Wednesday, October 31, 2012
October Book Reports
1. Over the Edge of the World: Magellan's Terrifying Circumnavigation of the Globe by Laurence Bergreen
Maybe it's just me, but I feel like the name "Magellan" is one that we grow up hearing and we think we know who he is and what he did. After reading this book, I realized I know NOTHING. I didn't know Magellan was Portuguese and that he defected to Spain because the king of Portugal kept refusing his bid to take an armada to the Spice Islands. THE SPICE ISLANDS, you guys! A bag of cloves would set up a Spanish or Portuguese family for life! The same stuff we put in our holiday hams. I have a little jar of them in my cupboard in my very own kitchen. No big deal. But back in 1521, men were dying all the time in their quest to find a way to the Spice Islands to get cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, etc. Amazing.
I'm probably going to use that word a lot in the next few paragraphs... Because this story is AMAZING. Magellan was the Captain General of the Armada de Molucca. There were all kinds of underhanded things going on before, during, and after this voyage. The young (like, teenager, young) King Charles of Spain agreed to financing (not himself since he was in serious debt) Magellan's voyage to find the Spice Islands through a water route going west and claim them for Spain before Portugal did. Portugal hated Magellan. So really, why was Magellan convinced there WAS a strait somewhere in South America? They had no maps! No one had ever done it! People believed the ocean boiled at the equator! COME ON! The world was ruled by superstition because there was too much they didn't know. So, that was one of the things that amazed me - Magellan didn't think he was going to sail off the edge of the world, he believed there was a strait somewhere in South America and he was going to find it. Before you go admiring him too much, he also killed a lot of people (and left one mutinous captain and priest on an island in South America) and thought he was on God's errand. Maybe he was?
Ah! There is too much. I don't know why I was so into this book. Brian came to dread me quoting from the book because it was always something totally disgusting. (They ate penguins. Cooked them and ate them.) If you ever thought a life at sea in the 1500s was your calling, consider this, they had to sit in a potty attached to the side of the boat for Number Twos. Then they wiped with a cloth covered rope. NEVER. NOT EVER. Also, this was before hammocks, so they had to sleep on the floor of the ship. Which is not sleeping. The smells on those ships alone would kill me before we ever went anywhere. There were mutinies all the time and most of the other captains hated Magellan. But! Magellan was a good Captain General because he could make decisions. And he was meticulous about keeping the boats clean and repaired. (His flagship, Trinidad, fell apart AFTER it was loaded with spices. Dumb, dumb, dumb.) Because of Magellan's expert navigating, they were able to wind their way through that crazy strait and cross the insanely huge Pacific Ocean (which they thought was about half the size it actually is).
Over the Edge of the World was an amazing adventure. AMAZING. Okay, I'm done using that word. No more exclamation points either.
The Heretic's Daughter: A Novel by Kathleen Kent
What better way to gear up for Halloween than by reading about the Salem Witch Trials, which took place in (surprise) Salem, Massachusetts, in 1691-1692. I have a morbid fascination with the the Salem Witch Trials. It blows my mind that some hysterical teenage mean girls with grudges against certain neighbors could convince so many people that they were tormented by witches. It was a time when superstition ruled the day. If they couldn't explain it, it had to be the devil. Some of the women who were accused of witchcraft were blamed for killing people by using small pox. The disease, not the gun. Wait...
So! The Heretic's Daughter is all about one of the accused witches, Martha Carrier, through the eyes of her daughter, Sarah. Martha Carrier is a real person who really did stand "trial" for witchcraft and who really was put to death because she wouldn't admit to being a witch. Martha is an intuitive woman, "Often without a word she would straighten her cap and smooth her apron and stand looking down the empty road that led to our house. And before long some neighbor or journeyman would appear at the yard and be surprised to find Goodwife Carrier standing at the door waiting for him." She also possesses common sense instead of fearful superstition. Martha warns a neighbor that their cow needs to be tied up properly or it will end up dead. Of course the cow isn't taken care of and does end up dead. Equals Goody Carrier is a witch. Because she cursed the cow, of course!
Kathleen Kent is a direct descendent of Martha Carrier. Her research and feeling for the subject made for great reading. Kent spent a lot of time describing the prison conditions for the men and women and CHILDREN who were kept there before, during, and after their trials. And their trials! What a joke. The accusers (who, in Martha's case, had never even seen the woman they were accusing of flying through the air on a pole and tormenting them) stood in a box near the proceedings and when the witch came forward, the girls would scream and pretend to have fits. The judges would call for a "touch test" because once the tormented person touched the witch who bedeviled them, they would immediately calm down. Solid proof. If the person refused to admit their witchcraft, they were taken into another room to think things over, while being tortured. They did this to children!
This book was super disturbing to me. I think I would have been accused of witchcraft back in the day, what with being sassy and all that. About the last third of the book took place in the miserable prison. It was good because it really put me there, but I wanted more about what happened afterward to the girls who caused the suffering of so many and the deaths of so many. And the families of those who were hanged for being witches. (They wouldn't allow the witches who were condemned to die to empty the slop buckets in the prisons because if they went outside they would fly away. So many of their theories about what witches could do and how to stop them were so completely ridiculous that it was almost funny.) I believe the trials would have stopped much sooner if word traveled faster than molasses in the 1690s. Once people who weren't in the grip of so much fear and fanaticism heard what was happening in Salem, the trials ended and prisoners were sent home. Their homes had been ransacked and they were basically ruined financially because their crops had been neglected, but hey! Turns out you're not a witch, so cheers!
One of my favorite things about The Heretic's Daughter is the way Sarah's perspective changed. She started out hating her mother and wishing she was more demonstrative and affectionate. Martha rolled her eyes about going to church and had a very sharp tongue, which Sarah also wished away. (The ministers in these small villages were often heavily involved in the witchcraft trials. Lots of doom and destruction preached from the pulpit. "DEATH COMES UNEXPECTEDLY!") By the time Martha Carrier was carted off to be hanged, she and Sarah had created a bond and love that helped Sarah see the world for what it was and people for who they were.
3. The Secrets of Mary Bowser by Lois Laveen
I listened to The Secrets of Mary Bowser on my iPod, performed (not just read) by Robin Miles. If I had read it myself I don't know if I would have made it through. It's over 450 pages in book form and my frustration with build up and no pay off with this book would surely have made me put it down. It is the fictionalized (how about that - three historical fictions this month) account of Mary Bowser, a Virginia slave turned spy for the Union Army and Lincoln. Sounds riveting, right?
Laveen's research is top-notch. She describes everyone's life so well that I could truly sympathize with many of the characters. Mary Bowser grows up under her mother's care in a large Richmond, Virginia, mansion as a slave to the Van Lew family. Bette (Elizabeth) Van Lew, the oldest daughter in the family, is an abolitionist who likes to toot her own horn. When Mary's mother, Millie, and Bette notice that Mary has a photographic memory and a gift for learning, they conspire together (but for very different reasons) to have Mary attend school in Philadelphia. When Bette inherits the slaves at the age of 32, she sets them free. Great news! Except where are they supposed to work and live and etc.? Millie decides to go on pretending she's a slave so she won't get kicked out of Virginia after a year and she stays living in Richmond with her husband, who is also a slave. Bette sets Mary up at a school in Philadelphia for the next several years.
There were plenty of thought-provoking situations - the black people in Philadelphia were free, but they never knew when they'd be kicked out of a store because the owner was prejudiced against them. In Richmond, blacks knew where they could and could not go. Bette and Mary's relationship was always interesting. Mary resented Bette, but needed her and sort of admired her moxie. (During the Civil War, Bette pretended to be crazy so people would leave her alone and she could get food and information to Union troops.) Bette seems oblivious to the actual trials that Mary and her family go through even though she is abolitionist to the core. And really, Robin Miles's reading was outstanding. The voices she did for each character were so remarkably different that I once checked to see if more than one person was reading. She did a Scottish accent perfectly! And it was a man! And it sounded like a man! She brought that world to life for sure.
Mary comes back to Richmond just before the Civil War starts and eventually ends up pretending to be a slave in the Gray House for Confederate President Jefferson Davis. She sees his correspondences, hears conversations, comes home at night and writes them into a code and gets them to Bette Van Lew, who then takes them to her contact in the Union Army. Somehow, that process was so boring to me. A dozen or more times Mary looks like she's in danger, but she isn't. Laveen was great at creating a place and personalities, but there was never any tension. I didn't think I needed that to enjoy a book, but I was expecting more with the subject matter. The Secrets of Mary Bowser was enjoyable thanks to Robin Miles, but only okay.