CHINA: THE NOVEL by Edward Rutherfurd

(the Opium War 1839-1842)

For years I read the panoramic novels of James A. Michener.  His multi-generational plots, historical knowledge, all-encompassing detail, and character development were very satisfying, and I always looked forward to his latest release.  When he passed a void resulted in my reading agenda until I discovered Edward Rutherfurd.  In 1987 I read Rutherfurd’s first novel, SARUM which immediately sparked my interest because of his approach to writing, history, lineage of different generations, and an assortment of interesting and fascinating characters.  I dare say he was “Micheneresque!”  Other novels soon followed; RUSSKA, LONDON, THE FOREST, THE PRINCES OF IRELAND, THE REBELS OF IRELAND, NEW YORK, and PARIS – all very satisfying and engrossing living up to the bar he set with his first novel. 

I was looking forward to his next effort which was published last week, CHINA: THE NOVEL.  The novel does not present the scope and panorama of his earlier works, and there are a few questions about organization, but it still was a satisfying read.  The novel begins with events leading to the 1839 Opium War between England and the “Middle Kingdom” and carries the reader through Chinese history beginning with the Opium Wars, the Taiping Rebellion, the Boxer Rebellion, and finally the 1911 Revolution.  Through its characters Rutherfurd tries to present each event and different attempts at reform that sought to throw off the western imperialist yoke.  Over time these occurrences would lay the groundwork for the rise of Mao Zedong and the Chinese Communist Party which emerged after World War I, consolidated its support among the peasants in the 1930s and during World War II, and finally defeated the Guomintang (Nationalist Party) in 1949 and began the Maoist rule over China which dominated the former “Celestial Kingdom” until the early 1980s.

Opium War Imports into China, 1650-1880

The book seems to be organized in two parts, the first centers around the opium trade and a series of characters from British merchants, Chinese traders, government officials, and a number of ancillary families.  The second part focuses on the life of one individual in particular,  Lacquer Nail whose character is somewhat contrived and how the Chinese government tried to defeat the foreign imperialists, but to no avail.  Rutherdurd does a credible job integrating true historical figures with fictional characters.  At the outset, the key historical figure that is portrayed accurately is Lin Zexu, who was a Chinese head of states (Viceroy), Governor General, scholar-official, and High Commissioner who was charged by the emperor to rid the country of the opium trade that was bankrupting the kingdom because of the outflow of silver to pay for the opium.  The next important character is fictional, Jiang Shi-Rong who rose to become Commissioner Lin’s personal secretary.

From the outset of the novel, it is clear that Rutherfurd has done his homework as he exhibits a firm grasp of Chinese history and culture.  His explanation of the reasons for and the impact of foot binding on women is engrossing as is his description of the Forbidden City, the metropolitan exams to become a scholar-official, the language employed by Chinese officials, the differences between Han and Manchu Chinese, the dichotomy between northern and southern China, as is the presentation  of historical figures like James Bruce, 8th Earl of Elgin, the weakness of the Xian Feng Emperor, Prince Gong, regent from 1861-1865, the Empress Cixi, Lin Zexu, Edmund Backhouse, a British oriental scholar and linguist among others. 

Map 3: China's Treaty Ports, 1860

(Map 3: China’s Treaty Ports, 1860.)

Fictional characters abound with the key figures including John Trader, a British merchant who engages in the Opium trade as a means of impressing Agnes Lomond in Calcutta; Cecil Whiteparish, Trader’s cousin and  missionary; Mei-Ling a Chinese woman who provides a window into the misogyny of Chinese culture; Nio, Mei-Ling’s “brother” who is a pirate and eventually joins the Taiping movement to overthrow the Emperor; Guanji, a Manchu officer; the Odstock brothers who lived off the opium trade; and Mr. Liu who is bent on destroying Lacquer Nail.

Rutherfurd navigates the different factions within the Chinese government and the disagreements and friction among the characters very nicely.  A case in point is the Eunuch system and what one went through to become one and how they achieved wealth and power in the Forbidden City in dealing with the Emperor. Rutherfurd is able to develop a number of stories within the larger story of the novel very carefully.  Chief among them revolves around the Taiping Rebellion, an uprising commanded by Hong Xiuquan, the self-proclaimed brother of Jesus Christ. Its goals were religious, nationalist, and political in nature; Hong sought the conversion of the Chinese people to the Taiping’s syncretic version of Christianity, to overthrow the ruling Qing Dynasty, and a state transformation.  At times it appeared that the British might ally with the Taiping’s in order to secure the opium trade and other commodities like tea.

The overall theme of the novel is the history of China between 1839 and 1911 that was dominated by British imperialism, later joined by other European powers and the United States.  As Rutherfurd develops the novel he integrates other important historical information germane to his topic, i.e., the recruitment of Chinese labor to work on the railroads in the United States, the politics of the British parliament, events in India, among others.  If one is conversant in Chinese history during this period, you will be able to relate to what is evolving.  If not Rutherfurd clearly presents the rhythms of the Chinese approach to life and how it conflicted with western expectations and why conflict was inevitable.

Forbidden City
(The Forbidden City, Beijing, China)

Cultural superiority is a dominant theme as the Chinese saw the west as barbarians who were inferior to the Confucian way of life, and western lack of respect for Chinese culture seeing the Chinese people as animals in many cases.  The causes and results of the two Opium Wars are reviewed and their effect on Chinese society and politics stand out.  Rutherfurd spends a great deal of time on the Taiping Rebellion which many historians see as laying the groundwork for Maoist thought with their agrarian reform ideas, however over 40 million Chinese would die during the conflict.  The author also takes a deep dive through his characters as the Chinese try to reform themselves after the Taiping Rebellion with the rise of the Empress Cixi but to no avail.  The Boxer Rebellion becomes front and center at the turn of the 2oth century as does the rise of Sun Yat-Sen and his ideas that resulted in the 1911 Revolution that followed the death of the Empress Cixi.

Empress Dowager Cixi, who died 109 years ago today.

(Empress Cixi)

The earlier sections of the novel are much more engaging because of its focus on the Chinese family apart from the opium trade.  The later sections of the novel are exhausting with its focus on court life and attempts to deal with the west.  From the title of the book, one would hope its focus would be more on the Chinese people themselves without providing such a prominent occidental slant.

The book at times can be unwieldly, but slowly it will captivate you and make you want to complete its 763 pages.  Rutherfurd will lay out the difference between eastern and western culture and one might question the goals and complexities of each.  Though I do not think the book flows as evenly as previous Rutherfurd novels, the book provides an education in of itself through its historical and myriad fictional characters and is worth the read.


If you have found the events and personalities presented in the book interesting, I would recommend the following: THE BOXER REBELLION  by Diana Preston; AUTUMN IN THE HEAVENLY KINGDOM by Stephen R. Platt; IMPERIAL TWILIGHT: THE OPIUM WAR AND THE END OF CHINA’S LAST GOLDEN AGE by Stephen R. Platt; EMPRESS DOWAGER CIXI  by Jung Chang; GOD’S CHINESE SON by Jonathan Spence or any other books on Chinese history written by Spence.

Image 1: A “stacking room” in an opium factory in Patna, India. On the shelves are balls of opium that were part of Britain’s trade with China.

(A “stacking room” in an opium factory in Patna, India. On the shelves are balls of opium that were part of Britain’s trade with China.)


  • American Flag 4x6 ft : Longest Lasting US Flag Made from Nylon - Embroidered Stars - Sewn Stripes - UV Protection Perfect for Outdoors! USA Flag

During the past year, the United States has undergone a series of events that have accelerated our partisan divide and portends serious problems in the near future unless we can overcome our differences. Election conspiracy theorists and deniers, the January 6th attack on the capitol by insurrectionists, the continuation of gun violence, police actions, voter suppression legislation, cancel culture are just a few of the issues contributing to our political, social, and economic insanity.  If this is not enough, we still are in the midst of a pandemic with 30-40% of the population refusing to be vaccinated.  Former President Trump reigns in Mar-a-Lago as a potentate receiving his minions pouring out his venom, lies, and conspiracy theories and one must ask, OMG how did we get here?

Perhaps BBC New York correspondent Nick Bryant provides some of the answers in his new book; WHEN AMERICA STOPPED BEING GREAT: A HISTORY OF THE PRESENT.  I find it intriguing that someone from across the Atlantic seems to have greater insight  into our situation than the majority of Americans arguing that “Ronald Reagan was one of the Founding Fathers of America’s modern day polarization.”  Bryant develops his theme by explaining that Reagan and the arrival of his right wing supporters who loved his anti-government persona along with the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act began the road to our current polarization.  Barry Goldwater’s loss in 1964 gave birth to the Republican’s southern strategy as white voters grew afraid because of the fast pace of racial reform.  The situation was further exacerbated by the 1965 Voting Rights Act and the Immigration and Nationalities Act which expanded voting to minorities and ended white preferences for those entering the United States and enhanced the “browning of America.”  The events surrounding the elections of 1976 and 1980 set the stage for the election of Ronald Reagan a man who relied on his acting ability, stage management, sense of humor, and ability to communicate to win over the American electorate.

See how Ronald Reagan combatted communism and the Soviet Union throughout the Cold War
(President Ronald Reagan)

It was Ronald Reagan who became our first movie star president and developed the theme of “Let’s Make America Great Again” paving the way for Trump to become the first reality TV star to enter the White House and refine Reagan’s message.  The difference between the two was that Reagan’s personality was uplifting while Trump’s emitted a nastiness never seen before in the Oval Office.  In a sense Reagan was Trump’s role model except he lacked the vindictiveness and abusive behavior that the former president exhibited over his term in office.  According to Bryant Reagan created the choreographed presidency with evocative scripting, polished production values, an eye for the dramatic photo-op, and a variety of show-like mix of spectacle, entertainment and gags.  The problem was that Reagan was intellectually incurious, ill informed, and overly reliant on cue cards resulting in a flawed blueprint that showed that the president could achieve historical greatness without even mastering the basics of the job.  Americans felt comfortable with Reagan’s manner and presentation unaware of the lack of depth behind the scenes – sound familiar?

The Reagan era witnessed a massive increase in wealth and consumerism – “Greed is Good!” became the epitome of Reaganism.  To prove his point Bryant does an excellent job referencing the the culture of the 1980s through film, television which reaffirms the results of Reagan era policies.  Further he explores Trump’s role during the decade and concludes quite correctly that he became the poster child of a profit obsessed society highlighted by garishness, ego, and a sense of entitlement.  But Bryant is clear Reagan is responsible for the anti-government sentiment that has proliferated over the last twenty years and he is also correct that if one digs down into Reagan’s record the result would be Reagan would probably be primaried today if he ran for office by the Trumpers!

George HW Bush
(President George H. W. Bush)

Despite the fact that Trump/Reagan seemed to dominate large segments of the book there are a number of important specific reasons that Bryant relies upon to make his arguments.  Key among them is the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the 1965 Voting Rights Act, and the Immigration and Nationalities Act that have been mentioned.  All deal with the racial divide in America which is a dominant reason for the lack are bipartisanship in Congress which is the main reason for the decline in America’s reputation worldwide and the fracturing of American society.  1991 stands out because of the beating of Rodney King in Los Angeles which clearly proved that no one of color would receive fair treatment under the American justice system. This was a warning at a time that the Berlin Wall had fallen, and the Soviet Union ceased to exist, as the US saw itself as the dominant and most respected country in the world.  But from this point it was all downhill.

The arrival of Newt Gingrich is another major cause for the developing dysfunction in US politics.  Bryant follows Gingrich’s career, ideology, and actions that led to his Speakership of the House.  Gingrich’s slash and burn mentality designed to create roadblocks for any democratic legislation along with his nasty confrontational style accomplished his goal of making the Republican party an opposition party and did away with any consensus in Congress.  The resulting grid lock that led to Bill Clinton’s impeachment, shutting down the government, among many other actions slowly eroded our democracy.  Bryant does an excellent job connecting the political dots in bringing Gingrich to the Speakership as the Democrats rejected John Tower as Defense Secretary to be replaced by Dick Cheney whose leadership position in the House went to Gingrich launching the Georgia lawmaker to create his mayhem.

Bill Clinton
(President William Jefferson Clinton)

1992 would be the watershed election as it reflected the racism and anti-Semitism of Pat Buchanan wrapped in his ethno-nationalism.  The election of Clinton would normalize presidential bad behavior, and gave us Ross Perot whose populist lure of nativism, nationalism, and protectionism which would dominate politics in 2016.  This nativism would lead to the Oklahoma City bombing, American failure in Mogadishu, Bosnia and Rwanda further eroding America’s reputation in the world.  It appeared despite the economic growth of the 1990s the US was self-destructing.

Bryant presents cogent answers to the question raised in the title of his book.  He zeros in on the role 9/11, the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the subsequent disaster in that country and Afghanistan, and the 2008 economic disaster that still reverberates with American voters as those who were responsible were never punished and the government bailed out the “too big to fail” banks.  This would lead to the Tea Party and further divided the American polity.  Events overseas roiled America’s allies particularly the occurances surrounding Abu Ghraib, torture at black sites conducting by CIA operatives and others, and the situation at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba.  All of this was occurring as Vladimir Putin pursued a revanchist policy in Russia. Angry over NATO expansion into Eastern Europe, the fall of the Soviet Union, and the state of Russian influence in the world he would take advantage of America’s continued slide in worldwide influence.  Putin’s task was facilitated by George Bush’s “Axis of Evil speech,” President Obama’s decision to allow President Bashir Assad to cross his “red line” in Syria, President Trump’s abandonment of the Kurds in Syria, all of which gave Russia an opening in the Middle East, Crimea, Georgia, and eastern Ukraine which Putin took advantage.

Foreign policy bears a great deal of responsibility for America’s decline but also domestic policy.  Globalization is seen by American workers in the “Rust Belt” which produced NAFTA as a major reason for their loss of their livelihood.  Between 2001 and 2013 over 65,000 factories closed in the United States costing over 5,000,000 jobs which would provide the seed bed for Trump’s support.  Trump would play on white resentment against trade policy, immigration, and cultural issues to ingratiate himself with the Rust Belt revolt against robots (automation that cost jobs) to gain the presidency.  This white-working class revolt heated by US corporate tax policies would further inflame the US electorate.

Learn how the September 11th terrorist attacks and the Iraq War defined George W. Bush's presidency
(President George W. Bush)

Bryant does a good job developing themes that are difficult to disagree with, but he also produces vignettes that reflect American hypocrisy, i.e., Gingrich’s affair with a congressional aide, Bob Livingstone his replacement as Speaker was exposed by Hustler magazine for his own affair, and Dennis Hastert, his replacement was later exposed as a child molester – all while trying to impeach and ruin Bill Clinton!  Another surrounds the Bush administration’s actions in dealing with or not dealing with Hurricane Katrina, and his approach to the 2008 economic crisis.

Bryant’s dissection of each presidential administration seems fair and accurate.  “No drama Obama” receives his due apart from his defunct Syrian policy.  By not addressing income inequality in America, lining up with Wall Street not main street, and trying to achieve consensus with a Republican Party that totally rejected him in large part because of race all contributed to a weak presidency which his “aloof” cerebral manner just exacerbated.  This produced the election of 2010 which saw an increase in of 63 Republican seats in the House and 8 Senate seats.  The argument is sound that perhaps Obama was doomed because of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s policy of making Obama a one term president which he is continuing with Joe Biden, but an attempt to confront McConnell’s tactics should have been more forceful.

5x7 President Barack Obama Official PHOTO Portrait White House image 0

(President Barrack Obama)

Bryant does not disappoint in his examination of the Trump presidency.  The analysis of Trump’s personality and actions line up with numerous books that have been written since 2017 that explains Trump’s “American carnage.”  “Like Reagan’s and Obama’s, this was a hugely symbolic presidency., but whereas the Gipper signified resurgence and Obama embodied renewal, Trump represented revenge.”  Trump greatly accelerated the world’s negative view of the United States.  Though nationalists and right wing authoritarian leaders made Trump weak at the knees his policies of: withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal; withdrawal from the Trans Pacific Partnership; withdrawal from the Paris climate accord; his fawning over Vladimir Putin; use of a wrecking ball to the Atlantic alliance; his denigration of allied leaders;  withdrawal from Syria; his bromance with Kim Jong-un; praising Saudi leader Mohammed bin Salman who ordered the death of a Washington Post reporter; trade wars; suspending US funding for the World Health Organization in the middle of a pandemic all resulted in America’s moral reputation worldwide coming close to an abyss which of course China benefited from along with other presidential actions.  A Pew research poll gave Putin a higher international approval rating than Trump 33-29%, and Xi Jinping was at 28%!

On the domestic front Trump even raised the polarization level during a pandemic, i.e.; mask debate, anti-vaxers, holding virus spreading events etc.  While Trump fiddled, minorities burned, or died at an unacceptable rate when compared to whites.  Lacking health insurance and economic resources Trump just caste people adrift.  Misinformation and conspiracy theories reinforced by the 2020 election outcome, the George Floyd murder by a Minneapolis policemen heightened support for the Black Lives Matter Movement all of which contributed to the rift between the “red” United States and “blue” United States making people overseas wonder how the richest country on earth has made such a mess of things resulting in its precipitous decline over the last twenty years.

Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump gestures during a campaign rally at the Henderson Pavilion on Oct. 5, 2016, in Henderson, N.V. Trump is campaigning ahead of the second presidential debate coming up on October 9 with Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton.
(President Donald J. Trump)

But as Bryant makes clear, Trump is not the only reason America stopped being great, it was a process that began with Vietnam, racial issues of the 1960s, and the evolution of personalities and events over fifty years that saw Pax Americana last for a noticeably short period despite the claims of George H. W. Bush in 1991.  The United States is confronted with a public health crisis that disproportionately affects people of color, an economic shock that disproportionately affects people of color, and civil unrest caused by police brutality that obviously disproportionately affects people of color.  The United States according to Bryant is a shattered mirror being held up to a fractured country.

 Bryant’s overall approach produces a tightly argued narrative that I would challenge anyone to disagree with.  It is thoughtful, based on personal experience, and relies on facts and reality, which for some is difficult to accept.

  • American Flag 4x6 ft : Longest Lasting US Flag Made from Nylon - Embroidered Stars - Sewn Stripes - UV Protection Perfect for Outdoors! USA Flag


(Stalinist Gulag)

A few years ago, I read an unforgettable novel BENEATH THE SCARLET SKY by Mark Sullivan.  His approach toward fiction exhibited the unique ability to blend historical events and characters with his own imagination and further documentation to produce a work of exceptional, what he describes as historical fiction based on real life stories dealing with World War II and its aftermath.  The skills developed in BENEATH THE SCARLET SKY are on full display in Sullivan’s latest effort, THE LAST GREEN VALLEY which transports the reader to late March 1944 as World War II is ending as the Soviet army moves west through the Ukraine.  As the Russians push the Germans out of the Soviet Union Sullivan’s most important characters Emil and Adeline Martel must decide if they should follow the German army under SS protection westward or should they remain in the Ukraine and risk seeing their family torn apart as Emile would be sent  to Siberia by Stalin’s forces, and Adele and her sons would become orphans of the state.  The decision making process is paramount, and Sullivan’s back story is centered on what might you do if you found yourself in the situations that the Martel’s faced as they tried to escape Hitler’s and Stalin’s grip.

The novel focuses on the extended Martel family that includes Emil, a farmer, his wife Adele, and their two children Wilhelm and Waldemar, along with their grandparents and uncles and aunts.  Sullivan’s writing is very descriptive and from the outset the reader finds the Martel’s in a number of precarious situations as they decide to follow the German army westward.  Sullivan has an excellent command of history and is able to integrate the historical past in each situation. 

One of Sullivan’s techniques is to alternate historical periods.  The immediate situation finds the Martel’s trying to survive during the spring and summer of 1944 which is balanced by scenes from the late 1920s through the earlier part of World War II.  A case in point is Sullivan’s description of life in the Ukraine and the conditions they were forced to endure under Stalin’s plan to collectivize Russian agriculture and to starve peasants living in the Ukraine or accuse them of being Kulaks, capitalist farmers who threatened the Soviet regime and sending them to what Alexander Solzhenitsyn describes as the Gulag Archipelago.  The result is the “Red Famine” that Anne Applebaum develops in her book of the same title which witnesses the death from starvation of millions of peasants throughout the 1930s.

The key to the story is the Nazi concept of volksdeutche, ethnic Germans who were invited by Catherine the Great to live in the Ukraine and assist Russian peasants to increase their agricultural yields.  These people were referred to as “Black Sea Germans” and lived between Odessa and Kiev until the Russian Revolution.  With the rise of Stalin, they were seen as a threat and were labeled Kulaks and many including Adele’s father, Karl Losing were sent to Siberia for over fifteen years, and Emile’s father spent seven years working in the Siberian mines developing lung disease.

Stalin’s order to starve the Ukraine in 1933 is referred to as the Holodomor as Russian soldiers destroyed wheat crops killing millions forcing Emile to question the existence of god, compared to his wife’s faith in the church.  Sullivan’s description of how Emil changed because of Stalinist policies, the war, the effects on his family are heart breaking, particularly how he was haunted by SS Hauptsturmfuhrer Haussmann because of incidents involving the slaughter of Jews by the SS at Dubossary on the Romanian border that took place in 1941.  Further, Emil has difficulty dealing with members of the Selbstschutz a group created by the SS made up of Romanians whose task was to kill Jews.  One in particular, Nikolas is a threat to Emil and his family.

(Author, Mark Sullivan)

The Martel’s harrowing journey west by wagon then cattle car is described in detail.  Faced with avoiding German and Russian tanks, planes, and artillery the family does its best to live another day.  Despite the nature of the story Sullivan does his best to present the humanity of people and inject humor whenever possible even under horrendous conditions, i.e.; when four year old Will needs to pee in a jar or out the back of the wagon as they travel westward.  Laughter was such a rarity – it was cherished when it occurred.

Sullivan offers repeated poignant scenes throughout the novel.  Whether it is Adele realizing she is living in an apartment house that used to house Jews in Wielun, Poland or that she and her family were wearing clothing stripped of Jews before they were gassed, she has difficulty coping.  Another is the dilemma Emil is forced to deal with as he is ordered to shoot a Jewish father and three children by the SS.  Emil refuses to do so at first, but when threatened with his life and never seeing his family again he finally succumbs to the pressure, but in the end, he never carries out the order.  In Emil’s mind he has already executed the innocent Jews and cannot except the fact he did not kill them.  For four years he carries the burden that he is an unworthy human being and a murderer until an unusual figure convinces him that god was looking out for him even though he had denigrated God the entire time.  Throughout their journey Emil and Adele try and keep the faith that they will see each other again even when it appears it will never come to pass.  Their journey is such that it is difficult for the reader not to become emotionally involved with Sullivan’s characters.

Speaking of characters, both real and imagined, Sullivan presents a number of fascinating individuals particularly the Romanian Corporal Gheorghe who suffered a head injury at Stalingrad.  He comes in contact with Emil and his family putting forth a strong belief in god and with his empathetic nature then after losing contact with him they meet again in a Soviet labor camp four years later where the Corporal has an amazing impact on Emil’s life providing him with a new way of seeing the world, and a new way of thinking.

Sullivan is a fantastic storyteller and researcher.  He spent a great deal of time with the immediate Martel family and their descendants while researching the book, and even walked in their footsteps through Ukraine, helping him capture the drama and emotion of their journey.  It is the type of story that makes it difficult for the reader to put the book down as its hold on you makes you wonder about how certain inhabitants of the earth do the things they do, how people have the intestinal fortitude to survive, and the importance of memory and hope in confronting situations beyond their control.

Bleak: Soviet inmates at the frozen prison camp in Norilsk, Siberia, in 1945. The camps, often in the middle of nowhere, were surrounded with barbed wire and watchtowers

(Soviet inmates at the frozen prison camp in Norilsk, Siberia, in 1945) 


(Cleveland’s Municipal Stadium)

Spring has arrived, at least in our minds up in New England, and with it the sounds and hopes generated by a new baseball season which hopefully will not be affected by Covid as it was last year.  At the same time, we are experiencing the 100th anniversary of the Negro Leagues, in addition to the tumult that fostered the creation of the Black Lives Matter Movement and its continuing relevancy.  Based on time of year and the impact of race on the news on a daily basis Luke Epplin’s new book, OUR TEAM: THE EPIC STORY OF FOUR MEN AND THE WORLD SERIES THAT CHANGED BASEBALL seems like an excellent choice to navigate the role of race in baseball history and its impact on our current view of the sport.

Epplin’s focus is on four individuals who greatly impacted baseball history apart from the Cleveland Indians magical run to the pennant in 1948.  Playing in the cavernous Municipal Stadium its owner Bill Veeck, part showman, shrewd businessman, and baseball lifer introduced a number of changes as to how owners approached their teams.  The second impact individual was Bob Feller, an Iowa farm boy who became one of the best pitchers in baseball history, though by 1948 he was on the downside of his career.  The last two individuals Larry Doby and Satchel Paige have a special place in baseball history when it comes to the integration of the sport.  By the time Paige arrived in Cleveland he was in his early forties and had played in the Negro League for years.  Possibly the best pitcher, black or white since the 1930s Paige would make significant contributions in 1948.  The last person Epplin focuses on Larry Doby became the first negro player in the American League. 

In 1947, Jackie Robinson who was groomed to be the first negro player in baseball by Branch Rickey made his debut.  When one thinks of the integration of baseball. Robinson and his experiences dealing with racists in out of the game comes to mind, and few think a great deal about Doby.  The young Cleveland outfielder was playing in Newark in the Negro League when he was called up in 1948 and did not undergo the “grooming” process that Robinson had.  Despite this handicap, after a slow start, Doby, along with Paige and a few other Indians players are responsible for the amazing 1948 season.

(Satchel Paige)

Epplin explains how the Cleveland Indians and these four individuals captivated the American people in 1948 as baseball had recovered its fan base and put their best product on the field since before World War II.  In addition to the economic impact, these men focused on  social issues facing the American people as the country was moving closer to the civil rights revolution.

Epplin gives justice to the legends and myths relating to Bob Feller and Satchel Paige dating to their confrontations on the diamond beginning in 1936.  The pre-1947 era was dominated by barnstorming players competing with each other during the off season to supplement their salaries which were kept low by owners due to the reserve clause.  Baseball Commissioner Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis realized that if negro teams defeated white teams on a regular basis, it would be difficult to justify segregation, so he implemented new rules to limit the barnstorming.  He wanted people to see them as exhibitions to prove that negro players were inferior to whites.  Despite Landis’ attitude players like Lou Gehrig, Dizzy Dean, and Carl Hubbell all believed that Paige belonged in the major leagues.

Satchel Paige Bob Feller Comparing Baseballs : News Photo
(Satchel Paige and Bob Feller)

The author effectively integrates the history of Jim Crow laws, and the overt and covert racism that existed in American society throughout the narrative as he focuses on the role race played in these individual lives in addition to the personal competition between Feller and Paige.  The subject of race is key.  Paige obviously was one of the best pitchers of his generation, but he never had a chance to exhibit his talent because of baseball’s color barrier enforced by its racist Commissioner Judge Keneshaw Mountain Landis who ruled baseball as a dictator after repairing its image following the 1919 Black Sox scandal.  When Bill Veeck tried to buy the Philadelphia Phillies in 1942 and Landis learned he would sign negro players he blocked it.  When the history of baseball integration is told writers tend to focus on Jackie Robinson and leave out the trials and tribulations highlighted by the demeaning behavior and outright racism suffered by Larry Doby who a year after Robinson broke the color barrier took the field in the American League.  Epplin has thoroughly researched his topic and the racist comments by Feller concerning Paige who repeatedly bested him on the mound during the off season are presented clearly and reflect the true character of the Cleveland fireballer.

The key figure in integrating the American League and bringing a World Series championship to Cleveland in 1948 was Bill Veeck.  Epplin zeroes in on the essence of who Bill Veeck was – his optimism, ingenuity, and ability to convince others of his viewpoints.  Ever since I read Ed Linn’s VEECK AS IN WRECK as a boy I have been fascinated by Veeck and his ability to transform baseball franchises be it in Milwaukee, Cleveland, or Chicago.  In effect through his desire to sign negro ball players, his promotional creativity, and his willingness to sacrifice his personal life and health Veeck became a sort of “mad scientist” conjuring up new ideas in his baseball laboratory on a regular basis.  As Epplin develops his narrative it is interesting as he notes that following World War II part of the reason Veeck signed Paige at the age of forty four was due to the decline of Bob Feller as a pitcher. 

It was Feller who epitomizes baseball during the era he played.  He was baseball’s dominant pitcher in the late 1930s until World War II.  Feller was a selfish individual who had difficulty accepting the lost wages because of his four year service in the military.  After the war he was hell bent on recouping the money and incorporated himself as RO-FEL Inc.  The barnstorming was the key, but his star status meant he had to pitch almost every day, make all arrangements and his commitment to earning as much money as possible and confronting baseball’s hierarchy meant he shortened his career as there are only so many pitches in a person’s arm during the pre-Tommy John surgery era.  Feller’s decline and views on race, and his selfishness as viewed by other players detract from his overall reputation as a baseball great.  As Epplin correctly points out, “Feller’s swoon, in a sense, facilitated Paige’s rise.”

(Jackie Robinson and Larry Doby)

Epplin follows Veeck’s quest to buy the Indians in 1946 in detail.  He delves into the roadblocks he faced, his interaction with fans and his promotional ability, and finally deciding to sign Paige and integrate the team with the signing of Larry Doby who after a poor start became one of the dominant sluggers in baseball at that time.  Epplin makes the important point that Robinson’s almost immediate success with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947 was due to this preparation in the minor leagues for what he was to expect once he stepped on the field as a Dodger.  Secondly, Robinson was used to the publicity surrounding his athletic prowess at UCLA, his maturity from serving in the US Army during the war, and the strategy employed by Branch Rickey.  On the other hand, Doby, only twenty three, was forced to change positions, had no seasoning in the minors, and was a quiet introverted type who had never been exposed to the type of racism he would confront once Veeck signed him to a contract.  Interestingly, according to Epplin, Veeck developed a wonderful relationship with Doby, but Paige and Doby always seemed to be at loggerheads.

(Bill Veeck)

The book will take the reader through the 1948 season and Cleveland’s ultimate victory in the World Series.  Epplin does bring his focus on others aside from his four major characters to reinforce his views, but it is the role of Feller, Paige, Veeck, and Doby and his focus on the Negro Leagues that allows him to develop a narrative that is both interesting and timely as we confront the same type of covert and overt racism today.  It is clear that if Veeck had not signed Doby and Paige the Cleveland Indians quest for a pennant and World Series championship would have come up short in 1948.

Overall, Epplin has written a fine baseball history of the Cleveland Indians and their quest for a World Series in 1948.  However, apart from some interesting ”nuggets” that the author has uncovered, much of what he explores has been presented by other baseball historians which he acknowledges.  Despite this minor flaw Epplin writes well and he has produced an interesting read that should satisfy baseball fans of every generations.

Cleveland Municipal Stadium, former home of the Cleveland Indians
(Cleveland’s Municipal Stadium)


Curtis LeMay coffee or die
(Colonel Curtis LeMay officially congratulates a bomber crew of the 306th Bomb Group in front of their B-17 Flying Fortress at Chelveston Airfield, England, June 2, 1943)

For the last few years, the historiography of allied bombing during World War II has undergone much greater scrutiny.  The death and destruction of civilians and their property has been labeled as unethical and immoral as cities such as Hamburg, Dresden, Tokyo and of course German bombing of allied cities experienced a level of violence that was unprecedented when compared to the pre-World War II era.  The role of technology in the process cannot be downplayed without which the carnage of war would not have reached the levels it did.  Malcom Gladwell, the spirited writer for The New Yorker normally explores the realm of social psychology, but in his latest work, THE BOMBER MAFIA: A DREAM, A TEMPTATION, AND THE LONGEST NIGHT OF THE SECOND WORLD WAR he turns his focus on to a group known as the “Bomber Mafia” that argued for a new type of bombing during wartime.   The group was made up of generals who went against the standard view of warfare put forth by the U.S. Army and Navy and broke away from the ideology of the Army Air Corps and set up the Army Air Corps Tactical School at Maxwell Field in Montgomery, Alabama.  Gladwell’s focus is on four generals particularly the much maligned Air Force General Curtis LeMay who led and designed American air power that culminated in the firebombing destruction of German and Japanese cities.

Gladwell creates the juxtaposition of Air Force General Haywood Hansell who tried to win the war in the Pacific Theater through precision bombing of Japan.  According to Gladwell this strategy was unsuccessful and gave way to LeMay’s approach whose goal was to win the war against Japan as soon as possible by saturating Tokyo with napalm bombs which would result in the death of over 100,000 people in just a few hours and went on to firebomb other Japanese cities killing thousands of civilians that held no strategic value.  Gladwell concludes that LeMay’s approach followed by the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki ended the war and set the United States and Japan on the road to peace and prosperity much quicker than  had Washington pursued a more conventional approach to warfare into 1946 that would have killed millions of Japanese civilians and who knows how many American soldiers.

Firebombing Tokyo coffee or die
(The devastatiopon suffered by Tokyo March 9, 1945)

Gladwell’s work can be considered anti-revisionist or the new revisionism as without mentioning the likes of Gar Alperovitz’s ATOMIC DIPLOMACY, he purports that the United States pursued their strategy to end the war quickly and was not sending a message that would spark the Cold War.  Gladwell’s fascination with “bombing” during World War II stems from his childhood in London where his father recounted the horrors brought on by the German Luftwaffe over the English capitol and other cities.  As Gladwell mines his topic, he includes portraits of the most important characters involved.  Men like General Haywood Hansell; General Lauris Norstad who fired Hansell; General Curtis Le May; General Ira Eaker, the head of the 8th Air Force bombers stationed in England;  Frederick Lindemann, a friend of Churchill who helped alter the British Prime Minister’s view of strategic bombing; RAF Marshall Arthur Harris, who doggedly opposed the new American approach to bombing; Louis Fieser, a Harvard chemistry professor, who is credited with developing a Dupont chemical along with E.B. Hershberg and created an incendiary gel known as napalm; and perhaps the most important person in the process, Carl L. Norden, the inventor of the “bombsight” that allowed true precision bombing are all explored among a number of others.  Gladwell is correct when he argues that the firing of Hansell in Guam on January 6, 1945 set the United States on a strategic road that still reverberates today.

Gladwell states his goal in writing the book was to present what led up to the firing of Hansell, what changes were made, and how the shift in US strategy had implications for the war itself and the future conduct of warfare.  For Gladwell, “THE BOMBER MAFIA is a case study in how dreams go awry.”  A strategy designed to save lives during wartime in the end did not result in the goals set out by this group of Air Force Generals.   Instead, a Dutch genius and his home made computer who developed the 55 pound bombsight; a “band of brothers” in Alabama; a British psychopath; and pyromaniacal chemists in basement labs at Harvard were responsible for the creation of a weapon that still affects us on a daily basis.

Gladwell begins by explaining how difficult it is to successfully hit a target on the ground from thousands of feet in the air.  The key to solving this conundrum was the work of Carl Norden who began working on his bombsight in the 1920s.  After its development it would take six months to be trained on the Norden bombsight and if it were a success these powerful men thought we would no longer need to leave young men dead on the battlefield or lay waste to entire cities.  War would be made “precise and quick and almost bloodless.  Almost.”

Curtis LeMay coffee or die
(Brig. Gen. Thomas Power, right, senior officer on the March 10 attack on Tokyo by more than 300 B-29s, talks to Maj. Gen. Curtis E. LeMay, second from left, 21st Bomber Command commander, and Brig. Gen. Lauris Norstad, far left, 20th Air Force Chief of Staff, after returning from the attack that burned out huge areas of the Japanese capital)

The Bomber Mafia’s mantra was “high altitude.  Daylight.  Precision bombing.”  These men had a radical mind set much different than the army and navy and passionately believed that they were pursuing a revolutionary goal.  Gladwell explores this group with deft, but not overwhelming detail and to lighten the reader a bit he provides priceless descriptions of a number of characters.  The nicknames he provides labeling Arthur Harris as “Butcher Harris,” Carl Norden as “old man dynamite,” a devoted Christian who believed he was saving lives, Haywood Hansell was called possum, and Curtis LeMay was described as “brutal” by Robert McNamara as all provide insights to the type of people that Gladwell describes.

One of the major strengths of Gladwell’s narrative is how he integrates historical experts, World War II aviators, and comments by other participants providing the reader with greater insight than most into the thinking of the major characters.  These characters would be successful in their mission to end the war early but by 1943 they had hit a wall as disagreements with the British, missions that failed to live up to expectations, and inter-service rivalries played a role.  What is interesting is that LeMay was not part of the “Bomber Mafia” circle.  He was drawn to practical challenges and doctrine left him cold.

Maj. Gen. Hansell

(Major General Haywood Hansell)

Gladwell’s digressions are entertaining but also educational as he pontificates on weather technology, cloud formations and wind over Japan, along with descriptions of certain chemicals and their strengths and weaknesses.  One of those chemicals would lead to the development of napalm a discovery that probably did more to end the war than Norden’s bombsight.  Napalm was chosen by LeMay as the key component in devastating Japan and ending the war quickly.  Once he took over the 21st Bomber Command from Hansell in January 1945 he would soon realize the difficulties that Hansell faced and the obstacles in directing precision bombing against Japanese industrial capacity on the mainland.  LeMay changed American bombing strategy by adopting a low flying approach that was the antithesis of the Bomber Mafia’s methodology.  Gladwell’s chapter “It’s All Ashes” is an incisive look at how LeMay’s personality and modus operandi would lead to the events of the night of March 9, 1945.  Gladwell describes LeMay as suppressing his own nerves and fears as he focuses on the mission that ultimately dropped 1,665 tons of napalm on Tokyo over a three hour period burning everything for sixteen square miles and the death of over 100,000 people.  LeMay’s planes would continue to wreak havoc, death, and devastation on 67 Japanese cities killing at least 500,000 or perhaps 1,000,000 people before the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  After the atomic explosions LeMay continued to bomb Japanese cities as he believed the nuclear attacks were superfluous as the hard work had already been done.  One can debate the necessity for this type of devastation, but Gladwell is correct in arguing that it was so effective that it must be given credit for shortening the war.

In summation it is clear Gladwell has written an informative and important new slant on World War II bombing and I agree with historian, Diana Preston’s conclusions in her April 23, 2021 review in the Washington Post, “Gladwell does however confront us with difficult questions: “Ask yourself — What would I have done?” he suggests at one point. In so doing he has produced a thought-provoking, accessible account of how people respond to difficult choices in difficult times. Albert Einstein once warned that “our technology has exceeded our humanity.” Gladwell suggests that, given their concern not to cross a moral line, the Bomber Mafia would have approved of modern technical innovations like the B-2 stealth bomber, capable of precision strikes on military targets while minimizing civilian casualties. Yet ingenuity and conscience always sit uneasily in warfare, and Einstein’s warning should not be forgotten.”  But in the end Gladwell is correct as high altitude precision bombing soon replaced firebombing – “Curtis LeMay won the battle.  Haywood Hansell won the war.”

Curtis LeMay coffee or die
(B29s flying over Tokyo, March 9, 1945)