Beyond “I have a dream”

Leo is frustrated with how his 4th grade classes teach for Martin Luther King Day. “We never learn about all the other people who’ve struggled against racism. And they always talk about how he was peaceful and nonviolent all the time, which I don’t agree with.” So I tell him Martin Luther King stood for a lot more than just civil rights, and the 1960s black freedom movement included lots of different people, who had a lot of different ideas about nonviolent action and other things.

Photo of marchers holding hands and singing

Abernathy Children leading Selma to Montgomery march for the right to vote, 1965

I read him excerpts from teacher Craig Gordon’s essay, “There’s infinitely more to Martin Luther King, Jr. than ‘I have a dream.'” I show him video clips of Michael Ealy reading King’s “Beyond Vietnam” speech and King himself speaking in solidarity with striking sanitation workers in Memphis the day before he died. I talk about how, toward the end of his life, King moved from a focus on racial injustice to a critique of economic injustice and capitalism.

To get beyond the lone hero version of the civil rights movement, we watch a short documentary about the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, or SNCC (made, appropriately, by students), which rightly puts the great organizer Ella Baker front and center. At our local public library, we check out the book Freedom Rides: Journey for Justice by James Haskins, which is written for older children and covers civil rights struggles from the 19th century to the rise of Black Power in 1966. I talk about how the 1960s black freedom movement was a driving force that inspired lots of other social justice struggles, like the women’s movement; gay and lesbian movement; Chicano, Puerto Rican, Asian American, American Indian movements; even the ecology movement.

Leo is not a pacifist, but he understands that nonviolent resistance in the face of racist mobs and cops is a powerful act of bravery. We watch an intense scene from the Danny Glover film Freedom Song, a SNCC nonviolence training role play in which Mississippi civil rights workers are subjected to some of the invective and abuse they would face at sit-ins. For a different perspective, we also watch clips of Malcolm X speaking about self defense (“we’re nonviolent with people who are nonviolent with us”) and part of a documentary about the Deacons for Defense, who in the mid 1960s Deep South defended civil rights workers (including Dr. King) with guns.

It’s not enough, not nearly enough to do justice to this complex history. But it’s a start.

Photo credit
Abernathy family photos, public domain, available via Wikimedia Commons.

Harriet Tubman: Secret Agent by Thomas B. Allen (review)

Harriet Tubman woodcut

Harriet Tubman, woodcut used in Scenes in the Life of Harriet Tubman by Sarah H Bradford (1869). Artist unknown.

“Dad, what was your favorite Civil War battle?” When Leo asked this a couple of years ago, my first impulse was to give him a speech about how there weren’t any good battles — no matter how brilliant the strategy and tactics, no matter how bravely the soldiers fought, it was all a horrific slaughter. Then I thought for a moment, and said: “The Combahee River Raid.” I told him how this was when Harriet Tubman led Union troops in an attack on South Carolina plantations, hitting at the heart of the Confederate slave economy and, most important, freeing hundreds of people from slavery. How this was an important military event that most of his Civil War books didn’t even mention. So a while later I was excited to find a children’s book that focuses squarely on the Combahee River Raid and the woman who spearheaded it.

“Long before the Civil War began, Harriet Tubman started her own war against slavery.” These words open Thomas B. Allen’s Harriet Tubman: Secret Agent, and they encapsulate two of its central themes. First, the war against slavery wasn’t started by Abraham Lincoln or the Union Army. It was started by black people, and the U.S. government joined in much later (or more accurately switched sides). Second, Harriet Tubman wasn’t just a brave, determined woman who escaped from slavery and helped others do the same. She was a soldier and military leader — the only woman who led troops into battle in the Civil War, but also someone whose combat experience started much earlier. Her work as a spy — and someone who recruited, trained, and directed other spies — was part of that long war. These points will appeal to those young readers who are drawn to cloak and dagger stories or battlefield history, but they can also deepen kids’ understanding of the struggle against slavery and racial oppression more generally.

Putting things in simple, concrete terms, Allen writes that as a conductor on the Underground Railroad, “Harriet learned some of the basic spy procedures that today’s intelligence agents call ‘trade craft.’ For example, if two spies must meet, they try to set up a meeting in a way that puts only one in danger. Harriet did this by having escaping slaves meet her seven or eight miles from their cabins. Chances were that anyone spotting their escape would capture them before they reached Harriet” (31). And Allen shows how Tubman applied this experience after the Civil War began. In 1861, when her home state of Maryland was teetering on the edge of secession, Union commanders asked her to do spy work there, since she knew the region intimately and already had a network of Underground Railroad contacts in place. Later they sent her to Beaufort, South Carolina, a coastal town occupied by Union troops, where she recruited plantation escapees as spies and soldiers in between stints as a nurse, cook, and laundry worker.

Allen’s portrait of Harriet Tubman as a fighter is especially vivid in his account of the Battle of Troy, New York, in April 1860 (about a year before the Civil War began), in which a crowd of black people attacked police in order to free Charles Nalle, who was about to be shipped back south into slavery. It was Tubman, disguised as an old woman, who led the action (and probably planned it in advance). Tubman also worked with John Brown, who took up arms against slavery in Kansas and then led the failed 1859 raid on the Harpers Ferry armory. Allen may be wrong when he claims that it was Brown who “introduced Harriet to the violent world of pikes and killing” (50). But he has a point that in the Combahee River Raid and other South Carolina operations during the Civil War, Tubman and Union commanders “found themselves carrying out, in the Deep South, the plan that John Brown had conceived for the Appalachian Mountains: Find slaves, arm them, and send them against the slaveholders until, with more and more ex-slaves armed, the slaveholders would be defeated” (137). This is not what kids get in most books about Harriet Tubman or the Civil War.

Up close, the Combahee River Raid is even more amazing than I had realized. Major General David Hunter, commander of Union troops in South Carolina, asked Tubman to go on the raid, and she said yes, but only if Colonel James Montgomery (who had fought with John Brown in Kansas) would be leading it. Hunter agreed. As Butch Lee points out in Jailbreak out of History: the re-biography of Harriet Tubman, Tubman worked with the Union Army, but she never subjected herself to its military hierarchy — she was an independent combatant who negotiated with generals.

Photo of Harriet Tubman, seated in chair, wearing white shawl and dress

Harriet Tubman, about age 91, probably at her home in Auburn, New York, 1911. Photographer unknown.

The June 1863 operation relied on intelligence that Tubman’s local spy network had gathered, and was carried out by the Second South Carolina Volunteers, a regiment composed of men who had escaped from slavery. Tubman and Montgomery planned the raid together. “Montgomery handled the military strategy, combining standard army tactics with the guerrilla warfare he had learned long ago in Kansas. Although he was in charge as the commanding officer, Harriet was the real leader of the black soldiers. She had recruited many of them and had helped their families” (148-49). The troops hit at least nine plantations, where they seized horses, cotton, rice, and other crops; torched buildings; flooded fields; and liberated about 750 people from slavery. Despite clashes with small groups of Confederate troops, not a single Union soldier was lost. The Combahee River Raid was Tubman’s only such Civil War mission for which there are detailed accounts, but as Allen points out, “the documents do have references to expeditions, not just one expedition” (164).

Another strength of Allen’s book is that it doesn’t focus on Harriet Tubman alone, but also tells us about some of the many other African Americans who acted as spies against the Confederacy. We learn about Mary Touvestre, Norfolk housekeeper, who stole the top-secret plans for the Confederacy’s ironclad warship the Virginia (formerly the Merrimac), made her way secretly to Washington, and presented the drawings in person to Lincoln’s secretary of the navy. Also Robert Smalls, Charleston harbor pilot, who liberated an entire ship and its all-black crew (along with their relatives), surrendered the ship to Union blockaders, and provided detailed information about Confederate coastal defenses. And most dramatic of all, Mary Elizabeth Bowser, who “is believed to have worked as a servant in the mansion of Confederate President Jefferson Davis,” and to have passed top-level information through a spy ring led by Richmond socialite Elizabeth Van Lew. It was because of African Americans such as these that Robert E. Lee declared that “The chief source of information to the enemy is through our Negroes” (111).

In these accounts, Allen shows his special knack for using spy craft as a way to help young readers engage with politics and history. For example, slaves “had lived their lives as invisible people. That quality of invisibility…became the basis for using ex-slaves as spies for the Union” (95). Since “most people in the South did not believe a slave was clever enough to be a spy,” black spies could often carry out their work without disguises or false papers (97-98). At another point in the book, Allen uses the espionage catch phrase “walking back the cat” to explain how historians make tentative inferences based on limited knowledge: “The spymasters begin by going back to some place or some moment that provides definite information. Then they try to move on to the next piece of definite information. Usually, as the trackers move further and further from the starting point, they are dealing with less and less reliable information” (70). (The book’s margins also contain tiny secret messages written in a code used by Elizabeth Van Lew.)

I especially like this passage, from the book’s Epilogue: “Good spies know how to keep secrets. Harriet Tubman kept many of her secrets, as did the other African Americans who spied for the Union during the Civil War. To tell the world you were a spy, you had to feel safe. You had to believe that no one will find you and seek revenge. After the war, African Americans who spied did not feel safe enough to reveal their secret lives. And most of them, like Harriet, did not know how to write down their recollections.” Allen points out that we know very little about what black spies did in the war, partly because many black people were forcibly denied access to literacy, partly because many government documents were scattered or lost — but also because of conscious choices that ex-spies made as skilled professionals in a context of continuing racist terror. It’s another statement of respect by Allen for Harriet Tubman and her colleagues as historical agents, not just victims.

Harriet Tubman: Secret Agent is illustrated by Carla Bauer. It is a National Geographic Children’s Book published in 2006. 192 pages. For ages 10 and up. List price: $16.95 hardcover, $5.99 paperback.

This website maintained by the Harriet Tubman Historical Society includes a wealth of information and historical documents about Tubman’s life and work as an anti-slavery leader, combatant, and spy, and about efforts to preserve and share that history.

Scenes in the Life of Harriet Tubman, by Sarah H. Bradford (1869)
This first book-length biography of Tubman is often disjointed and mythologizes its heroine, but includes much reliable information. Bradford later published a revised and expanded biography, Harriet, the Moses of Her People, which is better organized and more polished but even more exaggerated than the original. Both books have been fully digitized by the University of North Carolina and are available online.

Jailbreak out of History: the re-biography of Harriet Tubman, by Butch Lee (2000)
Not a children’s book, but a political analysis that resonates with Allen’s account in interesting ways. Butch Lee, who describes herself as a revolutionary Amazon theorist, argues that Tubman was a brilliant military figure and far more radical than most people realize.

George Washington, Spymaster, by Thomas B. Allen (2004).
Another National Geographic Children’s Book by the author of Harriet Tubman, Secret Agent, this one traces the pivotal role that spy craft played throughout the Revolutionary War, from the opening battles of Lexington and Concord to Washington’s decisive victory at Yorktown. The book is full of interesting stories and offers a fresh take on the war by using it explain modern espionage concepts such as dead drop, sleeper, double agent, and diplomatic cover. But it has almost nothing about the politics of the American Revolution (such as: liberty for whom?).

Image credits
The images used in this post are in the public domain and are available via Wikimedia Commons.

Christmas Truce of 1914

“There had been no official declaration of a universal truce. In fact, commanders had gone out of their way to forbid any stopping of the fighting. And yet more such truces–hundreds of them–were arranged that Christmas morning all along the Western Front. Some truces were arranged by posting a sign suggesting a cease-fire. Others came about through shouted negotiations between lines or simply because soldiers wandered into No Man’s Land and weren’t shot.

“These truces were arranged so quickly that high-ranking officers could do little to prevent them. Lieutenant Colonel Charles McLean was making his daily tour of the trenches when he spotted some of his men clambering over the top and wandering toward the enemy. He ran along the trenches, shouting for his men to return, but they ignored his instructions” (69).

Photo of British and German soldiers fraternising at Ploegsteert, Belgium, on Christmas Day 1914.

British and German soldiers fraternizing at Ploegsteert, Belgium, on Christmas Day 1914.

The quotations in this blog post are from Truce: The Day the Soldiers Stopped Fighting by Jim Murphy. This is a chapter book published by Scholastic for elementary school-age kids. Murphy does a fine job of detailing how the 1914 Christmas Truce came about and putting it in context of World War I as a whole. He provides many vivid photos and drawings depicting life in the trenches, the war’s devastation, and the fraternization that happened during the truce. (Parents and caregivers should be aware that one photo depicts dead horses and another, human corpses.)

“The soldiers mingled in the blasted area between the lines. Small gifts were presented to the enemy, such as jam, cigars, cigarettes, chocolate, coffee, sausages, nuts, tea, and newspapers. Many soldiers exchanged souvenirs, including regimental badges and buttons cut off their uniforms. One of the most highly prized items was a Pickelhaube, the spiked helmet that was still in use by the German army early in the war….

“Many strange and unusual things were observed that day. Bruce Bairnsfather was amazed when he saw ‘one of my machine-gunners…cutting the unnaturally long hair of a docile Boche, who was patiently kneeling on the ground whilst the automatic clippers crept up his neck'” (76).

I first learned about the Christmas Truce from an animated TV program that used to air on PBS every December. Simple Gifts included six stories about Christmas. My favorite of these was always “December 25, 1914,” which is based on a letter from the Western Front by British Army Captain Sir Edward Hulse. Unfortunately, as far as I know, Simple Gifts is no longer aired and is not available commercially. But all of the segments are available on YouTube. Watching “December 25, 1914” at this time of year has become one of our family traditions.

“The idea of a truce during war wasn’t new or unusual…. During the American Civil War, numerous truces were arranged to bury the dead and to remove the wounded from the battlefields. Most such truces were approved by the officers for a limited amount of time and for very specific reasons. The Christmas Truce of 1914, however, was unique. While some senior officers went out of their way to ‘look the other way,’ most officers worked hard to put an end to it. The fact that the men under them defied these orders is extremely unusual. In addition, the truce lasted much longer and involved many more soldiers than any other previous truce” (69-72).

Some historians dispute this claim that the Christmas Truce was unique. Malcolm Brown and Shirley Seaton, in an article adapted from their book Christmas Truce, give examples of informal or spontaneous cease-fires in several other wars, but concede that the December 1914 truce was “undoubtedly the greatest example of its kind.”

“The more friendly contact [the soldiers] had with the enemy, the less anger they felt toward them. After describing in detail how neighborly the enemy across from him was, German captain Rudolf Binding concluded his diary entry with, ‘Truly, there is no longer any sense in this business'” (50-51).

“[General] Smith-Dorrien fired off an angry message to his commanders: ‘I have issued the strictest orders that on no account is [fraternization] to be allowed between the opposing troops. To finish this war quickly, we must keep up the fighting spirit and do all we can to discourage friendly [meetings]'” (82).

Another excellent work about the truce is folksinger John McCutcheon’s ballad “Christmas in the Trenches,” which tells the story through the eyes of Francis Tolliver, a fictional British soldier. Several different performances of this song are available on YouTube. This one includes an introduction in which McCutcheon describes meeting German WWI veterans who participated in the Christmas Truce.

“In another section, the order to fire on the British nearly caused a mutiny. ‘When the order to fire was given,’ a German officer told Ethel Cooper years later, ‘the men struck…. The officers… stormed up and down, and got, as the only result, the answer, ‘We can’t–they are good fellows, and we can’t.’ Finally, the officers threatened the men with, ‘Fire, or we do — and not at the enemy!’… We spent that day and the next wasting ammunition in trying to shoot the stars down from the sky'” (86-87).

“A genuine friendship developed between the English and German soldiers in Ploegsteert Wood. Because an inspection by a high-ranking officer meant the men would have to demonstrate a fighting spirit by firing at the enemy, both sides took to informing the other of such visits. Lieutenant J. D. Wyatt recalled the day when ‘a message came down the line to say that the Germans [expected] that their General was coming along in the afternoon, so we had better keep down, as they might have to do a little shooting to make things look right!! And this is war!” (89).

Major Murdoch McKenzie Wood: “‘If we had been left to ourselves there would never have been another shot fired. For a fortnight that truce went on. We were on the most friendly terms, and it was only the fact that we were being controlled by others that made it necessary for us to start trying to shoot one another again'” (98).

Related resources

In the spirit of the Christmas Truce, these are some of my son’s favorite anti-war songs:

And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda” (Eric Bogle)
Bring ‘Em Home” (Pete Seeger)
Draft Dodger Rag” (Phil Ochs)
Mrs. McGrath” (Irish traditional, sung here by Bruce Springsteen)
Waist Deep in the Big Muddy” (Pete Seeger)
War” (Edwin Starr)
Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” (Pete Seeger)

Photo credit
Ministry of Information, First World War Official Collection, Imperial War Museum, Catalog # Q11745. © IWM (Q 11745). Used with permission under IWM Non-Commercial License policy.

Civil War songs

Our budding Civil War fifer (see previous post) asked me to highlight some of his favorite Civil War songs. Here they are:

Battle Cry of Freedom was probably the most popular Union song. A 1916 recording is available courtesy of UC Santa Barbara’s Cylinder Preservation and Digitization Project. Wikipedia notes that there was Confederate version as well: While northern troops sang “The Union forever! Hurrah, boys, hurrah! / Down with the traitors, up with the stars,” the Confederates substituted “Our Dixie forever! She’s never at a loss! / Down with the eagle and up with the cross.”

Print showing images for "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," "Dixie" and other Civil War songs

“The Songs of the War,” 1861

John Brown’s Body commemorates militant abolitionist John Brown and his 1859 raid on Harpers Ferry, with a tune that was later recycled for Julia Ward Howe’s “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” and Ralph Chaplin’s labor movement anthem “Solidarity Forever,” as well as various parodies.

Dixie was originally a pre-Civil War song of blackface minstrels that became the unofficial Confederate anthem, with its call “In Dixie land I’ll take my stand to live and die in Dixie.” Leo is partial to the Union version, which features lines such as: “Away down South in the land of traitors, rattlesnakes and alligators… Where cotton’s king and men are chattels, Union boys will win the battles…” etc.

Marching Through Georgia commemorates General Sherman’s 1864 march from Atlanta to Savannah, which helped to break the back of the Confederate economy. When Leo and I were learning this song, we replaced “darkeys” with “people” in the lyrics, and it was an opportunity to talk about how soldiers fighting to end slavery didn’t necessarily treat Black people with respect.

Goober Peas refers to the boiled peanuts that many Southern troops subsisted on later in the war, when supplies grew short.

Image of soldiers marching and singing "Glory Hallelujah" ("The Battle Hymn of the Republic")

Detail from “The Songs of the War,” 1861

When Johnny Comes Marching Home was popular on both sides of the Civil War. As Claire noted in last post, Leo has been learning this on the fife. The same tune has been used for the Irish antiwar song “Johnny I hardly knew ye.” (Check out both the traditional Irish Rovers version and the Pogues-style Dropkick Murphys version.) Wikipedia used to say that “Johnny I hardly knew ye” was written in the early 18th century in response to the Kandyan Wars in Sri Lanka, and that “Johnny Comes Marching Home” was derived from it. But new research shows that “Johnny I hardly knew ye” was actually first published in 1867. It’s a good lesson in the imperfections of Wikipedia and of reference sources more broadly.

More Resources
American Civil War Music (1861-1865) is a compendium of hundreds of songs organized by year, from 1861 to 1865, with recordings and lyrics. It’s compiled by Benjamin Robert Tubb, whose main page, Public Domain Music, includes many other compendia, grouped by song era, style, or composer.

Civil War bugle calls features reenactor Jan Berger demonstrating a couple dozen bugle commands, such as “Forward,” “Halt,” “Attention,” “Commence Firing,” etc.

20th Maine Civil War Fife & Drum Corps gives a spirited rendition of “The girl I left behind me,” which was used as a Civil War marching tune. Leo’s fife teacher says that most fifes were played at an extra high pitch so they wouldn’t be drowned out by the drummers.

“The Songs of the War,” engraving by Winslow Homer, published in Harper’s Weekly, 23 November 1861. Image captions: The bold soldier boy, Hail to the Chief, We’ll be free and easy still, Rogues march, Glory Hallelujah, The Girl I Left Behind Me, Dixie. Winslow Homer Collection, Print Department, Boston Public Library.

Philip Pullman as history teacher: the Sally Lockhart novels

History is about stories, and Philip Pullman knows how to tell a good story. Before he became famous for the fantasy young adult novel The Golden Compass (original British title: Northern Lights), Pullman published a series of historical mysteries for young people set mainly in 19th century England and centered on a young woman named Sally Lockhart. I love these books for their appealing characters, exciting plots, and vivid descriptions of Victorian London’s seamier side, from opium dens to sweatshops. Lockhart is a strong and compelling heroine: brave, smart, resourceful, and determined. Over the course of the series we see her mature from a teenager to a young mother, whose understanding of her own circumstances and the social realities around her gradually broadens and deepens. This means that young readers of the series can develop a fuller sense of the historical period as they move from book to book.

Here’s a good synopsis of the series from a thoughtful review on Pessimisissimo’s blog Exotic and irrational  entertainment:

Photo of women selling flowers on street

Covent Garden Flower Women, London 1877

“In the first Sally Lockhart title, The Ruby in the Smoke (1985), the heroine is a 16-year-old in late Victorian London. As the book opens she is trying to learn more about the death of her father, Matthew Lockhart. Matthew was a shipping agent who drowned when his company’s schooner was sunk in the South Seas with the loss of (almost) all hands, leaving Sally orphaned and virtually penniless. Sally’s investigation brings her into contact with a gritty underworld of opium dens, brothels, East End slums, and street gangs.

“It also brings her into contact with the legacies of British colonialism: the military occupation and exploitation of India, and the forced opium trade with China. (It soon becomes clear that the ruby of the title is derived from the former, while the smoke derives from the latter.) The later books in the series deal with the arms trade (The Shadow in the North (1986)), Jewish immigration and 19th-century social and labor movements (The Tiger in the Well (1990)), and great-power conflicts over resource-rich smaller countries (The Tin Princess (1994)). But while the books are firmly grounded in the grim realities of 19th-century capitalism and imperialism, they are also ripping yarns featuring criminal masterminds, powerful industrial magnates, international spies, and other fiendishly evil nemeses for Sally.”

This is not fictional realism in the sense of, say, Johnny Tremain. The Lockhart series gives us a lively and believable picture of England in the 1870s and 1880s – from seances to socialist debates, from women’s lack of legal rights to the Victorian theater – but it’s all blended with over-the-top adventure and characterizations that are sometimes larger than life. Pullman himself has described the books this way:

“I wrote each one with a genuine cliche of melodrama right at the heart of it, on purpose: the priceless jewel with a curse on it – the madman with a weapon that could destroy the world – the situation of being trapped in a cellar with the water rising – the little illiterate servant girl from the slums of London who becomes a princess…And I set the stories up so that each of those stock situations, when they arose, would do so naturally and with the most convincing realism I could manage.”

Pullman approaches this challenge with a sense of fun and irreverence that makes for some great reading. Here’s a moment from The Shadow in the North when Jim Taylor, one of the series’s main characters, is talking with a barefoot child in front of a stinking boarding house:

Photo of boys buying ices from street vendor

Halfpenny ices, London 1877

“She took the fish out of her mouth again, looked at him steadily for a moment, and then released a flood of the filthiest, richest, ripest, fruitiest, foulest language Jim had ever heard. It went on for an uninterrupted two minutes and a half, without repetition. He, his face, his manners, his ancestry, his clothes, and his mind were compared unfavorably with parts of his body, to parts of other people’s bodies, to parts of animals’ bodies, to the stink arising from dead fish, to boils, to intestinal wind, and to several dozen other unpleasantnesses. Jim was completely taken aback, and that didn’t happen very often.

“He put his hand in his pocket.

“‘Here,’ he said, holding out a sixpence. ‘You’re a virtuoso, you are. I never heard such talent.’

“She took the sixpence—whereupon he swiped her around the head and sent her sprawling.

“‘But you want to be quicker on your pins than that,” he added. ‘Cheerio'” (page 117).

It’s all the more satisfying that the kid in this scene ends up having the last word.

Sally herself is quite unconventional by Victorian standards, having been brought up and schooled by her father, a former army captain. As Pullman summarizes, “her knowledge of English Literature, French, History, Art and Music is non-existent, but she has a thorough grounding in military tactics, can run a business, ride like a Cossack and shoot straight with a pistol.” She has her share of doubts and uncertainties, but also an essential toughness that, when need arises, helps her stand up to pompous lawyers or intimidating street thugs. Here she is in The Shadow in the North berating her landlord’s clerk after her office files have been confiscated:

“‘You allowed police officers into my room to take away my property – you didn’t ask for a receipt – you didn’t see a warrant. This is England, did you know that? You have heard of a search warrant, I suppose? How do you know these men were really police officers?’

“He banged the desk and stood up, shouting, ‘I will not be spoken to like that by a common prostitute!’

* * *

“She looked him up and down, from the red spots on his thin cheeks to the papery knuckles clutching the desk.

“‘I’m ashamed of you,’ she said. ‘I thought you were a businessman. I thought you could see straight and deal fairly. Once, I’d have been angry with you – but now I’m just ashamed.'”

“He said nothing as she turned and left” (pages 249-50).

By this time, Lockhart has carved out a niche for herself as a financial consultant, which is presented as an extraordinary but achievable feat for a woman in 1880s London (a time when there were just beginning to be female physicians, for example). Later, as an unmarried woman, she raises a child on her own. This flouts not only Victorian rules of respectability, but also modern literary conventions. In young people’s adventure stories today, strong female characters are still depressingly rare, but mothers having adventures -– as opposed to just taking care of people, or dying -– are almost nonexistent. (The only other example I can think of is Robert C. O’Brien’s Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH.) For my money, the scenes in The Tiger in the Well of Lockhart on the run and in hiding with her toddler daughter –- worrying whether they’ve been discovered in one moment, and whether the child has a fever or will wet the bed in the next –- are some of the best in the series. This is realism of a sort that very few adventure story writers even consider.

Another thing I enjoy about the series is the feeling of historical progression between the first three novels (setting aside The Tin Princess, which is great fun but something of a postscript). Although the time span is less than a decade, it’s as if Pullman is moving between historical eras and to some extent genres. The Ruby in the Smoke is steeped in Victorian-era exoticism a la Sherlock Holmes stories such as The Sign of the Four: the 1857 Indian mutiny, the opium trade, a sinister Chinese criminal organization with a colorful name, a hidden treasure. The Shadow in the North deals with spiritualism and clairvoyance but also more modern themes: industrial production, powerful capitalists, and the rise of military technology foreshadowing World War I (with just a touch of steam punk). By The Tiger in the Well, we could almost be in the 20th century, with mass immigration, organized antisemitism, and socialist organizing all central to the story.

This progression from exoticism to modern social concerns is bound up with Lockhart’s experience of growing up and learning about the world. For example, poverty is a major theme running through all of the stories, but there is a big change in how Sally –- and we as readers –- see it. In The Ruby in the Smoke, poverty is something scary and ugly and often sinister, but it’s also just a part of the landscape –- it’s simply there with no question of why or who it serves:

Photo of group of people on sidewalk

London street scene, 1877

Lodgings, in the East End, is a word that covers a multitude of horrors. At its worst, it means a room steaming with damp and poisonous with stench, with a rope stretched across the middle. Those far gone in drink or poverty can pay a penny for the privilege of slumping against this rope, to keep themselves off the floor while they sleep. At its best, it means a decent, clean place where they change the linen as often as they remember. Somewhere in between, there is Holland’s Lodgings. There, a bed for the night would cost you threepence, a bed to yourself fourpence, a room to yourself sixpence, and breakfast a penny. You were never alone at Holland’s Lodgings. If the fleas disdained your flesh, the bedbugs had no snobbery; they’d take a bite out of everyone” (page 21).

Two books later, in The Tiger in the Well, Sally comes to look at poverty as a condition that’s imposed on people — by factory owners who pay them too little for back-breaking and mind-numbing work, landlords who charge them too much to live in filthy and unsafe homes, and others with wealth and economic power. Accompanying the director of a settlement house, she visits a family of matchbox makers:

“It was a family of five: father, mother, two daughters in their teens, and a sick little boy of seven all crammed into a room no bigger than twelve feet by eight. The boy lay on a mattress in a corner, scarcely breathing. The rest of them worked around a table in the dingy light from the window. The air was thick with the smell of sickness, of sweat, of fish, of glue. The family’s hands moved without ceasing, pasting strips of wood to strips of magenta-colored paper, standing them on one side to dry, then folding them into matchboxes. One of the daughters, a bright, rebellious-looking girl, was tying bundles of completed boxes together. They got twopence farthing from the factory for every twelve dozen boxes they made, said the father…. Furthermore, they had to buy their own string and paste. By working all the hours of daylight and late into the night, they could make just enough to keep starvation at bay” (page 218).

Up until this point, Lockhart has comfortably thought of herself as a capitalist, having worked hard to establish her financial consulting business. But now, “she began to wonder how many clients she’d advised to buy shares in Bryant and May’s, the match manufacturers. Why, she owned some herself” (page 219).

There’s a lot more I could discuss about the Sally Lockhart series — such as Pullman’s use of political allegory and whether the books helped to inspire Laurie King’s Mary Russell mysteries — but this review has probably gone on long enough. I’ll close by cautioning adult caregivers that the series has a lot of violence, open presentations (in Tiger) of both anti-Jewish bigotry and socialist radicalism, and various frank (but non-graphic) references to sex. As Pessimisissimo writes, “if you give the books to a 12-year-old, be prepared to face some interesting questions.”


Philip Pullman’s website

The Sally Lockhart mysteries:

Photo Credits
All photographs in this post are from John Thomson and Adolphe Smith, Street Life in London, 1877. London School of Economics Library, SR 1146,

42: a movie about Jackie Robinson

My father used to take the subway to Ebbets Field, and I grew up with stories of the Brooklyn Dodgers and especially Jackie Robinson. So when my parents were in town recently, we all went to see 42, the new movie about how Robinson broke the color barrier in major league baseball. While I would not call it a great film, it’s a well-acted, compelling look at an important piece of history, that has sparked several conversations with my kid about the Negro Leagues, racism, nonviolent activism versus fighting back, and what an amazing, beautiful feat it is to steal home.

As many critics have pointed out, in many ways 42 gives us a predictable, conventional story about a lone male hero (supported by a devoted woman) triumphing over adversity, without a lot of room for character depth or moral ambiguity. On top of that, we only see the most famous interval in Robinson’s career, so we miss the longer, more complex story of his struggle against racism — not to mention the larger social and political forces that helped to integrate professional baseball.

Photo of Jackie Robinson and his son David

Jackie Robinson and his son David being interviewed at the 1963 March on Washington

But within those constraints, 42 does several things well. It starkly presents the racist invective, physical violence, threats, and casual insults that Robinson faced day in and day out, and the fierce dignity with which he faced them. Chadwick Boseman portrays Robinson as a combative man who accepts Dodgers executive Branch Rickey’s rule that he “have the guts not to fight back” while offering no hint of meekness or ingratiation. (For example, as Dave Denby points out in the New Yorker, Robinson “doesn’t easily make friends with the white players who like him.”) Boseman also gives us a taste of Robinson’s brilliant, delicious base-running. As Owen Gleiberman writes in Entertainment Weekly, “Robinson isn’t just teasing the pitchers… He’s mocking them, working off his anger.”

The film also shows us how Robinson’s example spurred some whites to stand up to racism, but thankfully doesn’t treat this as the main event. When Dodger shortstop Pee Wee Reese gets a piece of hate mail for playing alongside a black man, Rickey shows him the thick stack of hate mail that Robinson has received, including death threats and threats to kidnap his child. Later we see the famous moment in Cincinnati when racist fans are heckling Robinson, and Reese, a white southerner, walks over and puts his arm around his black teammate. “I got family up there from Louisville,” Reese says to Robinson about the people in the stands. “I need ’em to know. I need ’em to know who I am.” Such acts of solidarity in the film are not handed down by enlightened white benefactors. They grow out of teammates’ concrete experiences traveling, living, and working together for the same goal.

Dave Zirin at The Nation criticizes 42 for ignoring the longer struggle to integrate baseball (notably the Communist-led campaign in the 1930s that drew mass labor union support) as well the fact that Branch Rickey and nearly all other major league baseball owners refused to compensate Negro League teams for their players, which “led to the destruction of the largest national black owned business in the United States.” Above all, Zirin points out that “Jackie Robinson spent the last years of his life in a grueling fight against his own mythos. He hated that his tribulations from the 1940s were used to tell a story about an individualistic, Booker T. Washington approach to fighting racism.” Yet 42, which says nothing about Robinson’s later involvement in the civil rights movement, largely continues this individualistic approach. (See also Zirin’s earlier column, “Five Fears About ’42.’“)

Photo of youth baseball players in dugout watching game

Philadelphia youth baseball team wears #42 to commemorate Jackie Robinson Day, April 15, 2013

These shortcomings can serve as jumping-off points for discussions with kids. It’s useful, for example, to compare Robinson’s refusal to fight back in the face of racist provocation with the nonviolent protest used by many civil rights activists (including the first Freedom Riders that same year of 1947), even in the face of beatings and worse. Like Robinson, many civil rights workers weren’t committed pacifists, but accepted nonviolence as a useful strategy in specific circumstances. (Some, such as Robert Williams, disagreed.) It’s also important to highlight some of the differences: for example, unlike the civil rights workers, Robinson was following the dictates of a white employer, and he did this alone, not as part of an organized movement.

Here are two more jumping-off points that come to mind:

  • Compare Jackie Robinson’s struggle with that of Curt Flood, all-star center fielder with the St. Louis Cardinals, and a black man, who in 1969 refused to be traded to the Philadelphia Phillies with the words, “I do not feel I am a piece of property to be bought and sold irrespective of my wishes.” Flood’s stance cost him the rest of his career, but it helped eventually to break baseball’s reserve clause, under which teams controlled who players could sign with even after their contracts had expired. (Jackie Robinson testified in support of Flood.)
  • Compare the fight against baseball’s color line with today’s fight against homophobia in sports. There are the same number of openly gay ballplayers in major league baseball today as there were black players in 1946: zero. The same is true in professional men’s basketball, football, and hockey. But this wall is starting to crack. Several retired athletes have come out of the closet, and the National Hockey League and the NHL Players’ Association recently formed a partnership with You Can Play, an organization that combats homophobia in sports through education.

I’ve talked with my son about several of these issues since we went to see 42 together, and we will continue to talk about them in the months and years ahead. But even without the larger history and context, it just made me happy to see him on the edge of his theater seat, rooting for Jackie Robinson. And given what pop culture has on offer for kids (especially boys), he could do a lot worse than root for a man who had the guts not to fight back.

Related resources (just a few that I happen to know):

We Are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball, by Kadir Nelson. This large-format kids’ book covers the full history of the Negro Leagues, and is told in the voice of a veteran ball player looking back. Nelson’s stunning paintings complement his lively text.

Jackie Robinson: An Intimate Portrait, by Rachel Robinson with Lee Daniels. Not a children’s book per se, but a detailed commentary on Jackie Robinson’s life and work by his widow, with hundreds of photographs.

In the Year of the Boar and Jackie Robinson, by Betty Bao Lord. Eight-year-old Shirley Temple Wong immigrates from China to Brooklyn in 1947. Learning to play stickball and rooting for the 1947 Dodgers help her to feel a part of her new community. After her first ball game, Shirley’s classmates nickname her Jackie Robinson “’cause she’s pigeon-toed and stole home.”

Photo credits
Jackie Robinson with his son David, Civil Rights March on Washington, D.C., 08/28/1963. Record Group 306: Records of the U.S. Information Agency, 1900 – 2003, National Archives and Records Administration, ARC Identifier 542024.
Youth baseball team, Philadelphia, PA, April 15, 2013. Photo by Susan Whiteman Nordlof. Used with permission.

Rosie the Riveter national park explores World War II home front history

You probably know the iconic “Rosie the Riveter” poster: a woman in a kerchief and work shirt, with bulging bicep and determined expression, and the words “WE CAN DO IT.” This image (which originally wasn’t even called Rosie the Riveter) was embraced by the feminist movement in the 1980s and has become an emblem of women’s competence, strength, and combative spirit. So much so, that it’s now something of a cliché.

If you want to show your kids the history behind that image, an excellent place to start is the Rosie the Riveter / World War II Home Front National Historical Park in Richmond, California. The park is a short drive north of Oakland and Berkeley just off I-580, and we stumbled upon it during a recent vacation in the Bay Area. It’s not a national park in the ordinary sense — the Park Service doesn’t even own any of the land. Instead, there’s a Rosie the Riveter Memorial, a visitor center, a Liberty ship (the SS Red Oak Victory), and a few other sites in and around Richmond’s historic shipyard and industrial area. The park is very new: the visitor center only opened last May, and several of the sites aren’t open to the public yet. Even so, it’s well worth a visit. We spent about an hour in the visitor center and hope to come back eventually to see more of the park.

“The more women at work the sooner we win!” (poster)

World War II Posters Collection, Northwestern University Library, Pr32. 5015: 52, digital.library.

The visitor center is in a handsomely renovated industrial complex that includes the former Ford assembly plant, which turned out jeeps, tanks, and halftracks during World War II. At the center, we saw a short documentary film, toured several rooms of displays (photos, reproduced war posters, models, and a few original artifacts), and visited a small gift shop. You can find the iconic Rosie image here, but it’s not emphasized. There are too many other engaging sights and sounds presenting a rich combination of stories.

At the visitor center you learn how the war transformed Richmond, California, from a quiet working-class community into a booming industrial center overflowing with newcomers from across the country. How Henry J. Kaiser oversaw a revolution in shipbuilding that cranked out an amazing number of ships and drastically cut production time, largely through pre-fabrication and assembly-line methods. And how Kaiser provided health care, housing, and even childcare for his workers in order to maintain and improve their productivity. (Kaiser Permanente, now the largest HMO in the U.S., was an offshoot of this initiative.)

Many of the stories are about the women and people of color who were able to move into industrial jobs during the war. Several of the display panels as well as the film we saw feature interviews with diverse women and men who lived in Richmond and worked in its factories and shipyards. You learn how women workers faced discrimination and harassment but earned respect on the job. (By some accounts, women became better shipyard welders than the men.) How African Americans launched the national “Double-V” campaign, which stood for victory over fascism abroad and racism at home. How workers of every ethnicity and gender endured severe overcrowding but also saw their achievements celebrated with every ship launched.

The visitor center also presents snippets of home front activity outside the workplace, such as how families planted victory gardens and collected scrap for the war effort, as government war posters exhorted them to do. The posters in the exhibits represent a story in themselves — a lively combination of art and propaganda, such as the poster titled “Give ’em both barrels,” which pairs a soldier firing a machine gun and a worker wielding a rivet gun. Apparently, the propaganda sometimes misfired: the display text tells us many workers thought this poster was about the FBI’s war on crime. (More tellingly, a poster featuring an ominous Nazi soldier under the words “He’s watching you” was misinterpreted as the boss keeping a close eye on the shop floor.)

Alongside all the history, there is also a display devoted to Rosie’s Girls, a summer camp program in several states, where middle school age girls learn skilled trades such as welding and carpentry (also bike repair, electrical wiring, fire fighting, etc.) as part of developing their own strength and confidence. The National Park Service is one of many partners sponsoring Rosie’s Girls.

Photo of Miss Eastine Cowner working at Kaiser shipyards

Miss Eastine Cowner helps construct the Liberty ship SS George Washington Carver, Kaiser shipyards, Richmond, CA, 1943. FSA-OWI Collection, Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division, LC-USW3- 028673-C.

Because there are so many story threads at the Rosie the Riveter visitor center, there are opportunities to engage kids of many different ages and interests. Our 9-year-old paid close attention to a lot of the military-themed posters, as I expected he would. But when I asked him what he liked best at the visitor center, he said the film, and the display about the Port Chicago “mutiny” (strike), when black sailors refused to load munitions under unsafe conditions, after an explosion at the docks killed 320. Fifty of the “mutineers” were court-martialed and sent to prison.

Children who come to the visitor center are offered National Park Service trading cards. This is a new Park Service initiative to help encourage kids to talk with park interpreters, and encourage families to visit different parks. The trading cards are available at a number of Park Service historic sites around the country and feature themes from “Civil War to Civil Rights.” Each site offers different trading cards and the cards are available only in person, although you can find the images on Flickr. One of the cards our son received showed a “Welding crew in Kaiser Shipyard, Richmond, CA,” with the caption:

“In 1941 Executive Order 8802 banned racial discrimination in defense work, promising increased opportunity for people of color. But the order was weakly enforced–employment discrimination based on race didn’t become illegal until the Civil Rights Act of 1964. WWII shipyard crews in Richmond CA became more diverse by the war’s end, though women and people of color were generally the first laid off.”

At the visitor center I sensed a kind of tension between different versions of history. Rosie the Riveter was created as an icon of liberal patriotism, and to some extent she continues to play that role. Classic liberal mythology sees World War II as “The Good War,” when democracy defeated fascism, outmoded barriers to personal achievement began to fall, and we overcame our differences to all pull together. The Kaiser Shipyards add to this a myth of enlightened capitalism, when management provided social programs and really looked out for the workers. Rosie the Riveter visitor center sometimes reinforces this Good War myth by highlighting upbeat, celebratory themes: a town moving out of depression into prosperity and a shared sense of purpose, and women discovering a new sense of possibility. (Said one woman interviewed in the film, “I learned I can do anything I want.”)

The Good War myth glosses over the uglier side of how the U.S. fought World War II at home and abroad, from the mass imprisonment of Japanese Americans to the suppression of workplace activism, from the treatment of Japanese soldiers as subhumans to the refusal to rescue Europe’s Jews.

Fortunately, Rosie the Riveter visitor center largely presents home front history free of sugar coating. It doesn’t shy away from portraying the persistent discrimination that workers of color faced. And it makes clear that recruiting women into industrial jobs was never intended to shake up gender roles permanently, and that most of these jobs were closed to women again once the war ended.

Overall, this is a valuable and promising example of public history. I look forward to seeing the Rosie the Riveter / World War II Home Front National Historical Park continue to grow and develop in the years ahead.

Related resources

Rosie the Riveter: Women Working During World War II
This National Park Service online exhibit of artifacts, photos, and stories does a good job of presenting complex history in a clear and accessible manner.

Rosie the Riveter: Real Women Workers in World War II
This video from the Library of Congress is narrated by women’s studies specialist Sheridan Harvey. Her analysis of Norman Rockwell’s “Rosie the Riveter” cover of the Saturday Evening Post is a highlight.

Rosie the Riveter WWII American Homefront Project
The Regional Oral History Office of UC Berkeley’s Bancroft Library has interviewed dozens of Bay Area residents about their World War II experiences. Excerpts from some of these interviews are available online.

Rosie the Riveter Memorial Park
This 2007 blog post on Bay Radical, a blog devoted to the history of radical activism in the Bay Area, describes the memorial and includes a good summary and links about World War II industry in Richmond CA and elsewhere.

Invisible working women: film review of The Life and Times of Rosie the Riveter
Sue Davenport’s film review in Jump Cut (April 1983) asks how women workers’ individual experiences relate to larger historical forces.

“Several madnesses are born”: working-class women in the 1930s and World War II: a social history (excerpt)
This is Chapter 4 of Wanda Downing Jones’s 1988 masters thesis at the University of Texas – Arlington, which focuses on women workers’ relationship with organized labor during World War II.

History-related summer camps

Recently, Leo has been complaining that his school doesn’t teach a lot of history. So we’re doing what we always do, and looking for ways to expose Leo to history outside of school. Summer camp has always been a great way to pursue his many interests.

This year my research uncovered some history camps I hadn’t heard about before. These are all in the Philadelphia area, but they offer clues for how you could track down similar camps in your own region. You can check with local museums, historic houses or estates that offer educational programming, and private summer camp outfits that offer themed weeks. Even science museums and science camps sometimes have a historical component.

Here are some of the Philadelphia-area camps I’ve found that have a strong history focus.

ArtStory Camp in Germantown

web_2010_artstory_colonial_pict.67142036_stdThis small multi-age camp is held in an artist’s studio in the mornings, where the focus is on telling stories with art. In the afternoons, the kids go to Grumblethorpe, a historic house a few blocks away. At Grumblethorpe, the kids learn 18th-century hand crafts like making soap and sewing pockets, and every day they make an 18th-century food item. They bake bread, churn butter, make fruit preserves and ice cream. Leo’s favorite thing about Grumblethorpe is the bloodstain on the floor of the house’s front parlor, where a British general died after the Battle of Germantown during the Revolutionary War.

Wyck Historic House

This house is just up the road from Grumblethorpe in Philadelphia’s historic Germantown neighborhood. I just learned about their history-based summer programs. The first week focuses on Native American history, the second week is about colonial history, and the third week is all historical farming techniques and food preparation. Wyck House has a beautiful garden and a chicken coop, and Leo enjoyed making cider there when he visited on a school field trip a few years ago.

Lavner Exploration Camp: Historical Philadelphia

This camp is based at St. Peter’s Church in Center City Philadelphia. It’s a solid week of field trips to the city’s most patriotic and touristy historic sites–the Constitution Center, the Liberty Bell, and the Betsy Ross House among many others. The camp has a half-day option, but we’ve decided not to do it. I would rather have Leo see these sites with us, so we can talk about the parts of Philadelphia history that are glossed over in the big tourist traps.

Franklin Institute Discovery Camp at Valley Forge

Who knew a museum known for science would have an interesting history camp? This week-long camp is held outside the city at Valley Forge National Historical Park. Campers will learn about the natural history of the area, and also the history of the park itself including “the science behind historical battles.” I sort of wish I was in grades 3-8 so I could do this camp myself.

Schuylkill Center’s Nature Ramblers 

This full day summer camp is mostly science, but it does offer a couple of weeks that focus on local history, including the Lenape Indians [PDF] who lived in this area before the colonists came. Younger kids go to the Academy of Natural Sciences to visit their dinosaur dig exhibit, and older kids go to the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania.

Going it alone

We’re going to sign up for at least one of these camps, but of course the perfect history camp for Leo doesn’t exist. Matthew is thinking of using a bit of vacation time this summer to create a do-it-yourself history camp for Leo. I’m sure he’ll blog about it as the summer approaches.

That’s my list! I’d love to hear about any local camps I might have missed. You are also invited to make me jealous by telling me about all the great history camps available in your area.

Update: The image shows a group of kids dressed up in 18th century clothes at ArtStory camp. Photo credit Mindy Flexer, used with permission.

The war curriculum

We homeschooled Leo for about four months when he was eight years old. School had been good for him in kindergarten and first grade, but second grade started off rough and by spring he was so beaten down that we decided to pull him out. We scrambled to put together a homeschooling plan that would let him recover but also challenge his mind and engage his heart. Knowing Leo’s fascination with all things military, I came up with the idea of building a curriculum — or at least a large part of one — around war.

The basic idea was to use war as a unifying thread to help Leo connect with a lot of different subject areas — and at the same time help him move beyond the “guns are cool!” mind-set to develop a fuller and more varied set of perspectives on war. We read historical novels set in different wars: rural Illinois during the Civil War (Across Five Aprils), Mexico in 1836 (In the Shadow of the Alamo), and Korea during World War II (When My Name Was Keoko). We learned songs exploring war from many angles, such as patriotism (“Battle Cry of Freedom”), satire (“Kiss Me Goodnight, Sergeant Major”), protest (“Waist Deep in the Big Muddy”), and lament (“Johnny I Hardly Knew Ye”). Leo filled out home-made geography worksheets tracing where armies marched and solved math problems involving numbers of soldiers and weapons and quantities of provisions. His interest in ballistics led him to David Macaulay’s The Way Things Work to learn about the physics that makes guns fire and missiles launch. A Wikipedia article on “Combat Medic” led into a discussion of first aid basics and the workings of the heart, lungs, and blood vessels. Claire’s mom, who joined us as one of Leo’s homeschool teachers, showed him photos of his relatives who fought in the Civil War and introduced him to Longfellow’s “The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere.”

The following excerpts from our homeschooling log show some of the range of what we covered:

Leo wanted to make a new costume based on a Revolutionary War uniform. First, we found a website that features color drawings of uniforms from many different units on both sides in that war. Leo picked out one that he liked and we printed out the drawing. He identified certain pieces of clothing that he already had and others that he would need in order to make the costume. We then walked over to the thrift store a few blocks from our house, and Leo found a tan shirt and a red jacket that would work for the costume. Back at home, I found an extra martial arts belt (white) that I cut in half for Leo, and loaned him my sewing kit. Without any help except with pinning, he then sewed one of the halves into a loop to be worn across one shoulder. (The next day he sewed a similar loop from the other half and sewed the two loops together to make an X in the back.)
* * *
Using online and print sources, we looked at war propaganda posters from World War II — mostly U.S. and Japanese, plus a couple of German ones. We discussed the images in the posters, the purposes of wartime propaganda, and how the people in the war were depicted differently by the different sides, with a special emphasis on racial stereotyping.
* * *
Leo attended a home school learning center for a full day. He and two other kids created a museum featuring weapons from several different historical eras, from the Stone Age to modern times. (They made the weapons out of K’Nex.)
* * *
We looked at maps of Mexico, Texas, and the United States in the nineteenth century. I showed Leo how large Mexico had been before the Texas War of Independence, and how much territory Mexico lost in that war and in the War with the United States that followed. We counted all of the states in the U.S. that used to be part of Mexico, and talked about how many of them still have lots of people of Mexican descent living in them, and how their local cultures (foods, etc.) still have a lot of Mexican influences. We also looked at how the United States grew from the time of Independence through the end of the war with Mexico.
* * *
While I was brushing my teeth this morning Leo asked, “Dad, why did the United States and the Russians start a Cold War?” That led into a short discussion about the differences between capitalism and communism.

The war curriculum was an attempt to expand our child’s thinking about war, not channel it in one direction. It offered space for Leo to appreciate the loyalty of battlefield comrades who risk their lives to protect each other, but also imagine what it might feel like to be driven out of your home by soldiers. To be dazzled by the power of military equipment, but also moved by Eric Bogle’s song about a soldier who has his legs blown off at Gallipoli. To learn about some of the many reasons people go to war, and to think about which of them are worth fighting for and which are not.

The curriculum also gave us many opportunities to talk about how social differences and divisions shape people’s lives. In the Shadow of the Alamo, for example, compares the situations of the impoverished farmers who were conscripted into the Mexican army and the landowners’ sons who became their officers. Along with the soldiers themselves, the book also shows how women and girls traveled with their sons, husbands, and fathers as camp followers, and faced lots of hardship and suffering in the process.

Our experience with homeschooling was brief, as Leo returned to a school setting in the fall. But it helped us think much more actively about we can help our child learn and help make many different subjects engaging for him, including history. In future posts on this blog, I expect to write about a number of the specific resources we used.