Category Archives: historical

Tales From Big Spirit (Series) by David Alexander Robertson

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I have been a fan of David Alexander Robertson since I read his 7 Generations graphic novel series a few years ago. Recently I stumbled upon his graphic novel series for a younger audience called “Tales from Big Spirit”. Each book is about a prominent First Nations person from history and teaches the reader about their contributions using beautifully drawn graphics (there are a few different illustrators for the series). Although intended for children, I as an adult really enjoyed reading the books and learned a few new things.

The first title I read was “The Peacemaker- Thanadelathur” (illustrated by Wai Tien). This book teaches the reader about Thanadelathur, a remarkable Dene woman who helped make peace between the Cree and Dene peoples in the 1700s. She was originally captured by some Cree people, and managed to escape after the winter had passed. Nearly starving in the process, she was discovered by some geese hunters from the Hudson’s Bay Company and she agreed to become an interpreter for the Hudson’s Bay Company to establish trade agreements. After some difficulty, she proved the be successful, and Thanadelathur is still remembered today through oral tradition and the Hudson Bay Company’s records (quite a rarity for a First Nations woman at that time!)

Second was “The Poet-Pauline Johnson” (illustrated by Scott B. Henderson). This book introduces Pauline Johnson, a Mohawk poet who was quite famous for her poetry reciting, especially “A Cry from an Indian Wife” which told of the Battle of Cut Knife during the Riel Rebellion. Being half European and half Mohawk, she worked towards reconciliation towards those groups of people, and her works have been honored by different groups yesterday and today.

Third was “The Ballad of Nancy April- Shawnadithit” (illustrated by Scott B. Henderson) which tells about the extinction of the Beothuk people in Newfoundland in the 19th century. They became instinct due to various reasons, including loss of food sources due to competition with other groups in the area, death due to European diseases (especially tuberculosis), and violent encounters from other groups. Shawnadithit was the last known full-blooded Beothuk person until her death in 1829, and because of her, some history of the Beothuk people survive today.

Last was “The Scout-Tommy Prince” (illustrated by Scott B. Henderson). This installment teaches about Sgt. Tommy Prince, the most decorated First Nations Soldier in Canada, who served in both World War II and the Korean War. As a young man, he spent a lot of time outdoors hunting and doing other skills, and he joined the army cadets when he was a teenager. Despite facing discrimination, he applied for recruitment several times until he was accepted in 1940. He volunteered to the parachute unit, being one of few who passed training. Later on he did many dangerous tasks; including scoping out and reporting on German assembly points (he laid a 1,400 meter long telephone wire and attached it to a phone in an abandoned farmhouse to do so!). After the wars, he became known once again for saving a man from drowning in Winnipeg. Since his passing, many schools and awards have been named after Prince to honor him.

In total, this has been a wonderful group of graphic novels that taught me a bit of Canadian History. Pauline Johnson’s writings are officially on my to-read list, and I have done further readings on the other individuals.  I truly recommend this collection for those young and old. These titles are available by Interlibrary Loan.

 

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Interview with Ruta Sepetys

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Photo of Ruta Sepetys by by Magda Starowieyska

Photo by Magda Starowieyska

Ruta Sepetys is the New York Times bestselling author of Between Shades of Gray, Out of the Easy, and Salt to the Sea. Born and raised in Michigan, she grew up in a family of artists, readers, and music lovers. She currently lives in a treehouse in the hills of Tennessee. You can find her online at rutasepetys.com.

Shauna Kosoris: What inspired your newest book, Salt to the Sea?

Ruta Sepetys: My father’s cousin was involved in the refugee evacuation of East Prussia and was granted passage on the Wilhelm Gustloff. By a twist of fate, she did not board the ship the day it sailed. She shared the story with me and that inspired me to write about it.

How fortunate! Your novels are all historical fiction; how much time do you typically spend on research for them?

I typically spend three years researching each novel. I know it seems like a very long time, but it goes so quickly!

What was the most interesting fact you discovered while researching the Wilhelm Gustloff?

There were so many interesting and surprising things I discovered, but one that stays with me is that it’s estimated that during World War II, over 25,000 people lost their lives in the Baltic Sea.

Wow! On your website, you say that while researching your books, you interview people who have experienced the event you’re writing about, then you combine their stories into one character.  Have you always used this method to make your characters?  

Yes, I generally interview and research the background of dozens of people and then weave elements of all of them into one character. That allows me to represent a larger human experience.

Are any of the characters in Salt to the Sea based off of real people, or are they all amalgamations of people you have interviewed?

The main character of Joana was partially inspired by the story of a Lithuanian nurse who fled during the evacuation, but then I quilted together elements from several other witnesses as well.

All three of your books are set between 1940-1950.  Why does that decade appeal to you?

I’m drawn to stories of strength through struggle and the journey of finding meaning through hardship. The war and post war period are full of experiences of hope, courage, love, and loss.

So what are you working on next?

I’m currently working on a novel set in 1957 Madrid, during the dictatorship of Francisco Franco in Spain.

Good luck with that!  Let’s finish up with a few quick questions about reading. What book or author inspired you to write?

There were many authors and many books, but as a young child I was incredibly inspired by the work of Roald Dahl. His books are so full of creativity and imagination, of innocent young people at the mercy of unsavory adults. I still cherish my copy of James and the Giant Peach.

Is there a book or author that you think everyone should read?

I love Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl. It reminds us that even if suffering is unavoidable, we alone choose how we cope with our suffering.

What are you currently reading?

I’m currently reading research materials for my new book, so I’m reading Interrogating Francoism by Helen Graham. Once I’m finished with research, I can’t wait to read Vincent and Theo: The Van Gogh Brothers by Deborah Heiligman.

 

Salt to the Sea cover

Interview with Amor Towles

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author picture of Amor TowlesAmor Towles was born and raised in the Boston area. He graduated from Yale University and received an MA in English from Stanford University. An investment professional for more than twenty years, he now devotes himself full time to writing. His first novel, Rules of Civility, was a New York Times bestseller in both hardcover and paperback. Towles lives in Manhattan with his wife and two children. You can find him online at amortowles.com.

Shauna Kosoris: What inspired your newest novel, A Gentleman in Moscow?

Amor Towles: Over the two decades that I was in the investment business, I travelled a good deal for my firm. Every year, I would spend weeks at a time in the hotels of distant cities meeting with clients and prospects. In 2009, while arriving at my hotel in Geneva (for the eighth year in a row), I recognized some of the people lingering in the lobby from the year before. It was as if they had never left. Upstairs in my room, I began playing with the idea of a novel in which a man is stuck in a grand hotel. Thinking that he should be there by force, rather than by choice, my mind immediately leapt to Russia—where house arrest has existed since the time of the Tsars. In the next few days, I sketched out most of the key events of A Gentleman in Moscow; over the next few years, I built a detailed outline; then in 2013, I retired from my day job and began writing the book.

A Gentleman in Moscow seems rich in historic details, particularly concerning the Metropol Hotel. What sort of research did you do for the book?

Rather than pursuing research driven projects, I like to write from areas of existing fascination. Even as a young man, I was a fan of the 1920s and 1930s, eagerly reading the novels, watching the movies, and listening to the music of the era. I used this deep-seated familiarity as the foundation for inventing my version of 1938 New York in Rules of Civility. Similarly, I chose to write A Gentleman in Moscow because of my longstanding fascination with Russian literature, culture, and history. Most of the texture of the novel springs from the marriage of my imagination with that interest. For both novels, once I had finished the first draft, I did some applied research in order to fine tune details. In the case of A Gentleman in Moscow, I gathered firsthand accounts of life in the Metropol from an array of prominent people including John Steinbeck, E. E. Cummings, and Lillian Hellman. You can survey these accounts at amortowles.com.

Having researched all of these firsthand accounts, are any of the characters in the novel based on real people?

None of the novel’s central characters are based on historical figures, or on people that I have known. That said, I have pick-pocketed my own life for loose change to include in the book such as these three examples:

The thimble game that the Count plays with Sofia was from my childhood. My great grandmother was a Boston Brahmin who lived until she was a hundred in a stately house. When my cousins and I visited her (in our little blue blazers), she would welcome us into her sitting room. After the appropriate amount of polite conversation, she would inform us that she had hidden several thimbles in the room and that whoever found one would receive a dollar—prompting a good deal of scurrying about.

When I was a boy of ten, I threw a bottle with a note into the Atlantic Ocean near summer’s end. When we got home a few weeks later there was a letter waiting for me on New York Times stationery. It turned out that my bottle had been found by Harrison Salisbury, a managing editor of the Times and the creator of its Op-Ed page. He and I ended up corresponding for many years, and I eventually met him on my first visit to New York when I was seventeen. It so happens that Salisbury was the Moscow bureau chief for the Times from 1949 to 1954. A few colorful details in A Gentleman in Moscow spring from his memoirs; he also makes a cameo late in the novel, and it is his fedora and trench coat that the Count steals to mask his escape.

Finally, the scene in which the tempestuous Anna Urbanova refuses to pick up her clothes, throws them out the window into the street, and then sheepishly sneaks out in the middle of the night to retrieve them, was a scene that played out between my parents shortly after their marriage. Although, it was my mother who wouldn’t pick up her clothes, and my father who threw them out the window. I’ll leave it to you to guess who went out in the middle of the night to pick them back up.

What was the biggest challenge in writing the book?

Initially, I imagined that the central challenge posed by the book was that I was trapping myself, my hero, and my readers in a single building for thirty-two years. But my experience of writing the novel ended up being similar to that of the Count’s experience of house arrest: the hotel kept opening up in front of me to reveal more and more aspects of life.

In the end, a much greater challenge sprang from the novel’s geometry. Essentially, A Gentleman in Moscow takes the shape of a diamond on its side. From the moment the Count passes through the hotel’s revolving doors, the narrative begins opening steadily outward. Over the next two hundred pages detailed descriptions accumulate of people, rooms, objects, memories, and minor events, many of which seem almost incidental. But then, as the book shifts into its second half, the narrative begins to narrow and all of the disparate elements from the first half converge. Bit characters, passing remarks, incidental objects come swirling together and play essential roles in bringing the narrative to its sharply pointed conclusion.

When effective, a book like this can provide a lot of unexpected satisfactions to the reader. The problem is that the plethora of elements in the first half can bog readers down making them so frustrated or bored that they abandon the book. So, my challenge was to craft the story, the point of view, and the language in such a way that readers enjoy the first half and feel compelled to continue despite their uncertainty of where things are headed. Whether or not I succeeded in doing so is up to you.

Can you comment a little more on that diamond structure of A Gentleman in Moscow?

From the day of the Count’s house arrest, the chapters advance by a doubling principal: one day after arrest, two days after, five days, ten days, three weeks, six weeks, three months, six months, one year, two years, four years, eight years, and sixteen years after arrest. At this midpoint, a halving principal is initiated with the narrative leaping to eight years until the Count’s escape, four years until, two years, one year, six months, three months, six weeks, three weeks, ten days, five days, two days, one day and finally, the turn of the revolving door.

While odd, this accordion structure seems to suit the story well, as we get a very granular description of the early days of confinement; then we leap across time through eras defined by career, parenthood, and changes in the political landscape; and finally, we get a reversion to urgent granularity as we approach the denouement. As an aside, I think this is very true to life, in that we remember so many events of a single year in our early adulthood, but then suddenly remember an entire decade as a phase of our career or of our lives as parents.

That’s very true. Why did you decide to write A Gentleman in Moscow as your follow up to Rules of Civility?

When I was deciding what to do after Rules, I picked A Gentleman from among a handful of projects I had been considering. In retrospect, I see that my choice was probably influenced by an unconscious desire for change, because the two novels are a study in contrasts. Where the former takes place over a single year, the latter spans thirty-two. Where the former roves across a city, the latter takes place in one building. Where the former is from the perspective of a young working class woman on the rise, the latter is from the perspective of an aging aristocrat who has lost everything. And where the former is virtually free of children and parents, the latter is very much concerned with generational relationships.

So what are you working on now?

Last year, Viking/Penguin contracted with me to publish my next two novels; now I just have to write them. I like to carefully design my books, beginning the writing process only once I have an extensive outline. I am still in the process of outlining my next book, but I suspect it will follow three eighteen-year-old boys on their way from the Midwest to New York City in the early 1950s…

I’d like to finish up with a couple of quick questions on what you read. What book or author inspired you to write?

I began writing when I began reading in first grade. Since then, the two practices have proceeded in parallel. Read, Write, Repeat. That said, probably my three favorite novels are Moby Dick, War & Peace, and 100 Years of Solitude.

And what are you currently reading?

For the last thirteen years, three friends and I have met monthly to discuss a novel over dinner. We generally work on projects over many months. Right now, we are in the process of reading 8 Philip Roth novels focused on those involving his alter ego, Zuckerman.

book cover of A Gentleman in Moscow

Stalin’s Englishman: the lives of Guy Burgess by Andrew Lownie

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The story of the Cambridge Spy Ring, or the Magnifivent Five as they were dubbed by the media, continues to be of interest, long after the Cold War ended. How did this group of young, wealthy, Cambridge University students fall into the clutches of the Soviet Union during the 1930s? The reality is that Burgess, Maclean, Philby, Blunt and Cairncross, all brilliant young men, were very willing recruits because, in the polarised politics of the time, they saw it as a simple choice between Fascism or Communism, and they chose the latter.

Guy Burgess was the most important, complex and fascinating of the Cambridge Spies. An engaging and charming companion to many, an unappealing, utterly ruthless manipulator to others, Burgess rose through academia, the BBC, the Foreign Office, MI5 and MI6, gaining access to thousands of highly secret documents which he passed to his Russian handlers. And he did all of this in plain sight while drawing attention to himself via a disolute and promiscuous lifestyle. There was no security vetting in those days. The only entry requirements were that you went to Eton and Oxbridge and came from a ‘good family’. It was all about the connections which tied the ruling class together.

Burgess lost his father at an early age and some have speculated that this may have influenced his later direction in life. He was devoted to his mother and was an outstanding Cambridge undergraduate. He joined the Cambridge University Socialist Society and came into contact with other rich young men who were attracted to Marxism and how it was being implemented in the Soviet Union. His comrades included John Cornford, who was killed in the Spanish Civil War, and James Klugmann, who went on to become a skilled organiser within the Communist Party of Britain.

This is Andrew Lownie’s first full biography and he draws a rich picture of Guy Burgess’s lives, both personal and political. He shows how Burgess’s chaotic personal life of drunken philandering did nothing to stop his penetration of the British Intelligence Service. Even when he was under suspicion, the fabled charm which enabled close personal relationships with numerous influential figures prevented his exposure as a spy for many years. But it was the exposure of Donald Maclean which led to Burgess’s exile in Russia. Maclean was tipped off by Kim Philby and had to be smuggled out of the country. Burgess was instructed to escort Maclean to Europe, where we would be taken care of by his Soviet handlers. Burgess did not realise that he had been given a one way ticket and that he would become a fellow defector with Maclean in Moscow.

Burgess and Maclean left England in 1951 and disappeared for the next five years. Their mystery was solved when Tom Driberg visited them in Moscow and published Guy Burgess: a portrait with background in 1956. Burgess was not happy in Moscow and missed his mother, friends and London life. When he died in 1963 his ashes were sent back to England and placed in the family plot besides those of his father. Guy Burgess had finally had his wish and returned home.

Through interviews with over a hundred people who knew Burgess personally, many of whom have never spoken about him before, and the discovery of hitherto secret files, Stalin’s Englishman brilliantly unravels the many lives of Guy Burgess in all their intriguing, chilling, colourful, tragic-comic reality.

Review by John Pateman -Chief Librarian/CEO Thunder Bay Public Library

And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie

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Agatha Christie is one of the world’s bestselling novelists thanks to her 66 detective novels. According to her website, she has only been outsold by Shakespeare and the bible. Having never read an Agatha Christie novel before, I decided to read And Then There Were None, which is considered to be one of her best books. This is not just hearsay: And Then There Were None is listed on the Wikipedia List of Best Selling Books; it has an estimated $100 million in sales since it was published in 1939, and it remains in print today, with a new hardcover copy  having been published in the fall.

And Then There Were None is the story of ten strangers with vastly different backgrounds who are all invited to stay at an island. After arriving, the guests are informed that their host and hostess are delayed; it’s around that point that they realize they were all invited under differing and rather mysterious circumstances. Then the guests start dying one by one. The first death can be explained as a suicide. But by the third death, there can be only one explanation: murder. After a thorough search of the island, the guests realize that they are the only ones present, which means one of their party is the murderer! How will the innocent guests figure out who the culprit is before they’re all dead?
While And Then There Were None is a little bit dated in its writing style, I can easily see why it remains the world’s best selling mystery novel. It is a bit light on the characterization, but I found that doesn’t really matter because And Then There Were None is all about the plot. It is an excellent mystery that will keep you guessing right to the end!

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles

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gentlemanmoscow

In the follow-up to his debut novel, Rules of Civility, author Amor Towles has written another fascinating and lyrical historical novel that captures the essence of a not so distant past.  This novel follows the story of Count Alexander Rostov , one of the last remaining members of the aristocracy left in Russia following the Revolution.  Rostov, a man of wit, charm and education who has never worked a day in his life is sentenced by a Bolshevik tribunal as being an unrepentant aristocrat and sentenced to house arrest at the Hotel Metropol, which sits across the street from the Kremlin.  Instead of a large palace or a luxury suite, he is stripped of his possessions and forced to live in a small attic room for over 30 years.

Rostov is not crushed by the change in his circumstances,  and instead develops close relationships with the staff and the regular guests at the hotel.  Against the backdrop of world events, Rostov observes the world and engages the interest and the friendship of a precocious nine-year-old named Nina.  As the years pass, it is Rostov’s charm and friendships that keep him safe from the purges that plague the outside world, despite a close relationship with the American ambassador Richard Wilshire.

Both of his novels are a joy to read, and the author’s love of language and wordplay is evident, as is his ability to illustrate overwhelmingly complicated situations with the use of quiet observation.  Rostov would be what my mother called a “charmer”, with the innate ability to understand human nature and gently manipulate situations to his advantage.  While the novel covers decades of fictional time, I was saddened to close the final page and look foward to any further works by Towles.

hotelmetropolLobby of the Hotel Metropol in Moscow, built in 1905.

Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys

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Everyone’s familiar with the fate of the Titanic, but very few have heard of the wreck of the Wilhelm Gustloff, the greatest maritime disaster ever in terms of lives lost on a single vessel. As the Red Army advanced through Prussia in 1945, the desperate Germans planned a naval evacuation of refugees and personnel across the Baltic Sea. Thousands of desperate citizens swarmed the ship and the estimated final count on board is 10,500. Five thousand of those were youth and children. The conditions were unimaginably overcrowded and dangerously cramped, but being on board was seen as the only hope for survival.

The Gustloff was hit by a Soviet submarine in the Baltic Sea on 30 January 1945 and an estimated 9,400 of those on board perished. The sinking was not reported by the Third Reich in order to avoid spreading more bad news within the losing regime. It was also underreported in western Allied countries, and the official line in Russia stated (inaccurately) that the ship was transporting armed personnel. Due to these factors and the disinclination of the survivors to discuss the event due to their extreme trauma, the Gustloff largely disappeared from public knowledge.

This tragedy is the inspiration for Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys. Poignant, engrossing, and emotionally intense, we see the horrors of war-time Germany though four different perspectives of Lithuanian, Polish, Prussian and German youth. They endure starvation and brutality, but also find moments of hope, joy, and love. Different kinds of bravery and sacrifice are shown throughout the story, highlighting the heroism often found in society during terrible times, and despite the tragedy the book ends with moments of hope. I highly recommend this book to all readers of historical fiction.