What’s Real and What’s Not?

A former student recently asked me if I’d ever killed a student in one of my Nick Hoffman mysteries.  I told him not yet. He, of course, had his own candidates from one of the courses he was in: students who complained about too much reading.

I thought of his question the other day when a friend at the gym told me he’d just read my mystery Hot Rocks, set at an upscale health club like the one we were standing in, and he said with his face aglow, “Where’s the line between truth and fiction?”  He had loved the book and was eager to know.

I told him about the starting place.  My fictional town is Michiganapolis, a blend of the state capitol Lansing and the home of Michigan State University, East Lansing.  My town is Michigan’s State capitol and the seat of the “State University of Michigan,” and while there might be some geographical similarities, I don’t have to stick to any actual street maps.  Nobody will ever be able to confront me and say my sleuth Nick Hoffman couldn’t have made a right turn on a certain street or gotten from one part of town to another in whatever amount of time I chose.

“If it were really Lansing or East Lansing, I’d be stuck to the facts and that would bore me.  This way, the world is all mine.  Don’t get me wrong.  I’m not doing world building.  It’s not Westeros in Game of Thrones.  There aren’t any White Walkers.”  And then I thought of some of my vicious administrators and faculty members and said, “Well…”

“But what about the people?”  He was sure he recognized some of the characters in the book, a lot of which takes place in the club.

Here again fiction overruled fact.  I took an already lush health club and made it even more  sybaritic, giving it a different name, layout and colors.  And all the people who appear in it are truly fictional.  Writers are magpies, I explained.  So bits and pieces of people I know and have observed show up in my fiction, but nobody in any book is a one-to-one transfer from reality to fiction.  That wouldn’t be interesting to me.  The fun’s in the transformation.

Nick Hoffman loves to cook, and my friend said that when he was reading the book, he thought, “I want to have dinner at Lev’s house!”

I smiled. “Sorry to disappoint you.  I tend to keep things simple.  And sometimes I just order pizza, because, you know, I’m real, and my sleuth is fictional.”

Lev Raphael’s 8th Nick Hoffman book Assault With a Deadly Lie is now available on Amazon.




Note: This essay first appeared in the magazine Black Lamb.

It’s a common belief that if you have read the book first, and if you loved the book, you’ll be disappointed by the movie. There are exceptions, of course, but I’ve found I agree with the cliché nearly always.

I read L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz before I saw the MGM movie “The Wizard of Oz.” It was the first book-length book I ever read by myself, and I have reread it many times, at least once for every decade of my life, every time discovering new truths. I have seen the movie several times too, and I am brave enough to say aloud that every time I’ve seen the movie I’ve been disappointed.

It is not the purpose of this essay to trash one of America’s cherished treasures. Yes, “The Wizard of Oz” is a wonderful movie, the Wonderful Movie of Oz. Because, because, because, because the music is great; the special effects were stunning for their time and still hold up; the joy and hope expressed were an antidote to the Depression-Era doldrums; and of course there’s Judy Garland, who deserves her tenure in American hagiography. Believe me, I like the movie. But it ain’t the whole truth and nothing but the truth about the Land of Oz, and it falls short of the book.

The movie’s factual errors and the trivializing of the story don’t bother most people. Well, most people haven’t read the novel, or have read the book only once, a long, long time ago, and have seen the movie dozens of times since. For a while I belonged to the International Wizard of Oz Club and subscribed to the Baum Bugle, but I quit when I realized that the members of the club were just as interested in the MGM movie memorabilia (e.g. the non-canonical Ruby Slippers) as they were in the history, politics, economics, values, and theology of the written Oz. Honestly, I don’t denigrate those fans. All the more joy and color for them, and I confess that one of my favorite novels, Geoff Ryman’s Was, celebrates both the book and the film equally. (It’s a brilliant novel, with startling things to say about mental illness, child abuse, AIDS, the childhood of Judy Garland, the dotage of Dorothy Gael [sic], the Kansas prairie, the desolation of Southern California, and much, much more.)

Okay, so who cares, and they’re split hairs, but let’s get the short list out there, just in case somebody ever decides to do a new movie version of the novel. After all, much more is possible nowadays in the realm of special effects, and Hollywood has a nothing-sacred attitude towards remakes. Anyway, if you are a filmmaker, and you decide to refilm “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz,” please take note:

Dorothy is young. Her age isn’t stated in the book, but judging by her unsophisticated wisdom, by the number of times she breaks into tears, and by the Denslow illustrations, she’s clearly pre-pubescent, not in the midst of adolescence and trying without success to make the least of her bust.

Silver Shoes, not Ruby Slippers, please.

Our homeless, brainless, heartless, and spineless (not, not, not, and not) foursome are rescued from the poppy field not by a snowfall but by a nation of stout-hearted field mice.

The Emerald City is—or appears—monochromatic: all green.

The Wizard demands that our foursome kill the Wicked Witch of the West, not merely bring back her broom.

The Witch doesn’t even have a broom, as far as we know, and she’s not tall, and please, she’s not green. She has only one eye, but it has the power of a telescope. There’s no hourglass. (I should mention another favorite novel of mine, Gregory Maguire’s Wicked, in which he borrows liberally from both the movie and the book. In his tale, the broom is important, the witch has two eyes, and her complexion is quite green. I recommend Maguire’s book highly, for it justly dumps on the “wonderful” Wizard.)

When the Wizard in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz makes good on his promises, he doesn’t just hand out certificates, testimonials, or medals. He gives real (fake) brains, heart, and courage. The brains are made of sawdust, pins and needles; the heart is a silk sack stuffed with sawdust; the courage is a bowl of patent medicine, probably alcoholic. The crafty con man knows what he’s doing: “Oz, left to himself, smiled to think of his success in giving the Scarecrow and the Tin Woodman and the Lion exactly what they thought they wanted. ‘How can I help being a humbug,’ he said, ‘when all these people make me do things that everybody knows can’t be done?’”

One more thing. Dorothy, young though she may be, and at times a crybaby, is for the most part a take-charge mensch. She doesn’t whimper or wring her hands; she acts. She’s the decision-maker of the questers. And she has a temper. She bops the Lion on the nose, she tells off the Wizard, and as for killing the Witch, it’s no accident. In the midst of a fierce argument over the ownership of the Silver Shoes, Dorothy loses her cool, picks up a bucket of water, and douses the bitch. Serves her right. Dorothy apologizes as she watches the witch melt like brown sugar, but once the Witch is just a mess on the floor, Dorothy throws another bucket of water on the puddle, sweeps the mess out the door, reclaims her stolen shoe, and gets on with her life.

There is a lot more to get on with in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, because at the point the Witch gets washed away, the book’s only halfway finished. There are other adventures in the novel, both before and after midpoint, which were dropped by the movie. I’ll mention some of them below.

Right now, though, I want to talk about the irony in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Irony puts the wonder in “wonderful,” a word left out of the movie’s title. Irony is what makes the book both funny and wise. Check out this exchange between the Scarecrow and Dorothy, in which he challenges the premise of her quest:

“I cannot understand why you should wish to leave this beautiful country and go back to the dry, gray place you call Kansas.”

“That is because you have no brains,” answered the girl.

Throughout the story, adventure after adventure, the “brainless” Scarecrow is the problem-solver. He figures out how the companions can get across an impassible ditch. He outwits the Kalidahs, who are fearsome beasts combining the features of tigers and bears (Oh, my!). Of course he never needed brains to begin with, but he feels all the brainier after his head is stuffed with sawdust, pins, and needles. The citizens of Oz accept this change and proudly declare, “There is not another city in all the world that is ruled by a stuffed man.” Talk about irony.

The Tin Woodman (and by the way, his name is not “The Tin Man,” and his limbs are as thin as pipes) is a master builder and he keeps his axe sharp enough to chop off the heads of wolves, though it saddens him to have to kill. He is so sentimental that when he steps on a beetle he weeps and rusts himself stiff. This man has heart. As for the kind of heart it takes to love a woman, he never lost that while he was lopping off his body parts and replacing them with tin fixtures; in that way he had more heart than was good for him. (The back story on that would make a fine movie in itself. The story of Nick Chopper.) The Wizard, that old cynic, probably knows from bitter experience that too much heart is not a good thing: “I think you are wrong to want a heart. It makes most people unhappy. If you only knew it, you are in luck not to have a heart.” More irony.

And the Cowardly Lion? Well, for one thing, he’s big—a lot bigger than Dorothy, which makes him bigger than your average Munchkin. He is to be taken seriously, not laughed at like some retired vaudeville comedian. And although he, like his companions, has a fierce inferiority complex, he also has a fierce roar. Whenever bravery is called for, the Cowardly Lion’s your man. He leaps over the impassible ditch time and again to carry his friends to safety. He stands up to the Kalidahs and the Hammerheads, and he slays the giant spider who is tyrannizing the beasts of the forest. When he’s held captive by the Wicked Witch, he roars and rushes at her every time she comes near him, and he steadfastly refuses to be her slave, under penalty of death. This is no coward, this Lion.

Scholars more learned than I have talked about the “hidden meanings” of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, with theories about the Gold Standard, political struggles between agriculture and mineral rights, the pros and cons of industrialization, and so on; but the irony of religion in this tale (like the irony of religion in general) deserves more attention. Like The Pilgrim’s Progress, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is a story of a quest for the Eternal/Emerald City, the residence of God, at the end of the Straight and Narrow Path/Yellow Brick Road. In this case God is a total phony, whose only claim to divinity is that he’s fooled an entire population, and in the process has exploited their natural resources for his own coffers. In order to keep his subjects’ faith alive, he never shows himself before them, and he forces all the citizens of the city to wear green (“rose-colored,” if roses were green) glasses permanently and constantly.

I shall close by retelling a self-contained chapter toward the end of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, titled “The Dainty China Country.” Our four companions are on their way to the Land of the Quadlings, to ask Glinda, the Good Witch of the South, to help Dorothy return to her gray aunt and gray uncle in their gray house on the gray prairie in the gray land of Kansas. They are stopped by a wall made of white china. The Tin Woodman builds a ladder, and they climb over the wall, all four of them, and come down into a land made entirely of colorfully painted china: china barns, china houses, china people, china trees, and china livestock. They’re like porcelain toys, waist-high to a Munchkin. The newcomers cause a commotion, during which a cow’s leg is broken off and a milkmaid’s elbow is chipped. Dorothy is delighted by the quaint, dainty people and wants to take a China Princess home with her and set her on the mantle-shelf. Fortunately Dorothy is persuaded to give that idea up, and the four friends continue south to the other side of the Dainty China Country, where they are stopped by another china wall. One by one they climb up on the Cowardly Lion’s back and pull themselves over the wall. When it’s time for the Lion to leave, he leaps to the top of the wall, and as he does, he accidentally swats a china church with his tail and smashes it to pieces. Collateral damage.

So much for America’s well-meaning but clumsy and acquisitive foreign policy at the beginning of our age of imperialism. Collateral damage is, in itself, always a cruel irony.

For these and other reasons, but especially because of its irony, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, first published in 1900, is my choice for the Great American Novel of the Twentieth Century. It made me think when my mother first read it to me when I was five. It made me think when I read it to myself at the age of six. It has made me think, and laugh, and sometimes even weep, with every reading since.

Oh. One major error I forgot to mention above, in my list of corrections for the remake of the movie. The Land of Oz is a real place, or as real a place as any fictional land can be. It may be a goofy place, a place landlocked by impassable deserts, where the grownups are as small as children and where they speak English, as do half the animals, where scarecrows think and metal men cry, where monkeys fly and lions lie down with terriers, but it’s real. It’s not “over the rainbow,” and for Ozma’s sake, it’s not a dream.




Mixing crafts and fiction writing has been my way of life for a while.

In the Periodic Table Mysteries, my first series, Gloria Lamerino moves back to Revere, Massachusetts after 30 years in California and takes an apartment above her friends’ funeral home. Of course I had to build the home. Attached is a photo of the embalming room in the basement.


I had fun fashioning the table out of foil, then adding Dorothy’s shoes (in case the deceased craved one last journey) and the champagne cage stool, which also provides an idea of the scale. The washer/dryer are off to the side as they are in the books, on the same level as the embalming equipment. (Thus Gloria does her laundry only in bright daylight.)

In my upcoming fourth series, my character, Cassie Miller, is a postmaster in a small town. Of course I had to build a post office.

6-30-14 inPO

The creative flow goes both ways—my writing inspires miniature scenes, and the scenes then take on a life of their own and inspire my writing.

Crafting, like writing, is also a form of therapy—from an early age, I “hid” in my dollhouse, safe from what was going on around me. But that’s another story! Let me just say that there was no Gerry Porter of the Miniature Mysteries in my life, no Gerry-and-Maddie family, as recently featured in Madness in Miniature (Perseverance Press 2014).

All the more understandable, there was a special thrill in building this post office: I enlisted the help of the 10-year-old daughter of a friend of mine, author Diana Orgain (The Maternal Instinct Mysteries and others). My young friend made the money in the cash register, chose the furniture from my stock of leftovers, and contributed a great deal to the whole scene. I knew she was having fun when she pretended to try to stick her Barbie in the door!


I love working with the next generation of crafters. Especially with dollhouses and miniatures, it seems, most of the artisans I see at shows are my age or older—not a good thing! The organizations I belong to do their best to encourage youngsters through special workshops for children, and I take it as a personal responsibility to attract new, young crafters.

Through the year, miniaturists (including me) send supplies and scraps for the children’s workshops. We contribute paint, paper, glue, brushes, doll parts, material for bases, and miniature “anythings.” It’s a great way to control my own inventory as well as introduce the next generation to the pleasures of crafting.



Reflecting Different Times

My recently published novel, Death Rides the Zephyr, takes place in December 1952. I’m working on the next in the California Zephyr series, Death Deals a Hand. The action in that book happens in the spring of 1953.

These are historical mysteries. As a writer and a historian, I want to properly reflect the times and the lives of my characters. So I do plenty of research on the popular culture of the early 1950s. I search the Internet to find out what movies my characters were seeing., and find out what singers they were listening to on the radio. And the fashions? Young women wore poodle skirts, and just like my protagonist, Zephyrette Jill McLeod, they had their hair cut in a short, curly style called a poodle cut.

This is the hairstyle called the poodle cut.

This is the hairstyle called the poodle cut.

Jill likes Agatha Christie, so when her sister gives her a book as an early Christmas present in Death Rides the Zephyr, Jill is excited about reading the latest Miss Marple, Murder with Mirrors, which was published in the fall of 1952. In Death Deals a Hand, Jill’s nighttime reading is a recent Hercule Poirot case, Funerals are Fatal.

The reflection of times past is much more than popular culture. There are politics and social issues, too. These are more somber than poodle skirts.

In the first book, Dwight D. Eisenhower had just been elected president of the United States. The Korean War has ended, but Joseph McCarthy’s political “Witch Hunt” was in full swing. Julius and Ethel Rosenberg had been tried, found guilty of espionage, and sentenced to death.

Along with the Red Scare and the Rosenberg case, racism was woven into the fabric of the early 1950s. Porters, waiters and cooks were members of the onboard crew of the California Zephyr, and in this era they were overwhelmingly African-American. These men weren’t referred to by that term, which is relatively recent. Sixty years ago the term was Negro, or colored – or worse.

California Zephyr policy stipulated that members of the onboard crew addressed each other on a “Mister and Miss basis,” as I wrote in Death Rides the Zephyr. In many case, the passengers weren’t that polite.

Being a porter was considered an excellent, well-paying job, according to Larry Tye, author of Rising From the Rails: Pullman Porters and the Making of the Black Middle Class. His title certainly describes the gist of his book, which I read and which I recommend. Tye details the racism that porters faced.

An excellent book on Pullman porters

An excellent book on Pullman porters

It was common for people to address the porters as “boy” or “George.” The latter appellation came from George Pullman, who founded the company that owned the sleeper cars used on the CZ and other trains. Depending on the region of the country, the N-word was also used in addressing porter. Passengers on southern routes could be verbally abusive as well as physically abusive, according to Tye.

In the CZ series, I’m writing books that can be described as traditional mysteries, or cozies, rather than noir suspense thrillers. How do I convey the tenor of those times? If I’m writing a novel that is historically accurate, I can’t ignore the racism the porters faced. But it’s not the central issue of the book, either. How much is enough? How much is too much? That’s one of the times when this writer has to trust her instincts.

So Death Rides the Zephyr has several scenes where porters on the train are targets of racism. In some instances it’s the thoughtless, commonly-used term “boy,” and in two particular scenes, it’s more serious.

I hope I found the middle ground that works for my book, reflecting those different times.

The Park, a.k.a My Front Yard

I’m nowhere close to being one of the 1%, but I’m fortunate enough (and I guess I can say I’ve worked hard enough) to live in a nice older house across the street from one of the main parks in my town. I jokingly refer to the park as my front yard. Tourists sometimes seem to lose the distinction between my real front yard and the park as well. I’ve found tourists standing on my front porch to “get a better angle” for a picture they want to take.

The park runs one block from east to west and two blocks from north to south. It’s not designed for playing, so there are no swings, slides, etc. It’s described as a Victorian park, laid out in 1876. It has two fish ponds, a fountain, a gazebo, benches, big trees, paved walkways, green space, and flowers—lots of flowers all summer. The idea was to provide a place for people to stroll, to picnic, and to socialize.


From April until early October there is unending activity in my “front yard.” My town holds a couple of big festivals, which are centered in the park. There are also smaller events that run the gamut from Right to Life marches, to Gay Pride celebrations, to yoga classes, to biking or walking for one cause or another. They all start and end across the street. There are two large arts/crafts fairs during the summer, what I call “Artsy-Fartsy in the Park.” All of these add up to tens of thousands of people parking in front of my house during the course of the summer.


Parking is always an issue during these big events. People seem to think that, as long as they leave half of my one-car driveway unblocked, they’re legitimately parked. I went out one day to talk to a man who had helped his wife, in her wheelchair, out of their large vehicle and was about to leave, with almost half of my driveway blocked. When I pointed out the problem, he said, “I have a handicapped sticker.” I told him that entitled him to use a handicapped space, not to block my driveway. He started to protest, but his wife told him to move the vehicle. I stayed with her until he returned.

People who visit the park on calmer days often stop in front of my house. I live in the middle of the block and I think people turn the corner, decide the park is worth stopping for, and by then they’re in front of my house. Of course, the shade from the trees I’ve planted may also contribute to the attractiveness of those parking spots. The park is so pretty I’ve seen people stop, stick a phone out the car window, take a picture, and drive on. Some people who travel in their work stop by the park to eat their take-out lunches. I wish they would take the trash with them when they leave.

Practically every weekend there will be a wedding, or a wedding party taking pictures. More recently I’ve begun to see Quinceañeras, the Hispanic celebration of a girl’s fifteenth birthday. I’ve told my wife we ought to keep some dress clothes in the closet in our front hall so we could stroll over, mingle, and eat. In May local tradition brings high school seniors to the park to take pictures on their way to prom. The arch is a popular background.


Around here the weather in May can still be nippy, and I feel some sympathy for the girls in their strapless gowns. The hours spent choosing that perfect dress probably didn’t factor in a half hour of standing around outdoors in 50-degree weather.

I have a long history with my house on the park, even before I bought it. When I came for a job interview, I ate my first meal in this house. In fact, I scrambled the eggs while the man interviewing me fixed toast and set the table. Shortly after I began my job, my boss asked some of us for help in finishing the basement of the house. I hung drywall in what is now my basement.

Even with some sweat equity in the house, I had reservations about buying it twenty years ago, mostly because of the park, but it proved to be the right decision. The neighborhood where we used to live hasn’t fared very well since we left. We were also able to buy the rental house next door to us, which has provided living space for some of our children over the past ten years.

From my vantage point on the park I’ve seen various scenes—some touching, some troubling. It provides a neutral site for divorced parents to pass young children back and forth. Sometimes it’s obviously a grandparent serving as an intermediary. Having been in that role, my heart goes out to the families.

In the troubling category I would place the car that was parked across the street from us every day for several weeks one summer. The lone occupant, a young man, seemed to be talking animatedly. I thought he might have been on a phone. One day he began pointing at my house and gesturing vehemently. I called the police, who talked to him and reported to us by phone that he claimed to be praying. The officer told him he was making the neighbors nervous and suggested he pray somewhere else—perhaps at one of the other city parks which aren’t surrounded by houses. Thankfully he did.

One scene I don’t know whether to classify as touching or troubling, or just gross. Early one morning, as I returned from the bathroom, my bleary eyes caught sight of a car parked across the street. My town prohibits overnight parking on the street, but I saw a driver was still in the car, with his seat reclined. There are a lot of lights in the park, so I could make out a woman with her head in his lap, and let’s just say her head was not still.

In the past few years I’ve also seen an increasing number of homeless people spending summer days in the park, which has water fountains and public restrooms. The shadiest area is on the south end, directly across from my house, so I’m well aware of them. Sometimes they just sit on a bench all day. I can’t imagine how mind-numbing and soul-wrenching that must be. Police and social welfare workers do come to talk with them. They’re not allowed to stay overnight in the park, but they’re always back by breakfast time every morning.

Definitely in the troubling category is the car which has been parked across the street most days this summer. People walk up to it, get in for a few minutes, then get out and leave. I’m sure drug deals are taking place. I have made a note of the license plate number, but if I call the police, the people in the car won’t have any trouble figuring out who finked on them. The possibility of retribution deters me, especially since my daughter and grandson live next door. There are also two young children in the next house to our east. It troubles me that the police can’t spot something so obvious.

Would I buy the house on the park if I had it to do over? Definitely. In spite of some negatives, I love my “front yard.” Other people seem to as well. While working in my yard (my own yard, not the park), I’ve had several people stop their cars and ask if I would consider selling the house, simply because of what it is and where it is. That gives me confidence that, after I die, my wife won’t have any trouble disposing of it.

As a somewhat claustrophobic introvert who lives in a crowded inner city, it’s a relief to have all that open space out my window and know there will never be annoying neighbors (or any other kind) over there, or anybody over there for more than a few hours at a time. I enjoy the beauty of the flowers and the greenery and the luxury of having other people take care of it. Some of my friends are retiring and moving into condos where they don’t have to do their own yard work. I already enjoy that advantage. The park has inspired me, though, to work on my own lawn and flower beds, something I enjoy more than I could ever have imagined.


Wendy Hornsby

Today was my day to post a blog, and I blew it. No good excuse. I could say that the fourth Thursday came early this month, sneaked up on me, which it did. But the better explanation is, I was hardly aware that today was a Thursday.

Bit by bit during the year since my retirement from teaching, I have lost my intimate connection with both calendar and clock. For more years than I care to claim, I always had a Day Planner, or some electronic version of one, within reach. Now, there is no need to, and I don’t. Same with my watch. Before we left for our recent trip where there were multiple flights and various appointments that needed to be met on time, I had to go buy a new watch because I have no idea where the old one is; probably still in one of the unpacked boxes in the garage.

We do manage to maintain a sort of squidgy structure in our daily doings.  Meals occur, early or late, big or small, according to the rhythm of a day. I write just about every day, and am very aware of the deadlines for two currents projects.  For the rest, Tuesdays we go into town for breakfast and the week’s marketing. Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays we swim laps at the community pool. But Tuesday I had a doctor thing, and yesterday, Wednesday, a swim day, some construction equipment broke a water pipe and the pool was closed. If our usual routine went pffht, so what? We skipped the marketing and are making do with what we have in the freezer and the garden.  Yesterday was a beautiful, clear day after three days of drizzle, so we drove up toward Truckee to see what we could see. This morning we had our swim – met the Thursday swimmers – then headed down the mountain to the next town to get our car serviced, a day later than planned. And while we were there….

The really great part of being unchained from the clock and calendar is the freedom to linger and explore. Case in point: We try to arrive at the dealership that services our cars at around lunch time because, among the services offered are either a complimentary sandwich at their little lunch counter while you wait or chauffered delivery to any local restaurant. Today, on the recommendation of our rep, we were driven up to the local airport for lunch at a place called Wings. We’re still new to the area and had no idea that this gem existed. The menu is standard diner fare, but the restaurant sits right next to the tarmac. People fly in and out for lunch, or come just to watch the planes, as we did.  Great fun.

On the way up, we noticed a western art gallery. Paul loves western art and has a small collection of prints, paintings, and sculpture. So, our freshly serviced, newly washed car returned to us, we went back to see what was there. Turns out that this is the gallery, studio, and foundry of monumental artist Douglas Van Howd. We were given a wonderful tour of the work and the studio, and works-in-progress, by one of the artist’s assistants, and had a lovely, long talk with his wife, wildlife photographer Nancy Van Howd. Mr. Van Howd was the artist for the Reagan administration; remember that Reagan liked western artists. Van Howd not only designed and crafted the gifts that Reagan presented to heads of state during official visits, but he and Nancy also accompanied the President on those visits. Great stories, wonderful adventures. Monumental talent. Tucked into a meadow on a back road in a small Sierra foothills town. Quel suprise!

You never know what you’ll find when you have the time to stop and look around. I’m sorry I slipped off my blog posting schedule. But while I wasn’t paying attention I fell into one hell of a lovely day.

Green Gas, Video Games, and Great Writing on The Great War

by Nancy Means Wright

100 years ago this summer, Archduke Ferdinand of Austria was assassinated in Sarajevo, setting off (for complex reasons) one of the cruelest wars in history.  Whole generations of young men were lost on all sides, and I, for one, can’t stop reading and writing about them. I wept through the heartbreaking novel All Quiet on the Western Front when a disillusioned German soldier in the last months of the war stands up out of his trench to gaze at the fall foliage–and is killed.  I thought about that young German a fortnight ago as I heard the Stuttgart Boys’ Choir sing (on tour from Germany). Ah, those pure high voices–one sweet-faced pre-teen with blond hair falling to his shoulders–no soldier there! And now I’m rereading Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms in which he recreates his WW1 months in an Italian ambulance unit, the agonies of war, and the role of a deserter.

I think of the poems of British poet Wilfred Owen, who wrote of a soldier in a gas attack “floundering like a man in fire or lime… / Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light / As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.”  The poem ends with the irony of “The old lie: Dulce et decorum est / Pro patria mori.” (It is sweet and proper to die for one’s country.”) Tragically, Owen was killed just days before the November Armistice–as were the brother and fiance of British nurse Vera Brittain, who wrote in her classic Testament of Youth of tall Americans marching jauntily along “like young gods” to the killing front.

On a happier note, my father-in-law dropped out of Middlebury College in 1918 to “join up” and fly an observation biplane over enemy territory. Luckily for him it was a short war, and he returned to college a student hero, and began barnstorming at country fairs.  He loved to bellow out euphemistic war songs like “It’s a Long Long Way to Tipperary” and “Over There.”  Then there was old Charlie Willson, our octogenarian family carpenter, who was gassed in that war and for the rest of his life had nightmares of “shrieking shells and cries of the wounded.” While he was working on our roof or barn, he would shout down war stories to anyone who’d listen–as though compelled to tell them.

TV productions like Downton Abbey and Mr. Selfridge  move their characters in and out of The Great War, and we hold our breath, praying our fictional heroes will survive–even if it’s with a missing arm or leg. The characters in my new multi-generational novel, Queens Never Make Bargains, endure the war at home and in the trenches, where in the confusion of shell fire and greenish gas, my protagonist’s soldier-lover stumbles off, his legs taking over his brain–away from the terrible war.

And we all admire Charles and Caroline Todd who write two award-winning mystery series set during and after WW1, featuring the shell-shocked veteran inspector Rutledge (Hunting Shadows); and Bess Crawford, a nurse in France (A Question of Honor). Mother and son make us relive all the passion and panic of the times.

Finally, I was surprised to read about a new, interactive, virtually non-violent French WW1 video game, “Valiant Hearts,” in which a young soldier named Emile must choose  between his officer’s orders to charge to the right, through gas and shells–or run left (to desert)  and onto an officer’s sword. Tough choices! The game depicts four years of war as lived by Emile, by an American volunteer Freddie, a field nurse Anna, and a dog–among others. One discovers the brutality of the trenches but also the human drama. Instead of firing rifles, players dress wounds, dig trenches, duck aircraft fire, and liberate prisoners. They hear the night quiet–or the muttering enemy, and they fear what’s ahead. They run, hide, and solve puzzles, all in real life locations and scenes from the war.

Surely a video I’d want to buy for my grandchildren! To keep the memory alive, yes–although a video game can never wholly emulate the horror of a war the did not, as hoped,  end all wars.



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