‘Hell or Richmond,’ by Ralph Peters

Hell or Richmond

For all his concerns, his heart leapt at the prospect of fighting again. Lee smelled powder the way a horse smelled oats. There were things he dared not discuss with other men, matters he preferred not to think on too much himself. He loved war, that was the wicked truth. God forgive him, he loved it. Worse, this army had become his greatest love. It was a terrible thing for a man of faith, or any man, to recognize.

I wonder if it’s possible for a novel to be too successful. Not in the marketing sense – though there are certain authors whose success, in my opinion, is unmerited – but in the artistic sense. A novel that does such a good job of fulfilling its creative goals that the experience becomes nearly unendurable for the reader. Due to the subject matter.

That was my problem with Ralph Peters’ Hell or Richmond, a fantastically successful attempt to bring to life the experience of the 1864 Overland Campaign, during the American Civil War. Like his earlier novel, Cain at Gettysburg (which I admired greatly and reviewed here), it resurrects the historical events on both the macro and the micro level. Peters is a marvelous prose stylist, and succeeds in conveying not only the sights and sounds, but especially the sensations – the weariness, the thirst, the pervasive discomforts from an infantryman’s poison ivy to an officer’s inflamed feet, to Robert E. Lee’s digestive ailments. And the suffering goes on and on, far worse than Gettysburg, which seemed bad enough – through the Wilderness and Spotsylvania Courthouse to Cold Harbor, all of them famous slaughters. Continue reading ‘Hell or Richmond,’ by Ralph Peters

In Which Sin Is Like Smoke

Imagine a world in which sin is visible,” writes Hannah Beckerman in her review of Dan Vyleta’s fantasy novel, Smoke.

In which anger, lust, envy and avarice erupt in plumes of smoke and the clothes of the sinful are stained in dark soot. In which London is a city of vice, inhabited only by degenerates, its air polluted not with diesel but with transgression, its sewers running with the soot of sinners.

Unleash the Dragon!

Dragon Harald Fairhair
Photo credit: Jack_IOM from Douglas, Isle of Man.

I wrote the other day about the problem the replica Viking Ship, the Dragon Harald Fairhair, has gotten into in the great lakes. They’re stuck in Bay City, Michigan, having discovered they’re required to take on a pilot, something that will cost north of $400,000.

The Sons of Norway Foundation has started campaign to raise money for these fees. The donation site is here. You don’t have to be a Sons of Norway member.

Personally, I think it would be more prudent to burn a few buildings and demand Danegeld. But that’s just me.

Reading in Parking Lot Seen as Suspicious Behavior

A thirty-three year old, former high school English teacher spent a couple hours at Stonehaven Wharf, “a parking lot for fishing boats that’s frequented by tourists to the Canadian province of New Brunswick,” according to the Washington Post. He sat in his small white hatchback, reading Lewis’ Mere Christianity and a book by Tim Keller.

On his way home, he was pulled over by Canadian police, because someone had reported his behavior as suspicious. Of course, the officer quickly saw there was nothing suspicious about the Hamilton, Ontario native, and wished him well. The driver said:

I do not know the true motivations behind the individual who called the police to report my presence at the Stonehaven Wharf, but I struggle to understand why my actions of driving my vehicle to a public space, reading a book, and never once exiting my vehicle was cause for a level of suspicion which prompted this individual to call the police.

Then and now

I wrote about my recent trip to northern Wisconsin a few inches down this page. The purpose of the expedition was, along with my brothers, to “get to know” one of our great-grandfathers, a colorful Norwegian immigrant named John B. Johnson.

Below is a picture I’ve shared on this blog before, showing John B. and his family (my grandmother is the little girl second from the left). The story of this photo, I’ve been told, is that they’d bought a fancy new glass door for the house, and they wanted to take a picture to commemorate the event (it’s hard to tell here, but under magnification you can see that my great-grandmother Olina, the woman on the left, is wearing an apron embroidered in the Norwegian Hardanger style. Such items were treasures — she had put on her best for the photo). At the last moment, however, a neighbor boy scrambled in to be in the picture too — and stood right in front of the new door. This neighbor boy, the tall drink of water, would years later marry the little girl, and they would be my mother’s parents.

The Johnson place

On our trip, we visited the site of the farm, and saw what was left (just near-buried concrete foundations). This picture shows the hill where the house stood.

The Johnson place 2016

Thus pass the glories of this world. Also its humilities.

Nothing to Hide by J. Mark Bertrand

She rolls her eyes. “The Song of Roland. Don’t get me started. That was the first one we had to read. If that’s chivalry, then you can have it. That book infuriates me.”

“Really.” I flip through the pages, many of which are underscored. I’m familiar with the story, of course, though I can’t recall having actually read the poem. In fact, before now I’m not sure I realized it was a poem, with all the stanzas and verses. “He’s supposed to blow the horn to signal the ambush, is that it?”

“He’s supposed to blow it if they need help. Only Roland’s too proud for that, so he waits and waits until everybody’s basically dead. Does that sound like heroism to you?”

Bertrand’s third thrilling novel in his Roland March series begins with a body dumped in a recreational park. The head is missing and the hands, one of which is pointing, have been ‘degloved,’ which is a clinical word for skinned. March’s partner on the case, Jerry Lorenz, suggests the hand is pointing at something, maybe the missing head, and March nearly breaks his back looking for it. No dice.

I don’t care to outline the plot any further, because I enjoyed jumping into this novel having forgotten almost everything I’d heard about it. It’s a fun story, as are all of Bertrand’s March novels. Personal moments are filled with dialogue like the above interchange on The Song of Roland, showing Bertrand’s appealing bookish style. This brief description of the poem absolutely foreshadows the plot, which is exactly the way they do it in the movies, which reminds me how someone should be throwing money at Bertrand for the honor of taking his March trilogy to the big screen.

March isn’t any kind of super cop or brilliantly quirky detective. He’s a seasoned professional, like many homicide detectives on the force today. He has overcome the difficulties of his past, put numerous criminals behind bars, and continues to seek (and question) trust from his colleagues. He solves his cases by hard, honest work: asking questions, following leads, and pressuring forensics to cough up the right evidence. Like the title suggests, Nothing to Hide drives its story to a bold climax where all cards are on the table and everyone’s exposed.

Coast Guard stops Vikings: Irish take note

Dragon Harald Fairhair
Photo credit: Peder Jacobsson.

All summer I’ve been looking forward to the annual Tall Ships Festival in Duluth. Among the featured ships was to be the Dragon Harald Fairhair, largest Viking ship replica in the world. Built in Haugesund, old ancestral region of the Walkers. I had been talking to the festival people about having my Viking group participate.

At the moment the voyage is stalled. The U.S. Coast Guard has forbidden the dragon ship from proceeding without a professional pilot, something estimated to cost around $400,000. They had understood that their short length made them exempt, but that, apparently was Canadian rules. It seems to be another case of people misunderstanding government regulations, inexplicable in view of their simplicity and rationality (sarcasm off).

Anyway, there’s a petition to get the requirement waived at change.org. I don’t know if it will do any good or not.

Loud Sounds Pack a Punch

FiveThirtyEight answers the old question, “If a tree fell in a wood with no one around to hear it, would it make a sound?” by telling a five year old she really doesn’t want to hear the loudest sound in the world. They said when Krakatoa exploded in 1883, the sound waves washed over the entire world. Many people heard it thousands of miles away, and in cities on the opposite side of the globe, climatologists recorded spikes in air pressure.

There are two important lessons about sound in there: One, you don’t have to be able to see the loudest thing in the world in order to hear it. Second, just because you can’t hear a sound doesn’t mean it isn’t there.

As you can see in the animation below, sound has physical force that can channel falling water, put out fires, and destroy buildings.


‘True-Life Adventure,’ by J. Paul Drew

True-Life Adventure

I seem to have developed Critics’ Disease. I’ve become so obsessed with technical and artistic excellence in literature that, when presented with a perfectly pleasant little light mystery like True-Life Adventure, by J. Paul Drew, I find myself inclined to grouse. Even though I have no excuse for doing so.

This is the first book in a series, and various clues (such as a lack of cell phones) indicate that it was first published back around the ‘80s. The hero is Paul Mcdonald, a reporter who left his steady job to write mystery novels. Which he hasn’t succeeded in doing. Instead he gets by writing reports for a real private eye. But one day the private eye dies of poisoning while dictating to him. Paul, realizing that a true mystery has fallen into his lap, decides to investigate it himself so he can write it up and get it published. This leads him to the detective’s last case, involving the kidnapped daughter of a computer mogul.

The tone is light, with lots of wisecracks. Wisecracking, of course, is a hallowed tradition in detective novels, so that’s not a real criticism. I guess I’ve grown to expect some kind of serious underpinning in stories involving human deaths. Also, I found it a little hard to buy the scenario where a depressed, overweight guy somehow snags a hot girlfriend much younger than himself (I grow less tolerant of such plot lines, for some reason, as I grow old alone).

But I really have no reason not to recommend True-Life Adventure to you as light summer reading. Nothing really wrong with it.

How Was Slavery in America Abolished?


W.E.B. Du Bois challenged the idea that American slaves were emancipated by outside liberators with the notion of slave insurrection and self-emancipation. He painted a picture of slaves rising up against the Confederacy to undermine it while pressuring the White House to pass anti-slavery legislation. Others have taken up this line of thought to argue that slaves, in fact, started The Civil War in order to free themselves.

Allen C. Guelzo, the Henry R. Luce Professor of the Civil War Era at Gettysburg College, sees many problems with this view and reviews two books for the Claremont Review of Books that demonstrate how Du Bois was wrong. Of the longer of the two, Guelzo writes:

Rael’s book is a comprehensive history of slavery’s end, well-informed, subdued in tone, and in most cases forgiving. He does not believe (as David Waldstreicher, Paul Finkelman, and George van Cleve do) that the founders were unqualified hypocrites who cunningly crafted a pro-slavery Constitution, and he is more willing than most to acknowledge that it was the rise of bourgeois notions of property rights which made property in human beings seem repulsive in an age which had abandoned hierarchy as the governing principle of social life.

Perhaps the self-emancipation idea is an attempt at self-fulfilling prophecy, the idea that if they believe they liberated themselves back then, they will liberate themselves again today. But the fact that Du Bois and others saw the need to argue for a new emancipation is evidence enough that the previous one had not be entirely of their own making. (via Prufrock News)

The Saga of Apple Johnson

I was out of town the last few days. I took a long weekend for a trip with my brothers. I’ll share a couple pictures in a few days, when I’ve cleared up some technical problems with my camera.

It was a family history trip. We went to visit the natural habitat of one of our great-grandfathers on Mom’s side.

The man has always been something of a mystery to us. He was larger than life in family memory, half joke and half cautionary tale. But we didn’t know where he came from in Norway, or where to look for the information. The clues I remembered steered me entirely wrong.

But one of my brothers did some digging in his spare time, and not only located the old man’s grave, but also made contact with a second cousin. That cousin met us in Iron River, Wisconsin, along with his wife (nice people; devout Baptists). So we heard some stories, saw some documents, and visited some locations. The result was a more detailed, and nuanced, story of our great-grandfather, John B. Johnson.

The story:

Our ancestor was born on the island of Ytreøy, near Trondheim. The first fact that caught my imagination was that his baptism name was Johan Arndt Johanson. The name “Johan Arndt” is significant. Johann Arndt was a German Lutheran theologian in the 17th Century. Not strictly a pietist, his devotional writings were prized by the Pietists when they eventually came along. In Norway, they were particularly popular with the Haugeans, members of the evangelical lay movement (I’ve written about it here before) that changed Norwegian society, and to which my paternal family belonged.

So if a common family (and all my ancestors were common as dirt) named their son after Johan Arndt, that’s a pretty good indicator that it was a Haugean family.

Young Johan Arndt Johanson, however, was a prodigal son. A laborer and a sea cook, he was immensely strong, a prodigious drinker, and pretty much uncontrollable. Continue reading The Saga of Apple Johnson

Rage Against Cops Makes Us Less Safe

Dallas police
“We’re in the midst of the greatest delegitimation of law enforcement in recent memory,” says the scholar behind a new book on policing in America today. “Officers are backing off of proactive policing, and as a result, crime in big cities, above all cities with large Black populations is going up at a very alarming rate.”

Heather Mac Donald is the Thomas W. Smith Fellow at the Manhattan Institute and a contributing editor of City Journal. In her just-released book, The War on Cops: How the New Attack on Law and Order Makes Everyone Less Safe, she says the communities most in need of active policing are receiving less of it in part because of aggressive tactics citizens are taking to hold cops accountable. Officers do need training and support to uphold the law and seek justice, but much of this citizen accountability is an effort to get a cop off the street entirely.

From a piece in City Journal, Mac Donald writes:

The growing mayhem [this year in Chicago] is the result of Chicago police officers’ withdrawal from proactive enforcement, making the city a dramatic example of what I have called the “Ferguson effect.” Since the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in August 2014, the conceit that American policing is lethally racist has dominated the national airwaves and political discourse, from the White House on down. In response, cops in minority neighborhoods in Chicago and other cities around the country are backing off pedestrian stops and public-order policing; criminals are flourishing in the resulting vacuum. (An early and influential Ferguson-effect denier has now changed his mind: in a June 2016 study for the National Institute of Justice, Richard Rosenfeld of the University of Missouri–St. Louis concedes that the 2015 homicide increase in the nation’s large cities was “real and nearly unprecedented.” “The only explanation that gets the timing right is a version of the Ferguson effect,” he told the Guardian.)

There are many steps on the road to dealing with this problem. I doubt most of the efforts made by our churches will be reported, so let’s not fall into the trap of looking at atrocities and asking where the church is. The small interactions of a community seeking better health are not front page news. We are praying, seeking restoration, counseling, teaching, and loving. There’s plenty more to do. (via Instapundit)

7/13 update: Thomas Sowell reviews The War on Cops, saying, “Such facts would have spoiled the prevailing preconceptions. Many facts reported in The War on Cops spoil many notions that all too many people choose to believe. We need to stop this nonsense, before there is a race war that no one can win.” (via Prufrock News)

Book Reviews, Creative Culture