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Friday, February 12, 2021

Our One Dog, Many Books Life

Another day dawns...

Life With Dogs


Somewhere in my Cochise County travels, I picked up a copy of Abigail Thomas’s memoir, A Three Dog Life, and now I want everyone I know to read it. It’s that kind of book, though in the beginning you’re not sure it will be.


I found my husband lying in a pool of blood, his head split open. Red lights were flashing from cop cars and emergency vehicles….


-      Abigail Thomas, A Three Dog Life


Doesn’t sound like a book for everyone, does it? When I was trying to choose a section to read aloud to the Artist, I landed on a short chapter called “How to Stop a Dog Fight,” a chapter that had me howling out loud with laughter of recognition on the porch of the coffee house earlier in the day.


The next time the dogs start growling and circling each other, fling open the kitchen door and stomp down the steps shouting, “If you don’t stop that this minute I am leaving forever and never coming back!” Face the fact that this is probably not the first time these words have escaped your lips. Think about your children’s childhoods and fall further into the slough of despond. 


Somehow – was it my reading, or was it because the chapter doesn’t have the same punch taken out of context, or is it just something only a mother understands? – the Artist was not caught caght up in the author’s life as I had been. And really, I think now, though the urge to quote endlessly is almost irresistible, I’m pretty sure that the effect does come cumulatively -- and how could it be otherwise in a memoir? -- and that part of the laughter has a hysterical edge, coming as it does in juxtaposition with tragedy. So now I feel foolish, but I can’t buy the book for everyone I know, and I won't be back in my bookstore until spring, so you will all just have to find your own copy if you can't wait. 

He has found another treasure!

Thank heaven the Artist and I are both in pretty good health and as sound of mind as we’ve ever been, so one young, healthy, demanding dog “with issues” (mostly shyness and fear of strangers) is more than enough for our little hosehold. Dear little Peasy! What a handful! But every morning he is so full of bounding joy that it’s impossible not to smile and laugh at his antics. And laughter is reward enough for inviting a dog to join your family, because heaven knows the big, wide world of political people does not often give gifts of laughter.

Light vs. Clouds

Starving in Ireland


One grim book of history I read recently was The Great Hunger, by Cecil Woodham-Smith. A string of words on the dust jacket are what would have been a subtitle back in Victorian times: The Story of the Potato Famine of the 1840s Which Killed One Million Irish Peasants and Sent Hundreds of Thousands to the New World. Oddly enough, though Silas Durand was not Irish at all, it was my Silas Project (his diary, my transcription and commentary) that led me to the potato famine story. 


A couple of Silas’s throwaway lines in January and the first of February sent me looking for material on mid-century Ireland: first a sentence about being “tickled” when the Irishman was disappointed to find American equality more myth than reality, the second his choice of the Know-Nothings as a topic for his newly formed debate society. Silas recorded these two incidents briefly in his diary early in 1855, and I was curious about their wider historical context.


We probably all remember the name Know-Nothings from high school history, but what else do we recall of who they were and what they were all about? The 19th-century movement was known popularly as the Know-Nothings because it began as a secret organization, and any member asked about it was instructed to say, “I know nothing.” Their anti-immigration and virulently anti-Catholic position was a resentment- and fear-fueled response to the flood of 1840s immigrants from Ireland and Italy (Is it any surprise that the foremost leader and first martyr of this cause also found women’s suffrage an abhorrent and unnatural idea?), and their nativism found plenty of support among politicians as well as among a white working class, such that what had begun as the secret Order of the Star Spangled Banner (OSSB, formed in 1849) soon morphed into the very public – and briefly very successful -- American Party, the first serious third-party challenge in American politics. Between 1852 and 1854 the party won elections at every level and put xxx men in the U.S. Congress, but it disintegrated soon afterward over the issue of slavery -- a matter that proved even more incendiary and divisive than immigration.


There were no live television broadcasts to show the starving Irish to the world, whole families sheltering as best they could in muddy ditches after being evicted from cottages they had built themselves (all improvements in the end profiting only the landlords), and many in England believed reports of the potato famine to be a “false alarm,” the “invention of agitators” – in other words, what our recent former president would have called “a hoax” and “fake news.” It was no hoax. Since deaths went unrecorded, with uncounted numbers literally dying of starvation in the open, there is no way to arrive at a precise figure for the tragedy, but population numbers between 1841 and 1851 show a drop of two and a half million, and allowing for the roughly one million Irish who emigrated during the years 1846-51, this puts the death toll from starvation at approximately a million and a half. 


At first there was some public relief, as well as a long effort made by the Society of Friends (Quakers) to save lives, but in the third and fourth year of the famine the soup kitchens were closed, government work projects stopped, and the government in London announced a strictly laissez-faire policy, saying the Irish must help themselves. They were told to collect taxes -- in a land of bankruptcy and financial ruin, where no one any longer had the ability to pay taxes – and to provide locally for the relief of the destitute. At last even the Quakers stopped their efforts. Thad been willing to supplement government aid but were unable, they wrote, to substitute for it entirely.


Nor was starvation the only trouble during those years. Typhus and cholera contributed to the tragedy, spread all the more rapidly in workhouses, soup kitchens -- and on ships. Ships, ah, yes! As there looked to be no future for the Irish in their own land, those who could find any way at all sought to leave by whatever means possible. Passage to Canada was cheaper (some sold all they had; others had fares paid by landlords eager to be rid of them) than passage to the United States and entry into Canada easier, but most Irish had no wish to remain any longer under the flag of England, and so the vast majority who landed in Canada and survived crossed the border to the United States as soon as possible.


Such was the background in Ireland that led to the most massive emigration ever from any European country – and the entry into the young United States of vast numbers of desperate, unskilled immigrants, willing and willing to work for almost any wage offered – and such was the wave of a population movement that created fears triggering the rise of nativism and unsurprising political opportunism, much like what we have seen again in recent years a century and a half later. 


Black in America


A Page from History

But February is Black History Month, and eagerly I closed the book on the Irish tragedy and opened Black in Selma: The Uncommon Life of J. L. Chestnut, Jr., by J. L. Chestnut, Jr. and Julia Cass, a book I chose because Chestnut had figured in Walking with the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement, by the late John Lewis, with Michael D’Orso. 


I was only in grade school when desegregation became the law of the land, so while I remember vividly the photographs in magazines of that time, I still have a lot to learn about the historical background and details. 


…When black people in some nmbers stopped telling white people what white people wanted to hear and started expressing their real views, it was a shock. The civil rights movement exposed as a rationalization the white South’s refrain that their blacks were happy, didn’t want to vote, weren’t interested in integration. There they were, hundreds of them, lined up at the courthouse.


-      J. L. Chestnut, Jr. and Julia Cass, Black in Selma: The Uncommon Life of J. L. Chestnut, Jr.


Only halfway through the life of Chestnut, I have already committed to reading next, with a friend back in Michigan, a book she recommended called Against Civility: The Hidden Racism in Our Obsession with Civility, by Alex Zamalin. Despite the no doubt intentionally provocative title (provocative titles get attention), from one review I found online I gather that the author distinguishes civility in everyday life from civility in political life. I take it he is not recommending rudeness in conversations with neighbors but taking a position that might be called (if my prediction about the book’s content is correct, which I’ll find ot next week) against gradualism, which was the position of Martin Luther King, Jr.


J. L. Chestnut’s moment of “conversion,” as he called it, to what might be called political incivility came when he saw John Lewis face down Sheriff Jim Clark: 


…Clark said, “This is as far as you can go. Turn around and go back. You are not going in the courthouse today.” 


John said, “The courthouse is a public place and we have a right to go inside. We will not be turned around.”


And Clark finally said, “Goddamn it, go on in,” and in they went, with no smiles or handshakes offered by either side. I suspect that’s the kind of “incivility” Zamalin applauds in his book, but I’ll have to let you know when I get into it.


Bedtime Reading


Ready for later

Nighttime, after a movie and before falling asleep, I have to admit to a kind of temporary addiction (I’m sure it won’t last forever) and self-indulgence in the extreme: the author’s name is J. A. Jance, and the series of hers that I’m wallowing in at present features Joanna Brady, fictional sheriff of Cochise County, Arizona! 


My bedtime reading in general tends toward indulgence, as I’ve admitted before – Chiang Yee’s Silent Traveler series and Alexander McCall Smith’s Mma Ramotswe novels, set in Botswana. Bedtime reading doesn’t have to be a series book, and it isn’t always, but there is something calming about getting cozy with familiar characters, people you’ve known and spent time with before. It’s like time spent with old friends. You have history together. You don’t have to explain everything. You can recharge and greet the morning with energy for newer acquaintance.


I Go (Back Again) to the Dogs – Dog, Singlar, That Is


That would be – Peasy! He is energy, enthusiasm, eagerness, joy! He greets each morning with unbounded happiness. I have a home! I have a family! I get to go outside and run and find bones and sticks and chew them! I have a stuffed bear and a stuffed lion to run around the house with – and the lion even squeaks!


Peasy never knew life could be this good, and even when he is driving us crazy with his boundless enthusiasm for life we can’t help laughing at his antics. 


Postscript: An expected coincidence this morning is Dawn King’s blog post for the day -- her photo tour with and personal commentary of Selma, Alabama! Just when I had reached the point in Chestnut’s book where he recounts the 1965 event on the Edmund Pettus Bridge! So follow this link and read Dawn’s post, and then find yourself a book of 1960s U.S. social and political history. Read about those days when unrest and even occasional violence somehow spelled HOPE -- and think about what we can do to revive hope in our own time for all Americans.


Dawn said...

It's hard to know, isn't it, what we as individuals can do to restore hope. Thank you for linking to my post about Selma. It was a disquieting afternoon I spent there this week.

Barbara Stark-Nemon said...

So enjoyed this info packed post! Can’t wait to meet Peasy!

P. J. Grath said...

Dawn, here is something from Chapter 20 of the Chestnut book that may put a different light on what you saw in Selma:

“…Gone were the folk in the fields. What once were cotton fields now were cow pastries or were leased to paper companies to grow trees. Since agriculture no longer required an army of workers and the Black Belt had almost no industry to speak of, many black and white folk had moved elsewhere. County seats like Marion, Hayneville, Greensboro, Camden—Selma, too—no longer bustled with country people on Saturdays. Stores began to be boarded up. Some of the little crossroads towns simply ceased to exist.” - from BLACK IN SELMA, by Chestnut & Cass

Agricultural interests kept manufacturing out for a long time, so when small holdings were gradually bought up by larger and larger landowners jobs simply evaporated. Although every region has a different, unique story, I see some similarities across the entire country, not only the South but also the Midwest and West.

Of course, that doesn’t really address the question of history and historical memory and monuments to keep the past alive. And as for hope — this may sound trivial, but one thing that seems important for each and every one of us is that we hold onto hope ourselves. After that? Look for signs of hope and share them?

Barbara, thanks for reading and letting me know you were here! Peasy passed an important test a couple days ago: I went to town (Willcox) by myself, and Mr. P stayed home with the Artist and only whined a little bit before settling down to nap by the door. No histrionics or outbursts of naughtiness. He is settling down a little bit. I'll keep you posted on what I call (apologies to John Bunyan) Peasy's Progress.