Local Author Fair

Very happy to announce I am part of the Local Authors Fair in Newburgh this Saturday (October 19).

In the Safe Harbors Lobby at the Ritz; 6 – 8.

I am joined by Julia Dahl, Carol Hollenbeck, Dr. Vickie Caruana and more.

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The Luddites

Calling someone a Luddite now is an accusation of being anti-technology and anti-progress.  The name comes from a group of protesters, weavers and other textile workers, in the 19thcentury who blackened their faces and broke into factories to destroy the new weaving and spinning machinery. They named themselves Luddites,  after King Ludd, the fictional leader.

 

Their struggles resonate with me, first because Will Rees, my primary protagonist and detective, is a weaver in the late 18thcentury. He will lose his profession as the textile factories take over. (The first textile mill was built in Waltham, Massachusetts in 1814.) And second, because the fears of the textile workers – that the machinery would replace them – is being replicated today in a score of professions. The men who called themselves Luddites were not anti-machinery. They were fighting to maintain their livelihoods.

 

These textile workers had reason to worry. Prior to the invention of the weaving machines, weaving was a skilled occupation. Weavers underwent an apprenticeship of seven years before they could call themselves weavers and set up shop. With the transition to the machines, the time and energy invested in learning the skills for this profession was wasted. And unnecessary. The weaving machines were more efficient and they allowed for less skilled, and thus lower paid, workers.

 

Although the Luddites are remembered for the destruction of the machinery, they were not protesting the new equipment. Instead, they opposed the use of the machinery to sidestep labor practices that were standard at that time. As the men lost their jobs, the factory owners, to maximize their profits, employed women and children who were paid much less. Children as young as six worked 14 hours a day in the factories.

 

The situation was slightly different in the United States. The population was smaller, for one thing, so there was not the same labor pool. To solve the problem Lowell hired young women, who became known as mill girls, between the ages of 15 and 35. He of course paid them less than men. (To his credit, he chose not to employ children.)

 

In Great Britain the Government sided with the factory owners.  Machine breaking was made a capital crime. The Luddites clashed several times with British soldiers and groups of men, some part of the protest, some not, were swept up. The harsh sentences – execution and penal transportation – that were levied on those men found guilty of being Luddites quickly destroyed the movement. We are seeing similar dislocation today.

A Circle of Dead Girls

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Review of Simply Dead

Simply Dead’ by Eleanor Kuhns

Published by Severn House, 30 April 2019. ISBN: 978-0-727 -8884-6 (HB)

Researching a historical novel is a straightforward matter of looking at books, documents and the internet. Making it feel right is a whole different skill, and it’s a skill Eleanor Kuhns has in bucketloads.

North-eastern America in the late 18th century is almost an alien world: one-roomed houses with dirt floors, three-mile walks to school for the children, values and customs far removed from the more relaxed approach we now adopt. Life was hard for ordinary people trying to scrape a living off the land. All this and more comes richly to life as background for Kuhns’s Will Rees series.

Rees and his family live close to a Shaker community which is possibly the most dangerous of its kind in the country. Not only does the murder at the centre of the narrative take place there; mention is also made of murders in previous volumes in the series, which Rees has been involved in solving.

that he is a lawman; that role falls to Constable Rouge, who also runs the local bar and res- taurant. But Rouge is something of a bull in a china shop; Rees usually thinks before he jumps. He is called in to help search for
Hortense, a young midwife who has apparently been abducted en route home from delivering a baby; he finds her, hurt and distressed, and it soon becomes apparent that she isn’t telling the whole truth about what happened to her.

Hortense takes refuge in the Shaker community, and shortly afterwards another young woman is found strangled, possibly in mistake for Hortense. Rees now has two mysteries to solve, and as if that wasn’t enough, his eldest adopted daughter is attacked.

That rich background really comes into its own as Rees travels up the nearby mountain and into the forest in bitter winter weather in search of answers. There are wolves, a wise woman, and several families made aggressive by solation and the conditions they live in, and Kuhns has the knack of drawing the reader in to feel part of the story.

The sharply drawn, well-rounded characters add to the sense of involvement: Rees himself, sometimes sensitive, sometimes clumsy, always well meaning; Lydia, his intelligent, self-possessed wife; Jerusha, his headstrong daughter; clumsy Rouge; emotional Bernadette, Hortense’s mother, Pearl the feisty teenage Shaker: they all come to life, as do the gentler members of the community who conceal iron strength under a calm exterior.

I was left feeling I’d visited late 18th century Maine, not just read about it. More than that – I wanted to go back for more, to get to know these people better, and explore their world further. It all felt right.

The Swamp

When the escaped slaves fled to the swamp, they bedded down first under the pines. They grow only on the drier islands.

Most of the swamp resembles an impassible green curtain.

Now the swamp is passable via boardwalks. This one leads to a memorial honoring the maroons.

Death in the Great Dismal

In the ninth entry in the Will Rees Series, Will and Lydia travel to the Great Dismal Swamp to help a friend. Several murders occur – of course since these are murder mysteries.

This is a peat bog and in some places the peat is fourteen feet deep, Although we went in September, it was still really buggy. It is hard to imagine people living here, raising families and, on the drier places, trying to farm.

Women and the Circus

 

The scantily dressed female circus performers are such a feature of American lore that few of us considers their history or how unusual they were when this entertainment first arrived in the United States.  Although the circus has a long history – the Egyptians are commonly credited with inventing acrobatics – all forms of entertainment including the jugglers and the acrobats were banned during the Puritan era.  It was not recreated in England until Sergeant-Major Philip Astley began exhibiting his equestrian prowess on the outskirts of London in 1768. He performed in a circle (a ‘circus’ in Latin).

 

In 1770 he decided to expand the appeal of his show by adding acrobats, ropedancers (or wire walkers) and jugglers. (The trapeze, which evolved from the high wire acts, had not yet been invented.) He finished the production with a pantomime, a farcical play that included characters from the Commedia del Arte: Harlequin, Columbine and Clown. His new circus was a huge success.

 

Like many parts of American culture, this new version of the circus came to the United States from England. As Europe prepared for war, one of the many between England and France, a pupil of the English equestrian tradition, John Bill Ricketts, brought the circus across the Atlantic. He set up a riding school in Philadelphia in 1792 and established the first circus the following year. It was not a traveling circus but was, like the Astley entertainment, housed in a wooden amphitheater.

 

From the first, despite the social and cultural mores that repressed women, they performed in the circus. They were career women before the term was invented. And they were frequently the stars.  In 1772 Astley’s circus featured two equestriennes. The wives of Astley and another trick rider J. Griffin were so popular and famous they were invited to perform before the royal families of England and France. Following their lead Ricketts included a woman in his circus who not only worked as an equestrienne but also doubled as actress and dancer.

 

Many of the women who performed in circuses were the wives and daughters of male owners or performers. In Europe there was already a culture in which the children raised by circus parents became performers in their turn. A famous ropedancer, familiarly called Bambola, was one such in Italy. I borrowed the name for a character in A Circle of Dead Girls.

 

The circus allowed women to exhibit their bodies and their physical strength in public.  The equestriennes certainly could not do tricks on the backs of galloping horses in long trailing skirts so, horrors!, they wore knee-length skirts that clearly showed the shape of their legs. To modern eyes, this reveal would look remarkably tame. But in the eighteenth century this was titillating. Women of that time were tightly corseted and completely covered. It was not proper for them to attend the circus, which was on a par with Burlesque.  Until the Civil War (1861 – 1865) the audience of the American circus was predominantly male. The female performers, like actresses, to whom they were compared, were suspect, considered little better than harlots. But unlike the actresses, who only had to be pretty and seductive, the women in the circuses had to have talent and be willing to undergo the grueling training required for the acts. They, like their male counterparts, had to be unusually healthy and fit.

 

The circus proved extremely popular in the United States and Ricketts expanded to include New York and Boston and even cities in Canada. To reach more people, the circuses began to travel, building and then tearing down the wooden arenas as necessary. In 1825, Joshua Purdy Brown decided to present his show under a canvas tent instead of the temporary wooden structures. The modern circus was born.

 

A Circle of Dead Girls, my eighth Will Rees, is set against the newly formed circus in the 1790’s United States. Once the popularity of the circus was established, I thought it likely that other men would set up small traveling companies. Outside of the few big cities at that time, (which were primarily New York, Philadelphia and Boston, most of the U.S. was rural. Picture how exciting the arrival of such entertainment would be. And how exotic the performers would appear to the farmers and small shopkeepers who came to see them. And imagine how seductive such a beautiful ropedancer would be in a tiny town in Maine . . .