Category: History

Becoming Queen Victoria

Cover image for Becoming Queen Victoria by Kate Williams by Kate Williams

ISBN 978-0-345-47239-7

“The newspapers fizzed with gossip about the wayward brothers who succeeded only at plunging the monarchy into disgrace. Through it all, Charlotte was their one hope: the blue-eyed, golden-haired girl who seemed so spirited and innocent. The public took to idealizing her as the perfect princess: sweet, reserved, possessed of a kind heart, and entirely unlike her self-centered father.”

Royal historian Kate Williams’ portrait of two British princesses has been published under the title Becoming Queen, as well as the somewhat less accurate Becoming Queen Victoria. While it certainly is an account of how Victoria gained the throne, it dedicates a nearly equal measure of attention to Princess Charlotte, daughter of George IV, the woman who would have been queen but for her untimely death in childbirth. The book is divided into two parts, first chronicling the life and death of Princess Charlotte, before moving on to the second part dealing with the childhood and early reign of Queen Victoria. The short interlude between the two sections follows the scramble to secure the succession that took place in the wake of Charlotte’s unexpected death at the age of twenty-one.

Williams begins her account with the marriage of the Prince of Wales—the future George IV—to his cousin Princess Caroline of Brunswick in 1796. Though Prince George had more than a dozen siblings, he was one of the few to make a legitimate marriage, and he was not pleased with his German princess from the outset. George III preferred to keep his daughters at home, refusing them permission to marry, and most of his sons chose mistresses over marriage, earning them a debauched reputation as they drained the royal treasury with their antics. George and Caroline managed to get along long enough to produce Princess Charlotte, securing the succession, but their animosity only grew, and Charlotte became the frequent subject of an ongoing tug-of-war between her estranged parents throughout her childhood.

The drama surrounding Charlotte’s childhood paints an effective picture of the unpopularity of the Hanoverian monarchs, and Williams spins out a dramatic vision of what the young princess endured. In addition to being a pawn in the cold war between her parents, Charlotte was also much more popular with the public than her father, who served as Prince Regent during his father’s periods of madness. The more the public idealized her, the more her father mistrusted her, having spent his own youth consolidating power and building a rival circle of support around himself. For this reason, her father hoped to marry her off to a foreign prince, and send her abroad so that she could not set up a rival court in London. Grasping after independence from her relatives, Charlotte married Prince Leopold, who hailed from the Saxe-Coburg family, rulers of a small German duchy. However, she was successful in making living in England one of the conditions of the marriage.

As one of Britain’s longest ruling monarchs, as well as the sovereign who presided over the British Empire, and the Industrial Revolution, Queen Victoria has received her fair share of attention. She is currently the subject of ITV’s television series Victoria, and features in many biopics and historical fiction novels. But her cousin Charlotte is a less well-known figure, the queen who never was. For this reason, I found myself more riveted by the first half of the book. Depictions of the turmoil of the Regency period usually focus on the mad king and the Napoleonic wars, but through Charlotte, Williams highlights another aspect of the tumultuous Hanoverian dynasty, a corrupt and licentious monarchy riven by a rotten family dynamic. And of course, all of this provides context to the famous Kensington System, under which the Duchess of Kent would eventually raise her daughter.

What Williams also makes clear by beginning the story of Victoria’s ascension more than twenty years before her birth is that Victoria did not become heir to the throne simply because Charlotte died; she literally existed because of her cousin’s death. The sons and daughters of George III had more than fifty children between them, and all but Charlotte were illegitimate. With George IV still married to Charlotte’s estranged mother despite repeated efforts to divorce her, Charlotte’s death set off a scramble amongst George’s younger brothers to procure suitable wives, and secure the succession. Edward, Duke of Kent, the fourth son of George III, jettisoned his mistress of nearly thirty years in order to marry Leopold’s widowed sister, Victoire. Alexandrina Victoria was born to the couple within eighteen months of her cousin’s death. And while the possibility remained that one of her father’s older brother’s might yet produce an heir that would displace her, Victoria was heir presumptive for much of her young life.

Like Charlotte, Victoria’s position meant an unhappy childhood. Whereas Charlotte was neglected and haphazardly educated, Victoria was highly controlled and abused in an effort to shape her into a popular heir, as well as one who would be obedient to her mother, and her advisor Sir John Conroy, after her father died in her infancy. Given the ages of her uncles, the Duchess and Sir John long operated on the assumption that Victoria would require a regency, and worked to ensure that they would have that power. They also worked hard to keep Victoria separate from her uncles in the public mind, so that she would not be tainted by their shenanigans. But the Kensington System destroyed Victoria’s relationship with her mother, and led her to oust both the duchess and Sir John from her circle immediately upon her ascension to the throne. The only advisor she retained was her governess, Baroness Lehzen.

For fans of ITV’s Victoria, Williams touches on the major events depicted in the series.  Notably, however, she agrees with most other historians that the relationship between Queen Victoria and her first Prime Minister, Lord Melbourne, was more paternal than romantic, a point of departure that series creator Daisy Goodwin leans heavily on. By profiling Charlotte and Victoria together, Williams succeeds in highlighting the perils facing a female monarch, particularly in the realms of marriage and family, creating a rather personal history. An alternative history can also easily be imagined, in which Charlotte and Leopold ruled over England together. Instead, Leopold was instrumental in facilitating the marriage of his nephew to the young queen, and the Victorian age was born.

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Imbeciles

Cover image for Imbeciles by Adam Cohenby Adam Cohen

ISBN 978-0-14-310999-0

“Whitehead’s representation of Carrie at the trial and on appeal was an extraordinary case of malfeasance. Not only did he violate well-established ethical rules about the duty of loyalty to a client…but his entire representation of Carrie, in a case of enormous importance to her, was a fraud.”

In 1907, Indiana passed the first law authorizing a state to engage in eugenic sterilization, which permitted medical operations that cut off the reproductive abilities of those who were deemed “unfit” to procreate for a variety of reasons. However, it would take twenty years for the constitutionality of such laws to be sanctioned by the Supreme Court, and that case would come from Virginia, a relatively late adopter of eugenic sterilization. At the centre of that case was Carrie Buck, a girl of nineteen who had already borne one illegitimate child, and who was the daughter of a woman who had also been deemed “feebleminded.” In a nearly unanimous decision that has never been overturned, the Supreme Court ruled on Buck v. Bell in 1927, upholding eugenics laws broadly, and Carrie’s sterilization specifically. In Imbeciles, Adam Cohen investigates this miscarriage of justice, chronicling the rise of the eugenics movement in America, and how Carrie Buck was actively misrepresented for the sake of this cause.

It is difficult to understate the tragedy of Carrie’s situation. The family that took her in when her mother was unable to care for her did not adopt her, so much as they used her for free labour. When their nephew raped her, they dealt with the situation by having Carrie committed to the Virginia Colony for Epileptics and the Feebleminded, where the main evidence of her supposed feeblemindedness was the promiscuity evidenced only by her pregnancy. Because her mother was already a resident of the colony, the doctors who were supposed to be caring for her singled Carrie out to be the guinea-pig of their schemes for improving the “American stock.” Every guardian, advocate, and caretaker who should have protected her not only failed in their duty, but actively colluded in her victimization. Two in particular stand out: Irving Whitehead, the lawyer who was supposed to be representing her, but who instead cooperated with the opposition, and Aubrey Strode, the lawyer for the colony, who the evidence suggests was not a believer in eugenics, and yet bent himself tirelessly to the task of seeing it upheld by the nation’s highest court.

As a history, Imbeciles deals primarily with the men who shaped Carrie’s fate, rather than with the woman herself. No doubt these prestigious and well-educated men left a larger record than a woman who had to leave school after the fifth grade, and who did not speak publicly about her situation until the 1980s. Cohen profiles the four men who played the largest roles in forming and deciding Carrie’s case: Dr. Albert Priddy, Harry Laughlin, Aubrey Strode, and Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. Priddy was the head of the Virginia colony where Carrie was committed, and he was avid advocate of eugenic sterilization, as well as the person who chose Carrie to be at the centre of a test case that would confirm the constitutionality of eugenic sterilization. Aubrey Strode, the colony’s lawyer, both drafted the Virginia eugenics law, and defended the case all the way to the Supreme Court, where the majority opinion in favour of Carrie’s sterilization was penned by Holmes. Though he never met Carrie, Harry Laughlin, head of the Eugenics Record Office, and a eugenics evangelist, was an expert witness in the case. Together, they sealed her fate. Each man merits two chapters, a structure that bogs down the narrative and creates repetition as Cohen retreads portions of the timeline with each new figure.

Cohen touches only a little on the decided misogyny that pervaded eugenics legislation. Women could be deemed feebleminded simply for being too sexual, as was a significant factor in Carrie’s case. In covering up the rape committed by their nephew, the Dobbs family cast Carrie as an immoral woman unable to control her own base urges. All evidence not created by those with a personal stake in the matter suggests that Carrie was of normal intelligence, if undereducated. She performed perfectly well in school, completing the fifth grade before the Dobbs family pulled her out so that she could do more work. She communicated with the colony via letter during her parole, and after her discharge. When she was placed in a home during her parole, the family assumed she must be an epileptic, because she seemed to be of perfectly normal intelligence. Although men were also sterilized, 67% of the operations performed in the wake of Buck v. Bell were conducted on women, who often did not understand the purpose of the procedure they were being subjected to. And since Carrie Buck was white, Cohen touches even less on the implications of such laws for African Americans and other non-white citizens.

Imbeciles in is a revealing history of American sterilization, with a somewhat repetitive focus on the legal process of the case, and its shortcomings. Cohen points out the continued relevance of this subject as genetic science continues to advance, and also highlights the ways in which such sentiments tend to get tied up in anti-immigration rhetoric. Words that we use lightly today—idiot, imbecile, moron—carry a weight of historical baggage that many people are unaware of, and Imbeciles shines a light on that history.

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Forgotten

Cover image for Forgotten by Linda Hervieuxby Linda Hervieux

ISBN 978-0-06-231379-9

“For many African Americans, their parting view of Lady Liberty was a bittersweet reminder that they were off to fight, and perhaps die, to protect freedoms afar that they had never known at home.”

Watching movies about World War II, you might be forgiven for thinking that no African American soldiers served in that war. Yet more than two thousand African Americans were on Utah and Omaha beaches on D-Day, a mere fraction of the 130 000 sent to England over the preceding months in anticipation of the invasion of the continent. Most of the African Americans at D-Day were service troops, working as stevedores and truck drivers, but one black combat unit participated, the 320th Barrage Balloon Battalion. Over six-hundred men strong, the battalion was spread out over more than 125 landing craft arriving on the beaches on June 6, and in the weeks that followed. Their job was to raise a defensive curtain into the skies, protecting the invading forces from low altitude bombing runs and strafing by the Luftwaffe. Yet there is nary a black face to be seen anywhere in the storming of Omaha Beach depicted in such films as Saving Private Ryan. But they were there, and Forgotten is Linda Hervieux’s effort to write those men back into their rightful place in history.

Hervieux became aware of the existence of the 320th after writing a story about veteran Bill Dabney, who was awarded the Legion of Honour by the French government on the 65th anniversary of D-Day. Organizers believed that Dabney was likely the last living member of the battalion, but when Hervieux dug into that claim, she discovered that it was unfounded. Moreover, time was running out to capture the stories of these men; most of the remaining veterans would be in their nineties. Military historians warned Hervieux, a journalist, that there were not enough records to support a book about the unit, but Hervieux persisted, unearthing at least twelve 320th veterans who were still alive and able to talk about their experiences. She also uncovered the only proof that a member of the 320th was recommended for the Medal of Honor, medic Waverly Woodson, who passed away in 2005.

Forgotten opens on Atlantic City in 1941, where Wilson Caldwell Monk—future member of the 320th—was waiting tables on the Boardwalk. Though New Jersey was a northern state, Atlantic City practiced a form of de facto segregation; the restaurants where Monk worked during the Season would never serve a black man. In addition to Dabney and Woodson, Monk is one of the main figures in the book, along with Henry Parham, who hailed from sharecropping country, and was working as a porter in Richmond, Virginia when he received his draft notice. Dabney, Monk, and Parham were all alive for Hervieux to interview, while the accounts of Woodson are based on newspaper articles from the period, and interviews he gave before his death, as well as the cooperation of his widow.

After the players are introduced, the first third of the book is largely contextual, including sections on Jim Crow laws, the Great Migration, the history of black military units, and the use of various types of balloons in the military, beginning with the Napoleonic wars. Although she talks about Jim Crow generally, Hervieux also examines its specific effect on the military experience. The army itself was segregated, and most of the training camps were located in the South. Far from being welcomed into the military, blacks were discouraged because they were believed to be less brave and less intelligent than white people. Black soldiers were regularly insulted and even assaulted, as white Southerners struggled with the cognitive dissonance of their respect for the military colliding with their dehumanization of African Americans. A black man in uniform was perceived as a provocation, a demand for respect, and the situation was so fraught that trains carrying black soldiers through the South traveled with curtains drawn, because white Southerners were known to shoot at trains carrying African American troops.

Perhaps the most revelatory section comes in the middle of the book, which covers the 320th deploying overseas, landing in Scotland, and proceeding south. They were encamped in Oxfordshire and Wales, where they were part of the growing mass of American forces being squirreled away in anticipation of Operation Overlord, as the invasion of France was known among the planners. Britons, by and large, did not discriminate against the black soldiers, and in some cases even preferred them, finding that they were usually more polite than their white counterparts, and better accustomed to the hard living conditions imposed by war-time rationing. In England, a black man could drink in any pub, go to any church, and dance with any girl, unencumbered by the colour of his skin. But this treatment caused tension with white American troops, who had somehow expected that Britons would participate in American-style segregation and subjugation. In fact, Britons roundly refused, and even raised public outcry against the harsher treatment they saw African American soldiers receiving from the American military command.

Only the last few chapters of Forgotten deal with the event itself, the crossing of the channel, the landing at D-Day, and the long fight to control the beaches. Nothing went as planned that day, and the first 320th men on the ground, including Waverly Woodson, were more infantry troops than balloon men, given the amount of artillery fire that was still underway. Fortunately most of the Luftwaffe was elsewhere, and later waves of 320th men were able to raise their balloons. Hervieux also briefly deals with the aftermath of the war, recounting the difficulties African American veterans faced in accessing the benefits of the GI Bill. Black veterans were still unable to obtain loans from most banks, and while educational benefits were available, African Americans were shunted into vocational training programs of dubious quality, and often emerged to find no jobs available to them.

Anyone who is very knowledgeable about either African American history or military history will probably find that this book retreads a lot of ground in an effort to contextualize the experiences of the men of the 320th. Perhaps due to the sparseness of the military records, Hervieux relies on this background material to flesh out the narrative, as a military history cannot rest on personal accounts alone. Yet if anything she is simultaneously a little too wary of personalizing the narrative, and letting the personalities of the men shine through. It is hard to get a good sense of them individually, and that is a bit of shame. Nevertheless, Hervieux successfully sheds light on the contributions of a group that has almost been erased from history.

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In the Garden of Beasts

Cover image for In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson by Erik Larson

ISBN 9780307408846

“There existed at this time a widespread perception that Hitler’s government could not possibly endure.”

In the diplomatic service, Berlin would normally be considered a plum ambassadorial appointment, a great European capital exceeded only by London or Paris. But in the spring of 1933, the recently elected Franklin Roosevelt was having trouble filling the position. The political situation in Germany was turbulent, and Adolf Hitler had just been appointed Chancellor. Meanwhile Roosevelt had more consuming problems closer to home, dealing with the Great Depression. Just before congress closed session in June 1933, Roosevelt appointed William E. Dodd, a historian from the University of Chicago, to the post. At least four previous candidates had declined the position. Dodd, his wife Mattie, and adult children Bill and Martha, decamped for Berlin, becoming first-hand witnesses to the rise of National Socialism during their four year tenure in the German capital.

In terms of the diplomatic service, Dodd was an unconventional choice. He was not a Harvard graduate, a captain of industry, or a friend of the president. Most ambassadors, and even junior diplomats, were independently wealthy, but Dodd lived on his professor’s salary. The year before, Dodd had quietly felt out the possibility of a small ambassadorial appointment in Europe, perhaps Belgium or the Netherlands, looking for a sinecure where he could turn his attention away from teaching and academic administration, and dedicate more time to writing his history of the Old South, which he feared he would not be able to complete before he died. Thus, his name was in the air when Roosevelt became desperate to name an ambassador before congress recessed for the summer. Having attended the University of Leipzig for his doctoral studies, Dodd spoke German, and was familiar with the country. By phone, he agreed, with some misgivings, to accept the post, and he was confirmed by congress in absentia.

As ambassador, Dodd is one of Larson’s two main characters for In the Garden of Beasts. The second central point of view in the book belongs to Dodd’s daughter, Martha, who was twenty-four when her father invited her and her older brother Bill to join him and Mattie in Berlin for this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Martha, recently secretly married and then immediately separated, accepted with alacrity. If Dodd himself was a staid figure, determined to live on his ambassador’s salary, and temper the excesses of the Berlin embassy, his daughter was his flamboyant opposite. Initially charmed by what is euphemistically termed “the New Germany,” Larson tracks Martha’s increasing disenchantment with the Nazi regime, as well as her many love affairs with both German officials and foreign diplomats. Less emphasis is placed on her later involvement as a Soviet asset. It is Martha who adds pizzazz to the story, and perhaps this is why Larson handles her so lightly.

Although the Dodds were in Berlin for four years, the majority of the book focuses on their first year in residence, from their arrival in August 1930, through The Night of the Long Knives, a purge of the Sturmabteilung (SA) that began on June 30, 1934, and the death of President von Hindenburg on August 2. Following Hindenburg’s death, Hitler combined the offices of Chancellor and President. Despite the narrow focus, this is a key and interesting period of German history. Having attended university in Germany around the turn of the century, Dodd was immediately struck by the change he found in the country when he arrived as ambassador. By contrast, Martha was more readily seduced by the energy and enthusiasm of the Nazi movement, and it took longer for the scales to fall from her eyes.

Although he does not dig broadly into European history, Larson does a good job of painting a picture of the political situation that made the United States reluctant to interfere in the German situation. Hitler’s government was not expected to last, and in any case, the State Department was more concerned with Germany’s debt to American creditors than with the “Jewish Problem,” as it was often called. Some highly placed people within the State Department even believed that the United States had its own Jewish Problem. With so many troubles at home stemming from the Great Depression, the American people were increasingly turning away from Woodrow Wilson’s legacy of international engagement, and pinning their hopes on isolationism. They did not want to become involved in another European war. Roosevelt also intimated to Dodd that directly standing up to Germany would put the United States in the uncomfortable position of having to account for the lynching of African Americans, and the fact that black people did not enjoy full civil rights.

The Dodds entered the foreign service with a good helping of naiveté, and a fair share of their own prejudices, most of which are brought to light by Martha’s flip comments. Early on, she wrote in a letter to a friend that “we sort of don’t like the Jews anyway.” Later, she thoughtlessly bragged to a Russian lover that both of her parents came from slave owning families as a means of emphasizing their deep roots in the American south. For his part, Dodd did his best to keep stories out of the press when American visitors were beaten by Stormtroopers for failing to heil, even if he protested loudly through diplomatic channels. But by the time he returned to the United States in 1937, Dodd wad decidedly anti-Hitler, and possessed a grim certainty that war was coming. Instead of settling down to work on his book, he toured the country sharing what he had seen and experienced in Hitler’s Germany.

In the Garden of Beasts is richly described, from the scenery to the characters, in a manner that gives a horrifying immediacy to a crucial turning point in history. From our vantage point in the future, we are forced to see through the eyes of people living in the time, who had no idea of the horrors to come. It is an uncomfortable but revealing perspective.

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Not Just Jane

Cover image for Not Just Jane by Shelley DeWeesby Shelley DeWees

ISBN 978-0-06-239462-0

“Of all the wonderful things I experienced during this journey, the best occurred at the end, as I stood in front of a bookshelf full of new titles, each of which introduced me to new women, new worlds, new windows into British history.”

Everyone has heard of Jane Austen and the Brontë sisters, perhaps the most famous women writers in British literature. All have been the subject of film and television adaptations, and Jane Austen will grace the new £10 bank note being released in Britain in 2017. But do you know Sara Coleridge (yes, she is related to Samuel Taylor) or Catherine Crowe? Perhaps you’ve heard of King George IV’s scandalous mistress, the actress Mary Robinson, but didn’t realize she was also a writer? Shelley DeWees selects seven British women writers of the Romantic and Victorian periods who were at least as famous as Austen and the Brontës during their lifetimes, if not more so, and often outsold them. Not Just Jane shines a light on their less-remembered works, while also showing the difficulties women faced in becoming writers, and the censure they faced when they succeeded.

DeWees’ subjects are not entirely forgotten so much as they are ill-remembered outside the halls of academia. I was familiar with all of the women from the Romantic period, which is the area I focused on during my undergraduate degree. Funnily enough, I even referenced Charlotte Turner Smith my review of The Fire This Time a few months ago. I was less familiar with the Victorians, with the exception of Mary Elizabeth Braddon. If you’ve never heard of Braddon, try to imagine a novelist as prolific as Nora Roberts and as famous as J.K. Rowling, and then imagine that almost no one has heard of that novelist a hundred years from now.

In large part, DeWees is not analyzing why the Brontës and Austen have been remembered, and her seven women have been forgotten. She ventures a few guesses, such as how Charlotte Brontë’s legacy was bolstered by a well-timed biography penned by Elizabeth Gaskell, who was herself an extremely successful novelist. She also hazards a guess that some of the women were willingly forgotten because of their scandalous and unconventional personal lives. But for the most part, she is concerned with illuminating the forgotten writers, rather than with trying to figure out exactly why they are not well-remembered today.

All seven women have interesting biographies that illustrate the problems commonly faced by Romantic and Victorian women. Many of them were married young to degenerate men who ran up debts they could not pay. The long-suffering wives then took up the pen to pay off their husbands’ debts and support their children. It was extremely hard to obtain a divorce, and both Smith and Robinson ultimately left their husbands without the legal niceties. Both Robinson and Braddon would become tabloid scandals for their extra-marital activities, Robinson for her role as the mistress of the Prince of Wales, and Braddon because she lived with and bore children to a man whose first wife was still living, but was confined to an insane asylum in Ireland. These women faced censure for the contents of their personal lives as well as the content of their novels, their punishment for being so bold as to publish under their own names rather than anonymously or “By a Lady.”

Perhaps because the works of her subjects are not always well-known, DeWees references Austen and Brontës frequently, using examples from their work to explain a social custom of the period, or point out a common literary trope. As she moves into the Victorian period, the works of Charles Dickens often fill this role in the text. At other times she hold Austen and the Brontes up for stylistic contrast, showing how her seven women are different, and often less comforting than their better-remembered counterparts.  DeWees’ background is in ethnomusicology, and her readings sometimes seem selectively chosen or read to make a point. Not Just Jane is at its weakest when it tries to explain why, but shines when the women themselves step to the forefront. DeWees ably highlights the gaps in our knowledge as she advocates for an expansion of the canon.

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Hidden Figures

Cover image for Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterlyby Margot Lee Shetterly

ISBN 978-0-06-236359-6

“Unless an engineer was given a compelling reason to evaluate a woman as a peer, she remained in his blind spot, her usefulness measured against the limited task at hand, any additional talents undiscovered.”

The quick marketing description of Hidden Figures touts this book as the story of the black women mathematicians of NASA, who helped put men on the moon. But Margot Lee Shetterly’s narrative begins long before that. During World War II, women were entering the workforce in unprecedented numbers, pulled into the vacuum left by men departing to serve in the military. Many of the black women who would go on to play significant roles in the space race began their careers in the segregated West Computing department of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) on the Virginia Peninsula. In those days, computers were people, not machines, and the insatiable demand for bright mathematical minds cracked the door for black women to enter the agency that would one day become the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

Author Margot Lee Shetterly grew up on the Virginia Peninsula, her father one of the many African Americans who worked for NASA’s Langley Research Center. This was so common in the area that during her childhood, Shetterly took it for granted that “the face of science was brown like mine.” But on a return trip home to visit her parents during adulthood, she began to realize how remarkable her community really was. She peppered her father with questions about his early days at Langley, and began interviewing women from their church who had worked as computers in the early days. By the time she finished Hidden Figures, Shetterly could “put names to almost fifty black women who worked as computers, mathematicians, engineers, or scientists at the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory from 1943 through 1980.”

Shetterly focuses on three main figures, including Dorothy Vaughn, Mary Jackson, and Katherine G. Johnson. For most people, the last name is the only one that might be familiar, particularly after she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015. Shetterly touches briefly on many other women who worked for NACA and NASA, and in the later part of the book, brings in Dr. Christine Darden, representing the next generation of black women who were able to take advantage of the advances made by their predecessors. She follows Dorothy Vaughn from being a member of the West Computing pool, to head of that department, to overseeing its dissolution when the creation of NASA finally desegregated the computers. After beginning her career as a teacher, Katherine Johnson joined the computers in 1953, before going on to calculate launch windows and trajectories for several of America’s first space flights.

Meanwhile, Mary Jackson’s story in Hidden Figures always seemed to be building but never quite as centered as it could be. This made a great deal more sense when I arrived at the epilogue, and learned that Shetterly had to cut the section she had intended to include about Jackson’s later career. After notably achieving the title of engineer, in 1981 Jackson took a pay cut to move across to human resources, where she focused on ensuring equal employment opportunities for women and minorities at the agency. Shetterly recounts some of this in the epilogue, but I very much wished to read the complete chapter on the subject that was cut from the manuscript.

Throughout the narrative, Shetterly balances the math and science with the personal stories of the women. But she is also adept at counterpointing the developments at Langley and the career trajectories of the women with events in the United States at large, particularly as it pertains to the Civil Rights movement. In the space race against the USSR, the continued segregation and inequality of African Americans was on international display, undermining America’s stated ideals. While activists were being dragged off buses and beaten at lunch counters, the black computers were quietly fighting against segregated cafeterias, colored bathrooms, and the difficulty of achieving titles and paygrades commensurate with their education, acknowledgements that were automatically granted to their white or male peers. Shetterly deftly places all of this in context with the larger movements of history.

Shetterly has a writing style that leans more towards the academic than to narrative non-fiction. The documentation includes hundreds of notes, and ten pages of bibliography. Hidden Figures is as much science as anthropology. For that reason, I also look forward to the release of the film that will help bring these amazing women to life for those who might not be as interested in reading the in-depth details of math and engineering, but who still need to hear this story.

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Cover image for The Girls of the Atomic City by Denise KiernanGirls of Atomic City by Denise Kiernan

The Astronaut Wives Club by Lily Koppel

The Girls of the Atomic City

Cover image for The Girls of the Atomic City by Denise Kiernanby Denise Kiernan

eISBN 978-1-4516-1754-2

“She had spent years not knowing, wondering, sometimes guessing, and then giving up. She had accepted the need and duty to not know; and now this. Today, for no apparent reason, without any warning and out of the sweltering summer blue, came the Secret.”

In 1942, the American government began buying up and seizing a significant amount of land in the hills of East Tennessee. This was nothing new for the locals; land had been taken from them by the government before, first for the creation of the Great Smokey Mountains National Park, and then again for the construction of the Norris Dam. And of course, that land had first been taken from the Cherokee. But this seizure was different. Fast and secretive, soon an entire town stood where there had been only a few scattered farmsteads before, a town guarded and secured by the military. And from all over the region, women began arriving, many of them living away from home for the first time. They had been offered jobs, but told nothing about them. They knew only that their purpose was to help bring about “a speedy and victorious end to the war.” For many of them, that was all they needed to know, when their other choice was to wait at home for brothers, and fathers, and lovers to return from the war. And most of them would not learn the truth until “Little Boy” exploded over Hiroshima, Japan, ushering in the atomic age they helped create.

After introducing the code name for uranium—tubealloy—in the opening pages, Denise Kiernan refers to it by that code name throughout the text, until after the Secret is out. The narrative actually begins with the revelation of the Secret, but then circles back to show how the eight main women Kiernan follows arrived at the Clinton Engineer Works (CEW). The chapters alternate between the women’s lives and work in Oak Ridge, and chapters about the science and history of the Manhattan Project—things the women in Tennessee knew nothing about at the time. This is part of Kiernan’s strategy of compartmentalization, designed to mimic in literary form the secrecy that the CEW employees operated under during the war. The view from within CEW is narrow and circumscribed, each woman confined to her own role. Talking about your work was forbidden, and anyone might be a spy. The Tubealloy chapters treat history and science more broadly, although the two begin to bleed together as the Secret comes closer to being revealed. Many other books have been written about the Manhattan Project, and these chapters largely retread familiar ground if this is not your first read on the subject.

Kiernan’s unique angle is the women who formed much of the workforce in Oak Ridge. The rationale for hiring so many women was part practical and part cynical. With so many men gone to war, women had to enter the workforce in unprecedented numbers. But young women with only a high school education were also considered biddable; it was easier to get them to follow orders without asking questions. The curiosity of women who had pursued higher education was looked at askance, a potential security risk. University types in general—male and female—were considered a particular security risk because of the unusual amount of Communist literature that circulated on university campuses. A test at the plants showed that the high school graduates could produce more Product in a shift than the PhD scientists, and by quite a significant margin. They didn’t theorize or tinker; they just worked. Although women formed a good part of the Oak Ridge work force, they still faced inequality. Jane Greer, a statistician, knew that she was making less money than the men who worked below her in the department she supervised. Nor could women serve as “head of household,” disqualifying families without a man present at CEW from applying for a shared house or apartment.

Kiernan also draws attention to the situation of black workers at CEW. Her primary window into this world is Kattie Strickland, who came to Oak Ridge with her husband to work as a janitor. They had to leave their children behind with family in Auburn, Alabama; black children were not allowed to live with their families at CEW. In fact, Kattie and her husband didn’t get to live together either. When demand for white housing outstripped the expected pace, the allotted black subdivision was handed over, and black couples had to continue living in gender segregated hutments. Segregation applied to the community’s social life as well. The temporary town already survived in pioneer conditions, but the black workers had it worse. Kiernan also brings up the case of Ebb Cade, a black construction worker whose hospital stay after a car accident was transformed into an opportunity for the Project to investigate—without Cade’s knowledge or consent—the potential dangers of plutonium for the human body.

Kiernan carries on a little bit beyond the war, documenting Oak Ridge’s growing pains in the transition from secret government facility to proper municipality. Her follow up on the lives of the women is largely limited to their marriages and families; most do not seem to have had careers after the war. Nothing is said about how they felt about that transition. Similarly, Kiernan largely restricts herself to documenting how the women felt about the bomb at the time of its revelation, long before its significant fallout was clear. Most were simply happy that the war was coming to end, although some expressed reservations about the bomb being deployed against civilians. As for reflection, one of the women, Colleen, “hoped never to see the bomb she helped fuel used again. She continued to hope that the first time was the last.”

The Girls of the Atomic City explains the Manhattan project in understandable terms for those who have never read about it before. But more compelling are the stories of the women who lived and worked under such unusual conditions, labouring away on a project they knew nothing about. For better or worse, it is difficult to imagine placing so much trust in the government or the military today.

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The Wars of the Roses

Cover image for The Wars of the Roses by Dan Jonesby Dan Jones

ISBN 978-0-14-312788-8

“The family spawned by the unlikely secret coupling of a widowed French princess and her Welsh servant during the late 1420s ought never to have found themselves anywhere near a crown.”

The English civil conflicts known as the Wars of the Roses are commonly dated from 1455 to 1487, beginning from the first battle of St. Albans and concluding with the Battle of Stoke Field. But historian Dan Jones takes a broader perspective on this period of unrest. In the introduction, he begins at the very bitter end, with the execution of Margaret Pole, formerly the Countess of Salisbury, which was conducted on May 27, 1451 by the order of King Henry VIII, the second Tudor monarch. With her death, “there remained barely a single drop of Plantagenet royal blood in England other than the little that flowed in the veins of Henry VIII and his three children.” Though Pole was not an explicit casualty of the long civil war, her heritage did make her seem like a larger threat when she opposed Henry VIII’s religious reforms. From there, Jones takes us all the way back to the golden reign of Henry V, when England held unprecedented amounts of territory in France thanks to the king’s martial prowess. The true seeds of the conflict were planted when Henry V died of dysentery in France, leaving his nine month old son Henry as England’s youngest ever monarch.

What Jones is driving at with this broad perspective and long timeline is a history that goes beyond the traditional narrative of two divided houses at war over the English crown, eventually to be brought together by the marriage of Elizabeth of York to Henry Tudor, last scion, however loosely construed, of the House of Lancaster. This well-known story is a piece of carefully crafted Tudor propaganda that was designed to prop up the legitimacy of the dynasty, whose “claim to the throne by right of blood was somewhere between highly tenuous and nonexistent.” Henry VII’s father was half-brother to Henry VI, but on his mother’s side, so there was no blood connection there to the royal line. But his mother was Margaret Beaufort, and that family did have some royal blood, descended as they were from John of Gaunt, third son of the great Plantagenet king, Edward III. Yet the story of warring families reunited by a marriage alliance is an innately appealing one, well-suited to novels and historical dramas, ensuring that it persists in popularity to this day. Jones aims to paint a more nuanced picture by helping to expose the roots of the conflict.

What emerges from this history is trend of powerful and well-connected men who felt a sense of entitlement, if not to the crown itself, then to influence the person wearing the crown. If they were unable to wield sufficient influence, they had a tendency—sooner or later—to decide to seize power for themselves. Much of this desire stemmed from a sort of necessity. England had somehow held together through the long minority of Henry VI, but the boy king failed to grow up into an authoritative man capable of wielding that power effectively. Tensions inevitably arose and power struggles ensued, as ministers fought to govern in the name of their inept and occasionally insane monarch. This began the “collapse of royal authority” that led a succession of men to try to step into the void.

The first of these men was Richard, duke of York, one of Henry VI’s uncles. For many years, William de la Pole, earl of Suffolk had held the reins, but when the English lost most of their territory in France on his watch, he was unseated. York left his post in Ireland without summons, expecting to take up a significant post in the government. However, he was rebuffed, and would not succeed in taking power until Henry VI dropped into a catatonic state for fifteen months between 1453 and 1454. York was able to position himself as Chief Councillor while the king was incapacitated, but when he regained his senses, all of York’s work was undone. York began to raise an army, ostensibly to unseat the traitors surrounding the king, but by 1460, he was clearly making a play for the crown in his own right. Parliament slapped down his claim, but did place him and his sons ahead of the Prince of Wales in the line of succession, leading Margaret of Anjou to take her son into exile. Richard, duke of York would never wear the crown, but two of his sons would; unable to control the king, he instead seized control of the succession.

In 1461, Richard of York’s son, Edward, earl of March, staked his claim to the English crown, though Henry VI still lived. He ascended as an unmarried man, with his brother George, duke of Clarence as his heir. He was aided by an ally so formidable he would eventually become known as the Kingmaker. Richard Neville, earl of Warwick was the scion of a great northern house, and his sister was married to the duke of York. Having been instrumental in setting Edward IV on the throne, Warwick expected to have the king’s ear, but as Edward IV put down his enemies and became a more confident king, he was less and less inclined to bow to Warwick’s wishes. Unable to get the king’s permission to marry his eldest daughter Isabel to the king’s malcontent brother and heir, in 1469 Warwick covertly stirred a rebellion in the north, and while the king was putting it down, took his daughter to Calais to marry the duke of Clarence. When all of his intriguing came to nothing, Warwick would turn his back on the king he had helped raise, and make common cause with his onetime enemy, Margaret of Anjou, who was still abroad trying to raise support to put her son on the throne. Warwick threw himself in with his old enemies whole-heartedly, marrying his younger daughter Anne to Margaret’s son, Edward. Richard, earl of Warwick would die fighting on the opposite side of the civil war from where he had spent most of his life. But his daughter, Anne Neville, widowed at the battle of Tewkesbury, would go on to remarry, forming an alliance with the next man to make a bid for power.

Whereas for many years George, duke of Clarence had plotted against his brother Edward IV, Edward’s youngest brother Richard, duke of Gloucester was one of the king’s staunchest allies. When Edward IV died after a brief illness in 1483, Gloucester expected a central role in government, as his brother’s sons and heirs were only ten and twelve. Gloucester seems to have had his eye on being Protector, but the council, dominated by the Queen’s faction, elected to crown twelve year old Prince Edward immediately. Here one of Edward IV’s early acts of rebellion would come back to haunt his legacy after his death. Refusing a foreign alliance arranged by Warwick and his council, Edward IV had instead married the widow Elizabeth Woodville, whose father was the very minor noble Lord Rivers. The Woodvilles were a large family, and during Edward IV’s reign they had married broadly into the higher nobility, earning a distasteful reputation as grasping social climbers of the worst sort. Unwilling to accept that the Woodvilles would have control of the young king, Gloucester met up with their party enroute to London, imprisoned Anthony Woodville, Earl Rivers, and took custody of his nephew. For many months he would maintain the pretence that he intended to have the boy crowned, but on July 6, 1483, Gloucester was crowned Richard III alongside his wife, Anne Neville. His young nephews would disappear from the Tower of London sometime within the next few months, and his legacy would be forever marred by the suspicion of their murder.

From Richard, duke of York to Richard Neville, earl of Warwick, to Richard, duke of Gloucester, one man after another tried to usurp royal authority when he could not gain it by proxy, only to discover it was easier to seize power than to wield it. Each successive conflict further destabilized royal authority, until “it was a sure sign of the woe that had befallen the English crown” that it was possible for Henry Tudor, with only the loosest ties to the House of Lancaster, to be offered up as a viable alternative to Richard III. This was made possible by Henry’s canny mother, Margaret Beaufort. While her son was in exile, Margaret had remained in England, and remarried twice, the second time to Lord Stanley, who was in the good graces of the Yorkist royal family. From her hiding place in sanctuary at Westminster Abbey, the deposed queen, Elizabeth Woodville, was in communication with Margaret. The two women agreed that Edward IV’s eldest daughter, Elizabeth, would marry Henry if he could mount a successful invasion. When the invasion came, the battle would be decided by the decision of the Stanleys to throw in with Henry Tudor, and it would be Lord Stanley who picked up Richard III’s fallen crown from the mud of Bosworth Field, and crowned his step-son then and there. There would be more battles for Henry VII to fight; there would be rebellions to quell, and imposters to put down. But the Tudor dynasty had begun.

The Daily Express blurb on the back of the paperback edition suggests this book for fans of The Tudors and Game of Thrones, but I would add the caveat of recommending it for those who are into those shows primarily for the political intriguing, since they both have other significant appeal factors—dragons for one—that are not present here. There are indeed notable parallels between Game of Thrones and The Wars of the Roses, but not everyone will be interested in both. And For those who dislike Game of Thrones for its vast cast of shifting characters, The Wars of the Roses does have a similar pitfall as it moves over the course of more than a century. Jones does a good job of reminding you who everyone is, but it is still devilishly tricky to keep all the Edwards, Henrys, and Richards straight, not to mention their ever-shifting titles. But from it all, a picture does emerge of a civil conflict that goes well beyond the usual story of warring houses reunited by marriage.

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