Review of The Plateau

The Plateau

The Plateau by Maggie Paxson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“With all of our chances– and all of the moral tools we’ve derived from any number of spiritual, religious, and philosophical orientations– we haven’t learned. It’s like we still don’t even recognize the moral hazard of deciding we are anything– any nation, any race, any religion, any gender– before we are a human being. Even when we must know, in our deepest places, that the oneness of humanity is an absolute truth, we behave as though we don’t” (309).

Anthropologist Maggie Paxson has written a book unlike any I have read before: an exploration of peace that is part anthropology, part memoir, part history, part religious meditation. She begins by asking what made the people of the Plateau region of France, a place known for harboring refugees and Jews in great times of danger, do so? In the course of finding her answer, she lives on the Plateau, studies the history of Daniel Trocme who lived there briefly during WWII to harbor and teach refugee children, and befriends the newest refugees in the area. All of this sidetracks her from getting down to the nitty-gritty data of why this area is so special. Instead she veers into an exploration of humanity, religions, and nations to determine what makes one good and put their life on the line for another. I am personally okay not having charts and diagrams and boxes with numbers in them to map the bell curve of goodness. Goodness is subjective, caught in the mess of our psyches.

Paxson’s goal is ambitious. How DOES one chart peace? Especially during a time when there was no peace? Also, how does one study a population’s motives for helping others when not all members shared the same goal? There are so many stories of sacrifice made by people all over Europe who helped shelter and feed and welcome into their homes Jews and other displaced peoples that I don’t think the answer lies in one area. It lies in ourselves. Paxson gets drawn into the lives of those in the past and the families seeking shelter on the Plateau now. She learns who they are and what caused them to flee their homelands. She explores how religions and the ideas of nations (which replaced kingdoms which served religions) have failed humanity. Deeply religious herself, in a secular field, she questions how religions can lead one astray– especially when every religion intones that we must love one another. Not being religious myself, I found this interesting as she discusses how the “why” one is religious impacts how much they love their neighbor and how they can use that same religion to shun him. Those who strive for peace, place humanity front and center– just because somebody else made them an enemy because they are of a different race, religion, political persuasion– doesn’t make them your enemy, too. When the time comes to act, who will we be? Will answer the call as whatever we label ourselves– white? Christian? American? Or will we be humans responding to human needs?

There is a tremendous amount of pain in this book. I learned more about the Holocaust that I had not known before; I learned about the atrocities happening in other countries; I learned about how much pain and death and suffering arise from ultimately arbitrary means. I again learned that being good will not save you, and it instead makes you a bigger target. Their is a lot hope here, too. We can in our small and big ways help others and do what we can. This seems miniscule in light of the horrors of the world, but think of the amount of good and how many people are saved when we act selflessly. In the words of Jesus, “Ye shall know them by their fruits,” and Paxson reminds us that it is not who we say we are that defines us, but what we do.

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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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When Creativity Speaks

A recent episode of PBS’s History Detectives featured a woman who wanted to know about the man who drew a picture of her father Bill when he was in a Nazi POW camp during WWII.  She wondered who he was, if he survived, and if he went on to become an artist.  What emerged was an interesting glimpse into wartime suffering, community, and humanity.  Many of the American soldiers held in this camp, located in Austria, had been shot down over France and Germany and were cut off from everyone they knew and all ties back home.  As one can imagine, life was tough there, and it was only through the Geneva Conventions and assistance of the Red Cross, that these soldiers received the little they did.  There were over two hundred men to a barrack, and these were reminiscent of the barracks used in concentrations camps: close quarters, no privacy and wooden pallets for sleeping.  The food was chopped rutabaga, gruel, and bread made mostly of sawdust.  The survivors of the camp recalled how easy it was to forget who they were there.

To combat the forgetting, the men turned to creativity and to each other.  Most were strangers, but they created a community for survival.  They wrote poems and stories.  They put on a Christmas review full of carols, an reenactment of The Christmas Carol, and skits.  They put on other performances, and, of course, they drew.  Bill had traded cigarettes for two onions and a potato with a Russian POW when he met “Gil” Rhoden.  Rhoden offered to draw his picture in exchange for the food.  Bill thought, “I can eat these, but still be hungry.  Or I can give them to him and have something to show for it.”  The result was an excellent pencil sketch of Bill looking healthy, clean, and handsome– an image of the way he was before entering the camp.  Bill looked at the picture throughout his captivity as a reminder to who he was and could be again.

Rhoden, it turns out, survived the camp, too, and went on to become very successful.  He passed away in a plane crash in 1989, but the history detective was able to locate his son and show him the picture.  The son was overcome with emotion as he looked at the sketch. “It’s like shaking my father’s hand again,” he said.  He and Bill had the chance to meet and share stories about Rhoden and life since the camps.

This story of two men and survival is simply beyond words.  Rhoden drew for sustenance and his drawing gave Bill hope.  Bill’s sharing of his picture with Rhoden’s son, allowed the son to reconnect to his father.  This episode serves as a reminder how we never know the impact that we have on others.  Our smallest or most routine actions can mean so much to someone else.  It also shows that even though we can be in the most dire of situations and cruelest of fates, we can seek solace and strength in our humanity.  The men turned to things that were personal and could be shared or created a shared experience.  They sought that which was good.

This story coincided with some thoughts that have been swirling around in my brain of late– the community of bloggers.  Granted, bloggers are not POWs in a Nazi prison camp.  But we do seek connections to others and give each other hope.  We come from all walks of life as there are many blogs about teaching, books, writing, reading, music, motherhood, parenting, poetry, photography, art, mental illness, food, travel, gay rights, community issues, saving historical landmarks, and the list goes on.  Some commonalities that bloggers share is that they are all intelligent and highly educated; all have something to share.  Even though we are all different, we are all doing the best we can.  Together we share our stories and work and offer support and encouragement and new ideas.  By reading about other’s lives and thoughts, we gain wider empathy and insight into other perspectives, even if we do not agree.  In this time when so many things are uncertain, this is a nice community to be a part of.

Reflections Of My Grandpa On Memorial Day

I have been very fortunate to have been the granddaughter to five remarkable grandparents (my gramps got remarried), but the most unassuming of the bunch is my Grandpa Ab.  He was a man of few words and lived a life of quiet dignity and integrity.  His actions and the way he lived his life guide me in the way that I want to live mine.

He was born to German and Dutch parents in southwestern Michigan and grew up on a farm with his four brothers and one sister.  Like many families in that area, they didn’t have a lot of money, but they always had what they needed.  In high school he played on the basketball team, and after graduation in 1944 he was drafted into the war.

Can you see why my grandma snatched him up?

He served in the Navy and was stationed on the LST in Okinawa.  His job was to drive the LCVP up to shore and drop off men.  When the war was over, they returned refugees back home.  He kept a shipboard journal and he wrote of his ship being hit by bombs and torpedoes.  It is scary to think of the atrocities he saw and how lucky he was to not be injured or killed.  Each entry is about one sentence, but one stands out for being three lines long and it is very telling about what he valued.  One of the refugees gave birth to a baby on the ship en route home, and she had a little girl.  He wrote of his and shipmates happiness at this event.  He rarely spoke about his war experiences, but I do remember him saying that he was the only son in his family to fight and as  he said, “I was proud to serve my country.”

His ship.

He returned home and began working.  In 1947 one of his buddies knew a young lady and disapproved of the boy she ran around with; could he possible set her up with him?  My grandpa said yes, met this young lady, and they were married six weeks later.  They were married for over sixty years.   In 1948 my mom was born and she was followed five years later by my aunt.  Being surrounded by girls set the tone for his life as he ended up with two granddaughters and two great-granddaughters.  I remember being a little girl and having my grandparents come out to visit.  One day he dozed off on the couch and I put all of my plastic barrettes in his hair.  Looking back on it now, I think he must have woken up but played possum so I could continue in my delight.  Even in his eighties he crawled around on the ground playing with my cousin’s girls; he got as much enjoyment from their toys as they did.

My grandparents worked hard to make ends meet and save money.  They were thrifty and resourceful.  My grandpa also had a small plot of land that he farmed to bring in extra income.  He served on his church council, but because he missed many Sundays due to farming, he was kicked out.  His reply was that the well-being of his family came first.  It was years before he and his family ever took a vacation, and their first was a road trip through the Upper Peninsula, down through Wisconsin, and a ferry ride back across Lake Michigan.  Invigorated and inspired by this trip, he asked my grandma, “Where are we going next year?”.  Throughout the course of his life, he and my grandma visited all 50 states, Columbia, eastern Canada, Panama, the Caribbean, and Europe.  They took me on trips throughout Michigan, Indiana, and Canada when I went to visit, and once met me in Salt Lake City for a road trip through Utah, Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming.  We saw the Grand Tetons, Jackson Hole, and Yellowstone Park. When my dad had a three month long business trip to Washington, D.C., and my mom and I went out for three weeks, they came out and toured the area with us. They took my cousin to New York City, California, and Florida.  My ultimate favorite memory is when they learned that I had a really long layover in Detroit when I was flying back from Europe.  They drove four hours to the airport just to see me.  I will always remember entering airport and seeing my grandpa there holding his camcorder capturing my surprise.  (This was way before 9/11 changed everything.)

My grandpa with me, my toy box, and Muley. My toy box and Muley continue their legacy by bringing joy to my friends’ kids.

My grandpa loved learning.  He had a variety of interests that ranged from gardening, woodworking, and flying.  He worked tirelessly on his garden growing vegetables, apples, pears, peaches, berries, and his favorite, sunflowers.  He built me a rocking horse that we named Muley, a big barn toy box, a doll bed with matching chest of drawers and clothes closet, and my play house with real glass windows that slid open.  He had always had an interest in flying and got his pilot’s license.  One of his proudest moments was taking his mother when she was in her nineties on her very first plane ride.  I was lucky enough to go up in the air with him, too.  Even after he retired, he was always busy doing something.  Although he was a quiet man who would often just sit and listen and respond with “yep”, he had a keen sense of humor and was quick with a one-liner.

My grandpa and I ready to soar over the Michigan countryside.

My grandpa had a real strength of character. He always made sure that his family was taken care of and served his community well.  He was liked and respected by all.  He believed everyone deserved a fair shake, and he always believed the good in everyone unless he had a real reason to think otherwise.  His true strength shone through when he was diagnosed with bladder cancer in 2008.  He had surgery to remove the cancer, but the doctor soon realized that the cancer had spread too far.  There was nothing for my grandpa to do except wait.  Soon his kidneys began to fail, and my parents, who were in Michigan at the time, informed me that I needed to be there, too.  When I arrived, he greeted me with good cheer.  It was obvious that he was in pain, but he never complained.  He did his best to help the nurses out when they had to move him and didn’t fuss.  He handled everything with grace and dignity.

Saying goodbye to my grandpa was the hardest thing I have ever done.  He and I knew that it was our last goodbye.  He passed away at home a few days later on a snowy Michigan afternoon.  The snow collected into snowflakes, a reminder that there will never be another man like him.

With Grandpa and Stewart.

The Top Ten Reasons Why You Should Admire Harry Truman

Our 33rd President.

I’ve got the usual suspects on my list of favorite presidents: Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. But whenever I mention that my number one favorite is Harry Truman, everyone does a double-take and asks, “You like the dude that dropped the atom bomb?”. Yes, that dude. Truman seems to be well-known for blowing Hiroshima and Nagasaki to smithereens, but they forget that had FDR lived, it would had been his action instead. It is a sad state of affairs when Truman is only known for making that still hotly-contested decision.

May 8th is Harry S Truman’s birthday, and in honor of this special date I will share with you all why we should give our 33rd president a second look.

1. He meant what he said and said what he meant. Unlike his predecessor who liked to pit people against each other and often left people mistakenly thinking that he agreed with them, Truman never left any ambiguity about how felt about a subject. One would never see him backtrack on what he said by saying that it was “taken out of context” and “it’s not what he meant”. He was known for speaking plainly and meaning every word. He was so much like this that when he began doing speeches, he couldn’t follow the speech. He was much better conveying the information in his own way and speaking off the cuff.

The Trumans’ home, but only after Bess’ mother passed away and bequeathed it to them. While he was president, some townspeople got together and painted it white (so it could be his other white house, plus it needed a coat of paint).

2. He was not in the pocket of special interests. As a Jackson County judge, he worked tirelessly to get the roads in his county fixed. The Jackson constituents were a pretty stingy bunch and most likely would not vote for the funds to make the project possible. Truman made his case, won the funds, and then hired the most qualified and least expensive contractors to do the work. He bypassed the contractors who normally did that kind of work because they were slow and overcharged. His project was finished early and under budget. When he went from being a Jackson County judge to being elected senator, he had the support of the Pendergast machine in Kansas City, a political machine that was known for being very corrupt. Truman never fell into their party line, nor did he follow any of their directives. His goal was to serve the people of Missouri to the best of his ability. As senator, he began the Truman Committee to investigate all of the companies making supplies for WWII to make sure they were not price gouging. He personally visited every factory, and as a result, saved the government millions of dollars.

3. He would not allow himself to be bullied. He didn’t earn his nickname “Give ’em hell, Harry” for nothing. In 1922 Truman, for who knows why, almost signed up for KKK membership to receive their backing and because it was “good politics”. Once he learned that he could not hire Catholics, he refused to join. He was in charge of battery in France made up of primarily Catholics in WWI, and wouldn’t go against them because some group wanted him to.

Me aboard the USS Missouri at Pearl Harbor.

4. He was a common man who understood the difficulties of the common man. Harry Truman did not have to wear jeans, roll up his shirtsleeves, and unbutton the top button to try and prove to everyone that he, too, could be a common man. Truman, impeccably dressed in a crisp suit, tie, and Panama hat, spoke the layman’s language because it was his life. He grew up on a farm; his family lost their money so he couldn’t go to college; he worked at a bank to make something of himself; returned to the farm when his father needed help; and opened a haberdashery shop that went under. He spent the majority of his life in debt, and was in debt when he became president. When people told him their woes, he knew what they meant and could speak to them using nuts and bolts language instead of lofty rhetoric. When he did his Whistle-stop Campaign in ’48 to beat Dewey, people came out in droves to see him. He spoke specifically about the issues facing that stop and could talk to people on a human level. Dewey could not condescend to do as much, and I believe this difference is why Truman was the upset in that election.

Truman Presidential Library

5. He was always the underdog who came out on top. A common theme in Truman’s life was to be underestimated. His wife Bess’s mother never thought he was good enough for her daughter even after he became president, but he had set his sights on her when he was five and from then on she was the only woman for him. He was a devoted husband and doting father. When he served in WWI in Italy, he was named commander of a rough and tumble Irish battalion known for scaring away commanders. They made a bet he wouldn’t last two weeks, but through his bravery in battle and his hard-nosedness, he won their respect and devotion. When he became senator no one took him seriously because he came out of the Pendergast machine, but after a couple of years, he won their respect, too. When FDR died, the biggest question going around was “Who-man?” The general public knew nothing about him, and he had to fill giant shoes. He had a war still on, a bomb he’d never heard of until two weeks after he became president, Churchill and Stalin to meet, and Germany and Japan to contend with. He rose to the occasion. But even with that, everyone doubted that he could win a second term on his own. He did.

6. He made hard, unpopular decisions, but he made them. Truman thought that when a decision was needed, a decision should be made. Dropping the bomb, starting the policy of containment with the start of the Korean War, and supporting the formation of Israel are all controversial decisions. On the flip side, he also desegregated the armed forces by executive order and didn’t play around with steel factories when they wanted to strike during the war.

Statue of Truman in front of the Jackson County courthouse.

7. He refused to make money off of the presidency. Truman was still hurting for money after the presidency, and he received many offers from companies who would “hire” him and pay him oodles of cash. He refused by saying that his name wasn’t for sale, but he did sign a book deal for his memoirs. The expenses required for his memoirs ($135,000 for staff, office, mailing) was greater than what he made a year ($37,000), and finally Congress instituted a presidential pension of $25,000. Truman had had to sell some land to keep afloat.

8. He was an avid reader and scholar of history. Truman read history voraciously and his goal was to learn from it. He constantly referred to decisions made by former presidents and other world leaders to guide him in his own decision making process. For a man who lacked a college education, he had a thorough command of the presidency, the Constitution, and the role of government in everyday life (how many of our current politicians can say the same?). He read to learn, not to make quick sound-bites full of errors. He took the past as it was and did not try to manipulate it for his own gains. He saw his role as president as part of a long tradition that needed to be maintained.

9. He was loyal. One of my favorite anecdotes was when one of his co-senators was going to have a luncheon that turned out to be on the same day some prince was going to visit DC and also have a luncheon. Truman’s pal was concerned about whether or not he would be there; Truman said that yes, he’d been invited to the prince’s lunch, but had let them know that he already had plans. He knew how to shape his priorities.

10. The buck stops here. Truman never “passed the buck”; he dealt with things as they came to him and took full responsibility for his actions and decisions.

There you have it. The purpose of this list is not to espouse his politics, but for people to see what kind of man he was. If only many of today’s politicians, whether at the city, state, or nation, could live up to such a man.

The Truth Is All I Want For History– Truman

Sources and recommended reading:

Affection and Trust: The Personal Correspondence of Harry S. Truman and Dean Acheson, 1953-1971. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2010. Print.

Algeo, Matthew. Harry Truman’s Excellent Adventure: The True Story of a Great American Road Trip. Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 2009. Print.

McCullough, David. Truman. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1992. Print.

Truman, Margaret. Harry S. Truman. New York: Avon Books, 1972. Print.

Truman, Margaret Ed. Where The Buck Stops: The Personal and Private Writings of Harry S. Truman. New York: Warner Books, 1989. Print.

The Secret History of Things and Why We Have Them: A Review of The Hare With Amber Eyes

To commemorate special occasions my granny would send me a family heirloom, and somewhere on the item or in its container would be a sticker bearing her near illegible script stating who originally owned it. For my high school graduation I received a necklace of that has a gold flower pendant with an amethyst in the center that once belonged to my great-grandma Edvina. When I wear it I think of her and her life on a Nebraska farm, but that’s about it. I never wondered who gave it to her or if she bought it, who made it, when it was made, or what the significance of it was to her. Was it a special treasure and that’s why my granny kept it? Or was it kept because my granny kept everything (and kept it all meticulously labeled and categorized, too)? Had I thought of these questions, I could have asked my granny when she was still alive and been rewarded with another story of Life On The Farm (my favorites).

When Edmund de Waal received the family heirloom of 264 Japanese netsuke upon the death of his great-uncle Iggie, he did have these questions. Through his conversations with Iggie, he knew the timeline of the netsuke: they were first purchased in Paris in the late 19th century by Charles, his great-grandfather’s cousin; at the turn of the century the netsuke end up in Vienna in his great-grandparents home; after WW II, the netsuke briefly reside with his grandmother in London before making the trek back to their homeland to be a part of Iggie’s home in Tokyo. Most of us would be pretty satisfied with that much information, but de Waal, a renown ceramicists who makes small pots, understands that what makes the things we have special is the fact that they histories that others do not know. He wondered how these netsuke, small, intricate boxwood and ivory carvings of animals, people, and scenes from nature ended up in his family in the first place. Why did Charles begin the collection? What role did the netsuke play in his life? Why did he give them away? How did they fit in with the family in Vienna? Where were they kept? How were they used, if at all? How did they survive WW II when the great majority of what the family owned was destroyed?

In his book The Hare With Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance, de Waal painstakingly delves into the history of his family’s netsuke. The result is a narrative that spans over a century of the Ephrussi, a family of Russian Jews who settled across Europe and established a banking empire. de Waal’s research included everything from reading Proust’s novels (Proust was a colleague of Charles Ephrussi and he created characters based him), newspapers, journals, other popular books of the times, ledgers, diaries, letters, poems, Nazi records, and more. This allows him to not only follow the history of the netsuke, but to recreate the lives of his relatives. This intimate glimpse allows the reader to become a voyeur and live vicariously through each family member; history is brought up close and made real.

The parts of the book are divided by where the netsuke resided and each studies the role of the netsuke in that world. Part One explores Paris during the rise of Impressionism and japonisme; the netsuke are en vogue and are individual pieces of art. They are often the favorites of the artists and literati during Charles Ephrussi’s salon discussions. Part Two examines how the netsuke are transformed from pieces of art into trinkets when they move to Viktor and Emmy Ephrussi’s palais along the Ringstrasse in Vienna. Emmy and her three children create stories around the netsuke as Emmy is dressed by her lady’s maid Anna for the multitude of balls, dinners, teas, and operas she attends. In Part Three the netsuke are literally missing– from the house and the narrative. An author does not need to create a sense of foreboding for a Jewish family living in 1930’s Austria; history tells us what happened. Still the reader hopes the narrative takes a flight of fancy where Hitler does not exist and the Ephrussi family is spared. But, as always, history marches on. It is astonishing how quickly the Ephrussi’s life and legacy is obliterated, but it is equally astonishing what is saved and how it is saved. After the war, the netsuke re-emerge. In Part Four the netsuke and Iggie begin their new life in Japan, where Iggie rebuilds his life among the ruins of Tokyo. In Part Five, de Waal revisits Tokyo and London and make the pilgrimage to Odessa, where the Ephrussi wealth began. He reflects on what his past means and his role in the netsuke’s future.

I highly recommend this book. If you are interested in art, history, culture, WWII, Downton Abbey, a lost way of life, this book is for you.

Readers, have any of you read The Hare With Amber Eyes? What did you think of it? Have you read anything similar? Please share!