Sunday, June 27, 2010

Random Thoughts On Blogging About Lincoln

In this famous painting by artist George A.P. Healy, Abraham Lincoln appears to be thinking about what to do next. I can relate as I'm pondering in recent months about what to do with The Abraham Lincoln Blog.

Readership of the blog has been declining for a few months now. There aren't nearly as many comments coming from what readers remain. I don't know how to interpret this. I'm not sure if readers are bored by my posts, if interest in Lincoln is waning now that the era of his birth bicentennial is over, or if it's something else entirely. Whatever it is, it's distressing to have declining interest in something I put a lot of time into.

Something which has bothered me for a long while now is that I can write in-depth about Lincoln's speeches, his presidency, and his assassination, but all people seem to be interested in are his dog and his favorite meals. I wrote a three-week series of posts about the 145th anniversary of his assassination and thirteen funerals, a series which required a lot of work and received almost no notice at all. But people keep finding my blog by searching about his dog, Fido, and Lincoln's favorite food. I don't understand the interest in those topics. Perhaps I should write about Lincoln's dog's favorite food? I have posted about those two topics previously, but I sorely wish the more serious things I write about Lincoln would attract attention as well.

About the only "recognition" this blog has received in recent months is numerous contacts by publishers wanting me to read their books and then review them in this forum. While I'm thrilled to receive free books about Lincoln, I don't want this blog to become commercial in any way. I'm now receiving requests to publicize Lincoln t-shirts, websites, and the like. The purpose of this blog is to educate people about Lincoln, not to sell merchandise with his image on it.

So there you have it. I'm pondering my next steps about writing about Lincoln. I don't know if I should keep the effort going, stop writing any new posts and leave the blog as is, or simply delete the blog entirely.

At the very least, I believe I need to step away and take a break from blogging on all things related to Abraham Lincoln. I hope the break won't be long or permanent. But for now, it makes no sense to spend a lot of time writing when it seems that fewer people are dropping by.

Book Review: Call Me Kate: Meeting The Molly Maguires

I was recently contacted by Tribute Books a small publishing firm based in Archbald, Pennsylvania to ask me to review a short novel written for young teens (and older) set in 1860's coal mining country in the eastern part of that state.

Call Me Kate: Meeting The Molly Maguires is the story of 14-year-old Katie McCafferty, a young Irish immigrant, who lives in a coal mining town called "The Patch" at the beginning of the Civil War in 1861. The town has sprung up around the local underground coal mine and is a true company town. Most of the houses are owned by the coal company, as is the main store. The mine itself is dangerous and deadly and true to history, has boys as young as 7 or 8 years old working it. Many boys and men are injured or killed at the mine in "The Patch" because the mine owner refuses to install basic safety controls or even adequate ventilation in order to save money.

When Katie's dad is seriously injured in the mine, she has to quit school where she was doing quite well and go to work as a domestic. This eventually leads to her employment in another town working for a wealthy owner of the very mine where her father and friends have been toiling.

Through a friend, Katie is drawn to involvement with the Molly Maguires, a secret group made up of Irish coal miners and formed to combat the brutal working and living conditions. The group was a very early attempt at forming a miner's union to demand better safety conditions and higher pay. The Molly Maguires also strongly opposed the military draft imposed by Abraham Lincoln while the Civil War raged. Their main point of contention was that wealthy men could pay $300 and avoid serving in the war, while the poor Irish and other immigrants were forced to serve in combat.

This group was of course opposed strongly by the mine owners and operators. Both sides resorted to violence and other dirty tricks to advance their cause. Eventually in the 1870's, ten of the Molly Maguires were hanged in Pennsylvania for their involvement in the movement.

Call Me Kate is authored by Mary Roe, a native of the anthracite coal region in Pennsylvania. It is targeted mostly to young teens, but I found it a very enjoyable read. It's descriptive of the horrors of coal mining and the injuries and deaths which result even today, as we unfortunately saw a few months ago in West Virginia. The characters ring true, especially Katie herself and her friends who begin trying to fight the conditions they are forced to toil in.

If I might be permitted a personal note, I have many ancestors and relatives who labored in the coal mines and coal fields of southeastern Ohio. My grandfather quit school in the 8th grade in the 1920's in order to support his family by working the mines beginning at age 13. He and my grandmother lived in a real coal company town and had to buy their items at the company store for exorbitant prices. Other more distant relatives of mine were seriously injured in mining accidents, including a great-uncle who was partially paralyzed by a cave-in. While I've never had to work in a mine, I am proud to be the grandson and nephew of men who have. Please note the below photo taken in 1911 in Pennsylvania of child coal miners. Be grateful that we live in a society which would never permit our own children to work like they and my grandfather had to.




Call Me Kate: Meeting The Molly Maguires brought me closer to the experiences of my family. I could almost feel the grime and coal dust the author describes. The heartache which Katie feels when her father is severely injured is felt by the reader. The struggles that the other families face are felt as well.

I recommend this book highly. It helps the reader understand what coal country was like back in the 1860's (and to some extent, even today). It chronicles what terrible conditions workers dealt with in helping to make America great, a story which is unfortunately often overlooked.

The book is available from the publisher or at amazon.com.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Of Lincoln And His Favorite Meals

Since I began this blog about Abraham Lincoln 2 1/2 years ago, I've written in-depth posts about his parents and childhood, political career, presidency, speeches, and assassination. I've also written numerous book and exhibit reviews. None of this seems to matter, because most of the searches which "hit" on this blog are for one thing and one thing only: Lincoln's favorite meals!

I have to admit I'm puzzled by this. Lincoln is considered by most historians to be the greatest president we've ever had. He epitomizes the American "rags to riches" story. He led our nation through the deadliest war we've had. While he was not a great speaker, he was one of the most gifted writers of the English language ever. He redefined America and what it stands for in 271 words when he gave the Gettysburg Address.

And yet what people want to know most is what he ate for dinner. Or breakfast. Or lunch.

Why?? Does knowing this information make him seem more real to us somehow? Does it make us feel closer to him? Does it humanize a man who is surrounded by so many legends and myths? Is our national obsession with food and The Food Network to blame?

What does it matter if we know that he seldom ate more than a hardboiled egg and apple for breakfast? Or that his favorite meals tended towards wild game and chicken fricassee? Or that he didn't have much of a sweet tooth? Obviously, I'm fascinated by Abraham Lincoln and try to share this fascination with my readers. Personally, though, I couldn't care less about what the man ate. There are far too many more important things to learn about Abraham Lincoln than what he nibbled on. For those of you who do care, though, I've included a photo of the china pattern used by the Lincolns during their stay in The White House.

Sorry for the rant. It's just something which has been bothering me for a while now.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Book Review: "My Name Is Mary Sutter"

One of my greatest joys in life is reading. My personal tastes in books lean more toward works of non-fiction, primarily history, and especially anything to do with Abraham Lincoln. Of course, that's probably obvious to those of you who have previously visited this blog. I rarely read novels because for me, historical or current events are far more fascinating than anything most authors can dream up. So when I was contacted by the publisher Viking Press and asked to review a new historical novel, I was a bit reluctant to do so. I will forever be grateful that I agreed.

My Name Is Mary Sutter is the debut novel of writer Robin Oliveira. It is the sweeping story of a midwife living in Albany, NY at the cusp of the Civil War. Mary Sutter is a strong-willed and brilliant woman who wants more out of life than midwifery; she wants to become a surgeon. Because of her gender and the era in which she lives, medical schools and physicians refuse to accept her as a student.

Heartbreak and the onset of the war lead Mary to Washington City (as Washington, D.C. was then called) where she volunteers her services as a nurse. After the First Battle of Bull Run, she is thrown into the horrors of the primitive care and medical treatment the wounded, sick, and dying soldiers receive in that time. The reader follows Mary through the war as she is confronted with having to choose between soldiers who can be saved and those who cannot in the aftermath of The Wilderness Campaign, and after Antietam. Along the way, Mary learns more about nursing and, eventually, about medicine as the shortage of doctors during the war necessitate her being trained "on the job."

The fictional Mary Sutter has interactions with real figures from history in this novel. She meets Dorothea Dix, who became the Union's Superintendent of Nurses during the Civil War, who at first refuses Mary's request to become a nurse. A chance encounter with John Hay, one of Abraham Lincoln's two secretaries leads to a meeting with the president, who is mourning the loss of his dear son Willie.

My Name Is Mary Sutter is, in a word, magnificent. It is sweeping in scope, impeccably researched, and beautifully written. Ms. Oliveira's character development is outstanding and makes the reader care deeply about what will happen to Mary, her family, and the men who vie for her love.

It's not a book for the faint of heart. The author's description of childbirth and battlefield amputations are quite graphic, but only to further develop the characters and story. (The author's husband is a physician, and she credits him for helping her when she wrote about the various medical events in the novel.) Her descriptions of the conditions the soldiers live and fight in are so vivid and detailed that one can almost experience the stench of the camps and the terror of the soldiers who are grievously wounded. Rather than turn the reader's stomach, these scenes make the book gripping. I had a difficult time putting the book down. Above all, it's made me want to learn more about the "Angels Of The Battlefield" as the real Civil War nurses were called.

My Name Is Mary Sutter deserves to make a "splash" for Robin Oliveira like Cold Mountain did for Charles Frazier. I cannot begin to recommend this debut novel enough to my readers and fellow lovers of history.

My rating:


5.0 out of 5.0 Clara Bartons, a Civil War nurse and founder of The American Red Cross

 
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