The World Turned Upside Down

You know, I read back over my last post – about the Erik Larson signing – and think how long ago that seems. Only four weeks – but it feels like forever.

The world has turned upside down.

Like most everyone, my life has been upended by the pandemic. Though I have to admit that my life has not been as badly upended as many – I still have my job, and as I’m considered essential, I still go to my office daily. There are no students, of course – the campus is a ghost town – but I see my colleagues. I go to the store. I am not as housebound as others. Thank God, or I’d be sitting on the roof in my pajamas spouting poetry to a plunger by now. But the scary fact is, the world has been turned upside down, and nothing is going to be the same for a long, long time.

Since this began, however, I – like many – have been comparing the way the world is now to the way the world was in 1918, when the Spanish flu ravaged not on America, but almost every nation on earth, killing 50 million in three separate waves. But as a historian of medieval history, I am also thinking back to the Black Death – which might be an even more appropriate comparison.

I don’t mean appropriate in terms of the devastation, or the number of deaths – though let’s be honest, we’re nowhere near the end of this thing yet and won’t be for some time, at least a year – but in terms of how stunning it is for us to live though. I’ve taught the Black Death in my World History classes for over fifteen years. I’ve read a great deal about it. But like many things in history, it’s hard to get it, because we’ve never lived through anything quite like it.

plaguemap1The Black Death, if you don’t know, came to Europe in 1347. By 1349, it had reached every part of Europe, including Siberia, and by the time it ‘ended’ in 1350, it had killed somewhere between 1/3 and 1/2 of Europe’s population. Historians are still unsure precisely what it was, though most agree it was likely the bubonic plague – but a bubonic plague that could take multiple forms. The dead were buried in mass graves – often a grave would be dug and the bodies piled into it for more than a week before it would be covered over again, only to be reopened and used again the next week, or the week after. Peasants fled the country for the city, desperate for work; city dwellers fled the city for the country, desperate to escape. The famous ditty ‘Ring Around the Rosy’ is reputed to come from the plague years.

So as I cover this in class with my students, I would talk about the spread of the plague. How we believe it was transmitted (from fleas to rats to humans, or from rats to fleas to humans, depending on your source – and then, from human to human contact in some cases). The mass graves. The fact that some people did survive – and others never contracted it at all. The crazy things people believed about the plague – that it was a curse wrought by God upon the earth, that the Jews had poisoned the wells, that it was an unlucky conjunction of planets . . . and all these, with the distance of six hundred years and modern science, I frankly found silly. We talked about the memento moris, the reminders of death that riddled literature and poetry and gravestones and artwork. We talked about the fact that people would often stick Grandpa outside to be collected by the death wagons – even if Grandpa wasn’t quite dead yet (and yes, I’d recite the Monty Python skit – “But I’m not dead yet!” “Here, I can’t take him.” “Oh, but he will be very soon, come on, do us a favor!”).

All the while, not getting it. 

Not really.

It was an anecdote, really, something to wake up my classes and get their interest going. Pique their interest in one thing, you can get them interested in something else. That’s just how it is, and the Black Death was one of those entry points. It was also a great gateway for talking about the changes that occurred afterwards, which largely led, a couple of centuries later, to the Protestant Reformation and the Renaissance.

But I never put myself in that moment. Let myself really wonder what it would have been like to live during those three terror-filled years. Seeing half your town die, wondering when it would be you. In an age of no television, no newspapers, no CDC or World Health Organization, no real doctors, no understanding of viruses, it must have been absolutely terrifying to encounter this disease, to see the pustules and swellings (on the lucky ones; the unlucky ones got the pneumonia too, or went septic) on family and friends and know that there was nothing you could do to save them – or yourself. Especially at a time when most people simply never traveled far from home, and were therefore blindsided when the pandemic hit their homes.

Their world had turned upside down.

I could never quite understand how people could believe all the rumors and crap floating around Europe about the plague. But now . . . now, it seems a little less silly.

Faced with such a horrific, massive event, would you not reach for anything that would sustain you, even if those things were lies? Because let’s face it – how would you know they were lies? The same priest who absolved your sins and told you what was in the Bible was the same man telling you that this was a scourge from God. Would you dare doubt that? What about the Flagellants, who traveled from town to town to whip themselves in order to try to alleviate the sins of the area – would you consider them crazy, or self-sacrificing heroes?

And what about your family? Then, as now, many were quarantined inside their homes, with their family. If one person started to show symptoms, the town would order everyone in that household to be locked up together, to either live or die. If you woke up one morning to find your parents showing symptoms, what would you do? How afraid would you be, knowing there was almost a 100% chance you already had it, or would get it? Would you try to run away before the authorities found out? Would you, too, put Grandpa out for the knacker cart, even if Grandpa wasn’t quite dead yet, knowing he’d likely be buried alive (as many were)?

We have no answers now, either. I hear the same stories. Today, people are blaming Asian-Americans, not the Jews (though I suspect that’s coming; it always does, freaking Neo-Nazi asshats). Wondering if it really is a punishment from God. (I haven’t seen the Flagellants show up yet, but hey, never say never, right?) Because so many rumors are floating around the world about military cover-ups and political agendas, and everyone is so afraid, no one knows quite what to believe. And that’s today, people – with the CDC, with modern medicine, with widespread education, with 24-hour media coverage and information being disseminated almost as soon as it becomes available. In an age where 90% of the population was illiterate, though, and what they knew of the world came from the Church and the authorities, it’s easier to see how they would have believed some of the more far-fetched things. Easy to see how desperate they would have been for an explanation, any explanation. Because when you don’t know what the root cause of something is, can you truly discount anything?

For the record, I believe none of the crazy rumors. I’m educated enough to know that humanity has faced pandemics in the past, and we’ll face more in the future. Viruses, like any other living organism, want to live, and to live, they often mutate. It’s just a fact. Likewise, this pandemic, like most before, will go through cycles. Don’t believe those who say we’ll be ‘back to normal’ by May or June; we won’t be back to normal for quite some time, perhaps two or three years. And I suspect that ‘normal’ will be as revolutionary as the new ‘normal’ was in Europe after 1350. Our normal ended sometime around March 15, 2020.

Our world has turned upside down, too.

Four weeks ago, I saw Erik Larson live. Four weeks ago, I was going to see Hamilton for the fourth time – sixth row orchestra, in Fort Worth, in June. Four weeks ago, I was not looking forward to graduation but was ready to suck it up and go anyway because it’s required. Four weeks ago, my biggest worry was not whether I have enough toilet paper to get me through April – or how many Americans were going to die because, despite every warning, our government decided it was okay to let people die – but whether I was going to hit an estate sale on a Friday afternoon, or go write at the coffee shop.

Four weeks ago, the Black Death was just a historical fact.

Funny, how in four weeks, the world has turned upside down.

Research – In Too Deep

“Research is formalized curiosity. It is poking and prying with a purpose.” – Zora Neale Hurston

Fun fact:  research can also be a slow slog through half-frozen mud three feet deep, while a light sleet coats everything.

But Zora Neale Hurston is right about one thing:  research IS about curiosity. It’s the curiosity that keeps you going. No one has to research anything. Just ask Trump supporters. But for some of us, there is a deeper need to know. An itch about something that won’t leave us be. Benjamin Franklin, wondering how electricity is conducted. Louis Pasteur, wondering if there was a way to keep milk safe. That random weird guy, thousands of years ago, who looked at an oyster and thought, “Hell, yeah, I can eat that!”

Of course, sometimes that research becomes quicksand. You take a step off into it and . . . suddenly, you’re sucked in, with no end and no rescue in sight. You’re curious – you’re burning with it, in fact – and so you have to dig . . . but in the digging, you uncover more than you thought.

Truthfully? It sort of becomes your neighborhood dealer. That initial thing, that first question, was the freebie. We did a little digging, and we found something! Suddenly, we’re excited, because we think we’ve hit the jackpot. So we go back. We dig deeper. We get sucked in. The research starts to say, Hey, good to see ya! Back for more? Sure. Ah, but this time, it’s gonna cost ya. Cost what, we ask? Time. Effort. Frustration. (Yes, at times, actual money.) Your sanity, too.

At some point, the doubts start to manifest. Sure, you found something, and it was fun. But it didn’t answer your question. Or worse, it only spawned more questions, which you must answer . . . By the time we realize we’re in too deep, it’s too late. We wake up one morning and realize that initial question, that first mystery . . . that was the gateway, my friend. Now, there’s no escape.

“Research is to see what everybody else has seen, and to think what nobody else has thought.” – Albert Szent-Gyorgyi

newspaper clippingWhenever I talk to people about my research into George Kimmel, the inevitable question is:  how did you find out about this? I explain the story of seeing those little tidbits in the newspaper, those dozens of clippings that littered my desk for months and months, the fact that those clippings eventually weren’t enough. Those were my gateway, those tiny scraps of mystery that begged and enticed and mocked. Others saw the same thing. But I was the only one who followed them.

I’m currently reading a book by Australian historian Shane White called Prince of Darkness. It’s about Jeremiah G. Hamilton, the first African-American man to become a millionaire on Wall Street – and he did it in the 1800s. I’ll review it when I’m done, but one reason I picked it up was because of the extensive research White had to do. Like me, White stumbled across his subject almost by accident. His subject, like mine, left almost no written trace of himself; we know our respective subjects not from what they said, but from what others said about them. There are no other biographies to rely on, no other secondary sources that mention him. Hamilton moves in the shadows of New York in the 1830s and 40s, a man walking between two very distinct worlds, fitting into neither. George Kimmel – at least, the more I dig and the more I discover – seemed to do the same.

So how do you write about them?

In fact, this is the very question White asks himself in the introduction to the book:  “Is it possible to recover the story of someone who, for well over a century, became all but invisible?” (7)

And it’s the very question I ask myself almost on a daily basis.

White, at least, does have quite a lot of primary source material in Hamilton’s hand; letters and articles he wrote, court cases he was involved in, testimony he gave. He knows how he spoke and wrote; he can extrapolate some ideas about him. Me? Not so much. I am seeing Kimmel completely through the eyes of others – and everyone involved in this case had something to hide.

For instance:  George built a grain elevator and mill here in Arkansas City. They existed. Of that, I have no doubt. I have a newspaper article in which George is looking for stone masons to build the foundation. There are advertisements in the papers. It existed, it operated. I know it did. But the insurance company claims that this was nothing more than a dummy corporation to cover up George’s illegal speculating on the grain market. And the men who served on the company’s board all testified – later – that they didn’t think it was a real corporation; they invested no money in it, and recalled no meetings. Yet it did exist. And in the very next breath, they testify that George made money from it. I’ve even discovered advertisements for the elevator published months after George disappeared – advertisements made in the names of the very men who denied its existence.

Here’s the thing:  You don’t advertise something that doesn’t exist. You certainly don’t advertise a business that doesn’t exist, in a small town, where you are a well-known and respected man.

So what do you believe?

Sometimes, historians try to determine what someone may have done based on what kind of person they were. With George Kimmel, this simply doesn’t work, because I don’t know what kind of person he was – because I can only see him through the eyes of others.

When I read the affidavits and testimonies, I get two ends of a spectrum:  on one end, friends and family; on the other, the insurance company. According to his friends, he was social, friendly, honest; a good businessman; loyal to his friends and more devoted to his mother and sister and uncle than almost any other person on earth; the kind of man who could never, ever leave them without a word. According to the insurance company,  George was a consummate con artist – a charming, sly embezzler and forger who got in over his head and orchestrated his own disappearance. An 1890s Neal Caffrey, if you will. And while it is possible for a man to be devoted to his family and a con artist . . . where, along this spectrum, did the real George Kimmel lie?

And, if I keep going, can I find out?

When you study someone at a distance, you may never know them, not really. Historians spend two years, five years, maybe eight years, researching a particular topic, a particular person, and never feel they get the entire story. There’s always a curtain of distance and history separating us from them. Thanks to the newspapers and their intrepid reports, I have a better idea of what some of the other key players were like. They’re described at the trials. I can see their reactions in the transcripts.

But for George, I have none of this.

So when I doubt my ability to find the truth, I have to fall back on curiosity. It was curiosity that got me in too deep to back out, after all. And hopefully, curiosity will keep me in the game. – More information about Shane White and Prince of Darkness. Yes, White is Australian!

Inspiration, Derivation, Plagiarism – The Fine Lines in the Murky Fog

Where do you get your ideas? 

This may be, aside from when will you finish your book?, the most-asked questions of writers. It’s one we all struggle with.

Some will say – and I am among them – that we can find inspiration everywhere. In old photos, in overheard conversations, from NPR broadcasts, from books we read. In fact, I think most fiction writers will tell you that. Sometimes, it seems like the ideas come so fast and thick that we’ll never get them all down. And some of them – the most ephemeral, the ones we doubt – will drift away, maybe to find another home with another writer at another time.

In Founding Brothers, Pulitzer-Prize winning author and historian Joseph J. Ellis gives credit for the structure of this book to author Lytton Strachey. Ellis says:

My problem, at least as I understood it at that early stage, was a matter of scope and scale. I wanted to write a modest-sized account of a massive historical subject . . . His (Strachey’s) animating idea, a combination of stealth and selectivity, was that less could be more. (p ix)

Ellis already had the idea for the book he wanted to write; however, the scale was an issue. It always is, when you deal with history. What he needed was the example, the tacit permission. Once he had that, the Pulitzer wasn’t far behind.

That may not be the example you were thinking of. But consider the TED talk I heard this week, by Steven Johnson, “Where Do Good Ideas Come From?” Here, Johnson makes the point that in the 18th century, no scientists or inventors kept things to themselves. They shared their ideas in salons and coffee houses and colleges and pamphlets and books. They had large circles of acquaintance and friends with whom they communicated regularly. This gave them freedom. This inspired innovation. As Johnson says, Benjamin Franklin “sent his ideas out into the world so that they would attract the attentions of the ingenious.”

Here’s the thing:  ideas cannot be conceived in a vacuum. Again, as Johnson pointed out in his TED talk, epiphanies that are truly original hardly ever happen. Instead, “more often than not, they’re cobbled together from whatever parts that happened to be around nearby. We take ideas from other people, from people we’ve learned from, from people we run into in the coffee shop. And we stitch them together into new forms, and we create something new.”

soapboxWithout Ron Chernow, there would be no Hamilton. Without the novels of Jane Austen, or the Gothic novels of the Bronte sisters, there would be no romance genre today. Without Dracula, there could be no Twilight. (Remind me to hop in my TARDIS and go stop Bram Stoker, okay?). But without the myriad legends and cultural tales of vampires, there could have been no Dracula, either. And where did those legends and stories originate? They had a cause, once. There was inspiration, and no doubt centuries of re-tellings and innovations by successive generations.

Writers – whether we write fiction, nonfiction, or both – are readers. As we read, we get ideas. I can’t tell you what some of my historical books look like – barely legible scribbles in the margins where my imagination starts to take over and push past the sentences on the page to a totally different meaning and view. Oh wait, I can! Here’s a photograph of my copy of Founding Brothers, chapter 1. Those notes sparked the desire to know more about not only the Burr/Wilkinson Conspiracy, but also a nascent Federalist plot in the early 1800s to have New England secede from the United States (also, not surprisingly, something Burr may have been part of). And I still want to know more about that – so I’m reading about it now. Before you ask, yes, most of my historical books look like this. 🙂 73019443_1593261380815453_4079028731337768960_o (1)

Historians, fiction writers, scientists . . . if you do research, if you’re a professional or even a very gifted and devout amateur, then at some point you’ll be inspired by something you’ve read or heard about. BUT. Being inspired is one thing; being derivative is another entirely. So we’re clear, I’m defining derivative as “Imitative of the work of another artist, writer, etc., and usually disapproved of for that reason” (Google).)

220px-Cassandra_Clare_City_of_Heavenly_Fire_book_coverFor an example of this, just go Google ‘Cassandra Clare criticisms’ and see what pops up. Forget the bad writing (and the incest storyline, which I still don’t get; were they, or were they not, brother and sister and who, precisely IS Jace and which freaking Shadowhunter family does he belong to, because I still don’t know!), and focus on the plagiarism charges instead. Very eye-opening. I begin to see the reason why I loved her Infernal Devices series more. But is the Mortal Instruments truly derivative? If you didn’t know she’d written a Harry Potter fanfic/ romance novel about Ron and Ginny (ewwww, right?!), would you think the Mortal Instruments series was, essentially, Harry Potter fanfic? (I’m off to take a shower now, with bleach. Ugh. Seriously. RON AND GINNY???)

Okay. I’m back.

Now, I admit, I read the Mortal Instruments series before I even knew Clare had written that fanfic. I didn’t see echoes of Harry Potter then, and I still don’t (of course, I haven’t read the fanfic, and no, I never will! EWWWW!). But sadly, with Cassandra Clare, it’s not just the Harry Potter fanfic (ewwww!) – she was also sued by fantasy novelist Sherrilyn Kenyon in 2016 for plagiarism. The charges (according to Clare’s website) were dropped at a later time, but still . . . the taint remains.

As I try to explain to my students, the lines that separate inspiration from derivation from plagiarism are fine indeed, lost somewhere in a murky gray swampland covered in fog. Sometimes, it’s clear as day – you steal three paragraphs from three different sources and turn them in as your original essay (dear students, please stop doing this, for there’s really no sport in it anymore for me). Sometimes, it’s great – you see a way to improve an existing idea or technology, and as long as you’re not violating any copyright laws and you’re creating something new and better, why not? But is that derivation – or inspiration? And does that depend on the end result?

If you’re wondering why I’ve spent the last 1100 words wandering around in this murky realm . . . frankly, so do I . . . no. Truthfully? It’s because for the past few months, I’ve been toying with the idea of returning to graduate school.

More and more, I want my doctorate in history.

It’s a scary thought, for a number of reasons – the most important being that I haven’t been in school in ten years, and the second most important being that I never did a thesis. Normally, your thesis in some way lays the groundwork for your dissertation – at least, that’s always been my assumption. But I couldn’t think of one, back then. I was pretty sure my little obsession with the Kimmel disappearance didn’t qualify as a thesis (even if I could have pulled it together in a year, which I now know I couldn’t have).

But now . . . that’s changing. I’m tired of lying in wait. And more importantly, as I dig and read and work and investigate, as more and more ideas come to me, as more and more questions beg to be answered (either by me, or by me finding that someone else already has), I realize that I really, really want to do this. And my big question is:  are these ideas, which insist on keeping me up at night (one decided to arrive at the most inopportune time of 11:45pm Tuesday night, as I was trying to sleep) worth investigating? Are they original enough? Am I being inspired by the works I read – or am I going over well-trod ground? Is there anything new there?

I suppose time – and a hell of a lot of groundwork and research – will tell.



Lessons from ‘Woman in Gold’

woman-in-gold-posterI don’t watch a lot of movies; truth be told, I don’t have the attention span.

But tonight I finally caught a movie I’ve been wanting to see for a long time:  Woman in Gold, starring Helen Mirren and Ryan Reynolds.

If you’ve never heard of it, Woman in Gold is a true-life story about one of the most famous art restitution cases in history. Maria Altman and her lawyer, Randy Schoenberg, fought the Austrian government to have not just one, but six of the paintings stolen from her family by the Nazis, returned to her.

Not surprisingly, the Austrians were more than reluctant to return the paintings, worth hundreds of millions of dollars. Woman in Gold – the name given to the portrait of Maria’s aunt, Adele Bloch-Bauer by the Belvedere Museum in Vienna – had become a centerpiece of the Austrian art world. In fact, it was referred to as Austria’s Mona Lisa. They had to fight through the US Supreme Court and then have their case heard by a mediation committee, before the paintings were rightfully returned to Maria.

This movie hit me especially hard, as it doesn’t just focus on the court case itself, but also on Maria’s life in Vienna before the Nazi occupation. The Austrians, while sympathizing with the Nazi regime in Germany, was still a relatively peaceful nation until March 1938, when Hitler issued an ultimatum to the Austrian government:  surrender, or we’ll invade. Given what they’d seen of the Nazi war machine, Austria made the smart, but devastating, decision to surrender. The Austrian government was suspended, and the Nazis moved in.

I was never  interested in World War II when I was growing up. My high school history classes were a joke – I remember spending about a week on the early civilizations, the next fourteen weeks on football and basketball, and then something about the Cold War near the end. Even when I was a history major at university, I was focused on medieval Europe and colonial America. It wasn’t until I had to teach World  War II, in fact, that I ever really read anything about it.

I will never forget sitting in my office – I was a secretary for the college, and I was prepping for that night’s class while I was supposed to be working – reading about the Holocaust for the first time, I think, in my life. Looking at the maps of the camps, scattered strategically across northern and eastern Europe. Reading about Mengele’s unholy experiments, most of which I can’t even share with my students because they’re so damn brutal – seeing how long newborn babies could survive without food, seeing how long people could survive abdominal surgery without anesthesia, seeing if eyes would permanently change color if you injected blue dye directly into them.

The photos. The ‘walking skeletons’ that the Allied forces eventually freed in 1945, the gates to Auschwitz. ‘Work Will Make You Free,’ indeed. (Irony was, I suppose, not a strong suit of the Nazis.) The chimneys at Auschwitz, being demolished.

It was so unbelievable. Even though I knew – I knew – it had happened, there was part of me that recoiled, horrified, refusing to accept it. Refusing to accept that atrocities on this scale could have happened. I do remember one of the instructors coming to see me and the look on her face – she said, “What’s wrong? Why are you crying?” and I didn’t even realize until that moment that I was crying.

But I think what makes it worse for me is that the Germans bought into it so completely. Anti-Semitism was already there, simmering just under the surface of civility; Hitler just gave it free rein. Encouraged it. And in the end, licensed it.

0fa977feaa1175a0f9edd653c436a92cIt started so quietly. A law here, a law there. The Nuremberg Laws of 1935 required Jews to wear the yellow Star of David at all times. They took away Jewish citizenship rights. Basic rights like voting and running for office and having freedom of speech.  They declared who was and was not Jewish – much like in America, they also had a ‘one drop’ rule. If Hitler’s genealogists could find just one Jewish ancestor in your family tree, guess what? Here’s your Star of David, and here’s your list of things you can and can’t do. Not a Jew? Of course you are. The fuhrer says you are.

And then the Kristallnacht. November 9, 1938. The first state-sponsored, state-encouraged night of violence against the Jews of Germany and Austria.

I think what scares me the most, when I look at Nazi Germany, is how fast it happened. How fast mob rule can take over. How seemingly good people can just . . . forget their humanity, and become something else. Something not human. Maybe demons aren’t supernatural creatures; maybe they’re just us, when there’s no soul left inside.

In Maria Altman’s case, in the case of so many European Jews and just those who stood against the Nazis, the change was swift and unbelievable. One day. Literally. It took but one day for their lives to completely change. For the Nazis to move into Austria, declare martial law, and infect the Viennese people with their hatred.

My students always ask me, why didn’t they just leave? When their businesses were being shut down, when they were being harassed, when they lost their citizenship rights – why not leave? Why stay? And the fact is, some couldn’t. They couldn’t get around the intricate Nazi immigration policies, or afford the travel. And some . . .I remember reading an interview with a Holocaust survivor in which they were asked that very question, and their responses was so simple and so heartbreaking. “Our people have been persecuted for centuries,” they basically said. “We just thought, this is our turn.”

Maria Altman was one of the lucky ones – and yet, she left everything, including her parents, behind in order to survive with her husband. Did she consider herself lucky? To have lost her entire family, all their wealth and belongings, the home and city she loved, in order to go to an entirely new country? Maybe she did. Maybe she didn’t. But she was just one of millions of European Jews – and other minorities – who lost everything. Twelve million innocent people, whose only crime was being something Hitler didn’t like, lost their lives.

The fact is, more than 100,000 pieces of artwork stolen by the Nazis are still lost. Languishing in museums or private collections. Hidden away in vaults or attics. Or just – lost. Burned by the Nazis near the end of the war, or buried, perhaps never to see the light of day again.

It’s important to right those wrongs, to find that  artwork, to restore it to its rightful owners (or, now, to their heirs).

But it’s more important to remember that it happened  – 

And that it can happen again. All of it. The hatred. The registries. The identifying marks on clothing. The military rule.

All it takes is one person whose only goal is doing whatever the hell he wants to do – and a nation willing to let him do it.



This is why . . .

It has taken me a long to get up the courage to post this. But it’s time to take a stand and I can’t let my voice be silent any longer.

All this week, I’ve been asked by too many people why I’m upset. Why I can’t ‘grow up and get over it.’ Why I continue to compare Trump to Hitler and why I continue to ‘overreact’ and denounce him. Why I can’t just forget it. Why I can’t accept it and move on.

This post is my answer why.

Because I’m scared. Not for myself – although there is that, I’ve made no secret of my hatred for Trump in the past months – but for my friends and students, who are Muslim, gay, African-American, Jewish. Who are immigrants and married to immigrants. Who are scared they’ll be targeted for speaking out. Who are scared that their citizenship papers won’t come in soon enough. Who are just scared.

As a historian and a total news junkie, I tend to see patterns emerge. And I see this pattern emerging all too clearly. The  Alt-Right has been emboldened (particularly since one of its leaders is one of Trump’s advisers) and has already started terrorizing minorities. Trump supporters – his core group, his true demographic – now have carte blanche to do whatever they want to whomever they want.

They can now be in the ascendancy – if we let them. 

I teach US and world history. I teach about slavery and Jim Crow and the Civil Rights movement. I teach about the KKK of the 20th century and their atrocities, and I teach about the Nazi regime and the Holocaust. I teach genocide and war, and I also teach – I hope – that there are people who stood against those things. And for some inexplicable reason . . . I thought the fight in America was over. I thought as a nation, as a society, we had moved past this. Grown up. Learned that diversity is a good thing.

Never, in the past ten years of teaching history, did I think, not once, that I would face the same fight in my own lifetime. Yes, I know. Stupid. And now, I’m scared.

So to my Trump-supporting friends, here’s the question I want to ask:  why aren’t you scared along with me? 

You claim to not be racist. You claim you voted for him for other reasons (though you’re hard-pressed to say what those are).

I guess some of you voted for him because you were ‘sending a message.’ I hear that a lot. I don’t understand it, but I hear it. Sending a message to who about what? And some of you voted for him because he “speaks his mind.” What does that even mean?

Some of you, I understand, voted for him because you didn’t like Hillary and that is the stupidest reason of all. You threw away the best candidate we had, the most educated, the most experienced, in favor of a power-hungry, demented sociopath (endorsed by two other fascist sociopathic dictators, BTW) who has ridiculed veterans, the mentally and physically handicapped, women, gays . . . do you get the picture?

And then some of you voted for Trump because you believed his lies. You heard his nebulous economic ideas and you know he calls himself a businessman, and you figure he’ll be good for the economy. You heard his half-assed apologies and denials and conveniently overlooked the ghastly things he said and did. You don’t understand ISIS or anything to do with the Middle East and neither does he, but he says he does and you believe him. He dodged the draft, but wants to be Commander-in-Chief. He claims he’ll bring jobs back to America and – despite the fact that he has no sound, rational plan to do that – you believed him.

You believed his lies. You ate them like candy because he said precisely what you wanted to hear. When the educated and experienced were telling you that nothing he said was true, you chose not to listen. When he told you who to blame for your problems, you believed him. When he told you what outlandish things he’d do as president, you believed him.

But I can tell you one thing that is true:  Trump does not care about you, your problems, or America.

Time and again, he has catered to the lowest of the low of American society – the white supremacists, the racists, the anti-immigration and anti-Muslim groups – in short, homegrown terrorists. Yes. I went there. When a group of white American men plot to blow up a mosque and an apartment complex where mostly Muslim immigrants live, that is terrorism. Pure and simple. And these are the people he caters to. This is his demographic. The uneducated, the intolerant, the worst of America.

You’ve chosen to stand with a man who has spewed nothing but hatred and encouraged nothing but violence. You’ve chose to stand with a man who sees women as one thing and one thing only:  sex toys. Trump has zero respect for women (far more disturbing to me than his ‘grab them by the pussy’ comment is the comment he made about his own daughter.) You’ve chosen to stand with a man that far more educated people than I have compared to Hitler – and their rises to power are strikingly similar. Shall we speculate that their reigns of terror might also be ?

But what’s worse, you’ve chosen to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with hatred. You’ve chosen to stand with white supremacists, the KKK, racists, and those who insist on believing in something that never existed to begin with – a white America.  You’ve chosen to stand with the men in Liberal KS who plotted to kill innocent Somali immigrants. You’ve chosen to stand with the social heirs of men who hunted African-American men down with hounds and then burned them alive for no other crime than they didn’t get off the sidewalk fast enough. You’ve chosen to stand with the same people who burn black churches, spraypaint pro-Trump and Nazi graffiti on synagogues – and all the while, their fuhrer does nothing to stop them.

THAT is what you have chosen to stand with, as you voted for Trump. That history of hatred. That history of racism. That history of intolerance. That history of violence.

So – to the people I know who voted for Trump, this is why  I can never look at you the same. Certainly not now, and perhaps not ever. And you can’t come to me and say “I didn’t know” because ignorance is never an excuse – and because I probably won’t believe you anyway, not in today’s social media, news-driven world.You had to know. 

You had to know. 

And this is why I will not be silent. This is why I will not stop fighting Trump or his supporters. This is why I will not ‘get over it.’

This is why.

Those who ignore history . . .

As I’ve been working on my young adult historical, I’ve been doing a lot of research into the local area. This includes reading the local paper for 1924 – the year that most of my novel takes place. Since my protagonist, Nicky, is a bootlegger, I’m focusing especially on any articles that have to do with those issues – local stills being raided, etc.

But the KKK was also active in this area. There were, as far as I can tell, chapters of the KKK in Winfield (approximately 15 miles north), Newkirk (about 10 miles south), and Blackwell (about 35 miles southwest). I suspect there were numerous other small chapters for which there’s not much documentation. Heck, I even found this rather creepy advertisement in the Winfield paper:  klan barbershop

(This is actually pretty typical of Klan advertisements. A student even told me that there’s an abandoned building in her hometown that used to be a grocery store that still has a sign in the door that says “Klan Friendly!” I admit, as a historian, part of me wants to salvage it. Part of me wants to burn it at a crossroads.)

But there was one article that has continued to haunt me. I know it well; it features prominently in a major scene in my book. On February 7, 1924, Z.A. Harris, a ‘Klan lecturer’ (who knew there was such a thing, right?) appeared at the Fifth Avenue Theater to a “capacity crowd” and gave a rousing speech. The Fifth Avenue Theatre was THE theatre of Arkansas City in 1924 – it was the most upscale, the most lavish. Or, as my protagonist Nicky says, “Only four theatres in town, and I knew they wasn’t gonna be at the Rex. The Strand – maybe. The Isis – not big enough. That left the Fifth Avenue Opera House, and it was the biggest and nicest theatre in town and I reckoned the Klan didn’t do nothing by halves. They wanted to recruit people, they’d get the best.”

Though the article doesn’t quotefifth avenue theatre Harris verbatim all the time, it gives enough quotes to get the majority of the speech. So I want to post parts of this here. I put the actual quotes in italics. As you may pick up, the reporter wasn’t terribly keen on the guy. 🙂

‘Like any other secret society there are restrictions placed on membership. We have a right as Americans to form such an organization. Our membership is confined strictly to white, native born, gentile, protestant American citizens.’ He spent twenty minutes or so in defense of the organization . . . In his defense of the United States constitution and Americanism he directed his shafts, by innuendo or inference only, against Catholicism, the Jews, and another clement ‘constituting a membership of one and a half million,’ which probably alluded to the IWW or the Bolsheviks or perhaps the socialists.”

So far, not so bad. But! Wait for it . . .

“He pictured a big task which is to engage the attention of the Klan organization – ‘the preservation of American nationalism, American ideals, American institutions, the preservation of the flag and the liberty, freedom, and manhood for which the flag stands, as understood by the founders of the American government.’

AHA! Here we go! The usurpation of ‘American ideals’ and God help me, the ‘founders of the American government.’ Written clearly by people who don’t understand a bloody thing about the founding of America. I’m waiting for someone in Trump’s campaign to find and plagiarize this.

But it goes on!

“In the last twenty years we have been taking in more immigration than this country can assimilate. We have, according to the last census figures, 94,820,915 white inhabitants. Of these, only 58,421,987 are of native born parentage. There are nearly 15,000,000 of foreign born parents, 6,991,665 had one parent born abroad, while 13,712,754 were foreign born.

“He pointed out that laws passed to restrict immigration were evaded by reason of the fact that the nations restricted did not include Mexico and Canada. ‘Something like 750,000 foreign immigrants have found their way into the United States by the Canadian or Mexican route, being “bootlegged” into the country by law evaders for profit,’ Harris charged.”

See? Not much has changed. ‘Coyotes’ still charge outrageous fees to bring people across the border. Sometimes, those people are left to die in the deserts. But back to the program:

“‘Of these hordes who come, speaking a foreign language, many of them are so ignorant that they would never be able to learn the English tongue. The east is overflowing with foreigners. Eighty percent of the population of New York is made up of foreigners. To get into America, in fact, it would be necessary to come west of the Allegheny Mountains.'”

Harris claimed that in 1924, the Klan had membership of 5 million. That number might seem high, but it certainly was over 3 million members by 1923, so 5 million might not be too far off the mark. Today, we might think that these people were whites against blacks, but that’s actually not entirely true. As you can tell from this lecture, the Klan of the 20s was against everyone who wasn’t Just Like Them. Catholics, Jews, divorced people, men who were unemployed, Eastern Europeans (Commies, you know!) – and, of course, bootleggers. Sure, they lynched blacks as well, particularly in the South, and burned black churches and homes – but the major push of the Klan was pretty simple:  enforce Prohibition, keep ‘undesirables’ out of America, and keep America as white and Protestant as possible.

What scares me the most is not that we still have this crap going on – of course the Klan still exists, and so do neo-Nazi and white supremacy groups, each one as hateful and ignorant as the next – but that we have a presidential candidate that is spouting the same godforsaken nonsense.

Now Trump is encouraging his followers to go to the polling places on Election Day and ensure that there is no voter fraud. Hmm. The Klan did this, too, in the 1860s and 70s, and again from the 1920s – 60s. To ensure there was no ‘voter fraud.’ Dressed in their hoods and robes, grabbed their shotguns, and stood in front of polling booths. Imagine you’re a black man in the 1920s coming to vote for the first time, and that’s the first sight you see when you get there. Of course you’re going to turn around and go back home.

Because if you don’t, you’ll get a cross burning on your front yard – or worse.

What strikes me as I watch Trump and listen to his ignorant, fictional rhetoric is how very, very close he comes to being Z.A. Harris. How very, very close he comes to being the spokesperson for hate. You can tell from the original speech that Harris 100% believed every word he said. Though the Klan of the 1920s attracted all kinds of people for all reasons, one thing remained the same:  the purpose of the organization. Which, of course, boils down to just one thing:


The same hatred Trump shouts in every single speech.

The same hatred his followers seem to embrace.

Just like people did in 1924.




A Nation Divided . . .

When I started this blog, I felt it would never be a platform for my personal politics. It would be about writing, mostly. Helping others.

But that was before this election year. That was before Donald Trump.

I’ve been quiet, but I can’t be quiet anymore. In large part because I want this post, and any subsequent ones, to stand as evidence that I need Britain to grant me political asylum when I apply for it in a year or so.

The Founder Fathers are rolling over in their graves. Right now. At this very moment, they’re all conferring with each other, wondering how the hell things got so out of hand and if they could have done a single thing more than institute the Electoral College to prevent this mishmash of crudeness and humiliation.

You know that’s why they did that, right? The Electoral College? That antiquated voting mechanism that no one understands, not even the Electoral College itself? THIS IS WHY. The Electoral College was put in place as a safeguard. Because the one thing men like John Adams and James Monroe feared above all was the idea that the crude, uneducated masses would rally behind someone so equally uneducated and crude, so thoroughly, that he might actually be propelled to the Presidency. They needed to be able to stop that from beyond the grave. That’s why the Electoral College has the power to not vote for the candidate that wins their state.

(Yes, they were snobs. That doesn’t make them wrong.)

Trump is dangerous. I believe him to be the single most dangerous man in America. There are jihadists, living right now in our borders, who aren’t as dangerous as Trump. It’s not that he’s stupid – though he is – or that he can’t spell Wichita or Oklahoma or even Tulsa, for that matter – but because he fails to see the reality of the situation he’s created.

Or maybe he does see it, all too clearly.

It isn’t the mudslinging. It isn’t the lack of vision or answers. It’s not even his lack of basic knowledge about world affairs or the fact that the rest of the world, including our allies, can’t understand how the hell he’s gone so far in this election.

It’s the fact that he’s cultivated a certain kind of follower. He calls them ‘angry.’

They are not angry.

They are frightening.

They are frightening in their hate. They are frightening in their ignorance. They are frightening in the way that they will blindly follow anyone who says exactly what they want to hear.

They are exactly like the people who joined the Nazis in the 1920s. And those who joined the KKK in the 1920s. Hitler knew the people of Germany were starving, without jobs, angry, scared; he knew they’d follow anyone who told them what they wanted to hear. (Some argue that Trump is exactly like Hitler. If Trump starts to trot out plans, real plans, I’ll totally agree.) The KKK knew the same thing. Take that bit of discontent that the American people were already feeling – the racism of the South against blacks, the resentment in the North against immigrants coming to find jobs, the cultural clashes – mix it with a little bit of rhetoric, and voila. Instant mob mentality. Tell them what they want to hear – even if it makes no sense whatsoever – and let the people and their imaginations and their hatred do the rest.

The thing is, Hitler gave his people a scapegoat – the Jews. And the KKK gave theirs several scapegoats – immigrants, bootleggers . . . anyone, really.

Trump follows that second pattern.

And that’s the scariest part.

Trump doesn’t have a clue what he’s doing when he talks about world affairs. But he knows exactly what to say in his rallies to get his followers riled up. He has the catchphrases down pat. There’s no substance there at all. It’s all hot air. Smoke and mirrors. But I think he’s doing it for a very specific reason.

I think he wants to divide our nation.

I think he wants to return to an ‘us versus them’ mentality.

Look, I totally get that Trump has supporters from all nationalities. I just heard a Mexican immigrant support him on NPR the other day. But when this man stands up in a rally and tells his followers I’d like to punch that guy in the face – referring to a protester – then something’s Very Very Wrong. The only group Trump for sure hates are Muslims. Any Muslims. Even Muslim-Americans. Even Muslims who are third- and fourth-generation American. Listen to him talk – he paints them all with the same paintbrush, ignoring the fact that most Muslims hate terrorism and terrorists as much as anyone.

Here’s what I want Trump supporters to explain:  if Trump is right, and you’re angry, what are you angry about? Jobs? The economy? Syrian refugees? What? Be specific.

Now tell me this:  what is Trump going to do about it? In all of his speeches, in all of his rhetoric, in all of his Tweets and Facebook posts, what has he specifically said about your problem and what he’ll do to solve it if you elect him President?

I’ll tell you what:  not a damn thing. Because he doesn’t care about you and your problems.

So tell me this, then, if you’re a Trump supporter:  why do you like him? Why are you following him so blindly? It’s not that he’s good-looking. That, I could at least understand. But the man wears a dead squirrel on his head. And don’t tell me he’s a true American; he had to import the current wife. Is it the whole “he says what he thinks” thing? News flash:  that’s what five-year olds do, and we find it so annoying that we eventually make them stop. We outgrow that. We have to. It’s called being an adult.

This man, if – God forbid – he becomes President, will be the leader of America. Do you really want him to walk into the United Nations, get into a fight with everyone, and demand they have a penis-measuring contest? He’s already insulted a Saudi prince on Twitter. Britain already had a serious discussion about banning him from their country. We can’t afford to lose our allies because he can’t behave like a normal 50+ year old man.

But we will.

And we’ll see ISIS grow stronger.

And we’ll see our nation divided in a way it’s never been divided before.




Making students understand September 11 . . .

On Tuesday morning, I was cleaning stalls and thinking . . . and for some reason, found my thoughts drifting to a very unsettling realization.

My students, for the most part, no longer know what it was like on September 11, 2001.

My eighteen-year olds were only four that day. My nineteen-year olds, just five. How young is too young to comprehend something of that magnitude? To fully comprehend what it was like to know that not only was our nation about to go to war against an unknown enemy, but that thousands of innocent people had died in that opening gauntlet? To watch the reactions from around the world, see the children in Pakistan cheering and stomping on our flag, utterly bewildered that they could take such pleasure from our grief?

To realize that we knew nothing?

I was 25, and I was too young.

I’ve only been teaching since 2008. But I’ve always been able to use September 11 as a touchstone, a way to reach my students. When we talk about Pearl Harbor especially, I talk about the attack itself, the way the Japanese surprised us on a clear, sunny Sunday morning, and the reaction of people across the nation. Then I can say, “This was their September 11.”

I used to see the realization dawning in their eyes, the slow nods of their heads, the solemn, reverent way they now looked at the photos of the listing, smoke-filled USS Arizona on the screen before them. No longer a random date in history; it now had meaning, because they knew, exactly, what America felt that day as the news began to spread that we had lost the majority of the Pacific Fleet, and thousands of American lives, in just half an hour.

I don’t see that anymore. Not really. I see what they think I want to see:  heads nodding, thoughtfully, as if to say, “Yes, I’ll nod, because it’s what she wants and because I really should know what this means, but . . . I don’t.”

And I don’t know how to teach them that.

I don’t even think I can.

As I was thinking over this on Tuesday morning — a bright, clear, sunny day, again — I heard a fighter jet flying overhead, and rushed out of the barn. By that time, it was already gone, no doubt on its way to McConnell AFB an hour away. I went back inside the barn. Five minutes later, I heard another booming overhead.

It took me back to that week like nothing else.

I remember what it was like to look up into the skies and see emptiness. Nothing. I live in Kansas. I live between two major airports and two major Air Force bases. Planes are a part of life. To go on my walks in the country, look up into that clear blue endless sky, and see nothing, to hear nothing, was so eerie. It hit home, over and over, that this was not a normal week. That we were a nation afraid. Unsure of ourselves for maybe the first time in history. And I remember the feeling I got when I went for a walk one afternoon, glanced up — and saw one lone white stream, a single jet. How my heart almost stopped. How I clutched my dog’s leash so tight, she whined. Because all I could think was, why is it there? Where is it going? What’s it going to do when it gets there?

I still remember the twenty-four-hour live coverage. I still remember the shock of the very first commercial — a Toyota commercial. Staring at it, uncomprehending. Who cares about buying a freaking car? It was betrayal. It was hope.

Those are the things I can’t communicate to my students. I don’t know how. I wouldn’t even know where to start.

The sad thing is, I am sure that someday, they will have their own September 11.

I hope not. I would rather have to dig deep within myself, dredge up memories I’d rather not, and use my experiences to explain it to them, to try to make them understand, that for them to go through what we did on that day. To watch the towers collapse, knowing that rescue workers were still inside. To remember exactly what you were eating for breakfast, or how you spent that day, or which chair you collapsed into, unable to watch and unable to make yourself look away.

But I watch them, and I know that it’s coming. And I see in them myself, on September 10, 2001. Barely knowing what’s going on in the world. I try to tell them. We talk about ISIS. We talk about the war in Syria. We discuss the Mubarek regime and what it means for Middle East stability — or instability. And I see the totally blank looks. The ones that say Geez, Ms. Hill, let us get back to our Candy Crush already! Nothing’s going to happen. This doesn’t matter to us. 

Maybe it takes out-of-the-blue tragedies to make a generation wake up and realize we’re not alone in the world.

A Passport’s Journey

I love rummage sales, yard sales, garage sales, boot sales (for my British side), and estate sales. I can’t tell you how many really cool things I’ve brought home from those sales. Most of it I have no plans for, but they’re just too cool to leave behind.

And then there’s the special items. The ones you can’t leave behind no matter what. The ones that haunt you until you turn the car around and go back, praying it’s still on the table where you last saw it — if you’re stupid enough not to snap it up then and there and cradle it to you all the way home. It’s not an experience I have often these days, but last weekend, I had it — with quite possibly the most special item I’ve ever found at a sale.

It’s a simple US passport, a mild burgundy in color with gold embossing. Big deal, you say? Maybe. Keep reading, though.

It was carried by a man named Ernest W. Reid, and used between 1936 and 1939.

Now does it make sense? Here, maybe this will make it more clear:  he was in England on September 3, 1939.

If that date doesn’t ring a bell, then your history teacher needs to be fired. If it does, then your hands are probably shaking like mine were when I picked this up and saw that stamp. Because this man was in Dover, England, on the very day England declared war on Germany. Starting World War II.

The next stamp is just as chilling in its finality:  No Return to United Kingdom. He had fourteen days to leave the UK.

For me, a historian who is passionate about finding and saving these scraps of history, this passport is not just ink and paper:  it’s a wormhole. I can look at these images and know where Ernest Reid was at any given point on his journeys. He wasn’t just in England; he was in Oslo, Brussels, Paris, and yes, Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany. You want chills down the spine? Try flipping a page and seeing a bright red swastika stamped there. I don’t know how many people have looked at this passport since that moment, but to me, I can look at that stamp and I don’t see all those other hands; I see that one hand, holding that one stamp. That one Nazi immigration officer, looking Ernest Reid in the eye as he checks the passport photo against the man standing before him, asking his business in Germany and his duration of stay, before he stamps that passport and hands it back to Reid.

So I’m on a quest. I needed another, obviously. My urban fantasy series, my fourteen-year old rumrunner, my Etsy store, my 13 classes, and my cats and horses — oh, and my OTHER historical research project! — clearly aren’t enough. I want to know more about this Reid, and I’m going to document my findings in this blog. It won’t be every week, but stay tuned — I’m determined to find out just why this guy was in the Sudetenland in 1938, and why he was in Germany just weeks after the invasion of Czechoslovakia in March 1939.

And why on earth he happened to be in England on such a pivotal day.


June 28, 1914

One hundred years ago today, Archduke Franz Ferdinand of the Austro-Hungarian Empire was assassinated.

Big deal, you say? And well you might. Today, World War I is almost as forgotten in American as the Spanish-American War. You’d almost think this country had fought just two wars:  the Civil War, and World War II.

In part, I think that’s because World War II and the Civil War are easy to discuss. They’re easy to explain. Rationalize. The Civil War was about slavery. (Well. Sort of.) World War II was good vs. evil. (That’s pretty much true.) But World War I is so difficult to describe. I spent last semester discussing this war, at odd moments, with a fellow instructor who teaches economics. Very smart guy. But he could not wrap his mind around why World War I began.

The assassination of Archduke Ferdinand by the 16-year old Serbian nationalist Gavril Princeps was the proverbial spark. You might remember some of this from veeeeeery long ago. Serbia was on the Balkan Peninsula, along with other new nations like Romania and Bulgaria. They craved their independence, and yet they were being threatened with takeover by Austria-Hungary. Tensions were already running high in this region — indeed, tension were running high across Europe. Everyone had spent the past 10+ years aligning themselves with other nations. choosing allies, creating “mutual defense” pacts. By the time June 28, 1914 rolled around, this the Balkans were the “powder keg of Europe.” The assassination was the spark. The resulting explosion was World War I.

But it’s about much more than that. I think World War I is more about ego than anything, to be honest, and that’s how I explain it to my students. In World War II, we had to stop the Axis Powers from world domination. But World War I was about much more — sorry, I have to say it — ridiculous reasons. Of course, in 1914, they didn’t seem ridiculous at all. Nationalism — that rabid, fervent love for one’s country — was rampant. Everyone was raring to go to war to avenge old wrongs, to prove themselves, to kick ass and take names. No one was thinking about the ramifications of that war. No one was thinking about the millions of casualties that would result from four years of warfare. Or the devastation that would ensue.

World War II also has a satisfying conclusion:  the deaths of Hitler, Tojo, and Mussolini; the downfall of the Nazi regime; the liberation of the camps. World War I just . . . well, doesn’t. The story doesn’t end. In fact, the story just continues . . . because the end of World War I is the beginning of Hitler’s rise to power. It’s also the basis for the Depression of the 1920s in Europe (and, oddly, a root cause of the 1930s Depression in America, too). It’s like the first book in a series. You have to get to know all the characters and the story lines in that first convoluted book. The problem is, most of the characters of Book 1 don’t survive to Book 2, let alone Book 3.

So why aren’t we focusing more on the death of Franz Ferdinand and the spark that sets off World War I — “The Great War,” as it was known today? I think in part because in America, we had very limited involvement in this war. In Europe, this is a much bigger deal. But remember, the US didn’t declare war on Germany until spring 1917. The war ended November 1918. Not even two years.

But we should focus on it. It did happen. It could happen again — and for largely the same reasons. The fact that we have to delve into so much European history shouldn’t stop us from studying it. Their history = our history. We have to study European history to look at World War II, after all. Why not The Great War? Is is laziness? I hope not. But I can’t fathom why so many of my students can tell me about World War Ii, and nothing about World War I. Why so many can tell me who Churchill was, but not Franz Ferdinand. I feel it’s my duty to set them straight. And if that means I have to discuss a war with murky beginnings and an unclear end, then so be it. I have to do my best to make it clear to them, so they don’t forget.

I hope this works:  this is a link to the New York Times daily edition from June 29, 1914 detailing the assassination, what it might mean for Austria and the world, and — interestingly — how popular Ferdinand’s replacement was.