers decided to start one end of the cable in Newfoundland and the other in western Ireland and splice the two ends together in the middle of the ocean. Paying for the project was another problem because investors had to be convinced of the project’s feasibility and that they would enjoy a significant return on their sizeable investments if it succeeded. This required a type of salesmanship heretofore not seen. Finally, the cable was only as good as the receivers and transmitters on either end and there was strong disagreement between American and English engineers over whose technology would work. The author, John Griesemer, does a masterful job of telling this web of stories while simultaneously taking the reader back in time, to an age of innocence and innovation.

In the background, meanwhile, the Civil War was tearing apart the fabric of America, and in London, raw sewage had built up to toxic levels, polluting drinking water sources and festering in the heat wave of 1858. The air became so foul that the city almost shut down until heavy rains finally came and cleared the air. Signal & Noise illuminates how profoundly and rapidly the world was changing: cities were growing, pushing farmland further out. Masses of people created massive amounts of sewage, and other waste which antiquated cesspits and streams could no longer carry away, leading to countless deaths from typhoid fever. The Industrial Revolution changed where people lived and how they worked, and it demanded a faster flow of information than was possible via courier. Scientists, industrialists, visionaries, and inventors who congregated in cities such as London and Pittsburgh set about creating the infrastructure upon which our modern world was built, largely financed by private investors.

In the United States, Western Union consolidated several independent telegraph lines creating a nationwide network of telegraph stations, enabling far flung family members to be summoned to a relative’s deathbed. In 1871, Western Union set up a way for funds to “travel” over the wires bypassing highway bandits, a service still used today. Telephone technology eventually surpassed the telegraph as a means of person-to-person communication, and by 1980, the telegraph was in its twilight. Walkie-talkies were simple versions of wireless telephones, using low frequency radio signals between two points. Mobile telephones became feasible when the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) released its strangle-hold of a high range of radio frequencies. This enabled AT&T to create local mobile calling areas, or cells, which by the early 1990s could service a large volume of simultaneous calls. Long-distance cell phone calls required switching out of the home cell to one or more in a series of cells to connect. At first, these calls were quite expensive as were so-called “roaming” calls. With increased use of satellite technology, however, national and even global calling became so reliable and inexpensive that, according to a report by the National Center for Health Statistics, approximately 13% of homes had no landline telephone service by the end of 2006. What all this suggests is that ten years from now, those iPhones we waited in line to buy at full price will be distant memories. Whether hearing aids merge with wireless telephones or Apple invents the iBrain, a handy little implant which will eliminate the need to carry all those pesky little devices, remains to be seen.

Signal & Noise reminds us that the technology we take for granted represents the culmination of almost two centuries of research, development, investment, and government involvement. Today we have telephones embedded in tiny computers which can connect with computers all over the world while we carry on conversations. The inventors and investors who created the wire which they unspooled across the Atlantic Ocean, thus allowing two continents to communicate in real time, didn’t realize what they had put in motion. As we rush headlong into the future, experimenting with genetics, robotics, and nanotechnology, we should all listen carefully for the signals – information -- lest the message be drowned out by the increasing amount of noise we make.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010


Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse

Book review by Teresa Friedlander, copyright 2010

There has never been a point in history when the “human condition” was universally good. Whether the enemy is our environment, each other, or ourselves, human beings haven’t found a way to eliminate suffering in the 20,000 or so years we have been on earth. Even at the height of the Renaissance, the plague swept through Europe while monarchs and bishops practiced politics by arranging for heads to be separated from bodies, villages to be sacked, and the poor to starve. And yet, there have always been a few beautiful souls who recognized that our species could be so much better than we are by being better to each other. Jesus, Mohammad, and the Buddha taught (and continue to teach) how we can find the good within ourselves, so that we might transcend the suffering and baseness of our earthly lives. The world’s great religions – Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, and Judaism – promise salvation, eternal rest, paradise, or enlightenment as a reward for rising above greed, hatred, vanity, lust, gluttony, and envy.

Siddhartha is the wealthy scion of an important Indian family who dutifully learns his lessons and religious practices in order that he continue his family’s Brahmin legacy. The young man typifies the person who “has it all” but one day realizes that he feels empty inside. Rather than attempt to fill his emptiness with pleasures of the body, Siddhartha decides to quit his family and his caste to go searching for a path to enlightenment. At first Siddhartha believes that ascetism will make him more holy, but after a time he realizes that denying the body is itself a form of vanity. He leaves the ascetics and joins up with followers of the Buddha. Buddhists are more accepting of the body’s physical needs, but Siddhartha finds irreconcilable logic problems in their belief system. Weary of his quest, Siddhartha succumbs to the attraction of a beautiful and demanding woman. In order to win her, Siddhartha learns how to amass riches by apprenticing himself to a successful merchant. He becomes quite wealthy and after several years of hedonism, Siddhartha realizes that he can have anything he wants and he can make others do his bidding: his life has become a game. Once again, he walks away. At the end of the story, after following a zig-zag path from one extreme to the other, Siddhartha discovers that the secret to enlightenment is within himself and that only by letting go of people, possessions, and expectations can he get there.

Hermann Hesse (1877-1962), best known for Steppenwolf, published Siddhartha in 1922. As a boy, Hermann was psychologically troubled, prone to tantrums and oppositional behavior, and at times suicidal. He bridled under his parents’ strict upbringing and did not share their Lutheran faith. Hermann sought better answers to life’s mysteries and paradoxes by reading the works of great European thinkers including Arthur Schopenhauer, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, and Friedrich Schiller. Because of his parents’ missionary work in India, Hermann had access to Indian artifacts, literature, and art. This fueled a fascination with that culture and an interest in Buddhism.

In 1894, at age seventeen, Hermann Hesse became an apprentice mechanic; work he found so soul-killing that he began studying spiritualism in earnest. After completing his apprenticeship, Mr. Hesse supported himself by working for a series of book stores, and began writing in his free time. His first book, Peter Carmenzind, published in 1904, was so successful that Mr. Hesse was able to live off the proceeds. In that same year, he married Maria Bernoulli and they settled in a small German town on the shores of Lake Constance.

Mrs. Hesse bore three sons while Mr. Hesse continued to write. It was during this time that Mr. Hesse began reading Schopenhauer’s works on Theosophy (religious philosophy and studies of the unknown and unknowable) which were influenced by Buddhism. As his thinking evolved, his marriage fell apart and Mr. Hesse embarked on a spiritual quest to Sri Lanka and Indonesia. While he found no answers to his questions, Hermann Hesse did find inspiration for his writing, and published Rosshalde in 1914.

During the build-up to World War I, Mr. Hesse became troubled by a growing movement of fanatic patriotism in Germany, but voluntarily enlisted in the Imperial Army out of a sense of duty. Due to poor eyesight, he was not allowed to fight and instead was assigned to look after prisoners of war. Shortly thereafter, Mr. Hesse published an essay entitled “O Freunde, nicht diese Töne” (Oh Friends, Not These Tones), decrying the nationalistic patriotism which preached German superiority and hatred of non-Germans. This essay, while important, made Mr. Hesse a pariah; he began receiving hate mail and found himself - unhappily - in the public eye. During the same period, his father died and his wife became schizophrenic. The pressure was too much and Hermann Hesse, himself, suffered a psychiatric breakdown.

Mr. Hesse’s breakdown and institutionalization coincided with the advent of psychology and psychoanalysis, and he became acquainted with Carl Jung, a contemporary of Sigmund Freud. Jung believed that within each human psyche there are echoes of a collective consciousness which make certain symbols universally meaningful and explain common thought patterns across cultures. It is as if each of us is born with memories created by our ancestors which replay in our dreams. Mr. Hesse’s experience with Jungian psychoanalysis enabled his spiritual beliefs and his quest for self-actualization to coalesce. Siddhartha and Steppenwolf, his two most famous books, describe respectively, a spiritual quest and a semi-autobiographical examination of a disintegrated personality. Hermann Hesse found the world of humans to be complex and frustrating and had difficulty making sense of life. While he felt alone in his struggles, his writing reflected the zeitgeist (spirit of the time) which had undercurrents of confusion, depression, and fear. Mr. Hesse believed that enlightenment would change the zeitgeist and thereby enable humanity to advance.

Enlightenment, according to Buddhism, is to be free from greed, hatred, and delusion, and only by achieving enlightenment can one find pure peace and happiness. But what would happen if everyone on earth suddenly achieved enlightenment? Thieves would stop stealing, wars and feuds would cease, and we would accept ourselves as we truly are. We might all join hands and celebrate our collective bliss by chanting “Om”. So far, so good. However, without greed, no one would want to work; without hatred, no one would have passion; and without delusion, there would be no art, literature, or fashion. The world of humans would grind to a halt and we would starve or freeze to death. We would, however, be experiencing a state of bliss. And then what?

There is something very satisfying about the daily struggles we must all endure, whether it is to get a bite of food, to stay warm (or cool), to find comfort, to finish a job, to make something, to sell something or simply get through another day. If we were all perfectly content in our present moment, doing nothing but being, life would be meaningless. And so, we must go on loving/hating, giving/taking, laughing/crying, birthing/dying. As long as we retain our living bodies, we are bound to life on earth and all that entails. What awaits us after death is unknown and unknowable, but most of us believe that how we conduct our lives will send our souls in one direction or another. To reach heaven or to achieve enlightenment requires giving up wealth, comfort, competition, vanity, and social hierarchies. That is a tall order for most of us.

Siddhartha spent a lifetime trying to become enlightened, learning important lessons each step of the way. It was only when he stopped trying and let go of everything that he finally understood the simple, pure beauty of enlightenment. Most of us go through life moment to moment – growing up, having children, trying to grab the brass ring, growing old, and dying. Some of us achieve a degree of wisdom, but most of us live lives “of quiet desperation”. What Hermann Hesse understood and communicated through his most important books, especially Siddhartha, was that in order to improve the “human condition” we need to act collectively to reduce suffering, and that requires that the human species become more enlightened. Whether we can, or will, depends on each and every one of us. Om.

The Last Lecture

The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch

Book review by Teresa Friedlander, copyright 2010

Some kids never grow up. Randy Pausch, who departed this world at age 47, held fast to his ability to find fun in life, even after learning that he was dying of pancreatic cancer. Dr. Pausch was at the height of his career as a professor of computer science and human-computer interaction at Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania. He was married to the woman of his dreams and was father to three small children. While neither rich nor famous, Randy Pausch was successful in all the ways that mattered: he was happy at home and at work, by himself and with others. When physicians delivered his death sentence, Dr. Pausch – a perpetual child at heart – reacted in a very un-childlike manner. He skipped the denial and anger phases of grief and set about creating a legacy for his family which would enable him to remain part of their lives long after he was gone.

Carnegie-Mellon University sponsors an annual lecture by a professor who is considered singular, remarkable, and in demand. The idea behind this lecture series, entitled “Journeys”, was to ask great professors to share vital life lessons, as if this were a last opportunity to do so. In 2007, one year after his diagnosis, Dr. Randy Pausch, delivered his lecture to a standing-room-only audience. He called it “The Last Lecture” and began with a slide show of his diseased liver before dropping down to do push-ups. It was ironic, he said, that he could be so fit and feel so well while cancer was rapidly stealing the life from him. Dr. Pausch wasn’t interested in crying and he didn’t want his audience to cry either. So he made them laugh instead. Following the lecture, which became an overnight sensation, Dr. Pausch wrote a memoir, celebrating the people in his life whom he felt enriched by: his parents, wife, children, friends, colleagues, mentors, students, etc. The result of this rapture is The Last Lecture, co-written by Jeffrey Zaslow of the Wall Street Journal.

The Last Lecture is a delightful 206 pages of how to approach life positively, and can be read in one sitting. It is the kind of book which easily could have been maudlin, morbid, or both. Rather, its purpose is to inspire all of us to retain or re-find our childhood dreams, because it is these dreams which can lead us to a happy and fulfilling life as individuals, and on a larger scale to save humanity from our baser nature. That was the essential message Randy Pausch imparted to his audience. So, what were Randy Pausch’s childhood dreams?

“Men first walked on the moon during the summer of 1969, when I was eight years old. I knew then that pretty much anything was possible. It was as if all of us, all over the world, had been given permission to dream big dreams.”

During a visit to Disneyland in 1969, Randy decided that when he grew up he wanted create experiences that were equally fun and inspiring. A life-long “Trekkie”, young Randy wanted to be Captain Kirk. Most of all, geeky Randy Pausch wanted to be the “coolest guy at the fair”, the one who won the giant stuffed animals. His other dreams included playing in the NFL, being published in the World Book Encyclopedia, and experiencing zero gravity. While, none of these dreams was aimed at saving the world, the point is that whatever your dream is, don’t leave it behind with your childhood toys.

Before succumbing to pancreatic cancer, Dr. Pausch realized all of his childhood dreams, perhaps not in the way he originally envisioned, but in the end that didn’t really matter. Dr. Pausch worked for Disney Imagineering and Electronic Arts, helping to create cutting edge virtual experiences for modern Disney patrons before establishing innovative programs at Carnegie-Mellon; he and William Shatner became friends and communicated frequently; and on numerous occasions he won the giant stuffed animals at many fairs by doggedly keeping his eyes on the prize. He published the definitive entry on virtual reality in the Encyclopedia Britannica. As far as playing in the NFL, shortly after delivering his “last lecture”, the Pittsburgh Steelers invited Dr. Pausch to attend one of their practices. In his lecture, Dr. Pausch had related the most important lesson he had learned as a child from his first football coach: with twenty-two players on the field, and only one touching the ball, the emphasis had to be on the other twenty-one players. That ended up being a parable for how he dealt with his cancer. Rather than letting the cancer drive his life, Dr. Pausch focused on everything and everyone else. He wasted no time feeling sorry for himself because he wanted to enjoy every second of the time he had left.

Whatever your political or religious beliefs, this book will make you feel better about being here, now, in America. We have great differences which politicians and lobbyists exploit (for their own benefit) at the expense of honest, decent, citizens struggling to get through life one day at a time. Reading this book made me remember that wonderful feeling of optimism in our country before President Kennedy was assassinated and the Vietnam War created social and political divisions which have yet to heal. The Last Lecture also reminded me that in spite of that turmoil, visionaries, such as Dr. Martin Luther King, dreamed of a world in which one’s race and ethnicity were facts rather than barriers. Today we have a president whose father was Kenyan and whose wife is the descendent of American slaves. Whether you voted for him or not, President Obama represents a great step forward for our nation in terms of moving beyond the painful legacy of slavery, segregation, and racism. Without one great man saying to one great nation: “I have a dream…” Barack Obama would never have become a senator, Mike Steele would never have been Maryland’s lieutenant governor, and culturally we all be rather boring.

Reading this book reminded me of the poem by Langston Hughes, entitled “Dreams

Hold fast to dreams
For if dreams die
Life is a broken-winged bird
That cannot fly.

Hold fast to dreams
For when dreams go
Life is a barren field
Frozen with snow

I can’t help but think that Randy Pausch read this poem in high school and took it to heart. Without dreams, wishes, and aspirations, he would have quietly died, leaving a widow and three children with little more than Social Security benefits. By dreaming and reaching out, Randy Pausch created an enormous support network for his family, wrote a best-selling book, and inspired countless thousands of people to reorient their priorities.

The Last Lecture reminded me that life is a gift that we should make the most of because we never know when the end will come, and it would be terrible if we left our loved ones wondering how we felt about them. When confronting his demise Dr. Pausch said, "I don't know how not to have fun. I'm dying and I'm having fun. And I'm going to keep having fun every day I have left." Dr. Pausch’s wife, children, friends, and others all knew how he felt about them. Before he died, he cleaned up after himself so his wife wouldn’t have to and wrote lots of thank you notes to people who had done kindnesses to him and his family. Until he drew his last breath, Randy Pausch was loving life. We should all exit so gracefully.
To access Dr. Pausch’s lecture online, visit

Friday, January 15, 2010

Janice Meredith

Janice Meredith by Paul Leicester Ford (1865-1902)

Book review by Teresa Friedlander, copyright 2010

Sometimes a book can be like an old friend, someone you used to know when you were young, someone you rarely think about but when you do, the happy memories come rushing back. Janice Meredith is, for me, such a book. Having read and enjoyed this romantic novel of the Revolutionary War as a teenager, I renewed my acquaintance this past summer through a chance encounter.

While touring colleges in North Carolina, my family stopped in Asheville to see the Biltmore Estate, built by the grandson of railroad magnate, Cornelius Vanderbilt (1794-1877). George Washington Vanderbilt, II (1862-1914), unlike his grandfather had nothing but leisure time and thanks to his father and grandfather had a vast fortune at his disposal. Biltmore, a French-style chateau of roughly 175,000 square feet, situated on 8,000 acres of carefully landscaped North Carolina mountain wilderness, was a monument to the gilded age in America, an era when buildings reflected the stature of their owners and were meant to celebrate mankind’s highest achievements, and therefore required hundreds of skilled craftsmen and builders to construct and maintain them. Aesthetics were of paramount importance and George Vanderbilt was a connoisseur of everything which served a life of beauty, culture, tranquility, and style. He was quite well educated and traveled in literary circles, often inviting artists and writers to stay at Biltmore.

One of George Vanderbilt’s close friends was Paul Leicester Ford, a biographer and historian who also happened to be writing a novel. Mr. Ford spent a period of several weeks in residence at Biltmore while he worked on Janice Meredith, and later wrote to his good friend: “…as I have read the proofs of this book I have found more than once that the pages have faded out of sight and in their stead I have seen Mount Pisgah and the French Broad River, or the ramp and terrace of Biltmore House, just as I saw them when writing the words which served to recall them to me…” Strolling through the gardens, over meadows, across bridges spanning sparkling brooks, a visitor can easily imagine Mr. Ford finding Biltmore the perfect place to work on his most famous book.

As I walked through the rooms of the beautiful Biltmore mansion, listening to the recorded tour guide, I paused in a room with a view of a rolling valley and mountains in the distance. The guide explained that it was in this room that Paul Leicester Ford had written Janice Meredith, causing me to exclaim out loud, “Janice Meredith!” to the great embarrassment of my teenaged daughter. (I hadn’t thought about Janice in at least 20 years, and remembered how my mother, sister, and I had enjoyed reading old books found in antique and junk stores near the summer cottage we owned close to the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland. Of all those books, Janice Meredith was our favorite and we each re-read it several times.) Later, when our Biltmore tour was over, my family left the estate to browse some shops in Asheville. Immediately upon entering a funky junk shop, somewhat off the beaten path, I saw – on top of a stack of old books – a copy of Janice Meredith just as I had remembered her. It was a true new age moment.

As a novel, Janice Meredith has it all: plot, characters, romance, rivalry, intrigue, heroes, villains, battlefields, and family drama. The story takes place shortly after the Continental Congress has declared independence from Great Britain. Janice, the teenaged daughter of one of the King’s landed gentry, is beautiful, headstrong, impulsive, and a bit of a snob. Her suitor, Philemon, is the son of another squire who chafes under the king’s rules, but remains loyal just the same. Philemon and his father, Squire Hennion, are descendents of early New Jersey settlers and are thus pure country folks. They are unpolished and inarticulate, being so far removed from British society, but prominent nonetheless due to their land holdings. Even though the marriage would benefit her family by consolidating the two estates, Janice will not consider it and her father doesn’t force her.

A mysterious indentured servant enters the Meredith household as tensions between Loyalists and Revolutionaries begin playing out in living rooms and marketplaces throughout New England. Even though ragged and unkempt, Charles the servant has a certain magnetism about him which Janice finds irresistible. The feeling is mutual and sparks fly in spite of Janice’s attempts to ignore them out of class awareness. Meanwhile, George Washington, the dashing young general of the Continental Army passes through town. When Janice meets him, she is so carried away that she teeters between loyalty to her family and wanting the handsome and courageous general to win the war.

What is most interesting about this book is Mr. Ford’s understanding of what it was like to be in the middle of a bitter and bloody revolution: there were true believers on either side, but in the middle were people who hedged their bets depending on which army was winning. The Meredith and Hennion families serve to illustrate how complicated relationships became within communities and even families as the winds of war whipped the continent. Supporters of the king tended to have faith that the Royal Army and Navy could easily vanquish the rebels. For the most part, Loyalists had no great love for the motherland but as long as the status quo kept them in power and ensured their economic wellbeing, the so-called Tories fought the agents of change. Even though we know how the war ended, Mr. Ford kept the suspense high throughout the novel with his clear analyses of critical battles and conditions on the ground. Janice Meredith provides a gripping description of how hard won our nation’s independence truly was.

Unlike War and Peace, perhaps the world’s greatest work of historical fiction, Janice Meredith does not go into detail about military strategy and descriptions of battlefields. Rather, this book is fast-paced, even thrilling, in its depictions of some of the early battles of the Revolutionary War. The Continental Army was ill-equipped, under-dressed, and frequently un-fed during the eight years from 1775 until the Treaty of Paris was signed in 1783, and yet they fought on. After securing New England, George Washington led the army south where the war swept through the remaining colonies. In 1778, the French offered naval support of the war effort against the British when it became clear that the colonies’ rebellion had a chance of succeeding. As events transpired and battles were won and lost, Janice and her family stayed informed through correspondence, word of mouth, and messengers. Mr. Ford skillfully wove the sequence of historical events into the story of how a rebellion, fully supported by less than half the population, overcame the British Army and Navy. His novel touched upon the many underlying issues which the new nation would have to grapple with, such as slavery. While Janice Meredith has a happy ending and most of the main characters “let bygones by bygones”, in reality not every American was happy with the outcome of the war. For one thing, the new nation had an overwhelming debt to France. For another, many previously wealthy loyalists, were now personae non gratae at home and abroad. Additionally, there was no guarantee that the now independent American States could form and hold together as a nation. Each former colony was an entity unto itself and was loathe to cede power hard won from the British to a new and untested governing body. The Revolutionary War’s aftermath, however, was beyond the scope of Paul Leicester Ford’s Janice Meredith. His goal was to inform and entertain readers who had time on their hands, not unlike Janice Meredith, herself.

The struggles between Janice and her family are meant to be a parable of the larger theatre of war. In the end, after Janice has matured and gained a degree of wisdom, the victorious (and fictionalized) General Washington tells her father that Janice’s rebellious choice of a husband is analogous to the relationship the United States will have with Great Britain. “You need not fear that the new tie will efface the old one. We have ended the mother country’s rule of us, but ‘tis probable her children will never cease to feel affection for the one who gave them being; and so you will find it with Miss Janice.”

Even though Janice Meredith was written long ago for very different readers than exist today, it has a timeless quality about it. For one thing, it made me think about patriotism and what it means to be a patriot. During the Revolutionary War, a Patriot was a rebel committing acts of treason against the remote, ruling monarchy. The Patriots, guided by the Continental Congress’s formal Declaration of Independence knew precisely what they were fighting for: freedom from a kingdom which demanded much and gave little, until its interests were threatened. The true Patriots never wavered and willingly died in the name of freedom. “Freedom”, a word which today has a lot of subtext associated with it, was simple and tangible during the Revolution. It was about self-determination, not having to pay punitive taxes to a useless king, and being able to enjoy the fruits of one’s labor to the fullest.

Today freedom means many things to many people. The Revolutionaries who gifted us with our Constitution and triad government couldn’t have foreseen the industrial revolution, two world wars, the population topping 300 million, the internet, and ubiquitous sex and drugs. They were, however, far-sighted enough to create a flexible form of government, capable of changing with the times. Our Constitution has endured through all the profound changes in our society and the world at large and still protects our freedom. We can say what we think, we can protest against the government, and we can decide our own spiritual and family values. Moreover, we remain free from military and police abuses, thanks to the rule of law that the separation of powers ensures.

In our present world, freedom, to some, means that men can marry men and women can marry women. To others, freedom means that anyone and everyone can own a gun, no questions asked. Military jets screaming across the sky are called “the sound of freedom”. Freedom means that sometimes criminals get away with murder because the laws which prevent innocent people from being jailed without cause or being imprisoned without a fair trial put the burden of proof on prosecutors. There is no perfect freedom and there never will be because we, the people, are not perfect. Just the same, the United States of America is the best example of a free country the world has yet produced. Life is a lot more complicated now than it was during Janice Meredith’s day, but thanks to the Patriots who sacrificed so much blood and treasure to create a more perfect union, freedom still rings loud and clear.

(This book is long out of print but is available in digital form. Visit for a free download.)