DEFENDING JACOB by William Landay

I began reading William Landay’s DEFENDING JACOB early in the morning and by nightfall I had finished it.  It is rare that a book can keep my interest that long without putting it down, but in this case Landay’s novel trapped me in my recliner and I just kept reading.  The plot is a complex one, but a story that touches a nerve as it unfolds.  Jacob is a teenager living in Newton, MA and he is accused of killing a classmate who had been bullying him.  His father a District Attorney in Middlesex County is forced to recues himself from the case, and his mom is a typical suburbanite mother.  The story has many unique twists and turns that keep the reader completely absorbed and as courtroom strategy and the effect of the legal system  on a family life is explored Landay raises many points that in real life we are forced to confront but never really think about.

In any criminal trial prosecutors are faced with human suffering, but in order to carry out their legal tasks they must keep their feelings at a distance, particularly dealing with a violent crime.  Landay provides in depth analysis of the prosecution and defense approaches to the trial.  Using Andy Barber, Jacob’s dad as the narrator is a very effective tool.  It is very interesting to think about how Andy reacts and deals with the arrest of his son and it puts into focus how parents deal with the death of children, particularly when their own child is accused of murder.  Landay does a credible job describing what the parents of the deceased child and the accused must go through.  The acts of sympathy on the one hand and the vilification on the other are difficult for all to deal with.  In addition, employing Andy Barber as the narrator, Landay provides an interesting critique of the legal system and the strategies employed by all involved.

Perhaps the most important legal issue that emerges is that of privacy, in particular the role of the internet in our society.  It is difficult for some to imagine the “foot print” that each person uses when they use email, Face book, and the internet in general.  What you write or say can never be totally deleted and things cannot be hidden.  Having taught for many years and been involved with students who were constantly reminded that what they put on the internet can affect their lives, I experienced a number of interesting situations where students had no clue that they could be caught saying and doing certain things.  Landay lays out this societal problem well and integrates its ramifications on the criminal justice system throughout the narrative.

The possible use of a “propensity to violence gene” is also explored by tracing the Barber family tree from a violent great grandfather, to “Bloody Billy Barber, Jacob’s grandfather, to his father Andy.  Though some might argue there is such a gene, it just raises the nature v. nurture arguments once again.  Landay explores this issue in detail and it is interesting to contemplate what it might mean if this were actually true.

The relationship between Jacob and his parents is well thought out.  Issues of unconditional love for one’s child can make parents blind to their actions as it appears in the case of Jacob.  But if one listens to the news were parents are shocked by the actions of their children one can see this is very common in our society.  For the Barbers it would appear very simple, was their son a burgeoning psychopath, or a boy just being a boy.  The theme of victimhood is also a major component of the novel.  Who is the victim here?  Is it the Barber family or the parents of the deceased boy?  How does anyone ever recover from being placed in this type of situation?  Was justice actually served by the legal process Landay described?  What of the Barber family, who once Jacob is accused, stood to lose everything; their sanity, careers, home etc?  The book raises the issue that we all might be damaged in some way, and if we are how one does cope?  DEFENDING JACOB is not the typical murder mystery as it goes beyond the “who dun it” approach by raising many complex personal issues that seem to appear in the media each day.  The book has many twists and turns that will surprise the reader and I recommend it highly and look forward to reading Landay’s other two murder mysteries in the near future.

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THE LINCOLN MYTH by Steve Berry

In 2009 Governor Rick Perry of Texas told a Tea Party Rally that “We’ve got a great union.  There’s absolutely no reason to dissolve it.  But if Washington continues to thumb its nose at the American people, you know who knows what might come out of that.  But Texas is a very unique place, and we’re pretty independent lot to boot….When we came into the nation in 1845, we were a republic, we were a stand-alone nation….and one of the deals was, we can leave anytime we want.  So we’re kind of thinking about that again.”  The remarks created a furor that Perry was suggesting that Texas had the right to secede from the United States.  Perhaps Steve Berry thought about Perry’s comments when he was developing his new novel, THE LINCOLN MYTH, as the main theme of the book surrounds the concept of secession and whether the Founding Fathers may have supported the idea that the union of the United States was not a perpetual one.  Employing Cotton Malone, a former Justice Department intelligence operative as his main character as he has done in his previous books the scenario runs something like this; Brigham Young, the leader of the Mormon church in 1854 predicted that the Civil War would occur and that would end the persecution of Mormonism.  Berry calls this the “White Horse Prophecy” and Young struck a deal with Abraham Lincoln that allowed the north to defeat the confederacy.  To show their seriousness Young and Lincoln traded important information.  Young informed Lincoln where Mormon gold was stored, and Lincoln provided a document, signed by the Founding Fathers, that said individual states possessed the right to leave the union.  A Utah Senator who was next in line to become the prophet of the Mormon Church along with a few other plotters to foster Utah’s secession from the union as a precursor to the creation of Deseret, the new Mormon nation.  Once Utah would secede other states would follow once the Lincoln document was made public and the Supreme Court overturned the 1869 Texas v. White decision that ruled unilateral secession by any state unconstitutional.  According to Harvey Tucker, a professor in the political science department at Texas A&M University, “among scholars, the consensus is that the Civil War settled all these issues, and Texas does not have the right to secede.”

(Brigham Young, 19th century Mormon Leader)

Whether the issue of secession has been put to bed or not, Berry has created an interesting yarn that has some basis in history, but as is the case in the author’s Cotton Malone series he takes historical license and creates many primary documents to further his narrative.  In terms of legitimate history Berry does make the case that Mormonism played a much larger role in American history than many have given it credit for.  The argument put forth is whether the Founding Fathers created a perpetual union at the constitutional convention that precluded any state from seceding once it ratified the constitution.  Scholars argue that the constitution was a contract that could not be broken.  The information presented dealing with Lincoln’s ideas are somewhat cherry picked by Berry, but he is totally accurate when he presents the Great Emancipator as a president who fought the war to maintain the union, and freeing the slaves was not the most important thing on his agenda.  According to Utah Senator Thaddeus Rowan, “Lincoln fought the Civil War not to preserve an indivisible union.  Instead he fought that war top create one, conning the nation that the union was somehow perpetual.”  Rowan argues accurately that the Declaration of Independence was an act of secession that violated British law and the Constitution was an act of secession from the Articles of Confederation.  For Rowan it is clear that Lincoln violated his executive power by conduct during the Civil War.  Historians have debated whether Lincoln overstepped the bounds of executive power during the struggle between the states and in some areas he did.  But Berry takes it a step further through Thaddeus Rowan’s character who argues that what Lincoln had done was taken away the “natural and inalienable rights” of all Americans, and he intended to restore them.

The novel itself is very suspenseful, but at times predictable.  The documents that Berry creates are somewhat believable and are employed to support the “Utah type coup” that is the core of the novel.  Berry brings back characters from previous novels such as Cassiopeia Vitt, the historical preservationist, and now a love interest of Cotton Malone, and Stephanie Nelle, Malone’s old boss at the Magellan Billet, a Justice Department Task Force.   In addition to Rowan we have Josepe Salazar, a Spanish elder in the Mormon Church who in line to be the prophet and leader of Mormonism.  Whether you accept that Lincoln believed a constitutional contract among the states was irreversible, or you support the ideas of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison who believed the opposite is not the issue for Berry.  He has created an interesting plot line that has overtones in today’s political world of partisanship which seem to be on steroids.  To assist the reader in ascertaining the true historical record, Berry includes a ten page chapter at the conclusion of the book identifying what areas are historically accurate and what aspects of the book he created on his own.  If you enjoyed Berry’s previous “Cotton Malone” novels, I would suspect that you would enjoy THE LINCOLN MYTH.  But keep in mind, what Berry alludes to as his plot line, currently is circulating in certain political circles.

ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE by Anthony Doerr

(Saint-Malo, Brittany, France where much of the novel takes place)

Among the many wonderful things that a fine novelist can achieve is to create characters whose traits and thoughts embody people like Marie-Laurie Leblanc, the heroine in Anthony Doerr’s new novel, ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE.  The story involves an intricate plot surrounding Marie-Laurie, a blind girl who by 1940 is thrust into the whirlwind of World War II.  Her father is a locksmith at the Museum of Natural History in Paris and as the war unfolds he is given possession of the “sea of flames” diamond, a gem attached to the myth that the person who possesses it cannot die, but also those in close contact with the owner of the gem may suffer greatly, which is sought by a Nazi gemologist, Reinhold von Rumpel.  The story that Doerr’s weaves is much more than a search for the missing gem.  It is a tale that follows the relationship between Marie-Laure, who loses her sight at the age of six and her father.  Their relationship is a tender one as he keeps his daughters spirits high by creating wooden “puzzle boxes” that she must figure out in order to obtain the gift inside.  Further, to assist his daughter, the locksmith creates a small wooden replica of her Parisian neighborhood so she can employ her other senses to gain some autonomy.  Doerr organizes his novel by taking the reader back and forth in time as the war progresses and he alternates chapters depending on which major character he is presenting.  The story revolves around Marie-Laurie and her travails, but other individuals emerge that are central to the book’s theme.  Werner Pfenning, a fourteen year old orphan who is an electronics whiz finds himself in an elite Nazi school and then is attached to the German army to try and locate “partisan” communications throughout Europe.  Another strand revolves around Marie-Laurie’s great uncle, Etienne, a man who seems to suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome because of his experiences in World War I.  Once Marie-Laurie’s father is seized by the Nazis, she lives with her Uncle Etienne in Saint Malo, a small village in Brittany that is controlled by the Germans.

Doerr weaves a fascinating story as he intertwines the lives of his characters.  Werner, the electronics expert hears transmissions with his sister Jutta while living in an orphanage, Etienne is the source of the transmissions, and later the two will come across each other as Etienne transmits for the French resistance during the war, while Werner seeks to find him.  The fluidity and care that Doerr crafts each sentence enhances the readers’ experience as the story unfolds through constant time changes.  Each character has its own development.  Through Werner’s experience Doerr takes us on a journey were a young man has his sense of decency tested by the school commander’s destruction of his friend Frederick, and then he must survive as a boy among men in the German army as he witnesses the hunt for and death of partisans who fight against the Nazis.  Uncle Etienne suffers from extreme PTSD symptoms dating back to World War I where he survived and his brother did not.  He locks himself away in his room repeatedly and hears voices.  Finally with the death of his housekeeper and the Nazi seizure of Marie-Laurie’s father he is presented with two life altering opportunities.  First, he must care for his niece.  Second, he employs his radio transmitter as “the nexus of a web of information” by transmitting codes to partisans to prepare attacks against the Nazis.  As Doerr describes Etienne; “when he’s opening the tiny scroll in his fingers, (containing the necessary codes) lowering his mouth to the microphone, he feels unshakeable; he feels alive.” (331)  Etienne is seen by others as having mental problems, but as R.D. Liang and Thomas Szaz have hypothesized, people who supposedly suffer from mental illness are really using it as a mechanism to cope with an insane world, which World War I and II certainly are.

There are a number of strands that Doerr seamlessly weaves together.  Marie-Laurie who unbeknownst to her is in possession the of “sea of flames” diamond hidden in one of her father’s miniature houses. Werner who seeks a decent world that does not exist.  Etienne who discovers a purpose for his existence, and finally, von Rumple who searches for the gem that will save his life.  All of these characters come together in Saint-Malo, a village under German occupation that slowly becomes like the model that Marie-Laurie’s father has created, as Doerr describes Marie-Laurie’s fears as the “streets [are] sucked empty one by one.  Each time she steps outside, she becomes aware of all the windows above her.  The quiet is fretful, unnatural.  It’s what a mouse must feel, she thinks, as it steps from its hole into the open blades of a meadow, never knowing what shadow might be cruising above.” (274)

The German occupation, allied bombing, day to day starvation and murder are all apparent as the savagery of war is presented through the lives of Doerr’s characters that are haunted by what they experience.  It is a master craftsman that Doerr certainly is as a writer as he juxtaposes the book; TWENTY LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA by Jules Verne, that Marie-Laurie’s father gave her in Braille as a child with his own story.  The narrative that Verne created is intertwined with the novel and its use by the author in providing another prism of understanding of the events and emotions that are on display throughout the narrative is remarkable.

Of all the characters in the book I find Etienne one of the most important, if not interesting, as he carries around the baggage of World War I’s devastation each day and is able to finally leave his home at 4 Rue Vauborel after twenty-four years of self-exile to care for his niece and at the same time deal with the demons that have haunted him.  Throughout the book the theme of “what the war did to dreamers” dominates. (506)  the reader will feel it on every page as each character tries to overcome the obstacles they are confronted with.  The book concludes with a few chapters bringing the story to the present and trying to bring cloture for the lives the reader has spent hours with.  What Doerr has done is create a gift that all who indulge it will certainly reap many rewards.

THE SIEGE by Helen Dunmore

(Map of Leningrad, today called St. Petersburg)

On June 22, 1941 Adolf Hitler unleashed Operation Barbarossa against the Soviet Union.  The Germans surprised the Russians who suffered enormous casualties and retreated into the interior.  The Russians had been warned by the British of Nazi intentions, but Joseph Stalin ignored the British, reasoning that London wanted to create another front in its war against Germany.  Stalin did expect Hitler to break the Nazi-Soviet Pact of August, 1939 but he believed he had more time to prepare.  Stalin was in such shock as German troops marched through Russia that he disappeared for ten days, probably fearing that why would the Russian people support a murdering dictator, but the reality was that Stalin, was their murdering dictator and Hitler was not!  The support for Stalin and the “Russian Motherland” emerges in Helen Dunmore’s novel, THE SIEGE which takes place during the siege of Leningrad that lasted from September 1941 to 1944.  As New York Times reporter, Harrison Salisbury labeled the events in Leningrad, “The 900 Days,” the title of his book about the city that suffered the death of over 650,000 people.  Dunmore’s novel provides insight into the lives of every day Russians as they struggled through starvation, fear of German artillery shells and bombs, the lack of any bureaucratic relief by city officials, and the constant paranoia that they could not trust their own government.  The reader is presented with a number of characters; the family of Anna, her younger brother Kolya who she raises after her mother died in child birth, and her father Mikhail, a writer and poet who has been rejected by the Soviet Writers Union because he has not adapted to the tenets of socialist realism, and Marina, an aging actress who comes to live with them.  We are also exposed to Andrei; a young doctor who reports the horrors of the siege from Leningrad’s remaining hospitals, and other characters like Dimitri Pavlov, who is sent from Moscow to address the city’s food shortages.  Pavlov realizes that Leningrad, a city mostly of islands, similar to Stockholm, is now a “stone island,” and “has got to depend upon its own resources” to survive. (198)  what are those negligible resources?  A government ukase suggests the nutritional value of wallpaper paste that once boiled can provide sustenance for those who are starving.

(Images of Leningrad during the siege by Nazi Germany)

The story is set when Mikhail’s wife Vera dies in childbirth, thrusting motherhood on her daughter Anna before the German invasion.  The paranoia of Stalin’s Russia before the arrival of the Germans is readily apparent from the outset of the book.  Anna, a nursery school teacher assistant, fears raising her voice at work as Kolya is play acting the Russian Civil War between the White and Red soldiers because she might be heard by her boss who she fears will denounce her.  The Great Terror of the 1930s is in the air as it seems everyone is afraid that someone will denounce them to the authorities.  Stalin has warned his people that “wreckers, traitors, enemies, and saboteurs….had infiltrated the Party itself, and were among the elite, masking themselves as irreproachable Party activists and committee members.  But how could you ever prove it wasn’t a mask, Anna wonders.  Only by ripping off your own flesh…” (21)

Dunmore provides a description of how Leningraders attempted to deal with the German advance through Anna’s eyes as she works on digging trenches and tank traps.  The bombing of food warehouses and Leningrad’s geographical isolation make any defensive preparations useless in dealing with the siege.   Leningrad’s citizens are urbanites who only know how to forage for food by queuing up at food centers, not by using what the earth provides.  One might ask why Leningraders were able to survive as well as they did, probably because they had experience of starvation in the 1930s when Stalin’s collectivization policies created the lack of food.  In a way Stalinist agricultural policies might be considered somewhat normal in the minds of Soviet citizens. The queuing before the war for food and goods created a mentality that was put to good use during the siege and created the false hope that food would soon be available.  Leningrad’s main problem was its “impossible arithmetic” for a city with 3.5 million people with little food resources other than wallpaper paste and boiling leather to obtain fluid to make soup.  Leningrad is a city of “a million flailing hands” as people constantly reach for food. (146)

(Russian prisoners of war taken by the Germans during the summer of 1941)

To best understand Leningrad’s plight I would recommend that the reader place a map of Leningrad in front of them to understand how difficult it was to supply the city.  Lake Ladoga to the east was useful once it froze during the winter months, but the Germans made it very hazardous for any truck convoys as they continued to bomb the ice.  The result is the grim process of the black market that Anna has to deal with to obtain anything.  People become animals as they try to survive.  In a way the best means of survival is sleep because it provides an escape from hunger. As Anna points out “you should never wake anyone once they’ve gotten away, deep into their dreams, where there is food.” (189)

The relationship between Anna and Andrei is a tender one that is developed nicely by the author.  Considering the conditions one would think that love would have difficulty flourishing, but in this instance Anna and Andrei’s needs are such that their relationship becomes a life line for survival.  Having survived the winter of 1941-1942, Leningraders were greeted by spring and improved food rations and supplies.  Dunmore describes the scenes of people planting vegetables in city parks and the optimism that those who were still alive would survive the German siege.  Dunmore leaves the reader in the spring of 1942, but for the remaining population of Leningrad the war would continue for two more years.  If you find the time to read THE SIEGE, Dunmore’s sequel THE BETRAYAL will not disappoint.  If you are interested in the history of the siege of Leningrad I would recommend Michael Jones’ LENINGRAD: STATE OF SIEGE.

THE BETRAYAL by Helen Dunmore

(The notorious Lubyanka prison in Moscow)

Helen Dunmore’s THE BETRAYAL brings to mind the works of Alexander Solzhenitsyn as she tells the story of a physician and nursery school teacher who get caught up in the Stalinist paranoia that existed in the Soviet Union following World War II until Stalin’s death in March, 1953.  The chronological parameters of the book are the Nazi siege of Leningrad during the war culminating in the Doctor’s Plot where Stalin and his henchman dreamed up a conspiracy of Jewish physicians who were bent on killing the Soviet leadership as these supposed Zionists worked with the CIA to destroy the Soviet leadership.  Thankfully Stalin died in the midst of this fantasy and many historians believe his death avoided a second Holocaust for the Jewish people.  The novel concentrates in the year 1952 with flashbacks to the World War II siege.  Immediately, Dunmore provides insight into the plight of the average Russian citizen following the war.  There are references to the lack of husbands reflecting the massive death toll of Soviet soldiers during the war.  Communal apartments reflect the lack of housing after the war due to the destruction from Nazi bombing.  The paranoia of the Stalinist state is rampant as anyone can be destroyed and no one is irreplaceable as “anyone can go out of favor in the blink of an eye.” (11) When Kolya, a sixteen year old boy eats his food he wraps his arms around the bowl, exhibiting the fear that someone will steal his supper as occurred during the siege.  Repeatedly as the story is developed characters express the fear that if one of them is arrested, the rest of the family is in danger as occurred during the “Great Purge” of the 1930s.

(Joseph Stalin)

In living our lives we believe in certain assurances; the sun will rise and set at the prescribed hour, we will not grow hungry; we will have shelter and be able to rest when needed.  What life does not prepare us for is to live in a state of suspended animation were by we lose all control of our freedoms.  In post-war Russia life is a riddle that the accused cannot solve.  Innocent people become prisoners of this riddle like Andrei, a physician, and his wife Anna, a nursery school teacher.  The riddle is played out as Andrei is manipulated into taking on a patient named Gorya, the son of a MGB officer named Volkov who is high up in the state security apparatus.  Gorya, a ten year old boy suffers from cancer and after his leg is amputated the cancer spreads and his father needs a scapegoat, a Jewish doctor.  Unaware of the coming Stalinist persecution of Jewish doctors Andrei, who is not Jewish gets swept up in the Soviet prison system, but first he has to untangle the riddle, a phone call he receives early in the morning from his hospital’s medical personnel, “I am to inform you that, with immediate effect, you are suspended from your duties, pending investigation of serious irregularities.  You are to hold yourself available for investigatory interview without notice.  You are not permitted to enter hospital precincts during the period of investigation.” (195)  Andrei’s journey through the Stalinist legal system begins with that phone call and will culminate in his imprisonment in the Soviet Gulag.  Along the way the reader becomes a member of Andrei’s family and a witness to Andrei’s imprisonment, interrogation, and beatings. The fears of his wife Anna and other characters are explored as we witness the world of Stalinist persecution that is right out of the works of Solzhenitsyn and the likes of the poet, Osip Mandelstam.  For Andrei and Anna what is worse; the experiences of the siege of Leningrad with its starvation and constant death during the “great patriotic war,” or the very real fear that the loud banging on the door in the middle of the night will result in a trip to the Lubyanka prison in Moscow.

(The siege of Leningrad, 1942)

Dunmore does a remarkable job developing her story and plotline keeping the reader fully engaged.  Her character development is impeccable and she posses a sound knowledge of Soviet history from the purges of the 1930s through Stalin’s death.  If you have read Solzhenitsyn’s CANCER WARD or THE FIRST CIRCLE, Dunmore’s work fits that genre.  If not and you are interested in reading a historical novel that you will become totally engrossed in and not be able to put down, THE BETRAYAL is an excellent choice.

(The Soviet Gulag and its victims)

I am listing a short bibliography for those who are interested in this period of history and might like to read further;

For books on Stalin see STALIN: THE COURT OF THE RED STAR by Simon Sebag Montefiore; STALIN by Adam Ulam; STALIN by Robert Service; STALIN by Edvard Radzinsky: STALIN AND HIS HANGMEN: AN AUTHOROTATIVE PORTRAIT OF A TYRANT AND THOSE WHO SERVED HIM by Donald Rayfield.

The purges of the 1930s see THE GREAT TERROR by Robert Conquest and EVERYDAY STALINISM, ORDINARY LIFE IN EXTRAORDINARY TIMES: SOVIET RUSSIA IN THE 1930S by Sheila Fitzpatrick;

For the Soviet prison system (Gulag) see GULAG: A HISTORY OF THE SOVIET CAMPS by Anne Appebaum; INTO THE WHIRLWIND and WITHIN THE WHIRLWIND both by Evgenia S. Ginzburg; THE TIME OF STALIN: PORTRAIT IN TYRANNY by Anton Antonov-Ovseyenko.

The Doctor’s Plot see STALIN’S WAR AGAINST THE JEWS by Louis Rapaport; STALIN’S LAST CRIME by Jonathan Brent and Vladimir Naumov.

For the siege of Leningrad consult LENINGRAD: STATE OF SIEGE by Michael Jones; 900 DAYS: THE SEIGE OF LENINGRAD by Harrison Salisbury; LENINGRAD: THE EPIC SEIGE OF WORLD WAR II, 1941-1944  by Anna Reid; THE FATEFUL SEIGE, 1942-1943  by Anthony Beevor; and Helen Dunmore’s previous novel, THE SEIGE.

for further reviews visit http://www.docs-books.com

STRAWBERY BANKE: A SEAPORT MUSEUM 400 YEARS IN THE MAKING by J. Dennis Robinson

All photos from the neighborhoods of Strawbery Banke in Portsmouth, NH

 

 

A warning to readers of this review, I have just moved to the Portsmouth, NH area and I have immediately begun a love affair with the town of Portsmouth (I have shared these feelings with my spouse!) whose people are proud not to be considered a city!  A town that has a population of about 20,000 people and 22,000 restaurant seats is a wonderful concept to be enjoyed each day.  While wandering around the town I came across Strawbery Banke, the historic preservation of the Puddle Dock section of early Portsmouth.  I was enthralled about what I witnessed and being a historian I needed to know more.  The book STRAWBERY BANKE: A SEAPORT MUSEUM 400 YEARS IN THE MAKING by J. Dennis Robinson was the perfect vehicle for me to learn about Portsmouth and satisfy my curiosity about how it developed.  The book possesses a well written narrative in two parts.  First, the history of the Portsmouth region from roughly 1605 through the colonial period, the American Revolution, the 19th century, to the post World War II era.  The second half of the book is devoted to the creation and implementation of the Strawbery Banke historical site.  The book contains numerous photographs of the different characters throughout the history of the museum as well as the architecture that was saved by Strawbery Banke.  What sets Strawbery Banke apart from other historical sites, i.e., Williamsburg, VA or Sturbridge Village, MA is that the original buildings have been preserved and have not been recreated.  The book follows the long journey of historical preservation that began in 1957 and is still, flourishing today.

 

Apart from the general history of the Portsmouth region, what I found most interesting about the book was its discussion of the individual houses that have been preserved and the fight to take a federal urban renewal project and convert it into a historical restoration that would rekindle and refurbish a section of Portsmouth and would be a vehicle to uplift and restore the entire town.  One of my favorite mini-histories narrated in the book involves the Shapiro House that was home to Russian Jewish immigrants who left the Ukraine in the late 19th century among many who sought to escape the pogroms and persecution that existed in Russia.  What I found fascinating was that orthodox Jews would settle in Portsmouth as opposed to the majority of Jews who went to the lower east side of New York City.  The Srawbery Banke site has the original Shapiro home with the accoutrements of a Jewish family displayed accurately in its different rooms, highlighted by a woman who role plays Mrs. Shapiro in early 20th century garb.  The other aspect of the book that was very surprising was how local and federal politics and the economic issues involved had to be overcome in trying to create Strawbery Banke.

Unlike Williamsburg there was no Rockefeller benefactor to fund the project.  Strawbery Banke was funded by hundreds of local residents with some federal money and today is dependent upon donations, membership, and visitors for its survival.  The book is a wonderful read for those who are interested in a different approach to America’s settlement story of John Smith and Pocahontas that is not generally known. The book narrates and analyzes the evolution of Strawbery Banke and the town of Portsmouth and how they have evolved into cultural centers that attract thousands upon thousands of visitors each year.  To the author’s credit he tells the entire story, not just the triumphs.  Throughout its development Strawbery Banke experienced a great deal of infighting over disagreements as to what the correct path for the “outdoor museum” should take.  The disagreements are presented objectively, and Robinson also explores the less positive aspects of the museums’ expansion as over time certain neighborhoods were taken over resulting in the bitterness of those had to be relocated.  Despite these negatives, the end product of the museum seems well worth it.

Portsmouth has a certain feel to it that makes it one of the most inviting towns I have ever experienced.  It is worth a visit, and before you come read STRAWBERY BANKE, as it will be the precursor of a wonderful adventure. In addition, if you find historical preservation interesting the book explains how difficult and expensive it is to get one off the ground and maintain it in today’s economic environment.