Tag Archives: History

Armistice 100: Thoughts on World War I

Photo description: a field full of poppies.

Yesterday was the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I.

In commemoration of this, I’m using today’s post to talk about what my ancestors were doing during that war and share a touching video that was filmed by a former soldier who returned to his old battlegrounds about a decade after he’d originally fought there.

I’ve chosen not to include the names of my ancestors in this post for privacy reasons. If you’re peering at your family tree and wondering if we’re related or if our ancestors might have known each other, I’d be happy to share more details in private.

Mom’s Side of the Family

All of the great-grandparents on my mother’s side of the family were infants or children when World War I began. They were born to various German Mennonite farmers who lived in the midwestern United States, so none of their fathers or other male relatives were soldiers.

This meant that not only did all of my great-great-grandfathers survive the war and remain with their families, they also were able to provide basic food and shelter to their loved ones for the entire duration of it. While some of their fellow church members were imprisoned for refusing to fight, I believe those ancestors might have been given exemptions due to the large families they needed to support and the vital roles they played in producing food for the nation in general.

World War I wasn’t a pleasant experience for anyone, but my mom’s side of the family seemed to have much better experiences with it than many people did back then.

Dad’s Side of the Family

Trigger warning: abuse

I know less about my father’s side of the family, especially during these years. Those ancestors were all still living in Germany at the time, and many of them were rarely if ever willing to discuss their pasts for reasons that will soon become clear.

One of my paternal great-grandfathers was a soldier during World War I. He was shot in the leg and, according to family legend, used spider webs to pack the wound. Spider webs were traditionally used in many cultures to treat wounds back then. They are said to contain anti-fungal and antimicrobial properties. The vitamin K in spider webs may also help reduce bleeding.

Even with the help of this home remedy, the infection he developed in that wound was so serious that he nearly lost his limb. Since this happened more than 20 years before antibiotics became available, I’m honestly surprised that he survived…much less kept his leg!

That is the only story I know from that portion of his life. He took everything else with him to the grave. While his body survived the war without any catastrophic injuries, his mental health was severely affected by the things he experienced during those years. He became physically and emotionally abusive and remained that way for the rest of his life.

This great-great-grandfather died long before I was born, but I still saw the damage he caused lingering on decades after his death. I share this not to speak ill of the dead but to be honest about the true costs of war. Sometimes it’s horrific.

Today I can’t help but to wonder how the lives of his descendants would have turned out differently if he’d either never been through that trauma or lived in a time when he could have gotten real help for the things that plagued him before he became abusive.

The Spanish Flu and My Ancestors

To the best of my knowledge, none of my ancestors contracted the Spanish Flu in 1918. There are no reports of deaths from it in our genealogical records and no stories about anyone being sickened by it either so far as I’m aware.  That surprised me a lot given how many people were affected by it worldwide. My great-grandparents and their relatives were all very lucky in this regard.

Colour Footage of the Western Front & Northern France

I’ll be ending this post on a cheerful note. The video below is titled And in the Sky the Larks: 1920s Colour Footage of the Western Front & Northern France.

It was originally shot in 1928 by a man named Charles W. Bridgen who had been a L. Corporal in the 7th London Battalion. He survived battles in Ypres and the Somme. About a decade later he returned to visit those places in peacetime. The resulting footage is hauntingly beautiful. There are even some shots of a wedding that took place in one of the spots he was filming in.

I’d like to thank my dad for sharing it with me recently. It was a touching tribute to what must have been a very meaningful trip for Mr. Bridgen.

What Were Your Ancestors Doing During World War I?

I’d sure like to hear any stories your families might have passed down about them.

 

10 Things I Love to Read About

On Monday I blogged about the 10 Things I Won’t Read About. It was surprising to see how many of the people who read my posts have similar aversions to those topics.

Today I’m talking about 10 things that would make me keen to pick up and read a book. I tried to make this list as detailed as possible, so you won’t be seeing vague entries like “science fiction” here.

Instead, I’ll be drilling down to specific topics that I’d be excited to read about with little regard given to which genre they might pop up in.

1.  LGBT+ Historical Novels, Especially Mysteries.

I’m fascinated by how people in the LGBT+ community lived during eras when they had to keep such important parts of themselves hidden away. This is still something that happens with LGBT+ people in many countries and cultures today, of course. Seeing how this has changed or is changing in some parts of the world gives me hope that someday it will improve everywhere.

Watching LGBT+ characters attempt to solve a mystery while also holding tightly onto their own secrets also makes this sort of storyline even more nerve-wracking than it might otherwise be. I want some parts of the plot to be revealed while hoping that other portions are only shared with people who will treat the main character kindly.

Example: The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters. (I’m currently read this book, so please don’t share spoilers for it!)

2. Colonizing Mars (and Other Planets).

To put it mildly, humans made a lot of terrible mistakes when they invaded other countries and continents. While there isn’t any life on Mars* that could be destroyed if or when humans begin living there, there are still plenty of ways for that social experiment to have devastating consequences for everyone who participates in it.

Just think of how many people died due to accidents, violence, disease, and malnutrition when Europeans first began living in Australia, the Americas, and other parts of the world. I hope I’m wrong about this, but I expect the death rate for the first few waves of people who move to Mars to be quite high as our species figures out how to survive on a planet that doesn’t even have a breathable atmosphere for us.

*to the best of our current scientific knowledge.

Example: The Mars Trilogy by Kim Stanley Robinson.

3. Diverse or Unlikely Heroes. 

I love it when writers create protagonists who don’t fit the audience’s expectations of what a hero should look like. There have been so many examples of young, straight, white men saving the world in various fictional universes that I’m always happy to see people from other demographic groups get an equal chance to fight bad guys, too.

Example: Buffy Summers from the 90’s TV show Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

4. How Medical and Scientific Advancements Happened

This is by far the broadest category on this list, but I’m intrigued by how scientists and doctors solved any number of problems in the past that are either unknown in westernized cultures today or no longer exist anywhere in the world. The nice thing about reading about medical and scientific advancements is that the author generally spends most of their time talking about how that invention, cure, or breakthrough happened and how it changed society as a whole.

It’s been my experience that these sorts of books don’t spend much time at all discussing the graphic details of, say, a specific disease or injury. A portion of the first chapter might talk about the typical results for people before the invention of a certain drug or treatment, but generally everything else will be about how the researchers figured out a solution to the problem. I’ll endure a  brief discussion of surgery or gore early on if I’m otherwise interested in the topic and the author soon moves on to how that issue affected society as a whole and how the treatment or solution was eventually found.

Example: Breakthrough: Elizabeth Hughes, the Discovery of Insulin, and the Making of a Medical Miracle by Thea Cooper and Arthur Ainsberg.

5. How Social Justice Movements Actually Change the World.

It wasn’t until I became an adult that I learned that Martin Luther King, Jr. was widely hated by the mainstream culture before his assassination. He was seen by many white Americans as someone who was pushing for too much change too soon. This wasn’t something that was covered in any of my lessons about him in school, although after reading his wife’s memoir about their life together I wish it had been.

Sometimes the people who originally fought for a more just world aren’t around to see how all of those long years of hard work will begin to pay off.

Changing laws and public opinion on an issue takes time. It’s not generally something that will happen overnight, but it can happen. This is a topic I’ve been thinking a lot about over the past year or so, and it’s making me want to read more about what previous generations did to fix the things they saw that were wrong with their societies.

Example: My Life, My Love, My Legacy by Coretta Scott King.

6. Foster Care and Foster-Adoption.

For the past three generations, various relatives of mine have fostered and adopted children. Honestly, this would be my #1 choice for becoming a parent if I had the desire to raise children. There is an urgent need for foster parents here in North America, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the same could be said of many other parts of the world as well.

Having so many extended family members who were foster children makes my ears perk up every time a fiction or non-fiction book is written about this topic.

Example: Three Little Words by Ashley Rhodes-Courter.

7. Rabbits Enjoying Adventures. 

Anyone who has known me longer than ten minutes will have some inkling of how much I love rabbits.

Anytime they show up as a main or secondary character in a story, I’m immediately interested in finding out what will happen to them.

There aren’t a lot of authors out there who write about rabbits going on quests, so I jump into every example of this niche I can find.

Example: Watership Down by Richard Adams.

8. Hopeful Visions of the Future.

As I’ve mentioned here before, I’m thirsty for stories that have a hopeful outlook on what is in store for humanity a few decades or centuries from now. The news is so full of fear and apprehension these days that I look for happier perspectives on what life will be like for future generations wherever I can find them.

Example: All of the Star Trek series.

9. Vengeful Ghosts Who Had a Point.

Many different types of ghost stories appeal to me, but the ones I enjoy the most are about folks who had excellent reasons for being so angry and restless in the afterlife.

There’s something emotionally satisfying about figuring out their backstories and seeing if the protagonists will finally be able to help them find the peace they were denied when they were still alive.

I’m also fascinated by how the actions of a small group of people can continue to negatively affect their descendants and/or community for generations to come. This regularly happens in non-paranormal ways in real life, and there often aren’t any easy answers for how to end those cycles once they begin.

Exploring this topic in a ghost story is a wonderful way to neutrally ask questions about justice, reconciliation, and what the current generation should be morally obligated to do to fix the mistakes of people who lived and died long ago.

Example: The Woman in Black by Susan Hill.

10. The Daily Lives of Prehistoric People.

I sure wouldn’t want to be part of a hunter-gatherer tribe in real life, but I love reading about characters who lived in that kind of society.

There is something fascinating to me about all of the different skills one would need to survive when you need to make, hunt, or gather everything you and your family need to survive.  I’m also drawn to the idea of living in such a tight-knit culture. It’s not something I’d want to do all day every day, but I do see the benefits of forging such strong bonds with others. Having so many adults working together must have made everything from raising children to looking after a sick or injured relative easier than it is in more individualistic cultures.

If there are Neanderthals or other now-extinct human (or human-like) species in the storyline, I’ll be even more interested since there are so many things that a skeleton, stone tool, or cave painting can’t tell you about what a group was actually like.

Example: The Last Neanderthal by Claire Cameron.

What topics are you always eager to read about?

Saturday Seven: Books That Might Give You Cravings

Saturday Seven is hosted by Long and Short Reviews.

I’m a pretty quiet person in real life. One of the topics that I always like to talk about with anyone who is interested, though, is food. For example, I might ask you what your favourite food is or talk about a delicious meal I made last week. This week’s list is all about books that gave me cravings when I read them.

1. The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals by Michael Pollan.

I could almost do an entire Saturday Seven post on Michael Pollan’s books alone. I really appreciate the fact that he takes such a well-rounded approach to figuring out what and how humans should eat from a nutritional, environmental, and cultural perspective. Then you also need to factor in any medical restrictions (diabetes, food allergies, interactions with certain drugs, etc) you might have on what you can eat.  The answer won’t be exactly the same for every person or geographical region on Earth. I like the flexibility of that. It makes me hungry! Hehe.

 2. Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life by Barbara Kingsolver.

Imagine spending an entire year trying to eat nothing but food you’ve either grown or bought from people who lived nearby. It’s not something I could do year-round in Canada without risking vitamin deficiencies from barely having any vegetables or fruit to eat for months on end, but I do follow many of this author’s principles when the weather allows for it. And now I’m craving Ontario-grown strawberries. They’re mouthwateringly delicious, and they’ll be in season in a few short months.

3. Salt: A World History by Mark Kurlansky.

Salt is common and inexpensive now, but it used to be so valuable that it was used as a form of currency. This is the kind of book I’d only recommend to people who are extremely interested in this topic. It wasn’t a light, fluffy read at all, but it did make me crave salty foods like homemade soft pretzels.

4. French Women Don’t Get Fat: The Secret of Eating for Pleasure by Mireille Guiliano.

I loved the common sense messages in this book about moderation, fitting walking and other forms of exercise into your daily routine, and never being afraid to enjoy what you eat. There’s something about this easy-going approach to life that makes me look forward to my next meal regardless of what it happens to be.

5. Banana: The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World by Dan Koeppel.

When I first read this a decade ago, I wondered if I’d live to see the day when the Cavendish banana went extinct. It hasn’t happened yet, and I sure hope it never does. Doesn’t the banana on the cover make you wish you could eat a banana right this second? That sure was my reaction to it.

6. Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit by Barry Estabrook.

This actually made me seek out one of those old-fashioned tomatoes that hadn’t had so much of its flavour bred out of it. It was really good. If only that kind of tomato wasn’t in season for such a short time. I could go for one of them right about now.

7. Tea: The Drink That Changed the World by Laura C. Martin. 

I drink a decent amount of caffeine-free herbal tea, especially during the winter when I want to warm up. If caffeine didn’t make me so jittery, I’d branch out and try more of the teas that this author talked about. They sounded delicious.

Do you read nonfiction books about food or beverages? What are you craving right now?

 

Why Creative Writers Should Read History Books

The other day I learned something surprising about bananas.

Did you know that bananas were nearly impossible to find anywhere in England during World War Two? As a perishable fruit that had to be imported, it simply wasn’t possible for the government to keep this food source available while there was a war going on.

People improvised all sorts of creative mock banana recipes during those years. One of the most common replacements for this beloved fruit involved boiling parsnips, mashing them, and then adding a little banana essence and sugar. The resulting mixture could be spread on a piece of bread and eaten.

The world changed dramatically between the early 1940s and my childhood. I never would have guessed that bananas had been so hard to find or that people needed to invent replacements for them in the twentieth century. When I was growing up, they were one of the staple snacks in my family due to how inexpensive and healthy they were. I’d often eat a banana after school to tide me over until dinnertime without thinking twice about it.

Study History

True stories like this one are why I think creative writers – especially those in the speculative fiction genre who are often responsible for creating worlds that are very different from the one we live in – should read books about what life was like decades, centuries, and millennia before they were born.

What you and I might consider to be so commonplace that it doesn’t even need to be mentioned was often unthinkable a few generations ago, whether we’re talking about a child’s afternoon snack, a standard medical treatment for a particular disease, a fashion trend, or what the average person might have thought of a specific hot-button issue of their day.

Yes, it’s true that some of these societal shifts are taught in school. There simply isn’t enough time for students to study most of them, though, even if they have a teacher who understands the value of showing exactly how much a society can change in a few short years.

Will I ever write about a world where bananas suddenly don’t exist anymore? Probably not! (Well, unless the Cavendish variety really does go extinct in our world like it was predicted to a few years ago.)

Knowing how a society responds to the loss of a cheap and much-loved type of food can be invaluable, though, if you’re ever hoping to write anything about scarcity or characters whose lives suddenly become slightly worse through no fault of their own.

You never know when a historical anecdote might prove useful. Most of the history books I read tend to be focused on the lives of common folks. That category is broad enough to cover anything from typical diets of a particular age to the evolution of social mores to how different parts of society reacted to certain epidemics, but you can easily specialize in reading narrower slices of history than that if there’s something specific you want to research.

Discover Patterns

Let’s shift gears and talk about Stonehenge for a moment. When compared to what we know about World War Two (and bananas), our knowledge so far of what purpose Stonehenge was meant to fill, who created it, and why they went through all of the trouble of making it could fit into a thimble.

Too much time passed between when it was erected and when future generations developed the tools they needed to study it in depth. The individuals who planned and built it had been gone for so many generations by that point that some of our questions about it will never be answered. All of their knowledge was lost with them.

For example, I don’t think we’ll ever figure out how prehistoric people who hadn’t invented wheels or pulleys yet were able to pull and push such large boulders into place. (I sincerely hope I’m wrong about that, though!)

On a positive note, the cool thing about studying history even casually is that you’ll begin to see certain patterns emerge from one era to the next even if we no longer have all of the details about how something worked. Stonehenge wasn’t the only culturally or religiously significant place that was built and then later abandoned in our world by any means. There are so many other examples of this happening that I can’t possibly list them all.

Extrapolate From the Past and Use It

Our languages, customs, diets, and clothing might have morphed a lot over the course of recorded history, but human beings themselves haven’t changed much at all since we first began writing down our thoughts.

There have been multiple societies who ignored the warning signs of their coming collapse and who crumbled because of that.

There have been many people who were ahead of their time and whose words weren’t taken seriously by most folks until after they’d died.

There have been all sorts of inventions that dramatically improved the lives of the people who adapted it.

There have been diseases, natural disasters, and conflicts that radically altered how a society functioned for as long as humans have been around to form societies.

The more you know about how, when, and why these things happened, the better equipped you’ll be to come up with how similar events could play out in a dragon-infested medieval village or onboard a high-tech star ship thousands of years in the future.

 

Saturday Seven: History Books About Ordinary People

Saturday Seven is hosted by Long and Short Reviews.

I had mixed feelings about history class when I was in school. The chapters about war and the military honestly bored me to death. Kudos to those of you who like reading about battles and peace treaties, but I have not spent a single moment thinking about any of that stuff since I graduated from college.

On the other hand, the chapters that even briefly mentioned the lives of ordinary people interested me quite a bit. Today I’ll be talking about some of the many books I’ve read that chronicled the experiences of regular folks.

If you have any suggestions for me of other books to read, I’d love to hear them! I know I’m barely scratching the surface of this topic today.

How to Be a Victorian by Ruth Goodman.

How did Victorians wash their hair, cook, clean, take care of sick relatives, and raise children? This book went into vivid detail about the daily lives of people in this era. The best part of it was that the author tried many of the things she was writing about, so she was able to give a highly personalized account of what it was actually like to live this way. The section that talked about how dangerous it could be  to wash clothing back in the day was one of my favourites. I had no idea how easy it was to lose a finger doing that!

Sick Kids: The History of the Hospital for Sick Children by David Wright

For any of my readers who haven’t heard of it, Sick Kids is a renowned children’s hospital here in Toronto. Why am I mentioning such a well-known institution in today’s post? Well, it began as a tiny charity solely run by volunteers in a small, rented house. The handful of children they cared for in the beginning were poor and had no other way to receive the vital medical care they needed. All of the supplies and treatments the children required were donated, too.

While I read the first few chapters, I was in awe of how much good work can be done by completely average people.

 Fever Season: The Story of a Terrifying Epidemic and the People Who Saved a City by Jeanette Keith

Yellow Fever is a horrendous disease. When it struck Memphis, Tennessee, in 1878, some of the pillars of the community fled to safety before they caught this illness. Of the twenty thousand people who remained, seventeen thousand of them became sick. Five thousand people died during this epidemic. Can you imagine digging that many graves or comforting that many grieving loved ones? I sure can’t.

The prostitutes, poor people, and other volunteers who stuck around to take care of the sick and bury the dead were heroes. Some of them died as a result of their decision to take care of those who couldn’t look after themselves.  I only wish more history books talked about stories like this one.

The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women by Kate Moore

A hundred years ago, many people had no idea how dangerous radium was. Those who did know it could be deadly worked tirelessly to keep this information hidden from the public. Hundreds of young, working class women who had few other options in life were hired to paint radium dials on watches without any idea of just how dangerous their job was or how much they were permanently damaging their health.

I should warn you that this book contains graphic descriptions of what happens to someone’s body after they’ve received a toxic dose of radiation. Many of these women died gruesome deaths, and others suffered debilitating health problems for the rest of their lives.

Their deaths and permanent disabilities did serve a purpose, however. Some of the strict safety rules that companies that use hazardous materials are required to follow today are a result of the lawsuit these women participated in once they realized that their employers had lied to them about how safe their jobs truly were.

A Square Meal: A Culinary History of the Great Depression by Jane Ziegelman

Three of my grandparents grew up during the Great Depression, and the fourth was born during World War II when foods like meat, wheat, butter, and eggs were strictly rationed. One of my grandparents was so malnourished early in life that he actually wasn’t expected to survive.

They have rarely spoken about that time in their lives to me, but I thought of the uncertainties of their early childhoods as I read this book. Many of the food-based social programs like free school lunches that exist today were started in order to prevent the deaths and permanent disabilities that happen when people don’t have enough nutritious food to eat.

 Call the Midwife: A Memoir of Birth, Joy and Hard Times by Jennifer Worth

Jennifer Worth grew up in a comfortable, loving, middle class family. She really had no idea what she was getting into when she decided to work as a midwife in a desperately poor part of London called the East End. The contraceptive pill and other forms of reliable birth control didn’t exist back then, so women were constantly getting pregnant regardless of whether or not they actually wanted or could afford to care for another child.

When you mix this in with the grinding poverty and crime of this era, you can imagine just how heartbreaking some of the stories about her clients were. One of the most memorable ones was about a young, heavily pregnant, developmentally-delayed girl Jennifer cared for who knew virtually nothing about sex or reproduction. Imagine trying to explain pregnancy and childbirth to someone who didn’t understand those concepts but who was going to have to give birth soon!

If you haven’t seen the British television TV based on this series yet, I highly recommend checking it out. The first few seasons that were based on Jennifer’s true-life experiences were excellent.

The Day the World Came to Town: 9/11 in Gander, Newfoundland by Jim Defede.

Does 9/11 count as history yet? I can’t believe it’s been almost seventeen years since the dreadful events of that day. Based on the fact that there’s a memorial museum for the victims of that attack now and some movies have been made about it, I’m going to count it as the final entry on today’s list.

Thirty-eight jetliners that had been flying towards the United States were forced to land in Gander, Newfoundland after the terrorist attack. You should know that Gander is a very small town that doesn’t have any of the usual amenities like large hotels to accommodate so many visitors.

Instead, the private citizens of Gander opened up their own homes and schools to all of the stranded travellers so that everyone would have a safe place to stay. They did everything from cook meals for these strangers, to invite them over to have a shower, to empty out their linen closets so that everyone would have a blanket to stay warm and a towel to dry off with. The animals who had been traveling in the cargo section were treated well, too.

When it was all over, the generous people who lived in Gander refused to take any payments for all of the work they’d done because they believed that Americans would have done exactly the same thing for them if their positions had been reversed. There was so much kindness and empathy in this story. I really hope it becomes a movie someday.

Do you like to read books about history? If so, what ones do you enjoy?

Why You Should Be Following the Mystery of Tom Thomson’s Death

Tom Thomson was a famous Canadian painter who died nearly a century ago. His landscapes influenced the Group of Seven. Had he lived longer, there’s no doubt in my mind that he would have become an official member and they would have been called the Group of Eight instead. If you haven’t heard of this artist or the kinds of… Read More