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Bits of History and Historical Fiction

Three of My Favorite Historical Novels

The good people at Shepherd have asked all its readers and authors who post there to supply a list of three favorite books we read in the past year.


It was pretty hard to narrow the choice down that far, but I picked (in no particular order): The East Indian, by Brinda Charry; Act of Oblivion, by Robert Harris; and Lady Tan's Circle of Women, by Lisa See. Here's the link to that page: https://shepherd.com/bboy/2023/f/larry-zuckerman


I reviewed all three in greater depth (and many more besides) on my blog, Novelhistorian (https://novelhistorian.com/).


In case you don't know Shepherd.com, it's an alternative to Goodreads that allows authors and readers more scope, yet keeps entries short and to the point. Their theory is that brief reviews, written from the heart, connect best with readers.


See what you think.

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Where History Meets Fiction

This week, I've published two essays about the historical background to Lonely Are the Brave, my novel about a Great War veteran set in rural Washington in 1919.


The first essay, in Historical Novels Review, connects historical fact to my conception of the story and characters, including topics as various as fear of Bolshevism, the laws that required a woman to obtain a man's cosignature to open a bank account, and theories of childrearing that would astonish most people today.


The second essay, a guest appearance on the blog "History Imagined," traces the myth that the nation went to war to protect American womanhood, and the link between that idea and the sinking of the Lusitania.



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The Commission for Relief in Belgium, Part II

CRB poster requesting clothing donations, 1917-19. By that time, the CRB was aiding northern France as well as Belgium, both areas under military occupation (courtesy National Archives, College Park, via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

In Lonely Are the Brave, my novel due out in April, a war hero warmly recalls parading through Brussels in December 1918 to celebrate the city's liberation from four years of German occupation.


Belgians had a soft spot for Americans too. The Commission for Relief in Belgium, which fed the country throughout the war, placed American delegates in major towns and cities, mostly collegians on leave of absence.


CRB delegates were essentially glorified accountants who pored over cargo manifests and inventory sheets while having to fight their way through red tape and withstand hazing by German soldiers convinced they were spies. Berlin tolerated the CRB as a means to keep Belgium placid and for public-relations value. But in Belgium, that tolerance wore thin.


The CRB never violated its neutrality pledge, but that didn't matter. CRB vehicles drew cheers from Belgians, which annoyed the occupiers, as did the Americans' casual confidence. As one delegate wrote, "The German stalks about Belgium as if he owned the country and the American as if he did not care who owned it."


I can just see those twenty-somethings excited by the power to act for a humanitarian project the like of which history had never seen—and bearing witness to a military occupation the outside world knew only by rumor.


As far as I know, the CRB story has never been told in fiction—I'm working on that now—but I've also got a book coming out in a couple months. It'll be a while!



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The Commission for Relief in Belgium

Herbert Hoover as a young mining engineer, Western Australia, 1898, photographer unknown (courtesy State Library of Western Australia, via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

In Lonely Are the Brave, my novel due out in April, a war hero warmly recalls his most meaningful moment of service, parading through Brussels in December 1918 to celebrate the city's liberation from four years of German occupation.


Why the Belgians chose an American regiment that had spent mere weeks fighting on their soil rather than French or British units that had fought for years, speaks to political loyalties. I suspect that Herbert Hoover's gift had much to do with the decision.


In autumn 1914, after German forces had overrun nearly all Belgium and the British had blockaded the North Sea, Belgium was sealed off from the outside world. Famine threatened.


Hoover, a wealthy mining engineer who happened to be in London, vowed to act--and by telling Britain and German leaders that public opinion would blame them if Belgium starved, he convinced them to let him attempt to feed a nation under military occupation. His Commission for Relief in Belgium, paid for by private charity and administered in-country by young Americans as neutral citizens, captured imaginations around the world.


The CRB saw seven million Belgians through the war and, in 1916, added three million French people in German-occupied territory to the program. To feed them all, day in, day out, the CRB brought in millions of tons of wheat, corn, dried peas and beans, powdered milk, and other basics. These were rations, calories for survival, bare sustenance.


But to Belgium, the Americans' presence brought another precious commodity: hope of liberation.


More to come.

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The bootlegger cop

Roy Olmstead with his wife and partner in crime, Elise, 1925. She had worked for British intelligence during the First World War (courtesy Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

6 Autos and 9 Men Held in Roundup ran the March 22, 1920 headline in the Seattle Times. The story breathlessly reported how federal agents had laid an "elaborate trap" to catch bootleggers—whose ringleader was Roy Olmstead, a Seattle police lieutenant.


Olmstead had spent a decade on the force, working his way up from clerk. He'd also been running liquor ever since Washington had passed a dry law in 1916, four years before national Prohibition. His arrest cost him his job and a $500 fine, a sizable sum in those days. So he became a full-time bootlegger.


I ran across these details while researching my novel Lonely Are the Brave (see Forthcoming Fiction), which takes place in 1919, and in which the state's dry law influences the story. But Olmstead deserves a closer look.


Unusual among bootleggers, he forbade his employees to carry weapons and imported his liquor from Canada, rather than make his own. But he ran a large organization, difficult to keep secret, and in 1925, the feds arrested him again. This time, he went to prison.


However, they had obtained evidence through a wiretap put in place without a warrant, and he appealed the verdict. In 1928, his landmark case, Olmstead v. United States, reached the Supreme Court, which ruled, 5-4, that his constitutional rights had not been violated. FDR pardoned him in 1935.

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The Northwest Woods

Pub date April 2023!

When Theodore Roosevelt signed the American Antiquities Act of 1906, the law granted him and successive presidents the power to create national parks and set aside forest lands. During his presidency, he preserved 150 national forests, totaling 150 million acres, and created the U.S. Forest Service to administer them.


Ever since, Washington has benefited greatly. I'm comforted to know that my home state's magnificent forests are protected under law and count as a delightful respite from city life the hours I've spent hiking in them, watching birds, and listening to flowing creeks and waterfalls. When I see a tree trunk measuring yards in diameter, as in the Hoh Rain Forest in Olympic National Park, I stand in awe; I'm looking at a living monument older than many events that have shaped the modern world. And when I crest a steep hill in the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest and view a sun-dappled valley where wispy fog burns off at the treetops, I'm glad to be alive.


I've tried to portray wonder at and love for natural beauty in Lonely Are the Brave, my novel set in a fictional Washington logging town in 1919. Both main characters love the woods as their Northwest heritage; the irony, which they recognize, is that one's a former home builder turned woodworker, and the other's an heiress to a timber fortune.


I'm pleased to share the cover, above, which I hope conveys the novel's spirit.

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An Account of One's Own

Clarksville, TN, where this late nineteenth-century building serves as a visitor center, was home to the first American bank run by women, 1919 (courtesy Jugarum, via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

Here's another nugget I uncovered while researching my forthcoming novel, Lonely Are the Brave.


In an early draft, I had one of my main characters, Kay Sorensen, open a bank account in 1917 while her husband's away serving in the army. I thought it only natural, since she's working for her father's timber company and dreams of a business career.


Then I happened on an appalling historical fact: almost every state in the Union required a man's cosignature before a woman could open a bank account. At that time, Tennessee may have been the only exception.


My research discovery supports a feminist theme of the novel and handed me a point of conflict when Kay's husband returns from Over There; so much the better. But I was shocked to learn that the laws remained on the books until the 1960s.


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Song of Worry

Albert Wilfred Barbelle's sheet music cover, 1919 (courtesy  http://libx.bsu.edu/cdm/ref/collection/ShtMus/id/725, via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

Here's another nugget I uncovered while researching my forthcoming novel, Lonely Are the Brave.


After the Armistice in November 1918, Americans worried that exposure to big, bad Europe would change (corrupt?) their boys. A hit song of 1919 addressed that fear: "How 'Ya Gonna Keep 'Em Down on the Farm (After They've Seen Paree)?" In the song, which strikes a lighthearted mood, a farmer grins slyly as he tells his wife their boy will come back restless, thirsting for what he's glimpsed in France.


But you have to ask whether the father's good-humored acceptance reflects rural attitudes or those of city slickers who wrote popular music.


The slickers in question were composer Walter Donaldson and lyricists Joe Young and Sam M. Lewis; the publisher was Waterson, Berlin & Snyder Co.—Berlin, as in Irving Berlin, who gave us "Easter Parade," "White Christmas," "Cheek to Cheek," and a bazillion other standards.


"How 'Ya Gonna Keep 'Em" appeared on the vaudeville stage and at the Ziegfeld Follies; an early jazz band, James Reese Europe's 369th Infantry Band, performed the song regularly and cut a hit record. Two well-known singers followed suit.


But not every soldier thought Europe a swell place (or, as Twenties slang later would have it, the gnat's eyebrows). In April 1919, the Seattle Times interviewed a Washington infantryman who said he was glad to come home to a "real country" and criticized the Belgians for not "dressing like us" and "clinging to their old ways."


However, if he ever wished to buy an alcoholic drink or a condom, he might have paused to reconsider Europe's advantages: Both transactions were criminal acts in his home state.


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The 1918-19 Pandemic

Poster from the Rensselaer County Tuberculosis Association, Troy, New York, 1918 (courtesy National Library of Medicine)

Here's another nugget I uncovered while researching my forthcoming novel, Lonely Are the Brave.


My protagonist, Rollie, returns from war in April 1919 a widower, because his wife has recently died from what people mistakenly call the "Spanish flu."


The influenza pandemic of 1918-19, which infected some 500 million people worldwide, of whom at least 50 million died, killed 675,000 Americans. According to historical analysis by the CDC, mortality ran high in very young children, adults from ages twenty to forty, and those above sixty-five.


The twenty-to-forty age group illustrates how returning soldiers and sailors spread the disease, whether in military encampments or among the civilian population. Washington State was no exception, as two naval training stations and the most important army camp were hotbeds of infection.


Seattle officials at first downplayed the danger, after which they issued ordinances banning social gatherings, shutting theaters, closing schools, and instructing police to enforce the laws against spitting on the street. When these measures failed to slow the spread, the city's leaders, thundering against the populace, enacted further restrictions and threatened fines for infractions.


For instance, if you wanted to ride a trolley, you had to wear a mask, and the mask must have at least six thicknesses, rather than the usual four. Acid commentary ensued. After all, if nobody understood the disease, how could anyone say how thick the mask should be?


The criticism underlined how powerless medical science was. With typical bravado, the city's leading health authority trumpeted the effectiveness of influenza serum, which, in fact, provided little or no protection. Further, if the flu virus didn't kill its victims, opportunistic bacterial infections might, and in those days, no antibiotics existed.


Nevertheless, the infection rate petered out. The disease did rebound in December for another month or two; announcements of weddings and funerals held in homes rather than houses of worship suggest how people coped with the ban on public functions. Toward the end of February 1919, the plague vanished from Seattle, having killed an estimated 1,400 among a population of 315,000, a relatively low mortality rate. Other cities were less lucky.


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Parenting Advice, WWI Era

Luther Emmett Holt, MD, eminent pediatrician, championed pasteurization, unusual for his time, and eugenics, a more mainstream position (undated photograph courtesy National Library of Medicine via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

Here's another nugget I uncovered while researching my forthcoming novel, Lonely Are the Brave.


My protagonist, Rollie Birch, returns from Over There in 1919 and scandalizes the town that reveres him as a war hero by choosing to raise his infant daughter by himself. So I looked for a parenting book from those years to see what advice the experts were dishing out.


The Care and Feeding of Children: A Catechism for the Use of Mothers and Children's Nurses, appeared in multiple editions before, during, and after the war, the most popular guide of its time. The author, L. Emmett Holt, MD, offered rigorous instructions for pasteurizing raw milk—the only kind available—at 155˚ F. for thirty minutes, in which case you had to use it within twenty-four hours, or boiled one hour, in which case the milk would keep two or three weeks.


Either way, the stuff must have tasted mighty appetizing. Such were the days before flash heating, but you had no choice; back then, so many babies died from milk containing pathogens.


As for hands-on childcare, Holt counseled feeding on a strict schedule and deplored the instinct to pick up a fussing infant; no healthy baby, he averred, would cry for more than twenty minutes. (Rollie's daughter ignores this rule.) Further, the doctor warned against playing with children younger than six months, which would make them nervous and irritable, and disliked the notion of playing with infants at all.


Perhaps not surprisingly, he cautioned against kissing infants, even on the cheek or forehead, for fear of transmitting diphtheria, tuberculosis, syphilis, and other diseases.


Rollie reads this and laughs.

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