Fall in Love with Eric Newby

Love and War in the Apennines

Love and War in the Apennines by Eric Newby

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


Prior to seeing the collection of Eric Newby books at the bookstall at the Tavistock Pannier Market, I had never heard of him. I now realize two things: I should have purchased them all, and I am kind of smitten. In this memoir of being an POW in Italy during WWII and then a fugitive from the Germans after the Italian Armistice, he recounts what life on the run in Italy is like. It’s a pretty surreal experience. Not only does he meet his future wife, he is helped by many Italians who risk their lives and livelihoods to feed and shelter him when they themselves have so little. He writes with warmth and humor about those he met and his experiences in the Apennines.

I was not expecting this type of memoir. Normally when I think of POWs or people in hiding from the Germans, I think of terror and fear, of which there is quite a bit here, but I wasn’t expecting the humanity or the beauty of the mountains. Newby brings the setting to life to where I felt I was there. His writing and reflections reminded me of Laurie Lee’s “As I Walked Out One Summer Morning” and his descriptions of the Spanish people right before the Civil War. During the Spanish Civil War and WWII there were many people of the Resistance who helped people cross the Pyrenees, and while those journeys are written about, I have not read a first hand account of them and have wondered how such a journey is made. Newby fills in that gap with the Apennines. I was also not expecting this to be funny, and Newby has a wry sense of humor and finds the absurdity in many of the situations he is in.

While I am smitten with Newby, I love those who worked to hide him. The Italians he met seemed to straddle the old and new worlds. They worked without electricity or running water; they relied on homegrown remedies for illness; they maintained the art of storytelling; yet they were modern and savvy to keep abreast of what is happening in the war and in their area– enough to keep Newby safe for most of the remainder of the war. They used both worlds to their advantage. I kept thinking that with our reliance on our phones and GPS, we would be absolute toast in the Apennines. They also had generous spirits– much of what many our country today could learn from: they took someone who was once the enemy into their homes and fed him when they had so little. They helped him without any expectation or desire of reward. Newby mentions that after the war the British government tried to recompense them for their generosity and bravery, but they did not want money; they most desired to hear from those they helped save.

Let Newby take you back in time and renew you with the best parts of humanity.



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Review of Killers of the Flower Moon

Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI

Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI by David Grann

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


If there are things in your life that need to be accomplished, then you should probably not read this book, because nothing will get done. However, I did not let that deter me! This is an engrossing and disturbing tale about the systematic murders of members of the Osage tribe for their oil headrights and the money that came with them in the 1920’s. In conjunction, Grann shows how the case to solve the crimes also helped establish the FBI. He brings all of the players in this little known part of American history to life and conveys the immediacy of the fear that gripped the Osage community and the federal agents that investigated the crimes. I had a hard time putting the book down; it had the pace of a crime thriller with its twists and turns, and I learned a lot from it. For one, I did not know that the Osage had so much money– they were fantastically wealthy, and I did not know how much the government limited their rights to spend their own money. They were made to be wards under white guardianship, and this made them vulnerable to abuse and exploitation. The extent of the crimes against them took my breath away.

As I read this book, I felt the frustration I often feel when I read historical works: that history does not stay in the past. We like to think that the racist ideals that lead white people to brazenly commit orchestrated crimes against people of a different race are over, but as white nationalists continue to have a louder voice in this country, the attitudes that lead those to kill the Osage because they thought they were inferior still prevail. I know this is not a profound thought; we just need to turn on the news to see it is so. Sometimes I think some people think that such incidents are discrete and isolated, executed by one person at a time. Grann reveals how much of the abuse was supported by laws and many of the white community working together against the Osage. Racism of the past and racism today are not just result of people’s attitudes, but the result of the laws, policies, and codes we have in place to keep people “in their place”. People can never truly be free if the system works against them. I read a one-star review of this book (not on Goodreads), and the reviewer cited the book as something people on the Left would gobble up and criticized Grann for not providing enough “context” and for applying today’s values on the past. One might conclude that this reader thinks that racism and discrimination was/is okay and it’s only part of the Leftist agenda that it’s now wrong to kill and exploit others. This review dispirited me as we like to think (or I like to, anyway) that if we confront people with documented facts and human stories that they will understand, but some do not want to understand. They are some of those who keep history present.




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C’est la vie:Paris Reflections

Where Are They Now?

It was quite a scene inside the Notre Dame Cathedral.  Artisans carved stones, men sawed wood, workers lifted beams up with pulleys, others stoked the for for iron work, and the horse pulled carts across the workspace.  Out of sight were the artists assembling the stain-glass Windows and beginning the multitude of paintings.  The diorama showed how people worked together to build this great landmark; there were centuries of these men.  As a twenty-first century visitor snapping pictures of it on my iPhone, I wondered, where are they now?

  
The men who helped build Notre Dame are long buried along with the world that needed skilled artisans. Today’s world has little need of men who wield tools and know their craft to create things of beauty.  Much of anything now can be pre-fabricated and made with machines.  Yes, we need people who know how to fix machines and build houses, but what do we have for our artisans? What roles do we have in our society that fosters this creativity and hands-on knowledge?  Paris abounds with work from another time, but where did their descendants go? What legacy did they receive beyond a big, beautiful, buttressed cathedral?

Two Worlds

Some things never change. Montmartre, for instance.  It’s always been a home to the bohemian set and rough around the edges.  The first shots between the Communards and the Versailles government were fired there in 1871 after the debacle of the Franco-Prussian War.  Escaping Baron Haussmann’s  demolition and redesign, it holds on to its old world Parisian charm of quaint buildings; some of its inhabitants make one hold on to her purse. Tightly.

On top of the Montmarte Butte sits Sacre-Couer, the stark and majestic cathedral that overlooks the city: the church of the clouds. Majestic and otherworldly, it provides a sharp contrast to the gothic scrolls and spires of Notre a Dame and St. Chappelle.  It’s power is hidden from sight as you exit the Ligne 2 Anvers station and walk the narrow cobblestone streets lined with souvenir shops and falafel places. At the base of the hill young men spread their wares on the ground hoping for a gullible tourist.  The stairs that ascend to the church are littered with Heineken cans, orange juice containers, and drunken reveled playing loud music.  Beneath them lies the Paris skyline– pinkish gray in the setting sun; above them, behind heavy wooden doors, a haven of calm.

  The priest intoned his service and prayer as nuns sang behind him.  The congregation made up of visitors and locals peppered the pews. Visitors walked quietly around absorbing the understated beauty.  Unlike most European cathedrals, the colors and decorations were muted.  The mosaics represented biblical figures as common men– people like you and me.  These scenes inspired comfort and compassion; the God that ruled here was a compassionate and forgiving one who realized our humanity.  He did not inspire fear, damnation, and guilt. Everything prompted reflection and care– from the careful placing of the tiles in the mosaics to walls of blank stone.  It allowed space for one’s own thoughts, a space to process the narrative of guidance, support, and becoming better people; how can we make the world a better place?

These thoughts weighed on my mind as we walked back into the night.

How Paris Became Paris: A Review

More often than not, I will come back from visiting a place and then read a random book that turns out to be chock full of information about the place I just got back from. This is typically followed by lamentations of “Why? Why? Why didn’t I read the book before I left for the trip?!” And then a reflection on life’s unfairness: “How was I supposed to know that a Teddy Roosevelt biography would tell me so much about New York?” Or “I was that close to the Jardins des Plantes?!”

Fortunately, the gods of Amazon took pity on my poor soul and deluged with my inbox with recommended reading about Paris, where I am headed today. That is how I ended up with a copy of Joan DeJean’s How Paris Became Paris: The Invention of the Modern City. It was with great joie de vivre that I tore the book out of the box, ready to devour its contents. I flipped open the book and noticed the print was… small. Sigh. C’est la vie.

  The small type was compensated by lots of fascinating pictures and many big ideas. It is the perfect kind of book to read before visiting a city– especially Paris. When I think of how Paris became Paris, I think of Baron Haussmann and Napoleon III and the tearing down of old Paris and building the one we know and love today. But DeJean takes us out of the the 19th century and firmly places us at the dawn of the 17th century to show us how Paris went from a cramped, dirty hovel to being the City of Light that set the trend for how all cities should be. Baron Haussmann just improved on the design.

We take for granted everything that makes a city a city: public spaces with park benches, promenades along river fronts, places for people of all classes to mix, streetlights, distinct neighborhoods, the sense of style, shopping, and postal service. This mode of living is commonplace to us now, but four hundred years ago they were a part of a French revolution: a revolution on what it means to live in city. This was not a grassroots movement as it stemmed from forward thinking monarchs who realized that Paris itself could be a crown jewel and a reflection of their status as rulers.

The Pont Neuf bridge serves as a metaphor for the effects of all of the Parisian innovations. Built in 1604, it defied the typical bridge purposes by being made of stone instead if wood and not having any homes or stores built upon it. It was a connection between places, with nature, and ultimately, with people. Traversing the Seine through the the Ile-de-Cite, it was built to allow both carriages and people across. The stone construction allowed for heavier cargo and brought more trade through the city; to allow pedestrians safe passage, it included new raised paved walkways. This design was so new that there wasn’t a word for it. Today we call them sidewalks. The lack of buildings encouraged the public to stop during their walks and enjoy the view of their meandering river. Parisians flocked to this bridge; it became the epicenter of news, performances, commerce, and a place to just be. People from all walks life could meet together, to see and be seen.

Each innovation, in its own way, succeeded in this endeavor. The open spaces of the Tuilieres and Place Royale, the quais along the riverfront, expanded paved roads, mixed use buildings all brought people together. The use of streetlights enabled people to stay out after dark with less fear of crime; shops and cafes stayed open later. Since it took its counterparts in other countries almost a hundred years to fully implement lighting, it gained its moniker “City of Light”. As Paris became the fashion capital, newspapers and the advent of fashion magazines and fashion plates helped export Paris to the world. Plate glass windows, textiles, and a new level of commerce brought about boutique stores and a new hobby called shopping. Visitors from around Europe flocked to Paris to partake in its unique, cultured city life, and other cities worked hard to catch up to its modernity.

How Paris Became Paris is not just an enjoyable read for anyone heading to that city, but for anyone who is interested in how civilization turned the corner from Medieval life to the modern world. For this traveler, I look forward to enjoying the sidewalks, the boulevards, the bridges and parks, knowing how these simple daily pleasures helped transform the world we live in.

The Other Man

It’s true.  I confess it.  There’s another man in my life and there has been for quite awhile.  This affair transcends time and spans two continents.  He’s always been part of my life– in the background, waiting– but it wasn’t until 2010 that we were properly introduced, and it seemed fated that we should meet.

Although I’ve met him in New York, San Francisco, Dublin, Edinburgh, Paris, Berlin, Dresden, and London (and oh, what a time! But I missed him Boston.) and have spent much time trying to peer into the depths of his soul, he remains a mystery to me.  There’s so much about him that I don’t know, that nobody knows.

His name is Johannes.  And you might know him: as Vermeer.

If you haven’t met him, he’s the 17th century Dutch painter from Delft known for painting mostly quiet, contemplative indoor scenes of people engaged in an activity from reading letters, mapping the world, making lace, making music.  He’s most famous for a painting a woman doing nothing at all, just looking over her shoulder as if to respond to something you’ve said.  She’s known for her pearl earring.

It’s through her and the author Tracy Chevalier that I became acquainted with Vermeer.  I read the novel The Girl with the Pearl Earring, and frankly, was not that impressed.  The plot was dark and creepy, few characters were likable, and the only part I really enjoyed was when Vermeer explained how clouds are not white– instead they are yellow, pink, blue, brown.  It changed the way I look at clouds, but it didn’t really compel me to look at a Vermeer.

Me with Woman with a Pearl Necklace at the Gemaldgalerie in Berlin.
Me with Woman with a Pearl Necklace at the Gemaldgalerie in Berlin.

Shortly after, as fate would have it, one of my friends invited me to join her art book club.  Knowing nothing about art, I decided to give it a try.  The first book I read for it was Edward Dolnick’s The Forger’s Spell, a nonfiction work about a 20th century failed Dutch painter named van Meergen who forged Vermeers.  He even came up with a way to paint and bake the canvas so when the painting would be checked for authenticity, it would act like an “old” painting.  Vermeer presented a perfect opportunity for forgery.  No one knew how many Vermeers were in existence because a random one would pop up every now and then in someone’s barn or wherever paintings are stored.  They were also quite rare.  There are only 36 in existence; compared to the copious output by Rembrandt and Rubens, Vermeer seems quite reticent.  van Meergen’s success was so great that he fooled Goering and Hitler with his work, and it wasn’t until after WWII that he was discovered. In retrospect it is amazing that he fooled anyone at all.  His work next to a real Vermeer is flat, awkward, and dull.  How could have so many people been fooled?

If you look at a Vermeer, you cannot help but notice his use of light and keen attention to detail.  Textures are vivid and rich; the people look as though they might look out of the painting and straight to you.  In Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window the oriental rug bunched on the table invites your fingers to touch it, to feel the roughness of each fiber.  The Girl with the Wineglass looks directly at the viewer as if to share some secret joke about her two apparent suitors.  Unlike many of his contemporaries, Vermeer did not have a workshop of understudies who mixed the paints, prepared the canvas, or in some cases, painted the majority of the paintings for him.  He did it all himself; this limited his output.

However, it is not his rarity that makes his work so special; it is that he doesn’t necessarily tell you what to see.  In so many pre-Modernist/Impressionist paintings, the subjects allude to the bible, history, and myth.  They tell a specific story or present an event or person in a prescribed way.  While Vermeer does have a couple of religious and mythological works, most reflect Dutch life. On a recent flight, my seat mate who was a stranger to me and I discussed Vermeer and what made his paintings so special.  I suggested that he gives us a story, but does not provide the narrative.  For the girl reading the letter, we know she is reading a letter, but from whom?  What are its contents?  What is its affect on her?  He allows the viewer to create the story.

His works also quiet the mind; they offer a sanctuary away from the noise and hoopla of everyday life.  Within his frames everyone speaks in hushed voices.  In Soldier with a Laughing Girl, the girl softly laughs at the soldier’s quip.  The loudest of his paintings, The Procuress, is loud from the subject matter– a young woman being fondled by a man as he pays her for what is to come.  They are flanked by an old woman who seems to egg the man on and by another man holding a glass of wine who looks at the viewer with a knowing smile.  All of their mouths are closed and the only sound you hear is the clinking of the coins.

Slowly Vermeer became part of my life.  It started by seeing his work at the New York Met and the Frick Collection.  It continued as my friend Julie invited me to the Legion of Honor to see The Girl with the Pearl Earring in an exhibit of Dutch masters.  It is quite possibly the most beautiful painting I’ve ever seen and clearly outpaces the other woman with a mysterious smile.  My travels have brought me into contact with more of his paintings, and I have seen 22 (sort of) of his works.  To be officially clear, I’ve seen 21 paintings and one frame.  In March of 1990, two men broke into the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston and stole many artifacts and knifed a few paintings out of their frames. Vermeer’s The Concert was one of them.  The frame is still on display as a remembrance of what has been lost.

Unwittingly, I became part of a group of Vermeer hunters: people who travel the world to see Vermeers and the exhibits around his work.  There are more travels ahead as I continue this affair.

The WWI Book Club: The War That Ended Peace

A snippet from a recent conversation:
Guy: Downton Abbey is just a crap period drama.
Me, hackles up: It’s a very well-done “crap period drama” that prides itself on historical accuracy.
Guy: Ooohhh, what is it? Victorian England?
Me: It takes place between 1912 and 1924.
Guy, perplexed: What historically interesting happened in England then?
Me, choking: Uhh… WWI, dude!
WWI, dismissively: Why would they focus on WWI? England wasn’t affected by WWI.

Needless to say, he isn’t part of the WWI book club I belong to (although maybe he should be). When I relayed this to the club’s other member, her response mirrored mine: “WHAT?!? How can he say that?!?” followed by much sputtering.

So, yes. This “club” is only made up of the two of us. How many lines of people do you see who want to spend a year reading about WWI? Yeah, that’s what I thought. I can imagine what you’re thinking, “Where’d you guys meet? A nerd convention?” She and I have been friends for several years and belong to another book club together (an art book club, to up the nerdiness ante). We had often talked about spending a year reading books all about one subject, but since we both have interests that reach far and wide, which subject to choose? We knew that we both had studied WWI before and decided that we could further our knowledge. It is also apropos as we are in the hundredth anniversary of that war.

How does one embark on such a feat? (Because maybe you’d like to start a book club of two…) Like the generals in the war, we needed a plan of attack. However, it couldn’t be like the Schlieffen Plan that didn’t allow for change or revision. It also had to fit into our daily lives that include other book clubs (and in my case, teaching). We have decided to read eight books: four works of history and four memoirs that represent different perspectives. Since the works of history tend to be longer (600+ pages), we will take two months to read to read them, while the shorter memoirs get a month. We meet once a month to discuss what we’ve read. The way I found some of the titles was by searching a book about WWI on Amazon and seeing what others purchased; I’d click on one from that list and it would lead me to another list and so on and so forth. Based on the descriptions, I’d add it my interest list. Goodreads also provided many recommendations.

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Our first book was Margaret MacMillan’s The War That Ended Peace: The Road to 1914. MacMillan’s premise is to understand why and how Europe, which seemed to be moving towards a society of peace and progress, all of the sudden blew up into total war. So imagine a 1900 map of Europe under a microscope through which MacMillan’s eye peers and studies the minute actions at play under the surface. Like a scientist she gathers the information to discover the under-lying symptoms of the disease of war. She provides in depth character studies not just of the leaders, but also of society in how the growing labor movements, the rise of public opinion, and the shifting roles of the aristocracy helped prime people for war.

Often times in history classes one hears generally about alliances, militarism, and nationalism, and then boom! one day Archduke Franz Ferdinand, some dude from the Austria-Hungarian Empire is killed by some anarchist in some city and all of Europe falls apart. It’s a tenuous reason for millions to die and the possible end to Western civilization at best, but MacMillan does an excellent job showing how these forces developed and reacted over time through different countries’ decisions and skirmishes in Morocco and the Balkans to finally end in war. She tries to weigh how much of the war was the fault of “great men”– those in power– and that of forces hurdling towards conflict. Between 1900-1914, European nations had consistently used bluff and brinkmanship in their skirmishes, and each time they got closer and closer to war, and while she proves that they always had choices to avoid war, was it ultimately inevitable?

What I found most interesting was how many people had the foresight to understand what a long, bloody battle this war would be. Unfortunately, none were in charge of the militaries or countries and their views were often discounted.

MacMillan’s style is clear and easy to read. Each paragraph has a clear point followed by interesting and relevant evidence. She has a knack for finding interesting and funny quotes and for connecting issues if the past to issues in our modern times. The first half of the book sets up her argument on the state of Europe and the second half proves it (for us, the first half was more interesting as the second half was more military talk and policy). I highly recommend it to anyone who wants to understand how countries at peace can suddenly end up at war.

March memoir: e.e. cummings’ The Enormous Room

Readers: What book (or novel) about WWI do you recommend and why?

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Being a nerd, I didn’t want to show up to book club with nothing to say…

The Homestead and The Orchard House: A Tale of Two Literary Tours

Emily Dickinson and Louisa May Alcott are quite possibly America’s most beloved 19th century female authors. They share more in common by being daughters of men who were both pillars of their communities and who valued education; they were both fiercely independent; both suffered deep personal tragedies; both lived in Massachusetts and reacted against society’s strictures for women. However, both are very different.

Outside of The Homestead, Emily Dickinson's home.
Outside of The Homestead, Emily Dickinson’s home.

Dickinson’s poetry resists static interpretation; her use of idiosyncratic punctuation, words and images that convey multiple levels of meaning, and closing lines that often turn a poem’s meaning on its head create very personal and individual responses in the reader. Some poems have a universally agreed meaning; others unfold with each rereading. To read her work is to embrace uncertainty. This is compounded by the many myths and images of the poet that have proliferated over the years as a result of the portrayals of her by her niece Mattie Dickinson Bianchi and Mabel Loomis Todd, Austin Dickinson’s mistress whose motives were far from altruistic. Was Emily Dickinson a meek, retiring woman in white, broken-hearted over a lost young love? Or was she a fiery, passionate woman ahead of her time? In addition to the poems’ multiple meanings, there also persists the question of which Emily Dickinson wrote them.

Alcott, on the other hand, is most famous for her classic Little Women, the story of the March sisters, Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy. She presents the reader with a family that on some level, we’d all like to have as our own. And as a precursor to other narratives that have multiple female characters (ie. Sex and the City and Girls), readers can easily identify with one of the sisters (however, I most closely identify with two, Amy and Jo). Even though Alcott is read all over the world by disparate readers, the novel, and the movies, provide a shared experience.

These two different ways of “reading” and “knowing” the authors shape the tours of their homes. Granted, there are many factors that play into a tour. There is the quality of the artifacts in the home based on how many belonged to the original family to how well they represent the time period if they don’t. What is shared with the public is determined by what organization puts on the tours and how they wish to present the people who lived there. What is shared is also determined by the type of tour chosen, and last, but not least, the personality and knowledge of the tour guide.

Our tour guide obviously loved and admired Emily Dickinson, and it was apparent that she had a long history working at the Homestead. She also had some very definite ideas about the poet, but I do not know if her ideas are part of the museum’s party line or are a reflection of her own beliefs. She explained at the beginning that she would “dispel the myths” about Emily Dickinson, but she dispelled them with didactic statements such as, “Emily Dickinson was NOT a recluse. She went to many social gatherings.” When asked about whether or not ED suffered from epilepsy as posited in Lyndall Gordon’s book Lives Like Loaded Guns, she brushed it off with a wave of her hand, “Emily did NOT have epilepsy. Her nephew did, but Emily did NOT! An author wrote that in some book, but doctors have shown that what she describes as epilepsy is NOT epilepsy. She has apparently written two good biographies before, so I don’t know how she got so off the rails with THAT book.” Why it is so bad to suggest that she might have been epileptic, our guide did not explain. She did not go into why ED had so much freedom to write nor why she was never expected to get married (both went against standards for women at that time). She stated that ED’s father supported and encouraged her education, but did not mention his ambivalence as ED once said, “my father bought me books, but begs me not to read them.” She also glossed over Austin Dickinson’s affair with Mabel Loomis Todd that tore the Dickinson family apart, and instead said, “It’s a good thing we had Mabel, otherwise ED would not be known to the world.” While there is a lot of truth to that, Todd is one of the major reasons why we have myths about ED. Also disconcerting was that she told us that ED was not published much in her lifetime was because the male editors found her work to be too “wild” and preferred her simpler nature poems. Throughout the tour she recited some poems to us, but instead of giving us the more complex ones, she read those that most likely would be found on a card in a Hallmark shop. She perpetuated Samuel Bowles and Thomas Wentworth Higginson’s expectations.

It felt like rather than dispelling the myth about ED, she was set on maintaining her view (or the museum’s). Ideas were presented in black and white, and there was no room for contemplation and wonderment. It was like reading an ED poem with all of the dashes taken out–no pauses for reflection about what it all means.

Stewart and I in front of the Orchard House where Louisa May Alcott lived.
Stewart and I in front of the Orchard House where Louisa May Alcott lived.

The Orchard House was a different tour entirely. It probably helps that Louisa May Alcott’s life is not shrouded in myth and mystery, and Little Women is universally loved and understood. It also helps that my own expectations of how a tour should be did not clash with the tour guide’s. Our guide also did not carry the task of having to promote a certain image of Alcott. If the guides at the Homestead loved ED, their love paled in comparison to the women who worked at the Orchard House. It was palpable. Our guide was warm and thoroughly knowledgable about the house and all of the artifacts in it– the majority of which had belonged to the Alcott’s. She was visibly saddened when she revealed that Laurie and Mr. Laurence were made up; she displayed obvious pride in May’s artwork that was featured throughout the house. The Alcott’s joys were her joys; their sorrows, hers too. She carefully delineated which events in the novel happened in the house and which ones did not. If she didn’t know the answer to a question, she said so, and made sure to get the answer before the end of our visit. Understanding our interest in the house, she went out of her way to point out the smaller details–like the picture of Bronson Alcott sitting at the desk we were standing near. It brought history to life.

Because of her and the rest of the staffs openness, our tour was a much more gratifying experience, and I left with a greater appreciation of the Alcott family and their role in Concord, education, art, and literature.

The Alcott plot at the Sleepy Hollow cemetery.
The Alcott plot at the Sleepy Hollow cemetery.

Readers, what tours have you been on that have been especially enlightening?