Dedicated to classics and hits.

Wednesday, June 03, 2015

Facing East from Indian Country (2003) by Daniel Richter

This map of Colonial North America prior to the defeat of the French in the 18th century shows the high point for Native Americans, when the exercised control of an large part of the American interior and managed to play one power off one another.

Book Review
Facing East from Indian Country (2003)
 by Daniel Richter


  Daniel Richter is the pre-eminent historian in the area of "Early American Studies" or "Native American History," if you will.  You could call him a revisionist, but his work is more of a narrative synthesis of existing sources than a radical rethinking of the field.   Richter's concern is telling the early history of America from the perspective of Native actors.  He is forthright both acknowledging the limits in the existing sources and being creative in terms of re-creating the perspectives of historical figures who lack their own voice.

 One of Richter's major themes in this and other books is that the idea that European settlers simply rolled over the helpless Native peoples is simply untrue.    The Native peoples suffered hugely from European diseases that arrived before the Europeans themselves, so that when English settlers arrived in North America "history" was already happening.  The fact that neither the English or scholars for several centuries afterwards were willfully ignorant about this history doesn't mean that it didn't happen.

  Things didn't really start to fall apart for Native tribes east of the Mississippi till the defeat of the French in the French Indian War.  Prior to that, after they recovered from the major epidemics of the 17th century, the 18th was a time of relative prosperity and success.   Any reader will come away with the strong impression that even if it didn't work, Native peoples tried many different tactics in an attempt to cope with changing conditions brought about contact with Europeans.  They were also integrated into the economic system of Europe and its North American colonies in a way that is rarely appreciated.


Tuesday, June 02, 2015

Love in a Cold Climate (1949) by Nancy Mitford

Fun loving Unity Mitford palling around with Hitler.  FUN.

Book Review
Love in a Cold Climate (1949)
by Nancy Mitford

  Love in a Cold Climate is a companion piece to her 1944 novel, The Pursuit of Love.  It takes place in the same time, with the same set of characters, but with an emphasis on a different sub group of the larger group of wealthy English aristocrats living between World War I and World War II.  Here, the emphasis is actually outside the Mitford proxy family, instead focusing on Lord and (especially) Lady Montdore and their daughter Leopoldina.

  To the extent that Love in a Cold Climate can be said to be "about" anything at all, it's about Lady Montdore, who is a classic literary villain of the English aristocracy.  Like the inspiration for Maggie Smith's Dowager Countess on Downton Abbey.  The other main attraction is the live of the narrator herself, a proxy for author Nancy Mitford.  Mitford's stand in is Fanny Wincham.  During the period covered in the book, she goes from remembering her first impression of Lady Montdore as a young girl, to witnessing the disintegration of her relationship with her daughter.   Leopoldina/Polly is eventually replaced by Cedric, a distant Canadian relation who happens to be one of the first gay characters in mainstream literary fiction.

  Come for Lady Montdore, stay for Cedric.

Monday, June 01, 2015

The Pursuit of Love (1945) by Nancy Mitford

The fabulous Mitford sisters, "Diana the Fascist, Jessica the Communist, Unity the Hitler-lover; Nancy the Novelist; Deborah the Duchess and Pamela the unobtrusive poultry connoisseur."

The Pursuit of Love (1945)
 by Nancy Mitford

  The Mitford sisters were the ultra-fashionable off spring of an old aristocratic English family.  In the period between World War I and World War II they repeatedly made headlines for a variety of reasons, often scandalous.  They are summed up, pop-group style, "Diana the Fascist, Jessica the Communist, Unity the Hitler-lover; Nancy the Novelist; Deborah the Duchess and Pamela the unobtrusive poultry connoisseur."

  Nancy's two biggest novels are The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate, both of which cover the same events, characters and time span.   Both are particularly thinly veiled roman-a-clef's about Nancy's bizarre upbringing as the 20th century off spring of a very 18th century aristocratic English family.  Uncle Matthew, the patriarch by default of the sprawling clan is like a character out of a Henry Fielding novel: a minor aristocrat who hates books, ideas and other people, preferring to hunt and fish.  The sisters are raised without a formal education because Uncle Matthew and his wife Sadie think that education is unbecoming to young, aristocratic women.  As a result, Linda, the sister who draws the most attention in The Pursuit of Love, ends up marrying literally the first man who expresses an interest, the German descended scion of a wealthy London banking family.

  Linda quickly bears a daughter whom she despises, loses interest in the marriage and runs off with a dashing young Communist, and ends up being abandoned by said Communist, taking up with a raffish French Duke, having another child and dying. All of it brings to mind the work of other between war English novelists, Evelyn Waugh, for one, but no one can quite match the sparkling vivacity of the Mitford sisters as protagonists.  Reading The Pursuit of Love is like looking deep into the beginnings of the maelstrom of 20th century celebrity culture.  Mitford draws her portraits of the English upper class as only one who has been there can.

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