Anne Bartlett

The 1939 movie Wuthering Heights epitomizes golden-age Hollywood romance. However, the process of making the film was another matter entirely. It was a miserable set, in large part because Laurence Olivier, the brilliant British actor playing Heathcliff, hated his co-star, Merle Oberon, and regularly undermined her. But he would have hated any co-star who wasn’t his girlfriend, Vivien Leigh, whom he had failed to get hired for the part and with whom he was wildly in love.

As any movie buff knows, Leigh was about to become a star in her own right in another 1939 film, Gone With the Wind (also a miserable set). Olivier and Leigh had left their respective spouses and children for each other and would marry in 1940. They were the supernova show-biz couple of their day, paving the way for Liz-and-Dick and Brangelina. With Truly, Madly: Vivien Leigh, Laurence Olivier, and the Romance of the Century, Stephen Galloway, former editor of the Hollywood Reporter, has written an astute biography of that marriage, with wonderfully dishy details of productions such as Rebecca and A Streetcar Named Desire.

The Oliviers’ fabled partnership reached its peak on stage in the 1940s and ’50s before ending in chaos in 1960. The biggest factor in the marriage’s collapse was Leigh’s bipolar disorder, which was little understood at the time and ineffectively treated. Medical understanding has evolved immeasurably since Leigh’s death in 1967, and Galloway reexamines her mood swings, public mania, infidelity and alcohol abuse in light of psychiatric advances.

In the early days of their relationship, Leigh was the more likable of the two. Olivier had enormous talent, but he was shallow and deceitful. However, he did “truly, madly” love Leigh, and he tried his best to help her before her unfathomable behavior finally confounded him. Leigh died at only 53 of tuberculosis. Olivier, afflicted by multiple painful illnesses, lived until 82, and Galloway’s account of his last years is moving.

Olivier dominated the English-language stage and reinvented Shakespearean cinema. Leigh’s film acting remains incandescent, although her indifference to Gone With the Wind’s racism receives due criticism in this book. Anyone who loves the dramatic arts will be engrossed by Galloway’s perceptive history of this iconic duo.

Anyone who loves the dramatic arts will be engrossed by Stephen Galloway’s perceptive account of supernova show-biz couple Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh.

Sure, the Plantagenets fought each other for a couple of generations, and the Tudors had wives and dynastic rivals beheaded. But if you think their reigns were bloody, just wait until you meet the Merovingians, the riveting royal family in Shelley Puhak’s The Dark Queens: The Bloody Rivalry That Forged the Medieval World. The violent struggles of House Brunhild and House Fredegund make those later conflicts look like kindergarten playtime.

The Merovingians were the rulers of the Franks in the Middle Ages, in territory now encompassing most of France and western Germany. History books have tended to neglect them—but two Merovingian queens have survived in legend and art, in much distorted forms. Puhak, an acclaimed poet, now brings a feminist eye to Queens Brunhild and Fredegund, who in real life were savvy, powerful and dangerous women.

Brunhild, a Visigoth princess, and Fredegund, a formerly enslaved woman who charmed her way to a throne, were married to half-brothers, each of whom ruled over part of the Frankish territory. The brothers were deadly competitors, and after they were both assassinated, their widows took power as regents for young sons and continued the savage rivalry.

Murders, kidnappings, perilous escapes, suicide missions, poisoned knives, marriage plots, witchcraft allegations: This book has them all. Fredegund, the more vicious ruler, attempted 12 assassinations and succeeded at six. Brunhild maneuvered her way into regencies for her son, grandsons and great-grandsons. One queen died in her bed; the other met an end so horrible that it’s the only thing many French people know about her.

The king who ultimately succeeded to both their thrones consciously erased them from history in a Stalin-esque purge. Later medieval writers vilified them as bossy harridans. Bizarrely, Brunhild lives on in name only as the “Brünnhilde” of the German epic poem “The Song of the Nibelungs” and Wagner’s Ringoperas.

Puhak doesn’t pretend these women weren’t ruthless in their pursuit of power, but she also acknowledges the misogynist social and political context that shaped them. Most of all, The Dark Queens demonstrates that Brunhild’s and Fredegund’s names deserve to be in the historical annals as much as any king’s.

Murders, kidnappings, perilous escapes, suicide missions, poisoned knives, marriage plots, witchcraft allegations: The Dark Queens has them all.

When you’re a child, you know only what your parents and other adults tell you. As a small girl in the People’s Socialist Republic of Albania in the 1980s, Lea Ypi was taught to love the memory of Josef Stalin and Albanian leader Enver Hoxha. She believed her country was a communist paradise protecting workers against the West’s evils, and she thought her parents and beloved grandmother believed these things, too.

It turned out they were lying to Ypi, about pretty much everything, to protect her and themselves. When the communist dictatorship was forced out in 1992 and replaced by a messy transitional form of market capitalism, Ypi learned the confusing truth about her family’s history. She was also forced to grapple with deeper truths about freedom, equity and broken promises.

Now a prominent professor of political theory in London, Ypi says she intended to write Free: A Child and a Country at the End of History as a philosophy book about freedom. But her memories of people kept getting in the way: her idealist father, her tough mother, her grandmother whose stoicism hid her traumatic past. The resulting memoir feels completely fresh: a poignant, charming, thought-provoking, funny and ultimately sad exploration of Albania’s journey from socialism to liberalism through a child’s eyes.

Ypi’s book is filled with wonderful humor: the empty Coke cans that were considered luxury home decor, the mysterious stories of relatives sent to “university” (hint: the dorms were cells), the time her mother wore a frilly nightgown to meet with Western feminists because she thought it was a fancy dress. But these collected moments ultimately culminate in a terrifying chapter about the brutal civil war that erupted in 1997, during which half the population, including the Ypis, lost most of their savings in a pyramid scheme collapse. The adolescent Ypi hid in her house for weeks, reading War and Peace to the sound of gunfire in the street. The rest of her family shattered.

Ypi’s family and friends were smart, decent people whose dreams were crushed, first by an authoritarian dictatorship, then by cowboy capitalism. Ypi herself endured and ultimately thrived, but she knows the quest for true freedom is hard and never-ending.

Political scholar Lea Ypi’s memoir is fresh, poignant and funny as she explores Albania’s journey from socialism to liberalism through a child’s eyes.

In Our First Civil War, historian and two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist H.W. Brands brings to life the families, communities and tribes torn apart by opposing beliefs during the American Revolution.

Our First Civil War is a concise history of the American Revolution told largely through first-person accounts from letters, diaries and memoirs written by the Founders, prominent Loyalists and other lesser-known participants. Why did you take that approach? Were any of the documents difficult to find and research?
I myself am most engaged by primary sources: the words of the men and women who lived and made history. So it comes naturally for me to write history that way—and indications are that my readers like it.

As for documents, as the digital world expands, historical research becomes easier. There was almost nothing I wanted to see for this book, by way of letters, diaries and the like, that wasn’t available online.

You wrote The First American about Benjamin Franklin 20 years ago. Why have you now come back to the American Revolution, in a book that again looks closely at Franklin, among others?
While recently writing about the Civil War (of the 1860s), I remembered how divisive the Revolutionary War had been. And with the civil war model in mind, I took a new look and discovered how apt a model it is for viewing that earlier conflict.

You devote a considerable amount of the book to Franklin’s evolution from believing in a transatlantic British empire to his firm advocacy for independence. How was he pivotal to the Revolution’s ultimate success? 
No single person is indispensable in something as large as the American Revolution. But Franklin comes close. He was a great fan of the British Empire until the people who ran that empire treated him like a foolish and venal provincial. He then concluded there was no future for people like him within the empire. George Washington had a similar experience. They were both unlikely revolutionaries, but British folly provoked them beyond forgiveness.

Read our starred review of ‘Our First Civil War.’

Some readers may be shocked to learn that Franklin’s son William was not only a prominent Loyalist but also someone who instigated what can be seen as a Loyalist terror campaign late in the war. Why did he take such a different path from his father?
Benjamin Franklin had revolted against his own parents and against the theocrats who ran Boston when Ben was young. William Franklin came to his independence of mind honestly. In addition, where Ben was abused by the British authorities, William found his honor and honesty called into question by American rebels. From his position, loyalty to Britain was the only possible course.

You write about how people of relatively similar backgrounds and early beliefs, like Franklin and the Loyalists Thomas Hutchinson and Joseph Galloway, ultimately developed sharply different positions on independence from Britain. How much of their divergence was ideological, and how much derived from personal experience? I think, for example, of Hutchinson losing his home to the vandalism of a Patriot mob.
Every decision for or against independence was deeply personal. In some cases it was ideological, too. In almost no cases was it simply ideological. To put your life on the line in revolt requires a powerful emotional commitment.

Historians who want to examine the role of women in the Revolution often focus on Abigail Adams. In contrast, you tell us about a Philadelphia Loyalist named Grace Growden Galloway. Why was she interesting to you?
Grace Galloway suffered grievously as a Loyalist in Philadelphia, primarily from the Patriots, who confiscated her property, but also from abandonment by her Loyalist husband, who had to flee for his life to Britain. Yet Grace discovered in her sufferings and abandonment a personal freedom she had never imagined.

“Every decision for or against independence was deeply personal.”

George Washington and Benjamin Franklin wrote often about how the British were treating Americans no better than “slaves”—obviously a sore point for both. But neither seemed to address the existence of slavery in the colonies, including, in Washington’s case, his own possession of enslaved workers. Did they really not see the contradiction between their beliefs and the injustice in their own system?
Both recognized the injustices of slavery, but they didn’t see enslaved people as their social and political equals; almost no white people at that time did. In any case, they believed that before enslaved people could be freed, the United States would have to win its freedom from Britain. The revolution in rights that they were waging wouldn’t be won all at once.

How does your focus on Mohawk leader Joseph Brant address the Native American side of the Revolution’s story?
Brant and the Mohawks faced the same question everyone did at that time: Which side will you choose? Brant had good relations with the British and leaned in their direction. He also supposed his tribe and the larger Iroquois Confederacy would have an easier time dealing with Britain than with an independent United States. Some of his fellows agreed with him; others did not. The war split tribes just as it did families and communities among white Americans.

Among the other fascinating but lesser-known characters in the book are two enslaved men on different sides of the war, Boston King and Jeffrey Brace. Why would enslaved people have fought for either side?
Boston King accepted the British offer of freedom to those enslaved by rebel masters if they crossed lines and came to the British side. He took a gamble: that the Patriots wouldn’t capture him, that the British would win, and that they would honor their promise at war’s end. Although the side he chose—the British—lost the war, King won his freedom and evacuated to Canada with the British at war’s end. 

Jeffrey Brace went to war on the Patriot side because his enslaver did and took Brace along. Brace noted the irony of fighting, enslaved, for his master’s freedom, yet didn’t see an appealing alternative. The Patriot side won, with Brace still enslaved, but his master decided Brace had earned his freedom and let him go.

“As worrisome as the current divisions in American society are, this country has survived much worse.”

At times in the book, it seems like Washington was desperately trying not to lose to the British until Franklin had negotiated an aid treaty with France. French ships were crucial to the outcome at Yorktown. Did the French really win the American Revolution for us?
French help was crucial, but France was fighting not for American independence but to weaken Britain. For a time, the interests of France and the United States coincided. Franklin and Washington capitalized on that coincidence, to America’s benefit.

Another surprise for some readers will be how restive and even mutinous the Patriot army was, to the point that the safety of Congress was under genuine threat. What was Washington’s role in turning that around, and how was that important for the nation’s development?
Mutiny—its threat and its actuality—was a real danger during the Revolutionary War. Many other generals have taken it upon themselves to assume political power when the civil government seems feckless, as the Continental Congress often did during the Revolution. But not Washington. His authority compelled the mutineers to stand down. Quite possibly no other person could have accomplished that feat. Had he not done so, the United States might have gone the way of revolutionary France, into dictatorship.

What do you hope contemporary readers learn from this book, and how might it help them see our current political divisions in a different way?
As worrisome as the current divisions in American society are, this country has survived much worse.

Your 30-some books on American history are incredibly wide-ranging in their subjects, from capitalism to foreign policy, American presidents and recently John Brown and Abraham Lincoln. Is there a period you haven’t yet explored that you want to tackle?
I’m thinking about something on World War II.

Author photo by Marsha Miller.

H.W. Brands illuminates the intensely personal convictions of the Patriots and Loyalists during the American Revolution.

Massachusetts Lieutenant Governor Thomas Hutchinson’s house in Boston was destroyed by a mob. Benjamin Franklin’s son William was imprisoned for political reasons and wasn’t allowed to visit his dying wife. Grace Growden Galloway, a prominent Philadelphian, was forcibly evicted from her home when it was confiscated because of her husband’s beliefs.

Who were the miscreants who beleaguered these upstanding citizens? In all three cases, they were supporters of American independence from Britain—the very people we now think of as Patriots. The American Revolution wasn’t just a conflict between colonists and redcoats, as it turns out. It was an unforgiving brawl between neighbors.

H.W. Brands illuminates the intensely personal nature of early Americans’ ideas about independence.

In Our First Civil War, prolific historian and Pulitzer Prize finalist H.W. Brands zeroes in on that neglected aspect of the Revolution in a narrative told mostly through the writings of those who lived through it. He ranges from the very famous, such as George Washington and Benjamin Franklin, to the less familiar, such as two enslaved Black men who fought on different sides of the war and a Mohawk chief who chose the alliance least damaging to his tribe.

Much of the book is devoted to the evolution of Washington and Franklin from staunch Britons to unlikely leaders in the movement for independence. But Franklin’s sad family history is equally intriguing: He helped his son William achieve prominence as a colonial governor, then bitterly broke with him over their political differences. The two never reconciled.

Galloway’s experience is another of Brand’s poignant tales. After her Loyalist husband deserted her and fled to Britain, the Patriots seized her substantial property, and she was left in poverty. Her view of independence was not a positive one. But Brands also shows that the British were their own worst enemies, treating sincere compromise efforts with arrogant contempt, then ignoring informed advice from Loyalists over the war’s conduct.

Like all civil wars, it was a bloody mess. Some Americans achieved better lives, but others were utterly devastated. Brands shows how fraught and complicated it was for the generation that lived through it, a perspective well worth considering amid our current divisions.

The American Revolution wasn’t just a conflict between colonists and redcoats. It was an unforgiving brawl between neighbors.

The structure destined to become the Midnight Sun Mosque in Canada’s Northwest Territories had to be transported 2,800 miles from Winnipeg to Inuvik, much of it by barge. It’s now the worship house for some 100 Muslims, mostly men who were displaced from conflict zones and now drive taxis among the Inuit. They spend their spare time operating a much-needed community food bank.

On the other end of the North American continent is the Ahmadiyya mosque in Chiapas, Mexico. It’s run by a Mayan Indian, a former evangelical Christian and Zapatista leftist who got involved in Islam via a Sufi imam from an offbeat mosque in Spain founded by a Scottish hippie.

Neither fits the stereotype of a mosque that so many non-Muslim North Americans have. That’s exactly the point of Omar Mouallem’s absorbing Praying to the West: How Muslims Shaped the Americas, which explores the Muslim population of the Americas in all its staggering diversity.

Mouallem, a Canadian of Lebanese descent who grew up in a Muslim family but whose personal feelings about Islam became complicated as an adult, examines his own inner turmoil as he visits 13 mosques. They’re incredibly varied but fall roughly into two groups: communities founded by Muslim immigrants, like the Islamic Society of Greater Houston, and more idiosyncratic movements begun by non-Muslims, like the Nation of Islam.

The immigrant experience described by Mouallem will sound familiar to many Americans: the desire by the first generation to assimilate, followed by a rediscovery of roots by their children, then a more eclectic approach by grandchildren. The mosques he visits reflect these different relationships to assimilation. One early Muslim community, founded by Lebanese peddlers in North Dakota, for example, is now nearly indistinguishable from its Christian neighbors. Other, newer mosques have experienced more turbulence as they’ve acclimatized to their communities, such as a Quebec mosque that was the scene of a horrific massacre by a white man in 2017 and still has to employ tight security measures to protect itself.

Mouallem seems most attracted to Unity Mosque, which is open to all traditions and welcomes gay people and female faith leaders. He suspects North America will lead the way as Islam evolves, but regardless of whether that happens, his book has made it impossible not to see this faith tradition’s rich complexity.

Praying to the West explores the Muslim population of the Americas in all its staggering diversity and makes it impossible not to see Islam’s rich complexity.

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