Fiction Can Infuse History With New Life

Fiction Can Infuse History With New Life

154 years ago last July, the brutal battle at Gettysburg was fought. In only three days, 51,000 men were killed, wounded or gone missing; 5,000 horses were slaughtered on the battlefield.

I visited Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, to gather details for my book, Time Exposure.  I roamed the sites of its bloody history, Cemetery Ridge, Devils Den, Big Round Top, Little Round Top.  The excursion provided me with background elements to set the scene.  But it also elicited dark, yet poignant emotions to help me paint the picture of the grim aftermath.

I used the technique of letters and diary entries to bring out the human side of the Civil War. I excerpt here a letter from my fictional Civil War photographer, Joseph Thornhill, to the love of his life, Sara Kelly.  All other characters and events are real history.  This letter might well have been written at the time.

July 3, 1863

My Dearest Sara,

I felt I had to write you today, after three of the bloodiest days I have ever witnessed.  I must get it off my mind, and I might not even post this letter, lest you be terribly offended.  But I feel I must unburden myself somehow.

Rumors have it that General Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia suffered great losses, maybe one third of their forces dead, wounded or captured.  The Union Army is said to have lost a good deal, maybe one quarter of their troops, but it is safe to say we won the battle of Gettysburg.  Lee’s army is retreating back to the South and Mead’s men are elated.  Finally, victory, and an important one.

It is sad to think that this particular battle may have been fought over something as simple as shoes.  There was rumored to be a large supply of shoes in the town of Gettysburg and on July 1 an officer under Ewell’s command led his men there to confiscate these shoes.  Unfortunately for them, they ran into the Union Army.

I was slightly wounded today, some shrapnel lacerating my arm.  But don’t worry.  The doctors have bandaged me up and say I will be fine, no permanent damage, and I take a bit of laudanum for the pain.  Luckily my camera, which was caught in the crossfire suffered no harm.

I must admit that until now I had no real concept of the power our modern weaponry wields.  The force of the injury knocked me clean off my feet.  I think this experience will prove useful to me in my work.

The wound has not stopped me from working, however, although it is a bit difficult with one arm in a brace.  I rely on my apprentice more.  I’ve been busy photographing the town and its people.  Now I’ll begin, once again, to shoot the battlefield remains.  I am steeling myself to this task slowly, but have not made much progress.

Both Alex and Tim O’Sullivan–you remember, I mentioned this fine young man and competent photographer to you–will arrive in the next few days.  I look forward to working with them.

Now, other gruesome scenes await my camera.  Embalming surgeons, as they call themselves, have arrived.  Although many of the dead soldiers are hastily buried where they fall, many end up in mass graves.  Some are later exhumed and buried in military cemeteries, whether they’ve been identified or not– often with the headstone reading only:  “A Union Soldier” or “A Confederate Soldier.”   It is hard to imagine–dying in the name of one’s country but that country not even knowing your name.

On a lighter note, I have also photographed some of the Union soldiers and officers after the final skirmish, and they were truly in high spirits–dirty, sweaty, exhausted, some wounded, but all euphoric.  There was optimism in the air and hope, hope that this war would soon end.  But for now we must deal with the brutal aftermath of this battle.  Hospital tents crowd the countryside and the small population of Gettysburg is inundated with the sick and wounded.  I doubt this town will ever be the same.

Tomorrow is July 4.  I wonder if anyone, in the midst of all this furor, will appreciate the irony that this day marks the eighty-seventh year of our nation’s birth.

I miss you, my dearest, and long to see you this Christmas. You are always in my thoughts as I pray I am in yours.

Yours ever truly,

Joseph

 While letter or diary writing is a device to take the reader back in time, it is an opportunity for the writer to truly bring the past alive.  Ideas welcome.

A Library Par Excellence

A Library Par Excellence

In researching my new book, I came across a wealth of information and images about the New York City Public Library at Bryant Park, 475 Fifth Ave.  I thought readers would be interested in some fun facts about this incredible domicile of history, literature, and education.

Originally formed by the consolidation of the Tilden Trust and the Astor and Lenox libraries in 1895, the cornerstone of the (now) Stephen A. Schwarzman Building was laid in 1902.

A Registered National Historical Landmark, the architecture is Beaux-Arts style and was dedicated by President Taft in 1911.  The two marble lions welcoming visitors in the front were named Patience and Fortitude in the 1930s by Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, for the qualities he felt New Yorkers would need to survive the economic depression.  These names have withstood the test of time.  Patience guards the south side of the Library’s steps; Fortitude the north.  These mascots are officially trademarked by the Library.

A few fun facts came to light as I researched this marvelous resource. 

  1. The NYPL Research Libraries have a unique classification system. Originally, the first director, Dr. John Shaw Billings organized the system, but it was not easy to use.  Since the 1950s, books in many parts of the of the collection have been shelved according to size.  I kid you not!
  2. The original building was fueled by coal and needed more than twenty tons a day. So much ash was produced it had to be carted away daily.
  3. Library employees once ran a General Store in the basement. It opened in 1920 and carried everything from food goods, tobacco products, sewing supplies and general merchandise.  Library “stores” have made a comeback, as you are no doubt aware, but the goods sold today are “book-related” for the most part.
  4. After Pearl Harbor, the most valuable manuscripts and volumes were moved to bank vaults around the city. 12,000 items, valued at $10 million, were temporarily moved to a secret location 250 miles away.   Sounds like a book in here somewhere.

The Library has been visited by countless celebrities such as: Norman Mailer, Jacqueline Kennedy, Princess Grace, Somerset Maugham, Marlene Dietrich, Tom Wolfe, Isaac Bashevis Singer, and E.L Doctorow, to name a few.

Now that I reside in Vermont, I am only a four-hour drive from this rich collection to research my writings.  Yahoo!

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The Looting of Art and a Modern Mystery

The Looting of Art and a Modern Mystery

A few years ago, my third book, Deadly Provenance, was published. I had originally titled it Provenance until a friend thought readers might confuse it with a city in Rhode Island.  Of course it is a mystery and contains several murders, so I decided to call it Deadly Provenance.  The story revolves around the confiscation of art during WWII and a missing Van Gogh painting.  “Still Life: Vase with Oleanders” is an actual painting by Vincent, which disappeared around 1944, and is, in fact, still missing.

The research on this book provided so many possible avenues to explore, it was hard to know where to begin.  First, there was the Nazi confiscation of art: the logistics of stealing, storing and moving millions of pieces of precious artworks.  Next, what happened to all that displaced art?  How much was recovered and how?  How much is still missing?  Then there’s my world — the museum world.  How have museums been involved?  Have they helped or hindered the search for missing pieces of art?

Then there are the players.  An important character in the historic part of the book is Rose Valland, a woman whose heroic efforts during the war truly saved a great deal of artwork.  She is portrayed in Deadly Provenance as the heroine she truly was.  Like Rose, another real character in history is Hans van Meegeren, art forger extraordinaire.  Van Meegeren, a Dutch painter, bamboozled the art world in the 40s with a series of false Vermeers.  Did he ever forge a van Gogh?  In my book he did.

There is the modern story, where the mystery is solved years later.  Protagonist, Maggie Thornhill, a digital photographer, must try to identify and authenticate the painting from a photograph.  Can it be done?  Has it ever been done?  What is the science of art authentication today?  How are x-rays, infrared and multi-spectral imaging used in scientific analysis?  Don’t freak. I won’t get into this too deeply here.

As mentioned in a former blog, I always visit the places I write about. During WWII, a great deal of art was stolen from Jews and other “undesirables” and stored in the Room of Martyrs at the Musée du Jeu de Paume in Paris.  The museum is located on the west side of the Tuileries Gardens and is now a museum of Contemporary Art.  Visiting was a treat, although the “Room” is no longer there.  Most of the Impressionist and Post-Impressionist works originally housed there are now on display at the Musée d’Orsay, on the banks of the Seine, in an old converted railway station.

And last but central to the storyline, is Vincent van Gogh, the mad genius whose painting is lost, perhaps forever.  “Vase with Oleanders” is not typical of his vibrant colors, his wheat fields or his starry nights.  But there’s no doubt this is Vincent’s work, even if his signature wasn’t in the lower left corner of the painting.  Which it is.

The painting was owned by the Bernheim-Jeunes, a French Jewish family of art collectors.  When they realized their art was about to be confiscated by the Nazis, they hid their collection, including the Van Gogh, at a friend’s mansion – The Chateau de Rastignac, near Bordeaux.  Unfortunately, in 1944, the Nazis raided and looted the Chateau then burned it to the ground.  Was the Van Gogh trundled aboard a Nazi truck and whisked away?  Did a soldier steal it?  A civilian in the town?  Was it burned with the Chateau?

Today, there is still a great deal of interest in this subject and the world of art looting and theft.  I’ve spoken about it to a number of different audiences and each time I must update it because new information appears almost weekly in the news.  Lost paintings found, fought over by heirs in the courts, and, sometimes, won.  Like Maria Altmann and the portrait of her aunt, The Woman in Gold.

History can never remain solely in the past. Past events have a profound influence on the present and the future.  I believe they should.

Your thoughts welcome.

Experiences Make You a Better Writer

Experiences Make You a Better Writer

It was three in the morning.  A slight tremor shook the windows.   The doors began to rattle in their frames.  The bed seemed to move.  Now the windows were banging against the shutters and a strange howling sounded in the air.

I leaped up and ran to the French doors of our room at the Hotel Tramontano in Sorrento, Italy.  I knew what was happening.  Mt. Vesuvius was erupting, just as it did in 79 AD, when it brought Pompeii and Herculaneum to its knees.  What a story!

I threw open the doors and peered through a curtain of mist, across the Bay of Naples to the majestic volcano. Nothing.  Not a wisp of smoke nor a glow of lava trails.  I was peculiarly disappointed.

My husband stepped outside to join me on the veranda.  He had just called the front desk.  “Just a strong wind.”  Combined with old windows and doors and perhaps my sub-conscious wish to be Pliny the Younger and witness the infamous eruption.  Nothing.  Bummer.

Earlier this same day we had traveled by train from Naples and my husband had been pickpocketed.   Now, of course, Naples is the pickpocket capital of the world.  But how could that happen to us?  It only happens to others.  Well, we lost our credit cards and cash (fortunately, not our passports,) and spent hours on the phone with Visa when we arrived.  Nice folks.

Not an auspicious start to a holiday in Italy.  Maybe that was it.  Instead of a mystery, I’d write a travel book:  Misadventures in Italy.  Uh uh.  Stick to mysteries.  How about an artifact newly discovered, buried under layers of excavation in Pompeii.  A humerus bone that was only two hundred years old.  How could it possibly be buried here along with remains almost 2,000 years old?  Whose bone was it?  A female, young, small, delicate with a knife wound slicing across the bone?  Maybe a swath of fabric is found near the bone.  How old could the material be?  What about a tool or a bowl or utensil nearby?

Clues.   Ahhh.  More, more.

And what about Pliny, the Younger and Pliny the Elder?  The life and times of Pompeiins, Napolitanos, Herculaneum— uh, ers, ites?  People from Herculaneum.  What a backdrop for a historical mystery.  And forensics can help resolve the bone, fabric, bowl conundrum.  (Maybe the forensics expert was pickpocketed on his way to the crime scene?)

Whether I  write a mystery about Pompeii or not, the point is, so many of our experiences can be evolved into a full-fledged story with characters, events, descriptions, and rich background.  Those incidents in our lives that are memorable are often traumatic when we live through them.  Find the humor and spin them into a grand story.

I can laugh at the faux volcanic eruption of Vesuvius now.  Trust me, it wasn’t funny at the time.

Women, Fight Back

Women, Fight Back

March 25, 2017 will be the 106th anniversary of the deadliest workplace disaster in NYC history prior to 9-11: The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire.

It was significant not because 146 workers died, but because it instigated reform. At the time workplace safety was barely regulated and rarely thought about . . . except, perhaps, by the workers themselves. Other workplace disasters had occurred in the past and would again in the future. So why was the Triangle different?

One reason was a woman named Clara Lemlich. In my novel, The Triangle Murders, she appears as a feisty young woman who wanted to better the plight of the garment workers. Indeed, she was. In my novel she is beaten by a gang of thugs and rescued by Cormac Mead. Indeed, she was. (In truth, she was beaten but not rescued by Cormac or any other policeman.)

 Clara Lemlich, a skilled draper and member of International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union Local 25, encouraged interested shirtwaist makers to meet secretly with the union and the Women’s Trade Union League to discuss workers’ needs and the union’s goals. Despite the risks, many went on strike in September, 1909. In an attempt to satisfy some workers, Triangle owners Max Blanck and Isaac Harris formed the “Triangle Employees Benevolent Association” a company union, and installed relatives as officers. They also announced that any employee who supported ‘another union’ would be fired. Photographer: unknown, 1909 Photo courtesy the Kheel Center, Cornell University:

http://www.ilr.cornell.edu/trianglefire/primary/photosIllustrations/slideshow.html?image_id=842&sec_id=12#screen

Clara worked as a draper at Leiserson’s waist factory. She told stories of how workers were followed to the restroom and hustled back to work, lest they steal precious fabrics. She relayed how workers were persistently shortchanged on their pay and sometimes even charged for the use of materials, such as thread. And, at the day’s end, they lined up a single unlocked door to be searched before they exited.

She had had enough. In 1906, along with several other women, Clara joined the ILGWU, the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union. Together they formed Local 25, to serve female waist makers and dressmakers. (A shirtwaist, by the way, is a blouse – See Clara wearing one in photo.) In many ways, they had to fend for themselves, for men in the unions did not take them seriously.

Clara was instrumental in organizing the female workers from shop to shop to strike for better working conditions. She made a difference.  Now 106 years later, women like Clara can still make a difference in reforming injustices. We all can.

Ideas welcome.

 

The Christmas Truce

The Christmas Truce

When it started, World War I was predicted to last only a few weeks.  (The same was true of the Civil War, by the way.) Instead, by December of 1914, WWI had already claimed nearly a million lives. In fact, over fifteen million died in a war that dragged on for four miserable years.

christmas-truce-5But a remarkable thing happened on December 24, 1914.

The front fell silent except for the singing of Silent Night.  A truce!  There are many examples of truces during wars, but none as famous as this one.  The Christmas Truce of 1914.

In the Ypres region of Belgium on Christmas Eve, guns stopped, leaving a deathly silence across the fields.  Then suddenly the British watched in astonishment as Germans began to set tiny trees along their trench lines.  Soon a familiar tune with unfamiliar words carried across No Man’s Land, the battered and desolate space between the enemies.  Silent Night.  Stille Nacht.

Soon the British were singing along with the Germans.  Soldiers on both sides crawled out of their trenches to meet in the middle and greet their enemy.  They exchanged cigarettes and souvenirs.  Perhaps a drink or two.  And they collected their dead and wounded, carrying them back to their respective sides.

Peace for the day.  Only one day because the next day they were back killing each other.
christmas-truce-4

The story of the Christmas Truce came to my attention after reading the non-fiction, To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918, by Adam Hochschild, an amazing story of WWI.  I highly recommend. http://www.amazon.com/End-All-Wars-Rebellion-1914-1918/dp/B008PIC0T8/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1356046840&sr=1-1&keywords=to+end+all+wars

I’ll leave you with this thought.   If Christmas can bring together mortal enemies for a day, why not for a week, a month, a year or longer?  Or forever?

I hope you click on the youtubes below.  They will make you sad and happy but most of all hopeful.  Wishing you a happy holiday and a prosperous and healthy New Year.

Belleau Wood: Christmas Truce by Garth Brooks. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xy9lg0aAhlE

Christmas Truce 1914, Music with captions to tell the story. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qsCpLMPI7IY

Behind the Christmas Story: The Christmas Truce http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mgLcvjA8NDk

Christmas Truce of 1914. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p05E_ohaQGk