Category Archives: Non-fiction

Hard America, Soft America by Michael Barone

Talent pushed us toward Softness. Genius pushed us toward Hardness. John Dewey and the first progressive educators, the apparat of men and women who put together and extended the Social Security program, were people of talent who persistently and effectively Softened the Hard America of Theodore Dreiser.

I read an interview with Michael Barone in World magazine, focused on his latest book on party politics. I’ve wanted to learn more about the shifting history of U.S. political parties. It’s commonly said that Lincoln was a Republican, and the GOP has been holding a stained but righteous banner ever since, that Democrats don’t care for civil rights unless they can make political hay out of it (Bull Connor and his ilk were the ones opposing Martin Luther King way back when).

But it’s also common to hear that the parties have shifted, so I wanted to read a solid overview about some of that history. How America’s Political Parties Change (and How They Don’t) sounds like a good bet. I have yet to read yet, however, because my library system doesn’t have it. They had another book that was not about politics but about the character of our nation, which I put on hold many long, COVID-ridden weeks ago.

Hard America, Soft America by Michael Barone

Hard America, Soft America: Competition vs. Coddling and the Battle for the Nation’s Future asks how a country that expects so little from its teenagers can send young men and women who are barely older into battlefields as hardened soldiers. The troops in Iraq, he says, were impressively well-trained and equipped to handle the dangers around them. How could American schools produce people like that?

He explores this idea over 150 pages, describing conditions in twentieth century America and how leaders acted and reacted to make life harder or easier on Their people. The quote above refers to life in Chicago as depicted in Dreiser’s Sister Carrie. That was Hard America; eighteen year olds had to get a job and pay the rent or lose themselves in a gutter. There was little margin for idleness. It was arguably too hard. Men who made their fortunes building railroads and industries did so by grinding up men who had few choices. They paid their communities back with great philanthropy from which we still benefit today: medical research, libraries, and museums. “These men felt a responsibility to use a large part of their wealth to benefit their fellow citizens, but they wanted to maintain the Hardness of America, which they believed was responsible for the countries great economic growth and creativity.”

Barone describes hardening or softening of different segments in our society, the intent of these efforts, and whether they paid off. Hardening generally means accountability and potential for achievement, the hard work and risk that goes into the wheel of progress to make a great, big, beautiful tomorrow. Softness means the lack of accountability, which may be the security to enjoy simple life but could also mean low standards and few achievements.

For example, at one point, economists believed three big players could drive the U.S. economy forward indefinitely. Business would do the work, Labor would oversee the prosperity of the workers, and Government would regulate and protect the field where all of this could take place. Competition? Who needs it? When the free market eventually found paths to American consumers, the big three were shocked (and slipping into bankruptcy).

With nationwide protests taking over our news channels, you may have seen images of George Romney at a civil rights march in Detroit in 1967. Barone touches on that time in his book; he was an intern with the mayor. Romney was governor of Michigan in July 1967 when Detroit suffered a week of riots. The local police couldn’t handle it, but the mayor feared the National Guard would make things worse. Romney and everyone with him were reluctant to call President Johnson for federal troops. What can of worms would be opened by inviting the U.S. military to handle local problems? So they tried the softer approach, just one act among many at a time when Americans all over the country “no longer felt morally justified in imposing hard penalties on crime.”

“But while the civil rights movement had sought to allow blacks into Hard America, the new public policies actually confined more Americans, black and non-black, into a Soft America where poverty and crime were chronic.”

Now we have much harder responses to crime and in some ways harsh reactions. We’ve condoned the brutal treatment and killing of civilians who have been merely accused minor offenses. The other day four officers stood on the edge of a lawn next to their cars, pistols drawn, confronting a pleading young man who had rolled through a traffic light. George Floyd was killed while being arrested for using a fake 20. Breonna Taylor was killed when officers raided the wrong apartment to conduct a warranted search at 12:30 a.m. These are serious problems, but perhaps more serious is the reluctance to reform from public officials.

Barone’s book shows that time and again methods for handling problems have unintended results, sometimes saving us from bad ideas, sometimes rolling in a new wave of grief.

“Lies Women Believe” and “Get Lost” – Guest Reviews

One of my daughters, still a teenager, has begun to write reviews of the books she reads. She has been collecting books from my and my parents’ shelves for a couple years now. Her to-read pile is intimidating (picture below). Recently she wrote these reviews.

I finally finished Lies Women Believe and The Truth That Sets Them Free by Nancy Leigh DeMoss. Now I’ve wanted to read this book for several years and was thrilled to find on McKay’s shelves sometime last year. However, this book isn’t the most compelling, which is the main reason why I finished it today.

I do like the way the chapters are written. Nancy presents a lie which flies under most radars, explains why it is a lie, and explains the gospel truth that contradicts it. Some of the most interesting lies I discovered were the lies about priorities, emotions, and circumstances. Nancy’s explanations were simple and practical.

What I did not enjoy about this book, the fantasy “diary” of Eve. Every chapter opens with a segment of Eve’s diary, recounting The Fall along with Cain and Abel’s episode. Having Eve narrated by the stereotypical twenty-first century woman was pretty annoying to read. Debates about the historical accuracy of her complaints aside, Eve’s personality was rather whiny and depressed. I get that Nancy opened her chapters like this to give us an example of the lies we were going to bust in action, however, she these diary segments would have done better written from the perspective of some distressed, fictional mother of a twenty-first century family. If that was the case, the diary would have been a bit more relatable, and Nancy could have made her characters as annoying as she liked instead of putting words in the mouths of people who actually lived.

All in all, Lies Women Believe and The Truth That Sets Them Free isn’t a terrible book. I might read it again in ten years, once I finish the three foot stack of books on my dresser.

large stack of book
Continue reading “Lies Women Believe” and “Get Lost” – Guest Reviews

Book notice: ‘Fifty Thousand Evangelists’

This is not a book review, but – what shall I call it? – a book notice. You may be surprised to know that there’s a book out there about an aspect of Lutheran history in America, which mentions me.

The book is Fifty Thousand Evangelists, by Jonathan D. Anderson (whom I have met and assisted a little with a different project). I’m sure it will be a surprise to many, in view of the state of Lutheranism today, but there was a time – not so awfully long ago – when an estimated more than 65,000 young college-age Lutherans, mostly from mainline church bodies, went out to preach the inerrancy of Scripture and the importance of having a personal encounter with Jesus. At least at the beginning, and for a long time.

It was part of the wider Jesus Movement, and I was there. And so my picture and name, along with that of the group I sang with, is in Fifty Thousand Evangelists, on page 83.

I was motivated to buy the book, but I won’t be reviewing it. I’m pretty sure reading it would be painful for me. Subsequent events have poisoned all my memories of what was, in the experience, the happiest time of my life.

‘Dodge City,’ by Tom Clavin

Long ago, based on an article I read in some magazine, I joined the anti-Wyatt Earp party. Anti-Wyatt people like to point out that Wyatt Earp was primarily a gambler, not a lawman – he was never the marshal of anyplace, though he was a deputy off and on. Also that the story of the Gunfight at the OK Corral (which took place not in the corral, but in a nearby vacant lot), is told in so many contradictory ways that it’s impossible to get at the truth, but that the Earps’ conduct is suspicious at best. And that Wyatt’s famous vendetta ride, though understandable in light of the murder of one brother and the maiming of another, was entirely extralegal and far from a law ‘n order affair. And, oh yes, there’s evidence Wyatt was a pimp, at least for a while.

Since then I’ve softened a bit. Wyatt was no Hugh O’Brien (that’s the guy who played him on TV, for your kids out there), but neither were his enemies – white hats were hard to find in them parts, in those days.

My real favorite Wild West lawman is Wild Bill Hickok. And yet I keep picking up books about Earp. Maybe because there are more mysteries in his story. I’m still trying to get to the bottom of him.

So I picked up Tom Clavin’s book, Dodge City: Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson, and the Wickedest Town In the American West. It has its virtues, but in terms of a search for the facts, I think it’s a step back rather than forward.

One great virtue of Dodge City is that it provides a lot of context. Although the narrative is centered in Dodge, it sends feelers out to touch on a lot of places that involved the main characters through the second half of the 19th Century. I appreciated this; I know my Old West fairly well, but my sense of what was contemporaneous with what was improved.

The book’s particular virtue is that, instead of concentrating on the almost mythic figure of Wyatt Earp, Clavin also keeps his eye on Wyatt’s close friend Bat Masterson. Masterson has gotten too little attention, and Clavin makes a good case (with which I tend to agree) that he was the more accomplished of the two. For one thing, Bat was actually an elected sheriff, at least for a while. But he was also involved in more adventures, from the legendary Adobe Wells fight to various manhunts, shootouts, and arrests as a lawman. William S. Hart knew both men, but it was Masterson he identified as his character model.

The great weakness of Dodge City is that it scores low on the factual scale. Clavin treats these men as if they were career lawmen, men on a mission to bring peace to the frontier, like in the movies. I don’t think you can honestly make that case. His account of the feud with the Clantons is routinely biased toward the Earps. And there are simple mistakes of fact. I’m not a “real” historian, but Clavin’s accounts of events involving Wild Bill Hickok and Billy the Kid are wrong in important details, to my best knowledge. (Although I could just be behind on the scholarship. It keeps changing. But Clavin does not inspire my confidence as scholar.)

Dodge City has some value for the reader looking for a sweeping overview of a colorful time and place in our history. But if you’re looking for objective scholarship, I’d suggest you look elsewhere.

Viking Kings, well translated

The line of the Norwegian kings, art by Anders Kvale Rue

I’ve mentioned that I got some new translation work recently. One of these jobs is to translate a series of short articles on the Viking Age rulers of Norway, for Saga Publishers, the publishers of Viking Legacy. It’s an ongoing project, but my first translation went up today, here.

Unanimous saga tradition regards the Oppland king Halvdan the Black as the progenitor of the eventual Norwegian royal dynasty. The same tradition also relates that he was the first Norwegian petty king to secure for himself a trans-regional power base spanning eastern and western Norway, through a marriage alliance with Ragnhild Haraldsdotter, the daughter of a petty king in Sogn. Their son, Harald, according to custom, would have been fostered up in Sogn at the home of his grandfather, Harald Goldbeard.

The series will be updated with fresh kings, as I understand it, a couple times a week.

‘The Conservative Mind,’ by Russell Kirk

The assault on institutional religion, on old-fashioned economic methods, on family authority, and on small political communities has set the individual free from nearly everything, truly; but that freedom is a terrifying thing, the freedom of a baby deserted by his parents to do as he pleases.

I have done it. I have successfully read Russell Kirk’s The Conservative Mind all the way through. I rate this accomplishment just a bit behind getting my master’s degree.

The essence of conservatism is aristocracy – at least that’s what this book seems to be saying. Which is not optically optimal, in my mind. And I may be misreading Kirk’s intentions – he may simply be accurately transcribing the arguments of the historical conservatives he’s surveying, from Edmund Burke to T. S. Eliot.

Most English and American conservatives, up until recently, have defended some kind of aristocracy. Not because they believe aristocrats to be superior by blood, but for prudential reasons. Your alternatives in governance, they argue, are either some kind of autocracy – where a monarch or a dictator rules by personal caprice – or pure democracy, where the public, which knows only what it wants, uses its votes to allocate all the wealth to itself. You can’t get any kind of real justice from either alternative.

The aristocracy, they have argued, is some kind of class of men (or people) who’ve been schooled in the ancient truths and the lessons of history. They preserve the institutions that guarantee rights and freedom, which dictators and the masses alike would take away.

Since the 20th Century, though, the cause of aristocracy has mostly been lost, and we’ve been trying to find a way to raise an aristocracy out of the general public through education. Kirk saw hope for the future at the time of writing, feeling that conservatives were producing good art and analysis and positively influencing culture.

It seems to me, however, that prospects look less sunny since the 1980s when the book was last updated. We now have an educational system expressly committed to erasing the Anglo-American tradition. And our immigration policies are focused on bringing in large numbers of people who are either indifferent or actively hostile to that tradition.

Kirk’s original title for the book was The Conservative Rout. He meant it to be a story of a long retreat, but with hope in the end. For the conservative reader in the early 21st Century, I fear the outlook is less encouraging.

And that was before the epidemic…

Blogging through ‘The Conservative Mind’: Evangelicalism

Continuing my fairly random commentary on Russell Kirk’s The Conservative Mind:

Good will is not enough to safeguard freedom and justice: this delusion leads to the triumph of every demagogue and tyrant, and no amount of transplanted Idealism can compensate for the loss of religious sanctions. Men’s passions are held in check only by the punishments of divine wrath and the tender affections of piety.

This passage from Kirk’s chapter on Orestes Brownson is part of one of many discussions where the place of Christianity – or at least religion in general – is considered. Although most of the notable conservatives in the book are heterodox in some sense, and some are even agnostics or atheists, the importance of religion as such looms large. One exception is Roman Catholicism – several of the great conservatives are Catholics, or at least high Anglicans.

Catholics come off pretty well in this book – which annoys me a bit, of course. Still, I can’t deny that the Reformation was a liberalizing force (heck, I’m proud of it. See my post last night). Luther didn’t abolish the hierarchy of the church (check out the organizations of most Lutheran churches worldwide), but he affirmed the principle that there’s a direct line between the believer and Christ, absent the mediation of the priest. In the context of history, this was a step toward individualism and what Kirk calls “atomization” – mankind conceived as a mass of unconnected individuals, all free-floating clients of the state, undistinguished by family, status, or personal qualities.

It’s interesting for an evangelical to observe that evangelicals are newbies to the conservative movement. Again, this is something I already knew – evangelicals were Abolitionists and the Prohibitionists, trying to re-shape the world through legislation, to change mankind through enlightened government force.

But there were dangers in that approach, as we can see now. The reformer who wants to save the world from slavery and Demon Rum, goes on to try to save it from guns and cigarettes and fossil fuels and transphobia.

And yet I don’t believe in a purely libertarian approach either. I think the government has a role to play in legislating morality – all laws, after all, legislate morality to one extent or another.

I’m thinking it over.

Blogging ‘The Conservative Mind’

OK, folks. I’m back on course. I hope you’re all safe, sheltering in place, avoiding hugs, and keeping well.

As I explained a few inches down the page, I’m reading Russell Kirk’s interesting but interminable The Conservative Mind, and blogging as I go. Parts of the book were kind of a shock to me, though a salutary one.

One thing you learn in reading this book this that it’s not a canard to say that conservatives are against Democracy. To the contrary, early conservatives (like Edmund Burke, particular hero of this book), considered Democracy a positive threat to a decent social order. The American Founders generally shared that view. When we say “We are not a democracy, we’re a republic,” it’s true – or was.

Kirk lays that principle down, early in the book, in a list of conservative principles. Here are his words:

[Conservatives hold a ] Conviction that civilized society requires orders and classes, as against the notion of a “classless society.” With reason, conservative often have been called “the party of order.” If natural distinctions are effaced among men, oligarchs fill the vacuum. Ultimate equality in the judgment of God, and equality before courts of law, are recognized by conservatives; but equality of condition, they think, means equality in servitude and boredom.

This idea in itself was not a surprise to me – I talk about the same thing in my work with Lutheran Free Church history. But I’ve approached it from the other side. I’ve often told listeners and readers that the Norwegian Lutheran pietists who founded my church body were liberals in their time. That the primary difference between liberals and conservatives in those days was their different ideas about the place of the common people in society. Conservatives wanted hierarchy and ancient privileges preserved. Liberals wanted the common people to participate ever more fully in all public life. Hence universal education, leading to broader voting rights.

To the early conservatives, this was all disastrous. The breakdown of the social classes must inevitably lead to the debasement of moral life. There would be no more great, highly educated men to emulate – everything would be debased to a common level of undistinguished mediocrity.

I don’t think we’re meant to take all the early conservatives’ ideas seriously – they mostly distrusted the abolition of slavery, for instance (wanting it to be delayed and happen naturally). For my own part, I can’t help being proud of the achievements of (limited) democracy in America – Abraham Lincoln, as I’ve often said, was a walking reproach to the class-conscious old conservatives.

On the other hand, the horrors those old conservatives predicted seem to be coming upon us at last.

Possibly the American experiment was a fragile flower, one that bloomed briefly in a specialized environment in a blessed time and place, never to be seen again.

But I hope not.

‘Return to the Future,’ by Sigrid Undset

Pre-Christian pagans – Greeks and Romans and Nordic peoples, or redskins and Asiatic tribes – have usually conceived of the Golden Age as having been some time in the past. The present was hard, and the future was dark and full of menace. When the Christian Church began to speak and taught that God’s kingdom would come, it was in reality challenging people’s innermost convictions.

Inconstant and fickle as I am, I shall now contradict what I told you yesterday about blogging my way through The Conservative Mind. A small writing job came up which required me to bone up on Sigrid Undset, and I decided I needed to read an Undset book I’ve owned for a while but had not yet read – her 1942 war memoir, Return to the Future.

The original manuscript for Viking Legacy included a short passage from Undset, about the ancient piles of stones in Norway which have been cleared from the fields over the centuries. She declares them Norway’s “proudest monuments of antiquity” (my translation). Sadly, that passage (which I adored) was omitted from the final version. I didn’t realize, until I picked up Return to the Future, that it was the opening paragraph of that work.

In April 1940, as the Germans advanced northward in Norway, author Sigrid Undset left her home in Lillehammer in haste. She and her youngest son, Hans, fled with other refugees up to the coast at Molde, where they turned eastward toward the Swedish border, traveling at times on foot or on skis. It was only after their arrival in Sweden that they learned that her oldest son, Anders, an officer in the Norwegian army, had been killed in action. After a short stayover in Sweden, she and Hans took a Russian plane for a connection to the Trans-Siberian railroad.

The trip on the Trans-Siberian forms a large section of the book, and does not present an appealing picture. Even traveling first class, they found the accommodations (built under the Czars and badly maintained) filthy, the food terrible, the compartments stifling (you could not open the windows because of the soot, which got in anyway), and there was no running water. What she saw of the country revealed nothing but poverty, filth, and dull, lifeless faces. In spite of vaunted universal literacy, almost nobody read anything. The Catholic Undset saw in Russia everything she already suspected about Communism.

Arriving in Vladivostok, they take a steamer to Japan, and it’s a whole different world. Though like the rest of the world she is appalled by reports of Japanese atrocities in China, she can’t help but marvel at the beauty of the clothing and the architecture, the delicate politeness of the people (though they insist on ignoring her in favor of Hans, because he’s the male), and the cleanliness everywhere. Her description of the Japanese leg of her trip gives her the opportunity to meditate at length on the nature of politics and power, and how the West has – to some extent – brought the war on itself through treating non-westerners as if they were as materialistic as we are.

Her voyage ended in the United States, and she crossed our country by train, finally settling in Brooklyn. But the book ends before her arrival. One assumes it was brought out fairly quickly, as part of her campaign to promote the cause of the Norwegian government in exile.

Return to the Future was interesting, both for the first-hand account of Norway under attack, and for Undset’s thoughts about international politics, morality and war. She spends a lot of time on the historical sins of the Germans (she baldly declares Martin Luther a “psychopath,” but I forgive her). The sense of the title, as I understand it, is that the Nazi invasion had plunged Norway back into the dark past, and that in coming to America she was returning to the “future” to which she was accustomed. The implication is that America had an obligation to bring that future back for the victims of the war. I would rate the translation by Henriette C. K. Naeseth as adequate, though I flatter myself that I could have done better.

Kirk on Scott (not Star Trek)

Sir Walter Scott.

The public library has always been a boon to the impecunious reader. The utility that permits me to download e-books from my library is a particular blessing (not least in these days when Pestilence stalks the land). My library’s system is a little cumbersome, but less cumbersome than driving to the physical building, so I’ve got no gripe coming.

My main problem with my library’s e-book collection is selection. Mostly I read mysteries for light reading, and when I pull up “mystery” on the library site I always get the very same list of books. I don’t know if they’re arranged by popularity or date of acquisition, or some other criterion. But I have to page through screens and screens of listings before I find one that a) interests me, and b) isn’t being read by somebody else.

Last week I tried a new approach. Instead of looking for mysteries, I thought, why don’t I try one of those “important” books I’ve always heard I should read, but have never gotten around to? I’ll bet nobody’s waiting in line for those.

So, on a whim, I searched for Russell Kirk. Several books were available, and I selected The Conservative Mind.

Brilliant. Masterfully written. Illuminating.

And long. Dear, sweet jasmine tea, it’s a long book. I started it last week, and I’m not half way through yet. I complained a while back about the length of Walter Scott’s The Pirate, but that was an Amazon review compared to this.

The nice part is that my book-buying expenses have plummeted for the duration.

So… of what shall I blog until I finish this thing?

I think I shall discuss the reading as I go.

The first thing that struck me as potential blogging material was Mr. Kirk’s assessment of Sir Walter Scott, mentioned above.

In the Waverly novels, Scott makes the conservatism of Burke a living and a tender thing—in Edie Ochiltree, showing how the benefits and dignity of hierarchical society extend even to the beggar; in Balfour of Burley, illustrating the destructive spirit of reforming fanaticism; in Montrose among the clans, “the unbought grace of life”; in Monkbarns or the Baron of Bradwardine, the hamely goodness of the old-fashioned laird…. Delighting in variety like all the Romantics, repelled by the coarsening pleasure-and-pain principle of conduct, Scott clearly saw in Utilitarianism a system which would efface nationality, individuality, and all the beauty of the past. Utilitarianism was the surly apology for a hideous and rapacious industrialism.

(More after jump)

Shippey on the Staffordshire Hoard

Photo credit: theguardian.com

We usually specialize in Vikings on this blog, but we are not above tolerating Anglo-Saxons, especially when there’s a Tolkien connection.

Tom Shippey, successor to and biographer of J.R.R. Tolkien, has a review in the London Review and Books of a new book on the Staffordshire Hoard, a rather amazing 2009 find:

What one can say is, first, that the hoard is unique from the period. Previous discoveries have been grave burials, or single finds, not collections buried with (presumably) the intention of later recovery. Second, the general nature of the hoard is clear. It is strongly weapon-related, but without weapons. There are no coins, no brooches, no items of women’s jewellery, not even a single knife or sword blade. Some 80 per cent of the objects are fittings from weapons, mostly sword-hilt parts. An Anglo-Saxon sword typically had a wooden hilt fitted over the iron tang on the blade, but to this were added an upper and a lower guard, each secured by two hilt plates and a hilt collar, fixed by bosses, with a pommel on top. All these appear in the hoard in large numbers.

Read it all here. Thanks to Dale Nelson for sending me the link.

What Environmentalism Can Teach Us About Loving the Body

I didn’t notice Nancy Pearcey’s latest book when it was released in 2018, but I heard an interview today in which she described one of the explanations she makes that has caught the attention of many readers. Her book is Love Thy Body: Answering Hard Questions about Life and Sexuality, and it offers biblical reasons for accepting, even loving, the body God has given you.

She says we can take something from environmentalism.

The Nature Conservatory’s states, “Our mission is to conserve the lands and waters on which all life depends. Our vision is a world where the diversity of life thrives, and people act to conserve nature for its own sake and its ability to fulfill our needs and enrich our lives.”

What if we applied that logic to our own bodies? We are not spirits or souls trapped in a temporal, worthless vessel. We are unique body and soul beings, and our physical form is a major part of our lives. Our physical health is a big part of a thriving life. What if we treated it as a kind of natural good, something to love partly for its own sake, not something to fight against?

There are some who say we can and should remake ourselves into whatever image we imagine ourselves to be, but that’s not how we treat nature. We want to preserve the natural world around us. How about we preserve the natural form closest to us?

This is what I took from the interview. You’ll find more good reasoning in Pearcey’s Love Thy Body.

‘The Lost Cause,’ by James P. Muehlberger

On December 7, 1869, two men attacked the Daviess County Savings and Loan in Gallatin, Missouri. One of them murdered the cashier and grabbed a metal box (which turned out to be full of worthless documents). They fled riding double, as one of their horses had run off. On the way out of town they stole a farmer’s horse to make a successful getaway.

The lost horse was quickly identified. It was a blooded Kentucky thoroughbred, well known as belonging to one Jesse Woodson James. This was Jesse’s first identified post-Civil War crime, and a Kansas City newspaperman named John Newman Edwards took interest. He began writing laudatory articles, sparking what would become an American legend.

The Gallatin raid has traditionally been viewed as a botched bank robbery. But lawyer James P. Muehlberger, author of The Lost Cause: The Trials of Frank and Jesse James, has uncovered the original documents of the lawsuit that followed the event, in which a lawyer named Henry McDougal sued Jesse on behalf of the farmer who lost his horse. The evidence he uncovered strongly suggests that this was not a bank robbery at all, but a failed assassination attempt. The outlaws were after another Gallatin man, Major Samuel P. Cox, who had come into possession of a pair of pistols owned by the guerrilla leader Bloody Bill Anderson, killed in the war. Anderson’s brother Jim had written Cox a threatening letter demanding the pistols back. Evidence indicates that the murderers went to Gallatin to kill Cox, but instead shot bank employee John Sheets, who resembled Cox. The other robber, long thought to be Frank James, was probably Jim Anderson.

Muehlberger goes on to give a kind of legal history of the James gang, from McDougal’s original lawsuit up through the murder trials that followed Frank James’ final surrender in 1882, in which he was acquitted and set free.

Muehlberger’s purpose is partly to tell the story and share the fresh information he’s uncovered, and partly to plead his own case – that the James gang was not a romantic band of Southern heroes, oppressed by corrupt carpetbaggers, but a low-life group of thugs, contemptuous of others’ lives and property, who benefited from a positive public relations campaign. Rather than robbing the rich to give to the poor, Jesse’s take tended to go toward paying off his race track gambling debts. Muehlberger also wishes to debunk the whole idea of the “lost cause,” the claim that the Southern cause in the Civil War was not about slavery but about constitutional rights.

I tend to agree with him on that point, though I think it’s overstated. I disagree with those who say that secession had nothing to do with slavery, but I also disagree with those who say it was only about slavery. I think there’s a middle ground there.

I do agree about the James gang, though.

The Lost Cause is a book of considerable interest to anyone curious about that period of American history. The writing isn’t top-notch but it’s not bad. Recommended.

Getting Away with Murdering a State Official

Michael Francke made a new for himself as a clear-headed director of New Mexico’s Department of Corrections. The governor of Oregon appeared to have wanted his clear thinking for his state’s department of correction when he offered him the position in 1987, but as the excellent podcast Murder in Oregon reports, nothing was it appeared in the Beaver State.

The day before Francke was scheduled to present evidence of corruption within his department and his recommendations for resolving it, he was murdered in the parking lot of his government office. Exactly what happened on January 17, 1989, remains a mystery. What’s known is that he was stabbed in the chest and bled out on the steps of an unused office doorway.

A guard says he saw two men standing by Francke’s car, and when the left each other, one of them ran across the parking lot, the other walked back toward the office in no particular rush. The guard did not stick by that testimony in trial, but why he changed his mind is only one of a thousand odd details about the Francke’s murder and the sorry investigation that followed it.

Listen the podcast trailer here or through your podcast app, and you’ll hear a bit of their great storytelling. A columnist who has written about this story for years is one of the show’s producers, so we get full accounts of the events in 1989 in light of evidence hidden from the public or ignored by authorities at the time.

Every episode is engaging, unlike some true crime; the most recent one, number nine, exposed the horrific, manipulative nature of one of the suspected officials. Considering they convicted an innocent man, put him away for almost 30 years, and avoided prosecution themselves, I’d say they got away with it, even if it catching up to the living next year.

‘Strange Tales of Scotland,’ by Jack Strange

Broichan may have been put out by this blatant display of Christian power in his own back yard, so he predicted that a storm would batter the saint on his return to his west. The prediction was proved correct, but as Columba lived on a Hebridean island he was used to foul weather and returned home safely. Anyway it was a pretty safe bet to predict stormy weather in western Scotland; it would have been more impressive had Broichan said there would be a lasting spell of fair weather.

There are ancient ties between Scotland and Norway, which are next-door neighbors in maritime terms. That may explain why I’ve always had an interest in old Albion. Or not. In any case, Jack Strange’s book Strange Tales of Scotland caught my eye. I remember reading books of legend and folklore with great interest in my younger years.

Broadly speaking (though other kinds of tales pop up) the stories in this book deal with monsters like the Loch Ness monster (which is not the only one of its kind), supernatural beings like various kinds of elves or fairies, and ghosts. Ghosts are often associated with the histories of ancient castles, so you get the stories of the castles too.

I didn’t enjoy Strange Tales of Scotland as much as I hoped to. That may be partly the author’s part – I thought the book could have been organized better; it’s kind of a hodgepodge, jumping around the map at random. But more than that, all the stories seemed sadly familiar to me – folk tales tend to be repetitive. You have an infinite loop of abused and cast-off mistresses, innocent women convicted of witchcraft and guilty witches who escaped punishment, murdered babies, and bloodthirsty local Bluebeards. It all kind of depressed me after a while.

However, if you’re not familiar with the field, and appreciate the glamour of Scotland, you might enjoy this book more than I did. One could do worse.

Oh yes, he mentions the Fairy Flag of the McLeods (reputed to be Harald Hardrada’s banner). I appreciated that.