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Tuesday, May 31, 2022


As was true of his biography of John James Audubon, Gregory Nobles, in his new book, The Education of Betsey Stockton: An Odyssey of Slavery and Freedom, gives readers broad and deep insights into the time period of his subject and those parts of the United States in which she lived and worked. In a way, this approach was more necessary in writing of Stockton than of Audubon, since information about Stockton's life and work is fragmentary, and most of what survives was written by other people, but what it means for a reader is that we have a chance to be fully immersed in events and beliefs of our own American past while the author pieces together, like a quilt, the life of a specific historical human being.  


Nobles as historian specializes in 19th-century America. In going beyond the life of his subject, his earlier biography of Audubon explored in detail the business practices and economics of that time, what it took to be considered a serious artist then, and the state of American art and science with relation to England and the European continent, as all these larger issues bore directly on the life of Audubon, who lived from 1785 to 1851. 


Betsy Stockton, born into slavery, lived from around 1800 (exact date not known) to 1865. Given the color of her skin and the circumstances of her birth (the identity of her father can only be speculated), as well as her foreign missionary experience, long career as a teacher, and the fact that she lived through the Civil War and President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, larger national issues explored in relation to her life are slavery, racism, public education, 19th-century American politics, and the Civil War, along with the missionary movement of the time and the role of the town of Princeton, the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University), and Princeton Theological Seminary in spearheading and shaping that movement for the Presbyterian church.


Since Stockton's unedited manuscript journal either did not survive her or has not yet come to light, only the published installments of her journal as edited by the Reverend Ashbel Green are available to account for her missionary travel to Hawaii in 1824-25, and while Green assured readers of the Christian Advocate that he made “very few corrections” to the letters before publication, there is no way of knowing to what extent he may have altered her original writing. Sadly, not many of her letters to Charles Samuel Stewart survive, either. But Nobles has brought together what scattered pieces of documentary evidence do exist, as well as the well-established basic facts of her life.

Stockton had been “given,” as an enslaved child, to Green’s wife, and it was Green himself, years later (Stockton was emancipated as an adolescent and afterward worked for wages in the household), who wrote a letter of recommendation for Stockton to Stewart. The latter was forming up a foreign mission to what were then known as the Sandwich Islands, and thus it was, author Nobles tells us, that Betsey Stockton was


…the first Black person, the first former enslaved person, the first single woman to serve as a missionary in Hawai‘i, and the first missionary to start an infant school for Black children in Philadelphia, the first name on the list of Black people leaving the main Presbyterian Church in Princeton to form a separate congregation, the first teacher in the only school for Black school in Princeton. Betsey Stockton lived a life of firsts, all of them in service to people of color. 

Racism endemic to 19th-century, pre-Civil War Princeton, both the town and the college, should not be surprising but reads as shocking nonetheless. Black men defending their own wives from harassment were set upon by groups of rowdy white students, and Black parishioners of the Princeton Presbyterian Church were denied even their traditional separate gallery seating when a new building was constructed after the old church burned, as “the white Presbyterians pressed for separation,” and Black members were “dismissed” from membership. It was at that point in history that the First Presbyterian Church of Colour of Princeton was formed. 

The College of New Jersey, with a high percentage of students from the South, attempted to remain “neutral” on the questions of slavery and secession right up to the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter, when


…several students climbed to the top of Nassau Hall to hoist an American flag, shout out some rooftop speeches, and fire a few old muskets as a show of support for the national government. This display was also an act of defiance toward the faculty, and particularly President John Maclean, Jr., who had sought to remain officially on the fence in the run-up to the rebellion. …His sympathy for southern boys led him to order the flag taken down, so as not to offend anyone who might see it as an institutional political statement. But in the context of open conflict, Maclean’s moderation had lost traction among northern students, and the flag went back up – and stayed there.


To read that the president of Princeton feared the American flag might offend some of his students and ordered it taken down astounded me. Those most likely to be offended would have been the Copperheads.  (I would say that the Princeton & Slavery Project, so recently begun, is both long overdue and a good start.) And to think there are people in our country today who consider themselves patriots and fly the Confederate flag without fear of causing offense! Or perhaps they hope to offend? But let me not get sidetracked....


Throughout The Education of Betsey Stockton, the main subject herself never appears fully in sharp focus and technicolor, but that is not the fault of the author. Nobles could have written a novel and invented a character and put words in her mouth but chose not to do so, determined instead to hunt out “traces” of the real human being wherever he could find them. The Betsey Stockton who emerges from his research, though there is only a single photograph to give us some idea of her appearance, was a woman who “knew her own mind,” was “‘deliberate and dignified,” “certainly not weak willed,” someone who educated herself throughout her life and was respected by all who knew her. Given her intelligence, her sense of calling, and the racist environment in which she lived, it is hardly surprising that throughout her life Stockton knew occasional “low spirits.” In the end, however, more important than her spells of depression or discouraging events was her strength to go on doing good work, teaching children who might well never have had an education without her efforts.


Learning about one of the many “ordinary people doing extraordinary work” behind the grand stage of historical events is sufficient reason to read this book; another,  however, is to examine in a different time period the racism that is such a deep stain on our country’s history and a painful legacy continuing in our own day. Political divisions, too, are nothing new to the never fully united United States, as this story shows so clearly, so in learning about Betsey Stockton’s life and work and the times she lived through we have yet another lens through which to examine our past – and we can never have too many of those.

Greg Nobles will give a presentation at the summer library series on Tuesday, July 19.

The Education of Betsey Stockton: An Odyssey of Slavery and Freedom

by Gregory Nobles

University of Chicago Press

Hardcover, 292pp with notes and index


Read since last listing:

56. Rumi, trans. by Kabir Helminski & Ahmad Rezwani. Love’s Ripening: Rumi on the Heart’s Journey (poetry)

57. Bowen, Rhys. The Venice Sketchbook (fiction)

58. Ashenburg, Katherine. The Mourner’s Dance: What We Do When People Die (nonfiction)

59. Davenport-Hines, Richard. Proust at the Majestic: The Last Days of the Author Whose Book Changed Paris (nonfiction) 

60. Buzzelli, Elizabeth Kane. She Stopped for Death (fiction)

61. McMorris, Kristina. The Ways We Hide (fiction)

62. Nobles, Gregory. The Education of Betsey Stockton: An Odyssey of Slavery and Freedom (nonfiction)

Wednesday, May 18, 2022

Day By Day

A new day dawns...

My “New Normal” Life


There were a couple of big songs with the title "Day By Day," very different in nature. Sarah Vaughn sings the first one, a love song, here. For the song from “Godspell,” sung by the Fifth Dimension, visit this video


My own “day by day” life is something else right now: the challenge of another 24 hours without the love of my life but with a challenging little puppy for a companion. If I’d been offered the trade – cute as the puppy is -- I would not have taken it. This is, however, what life has given me, and having Sunny Juliet as companion is better than being all alone. Also, everything is beautiful these days in Leelanau County, orchards full of bloom along nearly every road. “We live in a beautiful place,” the Artist so often remarked. I mustn’t lose sight of that truth.


When SJ and I arrived home from our cross-country odyssey a week ago Saturday, and she was introduced to her Michigan house and yard for the first time, the air felt like June, at least. It cooled down to an April kind of evening, but those first spring days back in Leelanau were followed by others that felt way too much like summer. “If May is this warm, what will July be like?” everyone wondered. Kind of worrying.


Then my puppy didn’t feel well the following weekend. (Of course, the weekend! When the vet’s office was closed!) Her little head and tummy felt unnaturally warm, feverish. She was lethargic and had no appetite. That was very worrying! Her behavior and demeanor were so unlike her that I yearned for her usual maddening naughtiness. Please, let my puppy not be sick!

Not herself

Monday I took her to see the vet, and by that evening, after IV fluids and antibiotics, she was ready for a good dinner. The furnace came on that night, also, and Tuesday morning was so chilly I had to layer up to go outside, with Sunny so much herself again that I could hardly get my socks on, what with her wanting to make a game out of pulling them off my feet before they were all the way on. Cool weather, challenging puppy. Back to normal. 

"Mine!" She has recovered!

And so we go forward, Sunny and I, day by day. 

...and comes to an end.


My Recent Reading


Last night I finally finished a nonfiction I began reading while still out in Cochise County, Arizona. The Mourner’s Dance: What We Do When People Die, by Katherine Ashenburg, was inspired by research she undertook after her daughter’s fiancé was killed in a road accident, so that, instead of the wedding she had been planning, Hannah found herself participating in a funeral for the young man she had planned to marry. Ashenburg reviews mourning customs around the world and historically in Western culture but comes back again and again to mourning rituals that Hannah devised for herself, since in today’s United States there are no universally prescribed and accepted forms. 


At first, I was interested in how naturally Hannah’s homegrown practices had welled up in her, and how similar they were to age-old ways. More and more, as I thought about mourning customs, many of them made psychological sense to me. 


This is an unusual book, both personal and general survey, but the two aspects join well. For example, in the chapter entitled “Sad Clothes,” a history of mourning dress (with Queen Victoria centrally featured), the author reports that she asked her daughter --


…if she wished she lived in a world where she could wear a universally understood mourning sytmbol, like an armband, and she said simply, “I would love that.” …Other mourners corroborate Hannah’s feeling. A few months after her father died, the writer Barbara Gowdy was walking down the street, missing him. A stranger in the opposite direction took note of her woebegone face and jokingly ordered, “Smile!” Months later, she was still angry as she remembered the episode: “That never would have happened if I had been able to show by my clothes that I was in mourning.”


Hannah’s personal mourning garb was a “vivid orange vest made of padded parachute silk,” a Christmas gift from her fiancé. My own widow’s weeds are an old, faded t-shirt of the Artist’s, and I also wear his watch and, almost every day, with jeans, one of his belts. 

The author mentions more than once that during gatherings of mourners, Hannah was offended by social conversations having nothing to do with Scott, her deceased fiancé. It is all too true that "life goes on" and that people have many personal concerns of their own besides the loss of a friend or acquaintance. But grief is unavoidably self-centered. Regardless of how many friends and relatives I lost prior to losing the love of my life, with the loss of him I felt like -- knowing full well that it was not at all the case -- the first widow in the world and the most deeply bereaved lover of all time. So when someone says helplessly, "I don't know what to say," I am not offended in the least; when they utter stock phrases, such as "I'm sorry for your loss," I appreciate the effort; and any time someone has a story or a personal reflection on my husband to share with me, I am grateful. When no reference is made to his death, however, I feel as Hannah did, resentful and aggrieved. One world has vanished, and another, left behind, has been shattered. How can that be ignored?

Another nonfiction book I read in the past week concerned the last days of the author Marcel Proust. Proust at the Majestic: The Last Days of the Author Whose Book Changed Paris, by Richard Davenport-Hines, started off slowly for me, with far too many facts and names crammed into the first chapter, and there were many repetitions through the work, but it held my interest and kept me company and lulled me to sleep for my first week back in Michigan. The detailed report would be meaningless to anyone not familiar with Proust’s work, but for those in love with A la recherche du temps perdu it is fascinating to see the concentrated effort needed for the writer to finish his work, as well as to learn that all Paris, from titled nobility to cab drivers, came to a shocked standstill when they heard of his death. 



County in Bloom


Cherry blossom time!

I was only home a week before the cherry orchards burst into full bloom, along with all the wild cherries, and now my little apple trees, too, are flowering, and I find myself telling Sunny frequently what David so often exclaimed to me, “We live in a beautiful place.” I imagine Sunny appreciating the landscape with her nose, taking deep draughts of orchard tree and dandelion perfume. Lilacs will open soon. Orioles are passing through! (See more blooms here.)

And I will be opening the bookstore soon, though "regular" hours may be elusive for a few more weeks, as my life remains in disarray, regardless of how many tasks I check off the list of things to do.

Friday, May 13, 2022

Good and Exciting Things Still Happen

Sunny Juliet post-paddle

The puppy and I are home. SJ loves the yard at the farm, and she had her first dog paddle in Lake Leelanau. We are still adjusting, but in time what I call her “good girl potential” is going to come shining through, and we will be fine. Meanwhile, the world has gone on turning – and besides all the bad news and my personal grief, there are some wonderful and exciting things happening, too.


A Pulitzer Winner


For instance? Well, someone I know won a Pulitzer Prize. And she’s a Michigan poet, too. 


Originally from Niles, Diane Seuss (cousin of a friend so dear he and his wife and kids are like family) first appeared on Grath radar when she was one of a number of women poets (the event was billed as “women poets”) reading their work in a classroom setting at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo. (Yes, there really is a Kalamazoo, but there is only one.) It was a small event that the Artist and I attended together, at the suggestion of our friend, Michael, the poet’s cousin.


Diane, as I recall her on that long-ago day, was young, barefoot, and wore a long cotton hippie sort of skirt. Instead of standing behind the desk and reading from the small lectern, she sat on the desk, bare feet swinging. I remember being somewhat dubious and not expecting much. 


Then she read.


At the end of her first poem, the Artist and I looked at each other in amazement. Had we really heard what we thought we heard? I wish now that I had made notes (and kept them) of the pieces that made our hair stand on end that day. I do remember going to see our friend, her cousin, Michael, soon afterward to tell him that I would be more than happy to type Diane’s manuscript for free if she needed a typist, so that her work could be published with the least possible delay. 


But her career did all right without my help. A Guggenheim Fellow in 2020, she received the John Updike Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 2021. And now, for her frank: sonnets, she has won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. The Pulitzer committee said of this book that it is “a virtuosic collection that inventively expands the sonnet form….” Wow. I mean -- wow! A Pulitzer!!!



Coming From Way Behind


Then there was another winner, the long shot, come-from-behind winner of the 2022 the Kentucky Derby, which I was unable to watch as I was on the road that day, traveling the last stretch of my cross-country odyssey home to Michigan from Arizona. I had no idea of the horses running that day, and the names would have meant nothing to me, but someone posted a link on Facebook, I watched it a couple days later, and -- Oh my God, I have never seen such a race! Has there ever been such a race? The announcer himself, focused on the front runners, never saw the upset coming, even as Rich Strike was coming up through the field, passing every horse in sight.


What a horse! What a race! Nunca te rindas! Never give up! 80 to 1 odds! Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful! It is an exciting race every time I re-watch it!



Life Is Hard, Driving Is Easy


How many of my friends offered to fly out to Tucson and drive back with me across the country to Michigan? I lost count. There were a lot, and quite honestly, not to sound churlish or ungrateful, I had a few moments of annoyance at all the concern. Did my husband’s death render me suddenly incompetent and/or foolish? And how could I even begin to imagine making that long, familiar, cross-country drive David and I had made together so many times with anyone who wasn’t David? The very idea, so popular among my friends, I found unthinkable. 


I wrote recently, “This trip was, for me, a kind of pilgrimage but not to one particular destination: the entire length of the journey was its point.” It was, if you will, a kind of secular-marital Camino de Santiago, driven rather than walked, and I had to do it alone. We walked around the square in this little town. It was on this stretch of country two-lane road that we saw the armadillo. My memories would mean nothing to anyone else.


The other thing is that since the Artist died, missing him so terribly, I do a lot of crying in the car. A second person would have constrained that tearful freedom, conversation would have impinged on my memories, pushing them aside, and silence would not have been the comfortable kind that comes about in a marriage after decades of crazy passion, sturm und drang, quiet, mundane happiness, and all the rest, whereas alone on the road, I had no need to respond except to my puppy, and while Sunny Juliet occasionally makes demands (she is both vocal and physical in making her needs known), she never asks questions. 


“But who will help you with the driving?” people frequently asked. At the end of my odyssey, I was able to put into words what I had known intuitively from the beginning, which is, as the heading of this section of my post puts succinctly, “Life is hard (well, it can be), but driving is easy.” Driving for days requires focus on the task at hand, but except for puppy needs I had no other responsibilities. All I had to do was cover miles. I could take the roads I wanted to take – roads the Artist and I had traveled before – and stop when I wanted to or keep going if I didn’t need or want to stop, consulting only Sunny’s requirements and my own inclination. The hardest part of the odyssey had nothing to do with driving. It was that Sunny slept so much in the car that she wasn’t tired at the end of the day, and I had to amuse and entertain her for three or four hours in the motel when all I really wanted to do was fall asleep over a book or in front of a movie.

One ear up and one ear down

But, as I said up there at the beginning today, we made it, and now we go on from here, day by day. Thanks to David’s gift of a puppy and Sunny Juliet’s presence, I am not alone. Then, too, there are all our friends! 

I'm not alone

So feel free to quote me: "Life is hard, driving is easy."

And then, the other evening in Leland –


Summer art classes in Leland, Michigan, began in 1922, a century ago, thanks to Allie Mae Best. Fifty years ago Michigan State University began offering six-week, for-credit art classes every summer in Leland. My late husband, David Grath, a.k.a. “the Artist” here on Books in Northport, came to Leland to study as a master’s student from MSU (having discovered Leland somewhat earlier, but that’s another story), and so for the 100th anniversary celebration I was asked to loan one of his paintings for the show, which opened Thursday evening, May 12, and runs through May 18 (open 11-3 daily). The show included works by students and instructors from as long ago as the 1960s.


I wasn’t sure I was up for a big public event. What would it feel like to be there, in the building where the Artist had so many one-man shows over the years and where so many friends and acquaintances would be gathered? Could I handle it? I just didn’t know, but a friend said she and her husband would meet me outside and we could go in together. 


It was a lovely, lovely evening! I was so, so glad to be there and was so glad in retrospect that I didn’t miss it that I had to stop by again to photograph a couple things I missed on Thursday evening. Here, then, are a few of the images that touched my heart. 


"Every Day You're Getting Prettier and Prettier"
by David Grath

Paul Welch

"Painting of Portrait," by Paul Welch

"Vanitas," by Paul Welch

"Gauntlet," by Janine Germaine

"Cat? What Cat?" (from the Monster series), by Janine Germaine

screen by Jane McChesney

"Eden," by Cliff McChesney (typical large work of his)

"Soul Catcher," by Cliff McChesney (atypically small for Cliff)

You must forgive me some sentimentality in these choices. I was never a student in the summer art classes but fell under the spell of Cliff and Jane McChesney (as had all their summer art students) when I met them at a dinner party at the home of Jim and Linda Harrison. They were truly lovely people. So while I have no personal memories of the summer art classes, I have my own set of memories, and many of the names invoked on Thursday evening were names I recognized, calling up fond thoughts of years past. 

Thursday, May 5, 2022

My Own Personal “Song of the Open Road”

A windy day in New Mexico

One of my Arizona neighbors suggested that I could listen to podcasts and/or all the way across the country. I told her I usually have the radio off on long trips, but that sometimes I sing as I drive along. One of the songs from “The King and I” was in my head all across New Mexico, finally ceding place to an old pop song or two. And then came “The Red, Red Robin,” which I like to perform (mostly to myself, in solitude) in a slow, plaintive, bluesy rendition. Often, though, the songs were playing only in my head, over and over, and anyone seeing me at the wheel would have noted nothing more than silent stoicism or perhaps a few escaping tears, because everything the Artist and I had seen before triggered memories, and I missed him every minute, every mile. This trip was, for me, a kind of pilgrimage but not to one particular destination: the entire length of the journey was its point.

Sunny was seeing this picturesque ruin for the first time.

Vaughn, NM: Position still not filled? I could do that!

My route on Day One took me east on I-10 from Willcox to Las Cruces, 70 through the San Augustin Pass to Alamagordo, and then U.S. 54 to Tularosa and on to Santa Rosa, New Mexico. The stretch from Tularosa to Santa Rosa became a favorite road for the Artist and me, starting with the first time we traveled it (top photo of this post is from that stretch), and since Santa Rosa was also a favorite New Mexico town, it made sense to stop there for my first night.

Evening in beautiful Santa Rosa, NM

Little Sunny Juliet and I covered over 450 miles that first day and 515 miles the second day, finishing up Day Two with a visit to a big, beautiful dog park in Winfield, Kansas. 

And if the name “Kansas” brings to your mind a flat, empty, boring landscape, you don’t know Kansas at all. I left U.S. 54 at Meade and dropped down to U.S. 160, a very narrow two-lane road but very light on traffic and heavy on gorgeous scenery. Often the road ran straight ahead of me to the distant horizon, but it had many deep, rolling dips and rises that it reminded me of ribbon taffy. The vistas off to either side were monumental and breathtaking, too; unfortunately, without any road shoulder, pulling off to photograph the land was close to impossible. Just think for a moment about all the hill regions of Kansas: Red Hills, Flint Hills, Sand Hills, Gypsum Hills – and those are only the ones I know. There are more.


The morning of Day Three began well – but then! – well --! 

Getting a tow

At Duke's Alignment & Tire, Winfield, KS

Well, the good news was that (1) I carry AAA road service; (2) I was still in Winfield, a town large enough to have towing and tire services; and (3) though I had bought four new tires in Arizona before leaving (and was not happy to have ruined one of them so soon!), I had also given car room to one of the old tires so I would have a real spare in case I needed it. So while I lost three hours of travel time that morning, the situation could have been much, much worse, and I was grateful to Cole, the young guy who handle the big towing rig so easily, and to Duke, the guy who got me in and out with my spare mounted as quickly as he could. And as I've said, Sunny and I had visited a fabulous dog park in Winfield on Monday evening, and we made it there again before the tire incident, so we were pretty well pleased with Winfield overall, and I had no regrets about my chosen route.

Winfield was very, very good to us.

Tuesday afternoon did not see us covering us a lot of ground, either, what with construction stops and detours, but this is how it goes sometimes on the road, and once I gave up the idea of making any kind of distance record for the day, I found myself stopping over and over with my camera. Because, why not? (And bear in mind that the photographs I take with my camera are only a small fraction of the ones I see to be taken but drive right by.) For instance, when I stopped to text my sister that I was finally in Moline, Kansas, she texted back that the oldest swinging suspension bridge in the country was there. I looked up and saw a sign on the other side of the road directing me down a side street to the bridge, and here it is. The road itself was originally a Cherokee trail. It seemed well worth the time to make that little detour.

What town was I passing through when this cabin caught my eye? Surely I made a note of it in my road atlas....

Right across the street from the old log cabin was this very photogenic old truck. 

And who wouldn't have stopped for a picture like this?

Eventually, of course, despite the tire problem, road construction stops, detours, and numerous photo opps, the puppy and I made our way across Kansas to and across Missouri. Redbud trees in bloom against spectacular rocky road cuts, and U.S. 54 rolled for many miles as a limited access in Missouri, divided highway rather than two-lane, making for easy cruising; however, I didn’t mind at all the twisting, curving two-lane stretches that preceded and followed the easier divided road. Day Four would be an easy distance: El Dorado Springs, Missouri to Springfield, Illinois, and so, reaching Louisiana, Missouri, by noon and knowing I was only about an hour and a half from Springfield, I decided to explore the town of Louisiana. I had an ulterior purpose. Because --.


The Artist and I crossed the Mississippi River together many times. We crossed often at St. Louis, which I always considered a “nightmare,” due to very heavy traffic and all the converging and intersecting expressways at that point, a true crossroads of a very busy country, all of whom seem to be on the move when you are threading your way through that maze. My preference was to cross at Hannibal. The river town famous as the birthplace of Samuel Clemens draws heavily on that history for its tourist business, but it’s still a small town, and the last time we came through there we explored around a bit and had lunch rather than simply rushing through.


Louisiana was a different story. 


The only time we crossed the Mississippi at Louisiana, Missouri, we were on our way east. I was at the wheel, and when I saw that very old, very narrow, old iron bridge ahead, all I could fixate on was getting safely across it! The Artist said, too late, that he would have liked to see something of the town. “Do you want me to go back?” “No, we’ll save it for another time.” But “another time” never came, and so this time I would see Louisiana for both of us.


…Comes into my mind now another song, “The Water Is Wide,” an old Celtic folk song. Ah, my love and I! Our love never waxed cold, never faded away....


What do I do in the car besides sing, silently or aloud? On this trip, I shed many tears. Not only for shared memories that are now mine alone, but for sights my love and I thought we would have time to see but never did see together. How he would have loved this river town, too! As my emotions ran a rollercoaster gamut, over and over, from excitement to pangs of grief, I kept turning corners in Louisiana, Missouri, and going around blocks and exploring farther and farther from my designated route, jumping out of the car over and over to photograph scenes I wanted so much to share with my beloved partner, the Artist. -- So many scenes that I am going to put them in a separate post and leave this one with an image of dogwood in blossom in the soft Illinois prairie rain. Good night for now.

Dogwood blossoming in the prairie rain....