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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The campaign for women's suffrage in the United States was a tough slog over three generations, from the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848 to the ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920. Frustrating defeats were the rule—except in the West. By 1914, 11 Western states already allowed women to vote. In Wyoming, they'd been doing it since 1869, well before statehood.
Winifred Gallagher’s comprehensive New Women in the Old West: From Settlers to Suffragists, an Untold American Story unearths this story through the lives of dozens of forgotten trailblazers. Suffrage is only part of it; women settlers were integral to building communities and developing the economy as the United States expanded, and the Native and Mexican women already living in the West were critical in the fight against encroachment and discrimination.
Early pioneer women were crucial full-time partners to men who were farmers and miners. Many became “town mothers,” the forces behind the establishment of schools, churches and libraries. Countless women built businesses, including Luzena Stanley Wilson, who became a successful hotel entrepreneur during the 1848 gold rush. A surprising number of women, like Oregon suffragist Abigail Scott Duniway, became prosperous as milliners, a business friendly to women at a time when everyone wore hats.
Beginning in the 1860s, the federal Homestead Acts, which granted applicants ownership rights to public lands in the West, and the Morrill Acts, which created land-grant universities, opened other paths for women. Female homesteaders, many of whom were immigrants, were relatively few in number, but they proved their claims at a higher rate than men. Coed land-grant universities also grew the teaching profession, newly open to women.
Gallagher is candid about the less appealing elements of this story as well. Initial suffrage measures passed in part because white men hoped the votes of white women would offset those of immigrant and Black men. Additionally, Gallagher documents the ways in which white women who were missionaries and teachers demeaned people of color and backed damaging assimilationist policies.
Overall, Gallagher’s rediscoveries are inspirational. Hard conditions and sparse populations created opportunities for women in the West unavailable to them elsewhere. They fought their way into business ownership, education, professional careers—and ultimately voting booths and elective office.
The campaign for women's suffrage in the United States was a tough slog—except in the West. New Women in the Old West unearths dozens of forgotten trailblazers.
Imagine that you and your family have been taken into custody. You’ve lost your home and small business. Fellow Americans have berated and beaten you. Now you’re all living behind a fence in a single room in a squalid barrack in some desolate nowhere. And the government comes to you and says, “We want you to join the Army and risk your life to fight for the United States.”
It's astounding that anyone said yes, much less thousands of people. The Japanese Americans who formed the 442nd Infantry Regiment—the most decorated unit in U.S. history for its size and service length—were American patriots, and many felt they needed to demonstrate their loyalty to their country. They certainly succeeded.
In Facing the Mountain: A True Story of Japanese American Heroes in World War II, Daniel James Brown tackles this important story with the same impressive narrative talent and research that made his 2013 book, The Boys in the Boat, an enduring bestseller. He shares the story of issei (first-generation Japanese Americans) and nisei (second-generation Japanese Americans) who fought in World War II by focusing on four young men: three from Hawaii and the West Coast who joined the 442nd, and one, no less courageous, who went to prison for peacefully resisting what he believed were violations of the Constitution.
Brown takes us through the shock of the internment camps and the struggle for Hawaiians and mainlanders to overcome tensions and establish a cohesive fighting unit. The centerpieces of Facing the Mountain are the wrenching, on-the-ground descriptions of battles fought by the 442nd in Europe, most notably the uphill rescue of the “Lost Battalion” of Texans in France, in which the nisei suffered more than 800 casualties to rescue some 200 men.
Many readers will feel ashamed of the bigotry these men and their families faced—but every reader will admire the resilience that allowed these soldiers to create communities within the internment camps and to play such a pivotal role in the defeat of the Nazis. Most are gone now, but their stories will live on in this empathetic tribute to their courage.
Most of the Japanese American patriots who formed the 442nd Infantry Regiment are gone, but their stories live on in this empathetic tribute to their courage.
When Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans in 2005, thousands of people were forced to relocate. Some returned; others never did. As the city rebuilt, it changed, through both loss and revitalization. Fifteen years later, hurricanes still threaten New Orleans, but the city certainly endures.
Keep that trajectory in mind if you ever visit a magnificent urban archaeological site such as Angkor Wat or Pompeii. As Annalee Newitz shows in the marvelous Four Lost Cities, an ancient city’s fate was determined by complex interactions of politics, the environment and human choices—all of which offer insight into the challenges of climate change and disease that we face today.
Along with Angkor in Cambodia and Pompeii in Italy, Newitz’s four cities include Çatalhöyük in Turkey, the Neolithic site of one of the world’s first cities, and Cahokia, a Native American city that was located in the St. Louis metro region. Newitz takes us along on visits to all four locations, exploring their histories and cultures through interviews with the archaeologists doing cutting-edge research at each site.
Spanning different epochs and continents, these cities were of course quite different during their respective eras. Angkor and Cahokia were essentially spiritual sites surrounded by low-density sprawl; Pompeii and Çatalhöyük were densely packed. Pompeii was a trading town; the others were predominantly agricultural. But all faced significant environmental challenges, such as climate change, flooding, drought, earthquakes and volcanic eruption. What’s perhaps most astonishing is how long they lasted in the face of these calamities. Like New Orleans, they were rebuilt, time after time, by their creative, adaptable citizens.
Through this brightly written, lucid narrative, Newitz shows us that these cities were never “lost” and rediscovered. Even when their people ultimately moved on, they took their cultures and memories with them. As we struggle with our own difficult urban realities, Newitz argues, it’s worth considering their resilience.
As Annalee Newitz shows in the marvelous Four Lost Cities, an ancient city’s fate was determined by complex interactions of politics, the environment and human choices.
In October 1957, Sputnik 1 went up, and America panicked: My gosh, the Soviets are winning the Cold War! At least that's how it seemed as the little satellite's beep-beep was heard around the world. President Eisenhower hated spending money, but even he was persuaded that an aggressive space program was crucial. The United States' prestige was at stake, and so NASA was born as an instrument of nationalist competition.
But that's not how it evolved, at least in global public perception. Teasel Muir-Harmony’s engaging Operation Moonglow: A Political History of Project Apollo reveals that the 1969 Apollo moon landing mission was the single most successful U.S. diplomatic effort of the late 20th century—precisely because it consciously avoided jingoism.
Muir-Harmony, a curator at the Smithsonian, draws on a rich cache of documents from NASA and the United States Information Agency, among other sources, to bring to vivid life the ground-level public relations onslaught surrounding the Apollo project. When U.S. diplomats organized exhaustive worldwide tours and exhibits about their country's successes, they quickly learned that American boasting was a turnoff. Instead, millions of people across the earth reacted with astounding enthusiasm to a message of global unity. The space mission was "for all mankind."
The astronauts assigned to the mission proved to be natural goodwill ambassadors, indefatigable in their unpretentious friendliness. Muir-Harmony brings us along for their post-flight tours—as Frank Borman wades into Paris crowds to press the flesh and as Neil Armstrong says just the right thing to charm the prickly wife of Yugoslav president Josip Broz Tito. The positive feeling generated by Apollo arguably helped Nixon jump-start his secret Vietnam War peace talks.
It feels like such a remote era now: Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon were all instinctive internationalists, despite their political differences. They believed the United States would prevail through U.S.-led alliances and openness, in contrast to Soviet secrecy and bullying. Muir-Harmony notes that, even with the achievement of the moon landing, NASA couldn’t overshadow global disgust with the Vietnam War or the nation's racial turmoil in any lasting way. Still, Operation Moonglow is a winning remembrance of a time when America thought big and optimistically about its role in the world.
In 1957, Sputnik went up, and America panicked: My gosh, the Soviets are winning the Cold War! At least that's how it seemed as the little satellite's beep-beep was heard around the world. President Eisenhower hated spending money, but even he was persuaded that an aggressive space program was crucial.
When the western part of the former Third Reich transformed itself with lightning speed into a stable democratic republic and economic powerhouse, it was the ultimate post-World War II success story. The story is true enough, but it wasn't quite that simple. In fact, the defeated German people were shattered after the war. Countless thousands were refugees, prisoners of war and rape victims, collectively blamed for the Holocaust. Unsurprisingly, these conditions caused widespread tension, illness, emotional breakdown and deep denial.
They also caused a now-forgotten witch panic. Historian Monica Black surfaces this deeply buried episode in her riveting A Demon-Haunted Land: Witches, Wonder Doctors, and the Ghost of the Past in Post-WWII Germany, which explores the connection between Germany’s trauma and an upsurge in superstitious hysteria. Included in this wave were Germans who accused their neighbors of being witches, a charismatic faith healer named Bruno Gröning who attracted thousands of followers and others who reported sightings of the Virgin Mary.
From 1947 to 1956, there were 77 “witchcraft” trials in Germany. To be clear, these were not trials of witches; they were cases brought by people accused of witchcraft against their accusers. (The word “witch” was seldom used; the accusers called them “evil people.”) The most notorious trial involved Waldemar Eberling, a lay healer and exorcist who told clients they had been bewitched by neighbors. He was called Hexenbanner, "witch banisher," and both he and his nemesis, a retired teacher who crusaded for the accused, had been anti-Nazis.
Black focuses much of the book on Gröning, a former Nazi believed by his legion of followers to possess magic healing powers against illnesses caused by evil. He eventually went to trial in a tragic case involving a teenage girl with tuberculosis who stopped medical treatment because of her faith in him.
All these cases were studied by doctors at the time they occurred, but Black perceptively points out that none of them ever publicly faced up to the heart of the matter. The terrible societal conditions that led to this outbreak, the experts said, was the fault of the Allied occupation. Guilt and shame over Nazi crimes were never mentioned. Only Eberling’s teacher-enemy pointed out—privately—that a hunt for “witches” was not unlike blaming the Jews.
Historian Monica Black’s riveting A Demon-Haunted Land: Witches, Wonder Doctors, and the Ghost of the Past in Post-WWII Germany explores the connection between Germany’s trauma and an upsurge in superstitious hysteria.
Princess Diana and Meghan Markle have both struggled with the downsides of marrying into the British royal family, but at least no one ever arrested them on accusations of treasonous witchcraft. Astoundingly, that really happened to four royal women in a 70-year period some six centuries ago, in a burst of bizarre prosecutions.
The Wars of the Roses, the dramatic 15th-century struggle over the English crown, have attracted writers from Shakespeare on. More recently they’ve inspired both "Game of Thrones" and the White Queen saga. Now author Gemma Hollman provides a new lens on this period in Royal Witches: Witchcraft and the Nobility in Fifteenth-Century England.
The four women—Joan of Navarre, Eleanor Cobham, Jacquetta of Luxembourg and Elizabeth Woodville—were far from the witchy stereotype of solitary village women. They were all intelligent and cultivated, the wives or widows of powerful men: two kings and two kings' brothers. It was too dangerous for these men's enemies to attack them directly, so their adversaries undermined them by targeting the women.
Hollman expertly re-creates their courtly world—the lavish clothes, jewels and palaces that inspired so much envy. Their personalities necessarily remain elusive, but all four chose unusual paths to marriage, so their sense of agency is clear.
In the 15th century, belief in magic blended easily with nascent science; even serious scholars pursued alchemy. These women may indeed have turned to “love potions” or fortunetellers—but was it treasonous conspiracy against the king? The likes of Cardinal Beaufort and Richard III did their best to make that case.
The accused women were smart and lucky enough to escape the axe. But this was not a game: Eleanor’s supposed accomplices were tortured and executed. Eleanor herself, the beloved wife of popular Duke Humphrey of Gloucester, was forced to walk unhooded across London on three separate days in “penance,” her humiliating fall visible to all.
Even readers familiar with the basic history of the Wars of the Roses will see aristocratic skulduggery in a strikingly fresh way in Royal Witches, as we continue to grapple with the treatment of women who rise to important positions even in our own time.
Princess Diana and Meghan Markle have both struggled with the downsides of marrying into the British royal family, but at least no one ever arrested them on accusations of treasonous witchcraft. Astoundingly, that really happened to four royal women in a 70-year period some six centuries ago, in a burst of bizarre prosecutions.
Those of us who are fans of gangster stories have been saturated (oversaturated, perhaps?) in the Lucky-Bugsy-Meyer saga, rooted in New York but with memorable offshoots in Havana, Los Angeles and Las Vegas. Well, here’s a fresh cast and venue: the casino crowd of Hot Springs, Arkansas, arguably America’s gambling capital until it all came crashing down in the mid-1960s.
Lucky Luciano and Meyer Lansky do make cameos in The Vapors: A Southern Family, the New York Mob, and the Rise and Fall of Hot Springs, America’s Forgotten Capital of Vice, David Hill’s true crime narrative of the spa resort town from the ’30s through the ’60s. But the big players are the less-remembered mobster Owney Madden, casino boss Dane Harris and a raft of crooked homegrown pols, judges and cops—with a fleeting appearance by Hot Springs resident Virginia Clinton and her promising son Bill.
It’s still astonishing how open Hot Springs’ vice industry was, with city leaders acting as an integral part of the criminal establishment. Madden was the mob’s guy in town, but he quickly assimilated to the local landscape. Harris, the son of a bootlegger, had aspirations of respectability; he’s the Michael Corleone of the story. He wanted the clubs, led by his gang of Vapors, to be glossy entertainment palaces. Harris did his best with payoffs and vote-buying, but internecine fighting that featured bomb explosions and pressure from Bobby Kennedy’s Department of Justice ended his dream.
The history is fascinating, but what makes The Vapors a compelling—and ultimately heartwrenching—book is the author’s account of his own family, who lived in Hot Springs during the casino heyday. His grandmother Hazel Hill landed there as a teen, drifted into casino work after leaving her violent, alcoholic husband and neglected her sons as she fell into her own sad addictions. Hill tells the hard truth of her life with compassion and context.
Amid all this mayhem, one person in the book emerges as a beacon of decency: Jimmy Hill, Hazel’s youngest son and the author’s father. Intelligence, hard work, athletic talent and loyal friends led him to a better life. Dane Harris should have been so lucky.
Those of us who are fans of gangster stories have been saturated (oversaturated, perhaps?) in the Lucky-Bugsy-Meyer saga, rooted in New York but with memorable offshoots in Havana, Los Angeles and Las Vegas. Well, here’s a fresh cast and venue: the casino crowd of Hot Springs, Arkansas, arguably America’s gambling capital until it all came [...]
When Morgan Jerkins traveled the United States in search of her roots, she didn’t just look up the official records, useful as they sometimes were. She talked to relatives and knowledgeable strangers to explore what she calls the “whisper” stories: the ones African Americans and Native Americans quietly pass on through generations, because they are afraid to speak them too loudly.
In the sensitive, insightful Wandering in Strange Lands: A Daughter of the Great Migration Reclaims Her Roots, Jerkins, an African American in her 20s raised mostly in New Jersey, recounts her journey to uncover the meaning of those stories for her own relatives, as well as for the millions of others who moved north during the Great Migration. Seemingly unimportant traditions like eating black-eyed peas on New Year’s Day and half-serious references to “roots” hexes turn out to be important clues to the culture of kidnapped Africans in Georgia, North Carolina and Louisiana.
Jerkins finds the hard truths of racism in her research: a great-grandfather who fled a lynching threat; Gullah landowners forced off their property by whites; relatives who “passed” as white and cut family ties. But she also struggles emotionally with the discovery that her background is more diverse than she had understood. Among her ancestors are whites, free Creole people of color who owned slaves, and, possibly, Native Americans.
After her illuminating visits to Louisiana, Oklahoma and the Georgia-South Carolina low country, Jerkins ends in Los Angeles, where she spent part of her childhood. California, she says, was the last Promised Land for black people, but it turned out to be as disappointing as everywhere else. Now many African Americans are leaving in a reverse migration to the South.
As Jerkins finishes her moving chronicle, she says she is “exhausted” by the constant racial violence she finds, most recently in the massacres in Dayton, Ohio, and El Paso, Texas, where a high proportion of the victims were people of color. One way forward, she writes, is for black people to “regain their narrative and contextualize the shame.” The answer, Jerkins says, is not flight but true community informed by deep knowledge of the past.
When Morgan Jerkins traveled the United States in search of her roots, she didn’t just look up the official records, useful as they sometimes were. She talked to relatives and knowledgeable strangers to explore what she calls the “whisper” stories: the ones African Americans and Native Americans quietly pass on through generations, because they are [...]
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