Saturday, May 31, 2014

Unrequited Love of Country

As the publication date for Theodosia and the Pirates: The War Against Spain approaches, I am having to find new ways to describe the book. Publicists and readers alike want to know: what is your book about? Why did you write it? What's in it for me?

There are many, many different ways to answer that question. Today, I want to give an answer that focuses on patriotism. And not just any kind of patriotism, but passionate,  unrequited love of country.

When I set out to write Theodosia and the Pirates, I was a little tired of unrequited love. I had just finished writing the first half of Our Lady of Kaifeng, which is a story about a woman who travels halfway across the world in the hopes of having a conversation with someone she loves, but who does not love her.

It was quite a release to be able to write a joyous story of love that is reciprocated, and in part, that is what Theodosia and the Pirates represents for me. But as I was writing it, I became aware of a theme of rejection that ran just under the surface. And this rejection was not about the love between a man and a woman. It was about being rejected by your own country, or by a country you love and long to help.

How does this theme manifest itself? Here are a few instances:

  • Zora Nadrimal, Jean Laffite's grandmother, was a loyal Spaniard. And yet she and her husband were arrested and tortured by the Inquisition, and she was forced to flee the country after her husband's death, never to return. Spanish was still her native language. She raised her daughter speaking Spanish. She spoke Spanish to her grandchildren and educated them in the culture of Spain. But how did she really feel about her native country? What about her behavior inspires Jean to take up his "War Against Spain", an endless vendetta against the country that rejected his grandparents?
  • Theodosia Burr Alston was a loyal, patriotic American. Yet her father was accused of being a traitor, and even after he was acquitted of the charges, his name was dragged in the mud. If you open a history book today, Aaron Burr is known for two things: killing Alexander Hamilton in a duel, and plotting to "separate the Western territories" from the United States. Burr went into exile for a time after his acquittal, but he returned to the United States and lived in poverty and obscurity for the rest of his life. How did Theodosia Burr really feel about the country that could do this to her father, after he had been a revolutionary war hero, had served as Vice President, and had always championed the freedoms of all Americans?
  • Jean Laffite, despite being a hunted man, gave the Americans information about their enemies the British that was designed to help them avoid being conquered. What did they do in response? They sent a raiding party against him. He ordered his men not to fight back against the looters, and even after his ships were stolen and storehouses looted, he contributed to the American cause by donating gunpowder and flint, artillery and trained cannoneers, and he fought for the US cause right alongside the men who looted him: Patterson and Ross. Yet when the conflict was over, he was never compensated for what was taken from him, and he was forced to find another place to continue his privateering business. Not content with driving him out of Barataria, the Americans required him to leave Galveston, too. And even when he was enlisted in the Columbian Navy, the  Americans were still out to get him. What would you feel toward a country that did that to you? Paradoxically, Jean Laffite felt only love for the United States of America, despite the actions of its government. 

Some people feel that everything in life is based on turn taking and reciprocity. It's all you scratch my back and I'll scratch yours. But real love, whether it is for a person or a country, is not like that. True love transcends the need for reciprocation.

That's the big theme in Theodosia and the Pirates. It was present in the first book from the beginning, but it is given a final expression in The War Against Spain. Sometimes love of country is so strong, that it transcends borders and rulers. It is like a weed that flowers despite everything that is done to eradicate it. In this sense, the book is a tribute to the triumph of love over hatred.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

A Melancholy Accident

Lately, there's been a lot in the news about gun control. There was a murder of several people by a disturbed person, and though some were killed by means of knives or vehicles, others were killed by means of  guns. I actually have not read any of the accounts of this event, so if I have the facts wrong, then forgive me. I am not naming names, pointing fingers or asking for anything to be done about it. As far as I am concerned it is a tragedy -- or as people in 19th century might have said, a melancholy event.

 I have  noticed people talking about the issue on social media. One person, seemingly on the side of the right to bear arms, started out by saying that she had had guns in the house when her children were growing up, but they never had access to them, and there were no incidents, and it's irresponsible people who are causing all the problems, so she is in favor of gun registration, licensing and mandatory insurance for gun owners.

What would Jean Laffite say? I don't know, but I do know that among the many other clippings in his Scrapbook was this item about a "Melancholy Accident."

"Recently a boy about 11 years of age, and a girl 7 years old, children of Mr. Henry Tryon, of Glartenbury, Conn., returned home from school.  The boy, seeing a gun standing in the corner, took it up and pointed it at his little sister. She exclaimed 'don't shoot me,' and started to run up stairs. The gun was discharged, and the contents entered her side, killing her instantly."

It is a shocking story. But what is more curious, from the point of view of today's newspapers, is the factual way the story is told, without judging the children or the parents involved, without suggesting a remedy, without saying that we should make sure that nothing like this should ever happen again by passing a law, without charging the father with negligence for leaving the gun loaded where the boy could get at it, and without taking the surviving child out of the custody of his parents. The title says it all: it was sad that it happened, but it was just a freak accident.

Here are some of the reasons people's attitude was different then:

  • Children were seen as assets of their parents. The loss of a child was a loss to the parent. As such, when a child died, people felt sympathy toward bereaved parents. They did not blame them.
  • Children were not seen as community assets, so neighbors did not feel that they were aggrieved by the loss of another person's child.
  • Illness in the family was the financial burden of the family, so people did not feel a negligent parent threatened their financial well being.
  • People did not want others judging them for misfortune that befell them, so they did not judge others.
  • Children died frequently back then, and nobody thought it was society's place to try to make sure that no child should ever die.
  • The idea that insurance could somehow solve all of our problems had not yet become a common trope. Nobody thought that if Mr. Henry Tryon had only had insurance, his son would not have killed his daughter. 
It's not that there was less gun violence back then, or fewer accidents or less carelessness. And it's not that life was valued less. It's that freedom was valued more. Murderers were executed, but melancholy accidents were accepted as a natural part of life.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

How Open Should We Be With Our Children?

How open should we be with our children? Should we share everything we know about life? Or should we leave some of it for the children to discover for themselves? Reading this post by Julie Deneen made me think about that question again.

While this is not the central theme of Theodosia and the Pirates: The War Against Spain, it is one of the topics that I cover. How does one raise an independent and spirited young woman in the 19th century if one is a filibuster or a privateer? What should we tell our sons and daughters about love, sex, and personal responsibility? If we tell them too much, will it harm them? If we share too little, will they fall into avoidable traps?

Detail Representing Denise Laffite from a painting by Colleen Dick
Theodosia Burr Alston had a very devoted, liberal, open-minded father. He was not perfect, but he was honest with her to an unusual degree. After her mother's death, he did not remarry. He was a freethinker, and he brought up his daughter to question everything and accept nothing on faith.

It is good to be honest with our children. But did Burr damage Theodosia in any way by letting her know that he had mistresses and that he frequented brothels? Would it have been easier for her to separate and individuate, if he had not freely shared with her so much about his life? As the teenagers nowadays like to say: TMI! She must, at times, have been deeply embarrassed by some of his letters from Europe.

Jean Laffite was also a father. But I think he was more the traditional type: providing well for his children, showing them affection when he met with them, but being gone for long periods of time and not discussing anything unseemly with them.

So which is better: total honesty or a little bit of repression and subterfuge, avoiding full disclosure?

In my experience, people whose parents share a lot with them are actually more likely to be a little gun-shy and wary. Knowledge does not necessarily lead to experimentation. It can lead to being more picky and careful. It can also lead to delayed maturation, because without the drive to rebel against your parents, there is less of a desire to experiment and find out for yourself.

In my experience, more traditional-minded parents drive their children into early experimentation, which is why all the born-again Christians I know are actually not all that repressed in their behavior, and they only give lip service to the chastity they supposedly believe in. Unexpected motherhood comes often to the faithful.

But here's the irony: the unintentional results of the search for pleasure can be blessings in disguise. The safety and security that come from a lack of desire to experiment can actually be stultifying. So repressing your children and driving them to mature early may not be such a bad course of conduct, counter-intuitive as it sounds. You do not want them to never leave the nest and never have a life of their own, do you?

Both mothers and fathers can be guilty of too close a relationship with their children which hinders their emotional growth. While I did not depict this in my novel, historical accounts indicate that Jules Laffite, Jean's youngest surviving child, was so close to his mother, Emma Mortimore Laffite, that he did not marry until after she died.

Maybe, as with many other aspects of life, this calls for a happy medium. I don't think we should lie to our children, but we probably shouldn't share everything with them, either. And even if your instincts are to be open and honest, remember:  a little repression might just be the right thing, if you ever want to see grandchildren in your own lifetime!

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Drawing Hanged Men and Other Forbidden Things

It just so happens that there was a curious item in the news recently, about a child in middle school who got in trouble over a doodle of a hanged man. He was suspended from school, but that was the least of his troubles. The principal called the police, and the child was interrogated without legal counsel and without the consent of his parents over the content of his drawing.

This violation of a minor's civil rights seems to be not an isolated incident, but an ongoing process in this country. People are not merely afraid of violence. They are afraid of the representation of violence, no matter how crude. It's as if they fear that just thinking about a hanging will cause a hanging to take place.

When I commissioned the cover of Theodosia and the Pirates: The War against Spain, Colleen Dick and I actually discussed the possibility of having a hanged man in the painting. We eventually decided that would be too distracting, as it would draw the focus away from Jean Laffite and his family and their reactions. So there is only an empty noose in the picture to conjure up the idea of hanging a man. You can read more about that in this interview with Julia Hanna.

I remember once when I was in 5th grade, I drew a picture of a naked woman in my spelling workbook. Spelling was at the time my worst subject, because I had spent third and fourth grade in Israel, writing only in Hebrew, and the English spelling system is rather a mess. Anyway, one day when I was absent, all the children in the class took my spelling notebook out of my desk and passed around the picture. It was not that great as a work of art, but it was representational, and one could clearly tell what it was. They each took a moment to look at the picture, then they put it back. I am sure that the teacher saw it, too. One of them told me about it later, and I was warned by my friend  not to draw things like that on a workbook again. But I never got in trouble.

I am not sure how a naked woman compares to a hanged man in the list of taboo subjects, but I do think things were much better back then, in terms of first amendment rights of small children at school.

In Theodosia and the Pirates, sex and violence do play a role, but they are rarely the focus. The focus is on how people react to those things, not on the things themselves. I enjoy writing about that period in American history, because the issues were so much clearer then, even when the government behaved badly. The question was not whether hanging was a bad or a good thing or whether children were allowed to think about it. The question was more about who deserved to be hanged and who had a right to hang people and why. It was a simpler time.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Which Side Are We On, Anyway?

The publication of Theodosia and the Pirates: The War Against Spain is scheduled for next month, so the time has come to reveal the cover of the new book.

The painting is by Colleen Dick. In case you are wondering what the book is about, here is a video that may give you some idea.

You may be wondering after watching this video, why it is called "The War against Spain" and not "The War against the US." But that's just the point: no matter how bad things got, Jean Laffite never made war on the United States, despite the fact that it constantly made war on him. Instead, he was at  war against Spain, even when the Spaniards gave him money and offered to accept him into their midst.

Why would a man do that? Because ideas are more important than governments. In the end, it was the ideals of the United States that Jean Laffite embraced. He hated Spain despite being good friends with many Spaniards, and despite the fact that Spanish, not French, was his mother tongue, because he would not bend the knee to his Catholic Majesty the King of Spain.  In many ways, the official representatives of the United States were no better. But Jean Laffite could see past the faulty execution to the grand design expressed in the constitution, and it was to this plan that he was loyal.