Category: History

A Paradise Built in Hell

Cover image for A Paradise Built in Hell by Rebecca Solnitby Rebecca Solnit

ISBN 9781101459010

“The paradises built in hell are improvisational; we make them up as we go along, and in doing so they call on all our strength and creativity and leave us free to invent even as we find ourselves enmeshed in community. These paradises built in hell show us both what we want and what we can be.”

What happens when a disaster disrupts our communities? If you’ve watched any Hollywood depictions, or followed popular media accounts, the images are immediately of panicked crowds, followed by savage competition for scarce resources. But in the field of disaster studies, crowd panic is found to be far less common, and altruistic, prosocial responses much more the norm. In a large scale disaster, you’re more likely to be helped by your neighbour or your coworker than by an emergency responder or relief worker. So why is the popular conception of how people respond to catastrophic events so skewed? In A Paradise Built in Hell, Rebecca Solnit uses six major disasters to examine how the public really responds in a large scale emergency, and how the responses—or lack thereof—by authorities can undermine the altruism, community-building and prosocial behaviour that naturally occur, as well as the role the media can play in perpetuating these misconceptions.

Solnit uses six major disasters, three historical, and three more recent, as her case studies. Working in chronological order, she begins with the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire, proceeds to the 1917 Halifax explosion, and then turns to the London Blitz. For more recent history, she examines the 1985 Mexico City earthquake, the 9/11 attacks on New York, and Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. Throughout, she blends these historical accounts with information from the academic field of disaster studies, contrasting these studies and theories of behaviour with more popular conceptions and reports. The case studies are a mix of natural disasters and man-made events; the Halifax explosion was an accident, while the Blitz and 9/11 were deliberate acts of human violence. While earthquakes and hurricanes are natural occurrences, Solnit pays particular attention to how the response of authorities after a natural disaster can create second, man-made disaster, and by contrast, how public response and organizing following a disaster can lead to political change.

A key concept in the book is elite panic, a term coined by Caron Chess and Lee Clarke of Rutgers University. Both academics in the field of disaster studies, they noticed that while authorities planning for disaster response were preoccupied with how to control public reaction, in fact it was often the authorities themselves that panicked and over reacted. In the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, the acting commander of the Presidio marched the army out in the streets, nominally to provide aid, but in fact essentially instituting martial law in the city without the required approval of Congress. Ordered to shut down saloons and prevent the sale of alcohol, troops went a step further and began breaking into businesses to destroy their stock. Ordered to prevent looting, they shot people who had been invited by business owners to take groceries and supplies before their businesses burned in the fires that followed the earthquake. In fact, the troops were so industrious in the prevention of any possibility of looting, that they also prevented residents from fighting the fires. In each disaster, Solnit demonstrates that the most brutal acts are often committed by those seeking to preserve or restore their authority, not by panicked members of the general public, who are often preoccupied with helping one another.

In several places throughout the book, Solnit takes particular aim at the popular myth of looting in the aftermath of disaster. In a number of the cases cited in the book, including the San Francisco earthquake and Hurricane Katrina, authorities directed police or the military to shoot anyone who tried to take any property, even with permission. Solnit argues that the term looting “conflates the emergency requisitioning of supplies in a crisis without a cash economy with opportunistic stealing.” Taking a television in a flooded city without electricity is theft; taking food, medical supplies, or the means to build shelter or escape drowning is requisitioning. Myths about looting can be particularly harmful because they make people afraid of one another. After Hurricane Katrina, the rumours about looting and violence in New Orleans led authorities in the neighbouring community of Gretna on the other side the Mississippi River to blockade the bridge and refuse to accept any refugees. Solnit also worked with journalist A.C. Thompson on a major story about how white residents of Algiers Point, a suburb of New Orleans, formed vigilante bands to defend their property. Thompson found that this impromptu militia shot at least eleven African-American men in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, in the name of preventing looting. When the general public behaves badly in the aftermath of a disaster, it is often a more powerful group acting out against a minority. Some Germans were targeted in Halifax before it was determined the explosion was accident rather than an act of war by the enemy, and after a major earthquake in Japan in 1923, the minority Korean community was accused of committing arson or poisoning wells.

In contrast to the elite panic is the general behaviour of the public. Solnit argues that “the prevalent human nature in disaster is resilient, resourceful, generous, empathetic, and brave,” and she is able to back this up with ample evidence from academic disaster studies, and her various case studies. In the aftermath of the San Francisco earthquake, the community set up camps and impromptu food kitchens in the city’s parks. After Hurricane Katrina, hundreds of boat owners crowded into the city to rescue the stranded even while authorities argued that it was too dangerous to enter the city. In the Twin Towers, occupants began an orderly staircase evacuation, even when the Port Authority directed residents of the South Tower to stay inside after first plane struck. The accounts from that day include a disabled man who was carried down in a relay by his colleagues. The urge to help one another is powerful, and so many people felt the need to do something, anything, to be of use to the evacuation and rescue operation. Volunteer services available to the victims and rescue workers included everything from food to counselling to massage therapy. This is mutual aid, which means that “every participant is both giver and recipient in acts of care that bind them together, as distinct from the one way street of charity.”

In addition to altruism and community, Solnit examines the opportunities for political change that can be provided by the upheaval of disaster. She argues that “disasters open up societies to change, accelerate change that was under way, or break the hold of whatever was preventing change.” She is quick to note however that change and progress are not necessarily equivalent. Nevertheless, an opportunity arises. In her account of the Mexico City earthquake, Solnit follows the story of the city’s seamstresses, many of whom worked in sweatshops that were destroyed by the quake. Their employers prioritized saving equipment over saving people, and in many cases disappeared without paying outstanding wages or severance. This led to the unionization of the seamstresses. A housing rights movement also grew out of the disaster, because many homes were destroyed due to the shoddy construction that had been overlooked by corrupt government officials and inspectors. The contrasting cases of 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina are particularly interesting here, because they both happened under the Bush administration. Whereas the first was used to consolidate power and curtail freedoms in the name of patriotism and safety, the latter opened up the administration to unprecedented criticism and opposition.

I picked up A Paradise Built in Hell following reading Songs for the End of the World by Saleema Nawaz, which I reviewed last week. Nawaz cites the book in her acknowledgements as an important source that informed how she wrote her characters’ response to disaster, opting against the more usual depictions of panic. Solnit doesn’t use any pandemics as examples, and indeed a pandemic would seem, by the very nature of contagion, to prevent such altruism and community-building, but Nawaz’s book, despite being written before COVID-19, proved to be a very accurate description of what life has actually been like since the pandemic began. And certainly we now know that the disruption of our ability to gather as families and communities has been one of the most difficult consequences of the pandemic. While it can be uncomfortable to try to think about positive outcomes of horrifying disasters in which people lose their lives, it can also be uplifting to be offered a more positive portrait of human nature in the face of disaster, especially in the midst of one.

You might also like Palaces for the People by Eric Klinenberg

The Great Influenza

Cover image for The Great Influenza by John M. Barryby John M. Barry

ISBN 9781101200971

“It seemed now as if there had never been life before the epidemic. The disease informed every action of every person in the city.”

On the heels of The Great War—now better known as World War I—a much more rapacious killer swept the globe, leaving a death toll that dwarfed the war in its invisible wake. As the influenza pandemic raged, medical scientists practically took up residence in their laboratories, seeking the elusive pathogen that was piling up bodies on their doorsteps. Wave after wave broke over the globe, but still the cause, a treatment, a vaccine, remained just beyond grasp. Recently modernized, American medical science clashed with nature and fell short, despite the concerted efforts of investigators such as Paul A. Lewis, Oswald Avery, and the team of William H. Park and Anna Wessel Williams. John M. Barry combines war, disease, and history of medicine in this account of 1918 flu pandemic, which remains one of the deadliest in human history.

The Great Influenza is broadly interested in the history of medicine, and specifically the evolution of the American medical tradition, and how it came to be transformed and modernized, finally becoming a scientific endeavour. Barry goes so far back as the Hippocratic and Galenic medical traditions, tracing progress through Paracelsus and Vesalius before discussing the stagnation of medical progress, and America’s late arrival to the scientific medical revolution. He spends significant time on the establishment of Johns Hopkins in 1876, the first modern medical laboratory in the United States to be modeled after state of the art institutions in Europe. The hospital and medical school would be added later, and for the first time prospective doctors in the United States would be required to have a college degree, as well as be fluent in French and German for admission. The establishment and contributions of the Rockefeller Institute also receive significant attention, if not quite as much detail as Johns Hopkins. This contextualization takes up about the first quarter of the book before Barry turns his attention to the pandemic proper.

Barry begins in Kansas in January and February of 1918, following Dr. Loring Miner, who observed an unusually violent influenza among his rural patients that winter which may have been the forerunner of what is now thought of as the first spring wave of a pandemic that would ultimately take as many as 100 million lives. He then turns his attention to Camp Funston, also located in Kansas. Although he briefly acknowledges that the exact origin of the outbreak is not proven, he considers this the most likely, and proceeds from there. From army camp to laboratory to naval shipyard to community spread, Barry follows the pathogen, and the people who were trying to identify it, and create a treatment or vaccine. Barry’s account of the pandemic is largely Amerocentric. (For a book with a slightly more global perspective, I would recommend Pale Rider by Laura Spinney.) Late in the book Barry makes a brief circuit of the globe, with cursory accounts of the death tolls in various locales, but this is not the focus of the book. On the home front, he uses Philadelphia as a particular case study. The city was home to a naval shipyard, and held the Liberty Loan Parade to raise money for war bonds in late September of 1918, just as the deadly second wave was breaking upon the city. The results were catastrophic, almost apocalyptic.

At times Barry seems to wish he was writing a biography, with figures such as William Henry Welch, Paul A. Lewis, and—to a lesser degree—Oswald Avery occupying large amounts of his attention, even taking time to detail lulls in their careers when they were not making significant contributions. Welch, though not much of a laboratory scientist himself, was a key player in the transformation of the American medical establishment, and an important mentor and power broker in the field. Both Lewis and Avery spent the war and the years that followed in the laboratory investigating influenza, but neither would identify the virus, and their most signal scientific accomplishments would be in other areas. Lewis would be remembered largely for his work on polio, and Avery for his ground breaking discoveries regarding DNA. Both the war and the pandemic would pass, and it would be the 1930s before the virus was at last discovered. This receives only cursory attention in the final section.

A significant cautionary note that emerges from The Great Influenza is the danger of government misinformation and inaction. Because of the war, information about influenza was tightly repressed, as it was believed to have a negative influence on morale. As Barry puts it, “What officials and the press said bore no relationship to what people saw and touched and smelled and endured.”  In practice, the cognitive dissonance of seeing friends and neighbours dying all around while the press and government continued to print reassurances that there was nothing to be concerned about proved significantly more destructive to the social fabric. Trust eroded, and in the absence of reliable information, people simply had to fend for themselves. Read in the current circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic, this makes The Great Influenza a chilling combination of reassurance and despair. It—which is to say the disease itself—could be so much worse, and yet more than a hundred years later, we are still making so many of the same mistakes.

You might also like Spillover by David Quammen

The American Plague

Cover image for The American Plague by Molly Caldwell Crosbyby Molly Caldwell Crosby

ISBN 9781440620461

“Nature had found the perfect place to hide the yellow fever virus. It seeded itself in the blood, blooming yellow and running red.”

Long before the idea that mosquitoes could spread disease was scientifically proven and medically accepted, diseases like malaria and yellow fever were wreaking havoc, spreading from West Africa to the Caribbean and up the Mississippi River Valley on the gossamer wings of aedes aegypti. People who had never been in contact with anyone who was ill mysteriously succumbed, as if the disease was in the very air. In The American Plague, journalist Molly Caldwell Crosby chronicles how yellow fever arrived in North America, the devastating effects of an outbreak, the efforts to uncover how the disease was spread, and finally the journey to a vaccine.

The American Plague has two main subjects; the 1878 yellow fever outbreak in Memphis, Tennessee, and the work of Walter Reed, James Carroll, Jesse Lazear, and Aristides Agramonte on the Yellow Fever Board in Havana during the Spanish-American War. A Memphian herself, Crosby begins with the Memphis outbreak, a devastating event that killed at least 5000 people, in a city with a population of only 40, 000—half of whom fled at the onset of the epidemic. There were not enough doctors and nurses to care for the sick, and medical volunteers arriving in Memphis were often stricken by yellow fever within days of arrival, adding to the burden. With deep access to the local history, Crosby pulls out fascinating details, such as the caretaker’s daughter who kept the cemetery’s record book, writing down each name and ringing the bell for the dead, until she succumbed to yellow fever herself.

Economic imperatives and subsequent devastation surround this narrative, beginning with the slave trade, which was the vehicle that brought yellow fever from West Africa to the Americas, satisfying the thirst for free labour at the cost of human life. Crosby recounts how yellow fever would typically arrive in New Orleans via the Caribbean, and then make its way up the Mississippi River Valley. Port cities were caught between the desire to prevent disease and the economic benefits of not quarantining incoming ships. Cargoes such as fruit from the Caribbean could be destroyed by a quarantine. The Memphis Board of Health voted against a quarantine in 1878, only to have the city economically destroyed anyway; the outbreak was so severe that the city was bankrupted, and its charter revoked. I found this particularly striking in the midst of the fraught economic debates currently surrounding COVID-19 containment measures.

After illustrating the devastating effects of yellow fever on both human life and the American economy, Crosby shifts her attention to the efforts to discover the cause of yellow fever, and create a vaccine against it. When the Yellow Fever Board was assembled in Havana in 1900, they were building on the work of Dr. Juan Carlos Finlay, a Cuban doctor who had proposed the mosquito as the vector for yellow fever two decades earlier, to much ridicule. What is most interesting here, however, is the various controversies surrounding the work. Members of the board experimented upon themselves, and on army volunteers, but also carefully recruited and groomed new Spanish immigrants to Cuba, using large financial incentives to get them to consent to participating in the experiments. Army doctor Jesse Lazear, who was the head of the mosquito work, died of yellow fever which is now suspected to have been self-inflicted, but was covered up at the time. James Carroll eventually died in 1907 of the lasting complications of yellow fever contracted in the course of his work in Havana. From there Crosby goes on to the work of Max Theiler, who invented a vaccine for yellow fever, infecting thousands of American soldiers with hepatitis in the process—although to be fair to Theiler, he expressed his concerns about the widespread use of this vaccine and was overruled in favour of ensuring that American soldiers deploying for World War II were inoculated.

Although Crosby dedicates a significant amount of the book to medical investigations, I would describe this account of yellow fever as more cultural than epidemiological. She doesn’t delve deeply into any of the virology or the nitty gritty scientific details. Although she briefly mentions that the difficulty in proving the mosquito hypothesis was a matter of the timing of the reproductive cycle of the virus, she never does get around to fully explaining the viremic window for infection between mosquitoes and humans, or a more than cursory exploration of the zoonotic origins of the disease. Nevertheless, The American Plague is an interesting look at how one tiny virus significantly shaped the course of American history, and I would recommend it for those more interested in the human impacts of pandemic than the science surrounding it.

More pandemic reads:

Spillover by David Quammen

Pale Rider by Laura Spinney

China Syndrome by Karl Taro Greenfeld

Jane Austen, the Secret Radical

Cover image for Jane Austen, the Secret Radical by Helena Kellyby Helena Kelly

ISBN 9781524732110

“Jane’s novels, in truth, are as revolutionary as anything thing that Wollstonecraft or Tom Paine wrote. By and large, they’re so cleverly crafted that unless readers are looking in the right places—reading them in the right way—they simply won’t understand.”

When Jane Austen died in July 1817, she had lived only forty-one years, a quiet life amongst her family and friends that does not make for a remarkable biography. She was unmarried, and lived with her widowed mother and spinster sister, in a cottage on the grounds of the estate of one of her many brothers. Between the American Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars, England had been at war for most of her life, and she never had the chance to travel outside the country. In accordance with decorum, she did not publish under her own name during her lifetime. With such a scanty biography, and a family that was heavily invested in controlling her image after her death, Oxford professor Helena Kelly argues that to truly understand Austen’s life, we must look to her published works, because “it is impossible for anyone to write thousands upon thousands of words and reveal nothing of how she thinks or what she believes.” It is to Austen’s six novels that Kelly turns to understand the author’s true thoughts and opinions, bolstered by her letters and Kelly’s knowledge of English history. But while many people find Austen’s novels to be light romances, Kelly argues that we must read more deeply to unearth the true thoughts and less orthodox opinions of a woman who mocked the monarchy, criticized the clergy, and thumbed her nose at the titled aristocracy.

Kelly begins with Northanger Abbey, likely the first of Austen’s novels to be sold, and the last to be published, for the publisher that initially bought the rights never actually printed it. She later reacquired the rights, but it was not published until her after death, leaving open the question of whether she wanted this youthful manuscript to be read. Each chapter begins with a biographical sketch from the life of Jane Austen, showing where she was and what was happening in her life at the time she was working on each of her books, though this is an inexact business, as her early books in particular were likely worked on over many years. But the main part of each chapter is given over to close reading of Austen’s work, looking for evidence of her engagement with the radical ideology of the time in which she lived. Interestingly, Kelly never applies the word “radical” to Austen directly; she reserves this for political thinkers such as Thomas Paine, Edmund Burke, William Godwin, and Mary Wollestonecraft, and once applies it to Austen’s most famous heroine, Elizabeth Bennett.

When the characters from all of Austen’s books are taken together, as Kelly does here, it is clear that Austen did not think much of the nobility or clergy. Most of Austen’s characters are untitled gentry, but characters such as Sir William Lucas and Lady Catherine de Burgh are figures of fun, and the Reverend Mr. Collins still more so. The Reverend Mr. Elton of Emma is hardly better in his pretensions and flirtations, and Edmund Bertram, the hero of Mansfield Park, openly admits the he is going into the Church out of convenience rather than any sense of vocation; he knows that nepotism will provide him with a living. Altogether, Kelly makes a strong case that for the daughter of a clergyman, Austen did not have a great deal of respect for England’s traditional institutions and authorities.

It is also clear that Kelly’s view of Austen’s novels is not particularly romantic. In her reading of Sense and Sensibility, Kelly suggests that the math does not add up in the story Colonel Brandon tells Elinor about whether he is the father of his ward. He never outright denies the relationship, but seems to disavow it through his timeline. Kelly points out that the fortune that saved the estate Colonel Brandon inherited from his brother rightly belongs to his ward, since it was essentially stolen from her mother when Brandon’s father abused his guardianship and forced her to marry his older brother. In her close reading of Emma, she makes the case that Mr. Knightley is engaged in an enclosure of the commons, something that was happening at an extremely rapid pace during Austen’s lifetime, with serious consequences for the poor who relied on those resources. Kelly further suggests that by marrying Emma and Isabella, the Knightley brothers will eventually be able to complete an enclosure plan for Highbury and Donwell that the conservative and change-averse Mr. Woodhouse would be unlikely to agree to. Once married, their property belongs to their husbands when they eventually inherit Hartfield. Austen’s other heroes do not fare much better under Kelly’s scrutiny.

Helena Kelly knows her English history, and uses it to illuminate the context of Austen’s novels beyond the drawing rooms in which they take place. If her theories are sometimes far-fetched, they are always thought-provoking, and are looking to tie back to that history. “Read Jane’s novels,” Kelly implores, “they’re there to speak for her: love stories, yes, though not always happy ones, but also the productions of an extraordinary mind, in an extraordinary age. Read them again.” No doubt I will be thinking of her ideas the next time I revisit the texts, even as I doubt I will be taking some of her theories to heart. 

You might also like The Jane Austen Project by Kathleen A. Flynn 

Pale Rider

Cover image for Pale Rider by Laura Spinneyby Laura Spinney

ISBN 978-1-61039-768-1

“The number of dead could have been as high as 100 million—a number so big and so round it seems to glide past any notion of human suffering without even snagging on it. It’s not possible to imagine the misery contained within that train of zeroes. All we can do is compare it to other trains of zeroes—notably the death tolls of the First and Second World Wars—and by reducing the problem to one of maths, conclude that it might have been the greatest demographic disaster of the twentieth century, possibly of any century.”

The influenza epidemic that began in 1918—which became known as the Spanish Flu—has drawn a lot of interest in recent months as comparisons are made to the current situation with COVID-19. Pale Rider by Laura Spinney was published in 2017, shortly ahead of the flu pandemic’s centenary year. As such, it is quite current, but of course does not directly address our present circumstances. Spinney tracks the influenza’s two year path around the globe, while also providing historical context, history of medicine, and a significant look at recovery and collective memory as it relates to the pandemic. By the numbers, the contemporary estimate of deaths was 20 million, but over the years that has risen to 50-100 million as more records and evidence come to light. Probably about one in three of the then 1.8 billion living people would have become infected, and while most recovered, up to five percent of the sick may have perished.

I selected this title from among a few popular books about the 1918 pandemic as it is noted for its attempt to take a more global approach to understanding the outbreak. Other previous titles have a more North American and European focus, despite the fact that these areas were not the hardest hit. According to Spinney, that dubious honour likely goes to India, though the numbers for China are murky. In addition to addressing the first recorded case, at Camp Funston military base in Kansas, and covering the impact on the Western Front as well as the acquisition of the “Spanish Flu” nomenclature, Spinney goes further afield to dig into the available numbers for places as various as China, Persia, India, Australia, Iceland, and more, resulting in a more complete picture of the global impact.

The structure of the book is circular, and somewhat repetitive. Rather than following a chronological timeline, Spinney takes a locale-by-locale approach that covers the same chronology multiple times in different places. Despite the repetition, this is an effective structure for sinking into each location and getting a full sense of their experience of the pandemic, which had huge regional variations. Australia, for example, experience only the third wave, having effectively kept out the deadly second wave with a maritime blockade. Spinney also covers three major theories about where the flu may have emerged before it surfaced and was recorded in Kansas, but with a careful eye to the contemporary prejudices that may have been shaping these hypotheses, particularly with regard to China. Within the United States, she addresses the tenements of New York, as well as the remote villages of Alaska, and highlights how differences in responses between cities led to vastly different death rates.

In addition to tracking the pandemic, Pale Rider provides and explains historical context about where the development of medical understanding and technology stood when the pandemic began. Notably, the electron microscope was not invented until the 1930s, meaning that while bacteria could be seen on an optical microscope, viruses—which are about twenty times smaller—were still invisible. Spinney briefly traces the evolution of Western medicine in relation to contagious diseases, and in specific locales such as Indian, China, and Persia, she also addresses how this knowledge was interacting with local medical traditions like Ayurveda. In the West, she also briefly chronicles the backlash against traditional doctors for their failure to prevent the outbreak in the first place.

A notable cautionary note that emerges from Pale Rider is the danger of mass gatherings for any purpose. Influenza does not distinguish between a church service and an armistice parade, a wedding or a funeral. Particularly chilling is Spinney’s account of the Spanish city of Zamora, which was among the hardest hit in that country. Zamoran congregations actually swelled as the pandemic raged, and the populace sought solace and prayed for relief. The city had a zealous new bishop who encouraged religious gatherings, called novenas, promoted the adoration of relics, and continued to distribute communion, all activities that send a shiver down the spine of anyone with a current understanding of the germ theory of disease.

In the latter part of the book, Spinney dives into the difficulty of trying to tease apart the inextricable impacts of the one-two punch that was the Great War with a pandemic following close on its heels. Although more people died in the pandemic, the war remains much better remembered, though Spinney suggests that the centenary is changing that, and no doubt the current situation will also contribute to the revival of interest. For those wondering whether they would be up to reading this book at the moment, I found the author’s approach thorough, but largely not grisly, though there are some dark spots. Spinney leans more towards statistics rather than graphic descriptions of the physical suffering of the flu victims.

The Golden Spruce

Cover image for The Golden Spruce by John Vaillantby John Vaillant

ISBN 978-0-393-07557-1

“The golden spruce was one of the few mature Sitka spruce trees still standing at the north end of the Yakoun River, and as such it had become even more of an anomaly than it already was.”

Sometime around the year 1700, a spruce seed took root in the fertile soil of the Yakoun River valley on Haida Gwaii, off the west coast of what would become British Columbia, Canada. The first recorded European contact with the islands would not take place for another seventy-five years. Despite a rare mutation that caused its needles to be yellow rather than green—a flaw that should have impeded its ability to photosynthesize—the tree that became known as K’iid K’iyaas or the golden spruce, grew to be a giant that stood on the banks of the river until 1997, when it was deliberately felled as a protest again the logging industry. In that time, the golden spruce had become a legend amongst the Haida people of Masset, as well as a symbol of the village of Port Clements. In The Golden Spruce, John Vaillant documents the history of tree, the troubled life of the man who destroyed it, and the impact of this act on the community that was its home.

The Golden Spruce is part history of the logging industry, and part post-mortem of the murder of a culturally significant icon of the Haida people. Vaillant beautifully describes the temperate rainforest landscape, writing that “a coastal forest can be an awesome place to behold: huge, holy, and eternal-feeling, like a branched and needled Notre Dame.” The early part of the book is dedicated to the history of the Haida, and the North American logging industry, as well as a brief foray into the fur trade that preceded it. Vaillant treats this all as necessary context before introducing Grant Hadwin, the man who destroyed the tree in the dark hours of January 20, 1997. A former logger and industry consultant, Hadwin had specialized in laying out the logging roads that would enable the companies to haul massive equipment into challenging terrain, and extract the wood once it was felled. In short, he made possible the very destruction he came to oppose. Vaillant interviews several current and former loggers also caught in this cognitive dissonance between love for being in the wilderness, and making a living by pillaging it, representing a variety of positions on the issue.

In the summer of 1987, on a mountainside near McBride, British Columbia—a small town about two hours east of the larger mill town where I grew up—Hadwin had a vision. A doctor Vaillant spoke with, who specializes in this kind of decompensation, called it a “spiritual emergency.” Having already become disillusioned with the practices of the logging industry in the mid-eighties, his failed attempts to advocate for restraint and moderation became unhinged. His employer at the time compared it to the difference between Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Following the vision, Hadwin believed “he was not only forgiven for his prior sins but chosen to represent the Creator of all Life and carry a message to the rest of humanity.” However, it would be a decade before this delusion manifested in an act of destruction that shook the country.

Like most of British Columbia, Haida Gwaii is unceded territory; no treaty exists, and no compensation has been made to the Haida people for all that has already been taken from them. On that dark January night, Vaillant describes how another piece of their culture was destroyed: “as far as many Haida are concerned, Hadwin is one more white guy who came out to their islands in order to take something away, only to leave behind yet another imported illness; this time, a new strain of terrorism.” From his Prince Rupert hotel room, before his disappearance, Hadwin admitted he didn’t know the Haida legend when he cut down the tree. As his friend Cora Grey, an Indigenous woman from Hazelton, put it, “he could only see MacMillan Bloedel. He didn’t see no legend about the Haida when he did that.”

For those looking to understand why Hadwin would destroy K’iid K’iyaas and think he was striking a blow against the logging industry, there is little satisfaction to be had in The Golden Spruce. Using all the skills he picked up during his years in the industry, Hadwin destroyed the structural integrity of the tree, ensuring that it would fall the next time the wind blew up. This happened two days after his nighttime expedition. Fortunately, despite the tree’s popularity as a tourist attraction, no one was hurt. The golden spruce trail and view point were on the other side of the Yakoun River. By the time the tree feel, Hadwin had left Haida Gwaii, and returned to Prince Rupert on the mainland. From his hotel room, he issued a press release decrying the hypocrisy of the logging industry, entitled “The Falling of Your ‘Pet Plant,’” which reads as a deranged screed against “university trained professionals” whose “ideas, ethics, denials, part truth, attitudes, etc., appear to be responsible for most of the abominations, towards amateur life on this planet.”

As Vaillant chronicles, Hadwin was charged for the act, and it is here that the story takes an even stranger turn. Believing his life to be in danger if he took a ferry or plane to his court date in Masset, Hadwin took his life into his own hands, and set out from Prince Rupert in a kayak in February 1998, disappearing somewhere on Hecate Strait or Dixon Entrance. His wrecked kayak and much of his equipment—in surprisingly good condition after four months on the Northwest coast—were found on Mary Island in June. Belief that he faked the wreck remains common amongst those who knew him and his outdoors skills, as well as among the people of Haida Gwaii.

With the tree felled, and Hadwin vanished into the wild, the last part of the book becomes about the grief of the community, and the futile efforts of the scientific community to put right the destruction he wrought. The golden spruce was unique and irreplaceable. Although two cuttings of the tree were located in the University of British Columbia Botanical Gardens, they were not thriving. Controversy erupted amongst community members and Haida leadership about whether the return of a cutting should be accepted, and if it should be planted on the site of the felled giant. In the end, although more cuttings were made from the fallen tree, and two were planted in Port Clements, the golden spruce has largely been left to nature, where it has become a nurse log for the surrounding forest. The Golden Spruce is a sad and disturbing story of destruction, ignorance, and waste. According to Vaillant, “left in peace, the golden spruce could have lived until the twenty-sixth century.”

You might also like The Nature Fix by Florence Williams

She-Wolves

Cover image for She-Wolves by Helen Castorby Helen Castor

ISBN 9780571237050

“Amid the chaos and confusion, one thing alone was certain: for the first time, a woman would sit upon the throne of England.”

When King Edward VI died in July 1553, the Tudor line of succession was in a peculiar position. Henry VIII had left behind one son—now dead—and two supposedly illegitimate daughters from earlier marriages. Henry VIII also had two sisters, Mary and Margaret, whose living descendants were all daughters. Thus, all the potential claimants to the throne were women, and while the identity of the next occupant of the English throne was by no means certain, the fact that England would have its first reigning Queen seemed indisputable. In order to contextualize the succession crises that followed Edward VI’s death, historian Helen Castor examines four precedents for female power in England, from the Empress Matilda in the 12th century, to Margaret of Anjou in the 15th.

Of the four women Castor profiles in She-Wolves, only one was an English-born princess who aimed to rule the country in her own right. She was also the earliest. When her father Henry I died without any living legitimate sons in 1135, his daughter Matilda, widow of the Holy Roman Emperor, was named as his heir and sought to claim his throne, but was usurped by her cousin, Stephen, who moved decisively to claim the crown. With her illegitimate half-brother at the head of her armies, Matilda fought for her rights, but the fact the she was unable to lead troops herself is one of the many factors Castor cites in her inability to gain a decisive advantage. The result was a civil war that tore the country apart for a generation, and ended only with a compromise; Matilda would never rule in her own right, but her son, Henry II would be Stephen’s heir. It would be another four hundred years before the country was faced with the prospect of being ruled by a woman outright.

The remaining three women were not English by birth, but French-born princesses and duchesses who married into the English royal family, the first being Matilda’s daughter-in-law, Eleanor, Duchess of Aquitaine. Here were three more typical examples of the means by which women could expect to wield power, in the names of their husbands and sons. From crusades to foreign wars to mental incapacity and long minorities, there were a variety of extenuating circumstances in which English Queens Consort or Queen Mothers might temporarily take hold of the reins of power. But as Castor’s account makes clear, the prospect of being reigned by a woman rarely sat easily, or lasted long, save in the hands of the cleverest politicians. Isabella of France would seize power from her inept husband, Edward II, in the name of their young son, only to succumb to the same excesses that had made her husband so deeply unpopular, and live to see that power seized back by the teenage son for whom she claimed to rule.

Castor acknowledges the difficulties inherent in writing about these four women particularly that, despite being Queens, the records of their lives are shockingly spotty. In many places, it is necessary to infer what their actions or motives might have been based on the surrounding context of documented English politics and history of the period. Castor relies on contemporary chroniclers, but duly notes their sympathies and prejudices, mindful of the fact that their accounts are often coloured by their own loyalties and preferences. In many places there are long gaps, such as the fifteen year period when Eleanor of Aquitaine was kept under house arrest after leading her sons into rebellion against their father. If it is not quite possible to know the personalities of these women, however, their strengths and weaknesses as politicians at least come into focus.

Overall, She-Wolves stands out due to the unique structure Castor employs, in which she opens with Edward VI’s death, turns back the clock to profile the four Queens, and then returns to the Tudor succession crisis to view it in light of what we have learned. The result is a unique take on a period of history that is already well-covered. Fans of the Tudors should note that while they frame this story, they are not the primary focus, and that the bulk of the text is dedicated to the women who preceded them.

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How to Be a Tudor by Ruth Goodman

Wars of the Roses by Dan Jones

Faith and Treason by Antonia Fraser

The Five

Cover image for The Five by Hallie Rubenholdby Hallie Rubenhold

ISBN 9781328664082

“Much like the occupants of Whitechapel’s common lodging houses, the victims of Jack the Ripper and the lives they led became entangled in a web of assumptions, rumor, and unfounded speculation.”

In 1888, in one of London’s poorest, most downtrodden neighbourhoods, five women were murdered between August 31 and November 9, setting off a panic amongst Whitechapel’s residents, and an obsession in the public mind that survives to this day. The five women, Polly Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elisabeth Stride, Kate Eddowes, and Mary Jane Kelly were the victims of the killer called the Whitechapel Murderer in his time, but who would come to be known as Jack the Ripper. The killer was never caught, and while the five women were soon forgotten, their murderer became a legend, giving rise to “Ripperology,” or the study of the series of murders that took place in Whitechapel, and the ongoing quest to identify the person responsible. In The Five, historian Hallie Rubenhold places the five so-called “canonical victims” of Jack the Ripper at the centre of her narrative, focusing not on their deaths, but on the lives and social circumstances that would ultimately bring them to a common end.

Rubenhold opens The Five on Trafalgar Square in 1887, a year before the events that would claim the lives of her five subjects. Hundreds of homeless Londoners descended on the Square each night, bedding down on the paving stones, in a Victorian precursor that modern audiences might recognize in the more recent Occupy movement. Among them was Polly Nichols, who was no stranger to sleeping on the streets when she did not have enough money to buy a bed for the night. She had no fixed address. In opening on this scene, Rubenhold emphasizes that poverty and homelessness were rife in Victorian London, and that many factors contributed to the situation.

Most of the victims were born into working class families, with trades such as printing, tin making, and soldiering. Elisabeth Stride was a Swedish immigrant who arrived in London to work as a servant. Of the five, only Mary Jane Kelly’s early life remains a mystery, lost to a series of fabrications and name changes. Four of the women were, or had been married, and three of them had children. Although Jack the Ripper’s victims are commonly remembered as prostitutes, Rubenhold contests this narrative, laying bare the cultural assumptions that gave rise to an equivalency between homeless women and sex work that is difficult to substantiate. Though it is impossible to definitively rule out occasional engagement in survival sex, she finds clear evidence of sex work in the histories of only two of the women. In the case of Elisabeth Stride, she may have left Sweden in part to escape a reputation that lingered even after she had left the trade behind. Ultimately, of course, it does not matter whether Polly, Annie, Elisabeth, Kate, and Mary Jane were, or ever had been sex workers. They were poor, vulnerable women struggling to survive on the streets of London’s East End. They were victims of a brutal murderer who felt entitled to take their lives, knowing that society would not value their loss.

If not prostitution, there are other common threads along the path that led each of the women to one of London’s poorest neighbourhoods. The breakdown of a marriage was a common catalyst; unable to legally divorce, they simply left. And since the work available to women did not pay a living wage, leaving meant falling into a makeshift existence, trying day by day to scrape together four pence for a bed in one of the East End’s filthy lodging houses. The other option was to commit oneself to the workhouse, exchanging a day’s labour for a night’s lodging and a meagre meal. However, the workhouse was fraught with shame, and many would choose to sleep rough rather than submit. Alcoholism was also a shared problem, though the relationship between cause and effect is murky. Which of the women landed on the streets because they drank too much, and which drank too much to dull the difficulties of poverty and homelessness?

The Five felt neither voyeuristic or nor obsessive, two qualities that often leave me feeling slightly uncomfortable with some other true crime narratives. Rubenhold’s stylistic avoidance of the killer is very clean; he is elided and deemphasized at every turn. No attempt is made to build suspense up to the moment of their deaths, or to speculate about what they endured in their final moments. The deaths are not lingered over, and the mutilation of their bodies is minimally described, noted only in the difficulties they lent to identifying the victims, and the impact seeing this desecration had on the family members who were called upon to performance this office. The substance of the work is given up to their lives, and their surrounding social circumstances, not their gruesome ends.

I would have liked to learn more about how Rubhenhold sifted through the conflicting and biased evidence that survives in order to piece together the lives of these five women. However, I think that such a method would ultimately have detracted from Rubenhold’s focus on centering the lives of the women, rather than their deaths, and the legend that grew up around their murderer. To ruminate too much on methodology would be to slip back into the amateur sleuthing that defines so much of the modern obsession with Jack the Ripper. Rubenhold notes in the text when the coroner’s records of an inquest do not survive, forcing her to rely on newspaper accounts of dubious and conflicting accuracy. She also states that she privileged the evidence and testimony of the people who knew the women in life. Otherwise, she steadfastly keeps her attention on the women, and the social context in which they lived.

You might also like How to Be a Victorian by Ruth Goodman