Thursday, May 23, 2024

The Demon of Unrest by Erik Larson

The Demon of Unrest by Erik Larson is a really good work of nonfiction subtitled A Saga of Hubris, Heartbreak, and Heroism at the Dawn of the Civil War. Larson delves into the period prior to the war and the specific events at Fort Sumter, on an island in the harbor just off the shores of Charleston, SC. 

It's fascinating how Larson takes a large event and then focuses on a specific thing that helped bring it about. The lobbing of munitions at U.S. military personal at Fort Sumter by forces of South Carolina, who had announced a succession from the Union, could be considered a powder keg prior to the blast that was the Civil War, which would kill 750,000 Americans. 

Lincoln won the presidential election on Nov 6, 1860, enraging southerners who felt that Lincoln wanted to end slavery, taking away the forced labor that harvested their cotton. The results of the election triggered people to align themselves with either the government of the U.S. or those who wanted to continue slavery. South Carolina led the charge to succeed, holding first a session of the legislature on Nov 10 about whether to leave the Union, and then a succession convention at the start of January. Mississippi then joined in succeeding on Jan 9, again due to slavery. 

 The certification of Electoral College votes was Feb 13, and leading up to it, there was concern that there would be disruption from people who didn't want Lincoln in office, and inauguration was Mar 4, with there rumors of planned assassination attempts on Lincoln while on the way to Washington. The outgoing president, James Buchanan, had hoped that Lincoln would be defeated in the presidential race, as he simply wanted to harmony before leaving his responsibilities. Lincoln's speeches leading up to his assuming office were critical as people wanted to know what he would do both about slavery and the states wanting out of the Union.

During this time, Major Robert Anderson in South Carolina consolidated U.S. forces from other forts around Charleston Harbor into Fort Sumter, an action viewed as an affront by those in Charleston as the state declared itself outside the government. South Carolina began making preparations to attack the fort if Anderson wouldn't abandon and hand it over to them. When Lincoln was sworn into office, Anderson had been at Fort Sumter some three months and he others there had dwindling provisions  and not a great deal of guidance, much less timely guidance, coming to them from Washington. Confederate President Jefferson Davis wanted to be done with the American flag flying from Fort Sumter in view of Charleston and on the April 12, 1861 day that artillery was lobbed at Fort Sumter, Anderson had been there for 113 days. The bombardment caused a fire, compelling Anderson to surrender the fort and evacuate with his men. 

Many people in the South thought this was all a grand adventure, one that would be over quickly, but Lincoln responded by calling for troops to assemble to reassert the authority of U.S. law, and the war commenced. Four years later the U.S. retook Fort Sumter, with the Civil War killing a full third of the 60,000 men in the state who fought. Also, the war brought what southerners feared, the end of slavery cost South Carolina planters some three hundred million dollars in human capital. Larson does a great job in the book of detailing this specific place and event at the start of a conflict that wound up killing a quarter of a million people, and all the sliding door moments that led up to the Civil War.

Monday, May 20, 2024

Dogland by Tommy Tomlinson

Dogland by Tommy Tomlinson is an excellent work of nonfiction about the Westminster Dog Show, dogs in general, and Tomlinson and his relationship to dogs, especially his dog, Fred. 

Tomlinson in this book starts off by writing about the mockumentary Best in Show and he covers how dog show judges pick winners based on the dog that best epitomizes the breed. The most popular dogs aren't usually going to win. He writes about a dog show champion Samoyed named Striker, Striker's handler, Laura King, and a great cast of characters different than most. I love reading about cross-sections of people that are passionate about something that others aren't, fully enveloped in a world they love, that they inhabit not for money, but because it's who they are and what they do. 

There's also great personal narrative included, bringing to mind Tomlinson's first book, The Elephant in the Room: One Fat Man's Quest to Get Smaller in a Growing America. The part of the book about Tomlinson's dog Fred is definitely my favorite. As he writes, the unspoken contract of having a pet is you will die before them. As is talked about by John Wick, dogs make us be "unalone." They provide companionship, force us to exercise, and keep us engaged with the world by forcing a schedule on us, making us get up in the morning. Tomlinson also tells the story of ESPN Sportscenter anchor Scott Van Pelt and his dog Otis

Tomlinson quotes from a story by his friend Chris Jones, one of my favorite writers, on the magician Teller for Esquire. Teller is quoted saying "sometimes magic is just someone spending more time on something than anyone else might reasonably expect." Tomlinson connects how that sort of like the dog-human relationship, perhaps dogs figured out the path to their survival is becoming indispensable to humans. The book is nominally about Westminster and dog shows, but uses that frame to tell about relationships and how we feel about our dogs, what they give to us, and what we seem to give to them. It's a book about connection, it's lovely.

South of Broad by Pat Conroy

South of Broad by Pat Conroy is a beautifully written novel set in Charleston, SC and includes richly drawn characters and great writing about place, with Conroy from the South and drawing from his experiences.

The book features the characters of Leo King, three sets of siblings in Sheba and Trevor Poe, Chad and Fraser Rutledge, and Niles and Starla Whitehead, Betty, Ike Jefferson, and Molly Huger. South of Broad (which is a part of Charleston) begins prior to their senior year of high school in 1969 and each person came to the friendship with their own unique hurdles to overcome. Sheba and Trevor had an evil father, Niles, Starla, and Betty were orphans, Chad and Fraser were blue bloods with the expectations of Charleston society, Ike was a young black man in the South, and Leo had to deal with the suicide of his older brother, Steve.

Sheba and Trevor moved across the street from Leo, and Leo and Ike were co-captains of the football team, with Ike's father the new head coach in a often-racist town. Sheba and Trevor were memorable characters, with each like glamorous comets shooting through the world. Trevor was flamboyantly gay and a bringer together of people and Sheba the center of attention, and they lived with their alcoholic mother, who had taken them and fled from their perfectly evil father. Leo had a domineering mother, and tremendously decent father and was a remarkable character, someone who tried to do what was right, becoming the glue of the group. 

The book jumps forward twenty years in time, with Sheba coming back to Charleston from Hollywood, where she had become a goddess-like movie star. During the intervening years, Leo married Starla, Niles married Fraser, Ike married Betty, and Chad married Molly. Sheba enlisted the group to go with her to San Francisco in search of Trevor. They then return to Charleston, and Hurricane Hugo comes into their lives. There's so many fork in the road moments for the characters, where the arc of their lives could have gone a different direction had different choices been made or outcomes occurred. There's also quite a bit of painful to read heartbreak in the book, and the bond between the group is remarkable with how they rally around each other.