LIGHTENING STRIKE by William Kent Krueger

Color image of Iron Lake, Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, 2012.
(Iron Lake region of northern Minnesota)

We live in a political culture where there is a movement to prevent teaching facts that pertain to our past history.  Boards of education and state officials are pressured to teach topics that avoid anything that might be negative about our America.  Be it slavery, the treatment of Native-Americans, white racism, or limiting the rights of women they are all under scrutiny by those who believe it presents white people in a damning light.  Sadly, it has become a political issue which deprives our children of accuracy in their education.  In William Kent Krueger’s latest novel in the Cork O’Conner series LIGHTENING STRIKE the reader is presented with a microcosm of Native-American history and life on the reservation in1963, a topic I imagine proponents of critical race theory would oppose.

Krueger’s seventeenth installment of the Cork O’Conner series serves as a prequel for the first sixteen novels and explores the daily life of the twelve year old Corcoran O’Conner, a precocious teenager and his relationship with his father Liam who is the sheriff of Tamarack County, MN.  The story unfolds in Aurora, MN, a small town on the shores of Minnesota’s Iron Range, the setting of many of Krueger’s previous novels where Cork serves in the same position as his father and is trying to put back his marriage with Nancy Jo and their three children, Jenny a typical teenager, Steven, a kindergartner, and Anne a middle school student.  As sheriff Cork has to deal with the needs of Native-Americans who live on the reservation in northern Minnesota and the myriad of issues ranging from murder, drugs, the environment all wrapped up in local politics.  As I read the series I often wondered about Cork’s background, and Krueger’s latest work provides many answers.

1: Watersheds (HUC-08) of the Mesabi Iron Range. The subwatersheds (HUC-10) are those portions of the watersheds located within the mining region. 

Set in 1963, the novel is about the coming of age of a son trying to unravel the mystery that had been his father.  The story begins as the young Cork and his friend Jorge are hiking in the Superior National Forest along an abandoned logging road.  They will come across a man, Big John Manydeeds hanging from a tree, an apparent suicide.  Manydeeds was close with Cork who served as an excellent guide in the Quetico-Superior wilderness.  Cork’s father, Liam is in charge of the investigation and concludes that all the evidence points to a suicide, not murder.  For Cork, the incident sparks many questions surrounding death, i.e.; the Ojibwe belief in the soul walking a path to a better place and the Christian view of heaven.

Liam and Manydeeds had fought in World War II and experienced many things they would like to forget.  Both experience characteristics of PTSD which Liam is able to cope with, but Big John turns to alcohol for solace in dealing with his demons.  The “suicide” scene at a clearing called Lightening Strike is littered with whiskey bottles as is Big John’s cabin.  The issue of Native-American alcoholism on the reservation is one of the aspects of Indian life that Krueger explores in detail through his characters.  Liam may accept the death was suicide, but his son Cork does not who along with his friend Jorge and Big John’s nephew Billy.  The three boys begin to conduct their own parallel investigation which reminded me of the Hardy Boy mysteries I read as a youngster.

Krueger provides painful glimpses into reservation life and how for over a century the federal government has tried to ruin Native-American culture by forceful assimilation into the white man’s world.  Liam is responsible for enforcing the law on the reservation and must deal with the anger and distrust that Indians feel toward white society.  Interestingly, Liam’s spouse Colleen is half Anishinaabe.

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(Iron Lake, Minnesota)

Pressure from Native-American reservation leaders like Sam Winter Moon, Liam’s friend and his mother-in-law Grandma Dilsey, along with Cork’s own investigation convince Liam that Big John did not commit suicide.  The question that emerges is who was responsible for the death.  Emerging evidence points to Duncan MacDermind, the owner of a vast mining complex whose racial views are untenable.  MacDermind, a racist who fought in World War II and was aboard the Indianapolis and survived a Japanese attack that killed over 2000 also suffers from PTSD.  The question is motive.  Why would MacDermind kill Big John?  Rumors of an affair may be the answer, but it is not clear, particularly since the county attorney is in MacDermind’s hip pocket.  MacDermind is not the only person of interest, perhaps Big John’s half brother Oscar was guilty, or perhaps the culprit is someone who we cannot fathom.

Krueger introduces a number of characters that appear in his later novels.  Henry Meloux, a member of the Grand Medicine Society, is a Mide or healer and is the philosophical leader that reservation members turn to for advice.  Sam Winter Moon, Liam’s close friend will serve the same role for Cork.  Both men try to guide Liam and his son and try to make them understand the impact the death of Big John and the disappearance of Louise La Rosa, a young Ojibwe girl whose body was found in the Boundary Waters has on the reservation population.   Liam was under intense pressure as he was caught in the middle as Native-Americans whose badge made him an athame as a white sheriff, whites in the community referring to him as the “squaw man” for having married a half Indian woman, and even his mother-in-law and wife questioning his approach to the investigation.

William Kent Krueger
(William Kent Krueger, the author)

LIGHTENING STRIKE explores the gentle relationship between a father and son and provides insights into the type of man Cork will become.  It is written with grace and understanding and lays the groundwork for the wonderful series that Krueger has developed as Liam has seeded compelling and complicated wisdom to his son which will make him a better man.

Iron Lake Campground
(Superior National Forest, Iron Lake Region, Minnesota)


The dates December 5 through the 7th, 1941 mark the parameters of the most consequential week of the 20th century or perhaps any other time in history.  It was during that week that the Soviet Union began a major counter offensive against the Nazis who were threatening Moscow, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, and Hitler declared war on the United States.  It was a perilous time for the British who had endured Dunkirk, the Luftwaffe’s blitz over London and other cities, fears of Japanese attacks against British held territories in Asia, and Churchill’s fear that the only thing that could save his island empire – the entrance of the United States into the war against Germany would not occur as Washington would now focus on Japan after Pearl Harbor.  The event that saved the British was the Nazi dictator’s declaration of war against the United States, an act that should be difficult to understand since Germany was already fighting a devastating two front war.

Historians have questioned for decades why Hitler would take on the United States when Germany faced so many obstacles.  The German alliance with Japan was defensive predicated on an attack on Japan which the events of December 7th made obsolete.  In analyzing Hitler’s decision making historians fall into two camps.  The first, Hitler was a nihilist who was driven by an egoistic personality in making numerous irrational decisions.  The second school of thought has ferreted out a semblance of strategic calculations in his decision making.  In his latest book, British historian Brendan Simms and his co-author Charlie Laderman entitled, HITLER’S AMERICAN GAMBLE: PEARL HARBOR AND GERMANY’S MARCH TO WAR support the latter analysis which is consistent with Simms’s 2019 biography of Hitler when he argued that Hitler was well aware of American power and war with the United States was inevitable therefore his decision was pre-emptive.

Whichever argument one accepts it is clear that Simms and Laderman have made a compelling case in analyzing Hitler’s thought process the first part of December 1941 which led him to declare war on America.  Along with this analysis, the authors dig deeply into the state of the war as of early December, the realpolitik practiced by Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill, and the key role played by the Japanese government.


The authors have written a detailed description of the uncertainty that existed between December 5-12, 1941.  It seems as if the reader is present as decisions are made by the main participants hour by hour.  The blow by blow account is incisive and the results of Hitler’s decision to declare war on the United states would launch a global war.  The authors make a compelling case that before the onset of war the Japanese government did not trust Hitler as they feared the Nazi dictator would seize Vichy French colonies in Southeast Asia.  Simms and Laderman provide an accurate appraisal of the background history leading to December 7th.  They raise interesting points, many of which have been written about by previous historians. 

Lend Lease plays a significant role in the thinking of all the participants leading up to and after the attack on Pearl Harbor.  The authors are clear and correct when they argue that the American aid policy infuriated Hitler.  For the Fuhrer it reinforced the connection in his mind that capitalism, Jews, and American policy were all part of a conspiracy against Germany.  From Hitler’s perspective American actions were driving Germany towards war against the United States.  For example, in March 1941 the American navy began to protect British convoys across the Atlantic.  In addition, the U.S. would expand its defensive zone all the way to Greenland and reinforce its Atlantic Fleet.  Lend Lease also played a key role in Hitler’s thinking even after December 7th.  The authors spend a great deal of time discussing how Churchill and Roosevelt believed that the Nazis pressured the Japanese to attack developing the hope that the Japanese attack would force an American declaration of war against Tokyo and forcing Washington to reduce its aid to England and the Soviet Union because of its own needs in the Pacific.  Hitler was under no illusion concerning US military production, but he would come to believe that the Nazis should strike before the American military-industrial complex could reach maximum production.

As Hitler contemplated declaring war against the United States, Churchill and the British government desperate for continued Lend Lease worried that the aid would be reduced because of US needs in East Asia.  Churchill was especially concerned because of the ongoing fighting in North Africa and the threat to the Suez Canal.  In fact, the authors point out that aid was stopped for a brief period as disagreement arose between Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson and Lend Lease administrator Edward Stettinius. 

From the Japanese perspective they were unsure if they could rely on a German declaration of war.  The authors mine the commentary of Japanese leaders particularly Foreign Minister Shigenari Togo who did not trust that Germany would join the war against the United States.

Roosevelt was concerned about America Firsters and isolationists in Congress.  Both groups were willing to fight the Japanese but were against involvement in Europe as they refused to fight for what they perceived to be British colonial interests.  FDR walked a fine line and refused to meet with Churchill after December 7th as to not exacerbate domestic opposition.  Hitler’s declaration made it easier for Roosevelt to declare war on Germany and overcome isolationist opposition.

The Repulse and Prince of Wales Battleships: How They Sunk

(The sinking of the British battleships Repulse and The Prince of Wales December 10, 1941)

The coming Holocaust against European Jewry played a role in Hitler’s strategy.  The Nazi dictator saw the Jews of Europe as hostages to keep FDR from taking further action against Germany.  It did not stop the murderous horror taking place in eastern Europe but as long as the US did not enter the war the fate of western European Jewry would be postponed.  However, the authors argue effectively argue that once Hitler declared war against the United States, in his mind they were no longer a bargaining chip in dealing with Washington.  He was now free to conduct his Final Solution against western and central European Jews.

Churchill & Roosevelt. /Nprime Minister Winston Churchill And President Franklin D. Roosevelt Photographed During A Press Conference In
(Winston Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt)

The authors astutely point out the role of racism in the war.  John W. Dower’s amazing study, WAR WITHOUT MERCY: RACE AND POWER IN THE PACIFIC WAR is the best study of the issue arguing that war in the Pacific was a racial war.  For Simms and Laderman the decision making process on the part of Anglo-American military planners was greatly influenced by their low opinion of Japanese military capability.  Leadership on both sides of the Atlantic could not fathom the idea that the Japanese had the ability to launch intricate attacks such as the attack on Pearl Harbor, Malaya, the Philippines, Guam, Singapore, Southeast Asia at the same time.  This type of thinking also resulted in disaster for the Royal Navy as Japanese bombers destroyed Force Z that included the sinking of the Repulse and the Prince of Wales.

Simms and Laderman do an excellent job delving into the calculations of the major participants in the coming war.  The significant issues apart from Hitler’s decision as to whether he should declare war on the United States included whether Stalin should declare war on Japan? How would England and the Soviet Union make up for the shortfall of Lend Lease aid in the immediate future?  How would FDR overcome domestic opposition to US participation in the European War and so on?

(Japanese envoys in Washington, DC December 1941)

The authors also do an admirable job integrating the opinions of people across the globe concerning the implications for Japanese actions in the Pacific.  People as diverse as the former mayor of Cologne Konrad Adenauer (and future German leader after WWII) to everyday citizens on the streets of Berlin, London, Leningrad, intellectuals in Poland tosoldiers on the eastern front.  For all the key was what would Hitler do – would he declare war on the United States and unleash a global war as Mussolini had warned or would he allow Japan to take on the American colossus themselves.

Overall, Simms and Laderman have written a thought provoking book that breaks down the December 5-12th 1941 period for three-fourths of their narrative that includes an important introduction that sets the scene for Hitler’s decisions and the implications that the decisions would have for the future of the war which would not end until August 1945.

NIGHT DOGS by Kent Anderson

(North Portland, OR in the 1970s)

Set in Portland, Oregon in 1975, Kent Anderson follows his first novel, SYMPATHY FOR THE DEVIL, with another exceptional work entitled NIGHT DOGS.  In his first book, a searing examination of the war in Vietnam, its effect on those who fought it, and the insanity of war Anderson focused on SGT Hanson an army enlistee after three years of college who volunteered for Special Forces, completed a tour of duty in Vietnam, and then reenlisted for another tour when he could not readapt to civilian life.  Hanson is a fascinating character as he became a hardened combat veteran while continuing to carry a book of Yeats’ poetry with him as he engaged the enemy.  In NIGHT DOGS we are reintroduced to Hanson who has traded his Bronze Star for a policeman’s badge.  Hanson still suffers from the demons of Vietnam as he patrols Portland’s meanest streets and is also confronted with enemies within the department who are bent on destroying him by digging into his war record and resurrecting the agonies associated with the events in southeast Asia. 

Robert J. Lifton, the author of HOME FROM THE WAR a study of the psychological impact on American soldiers in Vietnam written in 1973 was the motivating force behind the Veteran’s Administration’s decision to recognize PTSD as a clinical condition.  Lifton describes PTSD as a mental and behavioral disorder that can develop because of exposure to a traumatic event or events, particularly combat.  Anderson’s protagonist, SGT. Hanson is a textbook case and throughout the novel as he pursued the daily grind of policing in the poverty stricken violent ghetto of north Portland he provides evidence of the characteristics of PTSD especially flashbacks, interjecting his wartime experiences in daily conversations, nightmares, and recurrent conversations about the war with his elderly blind rescue dog, Truman who in a sense serves as Hanson’s “therapy” dog.

Anderson provides a glimpse into the nuances of a policeman’s day.  We ride along with Hanson and his partner Dana as they respond to calls over their radio in their assigned area dealing with car accidents, domestic violence, noise complaints, drug raids, shootings, robberies, welfare problems and a number of situations where they are the catalysts for their definition of crimes.  At the time the book was written in 1996 the issue of police brutality highlighted by the beating of Rodney King on April 29, 1992, was fresh in the mind of the author and if we fast forward to today; the Black Lives Matter movement,  George Floyd, and other police shootings of black men the book remains extremely relevant.

(Author Kent Anderson serving in Vietnam)

The Vietnam War is revisited through Hanson’s thoughts and commentary throughout the book.  As in his first novel, Anderson presents the hypocrisy of a senseless and dysfunctional war that was/is responsible for ruining the lives of countless soldiers through suicide, life long physical and mental injuries, and government policies that evolved decades later that some refer to as Vietnam Syndrome. 

Anderson explores police culture in fine detail as officers have to deal with urban decay and its attendant issues each day in Portland’s ever growing under world.  As in all police precincts officers are not always simpatico as is the case with narcotics Detective Fox and his partner, Detective Peety.  In Fox’s case it has become personal as he is obsessed in seeking revenge against Hanson for perceived lack of cooperation with narcotics cases and a general dislike.  Fox spends a great deal of time on and off duty going through Pentagon computers trying to dig up information concerning Hanson’s tours in Vietnam in order to destroy his career. The north Portland precinct that Hanson belong to has a reputation for being a landing spot for police officers and administrators who have “royally” screwed up and many of the characters Anderson introduces fit that pattern.

(Kent Anderson)

The only people that Hanson truly respects are his patrol car partners, Dana and Zurbo, but the only person he trusts is Doc Dawson, a black former member of his Special Forces team in Vietnam.  Doc’s helicopter is shot down and he winds up in a New Jersey VA hospital where certain racist nurses have it in for him and make his recovery miserable.  The end result, upon recovery he will return home and become a drug dealer and killer, and because of his VA treatment he walks with a limp and has a chip on his shoulder.  Hanson owes Doc his life because of an incident in the war and their friendship is rather unusual to say the least.

Anderson’s treatment of Hanson’s Special Forces training produces a number of scenes that are extremely disturbing, particularly how soldiers shot dogs, saved them while practicing medical training to be used in combat, and when the dogs recovered they are killed.  In many ways Hanson’s experiences as a policeman mirror what he endured in Vietnam.  In a sense the US military was seen as serving as an army of occupation in Vietnam.  On the domestic front, many people see the police serving the same function in disadvantaged neighborhoods.

During the summer of 1975, Hanson begins to unravel.  He is assigned a number of harrowing cases and colleagues die.  He will be targeted by O. Payette Simpson, a demented man who goes by the name Dakota who has targeted him.  Detective Fox’s research vendetta begins to haunt him.  His masochistic girlfriend, Sara, eggs him on to be more violent.  Finally, his loyalty to Doc threatens his professional loyalties as his drinking and cocaine use increase.

Hanson is a complex character and is accurately described by Michael Harris in the Los Angeles Times review “The Forces Battling for a Policeman’s Soul” from January 1997;” If Hanson were really a “monster” and a racist, he could rest content in his war-won certainties. But he can’t. The real reason he hates liberals is that he’s a little bit of a liberal himself. Though he doesn’t believe in love, he knows he needs it. Though civilization is wimpy and hypocritical, he dimly senses that it’s all we have. Though he treats some black offenders with gleeful brutality, he admits it’s not their fault that society has chosen to leave them in poverty, isolate them and suppress them by force rather than deal with their problems.”

Many novels have been written about the lives of policemen and soldiers, but few if any have delved into the propensity of the American people for violence as well as NIGHT DOGS.  Anderson’s work is well done, but it also presents a very important lesson which we should all digest.

Delegates to the American Legion national convention watched from sidewalks as the People's Army Jamboree marched through downtown Portland in August 1970. (The Oregonian)
(North Portland, OR in the mid 1970s)


Portrait of Marquis de Lafayette
(Marquis de Lafayette)

While on one of my 5 1/2 mile walks the other day the music from the Broadway show “Hamilton” reverberated in my ear buds.  After having taught a course trying to discern the historical accuracy of the musical with numerous references to the Marquis de Lafayette I decided to digest Mike Duncan’s latest work, HERO OF TWO WORLDS: THE MARQUIS DE LAFAYETTE IN THE AGES OF REVOLUTION. Since 2013 Duncan has recorded about 150 hours for his podcast Revolutions, a chronological blow by blow account of ten historical revolutions between the 17th and early 20th centuries and in his new book he expands upon three seasons of his podcast.   In terms of historical depth and important insights I found Duncan’s work satisfying and at times insightful.  If one compares Lafayette’s character in the musical to his actual life, apart from artistic license there is an acceptable degree of accuracy in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s work if one delves into the lyrics surrounding the American Revolution.  However, Lafayette’s life story is more than his key role in the American Revolution and his relationship with George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, and John Laurens as he was a focal part in the Age of Revolution that encompassed the latter part of the 18th century and the first third of the 19th.

It is an understatement to say that Lafayette lived a remarkable life.  In Duncan’s somewhat hagiographic approach to biography the hero of the American Revolution is presented in a mostly positive lens, sprinkled in with a few errors and foibles that Lafayette succumbed to.  The key to understanding the time period in which Lafayette lived is to familiarize the reader with the socio-economic and political structure of pre-revolutionary France.  Duncan avails himself of every opportunity to explain the three estate structure of the French political system highlighted by the fact that the first two estates which made up most of the wealth of the French kingdom could not be taxed.  Instead of the nobles carrying their fair share of the tax burden, the monarchy relied upon taxing the third estate made up of laborer’s, peasants, educators, and the petit bourgeoisie to make up the budget shortfall as the monarchy edged toward bankruptcy.  However, before Duncan turns to events in France he explores Lafayette’s early years that culminated in a major-generalship in the Continental Army under General Washington by age 24.

Louis XVI
(French King Louis XVI)

Duncan is very perceptive in his approach to Lafayette’s upbringing and educational training.  He was left fatherless as his father was killed in battle in 1759. By 1770 his mother had passed, and Lafayette inherited a great deal of wealth as a member of the lower nobility.  The key for the then teenager was his marriage into the de Noailles family where his father-in-law turned his education away from the countryside and book learning to a military career and the life of a privileged nobleman.  Lafayette rejected this career plan and based on his diaries and his letters to his wife Adrienne which Duncan integrates throughout the narrative vowed to make a name for himself and pursue what he believed should become a just society.

Duncan argues that the summer of 1775 was the turning point for Lafayette as he seemed to latch on to the ideas of “liberty, equality, and the rights of man” probably developed while he was exposed to Freemasonry and his Masonic brethren.  After learning about the Battles of Lexington and Concord across the Atlantic he secured a position on a list of French officers who were sent to the English colonies to assist the revolutionaries as a means of revenge for the Treaty of Paris of 1763 which resulted in defeat for France at the end of the Seven Years War by the British.  Duncan does an admirable job explaining the French characters that were key to aiding the revolutionaries, men like the French Foreign Minister Charles Gravier, Count of Vergennes and Pierre Beaumarchais, an arms trader and financier who helped finance and supply weapons and other materials that fueled French assistance.

Marie Adrienne Francoise de Noailles, French School 18th century copy.jpg
(Adrienne, the Marquis de Lafayette’s wife)

Perhaps the most interesting relationship that Duncan develops is between Washington and Lafayette.  At first the Colonial commander was not impressed with Lafayette seeing him as another privileged French general who strutted around and knew little about military tactics and commanding men.  However, after the Battle of Brandywine in 1777 Lafayette proved himself in battle with his ability to improvise his command and his remarkable bravery which at times bordered on personal recklessness.  Soon Washington would become a surrogate father for the newly minted French general and he a “son” to his commander.

Duncan reviews the most important aspects of the American Revolution, the political and military factions it spawned, and the most important characters involved.  Written in a workman like manner there is little that is new here as the author rehashes Lafayette’s positive contributions, his own wealth, leadership, and connections with the French government to lobby support for greater French support which culminated in the British defeat.

(Napoleon Bonaparte)

Duncan does not neglect Lafayette’s weakness as a father and husband.  While he off seeking glory and developing a heroic persona he left his wife and children, one of which dies while he was away in America.  Duncan is correct by emphasizing his wife Adrienne’s love for her husband but also her sense of abandonment and loneliness. 

Lafayette’s experience in America reinforced his views about the corruptibility of the nobility and their lack of social consciousness.  As he evolved into a social reformer he overlooked the hypocrisy of his compatriots in America concerning slavery as he adopted  abolitionism, worked for prison reform, religious freedom, freedom of speech and the press all in the name of the betterment of the masses.  Later as the French Revolution reached its pinnacle he would prepare a list of reforms called the Declaration of Rights of Man which he offered the new National Assembly in1788 which would become the basis of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen a year later.  Over a five year period after the Treaty of Paris with England in 1783, Lafayette transitioned from an adventurous soldier to a liberal benefactor of humanity, particularly starving peasants, oppressed Protestants, and enslaved Africans.

Duncan’s insights into Lafayette’s precarious position as the French Revolution approached are important as he delves into his attempts to follow a middle course.  He remained loyal to Louis XVI as long as the king did not go back on promises to implement reforms particularly when the king was forced to leave Versailles for Paris once the revolution took hold.  Lafayette was appointed the commanding general of the 30,000 man National Guard to protect the city from violence and any threats that might prevent the writing of a constitution.  To many, particularly on the left, men like Jean-Paul Marat, Camille Desmoulins and George Danton he was a tool of the monarchy.  However ultra-royalists saw him as working to undermine the nobility as he worked for a constitutional monarchy. As Lafayette tried to hold the center he seemed to offend everyone.

[Washington and Jefferson] Look on This Picture, and On This
(George Washington and Thomas Jefferson)

Eventually as the French Revolution turned increasingly violent with the Reign of Terror, Lafayette fled to Austria and was treated as a dangerous revolutionary and would be imprisoned for five years. Duncan carefully crafts Lafayette’s plight as a prisoner under the auspices of Francis I, the Habsburg Emperor.  He would spend the last year in the Austrian prison at Olmutz enduring horrible conditions.  Towards the end of his imprisonment, he would be joined by his wife Adrienne and three daughters who would suffer along with their husband and father.  Finally, as the French rebuilt their military might to counter the English, Prussian, and Austrian armies they would free Lafayette when a young Napoleon Bonaparte liberated the prison.  By 1814 he would reenter the political fray as the Bourbon restoration after the Congress of Vienna turned reactionary.  He would be instrumental in the overthrow of the Bourbon Dynasty in 1830 that placed Louis-Phillipe on the throne, but the new monarch would only disappoint him.

Duncan does an admirable job reflecting on Lafayette’s career and the causes he was drawn to.  Duncan is up front when discussing his subjects’ limitations seeing him as a man dominated by an overwhelming amount of energy, but he lacked the intelligence of many of his important contemporaries.  It is clear that Lafayette’s lack of personal ambition was key as it limited his ability to engage in the cutthroat politics of France during his lifetime, and the hero worship that he was graced with never really matched concrete accomplishments once the gains of 1789 were made.

File:Franz Xaver Winterhalter King Louis Philippe.jpg
(Louis Philippe)

Overall, Duncan is a masterful historical storyteller who has made an important contribution to the literature that surrounds Lafayette’s life.  He dissects all of the major aspects of his personal life and career, and one could only conclude that Lafayette lived a remarkable life that saw him engage in important aspects of two of the three most important revolutions in history (the Russian Revolution being the third) of what British historian, Eric Hobsbawm has labeled the “Age of Revolution.”

Lafayette : stock illustration
(Marquis de Lafayette)


John Feinstein’s reputation is based on his excellent reporting and the 45 books he has written.  His approach is multi-faceted whether books or articles that cover baseball, golf, tennis, college and pro football, basketball, college and professional.  Feinstein’s writing is clear and insightful, and these characteristics are evident in his latest book, and perhaps his most important, RAISE A FIST, TAKE A KNEE: RACE AND THE ILLUSION OF PROGRESS IN MODERN SPORTS.  At a time highlighted by a former racist president, the Black Lives Matter movement, the death of George Floyd and too many others Feinstein effectively explores the issue of racial inequality in sports, a microcosm of our larger society which should open the eyes of its readers.

After reading the introduction by former NFL quarterback Doug Williams and Feinstein’s opening chapter it brought me back to my own experiences with racism.  In my early twenties I joined a group of friends in a softball tournament in Staten Island, NY.  When the games where completed, a teammate came up to me and said, “for a Jew, you are a pretty good guy,” I was dumb founded.  Earlier, I had undergone basic training in the army at Fort Lost in the Woods Misery, better known as Ft. Leonard Wood and the first thing I heard at reception station was “Freiberger, Jew boy we gonna whoop your fucking ass.” This was 1969 and being in a company where the majority of recruits were from Mississippi, Georgia, and Alabama I should not have been surprised.  Needless to say, things went downhill from then on. 

After reading Feinstein’s work and revisiting my own experiences which go beyond the two experiences I describe one would think that almost fifty years later as a society we would have made greater progress, including sports.  However, as Feinstein clearly shows in football where the vast majority of players are black, there are only three head coaches and two general managers.  In baseball, as of May 2021 according to USA Today, “just under 8% of the league’s players are Black. Dave Roberts of the Dodgers and Dusty Baker of the Astros remain the only Black managers. There are currently no Black general managers in Major League baseball.  If this is not an indicator of the current trends in sports then nothing is.”

John Thompson
(Georgetown coach, the late John Thompson)

Feinstein has conducted a prolific amount of research which is reflected in his discussion of numerous topics germane to his thesis.  A case in point is the number of black quarterbacks in the NFL and what it takes to become a quarterback if you are black.  Interestingly today there are a number of exceptional young quarterbacks in the NFL, but if the past is prologue many black players who aspire to stand behind a center have been steered in the direction of wide receiver, cornerback or safety because of course they were fast, and if we include racial tropes hinted by coaches like Mike Shanahan they are not able to grasp the intricacies of running the offense of a professional football team.  This is out and out racism and Feinstein provides examples to support his argument including the likes of Donavan McNabb, Colin Kaepernick and Marlin Briscoe. In Kaepernick’s high profile case he took a knee during the national anthem to protest the lack of racial justice in America, resulting in being blackballed by all 32 NFL teams.

As one reads Feinstein’s work a number of extremely important points emerge. First, the NFL is 75% black but if you are a white coach who has been dismissed one or two times the odds are you will get another opportunity to be a head coach.  If you are a black under the same circumstances you will most likely spend your career as an offensive or defensive coordinator, never given the opportunity to become a head coach.  Again, Feinstein points to a number of individuals to support his conclusions, Marvin Lewis, Jim Caldwell, and Lovie Smith.  Further, he asks the question many others have; why hasn’t Kansas City Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy been hired as a head coach based on his career resume and success?  Football is not the only sport that exhibits these discrepancies.  In college basketball there are 332 coaching jobs, 82 of which are held by blacks – a sport where 50% of the players are black. (161)

Doc Rivers Clippers
(Philadelphia Seventy-Sixers coach Doc Rivers)

Second, why are black quarterbacks in college expected to change positions in order to play in the NFL?  Feinstein takes us inside the Baltimore Ravens 2018 draft room where it took a black General Manager, Ozzie Newsome to choose a black quarterback.  To understand this process and the choice of Lamar Jackson in addition to the cadre of young black quarterbacks in the league who are a success, we must ask, is the process changing?  Interestingly, in 2017 the Chicago Bears drafted Mitch Trubisky with their second round draft pick while Patrick Mahomes went in the 10th round and Deshaun Watson was chosen in the 12th.  Today Trubisky is a backup QB and not even with the Bears, but he is white and the others black.  The situation for blacks who aspire to become general managers face the same obstacles. The numbers do not lie. 

Third, when blacks peacefully protest they are usually stigmatized for life – exemplified by John Carlos and Tommie Smith of 1968 Mexico City fame and Colin Kaepernick.

Lastly, something Pittsburgh Steeler coach Mike Tomlin refers to as “the talk,” how you engage white police officers when you are pulled over if you have black sons whose only transgression is “driving while black.”  This has nothing to do with sports, but it provides a lens into how black parents try and protect their children in the larger society.  “The talk” is a result of the experiences of black fathers who for generations have been treated poorly by police.

A closeup of Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin.

(PITTSBURGH, PA – DECEMBER 17: Head coach Mike Tomlin of the Pittsburgh Steelers looks on from the sidelines in the third quarter during the game against the New England Patriots at Heinz Field on December 17, 2017 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania)

Feinstein does an excellent job providing the personal background for each of the sports figures he discusses.  Whether it is John Carlos, Tony Dungy or a host of other we get to see the world through their eyes and are exposed to an important perspective when it comes to race based on what they have been through leading to their professional careers. 

Perhaps Feinstein’s most entertaining and insightful chapter, “Pathfinders” focuses on the life and career of Georgetown coach John Thompson.  Thompson was a man with a tough exterior and took an exceptionally weak program and turned it into a national powerhouse.  But beyond the façade, Thompson was a wonderful person who took care of his players and was “thoughtful and eloquent and never ducked a question, once you got the chance to ask one.”  What is clear in college basketball most head coaching offers to Blacks are given by programs that are in poor shape.  According to Thompson, “there have been plenty of Black coaches capable of winning a national championship.  Only a handful have been given a realistic chance to do so.”

Feinstein’s discussion of the NBA, a league that is the most progressive and places itself at the center of society’s ills with protests by players and its commissioner are eye opening.  Focusing on Doc Rivers whose commentary encapsulates the plight of blacks in the larger society as opposed to zeroing in on the NBA is important because it shows how racial attitudes are intertwined between sports and the “real” world.  For Rivers, the deaths of George Floyd, Jacob Blake, Ahmaud Arbery, Breanna Taylor and so many others are too much as is the constant experience of Black While Driving.  The NBA may be more progressive, but it too has some key issues that must be addressed.

Feinstein finds the same issues that plague football and basketball in baseball.  Though he does not dig down as deep as he did with other sports the problems that exist sound familiar.  For example, why has Willie Randolph who had a successful career as a player, coach, and even as a manager of the New York Mets been out of baseball since 2011 and has not had the opportunity to manage another team since the Mets fired him.  Jeff Torborg has been a manager five times and his record is not as strong as Randolph.  If we are to examine this example and others it is clear, Randolph is black, Torborg is white.  Why did A.J. Hinch, the manager of the Houston Astros who was fired and suspended by Major League baseball for the illegalities in winning the 2017 World Series, get rehired by the Detroit Tigers immediately after he served his suspension?  He was white! 

  • Baseball MLB 1990 Bowman #449 Dave Stewart #449 NM Athletics

If we follow the path of Dave Stewart, an all-star pitcher and World Series champion to become a general manager the pattern is the same, and of course he is black therefore he missed out on the executive position with the Toronto Blue Jays who hired a “white” person whose resume did not hold a candle to Stewart’s.  If one follows Black men with executive positions in baseball we see Derek Jeter, part owner of the Florida Marlins and Kenny Williams as executive vice-president after being a GM of the Chicago White Sox, but it took twenty-one years – obviously, the pattern remains clear.

Feinstein has authored an important book, made even better with his sense of humor and sarcasm.  With the death of George Floyd and the events of last year hovering over each sentence Feinstein must be commended for his impeccable research, easy writing style, and the importance of his topic which makes the book difficult to put the book down.  If there is one area that Feinstein could have improved upon is that he can get repetitive at times, but this is probably nit-picking.

Image: Colin Kaepernick, Eric Reid

(San Francisco 49ers’ Colin Kaepernick, right, and Eric Reid protest during the national anthem before an NFL game against the Carolina) 


Japanese Foreign Minister Mamoru Shigemitsu, seated, signs the Japanese surrender document on the Missouri in Tokyo Bay on Sept. 2, 1945.

(Japanese surrender on USS Missouri after WWII)

The death of Franklin D. Roosevelt in April1945 vaulted the inexperienced Harry S. Truman into the Oval Office.  As Vice-President Truman was kept in the dark by Roosevelt on many issues including the Manhattan Project which would later result in dropping two atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in early August 1945.  However, before the Enola Gay released its first bomb, American policy to end the war in the Pacific rested upon the phrase “unconditional surrender” a term uttered by Roosevelt at the Casablanca Conference attended by Winston Churchill in January 1943.  The policy was employed to avoid any possibility that the defeated powers of Germany and Japan would later question whether they were defeated militarily as occurred following World War I.

The application of “unconditional surrender” to the Pacific Theater is the subject of Villanova Professor Marc Gallicchio’s latest monograph, UNCONDITIONAL: THE JAPANESE SURRENDER IN WORLD WAR II.  A major focus in Gallicchio’s narrative is the role of Truman and a cadre of individuals that includes Henry L. Stimson, Joseph C. Grew, James Forrestal, George C. Marshall, Dean Acheson, Herbert Hoover, and numerous others in debating the policy of “unconditional surrender,” with an eye on the role of the Soviet Union, China, and Japan in the post war world.  Though Truman was a novice in foreign policy he held a number of strong views concerning uprooting Japan’s military and its ideology and replacing the imperial monarchy with a pro-western democracy.

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(President Harry S. Truman)

After the war, the United States would help with the reconstruction of Japan and impose a new constitution on the defeated country.  As Japan flourished she would become a staunch ally that stood firmly against the rise of communism in China and a supporter of Washington’s overall all policy for Asia.  The end result was that the United States avoided creating a revanchist regime in Tokyo.

A second major emphasis in Gallicchio’s presentation is how policy decisions evolved and the application of his own insightful analysis throughout. He reconstructs events and delves into the arguments of the major personalities that led to the Japanese surrender on the USS Missouri staged in Tokyo Bay in September 1945.

Gallicchio begins by explaining the origins and rationale for “unconditional surrender” as a means to reassure the Soviet Union that there would be no separate peace.  Russia would come to an agreement that once Germany was defeated they would shift troops to the Pacific and help end the war against Japan, but as in all cases in dealing with Joseph Stalin, Moscow had its own agenda for northeast China once the Japanese withdrew. 

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(Former US Ambassador to Japan, Joseph C. Grew)

Gallicchio exhibits an excellent command of the secondary and primary materials dealing with his topic and offers a concise application of the documentary evidence in developing his conclusions.  In addition, he considers the analysis offered by previous historians who have engaged the late World War II and early Cold War period.  For example, he reviews the Yalta and Potsdam Agreements in his treatment of the “Stalin Issue,” and how the World War II alliance of convenience unraveled despite Washington’s need for Soviet troops to help defeat the Japanese military.  Truman was very concerned that the US should try and defeat Japan as quickly as possible to avoid creating a vacuum in the region that could easily be filled by Moscow.  Aside from the cost of an American invasion of the Japanese home islands this was a major rationale for Truman’s decision to drop the atomic bombs to end the war as quickly as possible.

The author’s analysis includes a deep dive inside the Japanese military hierarchy, cabinet, and bureaucracy and summarizes the views of the different factions that emerged as it was confronted by America’s policies toward surrender and the future role of the Emperor.  Gallicchio spends a substantial amount of time discussing the peace faction that surrounded Emperor Hirohito as it tried to fend off the militarists who believed that if the war could be drawn out further, with Germany defeated domestic pressure in the United States would result in Washington’s acquiescence to a lesser policy than offered by complete surrender, military occupation, and retention of the Emperorship.  Further, the military believed that the Soviet Union could become a useful tool in pressuring the United States to alter its position, in addition to what they perceived as a weakening of the allied alliance.

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(Portrait of Herbert Hoover)

A major strength of Gallicchio’s work is his exploration of the American home front as the war was ending.  Truman was under a great deal of pressure to end the war since Germany was defeated.  Public opinion polls pointed to the desire to bring the troops home and reconversion to a domestic economy and not allowing the Pentagon to dictate economic policy.

Gallicchio emphasizes the role of American code breaking as the United States collected a great deal of information through MAGIC decrypts of Japanese diplomatic messages and analysis of Japanese troop dispositions, which were processed through a military intelligence program code-named ULTRA.  These two sources tried to keep Washington one step ahead of Japan throughout most of the war.

(Japanese Emperor Hirohito)

Gallicchio is correct when he argues that the Potsdam Conference played a significant role as it became increasingly clear that there was little Washington could do to keep the Russians from seizing large parts of Manchuria, even if Japan was defeated before Soviet troops entered China.  However, it is during the conference that Truman learned of the successful test of the atomic bomb providing him with a major tool in dealing with Stalin and ending the war as rapidly as possible.  Truman was ill disposed to making any special guarantees to the Emperor who he believed was as much of a war criminal as Hitler and Mussolini.  But Truman also realized that he would need Hirohito to facilitate the surrender of Imperial troops.  In the end Truman would accept the Emperor as a glorified figurehead, hopefully avoiding a resurgence of Japanese nationalism in the future. 

Henry Stimson : News Photo
(Secretary of War, Henry L. Stimson)

The end of the war did not end the debate over the “unconditional surrender“ policy.  Gallicchio dissects the revisionism put forth by those who blamed the policy of “unconditional surrender” for causing the problems in the immediate post war era that led to communist domination of Asia.  Gallicchio does an excellent job in his last complete chapter in presenting the arguments pro and con whether the Emperor was a peace candidate.  He also extrapolates that if the Truman administration had been willing to alter the policy and state that Washington had no intention to outlaw the monarchy the dropping of the atomic bomb would not have been necessary, the Soviet Union would not have entered China, and by 1949 Maoist forces would not have seized power in Beijing.  This revisionism is incorrect and reflects the inability of certain individuals including Herbert Hoover and Admiral William D. Leahy, Roosevelt’s Chief of Staff among others to accept the reality of the military-political situation within the Japanese establishment where the military dominated the government and in the case of Hirohito he did nothing to alter the conduct of Japanese forces throughout the Pacific.  Gallicchio continues his presentation by reviewing the historiography of his subject well into the mid-1990s and the cultural politics that ensued.

Gallicchio offers a tightly focused narrative that lays out the pros and cons of America’s policy of “unconditional surrender” in the Pacific at the end of World War II.  It is concisely written and stays on target with little or no meandering to other issues.  The book is a fresh look at the drama that unfolded at the end of the war and an important synthesis of what has been written before and encapsulates the important debates that led to the dropping of the atomic bombs and America’s occupation of Japan that ensued.

(Japanese surrender, USS Missouri, September 1945)


Image 1 - 1946 Studebaker Coupe Auto Car Ad Refrigerator / Tool Box Magnet

After creating two the national bestsellers, RULES OF CIVILITY and A GENTLEMAN IN MOSCOW, Amor Towles has now offered his third novel, THE LINCOLN HIGHWAY which has also received praise from many quarters.  The book approaches a ten day period in June 1954 involving four major characters as their journey culminates in New York City.  The story is told from multiple points of view, which has become a staple in Towles’ novels.  The story begins with Warden Williams returning Emmett Watson to his home Morgen, Nebraska after serving an eighteen month sentence at the Salina, Kansas youth home for manslaughter.  After Watson has been delivered to his house he discovers that two inmates from the farm, Woolly Walcott Martin and Daniel (Duchess) Hewett have hidden in the warden’s trunk as a means of escaping the farm.  These three characters along with Emmett’s brother Billy are the vehicle from which the stories embedded in the novel are told.

After their farm is foreclosed upon following the death of their father, Emmett and Billy decide to head to California to try and locate their mother who had abandoned them a decade ago.  Their plans change when Duchess and Woolly abscond with Emmett’s Studebaker and travel to New York.  The novel builds on this framework developing many interesting situations and characters highlighted by Towles approach to life and the foibles of people. 

The Lincoln Highway map from the book

Towles does a superb job framing scenes and is a master of dialogue be it a discussion of Kazantis the escape artist or the philosophical approach to life of Ulysses Dixon, “a large negro” who will save Billy’s life while traveling on a freight train.  Towles creates delightful characters that will capture the reader’s attention throughout the novel.  For example, Emmett’s search for cereal in the General Mills freight car that he and Billy had stolen a ride on to catch up to Duchess and reclaim the Studebaker.  It is on that freight car that Pastor John appears who informs Billy that he is a real pastor “like my namesake John the Baptist, my church is the open road and my congregation the common man” that things will become interesting.

Of all the characters that Towles creates, Ulysses is the most interesting. Ulysses’ story is a sad one as he volunteered for military service in 1943 against the wishes of his wife who was pregnant and when he returns following the war they are nowhere to be found.  Ulysses punishes himself by living in a homeless community under a bridge in New York City and traveling the country using freight trains as a means of transportation.  Towles use of Homer’s THE ILIAD is a remarkable tool to gain insight into Dixon’s life and what the outcome of his journey might turn out to be.

As Towles tells his story through the lens of the four main characters and a few ancillary ones the reader gains diverse perspectives about the same scenes and events and provides a greater understanding of human nature than focusing on only one perspective.  Towles is a marvelous storyteller with a keen eye concerning human relations and their attitude towards life’s vicissitudes.  Towles integrates a number of unusual analogies, for example, comparing the Salina youth farm with Alexandre Dumas’ THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO among many others.

Towles provides an accurate view of the 1950s through the landscape of the Lincoln Highway which connects Times Square in New York to San Francisco.  As Towles characters travel across America underlying themes of ant-communism, anti-Semitism, racism, and socio-economic inequality come to the fore.  Towles eye for detail is astonishing as he explores American culture employing diverse examples including; a Coup Deville, a Playtex bra, cans of Chef Boy-Ardie, television programs from Dragnet to the Long Ranger and others too numerous to mention.

The novel revolves around Emmett’s search for Duchess and their coming together in New York. The travail’s they experience, include Woolly and Billy, along with the family baggage they carry around.  The adventures that emerge are entertaining, thoughtful, and easily maintain the reader’s attention.  The commentary offered by Emmett, Duchess, Woolly, and Billy stand out in terms pathos, empathy, humor, and the serious nature of the lives they are living.  Towles use of Professor Abacus Abernathe’s COMPENDIUM OF HEROES, ADVENTURES, AND OTHER INTREPID TRAVELERS, a red book carried by Billy everywhere describing 26 heroes from Achilles to Zorro is an excellent source to present past history and how it affects the present.  Towles scenes where Billy meets the professor is unusual, and extremely important.

Times Square 

One of the many strengths of THE LINCOLN HIGHWAY is Towles knack of introducing new characters then delving into their personal stories.  Through their recounting we learn a great deal about America ranging from life in an orphanage in Nebraska, a youth facility in Kansas, Harlem neighborhoods, Manhattan to the Adirondacks. Towles has produced a sweeping book that is as much about literary history of the road novel as it is about one engaging journey.

Chris Bachelder is dead on in his November 7, 2021, New York Times  book review when he writes; At 600 pages, “The Lincoln Highway” is remarkably brisk, remarkably buoyant. Though dark shadows fall across its final chapters, the book is permeated with light, wit, youth. Many novels this size are telescopes, but this big book is a microscope, focused on a small sample of a vast whole. Towles has snipped off a minuscule strand of existence — 10 wayward days — and when we look through his lens we see that this brief interstice teems with stories, grand as legends.


Compromise of 1850
(Congressional debate, 1850)

A few days ago, the United States Congress voted to censure Representative Paul Gosar, an Arizona Republican after he posted and edited anime video to his social media accounts that depicted violence against Democratic Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and President Biden.  This along with metal detectors at entrances to the House and Senate, repeated threats of violence against members, heated rhetoric mostly from the Republican side of the aisle by the likes of Georgia Representative Marjorie Taylor Green and Colorado Representative Lauren Bogart, who exhibited her Islamophobia once again the other day, and of course the events of January 6th have raised the level of partisanship and outright fear among Congressional members to levels not seen in over 150 years.  Many argue that today’s split in the body politic has no precedent, however if one consults Joanne B. Freeman’s THE FIELD OF BLOOD: VIOLENCE IN CONGRESS AND THE ROAD TO CIVIL WAR one might realize that though the current political climate is dangerous and is not conducive to legislating the pre-Civil War period from 1830 through 1861 dominated by the slavery issue was rowdier, more violent, with Congressmen carrying weapons to the floor physically attacking each other raising the level of polarization, lack of debate, distrust in Congress as a legislating institution and fear that does not compare to our current political divide.

Freeman’s narrative unveils the full scope of violence that existed in the pre-Civil War period in Congress. She writes that the era consisted of “armed groups of Northern and Southern Congressmen engaged in hand to hand combat on the House floor.  Angry about rights violated and needs denied, and worried about the degradation of their section of the Union, they defended their interests with threats, fists, and weapons.”  Southern Congressmen had long been bullying their way to power with threats, insults, and violence employing the tactic of public humiliation to get their way, particularly against anti-slavery advocates.  At the time this type of Congressional behavior seemed routine and would soon shape the nation as people no longer seemed to trust the institution of Congress and many of its members.  In time it would tear the nation apart.  If any of this sounds familiar remember the elements of the pre-Civil War period are on display every day in Congress with its rhetoric, conspiracy theories, and fealty to a disgraced former president.

(President Franklin Pierce)

Freeman relies heavily on Benjamin Brown French, a House Clerk for a good part of the pre-Civil War period from 1833 on.  The author argues that French was an excellent research tool as he experienced all aspects of the House for many years.  He also kept a daily diary making him the perfect witness for the period.  He described goings on in the Capitol, the mood on the House floor, stories heard, quirks of members, and numerous descriptions of brawls.  Between 1828-1870 he filled 11 volumes and 3700 pages.  Freeman uses this material very effectively as she develops her narrative, in addition to integrating French’s evolution from a purveyor of congressional compromise as a fervent supporter of the Democratic Party in the 1830s and early 1840s to a supporter of his close friend Franklin Pierce for the presidency whose views on slavery rested on accommodating the south.  He would break with his friend of over 30 years due to Pierce’s support for the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854 which resulted in increased threats and violence in Congress.  French would turn to the Republican Party where at first he preached moderation, but by 1860 exposure to a number of important abolitionists he firmly asserted Northern rights against the “Slave Power’s” encroaching grasp.  He was more anti-slave power than anti-slavery and events in1860 pushed a man of moderation to extremes, compelling him to arm himself to defend the Republican cause.

Freeman’s research and analytical style has produced many important insights into the political climate of the pre-Civil War period and provides evidence of the extremism of the period evidenced by the behavior of Congressmen in addition to their racial, economic, and sectional beliefs.  She highlights the most notable events of the period ranging from the territorial issues that arose because of the American victory against Mexico between 1846 and 1848, the elections of 1852, 1856, and 1860, the Compromise of 1850, the Kansas-Nebraska Act, the Dred Scott Decision, John Brown’s raid against Harper’s Ferry, and the election of Abraham Lincoln.  In all cases she presents the northern and southern views of events and the actions taken by certain Congressmen which focused on threats, intimidation, bullying, and violence against each other highlighted by the caning of Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner by South Carolina Democratic Representative Preston Brooks.

(Benjamin Brown French)

Numerous confrontations are described with the role of “dueling” and the “dough faces” (individuals who feared southern attacks) of northerners stressed to the point that “manhood” became the coin of the realm in Congress.  Freeman describes the lengths that certain Northern congressmen went to avoid aggravating southerners over slavery in the name of party and national unity.  This reinforced the southern view that northerners were weak and could be bullied into submission.  Men like Louisiana Representative John Lawson and Henry Wise of Virginia would gleefully threaten and then attack other members of Congress if they felt insulted by anyone who questioned slavery and in effect anything that they deemed critical of the south.  Freeman is correct when she argues that “southerners used violence as a ‘device of terrorism’ to force compliance to their demands – and they did so with pride.”  The southern rationalization for their behavior was a code of honor – believing that they resorted to these tactics as a means to protect and defend “southern honor” for which they would allow no criticism.

Freeman presents a series of violent confrontations, some leading to duels, others to physical attacks between members usually instigated by southern Congressmen. Many of Freeman’s descriptions are entertaining, particularly her discussion of the conflict between Montana Democratic Senator Thomas Hart Benton and Mississippi Senator Henry Foote whose nickname was “hang man,” but the reality of what she says highlights the sectional conflict that could only be papered over by compromise and eventually would explode into Civil War. 

The turning point begins with the debates related to the eventual Compromise of 1850 which temporarily settled many issues pertaining to the Mexican Cession following the war with our southern neighbor.  The debates focused on sectional rights and soon became personal for each congressman and their constituents as bullying, degradation, honor, bravery, manhood, power, deference and pride all came to the fore.  With the election of Franklin Pierce and his support for the Fugitive Slave Law many Democrats like French would leave the party and support the burgeoning Republican party. 

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(Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner)

Throughout the period newspapers played a key role as does the invention and use of the telegraph as events in Congress could be made available to the public in a very short time.  The press controlled communication with constituents who would soon learn of the violence, ill will, and lack of legislation taking place.  Reporters would heighten conflict in Congress and at home.  With the Kansas-Nebraska Act which fueled “bloody Kansas,” the new sensationalist press had come to the fore.  The result, after 1855 fights in Congress would spike, and it would evolve into an armed camp with members carrying pistols and bowie knives to the House floor each day.

Freeman is on point as she develops the emergence of the Republican Party which would promote a new kind of northerner who was now willing to fight back – to wrest control of Congress and the Union from the “Slave Power.”  The bold rhetoric of the likes of Benjamin Wade, William Fessenden, Joshua Giddings, Charles Sumner and others was guaranteed to provoke a southern backlash.  Violence was just another political tool and Republicans finally fought the southerners exchanging blow for blow.  This would send a powerful message – a united north willing to fight for its interests and rights long violated by southerners.

What separates Freeman’s work from others is that she is able to unlock the emotional logic of disunion by showing how the divergent views of different geographical sections fostered distrust between various groups in Congress.  The degradation which seemed like a daily occurrence educated a national audience to revile opposing opinions, individuals, and sections of the country.

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(Montana Senator Thomas Hart Benton)

In conclusion, I agree with historian David S. Reynold review in the New York Times (September 24, 2018);  “Like other good historical works, “The Field of Blood” casts fresh light on the period it examines while leading us to think about our own time. Although incidents like the Sumner caning and the Cilley duel are familiar, the contexts in which Freeman places them are not. Nor are the new details she supplies. She enriches what we already know and tells us a lot about what we don’t know. Who knew that the Sumner incident, for example, was just one of scores of violent episodes in Congress?

Freeman doesn’t make explicit comparisons between then and today. She doesn’t have to. A crippled Congress. Opposing political sides that don’t communicate meaningfully with each other. A seemingly unbridgeable cultural divide. Sound familiar?

All that’s missing is an Honest Abe to save us.”

A satirical depiction of the moment when Senator Henry S. Foote drew his pistol on Senator Thomas Hart Benton.
(Congressional debate, 1850)

THE BOODLESS BOY by Robert J. lloyd

(17th Century London)

Robert J. Lloyd’s first novel begins on New Year’s Day 1678.  The setting is London, a city still recovering from the Conflagration or Great Fire eleven years previous with the appearance of numerous true historical figures as well as many fictitious ones.  Charles II,  occupies the English throne and rumors abound concerning Catholic plots to assassinate him.  The title of the novel, THE BLOODLESS BOY is very apropos as the drama that hovers over the story surrounds the discovery of the body of a three year old boy near the Fleet River with wounds providing evidence that the boy had all of his blood drained from his body.  What makes matters worse is that as the plot evolves other bodies are found in a similar state.

The two most important protagonists are Robert Hooke and Henry Hunt.  Hooke is the Curator of Experiments of the Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge, Gresham’s Professor of Geometry, and Surveyor of London.  Hunt, a former protégé of Hooke’s, now on his own is an Observator of the Royal Society of London and both men have been tasked by Charles II and Sir Edmund Bury Godfrey, the Justice of the Peace for Westminster to assist in solving the murders.  Hooke is very reluctant fearing it will interfere in what he believes to be his greater work for the Society, and Hunt is more than willing to cooperate as he sees it as an avenue to emerge from under his former mentor’s shadow.

(Charles II, King of England)

Political intrigue and spies abound in the novel with the constant references to Popish plots against the government, assassination plans to remove Charles II, and a series of Ciphers that come into the possession of Hooke, Hunt, and others.  As the plot meanders slowly for a number of chapters Hooke is very concerned that the murders may lead back to the earlier English Civil War and Charles II escape to France.  Further, Lloyd expertly integrates the story of the Earl of Shaftsbury, the former Chancellor of the Exchequer, Lord Chancellor, and First Lord of Trade who upon writing a pamphlet arguing that the powers of the king should be restricted spends a year in the Tower of London until he expresses contrition for his beliefs.  Despite this expression his life centers around seeking revenge.  Another story that Lloyd weaves into the novel is that of Henry Oldenburg, Secretary of the Royal Society of London for the Improving of Natural Knowledge who commits suicide which Hooke and Hunt promise his widow to keep his cause of death a secret.  The question is clear, what do the murders, political machinations, and suicide have to do with one another?

Lloyd possesses an excellent command of British history as is evidenced by his commentary centering on plots against the government, use of the views expressed by the historical figures he incorporates into his plot, and knowledge of natural philosophy and London and its environs.  Lloyd uses Hooke and Hunt who make up an odd couple to solve the murders and their interactions provide a useful guide into scientific, philosophical, and political knowledge of the day.  Lloyd’s descriptions of London as it existed after the devastating fire of 1666 which destroyed 13,200 houses, 87 Parish churches, The Royal Exchange, Guildhall, and St. Paul’s Cathedral are important as he reviews the architectural changes of the city focusing on older buildings that survived the fire, those that did not, and the newest structures that have been built or are under construction.

(Robert Hooke)

Lloyd’s use of late 17th century language and his attention to the smallest detail add authenticity to the dialogue and atmosphere reflected in the story.  Based on the author’s commitment to detail the reader can smell the leather tanneries, the smell of the food served in the taverns, and the snow and rain that was a staple for 17th century London. Lloyd captures the ambiance of the Scientific Revolution and coming Enlightenment with references to the works of Sir Isaac Newton, William Harvey, and the writings of Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, among others.

The construction of the plot passes through many layers as Lloyd builds the tension surrounding the many conspiracies, murders, political machinations, religion, and ciphers at the same time the distrust the characters have for each drips in each interaction.  The blend of fact and fiction make for an excellent historical mystery, and I hope to read Lloyd’s sequel which he is working on as soon as it is published.  Let me add one caveat, after reading THE BLOODLESS BOY you are sure to develop a different view of the Scientific Revolution.

Lambeth Palace in the foreground, with the Thames and the City to the north forming the background
(17th Century London)

THE VOLUNTEER by Salvatore Scibona

(Nixon makes the case for a U.S. invasion of Cambodia, April 29, 1970)

It is sometime in 2010 and a five year old boy has been abandoned at the Hamburg-Fuhlsbuttel International Airport.  So begins Salvatore Scibona’s second novel, THE VOLUNTEER a searing story that spans over forty years from the Vietnam War to the post- 9/11 Afghanistan encompassing four generations of fathers and sons that takes the reader from Latvia, Vietnam, Queens, New Mexico among many locations.  Once the boy is introduced wandering the airport as others try to determine his identity and story, Scibona introduces Elroy Heflin, a former convict who resorted to a myriad of lifestyles from stocking a grocery store, slinging heroine, sleeping in shelters and on the street to survive.  He was soon arrested and joined the army to get his life straight.  Later, he is assigned to the Office of Defense Cooperation attached to the American Embassy in Riga, Latvia.

Heflin will develop a relationship with a woman named Evija who upon becoming pregnant refuses Heflin’s offer to marry.  Five years later while serving in Afghanistan, paying one- third of his pay in child support he learns that Evija has abandoned their son Janis who he sees twice a year and wants him to take custody. Heflin will take Janis to the airport to catch a flight to London but decides to leave him in a toilet cubicle at the Hamburg airport before continuing on his way home.

Scibona is a master of shifting scenes from one character to the next.  In the first major instance he moves on from Heflin for about half the book and focuses on Mr. Tilly or Vollie Frade who was Heflin’s guardian until he had reached the age of eighteen.  In telling Vollie’s life story we learn that he too was an unwanted son, born to aging cattle ranchers outside of Davenport, IA and at the age of seventeen forged his parent’s signature and joined the Marines winding up in Vietnam.  Vollie is a complex character who is preoccupied with erasing his identity.  Throughout the novel there are scenes where he seems to be taking himself away.  For example, when he is a small boy his parents burn his clothes to prevent an outbreak of meningitis, for Vollie they are burning him.  During his tenure in the Marines, he finds himself captured in Cambodia, a mission the government says does not exist – then does he?  Later, during bouts of PTSD he again questions his existence.

(US soldiers burn a wooden structure in a village in eastern Cambodia in May 1970)

Scibona’s description of the war in Southeast Asia is reminiscent of the works of Dennis Johnson, Karl Marlantes, Michael Herr, and Tim O’Brien.  It is raw in conception digging deeply into the stupidity of the American role in Vietnam.  The scenes described as Vollie acts as a “Santa Claus” type of character driving in a convoy distributing mail, supplies, and anything else needed to the front lines reflects the absurdity of war.  The discussion surrounding the US invasion of Cambodia and what occurs has a “Apocalypse Now” type of reality as do other scenes in the novel, particularly after he returns from Vietnam and Vollie finds himself ensconced in Queens, NY conducting a spy mission on a Social Security swindler who may turn out to be a Nazi fugitive.

Intergenerational misery dominates the plot as we move from place to place.  A priest trying to crack the mysteries of Janis’ birth in Germany, a commune in Nevada and on and on.  This is a very difficult novel to follow.  At times it feels as if you are reading a Kurt Vonnegut novel taking place in Cloud Cuckoo Land.  Despite a number of difficulties there are a number of portrayals of America that are priceless.  The 1973 description of Queens, NY is priceless from the stoops, woman in house dresses, pickup basketball, church fellowship etc. Scibona has captured the neighborhood perfectly and this goes along with  his striking social commentary.

(Salvatore Scibona)

The characters are lost in their own worlds especially Vollie whose view of life is one who is disappointed in himself and life in general as moving from one lie to another no matter how honest some appeared to be.  Lorch, the spy handler’s quoting of scripture really plays no purpose, but he seems to do so each time he appears.  Louisa, like Vollie is saddled with the burdens of the past as she cares for a baby out of a commune that practiced free love.  Elroy, as he matures, like Vollie he replays scenes of a boyhood of abandonment.

The phrase that captures the essence of the novel is Vollie thinking about how “am I nobody from nowhere” as he and other characters try to maneuver in lives that do not turn out the way they want.  The concept of identity appears repeatedly – for Vollie does he have one since he tries to cut himself off from everyone and everything. 

To Scibona‘s credit his descriptions are often entertaining, but also sarcastic and draining.  He has a keen eye for detail and many of his scenes seem similar to other works of literature and film.  Overall, it was a difficult book to read, and I would only recommend it for someone who has a great deal of time to devote to understanding what the author is trying to say and enjoys a dark story that can be very painful.

(President Nixon announces the entry of US troops into Cambodia)