Category Archives: History

Candles, Culture, Faith and Family: A Light Look at Kwanzaa and Hanukkah

By Cindy Schuchardt, Reference Department

A popular holiday song assures us that this is the “most wonderful time of the year” and the “hap-happiest season of all.”1 Many people feel that way because they celebrate Christmas, marking the historical and (Christians believe) blessed virgin birth of the Christ child.  Two other seasonal celebrations, Hanukkah and Kwanzaa, also make this time of the year special for those who practice them. For this reason alone, they merit our recognition and understanding.  While Hanukkah dates back to the second century BCE and Kwanzaa was first practiced in 1966, these celebrations have much in common beyond the double letter combinations in their names – and much to teach us all.

Hanukkah

Hanukkah is an eight-day Jewish festival of lights that began on December 12 this year (2017). The festival commemorates the rededication of the temple in Jerusalem that had been destroyed by the Greek Seleucids.  The Seleucids wanted the people of Israel accept Greek culture and beliefs instead of their own beliefs and religion. The overall theme of the celebration is one of triumph against overwhelming odds. Hanukkah participants now recount the story of how a single day’s worth of olive oil, used to light the Temple’s seven-branched candleholder, miraculously lasted for eight days.

Each night during Hanukkah, a candle is lit on a special candleholder called a menorah. There are nine flames on the menorah – one for each day of the festival and a center flame called the attendant (shamash) that is used to light the other candles.  One candle is lit the first night, two the second night, and so on throughout the festival. The menorah is placed in a window or a doorway; each family has at least one menorah, but some households have a menorah for each person in the home.

Hanukkah is a distinctly religious holiday. Participants sing songs of worship and recite special prayers during the nightly menorah lighting festivities. Menorahs are also lit in Jewish synagogues and in many outdoor public spaces. Hanukkah participants are encouraged to gaze at the lights and think of the lessons they impart.

Food holds a special place in Hanukkah, as well. Fried foods are eaten to remind those present of the miracle of the oil.  Two popular examples are potato pancakes (latkes) and jelly-filled fried donuts (sufganya).

Playing with a dreidel, a four-sided spinning top, is a popular pastime during Hanukkah.  Each side of the dreidel is marked with a Hebrew letter.  The letters used are nungimmelhei and shin, an acronym for nes gadol hayah sham, meaning “a great miracle happened there.”

The giving of gelt (special coins) to children is also part of the tradition.  The idea was to reward children for good behavior and inspire them to learn charity and give to others.  Today, gifts are often exchanged during Hanukkah, as well.

Kwanzaa

Tech. Sgt. Jennifer Myers (above), 66th Air Base Wing noncommissioned officer in charge of the Military Equal Opportunity office, demonstrates a Kwanzaa ritual where she lights a candle in the Kinara.

Kwanzaa is celebrated from December 26 to January 1.  It was founded in 1966 in Los Angeles by Dr. Maulana Karenga, professor of African Studies and activist-scholar. From its important beginnings in the U.S. with African Americans, the holiday has blossomed into recognition by the world African community and is today celebrated on every continent.

Kwanzaa is a celebration of family, community and culture, during which families and community members gather to celebrate Nguzo Saba, which is Swahili for The Seven Principles. Each day marks one of the principles, developed and described by Dr. Karenga as follows:

  1. Unity (Umoja) – To strive for and maintain unity in the family, community, nation and race.
  2. Self Determination (Kujichagulia) – To define ourselves, name ourselves, create for ourselves and speak for ourselves.
  3. Collective Work and Responsibility (Ujima) – To build and maintain our community together and make our brother’s and sister’s problems our problems and to solve them together.
  4. Cooperative Economics (Ujamaa) – To build and maintain our own stores, shops and other businesses, and to profit from them together.
  5. Purpose (Nia) – To make our collective vocation the building and developing of our community in order to restore our people to their original greatness.
  6. Creativity (Kuumba) – To do always as much as we can, in the way we can, in order to leave our community more beautiful and beneficial than we inherited it.
  7. Faith (Imani) – To believe with all our heart in our people, our parents, our teachers, our leaders and the righteousness and victory of our struggle.

    NPS Photo

Families who celebrate Kwanzaa choose a central place in the home to display the Kwanzaa Set.  A table is covered with a colorful African cloth, and then adorned with a mat and a special candle holder called a Kinara.  Seven candles are placed in the holder, one black candle representing the people, three red candles represent their struggles, and three green candles represent the future and the hope the results from such struggles (the African liberation colors).  These candles also correlate with the seven principles.

The black candle in the center signifies Unity and is lit on the first day. The remaining candles are lit from left to right on the following days, showing how a unified people move through struggle to hope. Ears of corn and a Unity Cup are also placed on the mat, which is typically surrounded with books on African life and culture, as well as African works of art.

Different Peoples, Different Celebrations, Shared Light

I find it interesting to consider the common elements in Hanukkah and Kwanzaa: the Kinara and the menorah, the candles and the lighted oil, and the daily family observances. In a world that seems to be increasingly dark, there is something about this season inspires us to slow down and consider the lights. We ponder our shared humanity and our bonds as families and communities. I believe that learning about Kwanzaa and Hanukkah and the heritage of those who mark these events can only serve to bring us closer together. Have a blessed season, everyone!

If you enjoyed this glimpse at Kwanzaa and Hanukkah, then you may want to learn more.  The library can help!  Take a look at some of the resources available. Read the rest of this entry

Advertisements

Jólabókaflóð: The Icelandic Holiday tradition That You’ll Want in Your Life

Beowulf from “A book of myths” (1915)

By Lon Maxwell, Reference Department

Jólabókaflóð, or if you prefer your text free of diacritical marks and disused letters, Jolabokaflod, is a tradition that could only come out of Iceland. Literally it translates to Yule Book Flood.  Icelanders read an average of eight books a year, while Americans end up at about four. They also publish about one title for every two hundred people and there is an average of 775 titles released every Christmas season.  This onslaught of reading material is the flood but it’s only part of the tradition.

The actual beginning of this Christmas ritual doesn’t go back very far, though the Icelandic love of books goes back over a thousand years.  Icelanders have always been lovers of stories and tales, especially on the long winter’s long nights. The Skalds, wandering or court poem singers, were held in some renown and acted as the author/rock stars of their day. It was not uncommon for a Skald to be taken with the plunder of war. They filled the great halls of Viking leaders with songs and tales as, sometimes, nightly entertainment from Russia to Greenland. The famous Eddas (two Medieval Icelandic literary works) also carried poetic myths down through the ages and were memorized and recited by scholar after scholar until recorded by a man named Snorri Sturluson[1] to both preserve and enhance their accessibility. Finally the sagas journeyed from land to land taking tales of Thor and Loki (not just Marvel characters) and Beowulf and even Leif Erikson to the people of Scandinavia.

The modern half of the tradition owes its genesis to the independence of Iceland from Denmark in 1944. Because of the Second World War, many things were rationed. This made giving presents at Christmas hard, unless of course, you took advantage of the long standing love of tales and gave books for Christmas. You see, one thing that was not rationed was paper. The Icelandic people and their publishing houses loved the idea. Beginning in the Forties and running down through today, people have been waiting impatiently for their copy of the Bókatíðindi, the magazine/catalog that comes every fall. This magazine is put together by all the publishing houses in cooperation to showcase all the new titles for that year. This is the Sears and Roebuck Christmas book of Iceland. The difference is that the publishers print, package and ship these catalogs to every household in the Nation…for free. The revenue generated more than outweighs the expense. All of the media, print broadcast and online, have book reviews and publication announcements. It is the event of the year.

So what exactly makes this a Christmas tradition? Everybody gives books at Christmas. Everyone. All of Iceland has their Christmas Eve meal, exchanges gifts and then sits around as a family and reads their new books for the remainder of the day while eating konfect, filled chocolates, and sipping hot chocolate or jólabland, a sweet nonalcoholic malt beverage that is a Christmas favorite. The parties that occur after Christmas will have a lot of book discussions. Newspapers will be covering the best and worst of the books, from writing and plots to covers and titles.

We could all benefit from this, but I certainly don’t endorse replacing all your holiday gifts with books. The great thing about borrowed traditions is that you can adapt them to fit your life. I first ran across this tradition on Christmas Eve two years ago. This was a little short notice for 2015 so I decided that I would try it with my family in 2016. Last year we all drew lots in November and picked a book for the person we drew and everybody go to open their book on Christmas Eve. We then spent the remainder of the evening quietly reading. It was a great way to quiet down kiddos, hyped up on Christmas cookies and the pending visit from Santa. It also solved the “Can’t we have just one present tonight?” problem that parents have faced for years. It’s also a great way to foster a love of reading in your whole family.

We are a nation made of other nations and their traditions. We have German Christmas trees, English carols and eggnog, Spanish luminarias and Irish mistletoe. We are not afraid to adapt great traditions from our ancestors, or even our neighbor’s ancestors. Jólabókaflóð is making its way into American holiday plans. You can find everything from recipes to try and hints at adapting the book flood to fit your holidays to Icelandic chocolates and Jólabókaflóð pyjamas.  So maybe this year while you’re out doing the dreaded holiday shopping, pick up some books for your family and friends and borrow a tradition from our Icelandic friends and have a nice reading time on Christmas Eve.


Sources:

[1] Nancy Marie Brown and many other scholars believe that much of the inspiration for modern favorites The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings and their literary descendants come from the tales of the Vikings.

First and Two Millennia: A History of Football

By Howard Shirley, Teen Department

Across the world there are places with two seasons, one season, and four seasons. But in America there are five—and that fifth season is Football Season! Everything is decked in shades of crimson, gold, yellow and orange… and blue and black and brown and green and maroon and white, because I’m not talking about leaves, I’m talking about the paraphernalia of our favorite teams. Across the nation, people dress football, talk football, write football, watch football, and even sometimes play football. The game is as much a tradition of the season as trick-or-treating, turkey and stuffing, and early Christmas shopping.*

But how did all this come to be? When did we start all the cheering, the celebrating and, yes, the playing?

For that, we have to start halfway around the world and over two millennia ago, with the ancient Greeks and Romans. Back in the days of tunics and togas, a game called phaininda (or harpaston) was all the rage with the Greek culture, and the Romans picked it up as well, changing the name to harpastum (or harpustum; the Romans may have helped invent football, but dictionaries weren’t on their agenda). The game involved two teams, a field divided into two halves, a ball, and copious amounts of pushing, shoving, kicking, and throwing, some of it even involving the ball. And that’s about all we really know of it.

The Roman era writer Atheneaus said this of the sport: “There is a great deal of exertion and labor in a game of ball, and it causes great straining of the neck and shoulders.”

Yep, that sounds like football. Just ask Peyton Manning.

Atheneaus also credited Antiphanes with the following poem describing the game:

“And so he gladly took the ball,
While dodging the other player;
He pushed it out of someone’s way,
While raising another to his feet,
And all around the cries rang out:
“Out of bounds,” “too far”, “right by him”,
“Over his head,” “down below,” “up in the air,”
“Too short”, or “pass back to the scrummage.””

Which shows that football spectators have disagreed with the referees since before there were referees, offering opinions which the players probably even then were wiser to ignore.

From ancient Greece, the Romans carried that game with them, along with roads, aqueducts, armies, and generals who liked to conquer whatever they saw, eventually dropping it off on the island of Britain. And while the Romans left and the Saxons and the Danes and the Normans all came to conquer whatever they also saw in Britain, the game stuck around. Or well, something involving a ball and shoving and kicking and (occasionally) maiming stuck around. We have records of rival villages regularly challenging each other in a contest involving getting a ball to a set goal on opposite sides (sometimes a line, sometimes a post, sometimes the church tower, which was the medieval equivalent of saying “the endzone is Joey’s driveway.”)

Rugby

One chronicler describes an event like this: “After lunch all the youth of the city go out into the fields to take part in a ball game. The students of each school have their own ball; the workers from each city craft are also carrying their balls. Older citizens, fathers, and wealthy citizens come on horseback to watch their juniors competing, and to relive their own youth vicariously: you can see their inner passions aroused as they watch the action and get caught up in the fun being had by the carefree adolescents.”

Which sounds like any given weekend in America from September through November. Including tailgating, only with horses.

The ball game was apparently quite violent, and various kings attempted to ban it. Which banning lasted about as long as the king (and probably less). Eventually, even the monarchs began to enjoy it (Henry VIII is known to have ordered a pair of “football shoes” for his own efforts in the game).

Soccer Player Pele, 1960

Sometime over the next centuries, this “ball game” began to split into two distinctive types. One involved being able to carry, throw and catch the ball, as well as kick it over the goal. The other involved only kicking the ball, with hands not allowed. The former was given the name “rugby football,” or simply “rugby” after the English school which developed it in 1825. The latter was called “football,” or “association football” when in the 1860s, organizations called “associations” began to actually codify the rules (and try to end all the maiming). And yes, the word “soccer” is an abbreviated nickname for “association football.”

At some point the game traveled into America, where it leaned towards rugby or soccer depending on who was playing, but was almost always called “football.”

And that’s when the college students took over.

The first official game of “college football” took place between Rutgers and Princeton in 1869, on the Rutgers commons. The game consisted of a contest between two teams to get a ball between two posts behind each team’s side of the field. The first team to score 6 goals would be the winner of the game. Apparently, the ball could be kicked through this goal, not carried or thrown, but the players could knock the ball out of the air with their hands. The teams took turns starting with the ball (the first turn was decided with a coin toss, possibly the first football opening coin toss on record), keeping it as long as they could prevent the other team from taking it away or until a goal happened. There was no clock, there were no downs, and it sounds more like soccer or rugby than what we know today, but it was, nevertheless, football, and Rutgers won it 6-4.

1895 Auburn vs. Georgia

It wasn’t long before other schools began challenging each other in similar contests, though the game rules seemed somewhat fluid as to what could be done, decided by the teams when they met. In 1874, four colleges set down rules for “Rugby Union,” formally introducing a running game, a touchdown, and a “free kick” afterwards. And that’s when Walter Camp, a Yale student, was invited to join his school’s erstwhile team. In the manner of great walk-ons, he proceeded not only to become the star, but to change the game itself. Camp was supposed to be studying for a career in medicine, but what he became was a doctor of football. Walter Camp almost immediately took over as the leader of the Intercollegiate Football Association rules committee. IFA, formed with Yale’s rival Harvard, was the forerunner of the NCAA and even the NFL, creating precise and specific rules about the game, including the use of an oblong ball. Over the next decade Camp invented the scrimmage line, the rule that one team possessed the ball at a time, the quarterback, the snap, the concept of downs and limited possessions, the idea of lining off the field in white at 5 yard intervals (a “gridiron”), and the idea of different levels of scoring for different types of goals, including the touchdown, field goal, and safety. He also invented tackling, reduced the number of players on each side from 20 (or more) to 11, developed the practice of signaling plays and created pretty much everything we think of as essential to modern American football. He even threw the first forward pass, resulting in a run for a touchdown; the referee ruled the play valid on a coin toss! Ironically, the forward pass was specifically rejected as a legal play by Camp’s rules committee when it was finally discussed in 1903 (some thirty years after Camp’s winning play). Then the committee adopted the pass three years later, in part to deal with accusations (made by President Theodore Roosevelt, among others) that the game had become too dangerous.

Walter Camp

Camp’s football was certainly a different game from rugby, soccer, and ancient haspartum, and it was, essentially, all American. And Camp didn’t just stop with created the game; he created player statistics and the “All-American” ranking of players by quality and performance, paving the way for the modern sports page and the endless arguments of who the GOAT** is. Camp was the first collegiate head coach (for Harvard), the first to train other coaches (including the celebrated Amos Alonzo Stagg), and the first to have an assistant coach with an eye for knowing which player to put in which position—who was none other than his wife, Allie. Walter Camp is honored as the Father of American Football, but Allie Camp was unquestionably the game’s mother, showing that football has been the passion of women as well as men from its very start!

Of course, today we have college football and professional football. The latter rose out of competitions among local athletic clubs (including YMCA clubs). These were amateur events at first, until in 1892 a club paid $500 to “Pudge” Hefflefinger for a single game (a rather tidy little sum). Pudge earned his pay, winning the game with a fumble return for a touchdown. Within a year other clubs began paying their players, almost all workmen who played in their own time off, for about $10 a game. Eventually, these ad hoc professional teams would formalize, giving birth in 1920 to the American Professional Football Association—which would later change its name to the National Football League. By 1925, professional football was popular enough and successful enough that the question of whether the talented Ohio State football star Harold “Red” Grange would “turn pro” was the national news story of the day. Grange’s decision even involved a sports agent negotiating a contract with the Chicago Bears. Grange would earn over $125,000 for his first year on the team, an enormous sum, well over 400 times the income of the average professional player! That’s quite a change from the early days of tossing a pig bladder at a church tower for nothing but bragging rights.

But despite all that has happened over twenty centuries and the span of half a world, the words of an ancient Greek spectator still echo true today:

“A youth I saw was playing ball,
Seventeen years of age and tall;
From Cos he came, and well I know
The Gods look kindly on that spot.
For when he took the, ball or threw it,
So pleased were all of us to view it,
We all cried out; so great his grace,
Such frank good humour in his face,
That every time he spoke or moved,
All felt as if that youth they loved.”

Maybe that’s all there really is to our love for the game: The simple joy of watching young athletes at play in the crisp cool light of an autumn afternoon. Go team!


*Some people do this, I’m told. I’m male, so “early shopping” means the day before Christmas Eve.

** Greatest Of All Time, not a reference to the Navy football team’s mascot, Bill the Goat. Though you can certainly stop the argument by insisting that Bill is the Goat, and no one can say differently.

Sources:

About the author: Howard Shirley grew up rooting for Georgia Tech in Alabama, which prepared him for the trials of being a Vandy fan in Tennessee. Go ‘Dores!

Native American Cuisine

By Lindsay Roseberry, Reference Department

Fall comes around each year, and the air becomes chilled and the leaves change colors, and it’s time to remember November as Native American Heritage Month.  We remember how Squanto, a member of the Pawtuxet tribe, assisted the settlers of Plymouth and how Pocahontas and her father, from the Algonquin tribe, assisted in helping the settlers in Jamestown.  Both were kindnesses of friendship and food that unfortunately later came back to bite them.

Since the history of Native Americans is so broad and diverse, during this month of holiday feasting and heritage, we’ve decided to focus on a brief survey of Native American food and cuisine.  Today, few of the Native American tribes eat the same diets that their ancestors ate, but much of the indigenous foods are now incorporated into the cuisines of almost the entire world.

Starting in the northeast, where contact first began with the English, we’ll work our way across the nation. While there were some common staples and practices, such as corn being a very important dietary staple across most of the nation, the first thing we should realize is that all tribes did not eat the same things or cook the same way.  (Keep in mind though that I am a Caucasian woman, and may get some things wrong.)

The Northeastern tribes staple foods were corn, beans and squash.  These foods were often called the “three sisters” because they were planted together: the beans grew up the tall stalks of the maize, while the squash spread out at the base of the corn and beans which provided protection and support for the roots. They also enjoyed the bounty of wildlife, including deer and turkey, along with other birds.

The Southern tribes were serious farmers, using irrigation and crop rotations.  They ate corn, cornmeal and also hominy— interestingly, you can make hominy by adding ashes to the corn, which helps the corn cook faster, and brings out more nutrients.  And of course, with hominy you can make grits. Other foods that we are still eating today were introduced to us by the tribes in the Southeast:  potatoes, tomatoes, pumpkins, squash and beans.  Their dies was also supplements by wild berries and grapes as well as peppers and sassafras; making teas and ginger like drinks. They were also manily small game hunters (rabbits and turkeys).

On the Great Plains midwestern Native American tribes were mainly hunters and gatherers. These tribes were big game hunters for bison and caribou, and many tribes would work together to capture these large animals. There was limited farming, and many tribes could only grow a couple of crops so they relied on a trade system.

In the Southwest deserts, animals were more scarce.  For meat, they often ate wild turkey, but they mainly relied on their farming.  Of course, one of the most important foods they grew was maize (corn), they even had 24 different types. They also grew beans, squash, melons, pumpkins and fruit.

On the Pacific Coast, Native Americans used salmon and other fish, seafood, mushrooms, berries, and meats such as deer, duck, and rabbit. These tribes were mostly hunter-gatherers. Since the weather as mostly good all year round, they could rely year-round on the abundant foods in the region. In some areas, acorns were ground into flour. These groups, along with almost all tribes, prepared dried or salted meat to last through the winter season.

Most of the foods we eat during the holidays came from Native Americans.  In 1621, the first Thanksgiving recorded that the feast included deer, water fowl, turkeys, shellfish, eels, squash, corn, and beans, and according to one legend, a native American named Quadequina brought a bowl of popcorn.  The traditional Thanksgiving and Christmas foods, including turkey, cranberry sauce, pumpkin pie, baked beans, and mashed potatoes were adopted by us white people.

Grits, cornmeal mush, cornbread, succotash, and fried green tomatoes are all uniquely southern foods that we learned about from Native Americans.  Some people in the South still hunt raccoons, opossums, and squirrels, as did the Native Americans; venison is still eaten throughout North America. And what would life be like maple syrup. Southwestern and Mexican foods were also heavily influenced by Native Americans. The food sharing was so important that there is a term, the Columbian Exchange, which explains the sharing of Native American foods with the while settlers, as well as around the world.  They, on the other hand, got many of our diseases as well as some of our foods and weapons.

Over 4 million people have tried Native American food for the first time.  It’s entertaining and you can also see what a few dishes look like.  The consensus is that the food is good, and people want more.

And now for some recipes, because we can’t talk about native American foods without showing some basic recipes… Read the rest of this entry

Why It’s Important to Remember Martin Luther

By Lance Hickerson, Reference Department

Martin Luther

The library celebrated Halloween Day by creative decorations in every department topped off with offers of candy to patrons young and old throughout the day. With the festive atmosphere, it is easy to overlook the important event of 500 years ago by a young monk named Martin Luther, who started a cultural transformation known as the Protestant Reformation. But just how big a deal was Luther’s courageous act of pinning 95 theses to the Wittenburg Church door? No one, especially Luther himself, foresaw the far reaching results.

Years have since revealed the significance of what some have called Luther’s “accidental revolution.” PBS explained it this way with their documentary on Luther released just last month entitled, “Martin Luther: The Idea that Changed the World:

The year 2017 marks the 500th anniversary of one on the most important events in Western civilization: the birth of an idea that continues to shape the life of every American today.

In 1517, power was in the hands of the few, thought was controlled by the chosen, and common people lived lives without hope. On October 31 of that year, a penniless monk named Martin Luther sparked the revolution that would change everything.

He had no army. In fact, he preached nonviolence so powerfully that — 400 years later — Michael King would change his name to Martin Luther King to show solidarity with the original movement.

This movement, the Protestant Reformation, changed Western culture at its core, sparking the drive toward individualism, freedom of religion, women’s rights, separation of church and state, and even free public education. Without the Reformation, there would have been no pilgrims, no Puritans, and no America in the way we know it.

Luther’s contributions started out in the religious realm but quickly impacted many areas of everyday life. Because of this, even the nonreligious may offer their genuine appreciation. One atheist mentioned to me how glad he was that Luther introduced to the West “the priesthood of all believers,” thereby giving legitimacy and impetus to human individuality. The leveling effect of Luther’s emphasis began to transform society such that the common people, often excluded from important discussions, were able to read primary documents like the Bible, which Luther masterfully translated into the people’s own local language. Luther gave millions of people a voice. There is a sense in which Luther democratized the faith, an impetus that would later on translate into full blown governmental democracy.

Luther’s continuing work soon also abolished the rigid distinction between clergy and laity. This meant that the concept of work as vocation applied to everyone, thereby exalting all types of work as important. Luther explained, “It is pure invention that pope, bishops, priests and monks are to be called the ‘spiritual estate’; princes, lords, artisans and farmers the ‘temporal estate.’ . . . . All Christians are truly of the ‘spiritual estate.’ …. A cobbler, a smith, a farmer, each has the work and office of his trade, and yet they are all alike consecrated priests and bishops, and everyone by means of his own work or office must benefit and serve every other …”

We take for granted many of the innovations set in motion by Luther that presently form western society. It is appropriate that we give Luther this small moment of recognition.

Sources:

ATTN: History Buffs!

by Chelsea Bennett, Reference Department

You probably already know about the huge quantity of great, nonfiction history books at the library. But when you get to wanting something a little different that still scratches that historical itch, where do you turn? I’d like to suggest that Historical Fiction is the genre for you. Whether you’re a voracious reader of historical accounts, or a fiction lover who prefers facts taken with artistic license, this long-established genre is broad enough to hold something for everyone.

Historical Fiction has a few debated definitions, but it is not a work written around the time of the book’s events. For example, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, though now over 200 years old, is not “Historical Fiction,” as it takes place around the time Austen wrote it. (Some critics disagree on that anti-definition.) Wikipedia does a great job of defining the genre in this article, and from it I’ve compiled a working definition for us:

“An essential element of historical fiction is that it is set in the past and pays attention to the manners, social conditions[,] and other details of the period depicted,” and is “written at least fifty years after the events described,” with “the author … writing from research rather than personal experience.”

Why read Historical Fiction? Why mess with facts? (Assuming the facts as we know them were recorded accurately and without bias in the first place.) Simply put, a good work of fiction can illuminate real-life truths. Fiction allows the freedom to process real issues in an abstract way, while maintaining distance from real, multi-faceted, potentially overwhelming events. A work of Historical Fiction can explore the thoughts and emotions of larger-than-life heroes and villains – those who have become so lauded or reviled, they no longer seem human – , and obscure commoners – forgotten by history, but transformed into composite characters who demonstrate the state of the world in the time they lived. For some readers, this is the best way to make an emotional connection to the past and gain fresh insight.

Let’s look at some great examples of historical novels you can find at the Williamson County Public Library. Because I love classics, I’ll list some classic examples first; then we’ll move on to more modern selections.

The Classics

Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities (1859) deals with characters and events in England and France around the time of the French Revolution of 1775. Dickens often included members from all strata of society, but he did not necessarily sketch them in black and white. Wealth did not always equal virtue; poverty did not always equal ignorance; and the powerless did not always stay that way. A Tale of Two Cities features sympathetic characters, diabolical villains, and some of English literature’s most well-known passages. The description of the storming of the Bastille left me breathless with its intensity. In addition to the book, you can find READS eBooks and audiobooks, children’s adaptations, and DVD versions.

Other classic, historical works available in a wide variety of adaptations and formats are Sir Walter Scott’s Rob Roy (set around Scotland’s 1715 Jacobite uprising), James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans (taking place during the 1757 French and Indian War), and Alexandre Dumas’ The Three Musketeers (though we don’t carry the chocolate adaptation of that one at our library – sorry!).

The Middle Ages

A popular setting for Historical Fiction is medieval Europe, which covers the 5th to 15th centuries AD. Series abound, which means plenty of reading material in your new favorite genre! Here are some popular medieval historical series to check out. Series titles are in bold. The first novel in the series follows in italics. While not every book in a series may be available at this library, you can always request books through the Inter-Library Loan program!

  • Paul C. Doherty, Hugh Corbett, Satan in St Mary’s. Sorrowful Mysteries of Brother Athelstan, The Nightingale Gallery (under pen name Paul Harding). Doherty is a highly regarded historian, educator, and writer. He uses various pen names. He has also written about ancient Greece, ancient Egypt, first century Rome, and more.
  • Ken Follett, Kingsbridge, The Pillars of the Earth.
  • Margaret Frazer, Dame Frevisse series, The Novice’s Tale.
  • Philippa Gregory, The Plantagenet and Tudor Novels, The Other Boleyn Girl (first published) or The Lady of the Rivers (first chronologically). Gregory’s popular novels have inspired controversy in historical circles.
  • Michael Jecks, Knights Templar Mysteries, The Last Templar. The Medieval Murders series, The Tainted Relic.
  • Sharon Kay Penman, Welsh Princes, Here Be Dragons. Plantagenet, When Christ and His Saints Slept. When researching for a book, Penman keeps in mind the saying, “History is written by the victors.” She scours new and alternate sources and uses deductive reasoning to come up with versions of events you may not have heard before, but may yet approach the truth.

Selections from Other Periods

  • Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Half of a Yellow Sun — Nigeria’s struggle for independence in the late 1960s.
  • Geraldine Brooks, The Secret Chord — The life of King David from the prophet Nathan’s point of view.
  • Anthony Doerr, All the Light We Cannot See Occupied France during WWII.
  • Emma Donoghue, The Wonder Mid-1800s Ireland, shortly after the official “end” of the famine.
  • Robert Graves, I, Claudius A pseudo-autobiography of misunderstood Roman emperor Claudius.
  • David Liss, The Whiskey Rebels Post-revolution America.
  • Larry McMurtry, Lonesome Dove 1870s Texas: the Wild West.
  • Toni Morrison, Beloved An escaped slave’s memories and experiences after the Civil War.
  • Julie Otsuka, When the Emperor Was Divine A Japanese-American family is held in an internment camp during WWII.
  • Shyam Selvadurai, Cinnamon Gardens 1920s Ceylon (Sri Lanka).
  • Sherri L. Smith, Flygirl A light-skinned African-American woman has to make choices about her identity as she tries to become a pilot in WWII-era America.
  • Markus Zusak, The Book Thief Germany during WWII.

I hope I’ve piqued your interest, or given you some new authors to check out. Is your favorite book missing from this list? Leave a comment below!

Snow White’s Sister, Cinderella’s Eagle and What’s With all the Blood?

By Lon Maxwell, Reference Department

Fairy tales come from many places; mythology, folk legends and even news headlines of the day. Hansel and Gretel may have hearkened back to the great famine of the fourteenth century when parents abandoned children and cannibalistic old ladies were not unheard of. The Pied Piper of Hamelin refers back to the children’s crusade when thousands of children left for the holy land to convert the Muslims. Cinderella has elements from the original King Leir folk tale (evil sisters who steal a throne) mixed with the myth of Rhodopis, a high class escort whose sandal is stolen by an eagle and dropped on a prince’s head causing him to search the kingdom for the owner of the mysterious footwear. Snow White and Rose Red hearkens back to the mythology of animals turning into gods. Snow White and her sister help a bear and an ungrateful dwarf. The dwarf tries to get the bear to eat the girls but is himself killed. The bear turns into a prince and the girls marry him and his brother respectively. Interestingly, in the original German folktales there are two different snow whites; Schneeweißchen has the sister, while Schneewittchen has the dwarves.

Time has removed the darker parts of many fairy tales. Many of the events of early versions of the fairy tales we know and love would be unfit for children (and some adults).

  • In a very early version of Sleeping Beauty by Giambattista Basile the princess is raped by a king and then gives birth to twins that revive her. She tracks down the twins married father only to have his queen try to eat her babies. It’s all happily ever after though, the king has the queen burned alive for her attempted infanticide so he can marry sleeping beauty.
  • The Grimm Version of Snow White is truly grim. The queen isn’t her step mother, it’s her mother. The prince finds her dead and she is woken when he is carting off her body and the poisoned apple falls from her mouth. I don’t care to speculate as to why he is carting off a beautiful, dead girl. Finally as punishment for what she’s done, the queen, who in this version asks the huntsman to bring her Snow’s liver and lungs to eat, is made to wear iron shoes that have been kept in a fire all day and dance until she dies.
  • Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm don’t bother to take out the gory details of Cinderella. Their version has the step-sisters cutting off toes to fit their feet into the slipper, and when Ella is finally proven to be the prince’s one true love, they get their eyes pecked out by doves.
  • In early versions of Little Red Riding Hood, prior to the polish and lightening of the Brothers Grimm, Red is fed bits of her grandmother before being eaten by the wolf. Oh, and there’s no passing woodsman to rescue her so she just gets eaten. She doesn’t learn her lesson, only the reader does.
  • Ariel, not her name in the original Little Mermaid, didn’t always end up with Eric (not his name either). In the original Hans Christian Andersen version, the mermaid was given legs but every movement felt as if swords were impaling her extremities. As she truly loves the prince, she dances, despite the pain, to win his affection, but he marries a princess from the neighboring kingdom.  In one last grasp at gore, the little mermaid’s sisters bring her a knife and tell her to kill the prince and let his blood drip on her feet so that she becomes a mermaid again. She declines and, brokenhearted, dissolves into sea foam. So much for the Disney ending.

According to a study by Durham University anthropologist, Dr. Jamie Tehrani, many of these tales are thousands of years old, going back to before the indo-european langauge family began to split. Tehrani believes that this is why so many of these tales are found in multiple cultures. But Fairy Tales are finding themselves pushed to the foreground once again. Television, film, books, and comics have all revived classic tales with new twists. Disney’s revived princesses are seeing a further recreation into live action movies and their show, Once Upon a Time, has brought these characters into the real-ish world of primetime soap operas. Bill Willingham’s Fables series has done something similar with the characters of our children’s stories living in modern Manhattan and a farm upstate for those less human and more anthropomorphic. New books are written retelling old tales all the time. Anne Rice, writing as A. N. Roquelaure, wrote a series of erotically charged sleeping beauty tales in the mid-1980s with a follow up that came out in 2015. Jasper Fforde turned the nursery rhymes into nursery crimes with his books The Big Over Easy and The Fourth Bear. Neil Gaiman has taken elements of fairy tales and made them even darker. Gregory Maguire’s Wicked went from best-selling novel to Broadway where it joined Into the Woods in modern retelling musical history. All of this shows the endurance these tales have and the future traction for their continued popularity.

Perhaps the most fascinating question of all this is, where our great x8 grandchildren will find their fairytales. Will their parents lull them to sleep with the tales of diminutive people trying to destroy a magic ring? Will their grandparents recall nights listening to the story of the beautiful girl who fell in love with the handsome vampire? Will their dreams be peppered with stories of magical children in a sorcerous school making the world safe for everyone? Histories suggests that they will; that the tales of our modern pop culture will traverse the ages, slightly bent, occasionally warped and find themselves sitting on the nightstands of children for generations to come, probably with some of the darkest parts edited out right next to the copies of Jack the Giant Slayer and Cinderella.

Where Did They Go?: Unsolved Disappearances

By Lon Maxwell, Reference Department

Everyone loves a good mystery. We love to hear the details and questions left. We love to put our brains to the facts and puzzle out what may have been missed. A small part of us hopes (however unlikely it may be)  that we may actually be able to find that crucial overlooked bit, or make that perfect leap that could bring the mystery to an end. It’s one of the reasons the mystery genre has been so popular since Poe created it, through books, radio, film and television. Sometimes though, the mysteries are real, the people have disappeared. I’m not talking about the search for mysterious creatures like big foot or the investigations of odd phenomenon like the Bermuda triangle.  I’m talking about the actual mysteries from the real world that puzzle investigators and theorists every day.

The Lost Persian Army

Painting of a Persian Army in circa 1500AD by Chingiz Mehbaliyev

Some mysteries go back in time, way back in time. For instance, in 524 BCE the emperor of Persia sent an army into Egypt. The emperor, Cambyses II, was attempting to solidify his claim to the throne of Egypt. This meant destroying an oracle and priests of Amun that declined his invitation to legitimize his right to pharaonic glory. To do this he sent 50,000 troops from Thebes in the east of Egypt into the desert. These were Persian soldiers and Egyptian conscripts, men used to the harsh deserts. However not a one of them ever made it to the oasis where the temple was. They had simply vanished into the desert. Theories have abounded to explain their fate for millennia. Herodotus believed they were lost in a sandstorm and the entire army is buried beneath the dunes of Egypt. Most recently an Egyptologist and Professor, Olaf Kaper, has said he believes they were slaughtered by the rival claimant and Cambyses just claimed they were lost to avoid the embarrassment according to some hieroglyphics he has just discovered.

Roanoke

John White discovers the word “CROATOAN” carved at Roanoke’s fort palisade

Let’s jump forward about 2000 years. While we are all at least somewhat familiar with the lost colony of Roanoke, most of us never understand the immensity of it. Sure there were other colonies that failed. The initial attempts at Jamestown collapsed. The Popham colony in Maine thirteen years before the pilgrims also ceased to be. There was even a late 1600s colony near the site of Roanoke on Colleton Island that ceased to exist. These examples have one thing that Roanoke does not. We know what happened to the people. Poor planning, internecine strife and fiscal mismanagement brought those colonies to an end, and we have the records, survivors and graves to prove it. Roanoke has none of this. Here an entire colony just simply vanished from the face of the Earth in the time it took the governor to sail to England and back. Governor White had gone back to England for supplies for the struggling colony and left 115 people, including his granddaughter, and first English child born in the new world, Virginia Dare.  When he returned three years later the colony was deserted. A fence post had the word Croatoan carved into it and a tree had the letters cro. All the buildings had been taken down showing it was not a hasty departure and no new graves were located. The agreed on sign that they were forced to withdraw, a Maltese cross, was not found anywhere. The people had just gone and, despite much trying and many theories, no one has figured out their fate in the intervening five hundred years.

MV Joyita

MV Joyita towed on shore after found drifted 1955 partially submerged and listing heavily to port side

Closer to today we have the case of the MV Joyita. This was a yacht built for a 1930s film director that was found adrift in the south pacific in 1955. But this was no luxury toy, discarded when the next shiny bauble appeared. This boat had gone from luxury yacht to U.S. Navy patrol ship to a charter boat for hauling or fishing. She was sturdy, despite some radio range issues and leaky pipes. She was found listing, but afloat, five weeks after and 600 miles off course from her last planned trip. She was found with the dingy, life rafts, emergency supplies, firearms and crew of twenty-five missing.  Not a person was aboard, which was odd considering the fact that she’d been afloat all that time. Here too you find a lot of theories, from injured captains to attacks by Japanese military personnel that refused to believe the war was over, but no answers.

Apollo Mission Goodwill Displays

Rock fragment (encased in acrylic) from the Apollo 17 mission to the moon. Donated to the State of Illinois along with the state flag, which accompanied the mission

Here we find the theft of an object. Not too irregular, right? Things get stolen all the time. How about when twenty-seven versions of the same thing go missing? Now we have your attention.  After the Apollo program managed to reach the surface of the moon, NASA put together plaques and displays of moon dust and a flag that was carried on an Apollo mission. They were made for all the United States Territories and States and multiple other countries as well as the United Nations as good will gifts by the Nixon administration. Since that time the displays from Brazil, Canada, Cyprus, Honduras, Ireland, Malta, Netherlands, Nicaragua, Norway, Romania, Spain, Sweden, Alaska, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Missouri, Nebraska, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Oregon, and West Virginia have all vanished mysteriously. Several attempts have been made to locate the displays but none have surfaced, not even on the illicit markets catering to less than scrupulous collectors. This is made more suspicious by at least five more thefts of moon materials.

While we like a mystery that ends with a solid resolution, there is something to the unexplained mystery that draws us to seek new answers and solutions. Maybe someone should write and unsolved mystery novel next?

Bizarre Inventions in History (even though they’re useful)

By Lon Maxwell, Reference Department

Since man learned that there were things in the natural world that he could bend and shape to make his life easier, inventors (however primitive they may have been at the start) have sought for new ways to make our lives easier. In some instances these inventions were stumbled across entirely by accident. Others, revolutionary at their time of inception, have become so common place that we rarely even remark on their origin. Yet these inventions and inventors have transfigured our daily life.

Think back to a time when early man began to use fire. Now we didn’t invent fire, it was most likely gathered naturally from lightning strikes and then kept burning in family shelters for up to centuries. Evidence of this can be found in a cave in China where a fire was kept burning for so long it left a bed of ashes twenty-two feet deep[i]. What they invented was a method to make fire on their own. Now, when you light your fire pit, gas oven or even just start your car, you don’t think about the amazingly complex reactions you’re continuing or their inventor. Similarly, many of the everyday inventions we use don’t even occur to us to be special.

Arguably the biggest impact on everyday life in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries comes in the form of the automobile. While steam trains predate the car, they were limited to the areas that their tracks ran leaving those outside the rail service stuck using the same method of transportation we’d been using for 5,000 years, the horse. Now a carriage comes along with nothing to pull it other than the torque provided by a new method of harnessing that fire our ancestors shepherded so carefully. It’s no wonder that some people thought the whole thing a ridiculous fad. Similarly, when we deigned to light our homes for thousands of years we burnt something: oil, wax, fat or natural gas. It is an amazing leap to move to light bulbs, something that just glowed with the application of electricity. The idea that you could just use these metal and glass contraptions that you hooked in to deadly electricity was considered quite dangerous, even by people who were used to lighting volatile natural gas in their lamps.

As you can see these inventions, along with vulcanized rubber, powered flight, assembly lines and telephones, made the turn of the nineteenth century a time when anybody could completely restructure our daily lives with the newest inventions. All of these things we take for granted were harebrained schemes and crazy pipedreams.

While many innovators have pushed the boundaries of our world with a will and determination, some have stumbled across ideas and devices completely by accident.  Things we’re all used to as models of modern engineering were originally flubs, failures and freak accidents.

Take the microwave for instance. Now you get home after a long day at work, too tired to cook and you throw some leftovers in a magic box for a minute or two and it comes out hot and ready to eat (well, except for the middle, that’s still ice cold).  You’d think some scientific genius would have brought this gift of intellect to us, but actually not so much. A man working with an especially strong magnetron to improve radar for the Raytheon Corporation noticed something odd. The gentleman in question was Percy Spencer, a self-taught grammar school dropout who worked hard enough and had enough natural brilliance to go from the paper mills of Maine to developing and producing radar equipment for M.I.T.’s Radiation Laboratory. He noticed that while working with the magnetron, the chocolate in his pocket melted. He wasn’t the first to see this, just the first to investigate why it happened. From this radar experiment he went on to try it on another food source, targeting a direct radar beam on the food produced a result, and now 70 years late countless households reenact his first experiments nightly when they microwaves bags of popcorn.[ii]

Matches were an accident as well. The lighter may seem newer, but it actually predates the match by three years. The new-fangled match was created when an English Pharmacist noticed a buildup of chemicals on his stirring stick. When he attempted to scrape off the offending chemicals, the stick ignited. That must have been a bit of a shock to Mr. Walker, the pharmacist in question. [iii]

By far my favorite happy accident was the Popsicle. Eleven year old Frank Epperson had been mixing a powdered fruit flavored beverage with a wooden stick. He left the drink out on a cold night and it froze. In the morning he warmed the glass and removed the ice block with its wooden stirring stick still frozen inside. By chance he took a lick of the ice and now children everywhere have one of their own to thank for one of the most famous frozen treats. [iv]

Even being at best absent minded, at worst lazy, can lead to one of the greatest inventions of all time. Dr. Alexander Fleming hadn’t cleaned his lab before leaving for his summer holidays. When he came back he found an untidy workspace that included some exposed petri dishes. Some had a strange mold on them that repelled the bacteria around it. After a little tinkering and some concerted mold culturing, Fleming was able to reproduce the accidental experiment, leading to the development of penicillin.[v]

Some inventions come into being like embryos, bearing a slight resemblance to the finished product. There are a great number of these out there that were crazy when they were first proposed, but are now gaining traction.

  • Yves Rossy may have finally perfected the Jet pack we’ve all been waiting for.
  • The Inter auto, a spool to spool map that moved as you drove was like a nascent GPS.
  • The Laryngophone, a means for speaking over telephone lines without use of your mouth has become the modern day throat mics of pilots.
  • Hugo Gernsback once decided to make a wearable pair of small cathode ray tubes to produce a 3D television experience. This concept is finally coming to fruition with google glass and all the VR headgear attachments you can buy for your smart phones.
  • Even the idea of the radio controlled lawn mower is reaching fruition. Who doesn’t want a remotely operated spinning blade moving across your yard? Roomba is readying a yard version of the famous vacuum for market.

The future may hold glorious new devices or more feasible innovations on weird ideas from the past. More unforeseen consequences may lead us to new discoveries. Something you see on the “as seen on TV” shelf may turn out to change the lives of every person on earth. You never know.


[i] The Cartoon History of the Universe Vols. 1-7 By Larry Gonick, 1990  902.07 GON

[ii] https://www.csmonitor.com/Technology/2012/1005/The-20-most-fascinating-accidental-inventions/Microwave-oven

[iii] http://www.historyofmatches.com/matches-history/who-invented-matches/

[iv] http://www.history.com/news/hungry-history/frozen-history-the-story-of-the-popsicle

[v] http://www.pbs.org/newshour/rundown/the-real-story-behind-the-worlds-first-antibiotic/

Billy the Kid vs. Pat Garrett: An Old West Showdown

By Lindsay Roseberry, Reference Department

On July 14, 1881, Billy the Kid was killed by Sheriff Pat Garrett.  Those are the facts, nothing but the facts.  Oh, but the legends on these two and how they are linked forever in history makes this killing as important as the OK Corral in the annals of history.

Billy the Kid

So, who exactly was Billy the Kid?  History gives him several names: probably born as Henry McCarty, and took the aliases Henry Antrim and William H. Bonney.  Information is sketchy about his early years: it is known that he was born in New York City in to a poor Irish family.  Not much is known about his early years but he ended up in New Mexico Territory in 1873.  Again, not much is known about him at this time, but 4 years later he arrived in Lincoln County, New Mexico.  This is where he makes history, mostly of the notorious type.

Lincoln County had just been established and was divided between two factions of cattlemen, the John Tunstall/ Alexander McSween side and the James Dolan faction, allied with the county sheriff William Brady.  William Bonney (Billy the Kid) joined the Tunstall side, which was ultimately the losing side as well.  Each faction had enforcers (gunfighters and criminals).  Tunstall was murdered and in revenge, his men, “the regulators”,  killed the sheriff.  That brought on what came to be called the Lincoln County War, a five day gunfight and siege battle.  The regulators were surrounded, McSween was murdered and the Tunstall men that were able to escape scattered.   Billy the Kid was on the run for two years before being captured by Pat Garret the first time.  The Kid was tried, convicted and incarcerated.  He escaped from jail, after shooting both guards, and rode off into the sunset—for a while.

Pat Garrett

And Pat Garrett??  More is known about him (there usually is for lawmen).  He was born in Alabama in 1850, but the family moved to Louisiana in 1853, and lost everything after the Civil War.   In 1869, he headed west, resurfacing in 1876 as a buffalo hunter.  As the buffalo disappeared, he headed to New Mexico territory.  He became a ranch hand for Pete Maxwell, married and had children.  Pat Garrett was sworn in as the new sheriff of Lincoln County in 1880 with the understanding that he would clean up Lincoln County.  Several times he almost caught Billy, but each time he slipped away or Garrett was given the wrong information.  He finally caught him, arrested him and put him in jail.  Garrett was away from jail when the Kid escaped.  Eight months later, Garrett found out that Billy was staying with Pete Maxwell, at his ranch.  He came at night, and shot and killed Billy the Kid.

Almost immediately, Billy the Kid became a folk legend, which in turn mage Garrett seem an assassin.  Garrett wrote a book about tracking and killing Billy.  It didn’t sell well, but has become quite the collectible.  The book was later found to be full of errors and imaginative tales.  It was ghost written by a friend of Garrett.  Pat did not run for sheriff again, but moved with his family to Texas and briefly became a Texas Ranger.  He returned after a year or so to Roswell, New Mexico where his ranch was.  He had several businesses that never prospered and moved back to Texas in 1892.  In 1896, he returned to New Mexico where he was appointed sheriff of Dona Ana County.  He was nominated by President Teddy Roosevelt as customs officer in El Paso, and confirmed by the Senate.  He burned his bridges with Roosevelt and was in deep debt the rest of his life.  He also was highly disliked for killing Billy, as the Kid had become a folk hero.  He was shot in the back as he was going from his ranch into town.  His murder was never solved.

Dick Brewer, Billy the Kid, and the Regulators by John Hacker, and Andy Thomas

As time passed, some people started the rumor that Pat Garrett either shot somebody else and claimed it was Billy or helped him fake his death.  Someone even claimed to be Billy in the 1940s.  Even so, historical records show that Billy’s body was identified by several different people—most generally agree that Pat Garrett got the right man—Billy the Kid.

Interesting Facts:

  • Billy the Kid was involved in at least nine murders.  He was said to have committed as many murders as he had years—he was killed at age 21.  (He may have been his own best publicist.)
  • Over 50 movies have told this famous historical event.  He worked on his reputation before his death, and afterward his legend only grew.  The first movie was the silent film in 1911, entitled Billy the Kid.  Other stars who played him on the silver screen have been Paul Newman, Val Kilmer and Emilio Estevez (in Young Guns, which we have in our collection.)
  • When Bill Richardson was governor of New Mexico, Billy the Kid found another champion.  Richardson was a New Mexico history buff and was publicly thinking about pardoning William Bonney posthumously.  Before Billy the Kid died, he appealed to then governor, Lew Wallace (who while in office wrote Ben Hur!) for a pardon for his role in the Lincoln County Wars.  Wallace agreed, but the pardon was never given to him because he was killed.  So when Richardson was thinking about this pardon, he churned up old history.  The descendants of Pat Garrett started a petition to stop the pardon from going ahead.   Bill Richardson is no longer governor of New Mexico, so this pardon will never happen, but it just goes to show that the past is not that far away.

Read the rest of this entry

%d bloggers like this: