Mayflower by Nathaniel Philbrick

Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War by Nathaniel Philbrick (published by Penguin 2007) is about far more than the arrival of the “pious” pilgrims in the New World in a ship named Mayflower. Rather, Philbrick’s tome delves deep in the history of the Plymouth Colony. The facts shared seem to be essential in understanding both the first years of cooperation with the natives (natives with names familiar to many, such as Squanto, Massasoit, and so forth) as well as the more unfamiliar subsequent conflicts as a part of King Philip’s War, which left the land mostly stripped of it’s native population, due to war deaths, enslavement from the English settlers, and land purchase from the settlers. Philbrick writes an engaging story that brought the tragedy of dissolving friendship and cooperation alive for me, four hundred years after it happened.Continue Reading

Night by Elie Wiesel

Eliezer Wiesel was a deeply observant 13-year-old Jewish boy when Moishe the Beadle came to his town with descriptions of the horrors of the war, where Jewish men, women, and children were buried in graves they had themselves dug. No one in Eliezer’s town of Sighet in Hungary believed this was happening. It only a year later, in 1944, when Hungary was overrun by the Germany army, that the Jews began to worry. As their rights begin to be taken away, the community gets restless. They are even excited when they hear they will be transported out of the city, because that means something will be different for them!

Night by Elie Wiesel (published in French 1958/English 1960, audio recorded by Jeffrey Rosenblatt) is Elie’s poignant and personal reflection on his experience: being forced into a cattle car, entering Auschwitz, working in Buchenwald labor camp, and watching friends and loved ones die even as he lost his own will to live. Although Wiesel’s gorgeous prose is well deserving of the Nobel Prize in Literature, it is his story of shattered faith in God, frustrated dreams as a teenager, and loss of belief in the humanity of his fellow men that really make Night a classic. Did people really do this to other people?

The horrors of the event known as the Holocaust as simply unbelievable. It is nearly impossible for me to comprehend the horrors that one people forced on another, and so reading accounts such as Wiesel’s are all the more important. A common theme in Night was, obviously, the darkening of hope and the darkness that enters Wiesel’s soul, never to leave him. When one experiences what he experiences, life will never be the same. Contrasting with the image of night that is so prevalent in his memoir is the image of fire: children burning, bellies suffering from hunger, and hatred growing in his soul. A young idealistic boy was left behind and what remained was a man without faith in the good of humanity and the love of God.

I listened to an audio recording of the book, and I think this made Elie Wiesel’s account all the more powerful. Wiesel’s story was less than four hours of narration (120 pages in hard copy) but nothing was missing.

His story is one I hope never to forget. I was in awe of the strength of the human spirit to survive at the same time I was horrified by the evil of others.  Although other stories of German concentration camps may be more hopeful about humanity (The Hiding Place by Corrie ten Boom, for example), Night is an important and classic memoir that should be read.

Wiesel originally wrote this memoir in Yiddish, titling it And the World Remained Silent. In his new preface to the edition translated by his wife (2006), he says, ” I don’t know how I survived.” I don’t know either. I will forever be in awe of the power of the human spirit to overcome horrors, and I will remain horrified myself by the fact that humans could do this to each other in the first place.

The Maid and the Queen: A Secret History of Joan of Arc by Nancy Goldstone

I really enjoyed reading Shakespeare’s Henry VI part 1 in January, mostly because it include Joan of Arc and mentioned Margaret of Anjou, who married Henry VI. Joan of Arc has fascinated me since I dressed up as Joan for my sixth grade Medieval feast, and Margaret of Anjou is an ancestor of mine. Shakespeare’s version obviously portrays the War of the Roses from England’s perspective, and it fails to give depth to the internal struggles of France during this era. Obviously, it’s fiction, but I became intrigued by the era as I read Shakespeare.

To my delight, this spring Netgalley provided me with a review copy of a new biography about Joan of Arc and others in her era. The Maid and the Queen by Nancy Goldstone (March 2012, Viking) is subtitled “A Secret History of Joan of Arc,” but this subtitle fails to encompass the scope of the book. Because much is unknown about Joan, her unique story and her impact on French history is only understood by considering the French political situation, the locale in which she lived, and the political leaders who supported her, thereby enabling a poor peasant (albeit one who spoke with angels) to rise to power in the French military.

Interestingly, Ms Goldstone begins by discussing the romantic legends prevalent in the era, particularly the story of Melusine. Ms Goldstone argues that because of these superstitious traditions and folkloric legends, when a peasant woman named Joan claimed to speak with angels and declared she could bring military victory to France, local leaders listened to her, considering her the fulfillment of prophecy.

Yolande of Aragon is the queen of the title, the mother-in-law to the dauphin of France, the man who would become Charles VII after the English were driven out of France. One of her other children, Rene, was also an influential leader of the era; his daughter Margaret of Anjou became queen of England when she married the young Henry VI1. Because Yolande was widowed at a young age, she and not her husband wielded power among the royal leaders of the era. She was directly influential in helping Charles VII regain his throne at the end of the Hundred Years’ war.

I was not at all familiar with the history of the Hundred Years’ War. Occasionally, I felt a little lost as to the unfolding events, especially if I set the book aside for a few days. But in general, Ms Goldstone’s book was written for the general reader who is not a historian. I enjoyed the complicated account of an insane French king (Charles VI) and the drama of the opposing political leaders. Although I can’t say I will certainly remember all the details, because of the breadth of the book, I feel I now better understand France in this era, and I look forward to following up with a more general history of the Middle Ages.

In sum, I found The Maid and the Queen to be a nice follow up to the obviously fictional Henry VI part 1 by Shakespeare. It helps that it also is about my ancestors, Yolande of Aragon, Rene of Bar, and Margaret of Anjou, as well as about the intriguing and unknown Joan of Arc. These are subjects I want to learn more about, and this book certainly piqued my interest further.

Note: I read a digital copy via netgalley.com from the publisher for review consideration

  1. Her influence on that marriage caused the territory conquered in France to be lost to the English and restored to France. She is my ancestor on my father’s side.

Sleepwalking Land by Mia Couto

Sleepwalking Land by Mia Couto1 blends two stories of seeking for one’s identity in the midst of war-torn Mozambique. In the first, an old man and a young orphaned boy have fled a refugee camp and seek shelter in a burned-out bus on the side of the road. Near a corpse, they find a set of journals written by Kindzu. These journals, which tell Kindzu’s story, form the bulk of the novel by portraying life during the Civil War2 in a fantastical magical realism setting.

I tend to enjoy reading magical realism because it mixes fantasy in to seemingly realistic settings and gives a story a very different feel3. In Sleepwalking Land, that not-straight forward feeling was perfect in providing me, a reader unfamiliar with both Mozambican history and life during a civil war, with a dream-like introduction to life in a confusing political and violent setting. I struggled to understand the reasons behind various violence and betrayals, and yet I realized that understand the context absolutely did not matter: Couto’s book instead illustrated how life (such as it was) continued for the people in the land, and the confused tone of what was real or not provided a perfect atmosphere for the hopelessness of the era.
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  1. First published in 1992 in Portuguese as Terra Sonâmbula; translated by David Brookshaw and published in English in 2006.
  2. According to Wikipedia, the Mozambique Civil War lasted from 1977 (upon freedom from colonialism) until about 1992)
  3. I must point out, however, that as in most magical realism, there is a fair amount of sexuality in this book. I personally didn’t find it very tastefully written this time…