I can remember when I was young, I sometimes deliberately stretched out the ending of a book because I feared that it was going to end badly for the characters. If I just left them there, suspended, the bad thing wouldn’t happen to them. Magical thinking, I know, but that’s very much the way that I felt when I only had about 50 pages of this book left to go. I would make excuses that my reading circumstances weren’t good enough- I was too tired, the light was poor, I’d enjoy it better tomorrow – but I know that it was because I feared the ending.
Over the last 18 months or so, I have been remediating my dearth of knowledge about American history by listening to Heather Cox Richardson’s history videos on Facebook. I really knew very little about the Reconstruction era: that 13 year period between 1863 and 1877 immediately following the American Civil War. The whole concept of a civil war chills me, with the contortions of morality and identity that must take place in order to be able to fight someone who shares language, place, experience. And then when it stops- what then? How do you step back from that?
Old Ox is a small town in Georgia, staunchly Confederate during the war, and resentful and broken afterwards. Emancipation has seen formerly enslaved people suddenly free, but without resources, money or plans. Many of them stay in Old Ox, some still living and working for their former owners, others building shanties under the eaves and in the alley-ways of the buildings in the town. Landry and Prentiss are hiding out in the woods where they are discovered by George Walker, a small-scale white farmer. They agree to work on George’s farm, planting peanuts, in return for shelter in the barn, food and a wage. They had been enslaved on a nearby plantation, and the cruelty of the owner, Ted Morton, had stripped Landry of speech. The brothers dream of finding their mother, who had been sold, and now that they can earn some money, they have a chance of doing so.
George’s sudden plan to plant peanuts is triggered by his need to turn his hand to something. He and his wife Isabelle are mute in their grief for their son, lost in the war. Never particularly close, now Isabelle in particular is engulfed by mourning, and largely oblivious to the two men in the barn, and George’s absence working the land by day.
Suddenly their son Caleb returns. He has sustained facial injuries, which we learn are not a battle injury, but instead meted out for desertion. His childhood friend- indeed, more than a friend- August had visited Caleb’s parents earlier to inform them of their son’s supposed death, and their secret sexual relationship starts up again. When they are discovered, a whole cascade of events is triggered, leading to George, Caleb and Prentiss fleeing north.
This is a beautifully told book. It has a slightly formal, 19th century lilt to the language and it’s hard to believe that the author is only 29. The characters have complexity, although George’s confidante, the prostitute Clementine, is less well drawn. It captures well this liminal time, when the gaping newness had not yet solidified into inevitability. It was long-listed for the Booker Prize, but it didn’t make the cut. It did make it as an Oprah Book Club read, for what it’s worth.
I really enjoyed it – once I had the courage to finish it.
The History of Rome Podcast Episode 77 What Time Is It? follows through on Domitian, who after a rising in Germany led by Governor Saturninus in 89 AD, became even more paranoid and dictatorial than he was before. As a result, there was an explosion of edicts against him by the Senate, although the rank and file of the Praetorian Guard and the Legions remained loyal to him. He had been warned by a soothsayer that he would die at noon, and each day asked “What time is it?” and heaved a sigh of relief when noon had passed. In the end he was assassinated by court officials, who lied about the time. He was 45 years old, and had ruled for 15 years. Like Augustus, he was broad in his approach but he never had Augustus’ gravitas, and as soon as he was killed there was a concerted campaign to impugn his reputation. In Episode 78 Imperial Stopgap, the Senate now had to decide who to have as emperor, because Domitian had no sons. What the Senators really wanted was a childless old man who might choose one of their sons to be his successor. They settled on Nerva, who fitted the bill, but was never accepted by the troops of the Praetorian Guard or the troops of the Legions, with whom he had a strained relationship. He was a populist, with policies like low taxes and giving people stuff, but the economy faltered. He melted down statues and cancelled the games. The best thing he did was choose Trajan as his successor (and for this he is known as the first of the Five Good Emperors) and at least he died of natural causes, after 15 months. And hooray! We’ve reached the 2nd century A. D. (or C.E) Episode 79 The Dacian Wars sees Trajan biding his time while Nerva was still alive, and not appearing to be too eager when taking power. He was actually born in Spain, not Rome and was the second of the Five Good Emperors and officially acclaimed by the senate as optimus princeps (“best ruler”). He was an army man, but he knew that armies need good infrastructure, and this is what he is best known for building the Trajan Forum, the Trajan Market and the Trajan Column (which still stands). He defeated the Dacians (present day Transylvania) and incorporated it into the empire as an imperial province in 106CE. Episode 80 Optimus Trajan goes through the many good things that Trajan did: infrastructure, keeping the peace, and supporting the provincial governors to use their own initiative as long as it was for the common good. He was a friend of Pliny the Younger, and much that we know of him comes from the letters between them. He advised Pliny to give the troublesome Christians (who seemed to be spreading) an opportunity to recant without penalty, but if they refused, then to execute them. He launched another war against the Parthians, prompted by conflict over Armenia, and reduced it to client kingdom status. He reportedly said that he wished he was younger, so he could keep going to India, like Alexander the Great had done. But he wasn’t young, and he got sick and died at the age of 63 after a reign of nearly twenty years.
Emperors of Rome Is it very naughty of me to cheat on Mike Duncan by listening to another podcast about Rome at the same time that I’m listening to his? I confess to feeling a bit apprehensive that all this Roman history is just washing over me- especially as all these emperors seem to have variations on about five names- and so I’d really like some of this information to ‘stick’. I had seen the Emperors of Rome podcast on my podcast feed, but I wasn’t expecting it to be Australian! And, even better, from ‘my’ university just up the road, La Trobe University. It’s presented by Dr Rhiannon Evans and Matt Smith, which means that there’s a nice interaction between them as presenters. You can really tell that Evans has academic chops compared with Mike Duncan, because she is very concerned with sources and documentation, whereas Duncan’s is more of a chronological, survey approach. Given that I’m up to Trajan with Mike Duncan, I launched right in to episode XLV In Trajan We Trust where I learned that Trajan is one of the emperors where most of our information comes from material ruins, rather than written sources. Episode XLVI – Trajan vs Dacia explained that Dacia is where Romania is today. Episode XLVII Pliny the Younger sidetracks a bit to go into the life of Pliny the Younger, the nephew of Pliny the Elder, who gave us probably the best account of the eruption at Pompeii. Episode XLVIII – Trajan: Optimus Princeps sums up Trajan’s life, and gives him a pretty good score. I’m delighted to have found this series. Even though these episodes were recorded in May 2016, the podcast is still going! They have a Facebook page with all their episodes too.
Australia vs the Climate (The Guardian)Part 4: Fossil Fuels looks at the influence of the fossil fuel lobby on the Morrison government- although it has been a potent force in Australian politics for decades. Most insidious is its inclusion in government climate change policy announcements- and sure enough, who is sponsoring Australia’s stand at Glasgow but Santos.
Conversations (ABC) The frequency of cleft lip or palate in Australia is 1:800 births. I’m often mystified: why don’t you see prominent people with them? As a person with a cleft lip and palate myself, I notice instantly when I meet someone else who has one (and I bet they notice mine too). But why aren’t they in Parliament, or on television, or writers at Writers Festivals? Good on you, Wendy Harmer, for being right out there. In The Trailblazer: Wendy Harmer Richard Fidler, a fellow comedian, talks with Wendy about her childhood, her surgeries, her career and her success.
Lit Hub The very scratchy Lit Century podcast looks at Freud’s 1930 book Civilization and its Discontents in the episode How Has Freud Changed the Way We Tell Our Stories. I haven’t read this book, and I don’t know if I particularly want to after listening to this podcast which made it sound Damned Hard Work. The podcast features Jessica Gross, the author of the novel Hysteria about a young woman’s relationship with Freud. They note the irony of Freud’s contention that with aggression curtailed, it turns inward- just as the world was to embark on another aggressive world war. Basically, they argue that Freud encourages us to ask why we, or a character in a story, are the way we are. Freud takes an idea which, self-deprecatingly he says is nothing new, then turns it upside down or pushes it out of shape. Both Jessica and the interviewer Catherine Nichols observed that they would be exhilarated and challenged by new ideas, but on shutting the book would be hardpressed to explain the idea to anyone else. But I really do wish they’d buy a proper microphone.