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A Really Big Hat: 1906 Silent Film

Hat from Delineator magazine, May 1910.

A very large (and inconvenient) hat — but fashion is not about convenience! Movies Silently has discovered a charming, short Danish film from 1906 which shows not only a wildly exaggerated hat, but two ladies inconveniently attired in hobble skirts. You can watch this 6 minute comedy (and others) at stumfilm.dk. Click here for the movie, and  here for more information from Movies Silently.

Really big hats were also popular in 1920:

Fashion illustration from Delineator magazine, September 1920.

Imagine sitting next to this hat in a theater or car!

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Thankful Thoughts

Bicycling Costume, 1890

My mother was born on Thanksgiving Day, early in the 1900s. Of course, Thanksgiving doesn’t always fall on the same date, so she sometimes claimed that her birthdays didn’t count unless they fell on Thanksgiving.

Today, on Mothers’ Day, I want to express gratitude to two women who changed my life — with a library card.

Before I started school, the highlight of the week was Sunday, when the Sunday comics arrived. In those days (the late 1940s) many of the cartoons told continuing stories, so in addition to the weekly color (and also daily) black and white adventures of Dagwood and Maggie and Jiggs, I looked forward to the continuing adventures of The Lone Ranger and The Phantom and Prince Valiant, et al. I would climb into my father’s lap, and he would read me “the funny papers.” (If I was at my grandmother’s house, my Uncle Mel would read them to me.) Either way, it’s possible that my love of reading began with those Sunday mornings, safe and warm in the lap of an adult I adored.  (When I was older, I was very impressed by Uncle Mel’s complete recall of the whole Prince Valiant saga!) Prince Valiant was a fictional member of King Arthur’s Round Table — well, all the Knights of the Round Table were fictional, but Valiant, with his shiny blue-black bobbed hair, was a 20th century invention. His adventures, with those of his beautiful wife, Aleta, usually took up the entire back page of the Sunday Comics.

I remember a Sunday when I asked my father, “How do you know what the people are saying?” and he pointed to what appeared to me as a group of straight and squiggly black lines. “I’m reading these words,” he replied.

From that moment, I wanted to learn to read.

In fact, after my first day of school my mother took me to my father’s construction yard, where everyone asked, “How did you like school?” I shrugged. “It’s OK,” I muttered, then blurted “But they didn’t teach me to read!“(I didn’t realize that I would be going to school on most days for the next 17 years….)

As it happened, I took to reading immediately. My mother was fiercely proud of my progress in school, and, although I only recall having one book in the house (aside from Little Golden Books,) she took me to the public library while I was still in first grade. (Her aunt had been head librarian there, decades before I was born.) Mother used to ride her big, heavy bicycle alongside my child’s bike, with its handy basket on the front, to the library with me. Every two weeks we returned for another dozen or so easy reading books — the kind with colorful illustrations on the cover. I remember devouring Billy and Blaze and every other horse book we saw. Probably with the help of the children’s book room librarian, I quickly moved on to Mary Poppins and the Island Stallion books, to Edward Eager and Laura Ingalls WIlder.

Its only now that I realize my mother, a cancer survivor, was teaching me how to get to the library without her. I had my own little library card which allowed me to check out books from the children’s room. But in those early days, she usually accompanied me.

One day, probably exhausted by my saying “I’ve already read that” to all of her suggestions, Mother took me to the Adult Section. It was strictly forbidden to children under seventh grade, but she steered me to a shelf of adult books, and told me to pick one. These books had no pictures on their covers or spines, and they were shelved by author’s last name; not a clue for a book-crazy seven-year-old to seize upon. Fortunately, I recognized a title I knew from the few children’s books at my grandmother’s house: The Arabian Nights. I had read that beautifully illustrated children’s version from Scribner’s (published in the 1920s) and I loved it. The adult shelf had about ten different adult editions, so I just grabbed one, and Mother took it to the check-out desk to borrow it for me. When she told the librarian that the book was for me to read, the librarian was aghast. (She knew what my mother didn’t know, that the original English version of 1001 Arabian Nights, by explorer Richard Burton, had shocked the Victorians with its sexual content.) But the librarian didn’t say that; she just said, “Oh, that book is much too difficult for a little girl.”

My Mother’s hackles rose.

She cracked the book open (ouch,) slammed it down on the counter, and said, “Susan, read for the lady.”

I selected a paragraph at random and began to read aloud. I read for a minute or two, to the end of the paragraph, and the librarian said gently, “That’s enough.” Then she turned her back on us and went to a shelf where the new library cards were stored. She took one, stamped it, entered my address and other information, and had me sign it. Against all regulations, she gave me, a child of seven, the key to all the riches of that fairly large public library!

On the outside of the library building was this quotation from Scottish essayist Thomas Carlyle: “All that mankind has done, thought, gained or been: it is lying as in magic preservation in the pages of books. They are the chosen possession of men.”

Thank you for introducing me to the library, Mother.

With my Mother on my fifth birthday. Because she lied about my age, I started First Grade three months later. I was a fluent reader by the time I was seven.

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What Next?

cover of The Delineator, December, 1931
Delineator cover, Christmas 1931. Note the artificial tree!

Since I didn’t get around to posting this in time for Christmas, I’m going to ignore the unopened presents and pretend that these ladies are taking down the Christmas decorations (in their evening gowns….) You can read about the fashion for bustle dresses in 1931 by clicking here.

Meanwhile, speculation about the clothing choices we will make when we emerge from months of isolation is all over the place. Will we be so used to comfort that “business casual” becomes even more casual? Or will the pendulum swing toward change: a more dressed up look replacing our pajamas and sweatpants? Here are three articles speculating about post-Covid 19 fashion: from Good Morning America, Barrons.com, and The Washington Post.

Historically, there is a tendency for sportswear to gradually become acceptable in more formal situations, as when the man’s country riding coat with cut-away front…

… became business, and then, formal dress:

https://witness2fashion.files.wordpress.com/2013/12/resized-1936-jan-mens-formal-dress-article-illus.jpg

In our own time we have seen the skin-tight leggings which women first wore for dance rehearsals and gym workouts become acceptable street (and even formal) wear, and not just by women who are shaped like ballerinas….

So there’s a distinct possibility that comfort will win out.  On the other hand, after the rationing and shortages and clothing restrictions of World War II,  women’s blocky padded shoulders and knee length skirts were quickly replaced by tightly fitted, mid-calf, super-feminine designs.

Tiny waists, natural shoulders, long full skirts: Butterick Fashion News for August 1948.

Skimpy skirts from the War years : Sept. 1943, Butterick Fashion News

Long skirts, fitted waists, and no scrimping on fabric in these suits from Butterick Fashion News, February 1948.

The wonderful blog A la Recherche des Modes Perdues shared pages and pages of French fashions from L’Art de la Mode, December 1948.  (Do take a look! At top right is a “Translate” box which allows you to choose your preferred language. ) If there’s a theme, it’s the lavish waste of fabrics in long, full skirts, and draped skirts. These are super-feminine clothes for grown-up women (very rich ones!) Perhaps the relief of getting out of overalls and “shelter suits” (and having to pinch every penny) made the fashion pendulum swing to this extreme. It could happen again….

A Personal Note: For those who wonder where I’ve been, and why I no longer post twice a week,  the answer is that I’ve been waiting for a knee replacement for about two years. It took that long to get my blood test results into a favorable place (and my rheumatoid arthritis under control….) Once the first knee is healed, my other knee will need replacement, too. I haven’t been able to go for a walk since March of 2020, so the prospect of being able to walk outdoors again this summer is very exciting.

But one of the lessons I’ll pass on to those who think older people just “get crabby” and have trouble with ordinary tasks and conversations because of age is this: When you have to think consciously and focus your mind on every move you make — strategizing how to get out of a chair, how to carry things when you don’t have a free hand, thinking about washing a saucepan, using a toilet, making toast, carrying a coffee cup from the counter to the table, getting a fresh towel or a glass of water — you become exhausted. (And yes, crabby when interrupted!)  My friend Dr. James Agapoff wrote about the importance of habit, which allows us to perform routine tasks while thinking about something more interesting.  I wrote back to say that. although I used to be able to walk and talk at the same time, I can’t any more! I used to “write” (or at least plan) blogs in my head while doing dishes or walking up a steep hill. But when you have to think about how you can safely move from the sink to the stove using a walker, and about how heavy every piece of dishware is, [seriously, I had to memorize the relative weight of every pot and pan: “this one I can lift with my right hand, but not if it has a lid on it….”] — well, my brain was too busy to roam freely! Besides, there were months when I couldn’t lift a research book, or put it back on the shelf….

I did watch a lot of YouTube, and found some treasures which I’ll be sharing.

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A Silent Movie About Dancing Pumps: Short and Sweet

I really didn’t mean to take a May-to-September vacation from this blog. So it’s nice to return by recommending a pleasant short film that has lots of pretty 1913 dresses in it!

500 1912 oct p 233 evening and wrap 5687 5688 wrap 5715 w5672 sk 5673 (3)

Two Butterick evening gowns from 1912. Notice the relatively high waists and the relatively close to the head hairdos. Delineator, October 1912.

Thanks to Movies Silently for writing about the film Pumps, made in 1913. Click here for an illustrated review of this less-than-nine-minutes long movie, which really is charming. (Anyone who has ever worn cute (but uncomfortable) shoes to a dance can relate!)

We get to see several ball gowns, and our heroine also appears in some lovely day dresses, which gives me an excuse to watch it again…. Actors usually supplied their own wardrobe in the early days of movie-making. Don’t miss the gowns on the extras, either! Seeing live women in real clothing, rather than fashion illustrations, is always a treat.

I don’t happen to have any photos from 1913, (Movies Silently shows several stills from Pumps) but the styles of late 1912 show the same high waistlines (and back views that do not minimize the hips.)

500 1912 oct p 240 strap evening dress article pg (2)

Evening dress from Delineator, October 1912. High waist and cold shoulders…..

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How to Marcel: Video

Curling tongs like this were used to create those Marcel waves on a temporary basis.

A “Perfect Marcel Wave” in an ad from July 1928 Delineator magazine.

The always interesting Glamourdaze blog linked to a short film from 1926 showing a hairdresser creating/cutting shingle haircuts…

A haircut in progress, November 1925. Delineator magazine.

… and, to my delight, a close up of a hairdresser using curling tongs (predecessor of the curling iron) to create those “Oh-so-Twenties” marcelled styles.

My mother’s marcelled hair. “There was a little girl, who had a little curl/ right in the center of her forehead….”

If you want to watch the vintage 1926 “How-To” video, which has been enhanced and colorized but shows great closeups, click here.

A flapper getting a permanent wave, drawn by Nell Brinkley, September 1929.

To learn more about illustrator Nell Brinkley, click here.

Other posts about 1920s’ hairstyles….

For the benefit of new readers, I’m going to supply links to several past posts about hair styles in the 1920s. Most of them are inspired by magazine articles in Delineator magazine, which was published by Butterick, and carried monthly reports from Paris..

Bobbed Hair and Shingled Hair:

Four Paris models sketched by Soulie, Delineator, January 1925.

Four Paris models sketched by Soulie, for Delineator, January 1925. The two on the right have shingled hair.

https://witness2fashion.files.wordpress.com/2015/02/1924-dec-couture-p-23-twofer.jpg

Two Paris models with bobbed hair, Delineator, 1924.

After years in which a woman’s long hair was “her crowning glory,” the decision to cut it short, or “bob” it, took courage. Click to read “To Bob or Not to Bob Your Hair, Part 1” and “To Bob  or Not to Bob Your Hair, Part 2.”

The Marcel wave had been around since the 1870s, and “Marcel” and “permanent wave” were used interchangeably. Here’s a marcelled hairdo from 1917:

A Marcelled evening hair style from 1917. Delineator, April 1917.

Getting a permanent wave was something of an ordeal:

Getting a permanent wave in the Twenties or Thirties. Ad, April 1932.

You could also do it at home…. in “just a few hours.”

From Nestle Lanoil Home Permantne ad, Delineator, Dec. 1924.

C. Nestle Permanent Hair Waving Machine, illustration from An Illustrated History of Hairstyles, by Marian I. Doyle.

To read more about permanents and marcels, see “Permanents and Marcels Bridge the Twenties to Thirties.”

Before the “bob,” Mary Pickford’s long curls were the ideal for girls in their teens. This is my mother before she bobbed her hair:

https://witness2fashion.files.wordpress.com/2015/04/helen-with-1922-bobbed-hair.jpg

And this is my mother in 1922.

My mother (born in 1904) and her friend Irene were the first girls in town to have their hair bobbed. In my mother’s case, she also had a permanent. Her mother was in the hospital at the time. Her father forbade her to visit her mother, “because the shock would kill her.” Read “Marcels in the Family.”

An old fashioned curling iron (in three sizes) from An Illustrated History of Hairstyles, by Marian I. Doyle.

For my own experience with curling tongs and permanent waves, read “Curling Iron Memories.”

Witness2fashion in the late 1940s. I hated having my hair curled.

One of the more intriguing articles I found about Twenties’ hairstyles suggested that young women occasionally wore chic wigs — in many hues. See “Chic Wigs for September 1927.”

Transformations in the mode of the present day.... All the pictures are of the same charming woman. Top of page 37, Delineator, September, 1927.

If you still want to read about hairstyles from before and after the 1920s, just type the word “hair” in the search box at top right!

A final shout out to dancer Irene Castle, who bobbed her hair in 1917!

 

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Looking Forward to a New Year

cover of The Delineator, December, 1931

Delineator cover, Christmas 1931.

Since I didn’t get around to posting this in time for Christmas, I’m going to ignore the unopened presents and pretend that these ladies are taking down the Christmas decorations (in their evening gowns….) You can read about the fashion for bustle dresses in 1931 by clicking here.

Meanwhile, speculation about the clothing choices we will make when we emerge from months of isolation is all over the place. Will we be so used to comfort that “business casual” becomes even more casual? Or will the pendulum swing toward change: a more dressed up look replacing our pajamas and sweatpants? Here are three articles speculating about post-Covid 19 fashion: from Good Morning America, Barrons.com, and The Washington Post.

Historically, there is a tendency for sportswear to gradually become acceptable in more formal situations, as when the man’s country riding coat with cut-away front:

became business, and then, formal dress:

https://witness2fashion.files.wordpress.com/2013/12/resized-1936-jan-mens-formal-dress-article-illus.jpg

In our own time we have seen the skin-tight leggings which women first wore for dance rehearsals and gym workouts become acceptable street (and even formal) wear, and not just by women who are shaped like ballerinas….

So there’s a distinct possibility that comfort will win out.  On the other hand, after the rationing and shortages and clothing restrictions of World War II,  women’s blocky padded shoulders and knee length skirts were quickly replaced by tightly fitted, mid-calf, super-feminine designs.

Tiny waists, natural shoulders, long skirts: Butterick Fashion News for August 1948.

 

Long skirts, fitted waists, and no scrimping on fabric in these suits from Butterick Fashion News, February 1948.

The wonderful blog A la Recherche des Modes Perdues shared pages and pages of French fashions from L’Art de la Mode, December 1948.  (Do take a look!) If there’s a theme, it’s the lavish waste of fabrics in long, full skirts, and draped skirts. These are super-feminine clothes for grown-up women (very rich ones!) Perhaps the relief of getting out of overalls and “shelter suits” (and pinching every penny) made the fashion pendulum swing to this extreme. It could happen again….

 

 

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Fashion Photos from 1907

Detail of fashion photograph from Delineator, December 1907. The original photo was probably hand tinted.

Fashion plate, Delineator, Dec. 1907. Left, Butterick dress 1610; right, bodice/waist 1646 with skirt 1660.

Dress 1610 was described as “elephant gray” in this picture, but the line drawings suggested other versions.

Detail of dress 1610, bodice/waist.

The face and the feather boa confirm that this is a photo, not a drawing.

The detail of feathers and lace confirm that this is a tinted photo, not a drawing.

Skirt detail, Butterick dress 1610.

The pattern included the waist (blouse,) over-blouse, and skirt.

Pattern 1610 description, Dec. Page 874.

The drawing of dress 1610 on page 874 shows very different options, and suggests two other color and fabric suggestions as well:

Left, 1610 in “amethyst chiffon velvet” with ruffled sleeves; Right, in “sherry-color crepe meteor with blue and gold embroidery.”

The tiny waist and extreme posture shown in the drawn illustration are exaggerations, as we see from the photograph of the same dress on a normal woman:

Butterick 1610, photo and fashion drawing.

The ensemble on the right, which was shown in a photo in the color plate, must have had fewer pattern variations, because the drawings on page 874 only illustrate back and side views.

Fashion plate, Delineator, Dec. 1907. Right, bodice/waist 1646 with skirt 1660.

Detail of Butterick skirt 1660, Dec. 1907. Delineator.

Side view drawing of skirt 1660.

Back view of skirt 1660.

Pattern description of Butterick skirt 1660. Delineator, Dec.1907, page 876.

Detail of fashion photograph from Delineator, December 1907. Waist 1646.

Back view drawing of waist 1646.

Waist 1646 description p. 876

I was hoping to show a few examples and then just give you a link to some 1907 Delineators, but…. Sadly, not all issues of Butterick’s Delineator from 1907 are available on Googles’ Hathi Trust site. This link will take you to the Hathi search page.

(Maddeningly, Google has assigned its own page numbers rather than the original page numbers, which is a problem because, in 1907, Delineator didn’t put the month of the issue on the pages, and Delineator did number its volumes (six months per volume) with consecutive page numbers (e.g., page 1 on January 1, and page 998 in June.) Figuring out which month you are reading requires you to search the little dark box at the top left for the table of contents for each month. On the other hand, I found photos of some dresses in the August issue, but the pattern information for them was in the March (?) issue. I simply typed the pattern number (e.g., 9909) into the text search box for Volume 69, and “Bingo!”

More color photos from Delineator at Hathi Trust.

More about these later….

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The Pledge

https://rememberedsummers.files.wordpress.com/2015/07/flag-float-1960ish060.jpg

Fourth of July Float, Redwood City parade. Early 1960s.

https://rememberedsummers.files.wordpress.com/2015/07/foresters-500-car-flag-and-star.jpg

Fourth of July Float made by the Foresters Lodge. Redwood City, CA late 1940s.

My father helped to build this float, so I got to sit front and center:https://rememberedsummers.files.wordpress.com/2015/07/foresters-bklt-col-rest500-float-with-star-group.jpg

If you’re not in your seventies, you may not remember when the Pledge of Allegiance was changed. I was in first grade when I first memorized it, and the word “indivisible” was quite a big one for a first grader. On Flag Day, June 14th, 1954, two new words were introduced into the pledge. When we started school that September, our teacher told us that we would now be saying “one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

To this day, when I say the Pledge of Allegiance I have to give some thought to whether the words “under God” come before or after the word “indivisible.” The wonderful thing about putting hand on heart and reciting the Pledge of Allegiance is the reminder that we Americans stand for “liberty and justice for all.” For all. 

Fourth of July Float, Redwood City, CA, early 1960s.

The other wonderful thing I learned in first grade was how to read. As I grew older, I read a lot of books and articles that were not part of our normal high school curriculum. I became aware that our behavior as a nation didn’t always match our stated principles. In college I was assigned a speech on the topic of the Vietnam War. My college library had a collection of Department of State bulletins, and what I read there was shocking to me. It turns out that we believed in free elections in other countries — unless they’re not going to turn out the way we want them to turn out. That was pretty disillusioning. Later, I Iearned that the passage of fair housing laws didn’t immediately translate into fair housing practices.  And I learned that that US policy in South America was also occasionally far from the ideals stated in our Pledge of Allegiance. 

That doesn’t mean the ideals have anything wrong with them. It doesn’t mean they are unattainable. The United States is still a work in progress. Maybe I’m still naive, but when I say the words “with liberty and justice for all,” I mean them. I still think that’s a pretty good idea.

“I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”
It’s election day. Please, can we all say those words today and mean them?

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Recommended Reading: Mysteries for Armchair Travelers

Me, years ago. I was perfectly happy at this moment: so many possibilities for walking in England. I don’t get around much any more….

This isn’t about fashion history. It’s about some books that opened new parts of the world to me. They are “light” reading — mystery novels set in parts of the world I will probably never visit. Usually, I don’t even try to “solve” the mystery (and I’m annoyed if I do guess who-dunnit without even trying.)
On my first trip to England, I was thrilled to find place names I knew from reading mysteries. (Norwood! “The Norwood Builder!”) I realized that, much as I love Sherlock Holmes for the characters, it was England — how it was different from California, what it was like in a different century, how people behaved in a different time and place — that I loved learning about.
In other words, I read mysteries for the local color and insights, rather than the plots.

I enjoy reading books about Australia. But I hate being plagued by insects (lethal or not,) I lived for years in a place with very high summer temperatures and am glad I left it, and I can’t go anywhere outdoors without sunscreen, hat, and gloves, so “Armchair Australia” suits me fine!

Armchair Detection in AustraliaMysteries by Arthur Upfield. Death of a Lake is a good place to start. You can listen to it on YouTube. Click here for all his titles.

Upfield was a Brit whose family was probably glad to see him off to Australia. Born in 1890, he served in WW I and then spent years odd-jobbing around Australia. When he describes miners or camels or back country sheep stations or swagmen or bush pilots or small town policemen, you know he is writing from experience (although I suspect he is also repeating stories he heard in drinking establishments….) His prose style is basic, but it gets the job done. In Death of a Lake he describes the last months of a lake which evaporates every twenty years or so; the effect on the people and wildlife, the twilights when the workmen wade into the water and struggle through a concentration of fish which are daily confined to ever smaller waters; the piling up of thousands of drought-starved rabbits against a rabbit-proof fence; the isolated shepherds, the hardship and opportunity of the outback, the toughness of the men and women who survive there. The mystery and cardboard characters hardly matter to me!

Upfield has great respect for the aboriginal peoples he met, and, although he does sometimes seem patronizing (he is a well-intentioned white man from a typical 19th century English background, writing in the 1930s and later,) he intends to present native Australians as worthy of respect. His detective is a half-aboriginal foundling who was given the unfortunate name of Napoleon Bonaparte (“Boney” to those he meets.) Boney has superior tracking skills and can easily pose as an itinerant swagman or horse–breaker, but he is highly educated and sometime poses as a businessman or successful rancher. However, it’s not Boney the detective that keeps me reading. It’s the details of life in the back country almost 100 years ago that fascinates me. (In one novel, Boney is riding to escape a wildfire; drops of  flaming alcohol drip off the tips of gum tree leaves….) There are vast salt-pans, flocks of parrots, rivers that dry up and then flood…. and the ability of tribal elders to communicate over vast distances, apparently by telepathy, which Upfield reports as fact. I believed him.

Armchair Travel to China and Tibet

I read a lot of non-fiction about China. Peter Hessler’s River Town is a good starting place. Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper: A Sweet-Sour Memoir of Eating in China by Fuschia Dunlop may change the way you think about food (Is texture as important as taste?) Dunlop is a chef who spent years in China learning to cook and to eat….) Foreign Babes in Beijing by Rachael DeWoskin is fun and offers cultural insights. For proof that an entire nation can slip into mass insanity, see Red Scarf Girl, a memoir about Mao’s Cultural Revolution. (None of these books is new.)

My Favorite Armchair Detection in China/Tibet: The Skull Mantra, by Elliot Pattison. The Skull Mantra (1999) is the first in a series, and it would be difficult to start with a later book, because there are many continuing characters. This series takes on the cultural conflicts between the ruling Communist Party and the Buddhist Tibetans, (and in other novels, with the Uighur Muslim people of the Urumchi/ Taklamakan desert regions.) These mysteries are well written, long and very dense, and will transport you to another world. Pattison respects the religious beliefs of his characters. His detective is ethnically Chinese, a policeman of integrity who was sentenced to a remote labor camp when he got too close to exposing a corrupt party official in Beijing. In Tibet, he is immersed in Buddhist culture — and required to solve a murder mystery without making his own situation worse by exposing unpleasant truths. Detection, compassion, and courage — extraordinary characters in an extraordinary Himalayan setting. Pattison is not kind to Chinese government policies towards ethnic minorities, but non-fiction histories (and current news reports) suggest he is not writing pure fiction. As in the Upfield books, there is an acceptance of spiritual events not usually found in conventional mysteries.

Armchair Detection in the America Southwest:  Mysteries by James D. Doss, beginning with The Shaman Sings. The Shaman is Southern Ute tribal member Daisy Perika, and in the early novels the central detective is non-native police chief Scott Parris.  However, Daisy’s nephew, (and Scott’s friend) Charlie Moon, former tribal policeman and eventual rancher, gradually came to dominate the books, which are often referred to as “the Charlie Moon series.”  Doss presents Daisy Perika’s supernatural abilities in a matter-of-fact way. She’s a complicated character — a devout Catholic, a shrewd survivor, a Ute shaman, and a crochety old lady who sometimes gets annoyed with the dead people who visit her asking for favors. These books often make me smile or laugh out loud. The humor is character-driven.  (Charlie Moon may be a great detective, but he doesn’t understand women, so his love life provides a few laughs.) The mysteries are satisfying, and if you enjoy Tony Hillerman’s Southwestern characters and settings, Doss’ books may be a very pleasant discovery for you — because Doss can be funny. And Daisy is a great character.

I didn’t read this series in order at first. I first got hooked by a novel in which a small-time crook is running from the teenage native girl he has seduced and from his no-longer loving ex-wife; forgetting how much money he has borrowed from his mother’s social security, he takes refuge at her house — where the three women tie him up and play poker to decide who will have the privilege of shooting  him…. (My kind of humor.) Doss’ style is quirky: Sometimes, trying to figure out exactly what’s going on is part of a Doss mystery. Quirky, but addictive.

Armchair Mysteries set in Apartheid-Era South Africa: Author: James H. McClure. Long before Trevor Noah wrote Born a Crime (highly recommended) these mysteries set in late 20th century South Africa presented the absurdist situation of two police detectives, partners who trust and respect each other, who have to conceal the equality they feel because their team might be broken up if their superiors discover it. The detective of Boer ancestry is paid a living wage and lives in a nice house in a white neighborhood; his partner’s family lives in a township with no running water, little electricity, sharing a tiny house with a dirt floor. He is insulted, callously disrespected, and has to be careful not to arrest a white woman…. but he carries a gun and is expected to put his life on the line like any other cop. I barely remember the mysteries — it was the mind-boggling circumstances of these men’s lives (and the bizarre South African culture revealed during their investigations) that I remember. Of course, much has changed since then….

Final mention: Botswana. The No. One Ladies’ Detective Agency series by Alexander McCall Smith keeps on coming, thank heavens! I read these books for the pleasure of spending time with people I have come to care about. The cast of characters continues to grow, and most of them are memorable. If you can get this series in audiobook  format, they are read by an actress who knows the correct sounds and rhythms of Botswanan speech, which makes them a pleasure to listen to. One thing that used to get me out of my armchair for a walk (or on to a treadmill) is looking forward to the next chapter in a good book.  So, although not “armchair travel,” a walk with Precious Ramotswe as she seeks to restore balance to to her clients’ lives (while solving their mysteries) is always refreshing.

If there’s a mystery lover on your shopping list, they might enjoy some armchair travel mysteries. If you just need to get away from 2020 for a few hours, try them yourself.

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When Will America Fulfill Its Promise?

“Let America Be America Again”

O, let America be America again—
The land that never has been yet—
And yet must be—the land where every man is free….

“I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath—
America will be!” — Langston Hughes (1902-1967)

I first encountered this poem (click here for the complete text) in a textbook when I was teaching American Literature. It has always moved me, that last line. His hope, his courage and tenacity, his determination that American principles — which could and should be a light to the world — will someday be reality for all of us.

Langston Hughes is also famous for this poem:

I, Too

“I, too, sing America.

I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.

Tomorrow,
I’ll be at the table
When company comes.
Nobody’ll dare
Say to me,
“Eat in the kitchen,”
Then.

Besides,
They’ll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed—

I, too, am America.” — Langston Hughes

I think “Let America Be America Again” was the first poem that got me thinking about the difference between immigrants who came here voluntarily — inspired by the dream of equality, and the hope that their own hard work would build a better life for their children — and the very different “America” of those who were torn from their families, shipped here in chains, sold into slavery, and even denied the right to think, “I can bear this because my children will have a better life.”

The children of the enslaved were taken from their arms and sold into slavery.

In all the long list of injustices and cruelty “the darker brother” and sister have endured, think of that difference between black lives and all the rest of us.

Their children were sold. No matter how difficult the lives of other immigrants to America may have been, the “American Dream” was different for those who came here by choice. Black families were torn apart, and few were reunited after Emancipation. How can we ever make reparation for that crime?

So I keep thinking of Langston Hughes. If he could keep faith with the Dream, the rest of us have no excuse. We ought to be ashamed. Why is equality still only a dream? It’s time to repeat — and act on — his words:

“And yet I swear this oath—
America will be!”

[Yes, the children of native and aboriginal peoples have been taken from them, too. Another injustice with long-lasting effects.]

 

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