Book Review Thursday: Heaven’s Ditch: God, Gold and Murder on the Erie Canal

A dear friend who recently passed away once wrote an article about his ancestors and reflected on how, as the nineteenth century dawned, lifestyles began to change.  Before the 1800’s life was much the same through generations of families.  Then, the nineteenth century – what my friend called “The Century of Acceleration” – dawned and with it rapid change from beginning to end (and of course, beyond). America had just concluded its war for independence and many were looking to the west to expand beyond the confines of the eastern seaboard and the original thirteen colonies.  One of the major challenges the expanding nation would encounter was better ways to transport goods back and forth from the established urban and rural areas of the east to those who chose to venture to the west.  Yes, roads could have been carved through the mountains and forests, but what about a waterway to convey those needed supplies? Many had thought of building a canal system but Jesse Hawley, who took it upon himself to survey the Mohawk Valley, was the many who finally got it done, but only after petitioning the New York State Legislature and gaining the support of Governor DeWitt Clinton.  The challenges were great with varying altitudes and rises along the proposed three hundred and sixty-mile canal.  A system of locks would become necessary to accommodate those variances. Many mocked the idea but on October 26, 1825 the canal opened for business.  Along the way, however, there were other events of note occurring along the canal some would call “Heaven’s Ditch”.  The book’s subtitle says it all: God,...

Book Review Thursday: The Brigade: An Epic Story of Vengeance, Salvation and WWII

Howard Blum’s latest book is about many things as the sub-title implies: Vengeance, Salvation and World War II.  Palestine was under British control and in November 1944 the British finally agreed to send five thousand Jewish soldiers to fight the Nazis.  This may be surprising to some people who assumed Jews weren’t allowed to fight back against Nazi tyranny and the horrors of the Holocaust. While the brigade’s contributions had very little influence on the eventual outcome, still they were extremely proud to have been allowed to serve.  In fact, at times it was downright frustrating to be held back to participate in only minor operations.  Yet, when given the chance to fight the Jewish Brigade proved themselves more than adequate to the task at hand.  Of course, by the time the brigade was sent to Europe the war was winding down.  Five months later Hitler and the Germans were soundly defeated. The men chosen to serve in the brigade had been living in Palestine, having migrated there from various parts of the world.  At this time, of course, the State of Israel was non-existent.  It was extremely heart-wrenching for the brigade to witness first-hand the persecution of their brethren at the hands of the Nazis.  That’s when things got rather interesting. As one reads the book it sounds much like a novel.  However, this is a true story of how this group not only ably served, but once the war had ended remained “on duty” while pillaging the enemy and exacting vengeance.  It’s quite an interesting story full of details of exploits these fiercely and proudly Jewish men...

Book Review Thursday: Chasing the Last Laugh: Mark Twain’s Raucous and Redemptive Round-the-World Comedy Tour

So much has been written about Samuel Clemens, a.k.a. Mark Twain.  One might assume there couldn’t possibly be one more book written about one of America’s most beloved characters.  Author Richard Zacks, however, has managed to do just that in his latest book. Zacks brought the story to life through Twain’s never published notebooks and correspondence, bringing a unique perspective to a somewhat “dark period” in the author’s life.  Mark Twain was a highly successful humorist and author, but as a businessman he failed in 1894 after investing in an ill-conceived invention which never quite lived up to its potential. As a result his publishing company went under; buried in debt, he declared bankruptcy.  His wife Olivia (Livy), a coal heiress, was heartsick at the possibility of their good name being sullied.  Twain promised Livy he would pay back every penny despite the fact there was no legal responsibility to do so once he filed for bankruptcy.  But, how to do that? Twain, at this point in his life, really hated the idea of performing, yet it seemed the only way to make headway against the mountains of debt.  He was fifty-nine years of age but set out to make good on his word by embarking on an around-the-world comedy tour.  After traveling throughout the American West he and Livy and daughter Clara set sail for places like Australia, New Zealand, India and South Africa where he entertained sold-out audiences. The book tells the story of their travels and adventures (and let’s face it with Mark Twain, some misadventures), including a wild ride down a Himalayan mountain, while interspersing...

Book Review Thursday: Two World War II Spy Stories

I’ve been lax of late in writing here at Digging History as I’ve undertaken some ancestry and book research projects.  I’ve also been inundated with trying to keep up with library books I’ve had on hold all coming my way at the same time it seems.  In the last two weeks I’ve read two somewhat-related books about World War II spies – one about a woman who to many in the world of MI6 and OSS during the war was known only as “Cynthia” and the other about an American family living in Paris who joined the Resistance and paid a dear price. The Last Goodnight I am a fan of Howard Blum.  I eagerly wait for his new books to be released and make sure I’m in line to check it out as soon as I can from the library.  After seeing initial reviews of his latest book, I wasn’t so sure I’d like it or not. Truth be told I had mixed feelings about the book – it was hard to decide if Betty Pack (a.k.a. “Cynthia”) was a true patriot or perhaps just a nymphomaniac whom the British and Americans exploited.  One reviewer suggested she may have been possessed of narcissistic personality disorder.  I’m not sure about that, but Ms. Pack seemed to have little or no compunction about “putting herself out there” as a temptress. As a young woman she married an older man, a British diplomat, and almost immediately began cheating on him and did so throughout their marriage.  She seemed to fall in and out of love with men other than her husband...

Book Review Thursday: The Secrets of the Notebook: A Woman’s Quest to Uncover Her Royal Family Secret

Even after the author’s family fled Nazi Germany to take refuge in London, they still faced danger as Hitler’s blitzkrieg pounded England.  On the day Eve Haas (nee Jaretzki) turned sixteen her father showed her a piece of family history, a notebook, which contained secrets about her family’s history.  Years later after both of her parents had passed away Eve finally came into possession of the notebook.  Although her family had warned against researching the secrets lodged in the notebook, Eve decided to pursue it nonetheless.  The notebook’s opening inscription alone was intriguing enough to propel her forward, ignoring her family’s warnings. By this time she had a family of her own, having been raised as a non-orthodox, secular Jew.  Her grandmother had been left behind and more than likely suffered death at the hands of the brutal Nazi regime.  The details which began to unfold revealed one startling revelation after another, but in order to get the complete story Eve and her husband had to find a way to access records which at this time were stored in Communist East Germany. The process of discovering her family’s secret history took years of patience and research and Ms. Haas gives a thorough account of  both triumphs and disappointments.  At the heart of what she discovered was a touching love story and the identities of her great-great grandparents, one of which was Prussian royalty (and a distant relative of England’s Queen Victoria).  Due to the treachery of his own family and attempts on his young wife Emilie’s life, Prince August was forced to take extraordinary measures to protect their only...

Book Review Thursday: The Mapmaker’s Children

I really enjoy books like this one: historical fiction with a goal of writing not only a compelling story but educating the reader about a little-known or long-forgotten historical figure.  Such is the case with The Mapmaker’s Children by Sarah McCoy as she juxtaposes the Civil War era with a strikingly similar modern story set one hundred and fifty years into the future. The narrative alternates between two women: Sarah Brown and Eden Anderson.  Sarah is the daughter of abolitionist John Brown, afflicted with a childhood illness which left her barren.  Similarly, Eden is struggling with infertility in the twenty-first century world of hormone injections and the unsuccessful and frustrating attempts to conceive via modern technology. As the story unfolds the reader will eventually get a sense as to the direction it’s heading as the two women’s lives (and their struggles) intersect.  Faced with the inability to bear children, both women struggle to find purpose in life.  For Sarah, she continues to champion her father’s cause by using her artistic skills to paint maps for slaves traveling along the Underground Railroad. On the other hand, Eden struggles with her marriage and the failure to conceive.  Her husband Jack purchases a puppy for her, and although she regards it initially as insensitivity to her emotional needs, she eventually embraces the pet (named Cricket) and finds a way to move on with her life and later become an entrepreneur.  Through a series of clues found in her new home Eden begins to piece together an important historical link to not only the house, but the townspeople who have befriended her.  As...