Look It Up!

Colleagues who heard University College of London professor Dennis Duncan was writing a book about indexes regarded him skeptically, saying, “Isn’t that a bit . . . niche?” He described the experience in a recent American Ancestors Webinar.

His cleverly titled Index, a History of the, turns out to be livelier than those people may have anticipated. Its significance was underscored when it appeared on the front cover of the New York Times Review of Books last February. What’s more, the history of the index is still developing. When we do a Google search, for example, we are not searching the entire Web, we are searching Google’s index of the Web. The possibility that such an index could be manipulated to provide or obscure certain results has thrust indexing into the political arena.

Having an index was such a good idea, Duncan says, that monks invented it simultaneously in two different places, around the start of the 13th century. One of them (Hugh of St. Cher, pictured; the glasses are an anachronism) was based in Paris, and the other (Robert Grosseteste—“big head”) was in Oxford.

St. Cher wanted to index the Bible by recording the occurrences of every word in it. Starting with “a  a  a  a,” which appears four times, the list was alphabetical and was created to facilitate preaching. As long as monks used their Bibles to read and meditate, an index wasn’t necessary, but once they started preaching they needed to navigate the Bible more efficiently. This type of index was like using Control-F, Duncan says.

Grosseteste, by contrast, created an index much more like the ones we’re familiar with. It was a subject index. But he went far afield with the concept, including in his index all the books he’d read. It was a parchment Google.

For the next approximately 150 years, every copy of every book was still hand-lettered (manu-script, manus being Latin for hand). And the copy was not necessarily the same size as the original. As a result, the page numbers and index were copy-specific; what’s on page 50 in the original may be on page 70 in the copy, if the pages are smaller. Once printing was invented, copies were duplicates, page numbers were consistent, and scholars referring to specific content could be sure they were “all on the same page.”

From the beginning, naysayers criticized people for being “index-readers,” rather than working their way through an entire text. This questioning of colleagues’ scholarly rigor reminds me of today’s critics of Wikipedia users and headline-scanners (guilty).

Several well-known battles between intellectuals broke out in indexes. “Brown, Jeremiah, his dullness, 24, 40-45, 213” and the like. A more recent tweak in an index resulted after Norman Mailer refused to let William F. Buckley quote from his letters in Buckley’s book, The Unmaking of the Mayor. When the book came out, Buckley sent Mailer a copy and in the index, next to Mailer’s name, he wrote “Hi!,” knowing that would be the first thing Mailer would look for and calling him out on it.

Where Story Ideas Come From: Picking a Time Period

Sherlock Holmes, detective

Knowing how much research I have to do to write a story in the near-present, the thought of writing historical fiction overwhelms me. Ditto, science fiction set in the future. I can’t imagine how much cross-disciplinary science a provocative author like Neal Stephenson knows, in order to construct a plausible future to frame his compelling plots. My head spins.

Writing in the current time also has challenges, of course. When cell phones first became ubiquitous, some authors tried to ignore this massive social change and offered plots that could easily have been resolved and tragedies averted with a quick phone call. We seem to be beyond that problem. A few authors get around it by setting their stories in the past—even the way past—which accomplishes many things, one of which is making it harder and slower for characters to travel from one place to another and to communicate.  

My novel Architect of Courage, coming out June 4 (pre-order link here), is set in the summer of 2011. The ten-year anniversary of 9/11 was approaching, and my plot is tied to it. In real life, the authorities are on high alert when any significant anniversary is looming that might incite anti-government or anti-American actions: Ruby Ridge, the Oklahoma City bombing, and the Branch Davidian siege in Waco, Texas, are examples. The biggest of all: 9/11. This made it plausible for the Joint Terrorism Task Force members in the novel to be hypersensitive about the possibility of a terrorist infiltrating the architectural firm at the center of the story.

Even though I cannot imagine tackling a whole historical novel, I have written three short stories that are Sherlock Holmes pastiches. These weren’t the result of any special knowledge I have about the period (except as a reader of Conan Doyle), but in response to the publishers’ solicitations. We know a lot about the late 1800s and the Victorian era, thanks to television and the movies. As a result, establishing a common understanding with readers is quite doable.

For one of these stories, the research was actually rather simple (fun too). It’s set in 1884, around the time Queen Victoria’s adult son Leopold, who had hemophilia, died from the effects of that condition. I have several biographies of the Queen on my bookshelf, and was able to find out how much people of the era knew about the heritability of the disease. Potentially damaging rumors abounded as cases appeared among her descendants. These were useful in the plot.

It was also easy to find old newspaper accounts of Leopold’s funeral, which provided vivid detail. I had Dr. John Watson attend the ceremony, and some of these details appear as his observations. Even the 1880s were not free of the fear of terrorism, due to mounting pressure for Irish Home Rule—another plot point. Again, the precise time chosen presented specific story opportunities

But going back further in time? I’ll leave that to the excellent authors of historical fiction.

Where in the World?

Dozens of maps help illustrate the family history I’m working on, and I’ve learned a lot from exploring them. Let me share a few of the more interesting ones. Apologies for my rather inartful use of the highlighter to indicate where relatives lived.

General Reference Maps

These three maps (Dorchester County, Maryland; Bastrop County, Texas; and Limestone County, Alabama) provide the general lay of the land in these areas. Bastrop County is where a lot of movies are filmed; Smithville is named for my great-great grandfather. I selected maps with an old-fashioned look about them, but most of their information is probably still correct.

Topographical Maps

You’re looking at the hilly, creek-ridden countryside of Virginia’s Franklin County, slightly southeast of Roanoke. The vertical notation “Standiford’s Creek” along the bottom, shows where my ancestors lived. This area is now underwater due to the construction of the Smith Mountain Dam.

Historical Maps

Historical maps show where things “used to be.” On the cattle trails map at left, the farthest west vertical trail was the Goodnight-Loving trail, named for Charles Goodnight and Oliver Loving, models for the characters in Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove. In colonial days, “hundreds” were administrative divisions of the land and population containing about 100 households. My family lived in Ceil County, Maryland’s Octorara Hundred. The detailed 1561 London map on the right is a real find. It’s interactive, so you can select what you want to see. The Great Fire of London began in a bakery on Pudding Lane, just north of the church (in purple).

Thematic Maps

These fascinating examples show the ethnicities of people living in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the original extent of Indian lands in the southern United States, and key locations in Salem, Mass., linked to the 1692 witch trials.

Cadastral Maps

When you find your ancestor on one of these, you’ve struck gold. My family members appear on these maps of New Haven, Conn. (1641), Barbados (late 1600s), and southwest Virginia (both Howe and Hoge, 1777).

Further Research

If you’re interested in finding maps like these—either for a project or just for general interest—the Library of Congress’s online collection is a helpful place to start.

“America’s Westminster Abbey”

Established in 1757, Princeton Cemetery, owned by Nassau Presbyterian Church but nondenominational, has been called “the Westminster Abbey of the United States.” It certainly contains a microcosm of American history. By Zoom and a walking tour today, the Princeton Historical Society provided a fascinating overview of its history. Perhaps 23,000 people are buried in its approximately 19 acres, and efforts are nearing conclusion to digitize the disparate burial records—scribbled in ledgers, on file cards, and the like.

Among the many luminaries buried there are one U.S. President—Grover Cleveland (left above)—and most presidents of the University, but not Woodrow Wilson, who’s buried at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. The graves of Cleveland and his wife are often decorated with leis, as the people of Hawaii revere him for opposing Hawaiian annexation. Among those University Presidents was Aaron Burr, Sr., whose namesake son (of Hamilton notoriety) is also buried nearby (center above).

John Witherspoon, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, and the children of Richard Stockton, another signer, are there. In a literary and artistic vein, you’ll find John O’Hara, African American artist Rex Goreleigh, and Sylvia Beach (right above), founder of the Paris bookshop, Shakespeare & Company. Milligan Sloane (d 1928) is buried there, founder and first president of the U.S. Olympic Committee. When the Olympic Torch came through Princeton en route to Atlanta for the 1994 Games, the entourage made a stop at the cemetery to honor him.

A large section of the cemetery is occupied by African Americans, many of them freedmen, former slaves, war veterans, early graduates of local schools after integration, and prominent citizens. Among them are the parents of Paul Robeson. Their graves have a clear view of the church where Robeson’s father preached and the street where they lived (Robeson himself is buried in New York State).

Princeton was originally a Presbyterian school, and Old Opequon (Presbyterian) church was the Valley of Virginia’s first place of worship. Its minister, the Rev John Hogue, graduated in the first class, “fresh from (Princeton’s) Nassau Hall.” (He’s my first cousin, seven times removed.) In addition, Moses Hogue, the sixth President of Hampden Sydney College, is another Princeton graduate who became a Presbyterian minister. He’s my fifth-great-half-uncle. I’m more pleased at how genealogy has enabled me to calculate these relationships than in their very attenuated existence!

You might have the impression that Princeton is the last bastion of WASP America, but the names in the newer part of the cemetery demonstrate a much wider heritage than you might expect.

The Chinese Lady

The Chinese Lady, by Lloyd Suh, is on stage through April 10 at The Public Theater in Manhattan, directed by Ma-Yi Theater Company artistic director Ralph B. Peña. The play premiered in July 2018, but disturbing events over the past year have made it poignantly timely.

Based on real-life events, the story centers on Julia Foochee Ching-Chang King, called Afong Moy (played by Shannon Tyo). In 1834, Moy was brought to New York by a shipping magnate named Carnes who bought her from her parents. She was 14 (or so) and arrived at a time when few Chinese men and no (known) Chinese women had been seen in this country. Carnes put her on display, in order to promote the exotic trade goods he imported from the Orient. The exhibit was popular, and Moy was the first Chinese person to receive wide public acclaim and recognition in this country.

The room where Moy gives her performances is outfitted in “Chinese style,” and she describes her life there and her reaction to the New World. She demonstrates eating with chopsticks and the tea ceremony, and part of her act is to walk around the little room to show her audience how the practice of foot-binding inhibits her ability to walk. (The real-life Afong Moy toured America as a “living exhibit” for decades.)

Of course, in the beginning, Afong Moy cannot speak English, so she has a translator named Atung (Daniel K. Isaac), who is her servant and, as she says, “irrelevant.” He brings the food for the chopsticks demonstration and takes it away, he brings the tea service, and he shows audience members various artifacts that Carnes hopes they will buy. She is charming and funny.

Because the two of them talk naturally to each other, you don’t have a sense of how limited Atung’s English is until they meet President Andrew Jackson. You hear Afong Moy’s heartfelt sentiments about crosscultural communication and understanding and Atung’s translation (this is not word-correct, but you’ll get the idea), “She like it here.”

Afong Moy grows up before your eyes, evolving from a lively, optimistic teenager into a world-weary mature woman, now performing in P.T. Barnum’s American Museum. As time passes, the play references the anti-Chinese laws and violent attacks on Chinese in America of the late 1800s. It isn’t necessary to dwell on the sad irony that these prejudices still generate violence, especially against Chinese woman and elders, despite the determination of the first Chinese Lady to reach out and teach.

(Watching Moy, in her beautiful blue-and-white costume, and seeing how her life and dreams shattered reminded me of a 2015 Metropolitan Museum exhibit, “China: Through the Looking Glass.” One of the costumes from that exhibit, similar to the one pictured, was fashioned by contemporary artist Li Xiaofeng from pieces of Chinese porcelain, simultaneously beautiful and broken.)

Theater production credits to Junghyun Georgia Lee (scenic design), Linda Cho (costumes), Shawn Duan (projections), Jiyoun Chang and Elizabeth Mak (lighting), and Fabian Obispo (composer, sound design). Contact the box office.

Photo credit for The Chinese Lady: Joan Marcus

The Irish on Film

In past St. Patrick’s Day posts I’ve talked about some of my favorite books set in Ireland or with strongly Irish characters (See those here and here.) Here are a few of my favorite movies about that story-laden land, old and new. Is it because there are more stories there, or because the Irish are such good story-tellers? Cannot say.

Belfast

Kenneth Branagh’s highly personal elegy to his home town in 1969, at the beginning of “The Troubles” certainly deserves its Academy Award Best Picture nomination (trailer). It captures the joy of childhood, as well as the anxieties of the adults in a Protestant family, where the neighborhood around them is devolving into religious violence. What a nine-year-old boy thinks of as adventure, his parents see as is mortal danger. Outstanding, should-have-been-nominated performances by Caitriona Balfe as the mother and Jamie Dornan as the father, Judi Dench and Ciarán Hinds as the grandparents, and Jude Hill as the sunny boy.

Brooklyn

Remember Brooklyn? The 2015 film written by Nick Hornby about a young Irish immigrant , Eilis (Saoirse Ronan) in the 1950s (trailer). It’s an effective meditation on how all immigrants feel they have a foot in two places, that they are or could be living two entirely different lives. Compound that in Eilis’s case that the trip across the ocean coincides with growing up and starting her own life. Lots o  disruption for one spunky gal.

In the Name of the Father

Go back in time thirty years for this one, released in 1993 (trailer). Daniel Day-Lewis, in one of his awe-inspiring star turns, plays Belfast petty thief and general layabout Gerry Conlon. Falsely imprisoned on charges he participated in an IRA bombing, he’s in jail for fifteen years before the dogged efforts of the lawyer for his father, also falsely imprisoned, provides any hope of release. Pete Postlethwaite plays his father, and Emma Thompson the lawyer. Though fiction, the story is “inspired by true events.”

Sherlock Holmes at the Grolier Club

This week my friend Nancy and I visited Manhattan’s Grolier Club, founded in 1884, a bibliophile’s paradise. On view there (until April 16) is the special exhibit, Sherlock Holmes in 221 Objects. Every mystery-lover will recognize the significance of that number.

Especially remarkable is that the 221 objects were selected from the riches of one obsessive collector, Glen S. Miranker, and a number of them are one-of-a-kind. His is a collection “rich in bibliographic rarities, manuscripts, books, correspondence, and artwork, all with intriguing stories to tell beyond their significance as literary and cultural landmarks.” Seeing Doyle’s small, careful handwriting as he makes notes about possible stories, or pens his drafts and writes to his publisher and Gillette, is truly a thrill.

If, as the Grolier Club flyer says, Conan Doyle’s creation became “a literary juggernaut,” it was a theatrical one, as well. London’s theater world wasn’t interested in the possibility of staging versions of Conan Doyle’s stories, but U.S. actor William Gillette (pictured) was, and he made it happen, playing the role of Holmes on US stages from 1899 to 1932.

The artwork from theater posters and programs, as well as the book covers of the many editions in which the stories appeared—both legitimately and pirated—often indelibly captures the Great Detective, sometimes in contemplation, pipe in hand, and sometimes on the hunt across the moors. And sometimes just in the Art Nouveau designs in vogue around the turn of the last century.

If you’re in New York in the next month, visit The Grolier Club, 47 East 60th Street. Call ahead for a timed reservation, because the number of visitors at any one time is controlled. Masks required.

Your Family Coat of Arms

The study of family history—of little interest to many people and of intense interest to others—has innumerable byways and sidelines. Curiosity about your forebears almost naturally leads to questions about where they lived and how they lived.

Scampering down any number of who-where-how rabbit holes has been delightful. I found out, for example, that in the late 1700’s, my great-grandmother’s family established “the gentleman’s sport” of horse-racing in both Virginia and Maryland. No wonder I gave my husband a trip to the Kentucky Derby for his recent “big birthday!” And SO much more (stop me now).

The latest byway I pursued was a 3-part introductory course on heraldry from American Ancestors. Now, it isn’t that I believe any of my family came from European gentry so distinguished they were granted “the right to bear arms,” but in writing my family history, I’ve succumbed to using purported family coats of arms as occasional graphic elements. Oops!

Hearing the scorn with which the researchers view “arms by name,” I’ll have to stop doing that! Discover the problems for yourself by researching my family name “Edwards coats of arms” (better yet, substitute your own family name) and see the wild variety. But which of these belongs to your family, and can you prove it? In the past, family historians weren’t especially particular about documentation, so you cannot rely on an old family history.

Nevertheless, coats of arms of towns and counties are relatively stable (County Tyrone, Ireland, is shown), and I’ll still use Lord Baltimore’s arms in a chapter about early Maryland relatives, because they became the basis for Maryland’s distinctive state flag (below).

Did You Know?

  • Coats of arms began around the 12th century, used in seals and on tombs, and, especially, battle flags.
  • The English king sent his representatives (called heralds) into the countryside to make sure people using coats of arms were entitled to do so and were paying the associated taxes. These visitations, made from 1530 to 1688, resulted in extensive notes about lineage invaluable to genealogists today.
  • First sons could adopt their father’s coat of arms unchanged; second sons generally added a small crescent and third sons a star. But there are many exceptions. A daughter could become a “heraldic heiress” if she had no brothers.
  • All official coats of arms use only five colors: red, blue, black, green, and purple, plus gold and silver. Rules about use of color assured good contrast and visibility on the battlefield.
  • Even today, people like to look back in time and establish their right to their family’s ancient heraldic arms, with Colin Powell’s father one of the most notable of these aspirants.

In America, educational and other institutions frequently adopt some type of heraldic emblem and are free to use it without engendering a visit from the Homeland Security Herald.

Interested to know more? For the traditional approach, try the UK College of Arms, a government agency. Or, for something more American and do-it-your-own-way, the nonprofit American College of Heraldry.

The Last Mona Lisa

Art crimes are an intriguing branch of the international crime tree, and in The Last Mona Lisa Jonathan Santlofer ably fulfills their potential. He begins with a real crime that took place in 1911, when a man named Vincent Peruggia was fired from his job at the Louvre, then hid in the museum overnight and stole the Mona Lisa. The destitute but patriotic Peruggia wanted to return the painting to his native Italy, and doubtless make a little money too. The painting resurfaced two years later in Florence whereupon the Italian police arrested him.

Santlofer’s novel features an American named Luke Perrone, fictional great-grandson of Peruggia. Since childhood, Luke has researched his notorious ancestor and the rumors he kept a diary during his months in prison. Luke is a frustrated painter and college history of art professor, and an upcoming school break gives him a chance to follow up a new lead. Apparently, his great-grandfather’s journal was donated to Florence’s Laurentian Library among the papers of a recently deceased art scholar.

Other people are just as interested in the diary as Luke is. Another library patron, the luscious Alexandra Greene, is just too friendly, except when she’s not. Interpol analyst John Washington Smith suspects the painting in the Louvre may not be authentic. During the Mona Lisa’s two-year disappearance, several copies were made and sold as originals. Perhaps the one hanging in the Louvre is one of these. Smith knows about Luke’s new lead and the trip to Florence, and if it pans out, it could revive his sagging career. A stop-at-nothing collector is also keenly interested and believes Luke can tell him whether “his” Mona Lisa, hidden in a vault, is the real thing.

Maybe I read too many thrillers, but I thought Luke was a bit slow to realize he’s experiencing too many coincidences and too many people dying around him. Chapters about Luke and Smith in the present day are interspersed with Vincenzo’s story, as told in his diary. These atmospheric historical chapters give resonance to Luke’s quest.

Santlofer also grounds the present-day of his tale with reference to the real-life controversy surrounding another Leonardo work, the Salvator Mundi, dubbed “the male Mona Lisa.” In real life, this painting was bought in 2005 from a New Orleans auction house for $1,175 and sold 12 years later for $450,300,000, even though art experts disagree about its authenticity. This saga was subject of a top-rated 2021 documentary by Andreas Koefoed.

Linking the two stories underscores not just the amazing sums involved, but also the tangled motivations of people in the world of stolen and fabricated art. Craziness happens when you are dealing with objects that are, essentially, priceless. If you are fascinated by art world intrigue, this book is for you!

Santlofer is himself an artist of some note. As well as his award-winning mystery novels, he has created more than 200 exhibitions worldwide. His short stories have appeared in numerous anthologies, and he was creator and director of the Crime Fiction Academy. He resides in New York.

Order here from Amazon.
Or here from IndieBound.

Holiday Time Management Guide

The weeks before Christmas at my daughter’s house follow this pattern: Daughter and husband on Zoom calls all day; kids in school. My mornings: wrapping presents and making cookies! By the dozens! My afternoons: Reading!! Just because your progeny is sitting Right There tapping on a laptop does NOT mean s/he’s available for maternal interruptions, however well-meaning. Respecting their “workspace” has the corollary benefit of suggesting respect for your “reading space.” To prove I put those afternoons leading up to Christmas to good use, here’s what I read.

Moghul Buffet by Cheryl Benard – What’s life like for women in Peshawar, Pakistan? This book will fill you in. In describing the investigation into a disappeared—possibly murdered–American, Benard provides abundant cultural insights. Alas, not enough has changed since she wrote this novel two decades ago. Benard is the wife of a former U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan and Iraq and knows wherof she speaks. Smooth writing, marvelously funny moments.

The Beggar King by Oliver Potzsch – It’s 1637 in Germany and a village executioner visits Regensburg to help his ailing sister. The visit is a set-up, and he finds himself in a city dungeon accused of her murder. Can his daughter and her fiancé save him? On a ten-point scale, I’d give this a 6.5; interesting plot, but too much anachronistic language.

Home Reading Service by Fabio Morábito – For some minor offense, Eduardo has been sentenced to a year of community service, reading to the elderly and disabled. Other than this activity, his life has little purpose, but his outlandish clients manage to involve him in some crazy shenanigans. The story takes place in Cuernavaca, Mexico (translated by Curtis Bauer). Why the clunky cover?

The Lincoln Highway by Amor Towles – It’s 1954, and Emmett is going home, having finished his year-long sentence for manslaughter. His father has died, but his eight-year-old brother (the charming Billy) awaits. Two fellow inmates soon find him and you know they’ll lead him into mischief. Towles writes from a place of compassion, so that I cared about these characters and their fates, despite the book’s daunting near-600-page length. A soothing read.

The Italian by Shukri Mabkhout (translated from the Arabic by Karen McNeil and Miled Faiza) – Set in Tunisia in the late 1980s, this novel won the International Prize for Arabic Fiction in 2015. In an era of significant upheaval, lovers Zeina and once-idealistic journalist Abdel Nasser are caught in a tussle between reactionary Islamism, a corrupt political system, and traditional family expectations. Full of narrative tension but too much political theory for me.

All these books have good points. While tastes vary, my favorite was Moghul Buffet, followed by The Lincoln Highway. Read on!